If you had asked me a year ago if I would be sitting on a bus once again heading into the depths of Xinjang province in North West China seeking steam I would have said no. Fuxin, a mere few hours form Beijing I might have entertained- but this is 2017. Fuxin in over. Pingzhuang's locos have dropped their fires until at least July and Tiefa's locos no longer have any booked work aside from entertaining tourists and film crews. If I was ever to see real Chineese steam again then it would be at Sandaoling. When I received the latest newsletter from FarRail Tours just before Christmas detailing another one last trip for winter steam in China the memories of last time began to flood back. Indeed it would be wonderful to be standing in the 'Grand Canyon' just one more time listening to the echo of a JS loco hard at work pounding up the grade, the echo of that distinctive steam beat resonating off the open cast pit walls. The idea had embedded itself in my head and a few short weeks later myself and my friend Rhys were booking flights to China and filling in visa forms. Once you get this bug it's difficult to stop and I can totally see how those who have been coming to China for steam since the late 80's, or even early 2000's have amassed a hefty number of visits.
Monday 13th February 2017
|JS808167 ascends the open cast pit with 13 wagons of coal in tow- steam sounds reverberating from the mine walls.|
Thankfully our passage to Sandaoling was rather more direct than the one I had taken in 2014. Instead of flying to Urumqui and enduring the best part of half a day in a minibus this time we flew direct from Beijing to Hami. From here it is a mere 100km and less than two hours to reach the dust capital of the world at Sandaoling. We would be using a 'new' hotel for this visit as the one previously used by the group had very recently been closed down by the police. While there were no riot vans in Sandaoling on this occasion the issue with local ethnic tensions has far from gone away. When we arrive at our hotel we find a police guard and metal detector at the door. Eventually, with our bags searched and our bodies scanned we are admitted though the police attendant and hotel staff do look slightly apprehensive. The hotel, a little further out of town than where I had stayed previously was well appointed and seemed to be fresh and clean though I would have appreciated a room key card without a broken off corner!
|Steam passing steam at Station 84.|
|JS8081 gives a good exhaust as it starts its climb.|
Later in the afternoon we headed out of the pit and back to our bus. The weather was still mostly clear and nobody was going to turn down the chance of a glinting sunset shot. Up on the edge of the pit we look down as the light starts to turn golden. The sun begins to hide behind a cloud at the key moment, but we are rewarded with one train snaking along the curves in the twilight. Little did we know this would be our only sunset shot this trip.
|Our first day, and our last Sandaoling sunset.|
Tuesday 14th February
|Three of the four open cast locos line up in at dawn for shift change at Dongbolizhan.|
|JS8081 takes on water at Dongbolizhan.|
Gradually each train departs until all have resumed their duties on the open cast coal circuit.
|JS8366 brings up the rear of a train of empties from Nanzhan.|
As well as the open cast operation from Dongbolizhan a further batch of locos are also based at Nanzhan to shunt the extensive yard and also to serve the two deep mines of Lijing and Erjing. While it may not look it there is a significant gradient between Nanzhan and the mines and therefore when long trains (of up to 40 wagons) are required at the deep mines trains are often top and tailed across the desert line by two JS steam locomotives. This is now almost certainly the last example of banked steam workings in China. The trains working uphill run tender first, but in the early morning chill with plooms of smoke rising into the empty sky the result is certainly spectacular. Trains on this line are few and far between but we are lucky today that after being tipped off about the train we have to wait just minutes before smoke can be seen rising from the yard at Nanzhan in the distance.
|JS8314 leads a top and tailed train to the deep mine at Erjing. JS8366 brings up the rear of the 37 wagon train.|
|JS8225 spills it's load of coal into the washery.|
The alternative destination for coal from the open cast bit is a new unloading area which has come into use since my last visit in 2014. Trains reach this area near to Nanzhan by climbing out of the pit and then turning right to pass through Dongbolizhan and the snake around past the workshop and down towards the coaking plant. Finally the train reverses with locos propelling the final way into the unloading area. This arrangement gives plenty of options for chimney first action including the departure of the empty trains from the unloading point as they head back towards Dongbolizhan and the pit. This area has changed a lot over the last few years with construction of the new line from Nanzhan to the deep mine at Shadunzi and a high bank beyond the new line giving a great vantage point over operations.
|JS8167 is seen again with a laiden train backing into the new unloading area near to Nanzhan.|
|JS8225 in the new unloading area.|
The line to Shadunzi was of course the last great hope for steam- a new line commissioned during 2014 which was expected to be worked by pairs of JS locos from Nanzhan. The dream never happened. After a few test runs with steam the first commercial trains, hauling up to 50 wagons, were powered by diesels. These massive trains have been running infrequently ever since hauled by the line's DF8 locomotives. On our visit it seemed that trains from the new mine would run round about three times a day. Having descending from the ridge to photograph the steam unloading process (avoiding the pits of hot ash by the lineside) a distant rumble was heard. It soon became clear that one of the diesel hauled trains was approaching on the new line- the first daylight train we had seen on the line. While I wasn't visiting Sandaoling for the diesels I was not about to miss what could be my only chance to photograph one of the DF8's on one of these trains. Running at full pelt I just made it back to the new line and had time to cross to the sunny side before the diesel passed. It wasn't steam, but I was still pleased with the result. I knew that the remainder of the group would not want to expend any effort on tracing down a diesel at another time.
After leaving the new unloading area we spent the remainder of the day up on the ridge looking into the pit. Several steam departures were observed, sounding as spectacular as ever, however the Sandaoling sunset we were waiting for did not produce.
|DF8B 0249, one of several diesels working from Nanzhan powers a long empty train to the new mine at Shandunzi|
Wednesday 15th February
|Another steam departure from Dongbolizhan passes the crossing keeper.|
|Another JS approaches Kinkouzhan ready to head into the pit.|
|JS8225 pushes an empty coal train originating from the new unloading point back towards Dongbolizhan and ready for another load of coal from the loader.|
|Our group enjoys a well earnt lunch at the |
'Noodle Soup' restaurant in downtown Sandaoling.
|All of the family have come to see the interest in their bagles.|
|Bread making the traditional way in |
Sandaoling. 'FarBread Tours' has real
potential to be the next big thing!
|Sandaoling power station looms over the town.|
|A selection of produce at the large covered market.|
After dinner we head back to Dongbolizhan for some night photography.
|JS8225 waits for its turn to be serviced and watered at Dongbolizhan.|
|JS8167 with all it's lights blaring is seen shunting during the shift change. The loco would go on to collect one of the steam cranes form the railway's workshop and bring it to Dongbolizhan to be watered.|
Thursday 16th February
|JS8225 sits at shift change while JS8167 passes with a train.|
|JS8167 with the remains of 'Old' Sandaoling in the foreground and the town's power station behind.|
|JS8081's train is being loaded with spoil for the slip while JS8190 passes with a loaded coal train.|
|JS8225 hauls another 13 wagons of the black stuff from the pit.|
|JS8190 is mid way through tipping its spoil which will be used to shore up an earlier landslip in the pit.|
|Incedibly there are fish at the bottom of the open cast pit! More incredible|
perhaps was the fact that a fisherman was standing right underneath the area
where spoil was being tipped just moments earlier- apparently oblivious!
With no trains moving we retire to our hotel. It is good to shower and change out of our coal ridden clothes which we have been wearing while wandering around the mine. I put on a fresh and nearly new pair of trousers to wander down to the shop before dinner, but disaster- I've managed to negotiate coal mines and rail yards for the best part of a week but just outside the wonderfully named 'Pregnant woman and babies living museum' [we never really did work out what this was!] I manage to trip and fall on the pavement. In my efforts to save my camera from the impact my knee takes it instead. I've ripped through my trousers and done a good job of cutting open my knee. My friend who has accompanied me to the shop asks if I'm ok before pausing to take a picture! Fortunately I am though I am definitely going to need to clean up and find another pair of trousers before dinner. The knee would need a bandage for the rest of the trip but thankfully didn't cause too much discomfort for running over railway tracks.
|No sparks- but the power of steam is shown to best affect at twighlight.|
|Lining up a shot of JS8190 at evening shift change, Dongbolizhan.|
Friday 17th February
|JS8081 visits the washery before dawn to unload before shift change.|
|JS8225 heads a line up of all four locos on the open-cast operation during shift change at Dongbolizhan.|
|Nanzhan based JS8366 shuts at the deep mine of Erjing.|
We were still waiting for JS8366 to depart when the distinct sound and sight of steam could once again be seen in the distance- another train was on it's way to the mine, this time behind JS8358. There were some great photo opportunities with both locos at the mine, and, finally when a train did depart it was with JS8358 at the helm. We had stayed close to the mine for the shot as the smokebox first loaded coal trains coast almost the whole way to Nanzhan once they have left the mines. This proved to be a good decision, and by balancing three photographers on a signal ladder we got some very pleasing shots.
|Using a signal ladder to provide a high vantage point JS8358 powers away form Erjing with a loaded train to Nanzhan.|
Heading back into the desert we didn't have too long before JS8366 finally followed with it's coal train, now leaving no loco's at the mine. With no action at the deep mines the only option was to head back to the pit to check on the works at the landslide. A spoil train is conveniently working its way up the line behind JS8190 and with this stopped and JS8180 loading on the other track it was clear that we wouldn't see any more coal trains for several hours, so instead headed back to the deep mines. After some time we were rewarded with a 'top and tail' train powering up the grade with almost 40 empty China Rail wagons for the mine. A fine sight by all accounts.
|JS8366 brings up the rear of a top and tailed train to the deep mines. The Tian Shan mountains stand out beyond.|
Our day ended in a similar way to the one before- waiting on the ridge of the open cast pit in darkness in the hope of sparks. Tonight's biggest issue was a lack of trains. We had arranged for the sparks to be 'turned on' on two trips out of the pit, but having waited around an hour in the dark for the first one, which was spectacular, most of the group were satisfied enough not to wait any longer, especially given that there was not even a train being loaded to come back up. It turns out there were problems with the 'Blue loader', the automatic converyor which loads most trains from the mine. Hopefully someone enjoyed our second dose of sparks!
It was already late but those of us who had stayed out found our illustrious tour leader Bernd set up by the crossing near Dongbolizhan trying to execute a 'flash' shot. It wasn't cold so we were all happy to wait for one more train to pass. In doing so I achieved my first 'flash' shot through holding down the shutter and just hoping I would catch the light of Bernd's set up. After the train passes I scroll through my camera at lots of dark dark photos, then finally, there it is! I did capture the flash! The picture is no masterpiece but it something different and I'm well pleased.
Saturday 18th February
|Sunrise at Dongbolizhan as JS8225 awaits its turn to be watered.|
|JS8173 freshly extracted from the 'graveyard' receives attention.|
|Workers fabricate parts to attach to JS8173.|
|JS8225 is loaded by the excavator in the pit at Sandaoling.|
The first train we see at the mine is running with JS8225 and is being loaded in the near road with the mechanical excavator. This is great for our photographs as the excavator is certainly more photogenic than the 'Blue loader'. The departure is superb- but cut short. For some reason the train has just pulled forwards- giving us the chance to get back ahead of it for a second set of departure shots from a different angle- we could not ask for more. The loco has to work incredibly hard to get the load going, the loading process through the excavator covers the tracks in coal dust making adhesion particularly difficult.
|JS8190 backs into the excavator road ready for its next load of coal.|
|JS8225 gets its train underway after several attempts in great style.|
|JS8190 spews black smoke as JS8167 awaits its turn to back into the loader.|
Sunday 19th February
Our final day at Sandaoling dawns in cloud once again. Our group disperse each with their own agendas for the final morning. I'm really pretty pleased with the shots I have achieved but there is one thing I have really wanted to achieve all week- aside from a short trip in the yard at Dongbolizhan I've not managed to get myself a proper cab ride on a JS.
Without the benefit of a common language it isn't always easy to communicate to the traincrew that you want to ride with them, but I have discovered over the past few nights that the best method is to hang around the cab and when you get the traincrews attention gesture towards the footplate. It usually seems to work- but is very difficult to achieve while not getting the way of the rest of the group taking their photos! With most of the group dispersed and the light fairly poor for photography anyway this was the perfect chance. It didn't take long at all before we were in the cab of JS8190. I'll save the cab ride story for another day as I'm sure this post is quite long enough already! Need I say storming up the grade from in the open cast pit on the footplate of a powerful steam locomotive was a great experience. All too soon it was over and we were walking back from the washery where we had been dropped off back to Dongbolizhan to meet the rest of our group and to leave Sandaoling. The flight back from Hami was once again fairly uneventful except perhaps for the most unusual aircraft meal I have ever been served; a loaf of 'vitamin bread' and a sealed bag of 'fragrant beef'. This turned out to be a vacuum packed piece of meat that you simply squeezed out of the bag and ate. It tasted a bit like corned beef and was certainly one of those meals that tasted better if you didn't look at it!
|My final steam photo from Sandaoling as a JS loco pushes it's train from the new unloading area back towards Dongbolizhan. The weather was often not as kind as we had hoped during this trip, but did provide some atmospheric shots.|
Sandaoling is still the steamiest place on the planet with seemingly endless photo possibilities. I was a little worried having already spent the best part of a week here that I might not find new photos to take but this was rarely a problem- even in the weather wasn't quite so good on this trip. One thing that does strike me is how quickly one adapts to the environment and starts to take for granted the quantity of steam. There is indeed so much here that a steam train becomes 'just another one' and we could even contemplate taking afternoons 'off' from the trains!
|Steam passing steam- JS8167 and JS8190 pass in the pit.|
|JS8167 deposits another load of coal at the washery.|
Subsequent to my visit a meeting did indeed take place, though perhaps not as 'big' as was envisaged. The result of the meeting was, amazingly, that the boiler certificates would be extended and steam in the pit will continue until at least 2018, possibly 2019. The number of locomotives may be reduced and may be driven more cautiously but steam will live on. There also would appear to be no immediate plans to oust the steam locos working from Nanzhan. Sandaoling is already the worlds last great steam spectacle and there it still incredibly hangs on. Will I be back? I really don't think so this time. But then again I said that last time, and how many others have packed in steam in China only to return for one last hoorah?
|Nanzhan's JS8366 and JS8358 shut in the mine area at Erjing.|
|JS8081 is loaded with spoil while JS8190 brings its train around the curve to the point where it will be dumped into the landslip.|