Saturday, 11 March 2017

WuJiu- 2017 Winter Steam in China

SY1225 propels it's train back towards Mine No.3 in perfect winter conditions on the WuJiu mining railway. 21/02/2017
Chasing the very last of the worlds regular steam operations isn't easy in 2017. Even in China there are precious few locations where 'real' steam can now be enjoyed. Aside from the huge open cast operation at Sandaoling way out in Xinjang province in the north west of the country most operations are now limited to a single loco which may shunt a yard perhaps a couple of times a day, perhaps not. FarRail's latest trip to China needed a second location to compliment the trip to Sandaoling (and if I'm honest, I probably wouldn't have gone if it were just one location). The chosen site was WuJiu, Inner Mongolia in the frozen north west. We had the potential here to see SY steam hauled coal operations, but it was never going to be easy.
A working TU154 at Beijing Nanyuan airport.
WuJiu is some 700 miles from Beijing, and I confess that I have struggled to even find it on a map. Our flight will leave from Beijing's secondary Nanyuan airport to the south of the city and following our largely inedible Chinese breakfast we make our way there for our mid morning flight. In the taxi to the airport there is a roar overhead, it definitely wasn't one of the Boeing's we've become more used to and as we approach the airport we see a line of Tupolev TU-154 aircraft waiting for their next duties. Inside the terminal we begin the rigmarole of security. This procedure seems to vary according to which airport and which airline you are using- one thing that is consistent is that it is never simple. So far this trip I have fared quite well, but on this occasion there was a problem with my hold luggage. No- I hadn't forgotten to remove my liquids, it was my camera that was causing a problem. I had never previously had an issue with taking a camera in my hold luggage (providing the Lithium-ion batteries were removed) and tended to pack one in here and the other in my hand luggage- I'm not coming this far for steam and risking that my one camera might fail me! It turns out that having a camera in my hold luggage is not permitted, so a bit of re-packing at the check in desk and the bag goes back into the scanner. 'Is there still a camera in your luggage?' Oh... yes, my small hand-held camera is buried within the case as well. Out it comes and eventually the luggage is passed to go. My hand luggage now resembles a camera shop but I can proceed to the plane.
We've not left much time to hang around at the terminal, but I do get a chance to snap another TU-154 taxing across the tarmac- would we be travelling on one of these? It's a nervously exciting prospect, especially as the Wikipedia page tells us that all the remaining aircraft in Russia were grounded in 2016 following a fatal crash.
SY1225 heads back to the comparative warmth of the depot building, it is 11:30 and it's duties are finished for the day.
The airport keeps us in suspense as we cram onto a bus and wait the last passenger before snaking out on the tarmac to our plane. The Tupolev might have been fun but nobody is honestly too disappointing when we pull up to China United Airlines Boeing 737. Just because we are boarding however doesn't mean we are going very far- air traffic control holds us on the taxiway and despite there being only 'two planes in front of us' it takes more than 40 minutes to get off the ground for the first leg of our flight (we have a stopover in Hohhot just to make our journey a little longer). Most of our group are still pretty hungry by the time we have got into the air as the Chinese breakfast at the hotel didn't have much to delight our taste buds and the food provisions purchased for the group don't seem to have been passed down the plane. We are slightly surprised on landing in Hohhot that we all have to disembark the plane, wander into the cold terminal building (time to distribute our food rations) before then re-boarding the same aircraft in the same seats for the final short hop to Hailar. We are still 30 minutes late when we land but at least our spirits are raised to see a bright sun in the sky and snow on the ground- just the conditions we had dreamed of. Now there was just the small issue of getting to WuJiu. We had expected the journey to take 1-2 hours and found the 'Farrail Bus' on this occasion to be almost a luxury vehicle, the driver even claimed to have been to WuJiu before and knew where he was going. The mercury in Hailar was around 20 below zero and it wasn't long before our breathing called for the credit card ice scrapers to be deployed on the bus windows to keep an eye on the snowy landscape. There was still some hope that we might get a glimpse of steam that afternoon and when we turned off the motorway onto a smaller road with light approaching a perfect sunset the groups spirits rose. It wasn't to be. The 'WuJiu' that the bus driver had taken us to turned out to be a 'WuJiu' without a railway and GPS on one of our tour members phones indicated that we had actually covered less than half the distance to our destination.

Stopping for dinner- it felt as cold as it looks. The temperature
was around -20 degrees, ice in your nostrils sort of cold.
There was now no prospect of us reaching the real WuJiu in daylight and with none of us having had a proper meal all day it was decided to break for food, our local guide from the railway could also then meet us and check that our onward journey continued in the right direction. Another slight delay ensued when the bridge between where we were and dinner had a height restriction which would not let anything but a small car pass- Great to stop the large coal trucks which ply this area, but also more than adequate in blocking the passage of our minibus. Dinner felt well deserved and with our 'banquet' finished it was once again time to hit the road, still without our local guide who would meet us later. This was beginning to feel like an awful lot of effort for, perhaps, one SY and very limited steam action. We had been told that if there were no trains booked that we could charter one, but even this plan relied on the railway having wagons- they don't own their own and receive them from China Rail as and when required.
Half an hour out from the restaurant stop we encountered our next obstacle to reaching WuJiu, Police cars and a large lorry block the icy road in front of us. Fortunately it wasn't a security road block, the reason quickly becoming obvious when we saw a very large crane set up on the road lifting part of a lorry out of the roadside ditch! Clearly quite an operation and despite the further delay we are all quietly pleased that our bus driver despite taking us to the 'wrong WuJiu' was in fact quite good and did not show many of the traits of typical Chinese 'ambitious' driving on these icy roads.
Recovery of a ditched lorry delays our
journey, but does provide a toilet stop!
Eventually the lights of WuJiu approac (not city lights... but lots of colourful streetlights and what appeared to be a Pagoda 'farm' in the middle of nowhere). Better than the lights was the sight of our local guide. Less good was his news that no train was scheduled to run tomorrow. 'Do you have wagons?' 'How many do you need?' It wasn't seen as a good sign. A train with three or four wagons was no good to us. 'Can we go to the shed and see the engine?' We tried- but it was well locked up for the night. No steam for us today- but at least we found the wagons. More than 30 of them. We would have a steam train in the snow tomorrow!

SY1134 and SY1546 are also on shed. Both locos are not being
used but appear to be in excellent condition.
Our nearby hotel was actually one of the best we had stayed at in China although I'm still not convinced the translucent glass wall between the toilet and the rest of the room is really desirable. Even if my room mate was the object of all my desires (and I can assure you he is not) I'm not sure I'd need to see them on the toilet?! There was one more near disaster before bed- I'd never been out in -25 before so it was time to wrap up, go for a walk and explore what little of the town presented itself to us. A few restaurants, supermarket and the ubiquitous KTV (Karaoke bar if you didn't know). We didn't stay out long- you wouldn't either, but by the time we got back to the hotel the large LED sign outside was in darkness and reception was too. We had said we were popping out and the proprietor had seen us leave- they wouldn't really lock us out in -25 would they? Apparently they would. Fortunately our predicament was short lived... a bit of window banging and our pyjamad guide Alan was searching for the hotel staff and the door key. They were 'very sorry'!

Our group stops for a photoshoot with the staff at breakfast.
Thanks to Bernd for taking this one.
Next morning dawned cold and clear though we would be half way to our breakfast restaurant before the sun rose. The expectation of steam was warming us all despite the Siberian conditions. Breakfast was enjoyable, dumplings, some sort of pancake and hot Chinese tea. We all wanted to get to the engine shed as soon as we could so as not to miss any of the action but the restaurant staff had other ideas. Various incarnations of group pictures were taken, of us, with us, with our breakfast and so on. Westerners are still something of an oddity in may parts of China and with only the most minimal level of steam tourism in WuJiu we were almost certainly the biggest group of foreigners these locals had ever seen.

DF4DD 0288 emerges from the shed and stands in the sun in
the station area at WuJiu. It had no work on this day.

Finally some railway action- but it would be the railways DF4DD 0288 that was first to emerge from the shed. It was with much anticipation that we put on our gloves and finally walked through the door of the engine shed. Inside was what we had travelled so far for- three steam locomotives; SY1546, SY1134 and SY1225. The first two lay cold, but in excellent condition, while SY1225 was being prepared for the days use.

The crew of SY1225 build up steam.

Photography was challenging in the cramped shed but it was wonderful to just stand and watch as life, and steam, began to breath through SY1225. From the locos light warmth it took only a short time until steam was billowing into the extractor above the chimney. Before long the shed doors opened, bathing us in light and allowing the SY to back out of the shed into the sunlight, round the corner and onto the waiting wagons.

Diesel meets steam at WuJiu. The diesel now handles all
trains between WuJiu and the China Rail connection at
Metianzhen since the steam locomotives were banned
from CNR metals. Steam now works just to the mines.
With the SY on the wagons and shunting completed the train propels down the line towards mine 3 and we are in hot persuit in the FarRail bus. Conditions are almost perfect for photography- sun, snow and steam, though the sun has admittedly turned a little more hazy than it was first thing in the morning. There is only one problem- we have perhaps a little too much steam! The loco is running almost the whole time with the drain cocks open and the steam cloud is covering much of the loco! Fortunately on the return from the mine we manage some good shots and are fortunate that the train crew are happy to do a couple of run pasts- affording us a selection of shots that would only otherwise be possible by camping out here for days in the hope that several daylight trains would run. We've been so busy running around after our train, climbing hills and wading through snow drifts up to our knees that we have almost forgotten how cold it is. I suppose three layers of trousers, two t-shirts, two jumpers and a coat probably have helped as well.
Our train steams between Mine No.3 and WuJiu town.
Once we return to the station we are hopeful that a further run with the loco can be arranged down to mine No.1 but it isn't to be. The railway claims that it is not possible as the line is blocked with snow. It doesn't really wash with us but even the presence of some 'red notes' doesn't shift the views of the railway. The train cannot go to mine No.1 and that appears to be final. Instead we had to be content with some further pictures of the loco depositing its wagons back to the sidings and taking water.

SY1225 starts away from Mine No.1 having been coaled.
We didn't think we would see much more steam action, but then we were informed that the engine also needed to take on coal. This is done at mine No.1. Hang on? That's the line that we can't run a train on because it's blocked by snow isn't it? It seems our suspicions were correct and that the loco crew or the railway simply didn't want to run the train as the line wasn't blocked at all! We got some pictures of our light engine going down to be coaled and followed it to the mine where the tender received several scoops of the black stuff from the digger. All that was now left was the run back to the shed and to tuck away both the SY and the diesel, neither of which had any more work that day. After dumping it's ash both locomotives headed light engine into the shed and that was it. It has still not reached 11:30 and the railway activity for the day was done. We were pleased, we had our trains and our pictures but we would now see no more steam on this trip. Perhaps this really was the final end of industrial steam in China for many of us?

Time for bed- SY1225 heads into the shed, it's duties finished by 11:30. Some days there is no steam at all and others maybe only one train during the night. The lines diesel could probably handle all the work but steam lives on as it is cheaper.

HXn50001, the first of it's class on the main line near Hailar.
WuJiu hadn't been at all bad to us in the end, but there was still the small matter of getting home. Surely now we knew the way and had time on our hands we wouldn't have any more difficulty. We headed back to Hailar and passed some of the afternoon on the newly electrified main line. Unfortunately our spot was far from ideal and the weather had really clouded over by this time. The line however was busy, with many freights in the hands of modern HXn5 diesel locos. One DF11 was seen on passenger and surprisingly not a single electric- perhaps the wires are not yet in use? After a couple of hours we were damp and felt frozen solid so joined other members of the group for a leisurely farewell lunch before heading back into the city.
Pot noodles at stupid o'clock at Halair
Airport waiting for our delayed flight.
There was one more stop before the airport, and I must say it was one of my highlights of this area- the Snow Festival in Hailar. Massive sculptures are carved into compacted snow (not from ice as at the more famous festival at Harbin) and illuminated at night. What is even more fun is that you can hire some sort of rubber ring and slide down some of them. That was 30RMB well spent.
Shoveling the ash left by SY1225- will this be the last smoke
of real Chinese steam that I will ever witness?
Finally it was time to head to the airport, our flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 23:30 but this steam location was going to throw one more hurdle at us- snow in Beijing was delaying flights. Initially there was no concern for ours, but it wasn't long before Alan our guide brought the bad news that the plane was still on the ground in Beijing. The delay would be at least 3 hours and the flight could get cancelled altogether. This was not good news, especially for those of our group with connecting flights home from Beijing. Midnight approached and it would seem that I was now one of those people you see on the TV news stranded at an airport lying across the seats trying to get some sleep. Air China provided some pot noodles and a slightly odd looking manifestation of a sausage at around 02:00 and finally the plane began boarding at around 04:00. Our ultimate delay in getting off the ground was 298 minutes, but we were airborne and nobody missed their connection home.
It had been quite a quest for some of the last steam in China but despite all the setbacks we all felt we had enjoyed something rather special, perhaps for the last time.
SY1225 sends plooms of smoke into the sky as it hauls it's train between Mine No.3 and the town of WuJiu. 21/02/2017

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