|With the rapid decline in the number of steam locations left in China, I had serious doubts as to whether or not another trip
was worthwhile. In the last ten years I've been fortunate enough to visit twenty-five different steam operations and to have
enjoyed a reasonably wide range of locomotive types. However in my heart I knew there was one last location that I wanted
to see - the huge open-cast mine at Jalainur. I remember first seeing this featured in 'Steam Railway' in about 1998 and
hoping that one day I would get the opportunity to go there, but previous trips have been in December/January when
temperatures are exceedingly low and daylight hours short. However this year Easter was early and the amount of holiday I
was able to take was longer than normal so I packed my rucksack one more time and made the long trek in search of steam
to the far north of China.
On this occasion I decided to try the Heathrow- Moscow-Beijing service offered by Aeroflot. The advantages were low cost
(£365 return) and two medium length flights rather than one short haul and one very long haul (I have previously used
Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways). The downsides were Moscow Airport - surely one of the worst in the world, no
(free) alcohol on any of the flights and cabin crew who have had their smiles surgically removed!
However I arrived safely in Beijing and after an overnight stay with Rob and Yuehong Dickinson, I headed back to to the
airport and caught Hainan Airlines flight HU7115 to Manzhouli. It was possible to pre-book this from the United Kingdom
using the Hainan Airlines website and a 'Public Joy' ticket cost just £29! The flight left Beijing shortly after 8.00am and arrived
in Manzhouli about 10.15am. This compares quite favourably to the rail journey which takes some 30 hours! I took a taxi
from Manzhouli Airport into the centre of town and then a Number 2 bus from Manzhouli to Jalainur (3Y). Almost
immediately after entering the town, the bus crosses the railway and passes Jalainur Xi railway station where I alighted and
booked into the Zhalainuoer Binguan, a large red building in the south-west corner of the large square in front of the station.
A short negotiation led to me being offered a twin room with en-suite facilities for 180Y which I accepted.
Once I had dumped my luggage I immendiately set out to find the pit using Florian Menius's map from sy-country.co.uk.
However, whilst this may an accurate map in terms of the pit, it is not so useful for actually finding the place and I became
hopelessly lost! Eventually I flagged down a taxi and after studying my map the driver delivered me to the washery at
Dongfanghong (10Y). Here i found two locomotives sitting doing very little so I then went southwards until I came to the pit
itself. Despite having seen many photographs I still found it totally amazing and was staggered to count some 10 - 12 plumes
of steam from locomotives coming and going along the various galleries. Having been warned not to try to enter the pit by
way of the main offices ('Foreigners Are Not Allowed To Enter Active Workings'), I walked around the eastern edge of
thepit for a while and then as the sun moved into the south, I retraced my steps and eventually reached the west side of the
mine where it was possible to descend to the lower levels and photograph the galleries. By 5.00pm I was totally exhausted
and somewhat jet lagged so I returned to the hotel by way of several mini-buses well pleased with my first day. A very small
restaurant on the opposite side of the road to the hotel provided a very filling meal for about 20Y and became my regular
Next morning I was determined to find a
better way to reach the pit. I boarded a
Number 2 bus on the opposite side of the
road to the hotel and rode this into the
centre of towm (1Y). I walked a short way
south until I discovered a road leading east
with some very distinctive streetlights
in the form of a cluster of globes. I walked
the length of this road until it crossed a
railway line which I followed and found
myself in Daqaio depot. A number of SY's
were being prepared for work on the deep
mine system including the smoke-deflectored
SY1416. After spending some time here
I walked south again and out onto the road
leading to the open cast pit.
Given the photographic opportunities I was
determined to find a way to get to the galleries
although I was aware that this was against the
wishes of the new company that owns the pit.
Suffice to say that within a short time it was possible to take close up shots of the passenger workings (leaving the Control
Office station about 7.40am and returning about 9.00am) and then to descend ever lower into the pit to photograph both
spoil and the coal trains. Although management may disapprove of such activity their misgivings were not extended to the
workers and drivers who were delighted to see me and who made me feel totally welcome. A new and rich seam of coal is
currently being worked and coal trains were regularly moving from the excavators to the reloading plant on the third level.
From here the coal is carried by conveyor belt up to the washery which means coal trains do not have to exit the pit in order
to unload. There was also a constant stream of spoil trains moving to and from the spoil tips to the south end of the pit,
together with various track and maintenance trains.
After walking out of the pit at the end of the day I discovered that buses run along the road between the washery and the pit -
a fact I had not previously noted in any other trip reports. These headed towards the main town (1Y) before taking a sharp
right hand turn into a street frequently populated by donkey carts. Leaving the bus here I was able to catch a Number 2 bus
which returned me to my hotel. Armed with this knowledge I was now able to reach the pit easily by public transport.
For the benefit of other independently minded souls this is how it is done - starting from the Zhalainuoer Binguan. Catch the
Number 2 bus into the town. Shortly after leaving the hotel it will turn left and head for the main square. Some Number 2
buses appear to terminate here. If all the passengers alight then simply walk two short blocks south (the direction the bus
was heading in) until you reach the street with the distinctive lamps. Very shortly another Number 2 bus will arrive - catch it!
If on the other hand the Number 2 bus doesn't terminate in the middle of town then stay on board even though it appears to
be turning back on itself. It actually goes 'round the block' and appears in the 'street of lights'. It normally waits a while here
and then heads east. After about a mile it will take a left turn, just beyond an open market located on the left hand side of the
road. Get off immediately and return to the 'street of lights' and wait just beyond the turning. Buses are less frequent and
seem to run about every 15 - 20 minutes. Its actually not a long walk from here but the bus will take you all the way to the
main mine entrance which can be identified by a large brick column with a brass 'winding gear wheel' and the number 1902.
You have arrived!
In total I spent seven days at Jalainur which included some time spent photographing on the deep mine system. On three days
a CNR diesel brought empty wagons into the washery yard about 2.30pm and these were then worked by the steam
locomotives through to the deep mines about 3.20pm. Whether this is a regular working or simply a coincidence I can't say
with certainty. There were plenty of coal trains at work although on at least one day the coal re-loader was experiencing
problems and coal trains were 'stacked up' waiting to unload and no further trains could run.
Jalianur certainly provided me with the 'buzz'
which I was oping to experience although I
found it physically demanding climbing up and
down the galleries and moving around the outer
rim of the pit. The weather in late March was
mainly sunny with a few snow showers. Daytime
temperatures were a few degrees above freezing
although nights were much colder. The main
problem was the northerly wind which tended to
blow smoke forward of the slowly moving trains.
However with patience and fortitude it was
certainly possible to 'get the shots'. I'm sure
Jalainur is not what it once was but it must now
rank as the greatest steam orgy left in the world.
I saw 24 different SY's at work - sometimes
managing to get 4 or 5 different trains into the
same shot. What the future holds seems to be
in doubt - as always - get there if you can!
Despite some reports to the contrary I was easily
able to obtain a ticket at Jalainur Xi on Train N92
- the overnight sleeper to Haerbin. A lower berth cost 220Y and the train arrived in Haerbin at 6.40am - just over 12 hours
after leaving Jalainur.
Once I Haerbin it was simple enough to obtain a hard seat ticket to Mudanjiang on Train N1 (48Y) - a journey of about
6 hours. It is also possible to get buses from Haerbin to Mudanjiang. These start from somewhere near the station and
should not be too hard to locate. They take about 4 hours but cost almost double the train fare. However the seats are very
comfortable, there is an onboard toilet and the air conditioning and free bottled water are a bonus.
I left Mudanjiang by the South Exit and found a large number of buses waiting on the right-hand side of the station forecourt.
I quickly identified a Jixi bus and three hours later arrived at the long distance bus station (cost 35Y). A short walk brought
me to the square opposite the station and a room in the Jixi Fandian (see December 2005 trip report for details). This now
costs 120Y but still represents good value. Since 2005 they have also installed a lift - a pleasant bonus when arriving with
Despite the loss of steam at Hengshan, the action was still good at Chengzihe with the usual morning gathering of 5 or 6
locomotives in the yard at Dongchang. Donkey carts are still in use in the yard of the washery at Beichang and at least once a
day a loaded train of some 40 - 50 wagons runs from Zhengyang to the exchange sidings at Jixi Xi. This train appears to run
around about 2.30pm most days, picking up a second engine at Dongchang. This is not so much a banking engine as additional
braking sine most of the line is on a falling gradient.
On April 2nd I decided to go and explore the Didao system. Getting there was extremely easy. Buses run along the road
which fronts Jixi railway station. Stay on the opposite side of the road to the station and wait for a bus which has no number.
Most of them WILL have numbers - the most frequent being the Number 30. Stop any of these buse and ask if they go to
Didao. Even my pronunciation (Dee-Dow to rhyme with 'tree bough') was understood and the ride cost 2.5Y to Didao Hebei
(Dee-Dow Hee-Bay) washery. If you cannot find the right bus in Jixi take the Number 30 to its terminus near the dual
carriageway and change there - any buses going on further will certainly be heading for Didao. Most reports which I had read
of Didao had been fairly downbeat about this operation but I found it to be as interesting as Chengzihe and almost as busy.
Certainly photography is harder due to the orientation and the fact that all locomotives face north-west but afternoon shots
in particular can offer real potential for industrial backdrops. Sadly the day I was there the weather was overcast and slightly
foggy and so photographic masterpieces were never going to happen but I still enjoyed the visit. After seeing a train leave the
washery heading for the tip, I walked the line which parallels the Mashan/Linkou road making sure I kept to the upper level.
Trains are propelled out of the washery but then have to run boiler first up the gradient to the tip which offers potential -
certainly at the upper end of the climb where there is room to get away from the track.
Once they had unloaded trains then ran to either
of the mines at this end of the system to load with
coal which was then taken (boiler first) to the
washery. Back at the washery most trains then
propelled their wagons up a short ramp and
the coal was tipped onto the ground and moved
by bulldozer.It was subsequently loaded into large
C2 wagons for movement on China Rail by
mechanical digger and didn't go through the
washery at all. All day engines were coming and
going and variously shunting empty or loaded
wagons and I found plenty to interest me.
My only disappointment was the weather which
prevented me from getting a good record
of the day but on the basis of this visit I would
certainly commend it to anyone visiting the area
- I feel it is at least as good as Chengzihe.
Returning to Jixi was equally easy - I simply
returned to the road near the washery and
jumped onto the first bus. A quick enquiry
confirmed it was heading for Jixi and about
40 minutes later I was back at the hotel.
After as final (grey) day at Chengzihe it was time to begin the long trek home. There was a choice between bus or train to
Mudanjiang - I opted for the latter as I wanted one final ride on the old 'green and yellow' stock and was rewarded with a
numb bum after a 4 hour journey on a hard seat - but at minimal cost (19Y). I stayed in the Xin Dong Fang Binguan which can
be located by leaving the station through the south exit and turning left. The hotel is about 200 yards along the road and
offered a truly excellent room for 180Y and a fascinating menu in Chinese and English with such tempting delicacies as
'Grasping Cake', 'Burning Beans', 'Fish Peppery Taste And Smell Of Pork Wire' and my personal favourite - 'Small Talk Rapid
Croaker'. Once again I had a choice of train or bus to reach Haerbin and on this occasion opted for the bus which leaves from
the station forecourt every half-hour or so. Advanced tickets can be purchased from the office at the extreme right of the
station forecourt and cost 84Y. En route we passed Weihe where the narrow gauge track bed was easily visible with the rails
still in situ suggesting that there may yet be a future for this wonderful system - albeit as a strictly tourist operation.
Once in Haerbin a taxi to the airport (100Y) left me plenty of time to catch an Air China flight to Beijing and after an
overnight stay it was Aeroflot back to the United Kingdom.
Certainly I got what I wanted. The Big Pit is undoubtedly worth all the time and effort needed to get there. It is simply the
greatest steam show on earth. Internal air travel in China has certainly made it far easier to reach such far-flung locations
and the increase in long distance buses gives greater flexibility when undertaking the shorter journeys. Is it as much fun as
travelling by rail? No - at least not in my opinion. The sense of adventure is certainly lost and I felt that quite strongly
throughout this trip. Ten years has brought enormous changes in China. For the better? Maybe my perspective and that of
the Chinese people might be at odds. I wonder if the new modern China has improved the lives of the donkey cart drivers as
much as it has the drivers of the 4x4's and Toyota saloons with their blacked out windows. Steam is disappearing fast and to
visit the last outposts is like visiting relatives with a terminal illness. You are glad to be there but know that the end is near
and inevitable. Will this trip be my last for steam? I suspect the answer to that is 'Yes'. Maybe in the future I might get to see
Shibanxi as part of a more tourist based trip but Sandoling with its mainly tender-first JS's doesn't appeal and almost
everywhere else I have been to in better days. I dream that someone will discover a new JingPeng ...... but then I usually wake
As always there are people to thank. Rob and Yuehong Dickinson for their help, advice and hospitality. Duncan Peattie for
his Chinese railway timetable in English. All those who have posted reports on the internet to share their knowledge and
information. But most of all to the ordinary inhabitants of the People's Republic Of China who as always went out of their
way to help me at every possible occasion and who made me feel so welcome, safe and appreciated in their country - even the
taxi-driver in Jalainur who tried to charge me 100Y instead of the real 10Y fare. Let capitalism advance!
|THE LAST CURTAIN CALL?
21 MARCH to 5 APRIL 2008
Jalainur (The Big Pit) and Jixi Mining Railway