China Steam Trains Part 1, The Final Frontier

This is the first part of my adventures to photograph China Steam Trains in 1984.

After my triumphant trip to Turkey in 1983, I got my mojo back for steam. At this stage of my life, I had a great job, being Operations Manager of a large corporation. Because of this, I had accumulated quite a deal of annual leave which the company was pressing me to use up.

At that time, there were two countries with reasonably large volumes of Steam Locos, India and China. After finding an amazing colour coffee table book on China steam trains in a local bookshop, I decided this was the place to go. It was to be my last full on steam adventure. Not long after this, I changed my life radically, and that is why it has taken until now for me to start documenting my tales.

The Lay Of The Land

China Rail Map Reveals An Extensive Rail Network

China at that time was a very mysterious country. It had just started to open its doors and there were a number of Rail Fan organisations operating short trips with tour guides to photograph China steam trains. Individual travel was frowned upon. The authorities wanted everyone to be part of a tour party so that they could keep an eye on them. This was clearly not going to be easy.

For the 6 months before my visit, I set to work researching. I was getting quite good at this, as I had done my homework on my other trips, and knew where to find China steam trains, and for the most part the scenery. I purchased a map of china, and all the available China steam trains intelligence and started mapping out a possible itinerary. At the same time on my 45 minute drive to and from work each day, I would listen to pre-recorded Mandarin to learn basic Chinese. It taught me the numbers, basic phrases and things such as chicken, meat and beer!

Late December, 1984, I left work and headed to Hong Kong with the intention of visiting China to photograph many China steam trains. I was told you could not get an individual visa in Australia, but for the right price, you could get one in Hong Kong.

At Kowloon we stayed in a very small room. Accommodation prices were outrageous and we were on a budget. The manager offered to get us a visa. The price depended on how fast we wanted it! (No corruption in China!!)

Historical Context

At the same time, for a few extra dollars we obtained a Taiwan Student Card. This was very handy. When Mao Tse-tung took over control of Mainland China, Chang Kai Shek and the Chinese Nationalists fled to the island of Formosa, which was then named Taiwan. The Communist Chinese have always considered this a province of China, although it operates independently under the protection of the USA.

Because of this and a peculiar facet of the Chinese to never admit they are wrong, they honoured student cards from Tapei University, even though they couldn’t check their authenticity.

At that time in China there were two currencies. Renimbi was the people’s money and used by Chinese. FCUs or foreign currency units were for the use of foreigners. There were places you couldn’t use FCUs and wealthy Chinese paid good money for US Dollars but only in Renimbi. The official rate of exchange was around 2,7 FCUs per US Dollar and you could trade on the black market for 6.5 Renimbi per dollar, a considerable saving.

With a Tawinese student card, you could pay for rail travel and many other items with Renimbi. This saved us half the cost of rail fares. There were games going on between officials and backpackers as they knew we were up to something but didn’t want to admit that Taiwan was not part of China. Unfortunately, Accommodation that foreigners were allowed to stay at were strictly controlled and we had to pay in FCUs. This gave us the ability to see many more China steam trains on our budget.

We Get Our Visas

In Due course we were issued with Visas and headed out on a suburban train for the border. There were fairly strict conditions at the time. You could visit 40 cities without problems. There were a further 120 or so you could get to with a special permit issued by the ministry for the interior. Everywhere else was off limits.

Individual visas had started being issued at Beijing airport the week we arrived, so we were very early in individual travel. In fact, the first Lonely Planet guide to China was published while we were there!

A Bit Of Luck

I am not sure how I managed this, but I was in a Hong Kong newsagency when I spied a Chinese Rail timetable, which included schedules for Chinese steam trains. This was to prove most useful. It had place names in English and a list of all long distance trains. This disappeared at some stage, which is a shame. It made it so much easier to plan the trip.

Our First Trip In China

The first stop was Guangzhou. I thought I would include a photo I took of the waterfront. At that time there was almost no development in the city. It is completely different now.

The Waterfront of Guangzhou in 1984

The Guangzhou Skyline of today. There is no resemblance. When I was there, I saw one skyscraper near the river and that was it!

While there were still heaps of China steam trains, Southern China was already Diesel or Electric. This was probably to present a modern face to the west! We travelled hard class overnight to Guangzhou, or Canton as it used to be called. Being a classless society, first and second were bad terms so they were changed to Soft and Hard to save face! These were like a first or second class sleeper in the West. Soft class was really for westerners, and you paid for the privilege. From there we caught a boat to Wuzhou where we hopped on a bus to Guilin, possibly the most famous tourist destination in China. It was here we spied our first China steam trains. This picture was taken from the boat. It is a typical Chinese village of the time. On the boat we were given small lunch boxes. This was food with chopsticks in a cardboard packet very similar to the way Chinese takeout is served in the US. The meat in this dinner was pretty suspect. I fear we were eating dog. I saw some gruesome sites in the Guangzhou markets including a recently skinned dog, Owls for eating, snakes and pet rocks!

China Steam Trains At Last

Guilin is an amazing place. It is possibly the most famous tourist destination in China with the Karst mountains providing a really different type of scenery from anything else I have seen. At the time in tourist areas you had 2 tourist agencies. One was the local Chinese agency for locals and the other the International Tourist Agency. Well in Guilin at that time no one there spoke English! Of course, this would be unimaginable today. It gives you some idea how far China has progressed in recent years.

china steam trains guilin

China Steam Trains At Guilin Loco Depot Christmas Day 1984

I would have to say this fits into one 0f the most photogenic Loco Depots I have seen. The weather was pretty rotten the whole while we were there. Nevertheless, I did manage to get a few interesting shots. My form of transportation – a bicycle, hired from the hotel. It costs me 0.40c or 1 FCU for the day.

There were very few cars in Guilin, but thousands of bicycles! It was quite a shock. At peak hour you could hardly move for the bikes. There was celery growing in the gaps between the concrete on the footpaths. I suspect this ended up in the restaurants. People were selling live Owls on the street as meat. It was overcrowded.

The highlight for me was dinner on a boat moored in the middle of town on a creek. It was run by a delightful Chinese lady and their signature dish was Sweat and Sour Fish. It was the best Chinese food I had ever tasted. During this trip I discovered that food in China was leaps ahead of that sold in Australia.

QJ 6536 Crosses the Lee River at Guilin

people crossing chinese steam trains lines in GuilinAs you can see from the above photo, the amazing mountains made this a great spot for photographing Chinese steam trains. You may have noticed from the depot shot that many locos were on their way out as well. All the passengers were diesel in and out of Guilin, with steam limited to freight trains.

As you can see, people were everywhere in Guilin. Kids cross the line with bicycles in the background. It was all very relaxed.

No one really cared about my presence with a camera. I was to

The good news is because it is a tourist spot, no one really paid much attention to me, and I was able to wander freely and get the shots. I saw my first double headed QJ later that day and because of the scenery, the trailing shot ended up the best angle. One thing you eventually learn about photography is that always taking the same angle gets boring, no matter how interesting the subject. Here is the pic of double QJ’s before and after they passed. You be the judge of which is the better photo!

Double QJs near Guilin. Do you like the leading or trailing shot best?

There was a lot of foliage beside the tracks in this area, I think due to the fact it rains nearly all the time! The river and mountains probably have something to do with this weird climate too. In all my time in China, this was the warmest place we visited. Eventually it got to 25 Deg C below Zero!

QJ 6734 with close in vegetation and Karst mountains in background

Wait, There’s More

One of the things I was a bit concerned about in China was the enormous number of QJs in service. With over 4,700 built, I think you can understand why! As it turns out, we were early enough to photograph quite a range of motive power. This included RM and SL 6 Pacifics (4-6-2), KD and KD7 2-8-0s (Consolidations) and JF and JS Mikados (2-8-2) Chinese Steam Trains.

JF11,  3772, the last of its class in regular service. This loco is now in a museum in China

Well, it was time to leave Guilin. My partner had returned from her Lee river cruise, it looked like the weather wasn’t going to change anytime soon, and we had a long way to go. After all, we were at the beginning of a 9,562 kilometer journey on the Chinese Railways. 3,346 kms of this was behind Chines Steam Trains

One last shot at Guilin of JF 990 on a freight. This engine was probably built around 1940. We witnessed brand new JF’s being built at Datong during our trip!

From Guilin, we headed East to Zhuzhou.

We passed through Hengyang and on the section between Yongzhou and Henygang we spotted a couple of QJs working local passenger trains and a Russian FD which definitely got my attention! At the time these were a rare sight in action. According to my sources, the last FD in service finished its working life in October, 1985. I made a mental note to try to return to Hengyang before leaving the country!

We stayed overnight at Zhyzhou and the next day headed for Shaoshan, the birthplace of Chairman Mao.

At this stage the sun came out and we had a near perfect day weather wise. Unfortunately there was no steam here. After a short break to visit this most important place in China, we headed towards Wuhan and our next China steam trains photographic opportunity.



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