Midnight Express – Chinese Pacific at speed

One of the highlights of my 1985 visit to China was a visit to Xian, home of the terracotta warriors. We arrived early January from Luoyang, much of it steam hauled. At that time, the area was pretty much 100% steam, and one of the few areas where mighty RM Pacifics still hauled Express trains.

Being early January, it was absolutely freezing with snow around, and I picked a photo spot near town with some scenery to spend a couple of days getting some lineside shots. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible, and I was not really happy with the results. I guess that was the risk in travelling at that time of year in a country known for its pollution.


While in this great city, we did visit the tourist spot, the Terracotta warriors, and the underground dig was very impressive. Better still from my point of view was the opportunity to get into the rural part of China and meet some real people. Distressing was the sight of an old woman who obviously suffered from foot binding, a practice no longer condoned. Such tiny feet. On the other hand in a small shop we purchased some fried wantons which were to die for. Freshly fried in an enormous wok by a smiling shopkeeper.

Terracotta Warriors

Another dreary day behind the camera and it was time to move on. After all the ambition was to cover most of the country in just a few weeks by train. We ended travelling nearly 10,000 KMs, much of it with steam haulage.

RM near Xian in dreadful weather.

From Xian, we headed further west to Lanzhou, our western most destination. The lines where some of the most amazing photos in China have been taken were not even built then, and it was extremely difficult to find a place you were allowed to visit past that point, not to mention the cold.

Passenger trains in China were typically 17 carriages, mostly hard class. There were a few soft class sleepers on long distance trains and foreigners were encouraged to travel in these. They are equivalent to first class sleepers. In soft class you had meals delivered in the containers similar to those used by Chinese Takeaway in New York. This was probably partly to limit interaction between locals and foreigners.

Long Passenger Shenyang

The designation of soft and hard class was because China is presented as a one class society. OF course, this is not the case, but keeping face was everything at the time. We could not visit all Chinese cities, or stay at Chinese hotels. Our accommodation was sanitised for foreigners. That said, in may parts no one spoke any English. At the time you would be expected to pay around $20US a night for accommodation.

There were two currencies, Renminbi RMB (people’s money) and FEC (foreign exchange certificates). Locals were only allowed the local money, and foreigners FEC. This was problematic in markets and small shops where you would pay in FEC and receive change in RMB.

While in Hong Kong, obtaining visas, we were told that if you were a student of Taipei University, you could freely use RMB to pay for food and hard class train fares. Hotels and Soft class were only for sale in FEC. Yes, it was confusing, but we saved a lot of money by gaming the system. For around 60 FEC you could get 100 RMB on the black market, nearly doubling your money. As in many countries, well heeled Chinese were gathering foreign currency to deposit into overseas bank accounts. This meant the trade was well protected and safe.

Anyway on this cold winter’s night we were booking in the hard class sleeper behind the engine. I decided to attempt to get a cab ride and approached the crew. With  much gesturing, they invited me on the footplate of the RM and we were on our way, topping 100 kph as we sped into the freezing night. The loco jumped around a bit, but the perway was laid really well, so she handled the speed comfortably, certainly smoother than a 38 at full pace. It took a while to wind up due to the train load, but once we got there all was well. I noticed the tender was full of pulverised coal and that they had a tiny shovel. As I had fired many locos in Australia, I asked if I could stoke the fire for a while, again using sign language and was handed the shovel, about a quarter the size of those used here. I soon found at why. The pulverised coal was very heavy, and each load was just the right weight to throw into the firebox with the butterfly doors.

Three hours and 173 kms later we arrived at Baoji, where the RM was detached, and I retired to a good night’s sleep, very satisfied with what turned out to be my last cab ride on a regular steam train. It is an experience I cherish to this day, and a special part of that trip.

I would love to hear of your adventures in China, a country which is completely transformed from the days when they started opening up to the west.



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