Chinese Steam Trains Part 3 The West

This part of the journey commences with our arrival in the ancient capital of Xian, home of the Terracotta Warriors, now world famous. In 1985 Xian was 100% steam, with RM class Pacifics on passengers plus the inevitable QJs and JFs. As with most of China, the weather was miserable, but we did get some snow. We rode into Xian behind RM 1227. It sped along at a good clip reaching 100 kph in spots.

RM 1227 and QJ 207 china steam train xian
RM 1227 and QJ 2076 receive lubrication from their respective enginemen

Our first day in Xian was spent visiting the Terracotta Warriors. This was a bus trip and led us through a small village. Because of the tourist restrictions, it was a rare opportunity to see the side of China the officials were trying to stop you viewing. The photo shows street vendors selling cheap models of the warriors. The large dome in the background is the actual museum. People were generally poor, and I was left with a permanent memory when I saw an old lady who had her feet bound. Her feet were incredibly small due to this barbaric practice. Hopefully it doesn’t happen any more.

On the way back we had a little time to kill waiting for our transport and we found a small shop where they made Wantons. These were freshly fried in oil and the shopkeeper was delighted to serve a couple of westerners. They were the best I have ever tasted. On the bus trip back to town, I spied a good spot for photographing the RMs on Express Passengers and other trains.

Chinese Passenger Trains

QJ 6495 Xian china steam loco
QJ 6495 on an Express Passenger near Xian

Travel by train in China was a very special experience, unlike no other. These days they have Bullet Trains and there have been many changes, but back in 1985 it was very different.

There were literally millions of people travelling all over the country at the time. Most passenger trains were 17 carriages long. There was no class in China, being a communist country, although in fact they do have classes on the trains! To avoid the labels of first and second class, they call it soft and hard class. Soft class is more expensive and geared to foreigners. This mainly applied to sleeping cars, where in soft class there were 4 births to a compartment and linen included. In hard class sleepers you got 6 births and no linen. Either one was much better that the XPTs in Australia where you get to sit up all night! Most of the time we travelled hard class, but once or twice we splashed out to experience the best luxury China had to offer. From memory, soft class sleepers included meals delivered in cardboard boxes similar to those used by Chinese Take Away Restaurants in the US.

Getting On The Train

You arrived for your train 15 minutes at least before the train and stood in the queue. It was like an airport lounge. Seats arranged in the waiting room that was a large hall. Crowd control was in evidence and often security officers with truncheons guarded the barriers as you snaked around towards the platform. If you have been waiting to get in to a major sporting event or concert with a portable barrier, this is pretty much the same as getting on a train in China. There could be 300 or more waiting to board each long distance train.

Due to our Taiwanese Student Cards, we paid in Renimbi, or People’s Money saving us over half the fare. We purchased our tickets and then headed for the barriers.

As the train pulled in to the platform, hundreds of people alighted and headed out past the waiting crowd to the street. Once the crowd had cleared, the barriers came down and everyone made a mad dash for the awaiting carriages. A stop could be 20 minutes or more, slowing down the overall journey time.

Once on the train, we had the opportunity to view Chinese life, especially on day trips. Chai or Green Tea is the staple for the Chinese and everyone carries a container, usually with a lid. It could be an enamel mug, or a simple glass jar with a plastic jacket to stop your hands being burnt.

At the end of each carriage there was a boiler. This dispensed hot water for tea. I think if the boiler broke down there would have been a riot! We quickly acquired a taste for the local brew.

Railway Dining Chinese Style

Meals are served in the Dining Car. This consisted of a cash register at one end, where someone who looked like a bus conductor in a Mao jacket complete with a book of tear off tickets, took your order and money. This was somewhat of a challenge for us as menus were in Chinese, and you had to order before you could see what you were going to eat! The only thing written in characters we understood was the price. The norm was a meal with rice and something. I had learned the Mandarin for fish (yu), chicken (ji), beef (Shūcài). I would simply ask for rice (Fàn) plus whatever I wanted with it! Beer (Píjiǔ) was another useful word! Once you ordered, the attendant would tear off a number of tickets, you paid the fee and then went to your seat. In due course a sloppy bowl of rice and something appeared! Apart from South Africa, I discovered rail catering systems are less than ideal.

There Was More Steam To Photograph

By January 4, it was time to get down to business. I had spotted a reasonably spot for photography on the outskirts of the city and headed there as far as I could by public bus. Public transport was well organised, with bus maps available in most cities. It was a matter of picking the line that went closest to where I wanted to go and then walking. The photo depicts a track I walked down on my way to get the shots.

As usual I went alone on a public bus as far as I was able and then hoofed it.

The weather was disgusting, but at least there was some snow around. At this time, it was the only place you could see RM Pacifics on Express Passenger trains.

RM 1074 steam engine Xian china
RM 1074 climbing out of Xian

As the day progressed, it snowed a bit more. Not enough to really whiten the place up, but enough to leave me really miserable. At least I did get this rather nice shot of an RM on a large passenger.

RM 1240 Xian china steam train
RM 1240 heading towards Xian

It was really great to see an area which was 100% steam, although I believe it wasn’t too long before everything changed in the old capital. We were very lucky.

RM Xian China Steam engine
Yet another RM leaving Xian. All the photos were taken in a single afternoon

Regrettably, with so much ground to cover, and a day lost touring, it was time to again head off west towards Louyang. This city is now huge, on the mighty Yangtze and the gateway to the west of the country. We set off on an overnight train no 143, headed by RM 1257, which took the train some 173 kms to Baoji with me in the cab!

I used sign language to get on board with the crew, something I have been unable to achieve in Turkey. I think it was because it was night time. I am pretty amazed this happened in a country as tightly controlled as China, and it was absolutely freezing, but I enjoyed my ride at 100 kph plus on a China Express Passenger.

I talked them into letting me set the fire, and grabbed the shovel. It was rather small due to the use of pulverised coal dust. This was very heavy compared to that used in NSW. Soon I got the hang of it and had a great time, even though we simply couldn’t communicate verbally. I think they were rather amused!

Lanzhou, the land of the Lilly, their trademark regional dish, was reached by morning. Slowly I was getting used to the country and more and more adventurous in terms of getting some great photos. This city is very large and very polluted now. It is located on the Yangtze river near the Great Wall. At this point I grabbed the local transport map and worked out how far I could go on the local bus. I found a great spot for photography and headed off on foot. I was far away from the Tourist minders by this time and had a day uninterrupted!

jf 2214 lanzhou china henan steam train
Birds flock around a local passenger heading West from Lanzhou hauled by JF 2214. The scenery was definitely getting better

Here is a video produced back in those days which includes rare footage of an RM class Pacific in action.

This was the furthest West I ventured. I recall that from here was no man’s land, and the Silk Road. Those viewing the pictures in these stories must understand that line side photography at this time was simply forbidden! I was at risk just by being where I was. The next episode takes in Lanzhou and Datong, where QJ’s and JF’s were still being manufactured. It was here I had my closest encounter with the Chinese authorities.


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