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


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.

Chinese Steam Trains Part 2

Our next stop on the trip was at Mao’s birthplace, a sacred shrine for the Chinese. This was interesting as year’s later, we visited Fidel Castro’s mountain hideout in Cuba. It had a similar feel to it.

I thought I would throw in one of the double QJs we saw at Louyang early to give you a taste for the steam action in this post.

QJ + QJ china steam train luoyang

Double QJ’s power up a bank on a military train

Mao’s Birthplace

We begin part 2 in Mao’s birthplace, Shaoyang. It is a delightful village, probably typical, if a little more sterile, of the thousands of villages that make up rural China.

maos birthplace  Shaoyang wuhan steam trains

The route from Shaoyang to Wuhan a distance of 489 kms


mao tse tung birthp[lace statueIt was a real treat to visit this village as for the most part we were barred from leaving the big cities. For someone like me, who loves wandering around the countryside it was a difficult medicine to digest, and my attempts to break free often failed. The couple of hours here were really great and relaxing.

Mao came from humble beginnings in a small cottage in the village. As we walked around the area we saw people tilling the fields with traditional Chinese hoes. There was little mechanisation, except for the small tractors that never seemed to haul a plough. I believe that was so everyone would have a job. The average wage in the countryside was around $1 a day, but this went a long way. Everyone had enough rice to eat and a place to stay.

The farms were communal. Unlike Australia there are no fences, and ducks wandered everywhere. Private ownership was a concept that simply didn’t exist. Everything was common land worked by the collective. The village appeared very relaxed. It was a far cry from the huge cities. Naturally, there was no steam around here and the weather was perfect and sunny. Damn!

You can see from the photo how imposing the Chairman is. I am not sure what his position is in China now, as loyalties often change with regimes. The little figure beside the statue is me!

In some ways it is a real shame that the Chinese Government of the time were so paranoid about foreigners talking to their citizens that they tried to keep us apart. The official reason for not letting westerners visit many parts of the country was simply that the facilities were not there. They considered the accommodation for the Chinese would not be good enough for Westerners. I had a more cynical viewpoint. The government only wanted foreigners for their tourist bucks. Like other communist countries, the state did everything it could think of to extract the maximum amount of money from foreign tourists.


The common fields of Shaoyang

Shopping Chinese Style

One other interesting phenomena I witnessed in Shaoyang was the local store. As I said, it was difficult to get exposure to normal Chinese life outside of major cities. Being there for such a long time, I did manage to get a glimpse of things from time to time.

shaoyang china mao birthplaceThe manager (the State owns everything) of this establishment sits high up in the store on a dias. From here he can watch everything going on and control his staff. You enter the shop and it is quite normal. Glass cases displaying the goods, and attentive Chinese women serving customers. I might add it was very different from the department stores in the cities. More on that later.

The sales clerk helps you pick what you wish to buy. In our case this was done by pointing. They then use an Abacus to add up the total and write that down. Fortunately, Chinese used western numbers or we would have been totally lost. Then they let the manager handle the money side.

If you look closely at the photo you will see that there are a series of wires spreading out from the manager’s position. These lead to all of the sales counters. When you make a purchase, a docket is written up and sent through a tube on the wire to the manager with your money. He works out the money, and then sends the tube back for you to receive your change.

This to me is a real insight into old China. I am sure that commerce was carried out in this way for many years. We all know the Abacus is legendary in China, and I am sure there were many shops using the wire and cylinder method of payment.

We Say Goodbye To Shoayang

After a couple of hours, we hopped on another train and headed towards Changsha. This town is famous for a mummy. This is no ordinary mummy like the Egyptian ones, but a 2100 year old Chinese woman so well preserved, you can see her skin. All of her organs are stored in jars around the room, and we were not allowed to take photos, because the flesh would degrade her quickly. If you ever visit China, I would recommend a visit to this to9wn. It is truly amazing and moving to actually see someone who lived over 2,000 years ago in a pretty good state of repair.

Changsha Mummy china

Changsha Mummy

Changsha To Wuhan

The final leg of this section is the run to Wuhan. It is a 358 km journey. For us it took 5 hours and 42 minutes. There is a reason. These days the line is serviced by bullet train and the journey is just 1 hour 25 minutes at an average speed of 252 kph. How things have changed!

Anyway, after two days of brilliant sunshine, I was itching to get at least one steam train shot in full sun. As we headed towards Wuhan, we stopped at a major town, probably Yueyang, although I can’t be sure. This was not on the official list as acceptable for westerners, but what the heck, I thought I would chance my arm.

I hopped off the train and headed north down the tracks. Pretty soon a freight came by with double QJs at the helm.

QJ china steam loco engine Yueyang Wuhan

Double QJs lead a freight from Yueyang towards Wuhan

This was a busy main line and pretty soon another QJ appeared. Regrettably not far behind were railway officials who escorted us back to the station and put us on the next train north!

QJ china steam engine Yueyang  Wuhan

Our first shot in full sun. Note the man waling down the tracks towards us

By now we were well aware that everyone in China was watching. After all, we did tend to stand out! Many areas we visited rarely saw a westerner, and the Chinese were paranoid about US imperialism to the point that they purchase US equipment from my company in Australia so they wouldn’t have to deal with the yanks. That got me a trip to the China Daily in Beijing.

I think you will agree that the last picture is a nice one, if not spectacular. We reached Wuhan without further incident. Still all the expresses were hauled by diesels. The next leg of the journey was from Wuhan to Luoyang, a distance of 703 kms. Unfortunately the express was diesel hauled. Luoyang is the site of the famous Longman Grottos, but I wasn’t there for that!


wuhan louyang steam locos

Wuhan to Luoyang Map We head almost straight north and it gets colder!

According to the latest information, the rail trip from Wuhan to Luoyang is now just over 5 hours, a distance of 580kms. It was obviously a lot slower back in 1985! We travelled 703 kms according to my notes. They must have straightened the tracks.

We arrived in Luoyang after a 13 ½ hour journey and headed for the local “Hotel Fan Dian” or friendship hotel. It was, of course, bitterly cold at that time of year. The average temperature for January is just 1 degree C. It seemed every journey led us to colder weather. This hotel was one of the old ones. It was large and looking very much run down. Luoyang is a major tourist spot in China, and at least the staff spoke English. There were very few westerners around at the time probably due to its remoteness. As I went to book in, I noticed an English gentleman asking questions. I knew he was English by his accent. Being a friendly Aussie, I asked him what brought him to that part of the world and he was rather cagy. Eventually he said he was on a “special interest” trip. I said I was too, and that I was here to photograph the trains. His eyes lit up and as it turned out he was wandering around China on his own in search of steam too.

Difficulties Getting Trackside

louyang tricycle steam train engine loco chinaThat night we had a banquet. There were at least 7 dishes on the table including some peanuts, rice and various dishes. It was all quite delicious. The next morning my new friend and I headed for the railway station and attempted to hire a cab to go to a nearby good photo spot. The cab driver would have none of it. He wasn’t going to risk heading out of town with 2 foreigners on board. There was a trishaw not far away, so we flagged it down and fortunately this driver was far more co-operative. We headed off down the line.

It was a slow trip through the suburbs past the tractors that were just hauling trailers, hoping that we wouldn’t encounter any police of military. We knew we would be sent back if anyone saw us, and we did rather stand out!

We picked our spot and had an hour or so with a procession of QJs.


Qj steam engine train louyang

First up was this freight with double QJs

The spot we had chosen was on a bank, so the engines worked their way along. As part of the parade, we witnessed 6 double headed QJs in 75 minutes. This was something I had never seen before!

QJ crossing QJ louyang china steam loco

A rare shot of two trains in motion passing, both with QJs at the helm

There were so many trains, we managed to get the above shot with QJ passing QJ. You can see the China haze in this photo. For much of the country it is as close as it gets to sunny at that time of year. The condensation is due to the very cold weather. Yes, rail photography in China is a pretty miserable occupation in winter!

qj louyang china steam train

Another double QJ approaching a level crossing

louyang trishaw steam loco

After a while of monotonous QJs, one after the other, we had enough of the cold and decided to return back into town. We arrived without incident, pretty pleased with ourselves.

It seems a little incredible now that there is virtually no mainline steam anywhere in the world, that we would get bored, just because there were thousands of QJs running all over the country. I can imagine a few years later it wouldn’t matter where you went in China, all you would see were QJs and JFs. Fortunately for me, it was not all like that back then.

We Move On

The next leg of the journey was on Express 163 to Xian via Baoji. Our destination is one of the more touristy parts of China and home of the Terracotta Warriors.

We travelled 3 hours behind diesel, before we finally attached an RM to the train for the run to Xian. At that time all trains in and out of Xian were steam hauled. It was a 6 ½ hour trip behind steam


RM 1227 china steam train xian

We awoke to find an RM at the head of the train. Xian is in the distance


I didn’t take any log books while in China, but I did record some times. The RM reached sustained speeds of 100 kph. This is pretty good, considering the huge loads they hauled.

The next segment details my time in Xian and then on to Lanzhou, our furthest point west, located on the Yangtze River. As I recall, it was difficult to travel any further West as an individual in those days. For this part of the journey, I am afraid you will have to wait for a little while.



China Steam Trains, 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.

Powered by WishList Member - Membership Software