Steamy Ice-Quickie 2010 - Extended!

Steam in China 07.01.2010 - 16/21.01.2010


On our annual big winter tour to China, the last empire of steam, we had to leave out two excellent locations for steam, Jixi and Huanan, because of time restraints. That’s the reason we’ve organised another winter steam tour, our Steamy Ice Quickie. The show is still going on!

Jixi and Huanan, both not only offer nice scenery, open countryside and steep gradients, but are the last places where you can see regular steam trains with two or even three locomotives on one train: hauled and banked by steam. In the new decade, is there any other place in the world where you can experience something similar? Both locations offer the ultimate spectacle for steam enthusiasts!

Added 11.10.2009: Zhalai Nuoer, the master spot for steam loco enthusiasts!



Date Itinerary
07.01. Departure to China
08.01. Morning arrival in Beijing, connection flight to Haerbin with CA 1611 15.15 – 16.55 hrs, charter bus to the railway station and continue by overnight train K7075, departure Haerbin 22.00 hrs
09.01. 06.38 hrs arrival in Jixi (SY), visit to the mine system Jixi Chengzihe, hotel in Jixi
10.01. Visit to the mine system of Didao, hotel in Jixi
11.01. Visit to the mine system of Lishu/Xifeng, hotel in Jixi
12.01. Visit to the mine systems of Donghaikuang and Chengzihe, Evening continue to our hotel in Huanan
13.01. Linesiding along the mountain section of the Huanan (C2)narrow gauge line, accommodation in private houses in Lixin or hotel in Huanan
14.01. Another day in the mountains of Huanan, evening return to our hotel in Huanan
15.01. Linesiding in the section Huanan – Tuoyaozi, late afternoon charter bus to Jiamusi, overnight train 4140 to Haerbin, departure 20.40 hrs
16.01. 05.32 hrs arrival in Haerbin, either charter bus to the airport and domestic flight  CA1640 to Beijing 07.45 – 09.35 hrs, return flight to Europe, America or Australia or continue by train 4191/94, departure Haerbin 06.10 hrs, arrival Zhalai Nuoer Xi 21.01 hrs. Hotel in Zhalai Nuoer
17.01. Visit to the open cast mine Zhalai Nuoer, hotel in Zhalai Nuoer
18.01. Visit to the open cast mine Zhalai Nuoer, hotel in Zhalai Nuoer
19.01. Visit to the open cast mine and the workshop Zhalai Nuoer, hotel in Zhalai Nuoer
20.01 Last visit to the Dongfanghong yard, continue to the Manzhouli airport and flight HU 7116 to Beijing 11.00 – 13.00 hrs, Hotel in Beijing
21.01. Retun flight home


Line description


Huanan sunrise

It’s a wonder that in 2009 the track gang of Huanan have continued to replace about a quarter of all sleepers! Because they’re using untreated birch tree sleepers they need to replace them all every four to five years. But replacing these sleepers is a hint that they will continue to operate the railway. The line is in operation for barely six months each year. In addition, only a few miles of a forestry road needs to be paved before the source of the coal and the reason for the railway’s existence, Hongguang, is connected to the world. Because of the low output of the mines around Hongguang it would be very easy to change from rail to road transport. Let’s be grateful that the final day of this fantastic little line hasn’t come yet and we can take advantage of this situation.

There are steam hauled and banked trains through a mountainous landscape, nights when you can hear the leading locomotive and the banker for half an hour, a flat line which allows sunrise and sunset shots, chilly mornings with long steam exhaust above the train and so on, and so on. It’s an endless story if you want to hear why you can spend weeks and months there. Yes, there is a risk that the line will not be running for a variety of reasons but when it’s operating, it’s among the best narrow gauge lines in the world. Where have you regular steam hauled and banked trains on narrow gauge? Nowhere! Except here, in Huanan. In short, Huanan is one of the jewels of steam operated narrow gauge lines. No, it’s the narrow gauge jewel!

sheep near Huanan

In the small print you’ll find something about our special accommodation in Lixin. It’s another good reason to go to Huanan. I can’t remember ever having seen any similar offer to experience the real life of the locals. It’s quite an experience!



The whole area is full of coal mines. Some of them, the biggest ones, are connected to a railway system which is, except Hengshan, exclusively served by steam locomotives. Close to Jixi (near Donghaikuang) the construction of an airport has just started. It should be finished by 2011. Will there still be steam locomotives around Jixi by then? There are good chances!

Jixi is without a shadow of a doubt a highlight for steam photographers and video film makers. There are several different mine systems which all have their own operating pattern and their own fleet of locomotives. The visitor will find open, hilly countryside, old fashioned mines built from bricks, similar ones, but painted pink and blue, lines with steep gradients which sometimes require one or even two bankers, little stabling points, big spoil dumps, rural villages along the line and more. There are many things to see and to do. It’ll never be boring. It’s planned for the system of Chengzihe to be electrified by October 2009 but it seems this will not actually happen any time soon.


Three SYs at one train: Jixi-Chengzihe

In May 2009 we visited Chengzihe. Not a single electrification pole was in place! The electric locos are fenced in a compound in Chengzihe and standing their wheels flat. We were told that the electrification of the Chengzihe system will now not take place in 2009. They said the reason is the economic crisis. The electrification would leave poorly skilled and educated workers unemployed. In the current situation it’s impossible to find new jobs for these workers. As the employment situation is already difficult in this region they have decided to stick to steam for at least another year. They assured us that it’s not a matter of money because the use of electric locos would save money after the investment is paid. It’s just to keep as many people as possible in work until the economic situation eases. However, another man from the control office said that the discussions about the use of electric locos continue. They have already invested the money to purchase overhauled electric locos. There is a group of managers who want to electrify the “golden triangle” in Chengzihe-Beicheng/Dongcheng/Nancheng plus the line to the state railway. If you see and hear the locos working there you can imagine why. Often trains struggle on the steep gradient and sometimes they need a second loco to rescue a train.

steam in the sky, Jixi

We cannot be 100% sure that everything will be unchanged next winter but the chances are good that we’ll have another steamy winter on the Chengzihe system. This will give us the opportunity to spend a morning in the “Golden Triangle” where heavily working steam locos will be hustling and bustling on three lines between Beicheng (washery), Nancheng (stabling point and station) and Dongcheng (mine, shift changing place and station). The gradients in between these three places, although very close to each other, are legendary and feared by the loco crews. In the triangle there is rarely a quiet moment. 30 minutes without movement is unusual. We have seen many trains struggle with the gradients. Sometimes another locomotive is called to rescue the failed train, sometimes the whole train has gone back to Dongcheng and started again. Often the loco crew thrashes the loco brutally out of the station just to gain speed for the gradient. But the air is polluted and a nasty emulsion of industrial exhaust and coal dust lays on the rail and reduces adhesion so that the train kicks the bucket just a few yards before the end of the gradient.

Rarely there are double headed trains in the Chengzihe system, more often you can see banked trains. These situations usually happen on the eastern end of the line in open countryside. Normally they have up to seven 2-8-2 class SYs in use.

Donghaikuang and Lishu are the furthest systems of Jixi. Both have rather sparse traffic. Here it would be essential to get reliable information from the control offices, however, you can only trust them if they say the train just left the station ten minutes ago. All timetable information for future trains is not really helpful, because delays of several hours or cancellation of intended actions are frequent. The only way to get good pictures is to invest some extra time but when you get a train, it’s very rewarding. The trains of Donghaikuang must go over the state railway. In this section of state railway they pass a long bridge, probably the longest bridge, regular steam trains use nowadays. The loaded trains can be very long. They’re rolling downhill almost the whole way from Donhaikuang to Jidong, the state railway station, but before the bridge and on the bridge the regulator must be opened. The empty trains run tender first and see a working locomotive all the way up to the mine.


The Lishu system is only a shadow of it’s former self. All the beautiful lines where locos used to run chimney first uphill are closed and dismantled. Only the mine at Pinggang is still connected to the rails. Unfortunately locomotives run tender first uphill for historic reasons. Nice line shots are possible, however. All you need is patience. With some luck you can see double headed or banked trains here. In Lishu up to three locos are in use.

Didao is another system northwest of Jixi. The two sections meet in Didao at the coal washery, which is extremely photogenic in the late afternoon when days are long and in the morning in the winter. Up to five SYs are in use. The lines to the mine Lijing and to the mine beyond the huge dumps are both steep but served tender first uphill. On the line from the power plant and from the state railway you can find a gradient in the opposite direction which allows pictures of chimney first uphill trains. The regulator is not closed until the station at Didao is in sight.

Hengshan, another system of Jixi, has four diesel locomotives and only three steam locomotives. The diesels always take the – photographically – best trains, while the steam locos serve the mines close to Hengshan - Lijing (not the Lijing mine in Didao) as well as Erdaohezi. Trains to Erdaohezi are usually pushed. Trains to Lijing start chimney first over a gradient to Zhongxin, then loop around and continue tender first upwards to Lijing. In Lijing steam is serving the spoil dump, tender first and shunting in the mine, both, tender first or chimney first.

If Huanan has one of its unpredictable breaks we’ll extend our stay in Jixi by two days and try to get a day earlier to Zhalai Nuoer.


Zhalai Nuoer

Zhalai Nuoer

Zhalai Nuoer

It’s almost a miracle, but Zhalai Nuoer (SY) is still using steam in the open cast mines. The recession made it possible: they continued using the railway in the pit because the unskilled or low-educated workers wouldn’t have a chance to find another job in a recession. That’s why the planned conveyor belt system is not in use so far. They expect to use some ten steam locomotives in the open cast mine and about six on the lines to the deep mines

The long journey to get there will be rewarded by plenty of steam action. In addition there are several railway lines serving underground mines as well, all served by steam. Trains are continuously coming and going on the steep gradients leading down to the bottom of the mine. The SY’s have to work hard to pull their load to the top level of the mine. Sometimes you can observe three or even four trains moving in and out of the mine simultaneously! We will visit the two depots as well. In the open cast pit is a small stabling point. Last but not least there is also a passenger service in the morning and the late afternoon. The passenger trains are unusually short, consisting of only one or two coaches. They can be pulled, pushed or even pulled and banked. The coal reserves are declining and it is almost 100% sure  that they’ll close the railway into the open cast pit in 2010. The rail connection between the deep mines was partly dieselised in 2009. The dieselisation will continue. So this trip is already the trip after the last chance, it is very likely your very last chance to experience Zhalai Nuer’s splendid photographic opportunities.

Zhalai Nuoer

Zhalai Nuoer has been taken over by a new company which announced several restrictions for visitors. The permit for visiting the open cast pit is relatively sure, but visits are limited to daylight hours and to some parts of the mine only. Its likely that security will be always around our group – and sometimes hinder us in taking the shots we want.


Small Print

We expect the lowest morning temperatures between minus 15 and minus 30 degrees Centigrade (5 to minus 22 degrees F) in the far north while afternoon temperatures can reach about zero degrees Centigrade in Beijing (32 degrees F). The voltage in China is 220 Volts, 50 Hertz. Sometimes you need an adapter for the power outlets. China uses the European mobile phone (GSM) standard.

This tour is designed for both dedicated photographers and video filmmakers. Our philosophy is to provide opportunities to get that perfect sunrise shot rather than a time consuming 5 star breakfast buffet. On occasions lunch will be served as a packed meal. Beverages are not included in the tour price.

Huanan, sunset near Xiahua

Hotels, charter buses and trains represent the standard of our host country, which deviates from European and American expectations. While we will endeavour to avoid long walks, some photo positions may require an extra but worthwhile effort. Single rooms are not available on train rides and in guesthouses or private houses.

The hotels used will be of medium class, but in remote areas sometimes they are more basic. We offer a unique opportunity in Lixin (Huanan). If you can stand the lack of comfort, you can sleep in one of the private houses around there. To give such a room type a rating, we’ve extended the category system of how to rate hotel’s service and comfort to the bottom end. Zero stars would be too good. The accommodation in Lixin on the Huanan system is another matter. There are facilities outside but they can hardly be recommended. Better to go into the forest! If you ask somebody about washing your hands he would point to a bowl with some water in – sometimes used by several others before. If you want something clean to wash in, you have to ask for fresh water or do it as the locals do – go to the river!

The accommodation and the bedding can hardly be described as clean. So you should bring a towel to put under your head or a light linen sleeping bag or sheet. With this equipment you can easily stand one night in circumstances that the locals have to use all their lives. The accommodation in Lixin is rated by us as three black holes. By the way, from four black holes onwards you would have to share your bed with small animals you might not appreciate. But for sure, this category is not on offer on FarRail trips. More seriously, it is very basic but acceptable for most travellers and the rewards of being so close to the railway are wonderful. We’ll sleep on Kangs which are sleeping platforms with a built in stove, so they are warm and quite comfortable. You’ll get some covers to put on the stove to soften it a bit. Most of the participants on other trips who have used this kind of a bed have been really surprised how well they’ve slept! All who have spent a night in Lixin on past trips have rated this experience very highly. No one will remember another faceless three star hotel in a city, but when you’re staying in the total tranquillity of the forests around Lixin, sleeping on a well heated stove, and a train sets off to the summit, you can hear the two locomotives for almost half an hour, climbing up the hill. On a bright, starry night it’s a memorable experience. If you are uncomfortable with the private houses in Lixin we can arrange the hotel in Huanan for you instead.

Huanan, summit near Lixin

Getting to Lixin requires a walk of some six miles (if you take the shortcut, otherwise some 7.5 miles). It’s possible to hire an ox cart but this is not offered here. We can sort it out on the spot to your own requirements.

The train rides are booked in soft sleeper class (four berth compartments). As the reservation system in China is a typical quota system where the station of origin typically gets an allotment of 50% of the available tickets, it is not guaranteed that we can get soft sleeper tickets for all our rides. In such a case we’ll use hard sleeper class which, however, is not as hard as the name suggests. Hard sleeper compartments are open and normally comprise six berths. The calculation of the tour was made with 33% hard sleeper (for the overnight journeys) as it is usually impossible to always get soft sleeper compartments for all our train rides.

Huanan: banked train to the summit

The tour was planned mid 2009. Although it’s only a few months before we go to China, it’s not certain that all lines will still have steam. In the event that one line is dieselised before we arrive, we will make different arrangements to see as much steam as possible.

Hygienic and environmental standards in China do not conform to European or American expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is hence advisable. Please bear in mind that accommodation and transport in China falls short of EU/US safety standards. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. FarRail Tours cannot be held responsible and will not accept any liability whatsoever in the case of any accident or damage. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy.




Steamy Ice Quickie 2010 11 to 30 participants £2,640
07.01.2010 – 17.01.2010 8 to 10 participants £2,780
  Single room surcharge £140
Registration Deadline: 15.11.2009

Later registrations will be accepted if flights and hotels are still available. If you’re not sure whether you can participate or not please announce your interest well in advance so that we can hold your place. Minimum number of participants 8/4, maximum number of participants: 24

Without flight to Beijing (land only): Please subtract £460 from the tour price. The price for the Zhalai Nuoer extension doesn't include the internation flight.

The price includes:

Not included are:

Above prices are based on specific bookings with the respective airlines, which have to be confirmed well in advance. Your early booking is hence essential.

taking water before sunrise

As a service to our UK-based clients FarRail Tours accepts and will continue to accept payments made out in Pound Sterling until further notice. However, please note that from January 28, 2009, all prices quoted in Pound Sterling are indicative only and are subject to change without prior notice. This measure was taken by FarRail Tours due to the unprecedented volatility in the international foreign exchange markets and its impact on the valuation of the Pound Sterling versus other major currencies, namely the Euro as FarRail Tours' accounting currency.


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