Sunflowers at the “Little Pass”

Steam in China: 22.8. – 2.9.2008

Sunflowers and steam in Huanan

Late summer in China: sunflowers are in full flower, fields are harvested, in the mountains of Huanan the first signs of Autumn colours appear, chilly mornings with good steam effects and pleasant warm afternoons. The long days make it possible to get many more shots and videos than in the winter season.

We’ll see two types of locomotive: the narrow gauge class C2 and the interestingly shaped industrial Mikado class SY. Most lines offer excellent photographic potential and are well worth a visit – at any time of the year.

An outstanding narrow gauge line will give us some calm days. Huanan is the last remaining narrow gauge line in the forests of Manchuria which is still steam operated. An extraordinary feature is that they have banked trains (trains with a pusher engine) from Lixin up to the summit. This spectacle is unique in the world now, as there is no other narrow gauge line that has regular, steam banked trains.

Flowers and steam in Jixi



Date Itinerary
22.08. Departure to China
23.08. Morning arrival in Beijing, connecting flight to Haerbin (leaving Beijing around 16.00 hrs), charter bus to the railway station, overnight train 4137, departure Haerbin 20.53 hrs
24.08. 05.49 hrs arrival Jiamusi, charter bus to Huanan, Line siding Huanan – Lixin (class C2), hotel in Huanan
25.08. Line siding Huanan – Tuoyaozi, hotel in Huanan
26.08. Line siding Huanan – Lixin, overnight in private houses in Lixin (category three black holes) Hotel in Huanan for those who can’t stand a night without facilities, see small print
27.08. Line siding around Lixin, overnight in private houses in Lixin, see small print
28.08. Line siding Lixin – Tuoyaozi, evening by charter bus to Jixi, hotel Jixi
29.08. Visit to the mine system Jixi Chengzihe, hotel in Jixi
30.08. Visit to the mine system of Didao, hotel in Jixi
31.08. Visit to the mine system of Lishu/Xifeng, hotel in Jixi
01.09. Visit to the mine systems of Donghaikuang and Chengzihe, overnight train K7076 Jixi – Haerbin, departure 21.25 hrs
02.09. 05.58 hrs arrival Haerbin, Charter bus to the airport and domestic flight to Beijing, from Beijing return flight home, arrival Europe in the same evening


Line description


a train approaches Lazifang ...

It’s a wonder that in 2009 the track gang of Huanan 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.

... and thunders through the horse shoe curve

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!

morning mist in Xiahua

The technical shape of the locomotives is rather bad. It might be the case that some trains will be cancelled due to locomotives which are in urgent need of repair.

The distance between Tuoyaozi and Lixin is approximately six miles. As there is no passable road we have to walk. The use of local motorbikes is also possible but not really recommended. If you know the style of driving in China you can imagine what I mean. Either way, it’s everybody’s own decision. Walking some miles in a whole day is not that far on a beautiful summer day. Motorbike transport in Huanan is not included in the tour price, prices varied from about 80 to 160 RMB per day. Unfortunately, the only accommodation possible in Lixin is in a filthy private house with no facilities at all. This is the place where the trains get their bankers on the rear. In addition there are wonderful photo positions close to Lixin. Because of this, it is worth spending two nights in such poor surroundings, where the locals suffer the whole year. You can choose to spend the night in the good hotel in Huanan if you prefer, but you’ll very likely miss the possibility of getting a banked morning train.

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! Getting to Lixin requires a walk of some six miles (if you take the shortcut, otherwise some 7.5 miles).

In case Huanan is having one of its occasional operating breaks, we’ll extend our stay in Jixi.

Chili and steam



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 finished. If there are suitable flights on offer we’ll replace one overnight train by a flight. Currently the flight timetable is changed on a weekly basis which makes proper planning close to impossible.

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 the end of 2010 or spring 2011.

Jixi-Didao Hebei, at the washery

In January 2010 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 before the end of 2010. 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.

We cannot be 100% sure that everything will be unchanged next summer but chances are good that we’ll have another steamy season 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 mine 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.

Jixi Pinggang

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 eight 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 due to the 1.08 percent gradient. 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 historical 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.

Jixi Dongcheng

Hengshan, another system of Jixi, has four diesel locomotives and only one to two 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 serves 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.


Small Print

The tour was planned in January 2010. Although it’s only a few months before we’ll go to China it’s not certain that all lines will still have steam. In the unlikely case one line will be dieselised before we arrive, we will make different arrangements to see as much steam as possible.

We expect the lowest morning temperatures to be a little above zero degrees Centigrade (about 35 degrees F) in the far north while afternoon temperatures can still reach more than 22 degrees Centigrade (mid-70s F). In Beijing temperatures may exceed even 30°C (86 degrees F).

Huanan: Tuoyaozi

The voltage in China is 220 Volts, 50 Hz. You’ll 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. Breakfast and lunch will be usually served as a packed meal. Dinner is planned to be a proper (Chinese) meal. Beverages are not included in the tour price.

Hotels, charter buses and trains represent the standard of our host country, which may deviate from European and American expectations. While we will endeavour to avoid long walks, some photo positions may require an extra but worthwhile effort.

The hotels used will be of medium class, but in remote areas sometimes they are more basic. We offer a unique opportunity in Lixin: 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 extended the category-system of how to rate hotel’s service and comfort to the bottom end. Zero star 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 go into the forest! If you ask somebody about washing your hands he would point to a bowl with some water in. 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 at 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 in being so close to the railway are wonderful. We’ll sleep on Kangs, these 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 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 (at no additional cost).

approaching Tuoyaozi in the evening

Tuoyaozi village

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 cases 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. Short daytime trains may have to be booked in hard seats (if available).

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 transportation 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.

Registration period expires May 10th, 2010

Later registrations will be accepted if flights and hotels are still available. If you’re not sure whether you can participate or not, please let us know your interest well in advance so that we can hold a place for you.

sunset near Huanan



Sunflower-Steam 11 to 18 participants £2,440
22.08.2010 – 02.09.2010 4 to 10 participants £2,570
  Single room surcharge £125
Registration Deadline: 24.04.2010

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.

dark clouds near Xiahua

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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