Winter of Real Steam

Narrow Gauge Steam in China: Forestry line Huanan: 04.01. - 10.01.2011

Winter Steam in North-East China: 08.01. - 19.01.2011

The one and only location in the world where you can still experience real winter steam, is China. Although we’re witnesses to a sharp decline in numbers of steam locomotives and lines served by steam in China, it is still the must-go place for enthusiasts of real steam. You’ll not be disappointed, even if you’ve never made it to China before and don’t know what to expect (in fact, especially then!).

This tour is designed for the needs of travellers who have never been to China as well as for those who have been several times to visit the last strongholds of steam. It’s made to inhale steam at its best. To see supershine locomotives as well as filthy coal mine locos, to see shunters with a few wagons as well as locomotives struggling on steep gradients. We’ll still see the regular steam passenger as well as the steam hauled heavy freight train. Besides the industrial backdrops, we’ll find open countryside along the way which combine to give the best opportunities for amazing shots.


Date Itinerary
04.01. Flight to Beijing
05.01. Morning arrival in Beijing, continue by flight CA 1611 to Haerbin 16.05 - 17.45 hrs, charter bus to the railway station, continue by overnight train to Jiamusi 4137 ( departure Haerbin 20.15 hrs)
06.01. 04.03 hrs arrival in Jiamusi and continue by charter bus to Huanan, linesiding along the fantastic line at Huanan (class C2), hotel in Huanan
07.01. Linesiding along the mountain section of the narrow gauge line at Huanan, we’ll spend the night in private houses around Lixin (if you want you can return to the hotel in Huanan)
08.01. Another day of linesiding along the mountain section of the narrow gauge line at Huanan, we’ll spend the night in private houses around Lixin (if you want you can return to the hotel in Huanan)
09.01. Linesiding along the section Huanan – Xiahua. In the evening we’ll continue to Jixi, Hotel Jixi; optional you can fly back home, arrival 10.12.2010
08.01. Flight to Beijing
09.01. Morning arrival in Beijing, domestic flight CA 1611 to Haerbin 16.05 - 17.45 hrs, continue by charter bus to Haerbin Dong, by overnight train K7075 to Jixi, departure 22.00 hrs
10.01. 06.42 hrs arrival Jixi, Visit to the mine system of Didao, hotel in Jixi
11.01. Visit to the mine system of Chengzihe, hotel in Jixi
12.01. Visit to the mine systems of, Chengzihe and Donghaikuang hotel in Jixi
13.01. Visit to the mine systems of Lishu/Xifeng and Didao, overnight train 2018 Mudanjiang - Shenyang, departure 17.02 hrs
14.01. Arrival Tieling 04.37 hrs, continue by charter bus to Diaobingshan (class SY) and linesiding around Diaobingshan, evening continue by charter bus to Beipiao, Hotel in Beipiao
15.01. Visit to the coal mine lines around Beipiao (class SY) including a visit to the workshop.
16.01. Visit to the coal mine lines around Beipiao (class SY). In the evening we’ll continue to our hotel in Chifeng
17.01. Charter bus to Pingzhuang (class SY), linesiding on the coal mine line, hotel Chifeng
18.01. Charter bus to Yuanbaoshan and linesiding (class JS), late afternoon continue by charter bus to Chifeng, overnight train 2560, departure 21.08 hrs
19.01. 05.56 hrs arrival in Beijing, charter bus to a basic hotel near the airport for having a shower, continue by airport shuttle bus of the hotel to the airport and return flight, arrival in Europe in the same evening


Line description

First of all, we are at the edge of a steam free age, so some of the locations are merely a shadow of their former self but still worth a visit. However, we can’t rule out that some of the lines on the list may have changed to diesel or electric locomotives before we arrive. Information is from spring 2010, months before we go to these sites. There is not always a substitute nearby if a line is dieselised or closed. However, the longer you wait the more risky such a tour gets!

Huanan in winter – a fairy tale! 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. 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.

Please read the small print about the accommodation there. It’s another reason to go there. I can’t remember having ever seen a tourist brochure which would have offered that deep an insight in the real life of the locals. It’s quite an experience.

The forestry line of Huanan operates about six months a year only. However, chances are good that early December is a month which sees steam trains on this beautiful line.

Jixi is another amazing location for videographers and photographers. There are several different mine systems, all have their own fleet of locomotives and their own regime of operation. The system in Chengzihe was said to be electrified by summer 2010 but they said the same for October 2009 and just recently an official stated that due to the hard and long winter in 2010 they will probably not go electric by 2010. Whatsoever, the remaining systems still offer plenty of steam activities as well.

You’ll see rural countryside with fields and farm houses, mines, washeries, steep gradients, pink mines, brick mines, spoil dumps, stabling points, a long bridge, villages with rails going through and so on. Much action is going on here and there, it’ll not get boring even over so many days. Some photo spots require patience. Information from the control offices is often inaccurate. They change their plans just after you’ve asked them.

The coal mine system at Diaobingshan (formerly Tiefa) was dieselised in 2004/2005 for freight services. Fortunately most of the passenger trains remain steam hauled. Although they have a new non steam enthusiast boss now, a highly ranked official said they’ll keep their steam locos running for at least another year. A diesel hauled passenger train would be at least twice as expensive as a steam hauled service. On the four lines there are some 15 steam hauled passenger trains a day, sometimes with several departures within a few minutes of each other. So this system is still worth a visit with some very exciting action and photo locations.

The most scenic part of the system is the line from Diaobingshan (the operational centre) to Faku. Trains pass through a tunnel on this line. As they have neither a turntable nor use their wye at the terminus, locomotives run tender first in one direction and chimney first the other. It’s unpredictable which trains will be tender and which ones chimney first but we have our contacts to find out. Visits to the depot and the stabling point are planned as well. Diaobingshan’s SYs are nicely maintained and include two 1999 built engines.

On our way to a much more busy system we’ll pass by Beipiao. The line is 100% steam operated but traffic is erratic and unpredictable. With a hired guide from the railways we are in permanent contact with the control office which improves the chance of us knowing what’s going on. The line is some 30km long and offers some nice spots and steep gradients. The countryside is hilly.

The depot is a superb location for photographers and video film makers and well worth a visit because they do their own overhauls. We have enquired and paid a permit to visit the workshop too.

Not many enthusiasts have been to Pingzhuang because there’s been better action nearby – the famous Jingpeng pass. Those who have been here in earlier years could have seen the last KD6 (2-8-0) in service, which was sold to Tiefa a couple of years ago where it is now preserved (and part of our November programme). However, with the decline of steam, it was “discovered“ that Pingzhuang is well worth a visit. It’s not only their fully deflectored SY, they have a line to underground mines which offers, at least in the colourful autumn, some nice, rural line shots. On two major gradients on this line locomotives have to work hard.

Most of the trains into the open cast mine (so far there is no official permit to visit this site available although the author got one in 1995) are hauled by electric locomotives. Only works trains are steam hauled. We may be able to take a look from a corner down into the pit. You can just walk in as well. This has been proven to be hassle-free, however, without permit it’s at your own risk.

Although we made it in 2009 we can’t guarantee a visit to the workshop at Pingzhuang. It’s an outsourced enterprise which doesn’t allow visits the official way.

Beside the new diesels in Yuanbaoshan, there have survived a few of their very clean JS class 2-8-2s. These engines carry big smoke deflectors which make them exceptionally attractive. Usually the diesels cover most of the trains but when you have contacts in the area you are usually able to “arrange” something. Last time we managed to return the mixed train to steam and this is our goal for this time as well. It’s not possible to guarantee anything but the chances are good that we’ll see some steam hauled trains.

On the line to the northern mines there is a steep gradient (and a cement factory in the backdrop). There is no fixed timetable and the trains run on demand. We need to keep in touch with the control office to get information about train movements in time.


Small print

The tour was planned in April 2010. 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.

We expect the lowest morning temperatures to be about minus 25 degrees Centigrade (about -15 degrees F) in the far north while afternoon temperatures can still reach more than zero degrees Centigrade (32°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 (which is not available in remote locations in China anyway). On occasions, lunch will be served as a packed meal. Beverages are not included in the tour price.

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.

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 (if not frozen) or just take snow!

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.

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, horse sleigh or a motor bike (quite dangerous in the winter) but this is not offered here. We can sort it out on the spot to your own requirements. It’s necessary to warn you about the risks of taking a motorbike. It’s also sometimes difficult to avoid spoiling the shots of other photographers. However, if you want, our guide will not only arrange the bikes, he’ll also bargain the price down for you to the local level.

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 occasionally impossible to always get soft sleeper compartments for all our train rides.

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.

Registration period expires August 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.



Winter Steam Spectacle in the North-East 11 to 25 participants £2,370
08.01.2011 – 19.01.2011 7 to 10 participants £2,660
  Single room surcharge £160
Registration Deadline: 20.09.2010
Foresty Line Huanan 11 to 25 participants £980
04.01.2011 – 10.01.2011 5 to 10 participants £1,070
  Single room surcharge £40
Registration Deadline: 20.09.2010

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.


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.


© FarRail Tours - e-mail: Bernd Seiler - zurück zu FarRail Tours
Click here to return to FarRail Tours