Friday, 24 March 2017

Winter Steam 2017 - Sandaoling

If you had asked me a year ago if I would be sitting on a bus once again heading into the depths of Xinjang province in North West China seeking steam I would have said no. Fuxin, a mere few hours form Beijing I might have entertained- but this is 2017. Fuxin in over. Pingzhuang's locos have dropped their fires until at least July and Tiefa's locos no longer have any booked work aside from entertaining tourists and film crews. If I was ever to see real Chineese steam again then it would be at Sandaoling. When I received the latest newsletter from FarRail Tours just before Christmas detailing another one last trip for winter steam in China the memories of last time began to flood back. Indeed it would be wonderful to be standing in the 'Grand Canyon' just one more time listening to the echo of a JS loco hard at work pounding up the grade, the echo of that distinctive steam beat resonating of the open cast pit walls. The idea had embedded itself in my head and a few short weeks later myself and my friend Rhys were booking flights to China and filling in visa forms.  Once you get this bug it's difficult to stop and I can totally see how those who have been coming to China for steam since the late 80's, or even early 2000's have amassed a hefty number of visits.

Monday 13th February 2017
JS808167 ascends the open cast pit with 13 wagons of coal in tow- steam sounds reverberating from the mine walls.
Thankfully our passage to Sandaoling was rather more direct than the one I had taken in 2014. Instead of flying to Urumqui and enduring the best part of half a day in a minibus this time we flew direct from Beijing to Hami. From here it is a mere 100km and less than two hours to reach the dust capital of the world at Sandaoling. We would be using a 'new' hotel for this visit as the one previously used by the group had very recently been closed down by the police. While there were no riot vans in Sandaoling on this occasion the issue with local ethnic tensions has far from gone away. When we arrive at our hotel we find a police guard and metal detector at the door. Eventually, with our bags searched and our bodies scanned we are admitted though the police attendant and hotel staff do look slightly apprehensive. The hotel, a little further out of time than where I had stayed previously was well appointed and seemed to be fresh and clean though I would have appreciated a room key card without a broken off corner!
Steam passing steam at Station 84.
Nobody in our group was keen to waste any time- we weren't here to enjoy the hotel hospitality, we were here for steam. By mid afternoon we were standing at the edge of the familiar road which runs past the side of the open cast pit looking down. Inside the pit a ploom of smoke rises- our first steam engine of the trip is departing from the coal loader right on que. The group scatters down the side of the pit ready for our first photo, but not before another empty train descends into the pit first.
JS8081 gives a good exhaust as it starts its climb.
Our first sound of steam working hard thunders past in the shape of JS8167 with it's customary 13 wagon train. The weather may not be perfect but I can see why I wanted to come back to this place. We spend the afternoon walking down into the pit along the double track line which leads to the loading area. There are opportunities here to see steam passing steam with empty trains waiting in the 'Station 84' are for loaded trains to power out of the pit. The sunlight didn't always play ball but when it did some spectacular shots were possible of the JS locos passing each other. Where on earth else can you see action such as this? The coal line continued to be busy all afternoon with train ascending from the opencast pit as often as every 20 minutes. Afternoon temperatures were on the positive side of zero and it was never guaranteed that a train would be producing exhaust, however some good pictures were obtained and of course the sound effects never disappointed.
Later in the afternoon we headed out of the pit and back to our bus. The weather was still mostly clear and nobody was going to turn down the chance of glinting sunset shot. Up on the edge of the pit we look down as the light starts to turn golden. The sun begins to hide behind a cloud at the key moment, but we are rewarded with one train snaking along the curves in the twilight. Little did we know this would be our only sunset shot this trip.
Our first day, and our last Sandaoling sunset.

Tuesday 14th February
Three of the four open cast locos line up in at dawn for shift change at Dongbolizhan.

JS8081 takes on water at Dongbolizhan.
Tuesday began as early as we come to expect on these trips and the party made their way to Dongbolizhan for the morning shift change. The gathering of four locos together is now one of the worlds largest accumulations of steam. The JS locos arrive from their overnight duties in the pit and new crews relieve those which have been working overnight. Locos take it in turn to be watered and crews check over and service their engines. The passenger train to the coal mine now consists of just a single light engine with mine workers travelling on the footplate.
Gradually each train departs until all have resumed their duties on the open cast coal circuit.

JS8366 brings up the rear of a train of empties from Nanzhan.

As well as the open cast operation from Dongbolizhan a further batch of locos are also based at Nanzhan to shunt the extensive yard and also to serve the two deep mines of Lijing and Erjing. While it may not look it there is a significant gradient between Nanzhan and the mines and therefore when long trains (of up to 40 wagons) are required at the deep mines trains are often top and tailed across the desert line by two JS steam locomotives. This is now almost certainly the last example of banked steam workings in China. The trains working uphill run tender first, but in the early morning chill with plooms of smoke rising into the empty sky the result is certainly spectacular. Trains on this line are few and far between but we are lucky today that after being tipped off about the train we have to wait just minutes before smoke can be seen rising from the yard at Nanzhan in the distance.
JS8314 leads a top and tailed train to the deep mine at Erjing. JS8366 brings up the rear of the 37 wagon train.

JS8225 spills it's load of coal into the washery.
The next location we visit is the coal washery, the destination for around half of the trains from the open cast pit. Trains pull up and tip their load of coal into grates to be taken by conveyor to be washed. Any loose coal can be picked up by mechanical sweepers. There are two tracks at the washery though only one is used to unload trains onto the conveyor.

The alternative destination for coal from the open cast bit is a new unloading area which has come into use since my last visit in 2014. Trains reach this area near to Nanzhan by climbing out of the pit and then turning right to pass through Dongbolizhan and the snake around past the workshop and down towards the coaking plant. Finally the train reverses with locos propelling the final way into the unloading area. This arrangement gives plenty of options for chimney first action including the departure of the empty trains from the unloading point as they head back towards Dongbolizhan and the pit. This area has changed a lot over the last few years with construction of the new line from Nanzhan to the deep mine at Shadunzi and a high bank beyond the new line giving a great vantage point over operations.
JS8167 is seen again with a laiden train backing into the new unloading area near to Nanzhan.
JS8225 in the new unloading area.

The line to Shadunzi was of course the last great hope for steam- a new line commissioned during 2014 which was expected to be worked by pairs of JS locos from Nanzhan. The dream never happened. After a few test runs with steam the first commercial trains, hauling up to 50 wagons, were powered by diesels. These massive trains have been running infrequently ever since hauled by the line's DF8 locomotives. On our visit it seemed that trains from the new mine would run round about three times a day. Having descending from the ridge to photograph the steam unloading process (avoiding the pits of hot ash by the lineside) a distant rumble was heard. It soon became clear that one of the diesel hauled trains was approaching on the new line- the first daylight train we had seen on the line. While I wasn't visiting Sandaoling for the diesels I was not about to miss what could be my only chance to photograph one of the DF8's on one of these trains. Running at full pelt I just made it back to the new line and had time to cross to the sunny side before the diesel passed. It wasn't steam, but I was still pleased with the result. I knew that the remainder of the group would not want to expend any effort on tracing down a diesel at another time.

After leaving the new unloading area we spent the remainder of the day up on the ridge looking into the pit. Several steam departures were observed, sounding as spectacular as ever, however the Sandaoling sunset we were waiting for did not produce.
DF8B 0249, one of several diesels working from Nanzhan powers a long empty train to the new mine at Shandunzi

Wednesday 15th February

Another steam departure from Dongbolizhan passes the crossing keeper.
As the early morning darkness gives way to light it is clear to us that Wednesday is going to be another frustrating day when it comes to the weather. Nobody really knows where the clear skys of Xinjang have disappeared to but it is certainly going to be a cloudy start. Having taken a whole series of photographs during the grey shift change the previous day there was little merit in doing the same again. Of course just being amongst the locos was wonderful, but without running around too much taking pictures I began to feel the chill. This was easily rectified as we followed some other members of our group to the crossing keepers hut just around the corner from Dongbolizhan station. Primative as it was the hut was a warm haven heated by a coal burning stove- so hot that you couldn't stand next to it for too long. We may not have had much language in common but the crossing keeper was quite amigable to our quest to keep warm- and to photograph everything he and his dogs were doing.

Another JS approaches Kinkouzhan ready to head into the pit.
We spent a little longer around Dongbolizhan and the line out to the two coal unloading points at the washery and the 'new' unloading area close to Nanzhan. Only 3 trains were operating in the open cast pit this morning as JS8081 was busy shunting around the station area. On my last visit all trains unloaded at the washer now the choice between the washer and the new unloading area is very much a double edged sword- on the positive there a good number of additional photo opportunites. On the negative most trains seem to take the opposite line to that you are waiting on!

JS*** pushes an empty coal train originating from the new unloading point back towards Dongbolizhan and ready for another load of coal from the loader.

Our group enjoys a well earnt lunch at the
'Noodle Soup' restaurant in downtown Sandaoling.
By early afternoon the sun seems to have given up for the day and the light turns milky. With little exhaust from the locos and very flat light it is decided to leave the mine (I know- You come all this way for the greatest steam show in the world and 48 hours in it has become so normal that we entertain the idea of leaving it!). To be fair to our group we have already had a couple of very long days and after a good lunch at the noodle soup restaurant the idea of catching some rest is appealing.







All of the family have come to see the interest in their bagles.
Bread making the traditional way in
Sandaoling. 'FarBread Tours' has real
potential to be the next big thing!
Before retreating to the hotel our local guide inaugurates the first 'FarBread Tours' excursion to a traditional Muslim bakers shop. Here we admire the flatbreads and watch as the family produce bathes of bagles. The process is fascinating with the fresh dough stuck to the edge of a kiln to bake. While we are fascinated by the process the locals are fascinated by us. I guess it's fair to say that they have never before seen a group of 9 camera wielding western men peering into a kiln and attempting to photograph bread, and each other from every conceivable angle. It's probably the best entertainment they have had in years! We may have just had lunch but having seen the process it is impossible to leave without purchasing a bagel for 1RMB (around 12 p). As we board our bus to head back to the hotel it is clear that some other local entrepreneurs also want a slice of the action as we are begged into a tumble down furniture store. We politely decline- I don't think the owner entirely understands that the idea of photographing rusty beds is somewhat less appealing.

Sandaoling power station looms over the town.
While some of the group rest, and a few others head back to the mine I elect to spend the next few hours before dinner having a good shower and a walk into town. Sandaoling is not somewhere I have previously had a chance to explore on foot and I am glad to do so. The people here are friendly and the shops have a range of interesting produce. One of my challenges is to try to procure a nail file and this does give me some reason to interact with shopkeepers.






A selection of produce at the large covered market.
A striking feature of Sandaoling is the power station which dominates much of the town and burns much of the coal from the mine (much of the coal which continues away from Sandaoling by rail ultimately ends up being burnt in the power station at Hami). Parts of the town, particularly near the power station are very run down- however my attempt to explore here is thwarted by a plague of small dogs which bark at me every time I try to step towards the rubbled alleys. I am told that the dogs are harmless but I've no plans to test the theory. I discover a covered market and having cleared the metal detector to get in find all manor of stalls selling fruit, nuts and most other things you could wish to find. Not a nail file though. On the way back to the hotel I call in at what appears to be the one department store in town. The staff are surprised to see a westerner browsing the shelves but everyone is very friendly, especially the security guard once he is satisfied that I can pass through his metal detector into the store. I come out with a selection of local treats, some Bijou (the local liquor) and a nail file!

After dinner we head back to Dongbolizhan for some night photography.

JS8225 waits for its turn to be serviced and watered at Dongbolizhan.
February mornings brighten up very quickly so it is nice to have the chance to do some proper long-exposure night shots with the four locos working the open pit circuit. The photographic opportunities around the station are constantly changing as the trains move for maintenance and to take on water. As a final treat one of the mines steam cranes emerges from the workshop to be prepared to service. Sadly after receiving its water it returns to the workshop and we would never see it again.
JS8167 with all it's lights blaring is seen shunting during the shift change. The loco would go on to collect one of the steam cranes form the railway's workshop and bring it to Dongbolizhan to be watered.

Thursday 16th February

JS8225 sits at shift change while JS8167 passes with a train.
Finally while wandering around the locos at the morning shift change a hint of orange appeared in the sky. We had not been blessed with the best weather so far at Sandaoling, but we now had our first sunrise. Suddenly our flat light pictures from the previous days all needed to be repeated! Fortunately this is an enjoyable task and with the order and positioning of locos constantly changing there are always new photo opportunities.


JS8167 with the remains of 'Old' Sandaoling in the foreground and the town's power station behind.
After most of the trains have departed Dongbolizhan we head to the pit by way of the old town. We have met another Brit, Doug, at shift change and he and guide Jun are already on the line out of the pit and alert us that all is not operating usually. There has been a landslide overnight (most likely caused by one of the underground coal seem fires, and the water being pumped in an attempt to extinguish it) which has left part of the line unstable. This slip doesn't seem to be immediately impacting trains but clearly a repair will be needed and the railway management have been instructed to execute this as soon as possible. The first evidence of this is that one of the coal trains, hauled by our friend JS8081, has been parked up mid-way along the line and spoil is being loaded from the side of the pit into its wagons by an excavator. The coal operation has not stopped with the other three trains on the circuit using the single remaining line. This presents some extra special photo opportunities of coal trains hammering up the incline past the stationary train which is being loaded.
JS8081's train is being loaded with spoil for the slip while JS8190 passes with a loaded coal train.

JS8225 hauls another 13 wagons of the black stuff from the pit.
Unfortunatley this spectacle is made slightly more difficult to photograph as mine staff do not want us near the loading operation- a further complication is the fact that 'big boss man', a director from the mine, has decided to stand roughly half way between us and the train to get his photo! Jun is reportedly 'scared' of 'big boss man' but does suggest he might like to move to improve everyone's photo. He doesn't move. After loading is complete, which takes several hours the train backs down into the Station 84 area before running back up the 'down' line to the site of the landslip. Here the tippler wagons empty their load and tons of rock and earth are pushed down into the slip area. We are not sure how long this operation will continue for but we are enjoying the presence of 'spoil' trains in the pit almost 3 years since they finished running from Xibolizhan- and chimney first as well!

JS8190 is mid way through tipping its spoil which will be used to shore up an earlier landslip in the pit.
As the day draws on it becomes apparent that this operation is no small job and will take more than the one train we have seen. While JS8081's train is unloading its spoil several coal trains head down into the pit empty and we await another flurry of action- that is until one of the trains, with JS8190 parks up by the spoil loader. Both lines to the pit are now blocked by stationary trains and while the pictures are good we really need this landslip to be sured up so that our supply of trains can continue.
Incedibly there are fish at the bottom of the open cast pit! More incredible
perhaps was the fact that a fisherman was standing right underneath the area
where spoil was being tipped just moments earlier- apparently oblivious!

With no trains moving we retire to our hotel. It is good to shower and change out of our coal ridden clothes which we have been wearing while wandering around the mine. I put on a fresh and nearly new pair of trousers to wander down to the shop before dinner, but disaster- I've managed to negotiate coal mines and rail yards for the best part of a week but just outside the wonderfully named 'Pregnant woman and babies living museum' [we never really did work out what this was!] I manage to trip and fall on the pavement. In my efforts to save my camera from the impact my knee takes it instead. I've ripped through my trousers and done a good job of cutting open my knee. My friend who has accompanied me to the shop asks if I'm ok before pausing to take a picture! Fortunately I am though I am definitely going to need to clean up and find another pair of trousers before dinner. The knee would need a bandage for the rest of the trip but thankfully didn't cause too much discomfort for running over railway tracks.

No sparks- but the power of steam is shown to best affect at twighlight.
After dinner it was time to attempt some of the 'spark' shots which Sandaoling has become almost famous for in recent years. By their very nature these pictures are incredibly difficult to master. Firstly you need very low light or even total darkness for sparks from the locomotive to be visable- this of course makes photography of a moving train very difficult- secondly only a very small number of the trains actually produce the sparks, all depending on the coal being used and the condition of the loco's spark arrestor (or lack of!). Finally, of course, you need a train to actually turn up! On this occasion we had a train in near perfect lighting conditions- but no sparks. Seeing our disappointment our local guide Mrs Gu Li points out that she can for the sparks 'to be turned on'. Obviously this costs 'red papers' but is something we will almost certainly pursue. In the meantime we head back to Dongbolizhan for some proper night photography of trains which are not moving!

Lining up a shot of JS8190 at evening shift change, Dongbolizhan.


Friday 17th February

JS8081 visits the washery before dawn to unload before shift change.
A change to the usual itinerary this morning with a visit to the washery before sunrise. Fortunately a train was just around the corner so we did not have to wait long in the cold to get some low light shots of the operation. After this it was once again on to Dongbolizhan for the morning shift change which once again featured a sunrise. The shift change also had another feature which was somewhat less pleasing- several other photographers had arrived. Now I have no problem with other photographers in the slightest providing they are sensible and respectful and everyone tries their best to stay out of everyone else's way whenever possible. I would like to think I fit this group, however one person who clearly did not was a Chinese photographer who would be come to known well to us as 'Yellow Backpack'. Not only did he seem to be in the way constantly and have no concept of the fact that he was walking through other pictures- he had a bright yellow rain cover over his rucksack! This made it impossible to hide him whenever he was in shot (and it wasn't even raining). While I am sure there was a language barrier could he really have had no idea what the arm gestures and shouting of 'Don't stand there!' meant?

JS8225 heads a line up of all four locos on the open-cast operation during shift change at Dongbolizhan.

Nanzhan based JS8366 shuts at the deep mine of Erjing.
Today had dawned not only sunny but also a lot less hazy than we had seen so far on this trip. This meant that we had also caught our first glimpse of the Tian Shan mountain range located approximately 25 miles away. With reports that there was a train at Erjing mine it was a too good an opportunity to miss a photograph of the Nanzhan deep mine operation with the mountain backdrop. As I eluded to earlier trains on the deep mine system are not frequent and while we could quickly confirm that there was indeed a train at the mine it would some hours before we would see any action from JS8366 and then it was only shunting.

We were still waiting for JS8366 to depart when the distinct sound and sight of steam could once again be seen in the distance- another train was on it's way to the mine, this time behind JS8358. There were some great photo opportunities with both locos at the mine, and, finally when a train did depart it was with JS8358 at the helm. We had stayed close to the mine for the shot as the smokebox first loaded coal trains coast almost the whole way to Nanzhan once they have left the mines. This proved to be a good decision, and by balancing three photographers on a signal ladder we got some very pleasing shots.

Using a signal ladder to provide a high vantage point JS8358 powers away form Erjing with a loaded train to Nanzhan.
Heading back into the desert we didn't have too long before JS8366 finally followed with it's coal train, now leaving no loco's at the mine. That left no locomotives at the deep mines and the only option was to head back to the pit to check on the works at the landslide. A spoil train is conveniently working its way up the line behind JS8190 and with this stopped and JS8180 loading on the other track. We wouldn't see any more coal trains for several hours, so instead headed back to the deep mines. After some time we were rewarded with a 'top and tail' train powering up the grade with almost 40 empty China Rail wagons for the mine. A fine sight by all accounts. 

JS8366 brings up the rear of a top and tailed train to the deep mines. The Tian Shan mountains stand out beyond.

Our day ended in a similar way to the one before- waiting on the ridge of the open cast pit in darkness in the hope of sparks. Tonight's biggest issue was a lack of trains. We had arranged for the sparks to be 'turned on' on two trips out of the pit, but having waited around an hour in the dark for the first one, which was spectacular, most of the group were satisfied enough not to wait any longer, especially given that there was not even a train being loaded to come back up. It turns out there were problems with the 'Blue loader', the automatic converyor which loads most trains from the mine. Hopefully someone enjoyed our second dose of sparks!

It was already late but those of us who had stayed out found our illustrious tour leader Bernd set up by the crossing near Dongbolizhan trying to execute a 'flash' shot. It wasn't cold so we were all happy to wait for one more train to pass. In doing so I achieved my first 'flash' shot through holding down the shutter and just hoping I would catch the light of Bernd's set up. After the train passes I scroll through my camera at lots of dark dark photos, then finally, there it is! I did capture the flash! The picture is no masterpiece but it something different and I'm well pleased.


Saturday 18th February

Sunrise at Dongbolizhan as JS8225 awaits its turn to be watered. 

JS8173 freshly extracted from the 'graveyard' receives attention.
As the trip goes on each sunrise seems to get better. Today Dongbolizhan seems to be particularly busy- not just with photographers (including our 'yellow backpack' friend) but also with railway workers and indeed locomotives. Since we have arrived JS8197 has been dumped in the station area, it's boiler certificate having expired the previous week. We had heard that a locomotive would be retrieved from the loco 'graveyard' and resurected to working condition to take it's place and this morning JS8173 has arrived. The loco has spent a day in the workshop being patched up and is now in steam with the final steps being taken to put it back into service. Despite it's shabby condition it seems to be steaming well and is a good indication that further locomotives could be re-instated if the need were to arise- almost certainly only to cover for active locos who's boilers are out of ticket.

Workers fabricate parts to attach to JS8173.
The day has dawned bright and sunny which is good news as we have one location yet to visit. Today we are going to head right down into the mine to see the trains leaving from the coal loading roads. We have high hopes this morning as we have seen the pipes down into the coal pit being re-connected (with some spectacular leaks) indicating that the landslip has been stablised. Hopefully this means that trains will being running frequently as they were at the beginning of the trip.
JS8225 is loaded by the excavator in the pit at Sandaoling.
The first train we see at the mine is running with JS8225 and is being loaded in the near road with the mechanical excavator. This is great for our photographs as the excavator is certainly more photogenic than the 'Blue loader'. The departure is superb- but cut short. For some reason the train has just pulled forwards- giving us the chance to get back ahead of it for a second set of departure shots from a different angle- we could not ask for more. The loco has to work incredibly hard to get the load going, the loading process through the excavator covers the tracks in coal dust making adhesion particularly difficult. 
JS8190 backs into the excavator road ready for its next load of coal.
A short while late the next train for loading arrives with JS8190 and a rake of clay stained wagons which have been used on the recent spoil trains. It seems to be one of those occasions where the photography Gods are on our side as the train heads into the 'Blue loader' before halting and then propelling back into the excavator road- another departure shot being possible in the process. I do not know the reason for the odd shunt but can only presume that repairs were not quite yet finished to the 'Blue loader'- they were clearly not far off however as shortly behind JS8190 is JS8167 which does take it's load of wagons fully down under the loader. 

JS8225 gets its train underway after several attempts in great style.
We are very pleased with our haul and head off for an early dinner. We plan to head back down to the Station 82 area near the entrance to the loading operation for some dusk shots to have one last attempt at the sparks now that trains are running regularly. Unfortunately the photography Gods seem to have noticed now what a good turn of luck we have had so far today as the first train passes with only a disappointing spray of sparks. Worse is to come though- we elect to head back to the same location after evening shift change for another go but the trains have once again slowed to a trickle. Well aware that it is our last night and last chance for the shot we decide to wait it out (it isn't too cold afterall). Trains seem to be running less than once an hour and what is worse there are no sparks and the train headlights are so bright that our photos are rendered totally useless. We eventually give up after the passage of the third disappointing train at around 00:45. We will have to be content with the soundtrack.
JS8190 spews black smoke as JS8167 awaits its turn to back into the loader. 

Sunday 19th February

Our final day at Sandaoling dawns in cloud once again. Our group disperse each with their own agendas for the final morning. I'm really pretty pleased with the shots I have achieved but there is one thing I have really wanted to achieve all week- aside from a short trip in the yard at Dongbolizhan I've not managed to get myself a proper cab ride on a JS.
Without the benefit of a common language it isn't always easy to communicate to the traincrew that you want to ride with them, but I have discovered over the past few nights that the best method is to hang around the cab and when you get the traincrews attention gesture towards the footplate. It usually seems to work- but is very difficult to achieve while not getting the way of the rest of the group taking their photos! With most of the group dispersed and the light fairly poor for photography anyway this was the perfect chance. It didn't take long at all before we were in the cab of JS8190. I'll save the cab ride story for another day as I'm sure this post is quite long enough already! Need I say storming up the grade from in the open cast pit on the footplate of a powerful steam locomotive was a great experience. All too soon it was over and we were walking back from the washery where we had been dropped off back to Dongbolizhan to meet the rest of our group and to leave Sandaoling. The flight back from Hami was once again fairly uneventful except perhaps for the most unusual aircraft meal I have ever been served; a loaf of 'vitamin bread' and a sealed bag of 'fragrant beef'. This turned out to be a vacuum packed piece of meat that you simply squeezed out of the bag and ate. It tasted a bit like corned beef and was certainly one of those meals that tasted better if you didn't look at it!

My final steam photo from Sandaoling as a JS loco pushes it's train from the new unloading area back towards Dongbolizhan. The weather was often not as kind as we had hoped during this trip, but did provide some atmospheric shots.

Conclusions

Sandaoling is still the steamiest place on the planet with seemingly endless photo possibilities. I was a little worried having already spent the best part of a week here that I might not find new photos to take but this was rarely a problem- even in the weather wasn't quite so good on this trip. One thing that does strike me is how quickly one adapts to the environment and starts to take for granted the quantity of steam. There is indeed so much here that a steam train becomes 'just another one' and we could even contemplate taking afternoons 'off' from the trains! 

Steam passing steam- JS8167 and JS8190 pass in the pit.
At the time of our visit this could well have been the last winter for steam at Sandaoling. A big meeting with senior management was due to take place during March to determine the future for steam and possibly even the mine. The strongest thinking was that trucks would be brought in to replace steam, as they already have in the west pit for the spoil operation. Trucks however have their own issues- it is difficult to lay a tarmac road along the alignment of the railway due to the presence of underground fires. Another option would be to construct a conveyor to extract the coal from the ground. Already it is transhiped from trucks at the coal face to a conveyor at the blue loader, then to trains before being unloaded again at the washery- not the most efficient system. Keeping the steam locos was also a possibility- but not without its own issues, the majority of the boiler certificates will expire during 2017 and full overhauls are unlikely to be granted. With the condition of the boilers it was also looking unlikely that the mine would be prepared to grand any further extensions. The overarching feeling was that really, nobody knew the future for the locomotives. The mine is said to have coal reserves to last roughly another 3 years before itself is exhausted.
JS8167 deposits another load of coal at the washery.
Subsequent to my visit a meeting did indeed take place, though perhaps not as 'big' as was envisaged. The result of the meeting was, amazingly, that the boiler certificates would be extended and steam in the pit will continue until at least 2018, possibly 2019. The number of locomotives may be reduced and may be driven more cautiously but steam will live on. There also would appear to be no immediate plans to oust the steam locos working from Nanzhan. Sandaoling is already the worlds last great steam spectacle and there it still incredibly hangs on. Will I be back? I really don't think so this time. But then again I said that last time, and how many others have packed in steam in China only to return for one last hoorah? 

Nanzhan's JS8366 and JS8358 shut in the mine area at Erjing.
A massive thanks again to Bernd Seiler of FarRailtours for making this trip possible and persuading me to part with my hard earned cash to return to China once again! Despite seeing the amount of time Bernd spends on his laptop I don't think we appreciate half the effort that goes into making these trips a success for us photographers. Some question whether organised trips are the right way to do China- all I can say as a satisfied customer (who has travelled much of the world independently) is that if you want to see the best of the twighlight years of steam you can't do much better than one of these tours. You don't just buy your photo permit but also the expertise of those who really know what they are doing, an experienced Chinese guide and of course the company of a great group of like-minded individuals. You pay your money and take your choice- I'm happy with mine.

JS8081 is loaded with spoil while JS8190 brings its train around the curve to the point where it will be dumped into the landslip.