PICTURE LIBRARY &
PHOTOGRAPHERS TO THE RAILWAY INDUSTRY
Colin Garratt - China Expeditions
Colin Garratt returned
to Inner Mongolia twice in 2004 to photograph the last all steam mainline
railway in the world. Below is an account of the first expedition.
Dec 2003 - Jan 2004.
STEAM'S LAST GREAT FLING
Colin Garratt returned from a four week expedition to the Jing Peng Pass in Inner Mongolia with a remarkable set of pictures documenting the world's last all steam main line. 27/01/04
"Imagine dreaming that in the wilds of Inner Mongolia, hidden from the rest of the world, is a new railway five hundred and eighty nine miles long and worked 100% by steam. And the route sees double headed 2-10-2s dragging 2,300 tonne trains climbing through a mountain range with 1 in 80 gradients, the line abounding in spirals, viaducts and tunnels and so dramatically engineered that one could make pictures as fine as any taken in the two hundred year history of the steam locomotive. And the line, signalled by attractive semaphores, was totally accessible; one could walk the track and take pictures from any vantage point one wished; there were no restrictions. Imagine waking up after a dream like that; imagine how crestfallen one would be that it was but a dream. But this time the dream was real............................"
Our minibus jumped and gyrated over an unmade stretch of road on the approach to Jing Peng. I was with my wife Carol, daughter Marie-Louise and our four year old twin boys Antaeus and Dominion. Also on board was our guide for the expedition Bao Dan Dan, a twenty three year old Mongolian girl, as beautiful as she was personable. Our driver was Qi Bao Fung who, we were to find out, was prepared to take his vehicle virtually anywhere in the name of railway photography. These were to be our companions over the coming three weeks as we disappeared into the Da Hinggang mountains back to the age of steam. Our target was the Ji-Tong Railway which connects the industrial cities of Jining in the west and Tongliao in the east. The line was built in the early 1990s and opened in December 1995. At Jing Peng the railway begins its climb through the mountain range; the summit lies in a tunnel in the middle of the mountains and it is approached by a climb some fifteen miles from either side. It is a section of railway known as the Jing Peng Pass.
As we entered the town, snowflakes swirled in the wind. The temperature was a mere five degrees centigrade; it would normally have been minus twenty. We were heading for Reshui, a small town at the opposite end of the mountain section where we were to make our base in the Railway Hotel. As we drove out towards the snow covered mountains the railway came into view and further up the valley we saw a freight train, the engines blasting their way up the mountainside, massive smoke columns rising into the air. "QJs" shouted the twins, (they had seen many pictures of them). We caught the train up as it snaked around a loop at the head of the valley and started to curve back down the other side. It would then cross a massive horseshoe viaduct before sharply swinging away into a tunnel.
We stopped at the viaduct to watch the train pass; the QJs hurled themselves at the gradient the deep throbbing coughs of their exhaust reverberating around the hills; the rhythms intensified whenever one of the engines slipped a little. With a deafening roar the giants reached the viaduct with their massive coal train - complete with a guard's van at the end. With the train engine enveloped in a ball of steam they forged past us, rounded the hillside and with whistles screaming they plunged into the tunnel; in the instant silence fell apart from the gentle rumble of the wagons but a massive mushroom of smoke spiralled skywards out of the tunnel mouth. Upon emerging from the tunnel, the engine's exhausts echoed and reverberated through the mountains and a black sooty smoke pall towered above the peaks. I glanced at the twins' faces, they were literally wide eyed and open mouthed at the incredible audio-visual spectacle they had witnessed. Here at the age of four was their first experience of the age of steam - a memory they will carry for life.
We reached the hotel in Reshui at dusk; the hotel is owned by the Jitong Railway and the forecourt contained a large heroic statue of a female holding aloft the company's symbol. Our room overlooked the line and that night we all fell to slumber to the sound of trains leaving the loop at the nearby station, the engine's gorgeous chime whistles resonating through the bitter night air with superb clarity. This was the railway equivalent of Jurassic Park; here in this remote part of the world, we had found the valley of the dinosaurs.
I found it incredible that this last line should be as magnificent as any experienced in the heyday of steam: I am loathed to compare the Jing Peng with any other line, but did wonder if it rivalled the legendary Sherman Hill with the Union Pacific Railway's 'Big Boy' 4-8-8-4's. I remember the awe I felt on talking recently to a veteran American cameraman who had photographed every Big Boy attacking Sherman Hill. I cannot recall ever experiencing a section of railway that is so utterly photogenic as the Jing Peng but, paradoxically, it was a very difficult line to photograph. The short winter days saw some eight trains in daylight, whilst the twisting curvature of the line led to irascible lighting and some of the classic views were only properly lit for an hour or so at a time. Even greater problems were created by the wind which played havoc with the engines' exhaust and frequently a train would fall into the shadow of its own smoke. Often a superb composition was totally destroyed by the smoke blowing down and obliterating both engines or, conversely a picture oriented around a line of snow covered mountain peaks would be lost when the peaks all disappeared behind a wayward cloud of exhaust. Such problems varied from picture to picture and day to day.
Another hazard, ever present, was the bitter climate which gave one a physical hammering, particularly when at the lineside for hours on end. If the vehicle was nearby, it was possible to recuperate between trains, but if I had hiked up into the hills there was no such backup. As brilliant as Canon EOS cameras are, they cannot be set up and operated through gloves and removing these, even for one minute, would cause the most vicious attack on one's fingers rendering them virtually useless and at worst incapable of pressing the shutter - all feeling in the hand having disappeared. I found that days when the temperature was inching towards minus twenty-five degrees, mental disorientation set in just like the draining of a battery and even the simplest of decisions became difficult to make. It was the stuff of adventure; the days were full of excitement.
Here is a random extract taken from my diary dated 16th December 2003: "Power off this morning; dressed by candlelight - it took forty minutes. I emerged from the hotel at dawn to find Qi Bao Fung sitting in the minibus with the engine running. It was an overcast foggy day with fierce gusts of wind so forcing a programme change. Instead of going to the summit at Shangdian, I walked the hills above Reshui in search of the loop but failed to find it. Enormous gale, I was blown down the railway embankment once and almost off the hillside half an hour later. Snow threatens but hasn't fallen. Concerned about the inclement weather, valuable time is being lost.
Minus twenty-five degrees Celsius and still cloudy so we moved west through the pass to explore the villages on either side of Xiakengzi station. I found several themes including a set grid below an embankment with pigs and cows visible along the village street. Very few people around today, everyone in their homes shuttered up against the weather. The family went shopping in Jing Peng and found wonderful fruits, cereals, coffee, milk and biscuits along with two tins of baked beans for the twins - I will get the kitchen to prepare them for their dinner tonight.
We returned early to the hotel and I spent the evening editing yesterday's pictures on the Laptop. No photography was done today but I am thrilled by the stark village scenes we have found in Xiakengzi and intend to head back there first thing tomorrow - it will almost certainly be sunny."
The landscape was in a constant state of change in that the heavy winds stripped the exposed mountain faces of snow and deposited it elsewhere so careful planning was needed to feature snow in the landscape. The exposed rock had a wonderful golden colour in the sunlight. The rugged landscape and the bleak villages have a wild beauty which is utterly captivating. I found great fulfilment in the terrain as well as the trains. The late afternoons in Xiakengzi were especially beautiful; the trains were audible for some thirty minutes from leaving Jing Peng until they were almost at the summit. The anguished roar of the QJs as they inched their way through the golden hills was both beautiful and majestic. The trains left a massive pall of black smoke which hung high above the mountains for some twenty minutes after the trains had passed. The QJs would 'Blow Down' frequently and shoot gallons of scalding water and a thunderous clouds of steam at the defiant mountains.
The Ji-Tong Railway attracts photographers from all over the world and also in Reshui were a party of Germans and a lone Japanese who looked as if he had walked straight out of a Burt Lancaster World War Two movie. He would have been perfectly cast as a concentration camp adjutant with his impassioned manner and intense eyes. He talked in rapid broken English about the Tiefa coalfield in Manchuria (which was our next target) and he spread a huge map out on the dining table - quite oblivious of the waitresses waiting to serve food. He jabbed his finger enthusiastically at the location of the huge slag tips which abound around Tiefa. Having known people who suffered in the far eastern theatre of World War Two, I appreciated the fact that we were meeting in the name of railway photography. On Christmas night we all joined together for a party; Germans, our Japanese friend and a Swede who had turned up in the meantime. Cigars were smoked and one of the Germans - a banker from Stuttgart - plugged his video camera into the TV and we all relived the day's action. Also at the hotel were a group of officials from the Jitong Railway and, in the Mongolian tradition, they greeted us by each singing a song. This charming custom was tempered somewhat when it became apparent that we were expected to return the compliment. It was a very happy expedition, Marie-Louise developed a rapid friendship with Bao Dan Dan and shared her room whilst Qi Bao Fung with his rugged determination was the perfect driver and also a great help with the twins, especially at meal times when he would gently coerce them to try some of the more unusual dishes.
Our days on the Jing Tong were some of the most rewarding of my life. I realised once again that the allure of the steam age is not misplaced nostalgia, it really was as fabulous as we remember it to have been. How long steam will survive on this unbelievable railway is the question on the lips of tens of thousands of railway photographers and enthusiasts the world over. The Railway management have proved that steam is marginally cheaper than converting to diesel and they would be happy to continue with the QJs, but central government, is now exerting great pressure to be rid of steam in order for China to improve the modern image she now has. Apparently all steam must be gone throughout China by 2008, when Beijing hosts the Olympics. The winter of 2004/5 has been cited as the time when the Ji-Tong may be fully dieselised and if this is the case steam will pass into the sands of time just two hundred years after the steam locomotive's birth in a Welsh Ironworks. The Jing Peng is so important in railway history, that I am scheduled to return at the end of this month, my work there being far from complete.
From the Jing Peng we travelled to the Tiefa coalfield where a dense network of colliery lines are 100% steam worked complete with inter colliery worker's passenger service. Every morning a double headed rake of empty wagons would leave Tiefa bound for the distant mines beyond Faku - but this is another story. However, upon our return to England, complete with two model railway sets given to the twins by friends in Tiefa, the boys spread the railway layout across the lounge floor at Milepost and having assembled a particularly long train, one of the twins called "Dad; look, empties to Faku": When a four year old can say that with full credibility about a railway on the opposite side of the planet there is hope for him and hope for railways too.
COLIN GARRATT - January 2004 - END
Copyright Milepost 92½ :