The big winter spectacle 2007

China 12./16.01.2007 - 29.01.2007

Mountain high steam exhaust in the crystal clear winter air - this is only now possible in China. We'll visit the highlights of the far north: Zhalai Nuer, with more than 20 steam locos in service, Huanan, the last narrow gauge line of its kind with banked steam trains, Huludao, one of the last remaining JS worked lines, and - as extension - a steelworks where you can witness the spectacular molten slag dropping at the slag dump.

Zhalai Nuer


Date Pre-program Itinerary
  12.01. Departure to China
    In case Daba - Guyaozi is already dieselised: If Daba - Guyaozi still offers more than one steam hauled train per day:
  13.01. Morning arrival in Beijing, connection flight to Lanzhou, charter bus to a hotel in Baiyin Morning arrival in Beijing, connection flight to Yinchuan, charter bus to the hotel in Lingwu
  14.01. Charter bus for linesiding along the line into the loess mountains of Baiyin (SY), hotel Baiyin Charter bus for linesiding along the desert line Daba - Guyaozi (QJ), hotel Lingwu
  15.01. Charter bus for linesiding along the line into the loess mountains of Baiyin, 17.37 hrs departure by night express K44 from Baiyin Xi to Baotou Charter bus for linesiding along the desert line Daba - Guyaozi, 23.00 hrs departure by night express K44 from Qingtongxia to Baotou
  16.01. 06.46 hrs arrival Baotou, visit to the steelworks including the slag tipping area, by overnight train 2086 to Beijing, departure Baotou 21.20 hrs
  17.01. Arrival Beijing Nan 09.56 hrs, day hotel in Beijing, meeting the other group at a late lunch in the hotel.We'll continue together by train to Huludao, departure 16.00 hrs
16.01.   Departure to China
17.01.   Morning arrival in Beijing, continue by train 1467, departure Beijing 16.00 hrs, arrival Huludao 21.35 hrs, hotel Huludao
18.01.   Charter bus for linesiding along the limestone railway Huludao (JS), evening travelling by train 2537 to Tieling, departure Huludao Bei 19.22 hrs, arrival Tieling 23.05 hrs, hotel in Diaobingshan
19.01.   Charter bus for linesiding around Tiefa (SY), hotel Diaobingshan
20.01.   Charter bus for linesiding around Tiefa, visit to the depot, at noon we'll go by charter bus to Tieling and continue by overnight train 1392/1393, departure Tieling 14.54 hrs
21.01.   Arrival Jiamusi 05.20 hrs, continue by charter bus to Huanan, linesiding along the narrow gauge line at Huanan (C2), hotel Huanan
22.01.   Linesiding along the narrow gauge line Huanan, we'll stay overnight in private houses in Lixin (alternatively you can return to the hotel in Huanan if you prefer the comfort!)
23.01.   Linesiding along the narrow gauge line Huanan, hotel Huanan
24.01.   Linesiding along the narrow gauge line Huanan, visit to the depot, evening return to Jiamusi, hotel in Jiamusi
25.01.   Train 4074/4071 will bring us to Qiqihaer, departure Jiamusi 06.45 hrs, arrival Qiqihaer 18.32 hrs, continue by overnight express N57, departure 21.15 hrs
26.01.   Morning arrival at 07.17 hrs in Zhalai Nuer, visit to the open cast mine at Zhalai Nuer (SY), hotel Manzhouli
27.01.   Morning visit to the open cast mine at Zhalai Nuer, return by long distance train 1302, departure Zhalai Nuer Xi 13.47 hrs
28.01.   Arrival Beijing at 19.39 hrs, charter bus to our hotel in Beijing
29.01.   Return flight from Beijing, arrival in the same evening

Line description

The Daba – Guyaozi line is situated south of Yinchuan and on its last part runs directly into the desert. The railway transports coal and distilled oil products. This is the last known line in the world with any significant amount of traffic handled by steam in a desert area. We expect about two to three uphill trains handled by a QJ during daylight daily. Some of the best photo positions require a bit of an extra effort to reach. Please expect to walk some two to six kilometres the day we’re on the line.

Daba - Guyaozi

The attraction of the line are the sand dunes which are sometimes close to the track. In Autumn 2004 a new, 11.5 km long line was opened for coal traffic. This line has a continuous climb southwards directly into the dunes.

The depot at Guyaozi received its first two diesels in Autumn 2005. Several trains a day are diesel hauled. In winter 2005/2006 they expect another pair of diesels. If these two additional diesels will arrive before our tour then it will not really be worthwhile visiting the line. Once they four diesels in use steam trains will be very infrequent. Less than one steam train during daylight is expected then. In this sad we’ll go instead to another interesting line:

One of the last lines passing through the loess mountains is the industrial line at Baiyin. In part the line is surrounded by mountains, and no industrial complex is visible. Beside the freight trains Baiyin offers a passenger service. The terminus is a sight which will remind you of the 1970s, with blocks of apartments for the workers and huts made of bricks surround the station. Smog is very common in this industrial city, so we hope for a breeze that will blow the pollution away. Anyhow, it is a very atmospheric place.

The steelworks of Baotou is using some two dozen steam locomotives of the SY class of 2-8-2s. Beside these there are many diesel locomotives. Of special interest are the blast furnace areas and the slag dump. The visit to one of the spectacular slag dumps is part of the program. As there are several of them someone can never be sure to wait at the right place at the right time but we will try to make things happen. Unfortunately the local police do not accept the permit that is issued by the steelworks, so it might be possible that we’ll have to change the slag dump. However, we should still get our pictures! Access to the blast furnaces is permitted and far away from the local police as they are inside the steelworks.


The limestone railway at Huludao is partly mountainous and locomotives have a hard climb on the two steep gradients. Often they stall with even empty trains just a few metres before the summit. The JS locomotives are a bit shabby (you’ll never see such locomotive again after the “preserved steam-only age“ came over us!) but do very well. There is normally one pair of trains (both chimney first) during daylight and another pair shortly before sunset. At the end of the line in Yangjiazhangzi is a turntable surrounded by mountains. Very nice.

The coal mine system at Tiefa was dieselised in 2004/2005 for freight service. Fortunately all passenger trains remained steam hauled. According to highly ranked officials they’ll keep their steam locos running for at least another three years. A diesel hauled passenger train would be at least twice as expensive as a steam hauled service. On the four lines there are some 20 steam hauled passenger trains a day, often 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 a wye 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. Visits to the depot and the stabling point are planned as well. Tiefa’s SY’s are nicely maintained and include two 1999-built engines. In 2004 Tiefa refurbished a former Pingzhuang based locomotive, the American-built KD6 487 (2-8-0). Beside their YJ we’ll see this locomotive in the depot.

Once, Huanan was the starting point of a large forestry railway system. This 762-mm narrow gauge railway survived because of the existence of a coal mine 46 km east of Huanan. The remaining line climbs over a pass 2.5 km west of Lixin. From both sides there are steep gradients and sharp curves. The gradient against loaded coal trains is so steep, that every loaded train needs a banker at the rear end of the eight wagons. This operation is the last known regularly banked narrow gauge steam train in the world and gives you the chance for taking some outstanding photographs and video sequences.

Because it’s a long way to get there, there is plenty of scenery and only two to four pairs of trains running during daylight we will spend a reasonable amount of time here. The distance between Tuoyaozi and Lixin is approximately nine kilometres. As there is no passable road we either have to walk or use the daily railcar. The railcar driver will ask you for extraordinarily high prices, usually ten times the normal fare. As we do not want to support racist prices we will not offer this service. However, if you would like to use the railcar you can take it on your own. Several times we saw the track gang’s trackmotor (speeder) running just behind a freight train. This would be another option to avoid long walks The use of local motorbikes is also possible but not recommended, especially when there is snow on the tracks. If you know the style of driving in China you can imagine what I mean! Anyhow, it’s everybody’s own decision. Walking nine or ten kilometres in a whole day is not that far. In the winter time walking is the best thing you can do to cope with the freezing cold.


If you are uncomfortable with the private houses in Lixin we can arrange the hotel in Huanan for you instead. In this case you may have to give the early morning train up to the summit a miss.

Huanan stops the rail service several times during the year. However, the risk is minor because they’ll pile up coal to cover the long break during the Chinese new year holidays at the end of January.

Zhalai Nuer is near Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia province, close to the Russian border. 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. About 20 steam locomotives out of a total of 50 work during the winter season. Trains are continuously coming and going and steep gradients lead down to the bottom of the mine. The SYs 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 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. The coal reserves are declining and so it is planned to close the open cast pit in a few years.

Zhalai Nuer

Zhalai Nuer

Small Print

On this tour we’ll cover huge distances by train. Domestic flights doesn’t fit our plans and very often do not save any time. Taking a good book with you is not a bad idea.

In Zhalai Nuer we expect morning temperatures around minus 30 degrees Centigrade. The cold is dry and there is often no wind, so it’s not really difficult to stand the climate. Further to the south, in Beijing, temperatures can be around zero to minus ten degrees in January. You need good wither clothes as well as good batteries for your camera. We recommend that you take Lithium batteries or Lithium-Ion rechargeable batteries if these are suitable for your camera. You can recharge batteries in all the hotels (and, in Lixin, even in private houses). Sometimes an adapter is necessary. On overnight trains there are only occasional working outlets available. The mobile phone service is compatible with the European standard. The coverage in China is amazing good.

The hotels used will be of medium class. 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 seater class. Hygienic and environmental standards in China often do no conform to European expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is hence advisable.

Single rooms are not available on train rides, nor in the private houses at Lixin.


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 on a bowl with some water in – 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 out and use some 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 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, such a 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 them 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, star 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).

Charter buses and trains represent the standard of our host country, which may deviate from European and North American expectations. While we will endeavour to avoid long walks, some photo positions may require an extra but worthwhile effort. This is especially the case in Huanan, where there is no road access to the line. From Tuoyaozi to Lixin it’s about nine kilometres to walk. But what better you can do the whole day than walking when it’s freezing cold outside?

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. In the evening we’ll have time for meals which are usually sumptuous. Alcoholic beverages are not included in the tour price.

Please bear in mind that accommodation and transportation in China fall short of EU or 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 ends Oktober 10th 2006

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.



The big winter spectacle 2007 10 to 22 participants £1,690
15.01.2007 to 28.01.2007 5 to 9 participants £1.940
  Single room supplement 165
Pre-program 10 to 22 participants £540
11.01.2007 to 16.01.2007 5 to 9 participants £605
  Single room supplement £32

Minimum number of participants 5
Maximum number of participants: 22

Without flight to Beijing (land only): Please subtract £395 from the tour price.

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.

Zhanali Nuer

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