China's last Narrow Gauge Steam

China: 26.03. - 09.04.2007

Gallery Narrow Gauge Steam in China, December 2006
Do you really want to miss this?

Once upon a time in China more than 3,000 kilometres of narrow gauge lines were built to develop remote areas, forests, coal and ore mines and other industries. These days only seven narrow gauge lines (in March 2007 probably only six lines) with steam service remain in this huge country. Five (March 2007: four) out of the seven are allowed to make a visit to, the other two are a prison railway to transport prisoners and coal, and a line inside a steel works who’s management doesn’t allow visits. Among the five is one line, Huangjinggou, which is running on borrowed time. According to the manger they may close the line any week. And the rest of the lines have a certain future as well: their dieselisation or their shutdown! So it’s high noon for the lover of beautiful, steam operated narrow gauge lines!

On this tour we’ll visit lines in the near-arctic northern part of China as well some lines in a tropical surrounding some 3,000 kilometres to the southwest. The railway operations are as different as the climatic conditions. From a forestry line which is only transporting coal these days and a clay railway, to a passenger line with the cutest, glassless and unlit four-wheel coaches, almost everything what creates the charm of narrow a gauge line is still present. There is still a line with steam hauled and banked trains over a summit, a reverse (switchback), tunnels, high (non-concrete!) viaducts and a crossing with a modern motorway. There are hundreds if not thousands of pleasant photographic opportunities.






Departure from Europe to Beijing


Morning arrival in Beijing, continue by overnight train (soft sleeper) from Beijing to Jiamusi, departure 15.50 hrs


13.55 hrs arrival in Jiamusi, continue by charter bus to the narrow gauge line of Huanan, afternoon visit to the station, Hotel Huanan


Line siding Huanan – Lixin, overnight in private houses in Lixin (category three black holes) Hotel Huanan for those who can’t stand a night without facilities, see small print


Line siding Huanan – Lixin, evening return to our hotel in Huanan


Line siding Huanan – Lixin, evening by charter bus to Jiamusi, overnight train 4138 to Haerbin, departure Jiamusi 21.22 hrs


06.02 hrs arrival Haerbin, having a good breakfast in a hotel near the station, continue by flight (Air China, you can collect Star Alliance points) CA 1640 Haerbin departure 09.10 hrs, arrival Beijing 10.50 hrs (Boeing 737-800), connection flight CA 4102 to Chengdu, departure Beijing 12.20 hrs, arrival Chengdu 15 hrs (Boeing 757) continue by charter bus to Shibanxi. Hotel in Qianwei.


If Huangjinggou is still alive we’ll spend a morning on this fantastic line. Otherwise: visit to the Shibanxi narrow gauge line, travelling on the train and linesiding by walking alongside (remote area without road access), return in the evening with the late afternoon passenger, continue by charter bus to Qianwei, hotel Qianwei


Visit to the Shibanxi narrow gauge line again, travelling on the train and linesiding by walking alongside, return in the evening to the reversal station Mifengyan and overnight in the guesthouse of the medical doctor of Mifengyan


Visit to Shibanxi once again for our last day there, travelling on the train and linesiding by walking alongside, return in the afternoon by passenger train and continue by charter bus to Chengdu, hotel near the station of Chengdu


10 hrs departure by overnight train (soft sleeper) over the phenomenal mountain line from Chengdu via Xi’an to Luoyang


Arrival 4 hrs in Luoyang, charter bus for line siding along the narrow gauge line of Yinghao, hotel Mianchi


Charter bus for line siding along the narrow gauge line of Yinghao, evening continue by charter bus to Xingyang, hotel Xingyang or Zhengzhou


Visit to the narrow gauge line of the brickworks in Xingyang, evening continue to Zhengzhou and taking overnight train K180 to Beijing, departure 22.16 hrs


06.04 hrs arrival Beijing Xi, by charter bus to a breakfast restaurant and on to the airport. Having a shower in a hotel close to the airport, around noon return flight home, arrival (Europe) in the same evening


Line description

All narrow gauge lines use a gauge of 762 mm and are served by C2 class 0-8-0s.

Shibanxi (Jiajang Coal Mine): This is the best known narrow gauge railway in southern China because of it fascinating train operation and beautiful landscape. The first four kilometres are electrified while the remaining very scenic 16 kms sees steam only. In the middle of the line is a reversal station. Several tunnels, rice paddies, cliffs, lush vegetation and rural villages offer the possibility for plenty of extraordinary pictures.There are four pairs of passenger trains every day, three of them during daylight. In addition, on the steam operated part of the line, you may see a pair of coal trains. These coal trains runs on demand. Usually there are three to five freight trains per week. The usual departure time is shortly before or just after the second passenger train in the best morning light. Although there is a very rough road, it’s impossible to chase the trains by bus. So we’ll walk along the line all day. Therefore we use the first train at 7 am to go to the summit station at Xianrenxiao. Travelling by train in the tiny, homemade passenger cars is an unforgettable experience. There is no glass in the windows or any kind of lamps in the wagons, just cheerful and friendly people. This experience alone is worth a visit to Shibanxi. From the summit station we will start to walk to the most exciting sites of this beautiful line. While taking pictures of the bypassing trains you can walk to Bagou, Caiziba, and Mifengyan. To return to our hotel in Qianwei we’ll take the afternoon train to Yuejin, were our bus awaits us. There is no “group pressure”, and after travelling along the line by train you can walk to your favourite position in this peaceful area on your own. The only thing you should keep in mind – do not miss the last passenger train back to our charter bus.


Shibanxi: Station Bagou

Locomotives are the electric class ZL14-7 and the well known steam locomotives of class C2.

There have been announced several dates for shut down this line. Recently the management decided to run this line as a tourist attraction. Therefore there is no time to loose if you want to see the real railway without tourist stuff!


The Huangjinggou narrow gauge line passes through a beautiful scenic landscape. The line is short but has exciting photo spots on offer. Normally there is only one train per day in the morning, due to the coal mine in Huangjinggou nearly running out of coal. Recently they opened up a new mine, but of course without any railway connection. The line passes first through the “town” of Huangjinggou and heads down to the power plant, passing an impressive gorge over a fantastic high bridge with stone pillars. The line terminates near the power plant. Wagons are unloaded automatically, the loco uses the loop to run round the train and returns immediately with the empties uphill. A narrow road follows the line all the way and will give a good chance to chase the train with our charter bus.

Huangjinggou viaduct

Because of the deeply uneconomic situation of the line it is subject to shut down very soon. The operation lingers on a week to week basis. According to the boss of the line they want to find a “solution” by December 2006. A solution means, they want to widen the road in Huangjinggou which is already blocked by cars and buses. The railway passes through the centre of the town, right past the market and the trains disturb it going and coming back once, or a maximum of twice a day. Trucks would cause impossible traffic jams as well as disrupting the market constantly. So several times local politicians have refused to accept the idea of closing the railway. How long they’ll be successful – from our point of view – is uncertain. If the line is still operating we’ll visit it on April 2nd. In the late morning we would continue to Shibanxi.



Xingyang has a big brickworks which operates its own narrow gauge railway to the clay quarry. The line passes an unusual area with huge, deeply eroded valleys. The most interesting spot is a nice arc bridge built from bricks. The bridge spans over some large ponds, which give several very good opportunities. If the railway is working, we can see about six pairs of trains. Unfortunately there are several reasons for closing down the work for several days at a time. When rain makes the clay to wet, when technical problems occur, or when there are too many piles of unsold bricks around, there may be no traffic. According to the chief of the brickworks, the railway has a more or less safe future until mid 2007. After this date even he doesn't know what will happen.

Xingyang, photo: Ian Lawrence

Foto: Ian Lawrence


Yinghao is a busy narrow gauge line that carries coal. The most scenic parts are the loading and unloading facilities as well as the turning triangle and the line to the depot (some 2 km long). In addition, the steep gradients often require a stop to blow up the steam pressure. Just before the main station there is a short tunnel. The cutting in front of the tunnel is another good spot for both photography and video. Last but least, is the depot itself. Here the engines get everything from running repairs to heavy overhauls. The full site looks like a big repair shop which is working under military field conditions. It's full of dumped locos, spare parts and scrap. In dark halls, illuminated by dim, yellow lamps, workers are carrying out repairs and maintenance on the rolling stock. This depot makes a deep impression on every foreign visitor and is worth the visit to this line alone.

Yet again, we're facing the problem that there might be no traffic for a few days. As the depot is working even when the line is not there will be still the main reason for visiting this line.

Yinghao: entrance to the depot with red flag, January 2006

Yinghao: unloading station

End of work! Yinghao January 2006


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.

Huanan: rest at the summit. new years eve 2005

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 extraordinary 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 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. 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, not to get 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, as elsewhere, the risk is minor because we will be there after their usual long winter holidays. In case there is no traffic at all we’ll go to visit steam in and a round Jixi (standard gauge class SY 2-8-2)

Huanan - uphill with the help of a banker, December 2003

Huanan: in the fileds, December 2005


Small print

The hotels used will be of medium class, and in remote areas they are sometimes basic. 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, in the guest house of the Mifengyan, nor in the private houses of Lixin.

We offer an unique opportunity in Lixin and Mifengyan: if you can stand the lack of comfort you can sleep in one of the private houses around there. To give the room type a rating, we extended the category-system of how to rate hotel’s service and comfort to the bottom end. The guesthouse in Mifengyan is rated with one black hole. It could be rated with zero star according to the rooms and beds, all clean quite and nice, but the facilities are of doubtful quality. However, there is a shower available!

The accommodation in Lixin on the Huanan system is another matter. We’ll sleep on Kuangs, these are sleeping platforms with a built in stove, so they are warm and quite comfortable. You’ll put some covers 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! 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 or the small 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 wholes 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.

All who spend a night in Lixin, 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. In a star bright night it’s a very 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 costs except transportation to Tuoyaozi, from there our charter bus will take you to the hotel).

Hotels, 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 and Shibanxi, where there is no road access to the line.

The temperatures in southern China are expected to be in the range from 15 to 30 degrees Centigrade. In Northern China you should be prepared to find the same temperatures – but on the minus side of the thermometer’s scale! Normally it can be minus five degrees, but you never know. In April 2006 we had a sunny afternoon with 28 degrees centigrade, while the next morning welcomed us with minus two °C and snow!

It might be possible that some of the lines will be closed before we’re able to go there or they may have shut down the operation temporarily. In this case we’ll go to another line, mostly a steam operated standard gauge line. It would be better if you already EXPECT that at least one of the lines will not run. We stay in permanent contact with the lines and will know such an unpleasant fact in advance.

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. 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.

On this trip we’ll cover huge distances. Beside the international flight we’ll travel some 6,000 Miles in China. So carrying a good book with you might not be a bad idea.

Registration period ends: 06.01.2007

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

Huanan: departure Xiahua



China's last Narrow Gauge Steam from 10 participants £1,990
26.03. - 09.04.2007 5 to 9 participants £2,240
  Single room supplement £180

Minimum number of participants: 5
Maximum number of participants: 12

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. In times of oil prices which are hitting the sky, prices for air tickets are changing on a daily basis – and only in one direction. Your early booking is hence essential and much appreciated.



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