China was something of a paradise for steam trains lovers up to a few years back, nowadays however, due to its fast modernisation, most of them have disappeared to make space for some of the world’s fastest trains (yes, sorry to you Japan aficionados out there, but those bullet trains just don’t cut the mustard any more. Both the gold and silver medals for speedy locomotion are now held over the water in the Peoples Republic).
For the small mining town of Jiayang in Sichuan however, the old narrow-gauge steam train remains. And although it has become something of a tourist attraction in recent years, it also still serves it’s original purpose. Namely, transporting coal from the nearby mine, and ferrying locals from the isolated village communities to and from the markets in town.
Jiayang steam train and its surroundings.
The Jiayang Coal Railway is China’s last steam, narrow-gauge railway, built in 1959 as part of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, and runs through around 20km of Sichuan’s notoriously rough terrain. It’s a real trip back through time, not just for the railway itself, but for the small settlements along the route, many of which seem to have remained unchanged since the Mao era. Communist relics and memorabilia abound, and the murals painted brick walls, the auditorium on the main square topped by the great red star, are all straight out of the the 1950’s. If it wasn’t for all the mobile phones and the QR codes standing on every shop’s door, anyway.
The architecture of the town is odd, traditional Chinese buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with red brick dwellings reminiscent of Victorian England (and with good reason, it turns out a large part of the mining town was built with British partnership). Robb said it’s like they’ve cloned bits of 1905 Yorkshire. If it wasn’t for the little Chinese old lady stepping out of her home to chase me with a bowl of rice (I’ll get back to that.).
This town is probably what people in the west still picture when they think of China, but in truth, it’s an oddity in a country where even the small cities like ours (Jintang) make my home town in France look ludicrously backward.
Where the younger generation is long gone.
Walking along the small paved streets of the town, across people’s gardens and along the market stalls quickly showed how old the remaining inhabitants of these little towns are. Only the elders seem to have decided to stay in town, the younger generations having long since departed to find work and wealth in the larger cities.
And… you probably know that I have a strange fascination with the elderly. It’s hard to explain but I love their faces and how they express their past. And somehow… they seem to seek me out. Which brings me back to being chased by an elderly woman with a bowl of rice.
Deciding that I must need extra food because I’m foreign or simply being kind, I was offered this lady’s lunch and not allowed to return it until I ‘d eaten a fair amount of said bowl. And by a fair amount I do mean that me taking a little bit and returning it to her was not going to fly. Each time I tried she would shake her head and say “ no, eat!”…
Anecdote aside, most of the people in the town seem to flourish from the bit of local tourism they are now getting via the steam train and the scenery in spring time. And while the population is old, the business side of it isn’t lost on them. Market stalls now bristle with tourist memorabilia alongside the vegetables, and I guess this is small boon is what has allowed the town to endure.
Riding the steam train.
What about riding the train then? Well it’s steam powered, for sure, but don’t envisage the Orient Express or the Hogwarts line. It’s a narrow-gauge train, so carriages are narrow (obviously), cramped, and seating is essentially rows of church pews. The ride is rougher than Russian toilet paper, and the windows are wedged open. This last fact being rather important. We’ve both encountered steam trains before and consequently, we are familiar with the phenomenon known as ‘back-draught’ and knew to step away from the windows as the first tunnel approached. Our fellow travellers, less so. The sudden deluge of soot being, as it turned out, quite sufficient to transform a carriage load of Chinese tourists into a close approximation of a minstrel brothers choir.
Honestly it is fun, but I would recommend maybe getting in for a station only and walking along the tracks the rest of the way, especially if you’re looking for action footage of the trains passing through the hugely picturesque scenery. That’s certainly what I wish we had done and probably what we will do next time.
When the train gets to the station you’ll get plenty of time to have a good look at it while it gets prepped for the next trip. Don’t be too shy to climb on board, the engineers didn’t seem to mind in the slightest that people were hopping in and out of the cabin for photos, and didn’t even blink when one adventurous soul climbed atop the boiler for a quick selfie, even as his shoes melted to the hot iron. Health and safety never gets much of a look in out here, and I heartily approve. If you do something dumb and get hurt, you’ve no one to blame but yourself.
Getting to the steam train, not as easy as it seems.
If you are limited on time like we were, getting to Shixi or the Huangcun mine is not as simple as it seems.
When I first read about it, all signs pointed in the direction of getting a bus from Leshan (which is pretty easy to get to, considering buses and trains head there almost every 30 minutes from Chengdu). I mean a bus from Leshan, there must be a few? Well, you guessed already, I was wrong. From Chengdu you’ll be able to get a bus at 9.00 (that’s the only one), from Leshan, at 14.30, again that’s the one and only. Needless to say if you miss it, well, I hope you packed your camping gear.
The main problem for us was the fact that we were leaving for a day trip (having a bunny back home meant we can’t really leave our creature unattended for too long) and with only a bus to return at the end of the day and no way to get back after that, public transport wasn’t really an option.
If you have a car, or if your budget allows the renting of a driver for the day, the trip should take you about 3.5 hours from Chengdu. But if, like us, you’re a cheapskate, there is but one realistic option. . .
Private tour groups. Now I was not going to go for a tour marketed to Western tourists. Why? Again, it comes down to money, the prices for tours aimed at foreign rather than domestic tourists come with one hell of a mark-up. It’s genuinely not uncommon to see prices four or five times higher than local tour groups charge, and there’s little to justify it. Beyond the addition of an English-speaking guide aboard your bus, you’re basically getting the same package as everyone else, and paying a lot more for the privilege.
So I decided to browse a few Chinese apps (because I can do that now, yes! Still a bit of a headache but hey, it’s worth the time for the amount of money you might save) and contacted a few tour agents regarding their trips and their prices. A few swiftly doubled the prices when I told them we were foreign (because of insurance costs they said…) but one of them kept to the advertised price and that’s the one I went for. For around 30 USD each, we had transportation, train tickets taken care of and that really was all I wanted.
Would I recommend doing the same? It honestly depends on your situation. If like us you are very limited on time, yes. If you have a few days, no, go on your own. I’m hoping we’ll go back in spring and I’ll probably get that tour again just for the transportation. But we’re also hoping to go back in Summer (if we don’t get flooded again) and this time I would love to take the motorbike.
Best seasons to visit the steam train.
Spring is the best season to visit but also the most crowded. When the rapeseed flowers bloom is when everyone wants to get a good look at the scenery on offer.
Winter might not be as much fun and Summer a bit too hot but Autumn is always a good time to visit anything in this region.
In short, come in Spring for stunning scenery but be ready to see a lot of people or come off season but the weather might not be on your side.
From Chengdu there’s one bus at 9.00 getting to the steam train. It takes around 3.5 hours and costs 70 RMB
From Leshan the bus leaves at 14.30 and costs 19 RMB
A trip on the steam trains costs 100 RMB for a return trip and 50 RMB for a one way ticket.
Have you been on a steam train? Would you like to visit? Let us know in the comments below!
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