Dispatches

A Steam Train to 1950s China9 min read

Ben Kletzer rides China’s last steam train, built during the Great Leap Forward

Far away from the dense urban centers of coastal China, daily life in Bajiaogou, a rural township in Sichuan province, was marked by the four-times daily arrival of one of the last surviving steam trains in the world. The little railway was the lifeline of this picturesque mountain village; transporting everything for the villagers, passengers and mail, livestock and building materials.

I first visited Bajiaogou in 2011 to see this steam train, known as the Bashi Railway for its two terminals, Bajiaogou and Shixi. Many foreign train enthusiasts have ridden or photographed the Bashi steam train. Their online reports describe an isolated, scenic railway. I set off from Chengdu, taking an aging bus south to the city of Qianwei, where I took a short ferry across the Minjiang river to Shixi, the other terminus of the railway. After purchasing a ticket for 1.5 yuan, I boarded the ramshackle coaches, squeezing onto a crowded wooden bench seat.

A sharp whistle and we were off, the tiny steam engine straining to climb the steep grade out of the river town and up into the mountains. The first stop was Yuejin (“Leap Forward”), named after the large coal mine there, excavated during the Great Leap Forward in 1958. From Yuejin, the railway climbed along the side of the valley, winding through small farm plots and terraced rice paddies. Upon reaching Mifengyan (“Bee Hive Crag”), the train switchbacked to gain elevation as the train entered Xianren Xiagu (“Immortals Canyon”). Piercing a small karst ridge named Laoyingzui (“Eagle’s Beak”), the small steam train clung to the side of the mountain, now nearly one thousand feet above the river. The bamboo forests of the canyon were replaced by lush rice paddies and blossoming rapeseed flowers, as the train passed through several villages and alongside picturesque lakes.

Twenty kilometers and an hour and a half later, the steam engine wheezed into Bajiaogou (“Plantain Valley”). Stepping off the carriage, I felt like I had travelled back to the Mao era: British colonial architecture mixed with Soviet style townhouses, while brick apartments featured faded Cultural Revolution era slogans (“Mao Zedong thought will live for 10,000 years!”). In the midst of this living museum, at the daily farmers market residents haggled for fresh meat, fish and produce, all grown locally.

A group of people riding on the back of a train

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The train steams through Mifengyan (“Bee Hive Crag:), where the author lived for a month

Village life in Bajiaogou and its surrounding villages is governed by the Bashi Railway. Bajiaogou was first settled in 1938, when a Sino-British joint mining venture discovered coal in the valley. The mine grew to be a crucial supplier of metallurgical coal for the Chongqing and Chengdu steelworks; the precious cargo was transported over the mountains by horseback to be shipped downriver. After the Sino-Japanese war, the village grew from just a few plantain farms into a large community. Yet this unreliable mode of transportation limited mine production, and after 1949 the now-nationalized mining company sought a better means to connect mine and river.

When the railway opened in July 1959, the line was heralded as a local success of the Great Leap Forward”

In 1958, China’s government began the Great Leap Forward, a radical development plan that sought to speed up China’s industrial output through intensive village-level labor. Both agriculture and industry were meant to expand rapidly, but the result was a famine that killed an estimated 30 million people, and set back China’s industrial and economic progress. In the midst of this frantic campaign, the Chengdu Iron and Steel Works, which operated the Bajiaogou mines, sought to improve transportation by building a railway to carry coal to the river, and the Bashi Railway was born.

When the railway opened in July 1959, it was heralded as a local success of the Great Leap Forward. The line was built entirely by hand, and farmers from local communes were pressed into digging its six railway tunnels, as well as building a smooth railway grade over the mountains. In deference to the topography, the railway was built using narrow gauge: the rails are only 30 inches apart, making it half the size of conventional trains. Narrow gauge trains can make sharper turns and handle steeper grades, essential for the steep mountains of Sichuan. Several Soviet-designed ZM16-4 steam locomotives were purchased from the Shijiazhuang Power Machinery Factory in Hebei, with eight drive wheels and powerful compact engines capable of climbing steep grades and traversing sharp curves. They became the basis for later designs built in local workshops, alongside the railway cars – first a series of coal transport cars, and later primitive passenger cars lacking windows and doors. The railway soon became a transport and economic lifeline for the Maoist communes along the tracks.

Wooden coal cars soon gave way to simple home-built steel gondolas, while a new fleet of steel passenger cars were built from scratch. The railway lacked air brakes, so each car was braked by hand, by either a responsible passenger or a conductor in each coach. On the freight trains, brakemen climbed along the speeding train, jumping between cars and tightening brakes by hand to slow the trains down the steep grades.

The Bashi railway continued operating throughout the roller-coaster of the Mao-era. The village  grew, and in the 60s, giant communal apartment blocks were built next to the Soviet-style homes that had been built in the early 50s. A large parade ground and stage was built during the Cultural Revolution, where revolutionary operas entertained locals, and public denunciations traumatized them. According to the Bajiaoguo stationmaster, the daily rhythm of railway work was often the only source of stability in this troubled decade.

Changes continued during Deng Xiaoping’s reform era that followed the Mao years. In 1988, the two large coal mines closed, laying off hundreds of workers. Many of them took pensions from the state and returned to farming. With coal traffic gone, the railway should have closed, but the provincial government deemed the line a public good and instructed the coal company to keep the railway operating until a road could be constructed.

Renting a room from the village doctor, Chen Jianmei, I lived in Mifengyan for a month. Mifengyan was a tiny village, with only eight single-family homes. While the village had electricity, running water still came from the local spring. Chen was one of the last barefoot doctors in China, a former army medic who provided simple medical care to villagers. The other families farmed terraced plots of land cut from the mountainous hillside.

Chen was one of the last barefoot doctors in China, a former army medic who provided simple medical care to villagers. While many patients travelled by train to see Chen for medical care or advice, the doctor also frequently travelled by rail to see his elderly or sick patients. Village midwives frequently travelled by train to deliver babies, while a specially built funeral car would carry the deceased down the line to the cemetery, as fireworks and traditional offerings burned trackside. The railway was the literal lifeline for the community, connecting rural villagers to basic medical care, serving the villagers from cradle to grave.

Living with Chen, I experienced life in rural Sichuan as dictated by the rhythm of the railway line. For the eight families in Mifengyan, the railway was their only connection to the outside world. Everything they needed, from bricks to build houses to high-tech electronics, came in by train. The railway was also their source of fuel as train engineers delivered coal from the steam locomotives to provide heating for their homes.

The largest passenger car had a livestock compartment, and it was common to ride the train with pigs or even a young water buffalo”

Like an iron rooster, the arrival before dawn of the first train signaled the start to each day, while the last train of the evening signalled its end. For children, the railway provided their transportation to school: young students travelled to Bajiaoguo for classes, while high schoolers travelled back home each weekend to their boarding school in Qianwei. Farmers loaded the passenger trains with vegetables or livestock to take to market. The largest passenger car had a livestock compartment, and it was common to ride the train with pigs or even a young water buffalo. All mail was delivered by the railway, and each stationmaster doubled as postman, collecting and delivering the mail.

A group of people walking down a street

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The railway begins at the industrial village of Shixi, on the banks of the Minjiang River

When I first arrived in Bajiaoguo in 2011, it was clear that fundamental change was coming. The provincial government had finally begun constructing a road to the isolated town, and together with newspapers had begun promoting the railway as a Mao-era theme park ride, for its anachronistic propaganda paintings and Soviet architecture. In 2012, the final coal mine closed, and the railway switched to offering only tourist trains, which drove many of the villagers to use the newly opened road instead. The same year, several buildings in town were “renovated” with mock Maoist propaganda, and a new statue of the chairman was unveiled, all done in a pseudo Cultural Revolution style. By 2016, all reconstruction had been completed, and a sleepy village had been transformed into a Cultural-Revolution theme park, with a steam train ride. 

The changes of 2012-2015 in Bajiaogou mirrored the broader shifts taking place all over China. Over tea in 2015, Doctor Chen expressed despair that the urban life of Chengdu had absorbed his bucolic laojia (“ancestral hometown”). While the tourist attractions filled the village coffers, it also brought the problems of urban life. Air pollution increased and trash accrued along the streets and village paths. The village market and small family restaurants were evicted from central Bajiaogou, replaced by souvenir shops and fast food stalls. Quiet tea parlors were replaced by corporate WIFI-hotspots catering to social-media savvy tourists. All aspects of village life, even the neighborhood mahjong games, were unceremoniously shunted aside and regulated to narrow alleys surrounding the revamped parade square. 

Visitors today can still experience the thrill of riding the scenic Bashi Railway, but the quaint charms of village life are gone, replaced by gaudy painted hotels and tourist attractions. The railway has become one of the larger tourist attractions in Sichuan, with trains sold out far in advance. Since my time in Sichuan, Mifengyan has also changed dramatically. Half of the village was demolished, making way for a larger railway station and a railway museum for tourists. This change has brought increased business to the region and its merchants, but also increased litter and vehicle pollution. Yet in some of the other smaller villages by the site of the line, life remains the same, with farming chores only disturbed by the passing trains, and the end of the day marked by the haunting echo of a steam whistle. ∎

Header: The Bashi steam train passes the village (all photos by the author).