Dispatches

A Steam Train to 1950s China

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.