A tale of China

‘A little train is history’

The bell at the Jijie station won’t ring anymore, that’s to say for the little train, the last one departed at the end of 1990. The year 2005 and I arrived by little bus from Gejiu in order to walk back as far as it goes along the former alignment.
A year before pausing at the station on a train to Shiping (two trains have to cross) – I am glad I did this because as told before in another story there’s not much left of it – immediately it got my attention; an empty track bed, a shed and temptation to know all the details. A strong impulse to leave the train even knowing that there won’t be any other one before tomorrow. The unknown behind the station kept me on bay. After the train moved on I do regret already, beside the meter gauge track a single 600 mm spur still is in place till the point were two lines dived and the decision to come back was made.
Jijie of course, is the end of the world, a settlement of simplicity but with a lovely small station building in French style, so at least there’s something familiar. For the moment I was absolutely the only more vivid represent of the outside world. However, the local railway police officer is less content with my appearance and tried to hinder my explorations. For confusius delight, he didn’t follow when I stepped on the track and started my walking.
China from an adventurous side and after a few steps in the middle of a very rural environment. In a width curve the former line and now unpaved path is climbing towards a range of hills littered will all sorts of railway reminisces. A sign near the entrance of a farm house is certainly not the name of their business but the best proof of a stop, even fifteen years after closure nobody touched it.
Around kilometre 3+300 there’s a small paved crossing with the rail still visible, imbedded, I am absolutely on the right track. Not far from this point out of the rubble a station building could be reconstructed. Sishuizhuang, I am wondering how many passengers in the course of time changed here the modes of transportation, while walking I hardly encountered a living sole.
Beyond the deserted ruin the alignment reached a higher altitude and the first tunnel came into sight easily passed. Later on it turned out to be 136 meter long and situated near km 5+404. However, the pleasure of walking in the mountains came to an abrupt end near the entrance of the next tunnel at km 7+325. A pitch dark black hole, 692 meters long, and without a torch I decided to turn around. There’re many foolish things one can undertake in a lifetime but this one for the next trip and then well equipped. I must admit, till now that trip didn’t take place.

And old man sits alone near the waterfront, like the two on the picture above, but without any train in sight. The place turned into a pedestrian’s heaven, a boulevard along a lake with stones designed in a patron train alike and perhaps little reminder of what succumbed in the progress of modern times.
Nobody feels obliged any longer to undergo a spartan journey by rail in a modest carriage on wooden benches. A long-enduring rocking on the unevenness of the track. For the ones still admiring this kind of travel; with thin stripes of steam and smoke in the wake. Long waiting at the stations in between while the engine shifting the cars for the local industry. To give an example; according the timetable of 1983, train Nº 697 left Gejiu at 14.24 and arrived in Jijie at 17.05 only 34 kilometres away.
The old man sits alone gazing at the water not knowing being a symbol for his times, a rippling in the breeze. His persistent eyes well aware of the change but do not accepted it or maybe obstinate to understand, there’s so much and so many insignificant at the same time. From feudal till communism and now the almost open market, he witnessed how the last emperor lost his dignity and the new one Mao took the throne. The outfit he’s wearing remembering those days. He’ll be the last one in going to the new shops and have a look what’s on display.
Cockaigne for the new generation, the ones who have a vague idea about his history written in books full of propaganda and hardly any truth. It’s not important anymore, elapsing time on the waterside, a peacefully go together and a tight-lipped inner acceptance.

Again it’s the soft dedicated Mediterranean yellow of the former railway station building that gives another colour to the neighbourhood where it fierce tries to prolong her existence. First I couldn’t find it because I followed the still existing short pieces of rail in the pavement completely occupied by the local market. Where once the trains were departing and now the happiness of trade.
Slowly sneaking along the stalls and their merchants mainly elderly women hardly seen a stranger before. It arouses curiosity but not openly showed. A little giggling behind my back while I am trying to find some remains of yesteryears enterprise. There it was, in the middle of a covered square alone but not deserted; the water column with a bicycle parked against it. A tap for locomotives and the chain around the moveable embouchure seems to be workable, it presumed if any moment a railway worker would appear to give a demonstration. The art of steam and all what comes along with it. A dream and old traces seamless merged into the change. Melancholy and the perishableness, nostalgia is something not in mind. Now it’s time to build and build till all constructions reach the sky till it comes to one’s senses. Too late for this beloved little train but who knows what’s next.

Post Scriptum. Talking about nostalgia; in one of the former railway buildings they opened a French orientated café annex restaurant – how appropriate – and serving an excellent cup of coffee, by Chinese standard far from cheap.
A place to be for the more wealthy people decorated with a lot of railway artefacts or as the owner proudly explained: a museum in the make.
Beside the entrance an artificial piece of track patiently waits for the return of the last survivor, a Baldwin narrow gauge steam engine for steeling the show. By that time in vain because this machine [Nº 29] is now on display at the officially Yunnan Railway Museum situated in the North station of Kunming.
For the sake of any documentation there were railway fans just in time to capture the scene although running on her last legs but nonetheless running. I am in debt with Mr Eiji Nozawa from Japan; I did e-mail him and ask permission to use some of his pictures, unfortunate I did not receive any answer. If you want to see more visit his various site.

Click here – the steam and other train treasures of Southeast Asia

The last running engine: Baldwin Nº 23 at the yard of Gejiu. The iron structure beside could be the same as the one above.

The Jijie depot in her last days, October 1990. On the left Nº 29 and already abandoned machine with unknown number.

A mixed train on its way towards Jijie between Zhaodian and Sishuizhuang.

The spartan journey, long lives the rail.


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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2 Responses to A tale of China

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