Steam locomotives in Xinjiang become online sensation despite era being nearly over

By Cui Meng in Hami, Xinjiang Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/10 15:27:01 Last Updated: 2019/3/12 4:17:28

Steam locomotive become online sensation despite era being nearly over

Steam locomotive Photo: Cui Meng/GT


It never occurred to Li He, a 55-year-old steam locomotive driver who works in Sandaoling, Hami Prefecture in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, that the place where he had been working for 36 years had suddenly become wildly popular online.

Many people came to Sandaoling, which is located more than 80 kilometers away from Hami, to see the steam locomotive after photos and videos of these machines steaming up in cold weather stunned netizens.

Sandaoling used to be the largest coal mine in Xinjiang, producing large quantities of high-quality coal. More than 30 steam locomotive ran day and night to transport coal from the pits to factories. 

However, with the decrease of output in the mines, the once bustling scenes are now a thing of the past. The era of the steam locomotive is also nearing its end, after production of its accessories was suspended and people became more aware of environmental protection. 

There are still four steam locomotives working in the mines of Sandaoling, but news that they would soon be replaced by trucks has been circulating for a long time. 

Li, who was born and has lived in Sandaoling all his life and is set to retire on March 25, doesn't really understand why people travel several thousand kilometers to this tiny place just to see "this dirty and broken iron stuff." 

He has little knowledge of the changes these steam locomotives have undergone from the industrial age to modern times. He knows that his peers depend on the locomotive for a living just as much as they depend on the mines.

Li's family moved to Sandaoling in Xinjiang from an industrial park in Northeast China. Li began working in the mines in 1983 and got his steam locomotive license in 1986. Since then, the tiny driver's cab has become the most important place in his life. 

Li said that being a steam locomotive driver means having to be able to endure loneliness. One shift lasts 12 hours and there are three people working together - the driver, co-driver and the stoker. 

Memeti Simayi is an old pal of Li's. The two began working together in 1984. Talking about Li's upcoming retirement, Memeti is a little jealous that Li can finally get some rest, and also feels unwilling to accept that Li will no longer be working with him. 

Seeing many visitors coming to take pictures of the steam locomotive, they feel happy for being recognized. But for Song Junfu, there are concerns about his future. Song, at the age of 46, is from the younger generation of steam locomotive drivers. 

The last batch of steam locomotives which have served the mines in Sandaoling for half a century will soon mark the end of an era. 

Sparks fly from a running steam locomotive in Sandaoling, Hami Prefecture in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Li He (above) and Memeti Simayi make preparations ahead of their shift. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Li checks the signal by looking out of the window of the steam locomotive. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Memeti applies lubricating oil to parts of the locomotive. He has shown up for work every day for the last 35 years. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Li (left) chats with his pal Memeti Simayi in the steam locomotive on which they work. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Song Junfu, the younger steam locomotive driver in Sandaoling, wears a mask and hat during work. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Memeti does the stoker's job, since young people aren't willing to work on steam locomotive. Drivers have to take on different duties during work. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Inside the locomotive's driving cab Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Song Junfu checks over the locomotive before handing it to the next shift. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Li drinks the water which he boiled on the locomotive. Drivers often warm up meals they bring from home on the locomotive. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Steam locomotives prepare to leave the station in the morning. Photo: Cui Meng/GT 

Memeti takes a break in the locomotive's resting area. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Song adds water to the tank on the locomotive. Alkali also needs to be put into the water to facilitate circulation. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

A worker checks the water taken from the tank on the steam locomotive at a station. This has to be done every day. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Memeti waits for routine checks to be completed before driving the locomotive. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Wang Denghai fills in locomotive timetables. He works for 12 hours each shift. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Steam locomotive driver Zhang Qiang takes a quick cigarette break. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Memeti (left) talks to his family during a work break. Photo: Cui Meng/GT


Newspaper headline: End of the Line

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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