Time Travel to the Cultural Revolution – Jiayang (嘉阳) & Bajiaogou (芭焦沟)

This was originally featured in my earlier blog post on Chengdu and Leshan, but I’ve decided to have a separate post for this instead of having it being lost in an old and long blog post. Located in Sichuan, China, is this preserved coal burning steam locomotive that travels deep into the mountains to a unique village where time has essentially stood still since the Cultural Revolution.I had actually read about this steam train in a CNN report by chance earlier in the year before this trip: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/04/travel/china-chengdu-jiayang-railway/

I’ve always had a soft spot for trains. There is a certain romanticism associated with going on a train journey which I probably got from reading too many travel stories. Since I was in the area, I asked my Chinese colleague if it was possible to see this attraction on the Sunday after travelling to Leshan from Chengdu. My Chinese colleague had originally wanted to bring me to see Mt. Emei but due to the foggy and raining weather, we decided to see the train instead. We drove by car to Jiayang, and it was not easy to find the place. Finally, we found the train station and proceeded to buy tickets for the 2pm train.

A map of the train route inside the small train station. It is around 20km one way.
A map of the train route inside the small train station. It is around 20km one way.
The old 1960's style coal processing plant. It is still in operation but mainly to refuel the steam engines.
The old 1960’s style coal processing plant. It is still in operation but mainly to refuel the steam engines.
Everything looks so 1960's here.
Everything looks so 1960’s here.

Since we had a lot of time before the 2pm train, we decided to look around the town and have our lunch.

Around the train station there are groups of old men playing cards and passing the time on a Sunday.
Around the train station there are groups of old men playing cards and passing the time on a Sunday.
The Soviet style apartments where the coal mine workers and their families used to live. These are now occupied by the townsfolk.
The Soviet style apartments where the coal mine workers and their families used to live. These are now occupied by the townsfolk.
We saw these 2 old women walking along the railway tracks and asked them what they were doing. They said that they would pick up the fallen coal from the train so that they can sell it for money. What a hard life they lead. I estimate that each basket of coal they are carrying on their backs is easily more than 30kg.
We saw these 2 old women walking along the railway tracks and asked them what they were doing. They said that they would pick up the fallen coal from the train so that they can sell it for money. What a hard life they lead. I estimate that each basket of coal they are carrying on their backs is easily more than 30kg.
We crossed the railway tracks to get into the town. There are no signals. You just look left and right for the train and cross. The train travels quite slowly, so you have plenty of time to get out of the way.
We crossed the railway tracks to get into the town. There are no signals. You just look left and right for the train and cross. The train travels quite slowly, so you have plenty of time to get out of the way.
No, we didn't eat at this place.
There are several small eating places in Jiayang, and no, we didn’t eat at this place.
I think this is the only decent restaurant in the whole town.
I think this is the only decent restaurant in the whole town for foreigners.
More Mala for lunch, 101% spiciness.
More Mala for lunch, 101% spiciness.
Chinese rice wine to wash it all down. At more than 50% alcohol content, I swear you can run your car on this stuff.
Chinese rice wine to wash it all down. At more than 50% alcohol content, I swear you can run your car on this stuff.

After our power laden lunch, we were ready for anything. So off we went to catch the 2pm train.

The old steam engine coming in for refueling.
The old steam engine coming in for refueling.
Refueling at the 1960's era coal processing plant.
Refueling at the 1960’s era coal processing plant. Crushed coal is dumped from the hopper into the coal magazine at the back of the engine.
All aboard!
All aboard! These are the tourist carriages.
The tourist carriages are covered and have windows. This prevents coal ash from flying into your face.
The tourist carriages are covered and have windows. This prevents coal ash from flying into your face. A single conductor looks after everything and sells souvenirs.

The unique feature about this train is that it runs on narrow gauge rails which are half the width of standard rails. This was to save money and construction costs during the cultural revolution. Because of the narrow rails, the carriages are quite small, and stability is an issue. So the ride is a real shaky and noisy one. The train also travels slowly due to the narrow rails and I estimate that it goes around 30-40km/h.

We stop at a train yard along the way for some picture taking.
We stop at a train yard along the way for some picture taking. Old engines are found here.


Waiting to reboard the train after our photo stop.

Further on, we are allowed to get off and take a scenic photo of the train.
Further on, we are allowed to get off and take a scenic photo of the train. The blast of the steam whistle is something that I only hear in cowboy movies.
Getting back on the train after the scenic shots.
Getting back on the train after the scenic shots.
We stopped and got off at Bajiaogou village. The train continued on to Huangcun coal mine but we didn't buy the tickets for that visit. The train would come back later to pick us.
We stopped and got off at Bajiaogou village. The train continued on to Huangcun coal mine but we didn’t buy the tickets for that visit. The train would come back later to pick us.
Must be a real boring job.
Must be a real boring job.
Bajiaogou town where most of the coal mine workers used to live. It's really in the mountains with no accessible roads. The train is the only transport in and out of the valley.
Bajiaogou town where most of the coal mine workers used to live. It’s really in the mountains with no accessible roads. The train is the only transport in and out of the valley.

Since we had to wait for the train to come back which takes another 2 hours or more, we had time to explore Bajiaogou village. The whole village is like stuck in a time warp from the 1960’s communist era. Except for the newly rebuilt train station and adjacent hotel (which was empty) the rest of the village looks like a relic out of Mao Zedong’s time. There are no roads to this village and the train is the only way in and out. Although now I see the villagers riding their motorbikes on the tracks to follow it out to Jiayang.

The former town hall now houses the Coal Museum.
The former town hall now houses the Coal Museum.
A nationalistic mural at the entrance of the museum.
A nationalistic mural at the entrance of the museum.
Inside the museum, you will learn all about coal mining.
Inside the museum, you will learn all about coal mining.
Chairman Mao must be turning in his grave if he knew that he is part of the capitalistic consumerism that has taken over China now. Oh, he has no grave because they preserved his body to be displayed in Tiannanmen Square.
Chairman Mao must be turning in his grave if he knew that he is part of the capitalistic consumerism that has taken over China now. Oh, he has no grave because they preserved his body to be displayed in Tiannanmen Square.
Communist era posters still adorn the village auditorium.
Communist era posters still adorn the village auditorium.
A few run down shops with disinterested shopkeepers.
A few run down shops with disinterested shopkeepers.
The village square with its 1960's architecture.
The village square with its 1960’s architecture. The whole village was pretty empty and I think we tourists outnumber the residents that day.
The village is eerily quiet and empty. I think the tourists number more than the residents.
The old stage where during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, opponents of Communism would be dragged up and made to confess their ‘sins’ in public.
Most of the residents are old folks. They said that most of the younger residents have all moved out for better job prospects. With the rise in tourism it remains to be seen if this village will regain its glory days.
Most of the residents are old folks. They said that most of the younger residents have all moved out for better job prospects. With the rise in tourism this village may still regain it’s glory days.
The train travels at a slow speed of around 30-40km/h.
Travelling back to Jiayang after our short visit.

Getting There

As we drove to Jiayang without taking any public transport I don’t have any first hand experience on this. But the information on public transportation to Jiayang can be found here. Prices for the train tickets and timings can also be found in the website. It takes around 2 hrs from Chengdu and 1.5hrs from Leshan to get to Jiayang.

Most of the tourists are Chinese. There were few foreign tourists if any, and I saw a Caucasian guy walking along the tracks and photographing the train as it passed by. I guess he must be a train spotter enthusiast. If you want to visit this rather interesting place, factor in 1 day for travel time and sight seeing.

5 thoughts on “Time Travel to the Cultural Revolution – Jiayang (嘉阳) & Bajiaogou (芭焦沟)

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