The steam train at Qianwei, sometimes referred to in English as the "Leshan steam train" was featured in Chengdoo Citylife several years ago, and has since been featured on Gochengdoo, accompanied by a rather long thread of info. As a result, it's been on my long list of "Things to Do in Sichuan." I've been wanting to go for several reasons: I usually get a better kick out of those lesser known vacations spots in our fair Sichuan, I have a 5-year-old who loves trains, and steam trains sounded pretty cool to the kid in me, too. This year, we finally went over the Qingming/tomb-sweeping holiday.
We arrived, around lunchtime, to be told that all the steam-train tickets had been sold out—a testament to Qianwei's off-the-beaten-path status. After some grumbling and gnashing of teeth by both our group and several others who'd found precious little concrete information about tickets online (in any language), the train authorities grudgingly capitulated and announced one last departure, with the caveat that it would only go to the next stop on the line and come straight back! We were in a pickle, because the hostel we'd booked was at the second-to-last stop. Then it became apparent that there indeed was another train up the hill, but we were strongly advised against taking that putong che. Neither the Chinese-speaking foreigners, nor the locals in our group could make heads or tails of what exactly a "common" train would entail, but we decided to just go for it; what's a trip without a little adventure?
We took the nice tourist train up to the very next stop, enjoying its old-timey wooden benches and panoramic views of the local scenery. After we alighted, we reconfirmed the putong che's imminent arrival, and, after about half an hour, were greeted by a coal-black monster of a train, puffing and wheezing its way into the station. We realized immediately what the stationmaster had meant: this train was the local train, consisting of literal cattle cars—metal boxes with slits for windows, no seats, and holes in the floor—intended to cart farmers and cargo alike up and down the hill. With visions of every cheesy World War II-era film dancing in our heads, we giggled our way into a darkened car and hooted as we passed through utterly pitch tunnels. The farmers carting their vegetables in baskets looked at us, by turns amused, disbelieving, and unnerved. After we finally reached our destination, the kids were yelling, "Let's go on the farmer train AGAIN!"
So understand, dear reader, the state of mind in which we arrived at the little town of Bajiogou: exhilarated, curious, giggling, and with no idea what would come next. We were greeted at the platform by the hostel owner, who led us on a path down a slope through a green and shadowy arbor tunnel into ... communist Brigadoon.
Upon exit from the tunnel, we found ourselves, blinking, in a square flanked by the Maoist Thought Stage on the right, a socialist-realist mural praising China's first-time efforts in the Olympics in the 1970s on the left, and danwei buildings brightly strewn with slogans all around. I cannot understate the feeling of going back in time. Somehow we had been transported into every Cultural Revolution film we'd ever seen. There was a laughing stream bordering one edge of the village, bright spring blooms spilling out everywhere, and the people seemed to be firmly entrenched in a lifestyle stuck in second gear, complete with blue Mao hats. The "busiest" place in the village was the majiang hall. About the only things that hinted at the 21st century encroaching upon Bajiaogou were the China Mobile office and the fact that the median age appeared to be about 75.
There were lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and inexplicably, signs everywhere in absolutely impeccable English explaining the historical and cultural significance of everything in the town. One gentleman with a cane, winking at my little boy's antics, insisted on leading us to one of the main attractions, the "Sweetheart Banyan Tree."
The hostel we stayed in was rustic but comfortable, and we spent most of our time outside anyway. Everything we ate in the town was fresh and delicious and priced about the same as in Chengdu, circa 2004. And in the evening, there was a fantastic thunderstorm in which the sky alternated between an even pitcher black than the coal train and flashes of daylight. Even though it poured, we had an absolutely wonderful time, offloading our big-city cares and taking time to slow down and enjoy the scenery for once.
When it was time to come back to Chengdu, we were foiled by the local tourism authorities' ineptitude again, and had to find another way back to town—another story for another time—but all in all, I wholeheartedly insist it was worth it. Next year we plan to go in the wintertime, when the mountain is covered in a blanket of snow.
This article by DF was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 64 ("Traffic"). Photos by An Linan.