China’s steam trains caputured in new photo book

(CNN) — A steam locomotive winding through a mountainous landscape is an unforgettable sight.

For British photographer David Kitching, it’s a spectacle that doesn’t grow old — even if mainline steam trains are long gone in the UK.

Passionate about steam locomotives, Kitching has spent the past 20 years traveling to China, where — until very recently — steam trains remained common. Kitching’s work charts how China became the last bastion of the steam railway.

Terrains and trains

Kitching photographed this train near the Kuangsan copper mine in 2009.

Courtesy David Kitching/Amberley Books

Back in the early 1990s, train enthusiast Kitching first heard stories of China’s stunning terrains and incredible steam trains.

“I resolved to join a tour as soon as possible,” he tells CNN Travel.

Now 62, Kitching has been enamored by steam rail since he was a boy and has fond childhood memories of the railway.

“I would join my friends watching the steam trains from a convenient footbridge over the local line,” he recalls.

“By the age of 9 years, I would head off after school to the local locomotive shed where we would spend many happy hours climbing on the locomotives and dodging the shed foreman.”

So when Kitching heard about opportunities to photograph Chinese steam locomotives — he was thrilled.

“I really missed the experience of mainline steam trains after they finished in Britain in 1968.”

He seized the chance to witness the might of a steam engine once more — and to experience a different culture.

On his first trip, Kitching headed to northeast China and captured coal mines, narrow-gauge lines and unforgettable landscapes.

He returned to the country several times over the subsequent years, always with his camera in hand — taking fantastic photographs and forging lasting connections.

Exploring China

Kitching’s early visits to China were as part of organized tours. Later, he coordinated freelance visits, often traveling with friends or his son.

“There are so many fantastic memories,” Kitching recalls. “The train crews made us welcome.”

Kitching remembers being invited onto the footplate of a QJ class 2-10-2 locomotive for an overnight journey through the mountains between Jiamusi and Mudanjiang in Heilongjiang.

He says the journey was a “magical, never to be repeated experience.”

Interacting with the train workers was always a highlight for Kitching — he also shared lunch with a train crew on a coal train at Yuanbaoshan, in the Mongolian Autonomous Region.

“Chinese food never tasted so good as when it was prepared in the dedicated steam-box on the running plate of the JS class 2-8-2,” says Kitching.

Kitching photographed railways across China, often from elevated vantage points to capture panoramic shots of the locomotives and the landscape.

“The Jitong Railway in the Mongolian Autonomous Region has to be a favorite,” says Kitching. “It was the last steam-operated mainline in the world and the sight of double-headed QJs thrashing through the spectacular mountain scenery was as good is it gets.”

Extreme conditions

Kitching normally traveled in winter — because the exhaust from the steam trains is at its most impressive in cold conditions. Battling these extreme temperatures was part of the experience.

“Once the temperature gets down around -40 C [-40 F] you have to take it very seriously or you will get frostbite,” says Kitching.

“The cameras start to fail below -35 Celsius [-31 F] and battery life is very poor as well. You kept your camera under your coats and only brought it out at the last minute to take the shot.”

Kitching recalls the tip of his nose becoming frozen to his camera on several occasions.

But such hardships were worthwhile to get to his incredible snowy shots.

China’s changing railway

Chinese steam trains are becoming a thing of the past — only a handful of the photographs in Kitching’s book were taken in recent years.

There are fewer and fewer steam locomotives operating in China — those that still exist are usually on tourist lines.

But Kitching remains passionate about photographing China’s changing railway scene.

“Although steam has all but finished, there are plenty of opportunities for interesting railway photographs, showing the modern scene against the magnificent Chinese scenery and the changing face of the country,” says Kitching.

China’s railway scene has modernized — but Kitching remains intrigued.

“The new high-speed lines are an amazing development in China — with much of the routes being elevated on concrete viaducts,” he says.

“I watched several under construction during my visit in 2017. I am already planning another trip to photograph trains in both China and also on the vast plains of the Mongolian Republic.”

China’s steam trains caputured in new photo book