China Railways

China Passage

by Paul Theroux

Photographed by Bruce Dale

34 pages

National Geographic

March 1988

A journey through China and through time aboard the railways of China.

Wheezing to life on a minus 40 degree celsius morning, a steam engine starts up narrow gauge rails on its daily round of lumbering villages near Lanxian.


Stroking the firebox, a fireman shovels coal on a small steam engine that pulls a new locomotive off the assembly line at Datong Locomotive works.

Welders join the boiler to the frame of a 2,270 horsepower JS 2-8-2 Mikado.

As I stood on the Great Wall at its very western terminus near Jiayuguan, I noticed a steam engine in the distance as it lumbered west beneath the Tien Shan Mountains.

A railroad worker cleans the running gear of this narow gauge engine during sub zero weather in northeast China.


Wheels and engine blend in motion as they pass a village station.

It's 8 a.m. and still 20 hours to Gulin on the 32-hour ride from Kunmin.

A steam engined train whistles overhead as conventional traffic takes the slow route across this river in central China.

Workers restore the railbed to the tracks in the wake of the Changsha-Shanghai line.

Tracks pass through the countryside in Hunan Province.

A rainy day aboard boat near Guilin.

As I walked across a small footbridge near Guilin, I could not help but wonder what was going through the mind of this duck as he watches his feathered friend being butchered.

In Xian, I spotted these two women waiting at a bus stop with this brand new washing machine. Sure enough, they boarded the next bus with no help or sympathy from other passengers.

This young boy watched his father playing ice hockey in a village in Manchuria along the Soviet Border. Temperatures hovered near 30 below zero.
In Harbin, we visited a newly renovated hotel. My trusted and faithful interpreter, Wenbin, makes a note after I pointed out the error in spelling for the reception desk.