By Michael Rhodes
Posted July 15, 2007
Having photographed railways all over the world since 1972, I never imagined what adventures this hobby would lead me into. When in 1992, I saw the pictures of Peter Skelton taken in Zhongwei, China, I decided I would try and visit China just once if possible. I was a father of two, surgical chief resident, and relatively homebound male. I saw Peter’s pictures and asked the "domestic authority" if I might explore the possibility of visiting China to photograph "real steam." In October that year I made my first visit to China; the first of 25 visits, all to photograph steam. I imagined at the time it might be my only visit, but I was fortunate to team up four years later with Vernon Murphy and Steve LeCheminant on a trip to Yebaishou, in China and form the "Extreme Steam Team." A combination of two great travelling companions and professional progression has allowed a further 23 visits, the last of which was just a few weeks ago (see www.sy-country.co.uk
Now of course the question is, where did the phrase "Extreme Steam Team" come from?? It was born on our fourth trip to China in January 1998. We had chosen a particularly brutal winter during which to visit the Jitong line for the second time. Daytime temperatures never ventured above minus 20 degrees Celsius, with dawn often as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius. On several days we decided to walk the whole length of the pass from Reshui to Jinpeng, starting one day at the summit and heading west, on another heading east. It was bitterly cold and we all collected icicles.
The red jacket protected me from frostbite, when both Vernon and Steve LeCheminant succumbed to quite bad frostbite. As a surgeon, I was glad as I needed my hands! On the other hand photographers did complain about the colour. After a day walking down from Shangdian to Reshui, we decided our next day should be more sedate and spent mainly in the bus.
Picture the scene, five photographers in all, recovering from a 20 kilometre hike the previous day, in temperatures colder than a domestic freezer. Lulled into a false sense of security by the warmth of our bus, we all jump out to capture the freight crossing the road, just a couple of kilometres west of Reshui.
Bob Avery removes his gloves with great excitement and places his hands on the base plate of his aged Minolta SRT 101 SLR. It’s so cold his right index finger freezes to the top plate, which means when he eventually frees it and presses the shutter, the train has almost passed and his shot is at a jaunty 45 degree angle. The rest of us make a triumphant, "thumbs up" after capturing what we hope will be an excellent image. Suddenly the most distressed cursing and cussing imaginable comes from our right hand side. Bob looks to be destroying his cameras as he repeats the opening lines from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (watch it if you haven’t- its typical English humour!). He thinks he’s missed the shot because of frozen fingers and expresses a wish to go home immediately and give up railway photography for life!
Calm is restored by food and a cleansing ale or two. Plans are made for the next day. We hike the line again above Reshui and get trapped by a storm with winds in excess of 50 kph. The temperature drops below minus 30 degrees at noon and with wind chill its lower than minus 70 degrees Celsius. I decide that I cannot remain safely on the hillside as I have lost touch with my fingers and feet. Vernon and Steve remain to capture a freight from Daban which is still an hour away. I get back to the Post Office Hotel in Reshui and run a hot bath (fed by the local hot springs). As I lie there and thaw out a stomping along the corridor alerts me to Steve and Vernon’s return. Steve stomps into my room and utters the immortal words "Bugger me that was extreme steam." As I hear him from the bathroom, I reply – "You know what, that would be a great book title." And so our books were born.
Since then we’ve organised a further 23 trips to China. They’ve all been memorable in their way. We’ve made great friends, especially the Australians and been recognised and greeted like long lost friends by enthusiasts from all over the globe. The sun is setting on Chinese steam, the administration are hell bent of ridding the country of steam by the all-important 2008 Olympics. There are still great spots at Jalainur, Jixi, Sandaoling, but they are all in decline. We were very fortunate to get to China when we did and even more so to make such good friends and all in the pursuit of that elusive, imaginary goal, THE PERFECT RAILROAD PHOTO!!