Steam locomotive. (Photo: China News Service)
It never occurred to Li He, a 55-year-old steam locomotive driver who works in Sandaoling, Hami Prefecture in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, that the place where he had been working for 36 years had suddenly become wildly popular online.
Many people came to Sandaoling, which is located more than 80 kilometers away from Hami, to see the steam locomotive after photos and videos of these machines steaming up in cold weather stunned netizens.
Sandaoling used to be the largest coal mine in Xinjiang, producing large quantities of high-quality coal. More than 30 steam locomotive ran day and night to transport coal from the pits to factories.
However, with the decrease of output in the mines, the once bustling scenes are now a thing of the past. The era of the steam locomotive is also nearing its end, after production of its accessories was suspended and people became more aware of environmental protection.
There are still four steam locomotives working in the mines of Sandaoling, but news that they would soon be replaced by trucks has been circulating for a long time.
Li, who was born and has lived in Sandaoling all his life and is set to retire on March 25, may not understand why people are prepared to travel several thousand kilometers to this tiny place just to see "this dirty and broken iron stuff."
He has little knowledge of the changes these steam locomotives have undergone from the industrial age to modern times. He knows that his peers depend on the locomotive for a living just as much as they depend on the mines.
Li's family moved to Sandaoling in Xinjiang from an industrial park in Northeast China. Li began working in the mines in 1983 and got his steam locomotive license in 1986. Since then, the tiny driver's cab has become the most important place in his life.
Li said that being a steam locomotive driver means having to be able to endure loneliness. One shift lasts 12 hours and there are three people working together - the driver, co-driver and the stoker.
Memeti Simayi is an old pal of Li's. The two began to work together in 1984. Talking about Li's upcoming retirement, Memeti is a little jealous that Li can finally get some rest, and also felt unwilling to accept that Li will no longer be working with him.
Seeing many visitors coming to take pictures of the steam locomotive, they feel happy for being recognized. But for Song Junfu, there are concerns about his future. Song, at the age of 46, is from the younger generation of the steam locomotive drivers.
The last batch of steam locomotive which have served the mines in Sandaoling for half a century will soon mark the end of an era.