|Written by Ollie Woods|
|04 Feb 2010|
In February 2009 I took the trans-Manchurian express on a two day train journey from Beijing to the Russian border. My destination was a small mining town called Zhalai Nuer in Inner Mongolia. The town was still in the grip of a harsh Siberian winter. I felt like I had come to the end of the world.
The area is rich in coal and the town's main landmark is its massive open cast coal mine, called Lutien mine. Around 40 old-fashioned steam trains were working there day and night, hauling coal from the pit. The mine had become a mecca for railway enthusiasts from all over the world: Australia, South Africa, Germany, Britain and America. But by spring of this year the trains will all be scrapped, passed over as inefficient and costly. "It's the last great steam show left on earth" one of them told me mournfully.
The remoteness of Zhalai Nuer and its proximity to Mongolia and Russia fascinated me. Was this the last place in this part of China where people could be truly called Chinese before they started to become another nationality? I made a return trip in the boiling heat of June. In summer you notice more about people: the old, the young, rich and poor. But this time I was the only westerner in town and I was an object of curiosity. On a local bus journey a young boy politely asked me where I was from. I answered and soon the bus resounded with incredulous cries of "England! English!".