Although it sounds more like a scene from a movie rather than reality in these days of bullet trains, passengers in Jiayang, Sichuan province, are riding in carriages pulled by steam locomotives every day.
They are among the last steam trains in operation in China.
First used to transport coal from the Jiayang Coal Mine 62 years ago, today, they transport local farmers and their produce to market and serve as a tourist attraction.
The mine is about 140 kilometers from Chengdu, the provincial capital, and before the construction of the railway in 1958, coal was hauled out of the mine by horses and then loaded onto junks that carried it along the Minjiang River.
"In the early days of the railway, farmers headed for the farm produce market sitting beside the coal. As coal production has stopped, the trains are now exclusively for farmers and tourists," says Liu Chengxi, the Jiayang official in charge of the trains.
The narrow gauge railway-only 76.2 centimeters instead of the standard 144 cm-stretches for 19.84 kilometers, with the trains reaching a top speed of 20 km per hour.
One-way tickets are priced at 5 yuan (73 US cents) for seated passengers and 3 yuan for standing passengers on the ordinary trains, regardless of whether they are traveling empty-handed or with animals and vegetables.
But Li Cuirong, 45, who has worked as a train dispatcher for more than 20 years, recommends tourists pay 80 yuan for a sightseeing train, as the carriages, which have 37 seats, are more comfortable and air-conditioned. A one-way trip takes about one and a half hours.
As the train winds through the mountain, passengers can view chickens and geese wandering among the orange trees, butterflies dancing over the paddy fields and lotus ponds, and farmhouses in bamboo groves.
The scenery is most dramatic in spring as the train passes a vast expanse of yellow rape seed blossoms as seen in a picture album about the trains published by the Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House.
The photos of the trains in the four seasons were taken by 58-year-old Yuan Chengfang who was a miner at Jiayang Coal Mine from 2004 to 2016.
The trains have attracted many people eager to experience the "good old days" of steam travel, and couples hold joint weddings on the trains, Yuan says.
Rob Dickinson, a steam train lover from the United Kingdom, has ridden the trains twice. Writing for the International Steam Page listed on a few internet portals, he says he hopes the narrow-gauge line can last long enough for him to find the time to get back again.
Digging into the past
Covering more than 1,000 square meters, the first themed branch of the China Coal Mine Museum in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, is in Jiayang, focusing on the history of thin-seam coal mining in southern China.
In one part of the Jiayang Coal Mine, the thickness of K3 coal is less than 70 centimeters and the gangue, the commercially worthless material that lies between the coal seams, has a maximum thickness of 180 centimeters. To excavate the upper and lower layers of thin coal, it was necessary to remove the gangue in-between. The work was so difficult and risk of danger so high that such mining was seldom done anywhere else in the world.
The history of local coal mining dates back to the early 20th century, when it was started by the French and the British. A lathe made in Britain in 1910 and used in the Jiayang Coal Mine is on display in the Jiayang museum.
The Jiayang Coal Mine was set up in 1938 as one of the four strategic coal mines in Sichuan after the Nationalist government moved its capital from Nanjing in Jiangsu province to Chongqing, then the largest city in Sichuan.
The Jiayang Coal Mine had the most advanced drilling technology in China and its coal was used for military purposes, contributing to the victory in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45), says 90-year-old Zhong Ziheng, one of the first-generation of miners who worked in Jiayang Coal Mine.
Land-locked as it is, Jiayang has hotels and abounds in farm produce. When the sweet-scented osmanthus are in full blossom in autumn, locals make a tasty steamed rice cake with sweet-scented osmanthus which is served in all local restaurants.