Travis Dewitz: On Traveling to Western China And Documenting “The Last Dragons”
May 7, 2018
Just before I step out into the unlit hotel hallway, I grab a few packs of Marlboros and stuff them into my bag. My room door is stuck and needs a good, forceful yank to close the latch. I fear every guest has been awoken by the racket, so with soft steps, I walk down the stairs and continue past the police officer sleeping on the lobby sofa, helmet on the short table next to her. As I open the lobby door I am greeted by frigid February air saturated with the sweet, but the harsh smell of burning coal, a smell I had grown to love.
Illuminated by the glow of the trunk light of his Volkswagen, our guide Jun waits for me and my friend and fellow photographer, Todd. Jun will be taking us from our Sandaoling hotel to the last dragons just a few miles away.
We traveled to the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang to document the last remaining steam locomotives. These trains pull wagons loaded full of coal out of the deepest open coal mine in Western China to the washery, only about 6 miles away. Once there, the coal will be sorted and reloaded onto electric-powered trains for delivery throughout the country. Train crews work 12 hours shifts to keep these steel giants moving between the mine and washery, a cycle repeated around the clock.
Jun drives down a bumpy dirt road coming to a stop next to a building along the tracks. We knock on the weathered wooden door to one of the stations that house the switchboard and its operator. The door opens and the lone occupant stares out at me. He looks at me with disinterest as I show him my camera and point inside in an attempt to come in and photograph his work area. In a final effort, I reach into my bag and pull a pack of Marlboros out, apprehensively reaching it out to him. With a smile, he invites me in. He sits back down at his desk and finishes filling in a chart detailing train movements and times with a red colored pencil and straightedge. The entire Sandaoling Coal Mine Railway operation seems to harken back to a much simpler time, a time that has been mostly forgotten.
The last dragons continue to clatter down the steel rails, but they do so on borrowed time. At best, they will only have a couple more years left to breathe fire and leave their captivating trail of white smoke in their wake.
See DeWitz’s series “The Last Dragons” here.