Shibanxi, China — In the remote mountains of southern China, the stoker busily shovels coal into a workhorse from another era -- a narrow-gauge steam train that makes four or five runs a day ferrying people and livestock.
The Shibanxi passenger train has been operating since 1958 and is one of a handful of steam trains left in the world. Despite frequent rumors that it's headed for retirement, it keeps chugging though the lush green mountains of Sichuan province.
Blanketed much of the year by clouds and soft drizzle, the area is inaccessible by car. Villagers rely on the seven-car train to get to work, transport pigs and vegetables to market, carry children to school.
Foreign train buffs also are frequent passengers on the 12-mile run.
Wooden benches line the cars -- except for the last one, which has a pen for livestock. Sliding metal windows let in air and light or keep out the coal smoke when the train blasts through long tunnels.
"We need this train," says Xu Xia, a villager who lives near the station in Shixi, the first stop on the eight-stop rail line. "It's impossible to imagine life here without it."
The narrow tracks also serve as a path for villagers through the thick vegetation and steep mountain slopes, forcing the engineer to punctuate the trip with frequent, earsplitting peals of the horn.
A ride costs local people 3 yuan, a little more than 35 cents. Tourists pay 15 yuan, nearly $1.90.
The rail line is popular among steam train enthusiasts, who flock to Shibanxi from the United States, Europe and Japan.