Tracing the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway11 min read

Looking back down the tracks at French Indochina’s legacy in southeast Yunnan – Thomas Bird

The Map of the Current Situation dating back to 1898 hangs in the halls of Yunnan Railway Museum. It depicts the Qing Empire encroached upon by a bulldog with a lion’s body, an eagle swooping across from The Philippines, a grizzly bear stopping through Manchuria and a frog sliming its way up from Southeast Asia. These invasive species represent Britain, the USA, Russia and France respectively, while Japan looks on from the side lines, a jealous rising sun holding a leash around Taiwan’s neck.

With a population numbed by opium and ruled by aloof Manchu royals holed up in their Beijing citadel, turn-of-the-century China made easy-pickings for hungry colonial powers who began to slice old Cathay up like a birthday cake.

Most of the competing powers constructed railways, which served to open up the economy in a realm with few good roads. But beyond its practical functions, the railway also acted as a territorial marker, an agent of empire, provoking historians to coin the term “railway imperialism”. Russian tracks laid a cross through Manchuria, expressing the Tsar’s clandestine plans to dominate in the Northeast. Germany built a large section of the north-to-south Jinpu Railway through its sphere of interest in Shandong with Great Britain building the rest. In fact, Britain was perhaps busiest of all, constructing the KCR line in cooperation with Chinese engineers through the Pearl River Delta as well as the Imperial Chinese Railway from Beijing to Mukden (Shenyang).

Yunnan was central to the Southeast Asian economy as the bridge between the tropics and the Himalayas”

Will Doig writes in High-Speed Empire: “In 1904, the Trans-Siberian Railway connected Moscow to the Pacific, and soon afterward, British and French colonists began pondering their own grand railroad that would weave together their tropical trophies on the Indochina peninsula.” In reality, a key section of a pan-Asian network had already got the go-ahead.

Though long considered a backwater by Beijing, Yunnan was central to the Southeast Asian economy as the bridge between the tropics and Himalayan nomads linked via the Ancient Tea Horse Roads. A Kunming to Singapore Railway would sew-up this historically volatile and ethnically complex region, making transport far more efficient as well as granting regional supremacy in the hands of whoever held the train keys.

Though Britain envisioned a route through its colonial territory in Burma, France took the initiative in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese war. Chinese defeat engendered a wide-spread consensus in the need to modernise, particularly the railways, which stood at a paltry 402 kilometres in length at the time. After some years of negotiations, the Qing government signed the Yunnan–Vietnam Railway Charter in October 1903, giving France the green light to start laying tracks in Yunnan with an 80-year railroad franchise.

The author in his natural element (if not clothing)

At a cost of 95 million francs Le Chemins de Fer de L’Indo-Chine et du Yunnan or Dianyue Iron Road (滇越铁路) as it is known locally, was among the most ambitious colonial projects ever undertaken, stretching right the way from the port city of Haiphong in the bay of Tonkin to Yunnan’s capital Kunming, a distance equivalent in length as Paris to Perpignan on the border with Spain. Negotiating mountainous topography that warranted 425 bridges and 155 tunnels, construction claimed thousands of nameless Chinese and Vietnamese lives. Though The Times reportedly called it an “engineering marvel” on its completion in 1910, to critics, the Dianyue line reeked of colonial overreach, comparable to the British experience in Kenya during the construction of infamous Lunatic Express.

Characteristically, the plaques in the Yunnan Railway Museum recall the railway project with an affronted tone. “With colonial greed and plunder” the French are said to have “mercilessly ripped open the southwest door of China” with a railway that is “soaked in the blood and sweat of Chinese and Vietnamese labourers”.

Yet China’s historic lens is many-hued, its outrage often coloured by pragmatism and even shades of envy. Beyond the Marxist vitriol, Yunnan’s first railway is also credited as a tool that “facilitated the conversion from traditional agricultural civilization to a modern industrial civilization.”

Within one museum gallery Paul Bodin’s beautiful Viaduct de Faux Namti, which crosses a narrow gorge above the Sichua River in remote Pingbian County, is lauded with praise. Now hailed as bridge of “Franco-Sino amenity” the Chinese call it Renzi Qiao (人字桥) as its two triangular trusses appear like the character “ren” meaning person.

China might have arrived late to the railway age, but as historian Stephen Kotkin notes, “Deng Xiaoping’s shift toward market economics and global integration in the 1980s and 90s put Chinese railways at the forefront of the country’s multidecade double-digit economic growth.”

Deng’s reforms spurred a railway construction frenzy that far surpasses Britain’s “Railway Mania” of the 1840s, the new iron roads supplanting many of the original lines in the process of rapid modernisation. In 2005, passenger travel was discontinued on the narrow-gauge French line. Built in stages, a standard gauge railway running to the Vietnam border at Hekou was inaugurated in 2014, while a high-speed train to Mengzi got rolling in 2019.

But as unchecked growth has slowed to an andante tempo, nostalgia for the world China has bulldozed is gaining traction. If the faux, mustard-yellow Franco façade added in 2015 to the railway museum suggests anything, it is that tourist bureau is more pragmatic than some angry local historians might suggest. France is the most popular tourist destination in the world. But why fly to Paris when you can catch a south-bound train to the Red River valley instead?

175 kilometres southeast of Kunming as the crow flies, Mengzi (蒙自) is the capital of the Honghe Hanyi and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, a humid, neon lit city famous for its signature dish, crossing-the-bridge rice noodles (过桥米线). Once fed, Mengzi is an ideal place to begin to explore the regional railway sites scattered about the region. There’s even a railway-themed hotel Dian Yue Station, complete with green train carriage styled hall ways, rooms named after old stations and railway photography festooning the walls, just to get you in the mood.

Most happy-snapping tourists miss Mengzi’s fading yellow railway stationhouse located just opposite the old bus station from where mini-buses travel to Bisezhai (碧色寨), a station which has been given the tourist treatment to such a degree that it appears to only be a week old. Despite the paintjob, Bise is, in fact, a historic station. After trains began rolling through in 1910 the village mutated from miniature to bustling with its own post office, telecommunications and even a few foreign firms. There’s a small museum commemorating Bise’s heyday, as well as few informative signposts. Yet the principle thing to do here is dress up in Red Army garb and get a photo taken, a strange subversion of history considering the railway station is of late-Qing vintage, French design and reached its commercial zenith in the Republican-era.

The original train station at Bise

Three years after the completion of the Kunming to Haiphong trunk line, a branch line was begun arching westwards from Bisezhai to the tin mines of south-central Yunnan. The Gebishi line, as it is known, is peppered with a few interesting, if half-forget, railway heritage sites.

The old regional capital of Gejiu (个旧) came online in 1918 and its dilapidated yellow stationhouse is now surrounded on all sides by a zesty outdoor market. It rather sadly accommodates a small clinic specialising in ailments of the bones today. However, the surrounding market is earmarked for demolition, suggesting a Bise-style railway theme park may be on the way.

Nearby Jijie (鸡街) is a predominantly Hui Muslim township known for the Great Mosque of Shadian, one of the largest and oldest in the region. It was connected to the branch line three years after Gejiu. The tracks here are now overgrown with weeds and are generally used as backroad by prayer cap adorned Hui men hurriedly heeding the call to prayer. But the stationhouse and adjacent depot remain standing, half boarded-up except for a small shop vending caged birds and bonsai trees.

From Jijie the branch line snakes through Jianshui County (建水县), an imperial outpost boasting a stunning Confucian Temple as well as four city gates, the largest of which is a major regional tourist draw, namely, the Chaoyang Lou (朝阳楼).As my taxi driver proudly notes, “the gate is 31 years older than Tiananmen in Beijing.”

Confronting the Ming-era ramparts supporting three levels of arching tile-roofs adorned with big traditional characters declaring this to be a “Powerful Garrison Post of the Southwest” one is imbued with a sense of awe seemingly out of scale with Jianshui’s tumbledown low-rise housing, although given the unruly upland tribes inhabiting the neighbourhood – some 13 ethnic groups and many more subgroups – this was doubtlessly the architects intention.

Just down the road from the Chaoyang Lou is Jianshui’s “small train” which departs twice daily from Lin’an Station for a scenic trip along a 13-kilometre section of the Gebishi branch line. Though the four stations that line the track have been renovated in the French-style, their interior-deco alludes to the Republican-era, conjuring a more authentic ambience than Bise’s Disney does Mao vibe. The added bonus is that the train passes through some bucolic countryside and past a few extraordinary Qing Dynasty sites including the stunning Shuanglong and Xianghui bridges as well as the village of Tuanshan, a rustic village comprised of several fading villas, classical gardens and ancestral temples, testament to the fortunes of the local Zhang clan during a late-imperial mining boom.

A rebuilt station in the old style at Tuanshan, where narrow-gauge trains run for tourists

East of Mengzi, the French railway snakes into cloud enshrouded hills that hide Zhicun (芷村) – a Miao market town – from the wider-world. It’s worth the drive just to intrude on this lost world where Miao women sport multi-coloured dresses, head scarfs and hooped earrings while Miao men talk shop over rice noodles and shots of Baijiu in open-front restaurants beside a market where root medicines, strange mountain mushrooms and the full cookbook of green vegetables are on sale. One old wooden house is marked with a plaque that claims it was once occupied by Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh who came and studied “revolutionary principles” here.

The tracks act as a road for the Miao who carry heavy loads from the hills to market place in bamboo baskets. Many live trackside in old railway work-unit buildings. There’s even a railway supermarket, essentially a convenience store right beside the rails. From Zhicun the railway follows the Nanxi River valley deep into Miao territory until it hits the Sichua River valley, where it loops northeast-wards before crossing the river between two steep rock faces via the iconic Renzi Bridge.

The road doesn’t follow the track and it takes the better part of the day to drive there via some perilous mountain passes. But the bridge is worth it. Some structures like the Eiffel Tower or Sydney Harbour Bridge need to be seen in person and Bodin’s viaduct is no exception. A small viewing platform has been erected amongst the trees and above the crystalline mountain stream, for photographers. You can even climb onto the bridge itself, even though daily freight trains still pass through, no one seems to care. It’s quite extraordinary to sit upon this thing of beauty looking south towards Vietnam and contemplate an act of ambition and engineering prowess that now feels quite alien to the average European.

Such ambition is not so foreign to contemporary Chinese leaders, however. Twentieth century wars prevented Britain and France from realising their grand railway project in Southeast Asia. But another map in the lobby of Yunnan Railway Museum illustrates China’s plans to reach beyond its borders with railway links in Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia that if realised, will complete the long-delayed Pan-Asian network, relegating the majestic Dianyue Iron Road to the status of a historic prototype. ∎

All photos courtesy of the author.