A tale of China

‘The broken dreams of Mungcheu’

Mungcheu as it more or less sounds when spoken. The transcription is written as Mengzi, a small sized city in the southern part of the Chinese province Yunnan and connected by the only existing meter gauge network in China on the brink of distinction and being built by the French around hundred years ago.
The main artery Kunming to Hekou at the Vietnamese boarder from the beginning was build as meter gauge. This most spectacular piece of railway engineering is certainly worth riding but unfortunate not possible any longer.
The Chinese National Railways are constructing, or have built already, a new connection on a complete different alignment and on standard gauge. Not been there for a few years I have no clue about the progress. However, a branch line from Caoba towards Shiping, before parts of it were regauged in the sixties, measured 600 mm and on opening called the Gebishi Railroad, a private enterprise. The last 34 of the ones 176 kilometres of this network were running between Jijie and Gejiu till 1990 and is a real goldmine for them with a temptation searching for any traces left after the line was closed.
I have been there several times and if someone ask me why, besides the archaeological part definitely the charm of an almost unknown railway system far from home but also the fun of being away from everything familiar and writing a story about many years later.

The scent of paint smells fresh; a bamboo scaffold hides a roughly finished new apartment building just on the side of the platform and almost holy ground, that’s to say only for them with railway romantic in their veins. The train to Shiping patiently waits for her depart. From behind the half open window a picture of forgotten times comes out the mist of memories. Where later a common Chinese family will find their pleasures in comfortable living, once the hammer of a smith was tapping pieces of steel in overhauling the heavily build steam engines. Honest machines blowing the fire with coal concealed with steam and smoke.
A workshop and build by the French to keep the stock rolling. Later in Chinese hands where for long the special engines were treated with care. Narrow gauge, sixty centimeters and later regauged till meter.
When the train slowly begins the journey it fades away in history. We pass a trackless alignment towards a rusty gate on a dusty road now in use by the locals showing their birds and how wonderfully they can sing. A lascivious talk about their feathered friends but never about the loss of industrial archaeology.
How near in reality it was, it remains far from their living. Birds and the heavenly singing is all that counts. The workshop closed and stone by stone it became dismantled. No more tarnished gates neither dusty streets, China’s transition towards a modern world takes place in an unknown speed.

A year before, the gate stood slightly open and curiosity forced itself a way inside. A heap of rubble and a piece of narrow gauge reminding the days of a once prosperous enterprise. The Chinese Railway logo on the wall says this is one of the newer buildings, behind it every thing is French styled and some structures already disrobed till the frame. It looks empty but not an abandoned industrial site, people walking around. For the sake of any communication I can’t speak Chinese and they no single word of English, so any language remains undisclosed and all questions fly away. Undisturbed they let me go and the half demolished sheds showing for the last time what it must have been before the final cut.
The man with the sledge-hammer not only a nightmare for retired engines but also lovers of non native architecture on a place far from France.
Mungcheu for sure is not the same as it was before, within a few years a lot of authentic simple Chinese structures are disappeared, replaced by the almost characterless concrete of high-rise and other infrastructural developments. Still there’s a sense of cosiness especially among the elderly people, hurry for them is unknown word. A communistic society can’t change overnight but the race started. In 2005 were my last observations someone trying to collect the same today goes in vain I am afraid.

It looks like an obscure dead-end street with as grey trees full of bird droppings but some vividness on the sidewalk. Especially in the early evening when low tables and seats are placed at random inviting to have a bite. Like an old postcard full of melancholy but never posted.
The station is wrapped in darkness, the doors closed and a perfect signal nothing will leave or depart. Any normal being has no desire to come on this hour only a poet will find his way. A varietal flavour of the perishableness, here’s nothing and every thing on the same time.
A look at the spare faces and one can sees it in the eyes, where all the agony lingers on without any real suffering. Follow the lines of their game though the rules always will be hidden. Listen to their words as a pure sound because what they really talk about would never be understood. The words remain mute, there’re only gestures, a sign wherewithal it started.
The quality of food is beyond any question because a filthy kitchen is a common sight. It should be no surprise, this is China as it is, only those clumsy child’s saddles and the question how to sit on it more or less comfortable. Like a toddler down to earth and meanwhile time goes by.
China and the way I encountered it on its best, a ragged picture coloured with a lot of greyness but unmistakable change. Around the corner there’s a big lake with for short a small sidewalk full of potholes and other discomfort, a boulevard of broken dreams for him who never lived here. In the year of the monkey everything was refurbished in anticipating the tourists. It’s a lack of moral if they pass the station’s foreground and walk along the obscurity to find a fine hotel near the water side.
By the time of visiting this prospect was too much for a village like place with here ordinariness of yesteryear still hanging in the air. The trees whitened by droppings should really be deprived if the nuisance will be something one can not complaining about any longer.

A railway building used as a shop in front of the station

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About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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2 Responses to A tale of China

  1. Nice story, very interesting stuff – I’m a bit of a railway nerd in my spare time, so thank you for sharing.

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