‘A phoenix and the ashes’
It’s a certain deficiency not having all the pictures on hand to illustrate stories in mind. My collection of slides I left behind in Europe and beside some useful for the series there’s no need to have them in a climate that won’t do any thing good to them. The other tales about China have to wait a while.
Tales about Yunnan, the south-west province boarding Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam but with a very interesting separated railway network on meter gauge and before also 600 mm. The last survivor of a once 176 km network was the line from Jijie to Gejiu (34 km) and closed in 1990. Before that in the sixties most of the maintaining 142 kilometre was regauged to meter.
In 1885 colonial interest and rivalry brought both powers France and Britain to the frontiers of Yunnan. Britain had conquered upper Burma and France Tonkin or Northern Vietnam. A railway race started to enter Chinese soil between the Port of Rangoon on the Burmese side and Haiphong in Vietnam. However, the British never reached Yunnan; the rail would not found its way beyond Lashio.
The French did and in 1910 Kunming the capital of Yunnan was reached as an extension of the line Haiphong – Lao Cai (the last town in Vietnam). 464 kilometres on Chinese soil alone and a lot of it build in a very difficult mountainous terrain with spectacular views. Between marker 104 and 127 the line masters a difference in height from 500 till 1.100 metres through 59 tunnels many joined by viaducts. The most brilliant construction is the so called ‘Arbalétriers’ bridge at kilometre 111 hanging between two steep cliffs and tunnel entrances hundred metres above the Nam Thi – Green River. [ In this story the distances are measured by the French approach starting at the border.] At the beginning of this century it was still possible to enjoy the views, I am glad I did twice though the best part of the line the first time by night train. In anticipation of a new line on standard gauge and on a partly different route, the line was closed for passengers at least the long distance trains and the one to Hanoi (through coaches). The bridge over the Nam Thi connecting Lao Cai and Hekou was rebuild in 1992 and reopened for railway and road traffic (this till a second bridge was build) after more than fifty years of closure.
History in a nutshell to explain my quest in the search for French architecture. Years in a row I visited the province explored all the lines and tried to capture the full meaning. Above all I have seen some of China’s tremendous power to change things within a short time span. Sleepy rural places deep in the province rude disturbed in their conservative dream, where the old things were disappearing one after another and replaced by modernity just for themselves. On all my trips outside Kunming I hardly met another foreigner.
Miniatures, little stories are waiting to be told and this one first while the pictures are there purposely travelled back till were they almost had been taken twelve years ago. By the time there was still a direct flight the distance Chiang Mai – Kunming was done in one and a half hour and a completely other world begun. The world of Chinese interest that seems to be an intrinsic one probably due to the huge number around and certainly in the cities where you must crawl in the stream. Never been so happy being shaped with another length at least I could breath freely. The quest about the railway never found an answer by asking while our languages did not match but only by doing, forbidden or not, such as entering depots. Brutality rules the world and in the late nineties this did not look as if it was a problem despite a communist regime. A milder government since the market mechanism slowly started replacing the central controlled one. However, I still remember how difficult it was in the past to enter a railway premises in order to get some pictures. GDR situations – German Democratic Republic and the things from behind the iron curtain with their strange attraction.
In the eighties the characteristic smell was still hanging in the air, in the nineties and early this century with every visit it became more and more vague. However, in 1999 walking in a small town like Yiliang, seventy kilometres by train from Kunming, the Western approach still did not had the upper hand. Besides some old French style buildings, an open air depot and workshop were situated next to the station. A marvellous opportunity for spotters not for passenger trains but the goods leaving and coming one after another most times hauled in double traction.
Diesel locomotives because steam on this line succumbed earlier. Not before the opening of the Yunnan Railway Museum at Kunming’s North Station (Bei) I never located any steam locomotive or forgotten parts of it. For the ones only dedicated to steam there was nothing to discover but any wider perspective found a heaven on earth, a rusty one but non the less.
A very tarnished meet by chance, the body of what ever appeared to be a railcar hold together by pieces of weak metal. A relict from the thirties, the reinvention of the wheel by the French company Michelin but this time on rail. Cars with actually ordinary steel wheels with flanges but with a rubber running tread. Many of them were build and run on different places but finding one in the middle of nowhere in China more than sixty years later was a very exiting moment.
And you’re there alone not knowing what about or why it’s still standing forlorn in a corner of the yard though someone must had something in mind for it. By the next visit it was gone and I was grateful having the pictures thinking it finds the way to the melting furnace after all. In the end there’s also no graveyard for abandoned railcars though this one managed to stay above the ground for a very long time. The phoenix arises and can be seen in the museum at Kunming tucked away in a corner but in a splendid condition. Only the two axle lovely little trailer is still missing but I think they refurbished that as well.
On the next page a slideshow of the car and trailer in the glory days of decay. The picture above is the ‘Baizha’ bridge build in 1907-08 and 136 meter long with a Michelin car just leaving a tunnel but unmistakable another type and that makes me doubtful if the one I spotted is the same as the one in the museum. It doesn’t matter it fits the story anyway. Anyone ever visiting the exhibition – a worthwhile enterprise – let me know.