A tale of china


ʻThe last glimpse of colonial narrow gaugeʼ

Pioneering in the Far East; the best way to describe a certain interest in railway matters especially those from the past. Thailand 1985; my first visit and the quest; knowledge of a system gathered but not fully comprehended. In those days one only could relapse on himself. “You want to know?” “Well, find it out!” A question and answer with certain consequences.
Clubs, society’s ore even a circle of friends with the kindred spirit was something that didn’t become fruitful for another decade but still.
Rudyard Kipling was so right by composing the immortal lines: East is East, and West is West, and the twain shall never meet.
China was (and still is) no exception or even worse due to the language neither I do speak nor did they spoke mine. The only words left was body talk, just doing and see how far it goes although China in the nineties definitely became milder in terms of pioneering as under the strict communistic rules during the days of Mao Zedong, even passing the ʻbamboo curtainʼ wasn’t a simple thing let alone the freedom of travelling behind it. Comparable with the situation of North Korea nowadays, the power of stubborn regimes never dies at least that’s what it seems.
My first trip in China took place in 1985 too, a few years after the boarders were opened for individual travellers. No longer tour groups with a guide carefully watching your steps and prohibiting seeing things not wanted to be seen or as I see it; dragged along the selected highlights and leaving the tourist with a false impression of the country.
That trip I didn’t see much either and not because the rules but due to an ad hoc decision once arrived in Hong Kong still a British colony and also bringing a visit to the mainland of China as well. Long train trips and further nothing special, sniffing Chinese air and speaking for Beijing in those days still breathable, these days unmistakably changed for the worst.
All the following trips to China would be confined to the province Yunnan and a meter gauge network south from the capital Kunming formerly known as Yunnan-Fou until the twenties (the roaring but not here I presume…) A network build by the French between 1904 – 1910 with a mainline from Kunming to Hekou (480 km) at the Vietnamese boarder and by that time called: Indo-China ruled by France. Planned as an extension of the line Haiphong – Hanoi – Lao Cai but certainly with colonial interests. The Governor-General of Indo-China – Paul Doumer – had in mind to use the railway as a mean for seizing Yunnan and annexing it to Indo-China but was prevented by doing so both by cooler heads in Paris and by the extent of Chinese opposition revealed during the survey of the line.
The Compagnie de Chemin de fer de l’Indo-Chine et du Yunnan (CIY) was established to operate both Vietnamese and Chinese sections of the line. Furthermore the French constructed a 600 mm branch line from Caoba (at km 283) to Baoxiu (140 km) with several sub branches. Two out from Yugoupu (at km 12), one to Mengzi (14 km) and one to Guanjishan (20 km). The third one ran from Jijie (at km 26) to Gejiu (34 km). All were regauged to 1000 mm during the sixties exempt the line Jijie-Gejui remained 600 mm till it was closed at the end of 1990.
In an earlier written feature: A little train is history I showed some pictures (not own) of the days it still worked and a story about a stroll along the former alignment. However, the latter without any pictures, so here that walk again but this time illustrated. Starting at Jijie (picture at top) with the 600 mm lay-out clearly visible and the in French style erected station building (ochre yellow) mingled with pure Chinese style structures, a real bric-á-brac.

Till the point were the two lines split and further empty track bed.

Till the point were the two lines split and further empty track bed.


Anaizhai; the name plate for a halt or community in the outskirts of Jijie? After all it was a slow train probably stopping on demand beside the official stations, four in between: Sishuizhuang at km 4 – Zhadian at km 12 – Shiwopu at km 17 and Huogudu at km 26. Looking at the timetable one can see that a journey of a mere 34 kilometres for train Nº 721 in 1980 took 160 minutes. However, this includes the shifting of goods wagons along the way for industrial purpose (tin extraction). Train Nº 698 in 1983 conducts the trip in only 95 minutes. Those were the days and far from TGV alike.


Sishuizhuang station moreover what’s left of it. It must have been a building in French style and this how historical colonial architecture ends up as a heap of rubble. The first tunnel and with 136 meters in length easy to pass. However, a second one and this time 692 meters in length became an invincible obstacle. A pitch dark hole and with no torch on hand the walk along the former railway alignment had no other choice than turn around. The advice for anyone going to stroll along railway alignments with tunnels; always take a lamp with you…!

Other pictures of this extra ordinary French designed enterprise can be found on the set in progress: The legacy of the CIY just click and you’ll be there.



About Robert von Hirschhorn

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

  1. Wiz says:

    At least, Kunming – Yuxi – Mengzhi section has been opened for traffic since 23 Feb 2013 with a hope to open all the way to Hekou checkpoint (蒙河铁路 / 蒙河鐵路) by the end of 2014 as Shathiamba tunnel (最后一个隧道) on the Mengzhi – Hekou section has been done.

    the Yunnan railway museum reopened – 10 Yuan admission fee applied

    • Thank you Wiz, good information for sure you’re the only Thai with a sufficient knowledge about railways abroad.
      It’s been a while being there and maybe time time to see how it is to reach Mengzi by standard gauge. Also glad to hear (and read) the Kunming Railway Museum is reopened again though on a larger scale than before. at least I spotted a standard gauge locomotive, in the old shed only meter gauge stock was exposed. Uncle Bob gets a bit older and can’t fly as much to here and there seeing what’s new on the sleeve. It doesn’t matter also this way it works perfectly.

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