The Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad

Published: 05th July 2008
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The Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad starts from Hanoi in Vietnam, goes over the Red River to Hekou, the border city on the Chinese side, before heading directly north to Kunming. Of its overall length of 800 kin, the Yunnan section between Hekou and Kunming is 465 km.
At the end of the 19th century, when the citizens of Paris still thought of subway trains as underground monsters, France won the privilege of constructing and operating railroads in Yunnan from the Qing government. It was an epoch-making revolution for ancient, mysterious Yunnan to accept this European culture and new technology that was so completely different from Chinese tradition. In the process, Chinese and Westerners alike were to pay an unimaginable cost.
Hekou, the last city on the border of southern Yunnan, faces Lao Cai in Vietnam on the opposite bank. The 465-km-long Chinese section of the railroad starts its way north from here, the six-year construction project starting officially in January 1904.
In the context of French technology and manufacturing over a century ago, the construction of a several-hundred-km long railroad through the red-earth mountain plateau of Yunnan called for political will allied with vision, courage and hard work; without these, one of the most magnificent projects in the history of railroad construction would not have been possible.
This railroad represents the highest level of engineering technology in the early 20th century. For 80 percent of its length it runs between perilous and precipitous mountains. Within a linear" distance of 200-kin. Between Hekou at 76 m above sea level to Mengzi at 2000111 above sea level, there is an altitude disparity of over 1,900 m: the section between Baogu to Baizhai involves a climb of 1,200 m within ,just 44 km. It has never been equaled in the history of world railway engineering.
In order to complete the project at the least time and cost, the Hekou to Kunming project was divided into 12 separate sections which were progressed simultaneously.
The French Yunnan-Vietnam Railway Construction Company recruited more than 60,000 Chinese la-borers from all over China and there were over 3,000 French, American, British, Italian and Canadian engineers involved in the construction. Along this 465-km-long railway, 107 permanent railway bridges of various types were built and 155 tunnels excavated; 1.66 million cubic m of earth and stones were dug out and over 3,000 temporary bridges and haulage routes built.
For over six years, the fates of over 60.000 Chinese workers and 3,000 foreign technicians were bound up with the railroad. The difficulties they encountered were beyond the imagination of the decision-makers in Paris.
The climate was sweltering, particularly around the Nanxi River valley area, where summer temperatures could exceed 40; it was humid and oppressive, and infections from tropical diseases and plague were always possible. Statistics show that during those six years, 12,000 souls lie buried along this 465-km-long track, among which 10,000 died in the Nanxi River valley, most of them Chinese laborers who gave up their lives in order to earn a living. There were also several hundred Frenchmen and other foreigners, drawn from afar by this railroad, who never made it back to their native soil.
One of many bridges along the route is the 67.15-m-long steel structure railway bridge over the Sicha River in the Nanxi valley. To Chinese, this handsome and delicate structure is known as "Wishbone Bridge." While this structure and the Eiffel Tower in Paris are both products of the technology of that age, when compared with the Eiffel Tower in the famous metropolis of Paris, the "Wishbone Bridge" spanning between two sheer and precipitous peaks seems to be performing a death-defying tightrope dance.
Since its completion in 1909, the "Wishbone Bridge" has never had an adverse impact on railroad traffic. Hardly a bolt has had to be changed.
Hurtling out of the forests with its long "wooh wooh," the steam engine drew remote Yunnan closer to the world at one fell swoop. And from this point on, tranquil Kunming became a city on the international traffic arteries; advanced French steam trains would shuttle day and night between Hekou and Kunming, carrying Michelin
rubber tires and passenger carriages.

The trains brought various Western goods to the people of southern Yunnan, and filled the commodity markets of Kunming. Well-off families adopted pocket watches and irons; women took to wearing nylon stockings and French bread appeared on the dinner tables; later, in towns along the railroad, black, bitter-tasting coffee became the drink of choice for the elderly when they were chatting.
Between 1911 and 1912, it was via this railroad that Yunnan sent its first groups of students to study in Europe and America. In 1912 Yunnan built its first hydroelectric power station at Shilong (Stone Dragon) Dam, the German generators being imported via this railroad.
In 1918, Kunming introduced technology and equipment from France to build waterworks, making it the first city in China to have tap water. In 1923, telegraph and telephone networks were established in Kunming and international weight units replaced the traditional Chinese measure, the jin.
At the same time, the Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad also brought French-style architecture, culture, religion and arts to cities along its route.

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