With additional writing by Will Stauffer-Norris
Following the proposed route of a high-speed rail—by bicycle, in the uplands of Southeast Asia—proves to be a challenging prospect. But our trek is necessary to truly understand how the massive new railroad would change the region’s cultural and physical landscape—its friction of terrain.
We gawk at the landscape, imagining the sheer engineering challenge of lifting and burrowing a 180-kilometer-per-hour train over, around, and through the hills and valleys of southern China. Bicycling among this landscape gives us a real appreciation of its texture. Often we look upwards to spot the faintest glimmer of a raised road, teetering on concrete pylons, slicing through the hillsides hundreds of meters above. Psychological warfare of the first order: it is hard to conceive how we will pedal our bags and bikes to such a height. A high-speed train seems an equally daunting challenge.
An inter-Asia railway is not a new concept—the British and French imperialists spent decades trying to connect railways between various colonial holdings—and a Kunming-to-Singapore line was considered as early as 1900. A renewed interest in high-speed rail came in 2006 in the form of the Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement. The 262-mile stretch between Kunming and Vientiane, Laos’ capital, would be one of the crucial, and most challenging, segments toward finally securing overland high speed transport between China’s eastern metropolises and major ports of southeast Asia (Bangkok, Yangon, Singapore). Whereas it might currently take you the better part of a dusty and potholed week to travel overland from Kunming to Singapore, a high-speed rail could make the trip a mere ten hours.
After peppering the locals with questions about the new rail in southern China, and receiving vague responses, we finally found something to sink our teeth into. At the Mohan-Boten China-Laos border, we saw the first concrete signs of the ASEAN rail project—literally concrete. Huge swaths of what appeared to be shopping, hotel, and tourism complexes rose from the jungle. New roads were being laid, and a procession of massive container trucks rolled in and out constantly.
The construction site was plastered with renderings of ultramodern shopping centers and, for the first time, a bullet train—a symbol of ensuing development in the uplands. These types of digital renderings are ubiquitous in southeast Asia, with classy looking, western-featured characters ambling through vast international food courts along an unbelievably turquoise river, for example. They often depict a futuristic urban utopian fantasy that’s glaringly at odds with the semi-rural, cattle-strewn road below.
But here at Mohan, it seemed different. Construction of a massive new shopping plaza was well underway, and while this was not the largest or even close to the most spectacular Chinese construction project we’d seen, the location made us speculate. Here, at one of the farthest corners of the Chinese empire, with no major population center for hundreds of miles, they’re building a grand shopping center? It turned out that this Mohan station will be the gateway into China when the rail is completed, a place to showcase the glory of the most powerful country in the continent or planet, whichever your world view allows.
As we sift through hordes of moneychangers, crossing through the liminal space between the two nations, we take a moment to reflect on this intersection. Only a few years ago, the population of the entire country of Laos, 6.48 million, was almost exactly the same as the population of the city of Kunming. Yet most of the financial responsibility for the ASEAN rail project is set to fall on Laos, not China – an arrangement that has come under widespread criticism. Even the Asian Development Bank warns that the project would prove “unaffordable for a small economy of six million people, who mostly rely on agriculture to make a living.”
Here in the wild uplands of southeast Asia, we naturally harken back to a middle school conception of manifest destiny in America’s young west. Just as the transcontinental railroad granted land on either side of the track to private companies, the Chinese won’t likely forego a claim to the valuable rail-side land. There is no question, however, that the Vientiane depot will be smack in the middle of ‘Newtown,’ a Lao government term for a Chinese commerce-dominated zone outside Laos’ sleepy capital on the Mekong.
And just as in the American example, the local inhabitants subsisting on the land through which a major new infrastructure project passes may suffer. The transcontinental rail brought settlers, permanent bridges, a standardized time and post system, and drive-by buffalo slaughter to the American west. In the decades that followed, the Native Americans were coralled into reservations. Laos’ ambitious rail project, funded by Chinese banks, could see similar fallout.
The friction of terrain in northern Laos, as we saw firsthand, will not be easy to tame. It is estimated that 76 bridges and more than twice as many tunnels will need to be engineered to smooth the route. Products from banana and rubber trees, which blanket the north of Laos and the south of Yunnan, may catch a more efficient ride to the market, but it is not yet clear how this will benefit the Lao people, whose country was prepared to take out a loan on a scale close to the entire nation’s GDP to fund this project.
With freshly stamped Lao visas in our well-worn passports, we headed south on Laos’ main highway, a rambling, pot-holed, two-lane road through upland agricultural fields. The juxtaposition with the raised two-lane speedway on the Chinese side is stark, although the parade of Chinese cargo trucks remained steady.
It is hard to imagine a sleek high-speed train whizzing by, through vast stretches of country that still lack basic necessities like electricity and healthcare. Compared to China, the road here is not wide, and the path forward is not totally clear. Which is why the billboard back in Mohan is so ominous. The futuristic high-speed rail zooming in from the right of the billboard brings a message. It proclaims, “Strategy is the wide path, fortune is the wide future.”
Read the previous post. Read part three tomorrow.
This expedition was supported by the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant program. Kyle Hemes and Will Stauffer-Norris would like to thank their friends and families, Stew Motta, Simone Phillips, and their generous sponsors—Trek, Bontrager, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Maui Jim, Dali Bar, and Mountain Gear—for making this expedition and series possible.