In the late 19th century, the rapidly-expanding global empires of Great Britain and France were locked in a race to exert their influence over the markets of China.
With the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, travel times between Europe and Asia were cut in half, and China represented a massive new market for European manufactured wares.
Except there was a problem.
The fastest way to carry goods in and out of the “Middle Kingdom” was via the four-thousand mile-long Yangtze River, and the Chinese imperial government extracted tolls called likin all along its length.
The universally-acknowledged solution was to build a railroad, but railway construction required large up-front investments, and that kind of capital was hard to come by without official backing.
Enter the British and French governments, which would end up spending vast fortunes building impressive railways in the hopes of one day accessing the markets of Southwestern China.
The destination was Yunnan – a massive, ethnically diverse province with its capital at Kunming – an area all but inaccessible from the Chinese coast.
In their offices in the British colony of Burma (today’s Myanmar) and the French colony of Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), civil servants and merchant bankers dreamed of beating each other to the prize.
The “Race to Yunnan” was on.
Cartographers and armchair explorers in London had long noted the proximity of British India’s Northeastern frontier to China, but it would take a class of particularly zealous colonial explorers on the ground to make trade between the two Asian giants a reality.
The diplomat Augustus Raymond Margary (1846-1875) was one such man, and in 1874 he undertook an expedition from Shanghai to Burma overland in order to find a suitable trading route.
It took Margary six months to reach the border, and on the return leg he and his entourage were murdered in a dispute with local Chinese officials (in the ensuing diplomatic crisis China would be forced to make a host of unequal trading concessions to the British).
Margary’s expedition (despite its tragic end) went on to inspire a new generation of explorers – men like Archibald Colquhoun and Holt S. Hallett – who in the 1880s would travel the region with the explicit goal of surveying a railway line from Burma to Yunnan.
Hallett and Colquhoun noted that an ancient caravan route linked the Burmese border town of Bhamo with Kunming, but that the road, which was little more than a dirt track, wound its way through mountain ranges studded with dozens of peaks in excess of eight thousand feet.
Labour was scarce, and tigers and malaria not uncommon.
The only way to penetrate the Chinese border from Burma, they concluded, was to run a line from Moulmein, on the Indian Ocean, to Szimao in China via Northern Siam (Thailand) – a longer, but less punishing route.
Confident in their plan, Hallett and Colquhoun succeeded in convincing British business interests in the manufacturing capitals of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow to support it. But the imperial government in London was still hesitant to sanction such a project as it would mean violating Siamese sovereignty and possibly angering the French (who had recently taken Cambodia and Vietnam, and now held designs on Siam).
Undeterred, the pair distributed books and pamphlets with sensational titles like Burma and the Burmans: The Best Unopened Market in the World and 1,000 Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States. And, in 1885, they won a vote of confidence when the British Indian government conquered Upper Burma in order to gain a suitable buffer to the French.
The way was now open for the construction of a railroad to Yunnan “through the backdoor”, but not via Siam; instead, the tracks would cut across Burma’s high Shan plateau to meet the border at Kunlong, on the banks of the Salween River.
Many officials in the Indian government still doubted whether the returns would justify the expenses and Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, called the plan a “midsummer madness”. But it is indicative of the imperialist spirit of the age that the line went ahead anyway.
The Burma Railways Company was incorporated in 1896 and work on the Northern Shan State Railway began in 1898 (one of the principal investors being N.M. Rothschild, the wealthiest man of his day).
The railroad’s construction would require a slew of technological advancements in order to master the difficult terrain, such as the world’s most powerful locomotive – the Beyer-Garratt – and the longest and highest railway bridge in the world – the Gokteik Viaduct (built by engineers of the Pennsylvania railroad using Indian contract labour).
But, by 1904, the Entente Cordiale (warm understanding) between Britain and France meant that the French threat had dissipated, and the project was now more or less dead in the water (the tracks never even made it to the Chinese border).
WWII would later leave large swathes of the line in ruins, and with independence in 1948 the future of Burma’s railways would be decided by the Burmese themselves.
In the end, a rail connection between India and China via Burma was never built, and, despite the dreams of men like Margary, Hallett and Colquhoun, no train has ever traveled between the two most populous countries on earth.
On the other side of the Southeast Asian massif the French began their own railway to Yunnan at Haiphong, Vietnam on the South China Sea in 1901.
The Chemin de Fer de L’Indo-Chine et du Yunnan would run through the mountains of Northern Vietnam all the way to the Chinese border at Hekou where it linked up with a Chinese line to Kunming.
Prior to its construction, voyages to Yunnan, like that of the French explorers Dupuis and Garnier up the Red River in 1869, could take as many as 57 days by boat and horseback.
The railway shrunk this trip to mere hours, but the costs, both human and monetary, would prove enormous. The final price tag was over 95 million francs – about $412 million today – and the line would claim the lives of between 12 and 40,000 forced Chinese labourers.
Unlike the British, however, French investors in the Yunnan-Haiphong Railway had the advantage of unequivocal government support.
The French Governor General of Indochina, Paul Doumer, was a key figure in the push for a railroad that would open up central China to French goods, and provide France with Chinese natural resources like rubber and tin.
Railways, regardless of their function or cost, were a powerful symbol of imperial rule and a means for European empires to demonstrate their supposed racial dominance over Asian peoples and landscapes
Doumer knew the costs would likely outstrip the returns (indeed, the line never succeeded in paying for itself), but, in spite of this, he argued that a French railroad would prove a “civilizing” influence on the peoples of Asia, paving the way for the growth of education and Christianity.
Herein lay one of the biggest reasons for European colonial railway expansion in Asia, namely, that railways, regardless of their function or cost, were a powerful symbol of imperial rule and a means for European empires to demonstrate their supposed racial dominance over Asian peoples and landscapes.
But, from the get-go, the French encountered engineering and labour problems that in many cases dwarfed those faced by their British counterparts.
The route ran through some of the most difficult terrain on earth, with limestone cliffs giving way to ravines hundreds of feet deep. Malaria and cholera were rampant among the labourers, and, despite attempts to combat the diseases, the death toll began to rise.
Perhaps the hardest section to build was the Faux Nam-Ti Bridge across the Sicha River gorge, an engineering marvel even by today’s standards.
The bridge spanned 180 feet across a ravine 335 feet deep between two tunnels dynamited into the mountainside and the materials for its construction had to be painstakingly carted up the mountain by mule (over 800 Chinese labourers died on this segment of the line alone).
But where the British failed, the French succeeded, completing the railway in 1910.
The Yunnan-Kunming line ran continuously until WWII when sections were bombarded by the invading Japanese and the tracks were closed down.
With Vietnamese independence after the war, the railroad underwent periods of closure, and in 2005 a large part of its rolling stock was donated to the Myanmar Railways which still uses the same unusual one metre gauge.
But the Faux Nam-ti bridge remains a lonely reminder of 19th century French ambitions, British jealousy, and the terrible suffering of the Chinese workers who strived to build a railway to China.
With the recent Chinese economic miracle in the 21st century, there has been renewed interest in the colonial rail networks of Southeast Asia.
Under the One Belt, One Road initiative, Beijing has sought to link central China with the rest of Asia, and the world.
Railways are a major part of this plan, with China reviving the old French line from Vietnam to Yunnan, and striking ground on a new line from Yunnan to Burma adjacent to the original tracks.
The Chinese dream has been largely the same as that of the British and French a hundred years before: import natural resources and export cheap manufactured goods.
But so have the obstacles to the project, namely: geography, politics and the vagaries of a global economy that means a wise investment one day may prove unprofitable the next.
Moreover, the Chinese economy is slowing and, in recent years, China has had to deal with the independent states along its borders defying its wishes (as was demonstrated by the public pushback to the building of a Chinese hydro-electric power plant in Northern Burma in 2011).
However, if China’s willpower is anywhere near as great as its Western imperialist antecedents’, then it is likely that little will stand in the way of this modern juggernaut of Asian railway expansion.
Not even mountains.
Christian Gilberti is an American writer based in Myanmar whose work has previously appeared in the Mekong Review, Myanmore Magazine, and online at Myanmarmix.com. He writes a blog on Myanmar history and culture at https://thamine.blog.