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Narrow gauge railway

The Yunnan–Vietnam Railway (French: Chemins de Fer de L'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan) was built by France between 1904-1910, and connects Kunming with Hanoi and the harbour of Haiphong in Vietnam. It is known as well as the Kunming–Hai Phong Railway. In China now as the Kunhe Xian (昆河线) an abbreviation of Kunming-Hekou Line.

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The line is still used for goods transport specifically for the transport of various ores from the Yunnan mining industry.

The line is a living museum which will operate till the new standard line, now under construction, will be finished.

The old Kunming "North Railway Station" houses a museum dedicated to this railway.

Yunnan narrow gauge railway near Nuozu. This picture gives a good idea of the mountainous landscape through which the railway was build. On the left the railway, on the right the Muozu station separated from an enormous mountain by the Nanpan River (A reservoir here).
Nuozu seen from above. The tiny Nuozu station hamlet in the Nanpan River gorge on the Kunhe line.

Remote mountain landscape

The line in Yunnan is build through a spectacular mountain landscape with many bridges and tunnels of which especially the Renzi Bridge is spectacular.

The remoteness of the railway makes it hard to visit. There are only a few roads in the area and most of these are small and in a bad state. Not suitable thus for crowds of tourist, only people that are really interested go here.

empty spacer. Road in the Nuozu area. Remoteness and bad roads make it hard to visit many parts along the railway. Some parts are only accessible on foot or by motorbike. empty spacer.

It is the last "meter line" left in China (The Chinese network is standard gauge). Passenger service between Hanoi and Kunming within China was stopped in 2003. There is still a commuter service within Kunming.

Construction drawing Renzi Bridge. Construction drawing of the Renzi Bridge. (©1)empty spacer. Renzi Bridge. Train passing the 67.2 m (220 ft) long Renzi Bridge. (©1)


The line was build between 1904 and 1910 by an enormous local workforce and European engineers.

Viaduc en dentelles Baizhai Bridge.
First train on a viaduct on lacework is the text under this picture. (©3)empty spacer.

The railway's construction cost was enormous in both human lives and money. An estimated 12,000 Asian workers died (20% of the work-force) of malaria and other causes together with some 80 Europeans.

Renzi Bridge. Renzi Bridge.
Namiti Bridge on old postcard

The Renzi Bridge on an old postcard. Namiti is the French / Vietnamese name for the Nanxihe River. (©1)


Archive picture of a railcar on the Renzi Bridge. Before WW-II first class passenger services where conducted by these relatively fast and comfortable railcars on rubber wheels. (©2)

Renzi Bridge

The Renzi Bridge, also known as Faux Namti Bridge is the most famous bridge on the railroad. The bridge spans the Sichahe creek a tributary to the Namiti River (南溪河, Nán xī hé).

The Bridge, designed by the female French engineer Paul Bodin, was completed in December 1908 and still stands in its original state. The parts of the bridge were made in France is small bits that could be carried by men and mules.

The remote Nan Xi valley through which the railroad was build was malaria invested at the time of construction and claimed and estimated 10,000 deaths. A thing hard to comprehend when one nowadays travels through this beautiful, peaceful and remote valley. Now there is no more malaria in Yunnan.

Renzi means the "Ren character" which looks like this: 人. The bridge got its name from the 人 shaped supports under the bridge.

The area is still very remote and hard to access. The roads here are narrow and twisting. The cobble stone roads makes cycling hard especially in combination with steep climbs and descends in and out of the valley. The good thing is that the road condition keeps away the usual tourist crowd making a trip to the Renzi Bridge a special experience.

The road follows the Nanxihe River and turns into Sichahe valley. Before the bridge the road climbs up to the railway on the south side and follows the railway track to the old railway station called Lao-jie-ze-zhan (Old street stop) just before the entrance of the tunnel leading to the Renzi Bridge. It than crosses the railway track and climbs up the mountain and ends at the village of He-ping-xiang.

The Renzi Bridge area is sparsely populated and mainly inhabited by minority groups living of subsistence farming.

The lower reaches of the Nanxihe River are a major banana and pineapple production area originally benefitting from the railway for transporting these products. Nowadays they are transported by road. Mainly horses and mules are used to transport the crop to the assembly points and often the railway track is the only route for these pack animals, especially in area where the track and road are on opposing banks of the river.

Renzi Bridge spanning the Sichahe creek. The Renzi Bridge spanning the Sichahe creek as seen in February 2012, 106 years after construction.
Sichahe valley. The Sichahe creek valley as seen from the mountain above the Renzi Bridge. The railway can be seen half way up the mountain on both sides of the valley. The Baizhai hamlet is halfway the valley and on the horizon is the Nanxihe valley.
The Renzi Bridge spanning the Sichahe valley. Despite its 67 meter (220 feet) span the Renzi Bridge might be overlooked in this mountainous landscape.
Sichahe creek The Sichahe creek does not look much to cross, one can jump from stone to stone across it in February when this picture was taken, but tropical downpours can change this within minutes.
Road through the upper reaches of the Nanxihe valley. The road through the upper reaches of the Nanxihe valley leading to the Renzi Bridge.
Railroad used as road. In this rugged area the railway track is used as road like here for the transport of pineapples on horseback.
Railway in banana country. An old Dongfanghong DFH21 locomotive here on the railway crossing a banana plantation in the lower Nanxihe valley.

Yiliang station. Shunting yard at the Yiliang railway station.

Old Mao portrait at Yiliang station. A peek through the window of the no longer used passenger terminal at the Yiliang railway station showed the time having stopped some time ago.

Living museum

Also the passenger service to Vietnam was stopped in 2003 the line is still fully functional and in daily use by freight trains.

After a line closure caused by a landslide the passenger service was not resumed and the rolling stock was sold/given to Myanmar.

Only limited investments were made in the old line because ambitious plans were made for completely new lines. Still the mines in the Mengzi area depended on this line and the Chinese industry depended on minerals coming from the Mengzi area so the line forms a vital link in this symbioses. However the tin mines in Mengzi have been exhausted and most mines have been closed.

Plans for investments in modern locomotives in 2004 never resulted in new rolling stock and the most modern locomotives are the DF21 series from 2003. The DF21 was especially designed for the sharp twists in this railway.

Some branch lines, especially those which were never upgraded from 2-feet-gauge to meter-gauge got in disuse and have been phased out.

Most of the transport in the colonial days was from the mines in the Mengzi area to the Vietnamese harbour of Haiphong for on shipment to the West. Nowadays most transport is up line to connect with the Chinese modern main railway system. The poor state of the Vietnamese section of the line didn't help development either.

In May 2001 I travelled on this line from Hanoi to Kunming. There was then a service twice a week connecting to the Hanoi train at the border at He-kou station. The equipment was old and rundown; I still remember the dead potted plant in the window of my sleeper cabin. But the views where magnificent because most of the line was build high up the mountain and one could look over whole valleys. It was however a pity that the most spectacular stretch was crossed at night. Not that one could sleep much because the ride was quite noisy; the rattling of the old railway cars, the squeaking of the bogies at every of the many turns and the constant wailing of the horn to warn people off the track. Still more comfortable than the night busses I took later on.

Even then the line could not compete with the long distance busses then coming in operation. Passenger service between Kunming and Hanoi is still possible but then via Nanning with much more modern rolling stock.

A modern line was built from Yuxi to the Mengzi mining area and opened in 2013. This line, including the 10 kilometre long Xiu-shan tunnel already completed in January 2012, will most like spell the end of the old narrow gauge railway. There are plans to extend the line again to Vietnam but work, especially on the Vietnamese side is slow.

Yiliang station platform.
Locomotive at Yiliang station.
Trains at Yiliang station.
Various trains at Yiliang station including the DFH21 and DF21 series.
Yunnan Railway Museum. The Kunming North Railway Station / Yunnan Railway Museum on both sides of the old meter gauge track.
Kawasaki train. The Japanese Kawasaki KD55 build in 1919 was used between 1958 and 1985 standing in the old rolling stock exhibition hall. empty spacer. Kawasaki KD55. The same train freshly painted in the new exhibition hall next to Yunnan's first high-speed train the Shunchenghao that was used during the Kunming Expo in 1999 and had a top speed of 120 Km/h. empty spacer. The Michelin rubber tired train. The "Budd-Michelin railcar" introduced in 1932. American pressed steel technology combined with French rubber wheel technology. (Former rolling stock exhibition hall).

Yunnan Railway Museum

The new museum that opened in May 2014 is not only dedicated to the narrow gauge railways of Yunnan like the old museum was but now includes all railways in Yunnan, even the ones still under construction. The museum is in two sections.

The entrance is in the former "North Railway Station" passenger terminal. This building contains maps, documents, information boards and artefacts related to the Yunnan–Vietnam railway. The information boards and artefact labels are generally in Chinese and English, but many of the original documents and annotated drawings are in French and Chinese.

The other section of the museum which is reached via a walkway across the tracks is the specially build rolling stock exposition hall with adjoining exhibition rooms. The exhibition on the Yunnan–Vietnam railway continues here and there are sections on the GeBiShi super narrow railway and the various standard gauge railways in Yunnan.

The Chinese passenger rolling stock used on the Yunnan–Vietnam Railway was given/sold to Myanmar and in return Myanma Railways donated the old British made steam locomotive ST 774 with some passenger cars to China. They are now on display in the museum. So finally a British train made it to Kunming. One passenger car is German build making it an international collection.

The old rolling stock exhibition was in an original railway workshop building and it looked like the trains could roll out again any minute to be used again. The new exhibition is much more sterile and even lacks the old steps that made it possible to look inside the trains on display. Hopefully these steps will return.

Also much bigger than the old exhibition hall the present hall is already full again. It contains a Dongfenghong DFH21 (#001) but there is no space yet for the Dongfeng DF21 for when they will be taken out of service.

The museum has several screens showing among others the construction process of the Renzi Bridge. A large collection of pictures taken by Georges-Auguste Marbotte during the construction of the Vietnam-Yunnan railway are on displey in the attic of the main building.

Yunnan Railway museum. American Baldwin locomotive build in 1923. Number 29 for 60 cm track was used on the GebiShi Railway from 1926 till 1991 when the track closed. (Former rolling stock exhibition hall).
Narrow track. Combined meter gauge and 60 cm track at the museum. On the left Myanmar railway passenger cars. On the right wooden form work for casting iron parts. (Former rolling stock exhibition hall).
Trains on display in the Yunnan Railway Museum. The Baldwin SG-29 super narrow gauge train and the Michelin railcar now joint by the Shunchenghao high-speed train on the right and one of the first Diesel locomotives build in China on the left in the new Yunnan Railway Museum rolling stock exposition hall.
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Rival railway routes to south-west China

From: Potential railway world heritage sites in Asia and the Pacific by Associate Professor Robert Lee, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur.

Among the most spectacular colonial railways built in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth were those which had wider political aims. Competing French and British metre-gauge railways leading from their respective colonies of Vietnam and Burma into south-western China are among the most striking examples to be found, rivalled only by the contemporary rival empire-building and state-building railways of southern Africa. These two south-east Asian railways included two of the world's highest bridges. On the French line in China's Yunnan province was the Fausse Namti viaduct, described below, while on the line in Burma the British built the Gotkeik viaduct, no less than 825 feet (250 metres) above the stream below, which itself flowed through a natural tunnel. In terms of height above the stream it crosses, this is easily the highest railway bridge in the world, although its tallest pier is 320 feet (about 100 metres) high, and stands on the natural bridge. This British line between Mandalay and Lashio also includes one of the toughest ascents on any adhesion railway, 12 miles of unbroken 1 in 25 In 1885 Britain conquered Upper Burma and France conquered Tonkin, or northern Vietnam, thus bringing both powers to the frontiers of the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan. There followed a railway race into the province between the British port of Rangoon and the French port of Haiphong. It was a race complicated by the continuing reality of Chinese sovereignty, albeit attenuated, over Yunnan, and the extreme difficulties of topography and climate. It was a race in which the British made the most energetic start but which the French ultimately won when, 25 years later in 1910, the first train reached the Yunnan capital of Kunming from Haiphong. Anglo-French rivalry in the contest was real, but never too intense, firstly because, despite some early optimism, Yunnan was certainly not as wealthy as its more enthusiastic putative exploiters hoped it would be, and secondly because there were serious second thoughts on both sides as to how effectively a railway could extend their hinterlands. The task would always be easier for the French, since their railway would run parallel to the rivers draining the Yunnan plateau, notably the Red River. The British route from Burma would have to cross many of the valleys of the great rivers flowing through mainland south-east Asia. The Burmese section of the line, from Mandalay to Kunlong Ferry on the Salween River, was authorised in 1895 and opened in 1900. Following considerable pressure from British Indian business interests, the British persuaded the Chinese to agree to the railway's extension into China in February 1897, probably the peak year of imperialist rivalry in the nineteenth century. In 1898 British Indian Army officers surveyed the route. Their report condemned the proposal as impractical, given the minimal traffic the railway would reasonably carry. The average elevation of the ranges it would have to cross was 7,000 to 8,000 feet, while the elevations of the beds of rivers such as the Salween and Mekong was 2,500 to 3,000 feet. In short, the railway would comprise, as a French newspaper complacently reported, 'a succession of tunnels like the Gothard and bridges like the Menai Strait'. That was the end of the proposal. Prime Minister Salisbury had described it as 'a great benefit to the world' in 1896, but in May 1898 told a deputation that its construction would be enormously difficult because all the valleys ran at right angles to it. Finally, in 1901 Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, ridiculed the notion that a very expensive and mountainous railway could bring the trade of western China through Yunnan and Burma to Rangoon, asserting in his usual forthright style that 'were a bonfire made tomorrow of the prolific literature to which it [the Burma-China railway] had given birth, I do not think anyone in the world would be the loser.' Curzon's speech effectively marked the British withdrawal from the race to Yunnan, defeated more by topography than by the French. Thus, British rails never reached Yunnan, nor even the Salween. Construction of the railway was terminated at Lashio, high on the plateau. The gradient between Mandalay and Maymyo and the Gotkeik viaduct became expensive monuments on a railway going nowhere. Even the profits of building the 33-span Gotkeik viaduct did not go to Britain.. This prefabricated 2,260-foot (689-metre) long steel structure was built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, its girders being transported to the docks in New York on 200 special trains, for erection in this extremely remote location. Only briefly did the railway become commercially and strategically important, and that in circumstances which its builders could never have conceived. Following the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the Chinese government abandoned the coastal regions and moved its capital from Nanjing to Chongqing. After the fall of France in 1940, the Haiphong-Kunming Railway was closed to traffic to China, so Allied supplies for 'Free China' went through Rangoon and Lashio until Burma, too, was occupied by the Japanese in March 1942. The Gotkeik viaduct was extensively damaged during the war, but was rebuilt immediately after the British returned in 1945. It remains in regular use.

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The French Foreign Ministry secured Chinese permission to build a railway from Laocai, on the Sino-Vietnamese frontier, to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, in April 1898. Like the British line, this concession was part of the 'scramble for concessions' in China which marked the apogee of Western imperialism in Asia. The Governor-General of Indo-China, Paul Doumer, hoped to use the railway as a means for seizing Yunnan and annexing it to Indo-China, but was prevented from doing so both by cooler heads in Paris and by the extent of Chinese popular opposition revealed during survey work on the line. This was taking place at the time of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in north China. Moreover, many French officials recognised that, even though their route into Yunnan was more favoured by geography than the British, there were limits to the use of the railway to create a hinterland. In particular they recognised that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for their railway to compete with the navigable waters of the Yangtze and thus draw the trade of Sichuan to Haiphong. In other words hinterlands had their natural boundaries, which even the most ambitious railways could only slightly alter. Thus Shanghai, situated at the mouth of one of the world's greatest navigable rivers would always beat Haiphong, terminus of a narrow gauge railway, in a contest for the domination of south-western interior of China. Thus, the capital to build the railway was only attracted by a French government guarantee on its interest. The railway was built as an extension of a line from Haiphong to Laocai, through the capital Hanoi and roughly parallel to the Red River, which was opened in sections between 1903 and 1906. The Compagnie de Chemin de fer de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan (CIY) was established to operate both the Vietnamese and Chinese sections of the line. Construction began in 1904 and was extraordinarily difficult. The terrain, especially in the Namti valley near the Vietnamese frontier, was about as unfavourable for railway construction as could be imagined. For not only was the topography extremely rough, but the area was almost uninhabited and very unhealthy. Malaria was endemic. Coolies recruited to build the railway died in enormous numbers, as much a result of the contractors' neglect as the rigours of the conditions. At least 12,000 of the 60,000 coolies who worked on the project died, as well as about eighty of the European subcontractors. The Peking Daily News claimed in 1909 that 40,000 coolies died, although this figure seems exaggerated when it is compared with reports of French consular officials, who were frank and honest in their condemnation of the CIY's dastardly behaviour towards its employees. Murders, thefts and assaults were common, as the CIY acted like a conqueror in a defeated land. The mortality shocked even the far from squeamish editor of that voice of the Western imperialist in China, the Shanghai North China Daily News, who described it as a 'grave scandal'. The human cost was great and the technological achievement spectacular. The railway climbs on a steady grade of 1 in 40, even though the Namti River it follows at one point drops 600 metres in three kilometres. Curvature is a consistent 100 metres radius. On the 464 kilometre section from Laocai to Kunming, there are 107 important viaducts, most steel, some stone, and 155 tunnels. Between kilometres 104 and 127 the line climbed from 500 to 1,100 metres through 59 tunnels, many joined by viaducts. The steel viaducts were built in France and hauled to the work sites by teams of beasts or men. The two most spectacular bridges are the eight-pier curved bridge at kilometre 83, called 'le pont en dentelles' and the 'pont sur arbalétriers' at kilometre 111, awesomely hanging from sheer cliffs over Fausse Namti between two tunnels about 100 metres above the torrent below. The railway was opened through to Kunming on 31 January 1910. The railway's violent origins have meant that it has come to be for the Chinese a sinister symbol of foreign domination, and for the French as much a cause for reflection and shame as of pride. In Lucien Bodard's novel, La Duchesse, this 'maudit chemin de fer' and, beside it, 'la forêt anthropophage, qui avale dans sa gloutonnérie ... les cadavres des coolies' become a symbol of evil and terror, the railway's site described simply as an 'abattoir'. Never have I seen a railway used as so powerful a symbol, and this in a novel by a man who is always associated with French imperial ideas in east and southeast Asia. As well as being a bloody enterprise, it was enormously expensive, the 464 kilometres costing 166,755,000 francs. Traffic was very modest until the 1930s, and increased dramatically between 1937 and 1940 when the railway was the Chongqing Government's lifeline. For this reason it was bombed by the Japanese and eventually closed under Japanese pressure. It has never since operated as an international railway, although both the Chinese and Vietnamese sections remain in service. Its political significance during the Sino-Japanese war, the loss of life involved in its construction, and its spectacular engineering achievements, all make this French railway in China a site of world significance. This is especially true of the 150 kilometres of the steep climb in Namti valley section, which is where most of the deaths occurred and where the most spectacular bridges are located. While the Gotkeik's history is not as violent, and its political significance was never quite as great, this mighty bridge is also worthy of such status.

Gotkeik viaduct. The 689 meters (2,260 feet) span 102 meters (335 feet) high Gotkeik viaduct in Shan state Burma, was completed in 1900 just ahead of the Yunnan–Vietnam Railway but this railway never made it further than the town of Lashio.
Road near Gotkeik viaduct in Burma. The Gotkeik viaduct crosses the Gohtwin Stream. The road on the picture crosses the same stream just north of the viaduct. These are just some of the hairpin corners the road has to take to cross the Gothwin gorge.

Gotkeik viaduct

The Gotkeik (As well spelled Gohteik or Goteik) viaduct in Burma, formed another important link on railways build towards Kunming.

The British didn't have the advantage of the Mengzi mines to finance their project and never made it further then Lashio in Shan state.

Both railways however played a role in keeping China supplied after Japan controlled all Chinese seaports. Later Japanese war aims during WW-2 were directed to close both railways in which they succeeded.

Only in 1966 the first Chinese build railway reached Kunming from the east and operations started in 1970.

At present the gap between the Myanmar railway and the Chinese net is being closed by the construction of new railways between Dali in Yunnan and Lashio in Myanmar.

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Renzi (Namiti) bridge

Location: 23°13'10"N. 103°45'17"E.

Altitude: 1040 meters 3412 feet

Web information source suggestion:

Wikipedia has an interesting article on the Yunnan-Viet-railroad. Also still in the "sandbox" phase it gives a lot of information.

This article is dedicated to the guards of the bridge.

The French web-page has a pdf file about the railway.

The Chinese National TV English service has a two part documentary on the railway:
Yunnan-Vietnam Railway Part 1.
Mainly related to the Vietnamese part of the railroad.
Yunnan-Vietnam Railway Part 2.
From Hekou to Kunming in Yunnan.

Reading suggestion:

Le fils du Consul (In French) by Lucien Bodard.

滇越铁路全景图 Diān yuè tiělù quánjing tú and 滇越铁路史画 Diān yuè tiělù shi huà are both recently published picture books and also the text is Chinese they still are even for those who do not read Chinese an important source of information about the narrow gauge lines in Yunnan. (China Railways Publishing house. ISBN 978-7-113-17720-1 and ISBN 978-7-5489-0026-9).

Lucien Bodard, Le fils du Consul book cover.
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The journalist Bodard, born in Chongqing as son of the French Consul describes in this book his experiences during the Chinese Revolution.

It includes his experiences in Kunming where he lived as a child and his travelling on the railway to Vietnam.

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Yunnan/Vietnam Railway Overview (In Chinese: 滇越铁路全景图 Pinyin: Diān yuè tiělù quánjing tú) is an inventory of all the railway stations along both the meter track to Vietnam and the old 600 mm track. It contains both historical and contemporary pictures of these lines.

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Yunnan/Vietnam Railway Historical Pictures (In Chinese: 滇越铁路史画 Pinyin: Diān yuè tiělù shi huà) contains a wealth of pictures about the line ranging from the early construction till the creation of the Yunnan railway museum.

© Tiny Adventures Tours holds the copyright on all pictures, clips, text and maps unless otherwise indicated. (2007 - 2016) .
(©1)Expired coyright (©2)Yunnan narrow gauge railway Museum. (©3)Georges-Auguste Marbotte.
Version: 3.12. Updated: 2015/01/05.