Following the apparition of a proposed high-speed rail — by bicycle, in the uplands of Southeast Asia — proves to be a challenging prospect. We gawk at the landscape, imagining the sheer engineering challenge it will pose to lift and burrow an 180-kilometer per hour train over, around, and through the hills and valleys of southern China. Bicycling among this landscape gives us a true appreciation for 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 imagine how our bags and bikes, with us atop, will pedal to such a height. A bullet 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 renewal in high-speed rail interest came in 2006 in the form of the Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement.
The 421-kilometer stretch between Kunming and Vientiane would be one of the crucial, and most challenging segments, finally securing overland high-speed transport between China's eastern metropolises and the major ports of Southeast Asia — including Bangkok, Yangon and 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 in a mere ten hours.
After peppering the locals with questions about the new rail in southern China, and receiving vague and uninterested 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 appears 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, this bullet train — a symbol of ensuing development in the uplands. These types of digital renderings are ubiquitous in southeast Asia — classy looking western-featured characters ambling through vast international food courts along an unbelievably turquoise river, for example.
They often depict some 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've seen, the location made us speculate.
Here, at one of the farthest corners of the Chinese empire, with no major population center for hours' drive along the highway, they're building a grand shopping center? When the train is completed, this Mohan station will be the gateway into China: a place to showcase the glory of the most powerful country in the...insert region, continent or planet as 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 the vast majority of the burden of financial responsibility for the ASEAN rail project between the two countries is set to fall on Laos, not China — an arrangement that has widely come under 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 with the transcontinental railroad granting land on either side of the track to private companies, it is hard to see how the Chinese will 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 on the outskirts of Laos' sleepy Mekong-adjacent capital.
And just as in the American example, the local inhabitants subsisting on the land through which a major new infrastructure project passes may suffer. Among other things, the transcontinental rail in the United States brought settlers, permanent bridges, a standardized time and post system, and drive-by buffalo slaughter. In the decades that followed, the Native Americans were cordoned off into reservations. Lao's ambitious rail project, funded by Chinese banks, could share some of this 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. The bananas and rubber, which blanket the north of Laos and the south of Yunnan, may catch a more efficient ride to the market that is
destined to suck them up. 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 has not waned.
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'.
This article is the second in a five-part series about cycling from Kunming to Luang Prabang by Kyle Seewald Hemes and Will Stauffer Norris. The series was originally published on National Geographic Adventure Blog shortly after the authors cycled along or near the route of the proposed Kunming-Singapore Railway. Part one can be seen here.