A train crosses a bridge spanning the Yuanjiang River in Yunnan province. The bridge is one of the most important engineering projects on the China-Laos Railway. Li Tao/For China Daily
Bullet train service to cut travel time, bring job opportunities
President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, will meet with Thongloun Sisoulith, general secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee and Lao president, via video link on Friday.
The two leaders will also attend a virtual ceremony to jointly witness the opening of the China-Laos Railway, according to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
Santisouk Thebsouphome, 28, a college student from Laos, is now well acquainted with the new line. He used a Chinese bullet train for the first time in 2016, traveling from Kunming, Yunnan province, to Guiyang, Guizhou province.
In addition to the brand-new train cars, which were full to capacity, he was impressed by the high speed of the train, little expecting that in five years, he would become a locomotive driver himself.
The China-manufactured train he will drive－the Lancang－operates on the China-Laos Railway. The new link, which uses Chinese equipment and technology, will help boost bilateral exchanges in various fields from individual to government level.
For many train driver recruits from Laos such as Thebsouphome, the work is challenging.
"None of us had experienced a bullet train before, but after eight months of training, I progressed from being a novice to a capable driver. I was excited," he said.
Thebsouphome studied electrical engineering and automation at Kunming University of Science and Technology from 2011 to 2016.Before that, he knew little about China, apart from the fact that the country bordered Laos.
"During my five years at university, I witnessed China's rapid development and made friends with Chinese classmates. I hope to contribute to my country with the knowledge I learned," he said.
Thebsouphome believes that the railway and electricity supplies are important to Laos' economic and social development. "The railway, in particular, will bring new impetus to the country," he said.
The China-Laos Railway is 1,024 kilometers long and has a top speed of 160 kilometers per hour. It runs from Kunming, capital of Yunnan, passing through a total of 13 passenger and freight stations in the province, before leaving China at Mohan port, heading for Vientiane, the Laotian capital. There are 10 such stations on this line in Laos.
When the line starts operating, passengers will be able to arrive in Vientiane the same day that they leave Kunming, according to the Yunnan Department of Transport.
The department said the new service is a major program conforming to China's Belt and Road Initiative and Laos' aim to "turn a landlocked country into a land-linked country "to promote trade, investment, tourism and cultural exchanges between China and Laos, as well as neighboring countries.
The railway will also help improve transportation in Laos, drive the regional economy, promote poverty reduction and benefit people's livelihoods, the department said.
Thepmoukda Phetsalath, 26, from Laos, said she is looking forward to traveling to China with her mother after the route opens.
After graduating from Tongji University in Shanghai in 2019, Phetsalath landed a job at the Laos-China Power Investment Co, a joint venture in Laos. She did translation and interpretation work while the line's external power supplies were connected.
"The railway will bring great opportunities and convenience to Laotians, and improve our lives," she said, adding she felt honored to contribute to the project.
Work on the power supply, which began in December 2019, faced many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the complex terrain, as the line passes over numerous rivers and through mountains and forests.
Phetsalath once visited a construction site for the line deep in a mountain. "Even Laotians seldom go there. The roads were bumpy and we passed through forests," she said.
"Laotian and Chinese workers lived in the mountain, and they had to wear face masks all day in humid conditions. When it rained, their faces poured with sweat, and they found it hard to open their eyes."
With work proceeding day and night, the power supply project was completed in March. Phetsalath and her colleagues recently analyzed and assessed risks to guarantee a stable power supply for the rail service.
Phetsalath likes to buy daily necessities for her family on the Taobao e-commerce platform, a habit she formed when she studied in China.
"It takes a long time to transport goods from China to Laos. After the line opens, we won't need to wait so long," she said.
Yunnan is the only Chinese province bordering Laos. The line will link major attractions in Yunnan, including geological parks, natural relics, mountains and rainforests. It will also serve well-known scenic spots in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane in Laos, meeting demand from tourists seeking a novel cross-border rail travel experience.
Passengers will also witness ethnic minorities' customs and culture.
Some 200 media representatives boarded the bullet train on Nov 26 for a trial run from Kunming to Mohan.
Liu Haijun, 26, a media worker in Kunming, said the train departed at 8:41 am and arrived in Mohan at 2:48 pm. "The journey was so smooth that I was able to get a coin to stand on edge for five seconds," Liu said.
He added that every detail has been considered carefully－from the food and cushions to staff members' uniforms. The uniforms adopt peacock blue as the dominant hue, while patterns on the collars, cuffs and waists use the peony, a traditional Chinese flower, and the plumeria, the national flower of Laos. The camellia, one of the "Eight Famous Flowers of Yunnan", is used for the shirts and dresses.
A range of Southeast Asian cuisine is available on the new service, including roast chicken with herbs, baked pork, pineapple rice, and beef with sour bamboo shoots. Chinese and Laotian creative and cultural products are also on sale.
Viengxay Phoudthavong, a Laotian student in Kunming, who shares stories of his life in China on social media, welcomed the fact that most workers on the service can speak Laotian, and the menu is written in Chinese, English and Laotian.
"The service will greatly shorten travel time between Kunming and my home. It is much more convenient, which will be good for transportation and tourism in Laos," he said, adding that he shot a video and conducted a livestream broadcast on the train to share with netizens in Laos.
"The experience I had today helped me witness the results of China and Laos helping and benefiting each other. This will bring happiness to people from both countries," Phoudthavong said.
Another reporter, Tan Minxu, who works in Kunming for a media outlet based in Hong Kong, said she had no worries using her computer on the train, as charging points are provided.
"The service is also comfortable and saves time. The route is also good. I plan to take my family to Pu'er and Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture by train to escape the cold during winter," she added.
The railway is also significant for Chinese living in remote, closed areas of Yunnan, as it not only opens the door wider to the outside world for trade and business, but also creates job opportunities.
Yi Bofeng, 23, who was born in a mountainous area in Shangjinglong village, Mengla county, Xishuangbanna, said she loves trains because "when they travel at full speed, they bring hope and vitality to cities they pass through".
However, for a long time, Yi's only experience of trains was through television programs. It took more than seven hours for her to travel between Xishuangbanna and Kunming by bus every summer and winter vacation when she studied in the provincial capital.
"Xishuangbanna had no railways, and an air ticket was too expensive," she said. "My parents always said that only if we study hard can 'we walk out of the mountain and see the world'."
Yi, graduated from a college in Kunming, speaks Mandarin, Thai, English and the language of the Dai ethnic group. Like many graduates, she was worried about finding a job last year, but learned that the China Railway Kunming Group Co was recruiting employees who could speak a minority language, in preparation for the new rail line opening.
Now, as a newly recruited attendant on the line, she is busy practicing Laotian, along with emergency response skills.
Her father works for a timber mill, her mother runs a Dai costume workshop, and her younger sister is interning as a nurse. Yi studied at the National University of Laos for five months from September 2019, and has attended local weddings, festivals, and loves to eat Laotian pounded papaya, rice noodles and drink coffee.
"My dream has come true. I can return home more often by train. My mother can sell her clothes to far-flung customers, and I hope to bring my family to tour Laos some day," she added.
The new line also provides a faster, cost-effective transportation solution for international businessmen and women.
Guo Qiang, finance director of the Taibiao Group in Yuxi, Yunnan, which mainly sells solar water heaters to Southeast Asia, said the link will increase logistics efficiency and reduce costs.
"It takes about seven to eight hours to transport our products to Mohan port by road. When the line opens, as Yuxi station is close to our headquarters, we will be able to transport our products much faster," Guo said.
Wang Dekun, chairman of Pu'er Linda Wood Industry Co in Yunnan, said that for a long time, only a single mountainous expressway linked Pu'er to Kunming, resulting in high costs and transportation safety risks.
Last year, it cost about 350 yuan ($54) per cubic meter to transport the company's wood to Laos, but this figure will be reduced to less than 200 yuan per cu m by the new railway. When costs are saved, this significantly increases the company's market competitiveness, he added.
Li Hongming, chairman of the labor union at China Railway Kunming Group, said the construction team working on the line faced serious challenges posed by numerous natural barriers, such as mountains, valleys and rivers.
Bridges and tunnels comprise 87 percent of the line's length in China, while in Laos, this proportion is 62.7 percent, Li said. Difficult terrain and the risk of a geological disaster led to unexpected difficulties in construction, he added.
Chen Lijun, deputy director of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, said that as an important infrastructure project linking China and Laos, the railway will promote economic cooperation and closer people-to-people ties, as well as construction of a shared future for humankind.
Zhu Zhenming, a professor at a research institute affiliated to the academy, said the line will help directly link Laos with markets in West China, share the achievements of China's reform and opening-up, and promote win-win bilateral cooperation.
It will also help China link to Southeast Asian markets and enhance the country's relations with member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Zhu said.