The railroad is a remarkable engineering achievement for it was constructed in great haste through a difficult mountainous range. Yuen-nan is an exceedingly rich province and the French were quick to see the advantages of drawing its vast trade to their own seaports. The British were already making surveys to construct a railroad from Bhamo on the headwaters of the Irawadi River across Yuen-nan to connect with the Yangtze, and the French were anxious to have their road in operation some time before the rival line could be completed.
Owing to its hasty construction and the heavy rainfall, or perhaps to both, the tunnels and bridges frequently cave in or are washed away and the railroad is chiefly remarkable for the number of days in the year in which it does not operate; nevertheless the French deserve great credit for their enterprise in extending their line to Yuen-nan Fu over the mountains where there is a tunnel or bridge almost every mile of the way. While it was being built through the fever-stricken jungles of Tonking the coolies died like flies, and it was necessary to suspend all work during the summer months.
The scenery along the railroad is marvelous and the traveling is by no means uncomfortable, but the hotels in which one stops at night are wretched. One of our friends in Hongkong related an amusing experience which he had at Lao-kay, the first hotel on the railroad. He asked for a bath and discovered that a tub of hot water had been prepared. He wished a cold bath, and seeing a large tank filled with cold water in the corner of the room he climbed in and was enjoying himself when the hotel proprietor suddenly rushed upstairs exclaiming, “Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu, you are in the tank of drinking water.”
When we arrived at Yuen-nan Fu we found a surprisingly cosmopolitan community housed within its grim old walls; some were consuls, some missionaries, some salt, telegraph, or customs officials in the Chinese employ, and others represented business firms in Hongkong, but all received us with open handed hospitality characteristic of the East.
We thought that after leaving Hongkong our evening clothes would not again be used, but they were requisitioned every night for we were guests at dinners given by almost everyone of the foreign community. Mr. Howard Page, a representative of the Standard Oil Company, proved a most valuable friend, and through him we were able to obtain a caravan and make other arrangements for the transportation of our baggage. M. Henry Wilden, the French Consul, an ardent sportsman and a charming gentleman, took an active interest in our affairs and arranged a meeting for us with the Chinese Commissioner of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, he later transported our trunks to Hongkong with his personal baggage and assisted us in every possible way.