Treading upon a fading faraway railway

(No.11, Vol.3, Dec 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)



Sitting on Dalat’s remaining train line for a space of time not even equivalent to that of sitting for half a cup of black coffee, I finally understood the avuncular train conductor, about why he is always in such a state, conserving each and every centimeter. The tourist railcar is designed to look like the one that used to run in Dalat, while the locomotive that runs on diesel fuel and was built in the Soviet era is of the type that is no longer seen throughout the rest of the domestic railway system. The locomotive was brought in up from the delta. It is just seven kilometers from the only station in the country to be ranked as national architectural and cultural heritage to the Trai Mat area, from precinct nine across to precinct 11 and that is all. It is just one stretch of track, enough to render it remote in the manner of the precipitous villages along the hillside— just one stretch of track, enough to make the whistle of the train turn gray— just one stretch of track, enough to drag history into the world of Dalat.
That train journey shorter than the space of a cup of black coffee evokes a sense of being suddenly cut off, and of choking the heart. Thus I tortured myself by sauntering on along the old tracks, on the obscure rail-bed of the rack railway that used to spout steam, ran on a steam engine, and traversed the misty mountainous roads from the Trai Mat area. I went on the road that, over twenty years ago, before coming to Dalat to take my university entrance exams, I, as a naïve student, looked for a national travel map with which to pick out the locations, roads, and means of transportation. There, the places marked on the map indicated the national railroad system, so that one still saw clearly the railroad lines from Phan Rang on the central coast up to mountainous Dalat printed boldly in red. Nevertheless, that day, when I requested that the cutest lady at the Danang station sell me a train ticket to Dalat, she said, ‘On the map the railway lines are just recorded that way, but those lines are not in operation. The railways there have already disappeared!’
I searched for the road that would connect my memories and imagination with reality, despite the fading obscurity of reality in the Langbian highlands. Nature, hills, mountains, and the pine forest that runs downstream towards Song Pha Pass, owing to their having not yet been infused with the flavour of real estate, still roll on endlessly and remain peaceful and verdant, as if they were the corners of the last figure of the serene mountain plateau itself. Thereabouts, stretches of vegetation blanket over each visible manifestation of the marvelous iron tracks, which loftily and audaciously traverse through the mountains. Thereabouts, sections have been reborn as gardens for mocha coffee, persimmons, legumes and tens of thousands of black mangroves, broccoli, potatoes, and carrots. The Vietnamese people never cease to crave land, so any place that is easy to obtain they invade, any place that is empty they jump upon, and any place that is wild, they clear away for cultivation. Thereabouts, stretches of countryside streets, along with matchbox ferroconcrete houses popped up to supplant the former incarnation of the meagre railroad. A few dilapidated stations of nineteenth-century French architecture still unabashedly survive in Xuan Tho, Cau Dat, and Tram Hanh. Tent setups have also squeezed in and surround them. The impoverished masses immediately jumped into them for shelter. Deserted houses are left wide open, even more so than Buddhist pagodas. As an unbridled errant of this region, I love and understand the destitute people and the dregs of society. The carved statue at the head of Song Pha Pass is reserved for extolling railroad workers who, because of their struggle for the sake of the Phan Rang-Dalat rack railway and justice, died one day. The sculpture was erected solemnly as some sculptor carved, holding back his magnanimous will to embrace the hands of the chained slaves. The descendants of a number of former railway workers now continue to struggle with mocha coffee trees as well as Cau Dat tea plants, or they plant edible persimmon fruits, pineapples, and vegetables on the two sides of the vestiges of the Dran railroad bridge.
My emotions became ever more lonesome each time I squeezed into sections of the frigid, quiet and deserted tunnels. In the darkness, the people cannot occupy them and the authorities do not bother with them anymore, so they became desolate tunnels that fill with water in the rainy season and are a habitat for snakes, centipedes, and jungle beasts during the dry season. The long-winding curved concrete dome roof flickered with light that slipped in from the ends of the tunnels, now adorned with lichen and ferns that rendered them inanimate and mysterious. During the period in the early part of the previous century, when the degree of engineering science and mechanical equipment were quite limited, to have bored into the mountains to create tunnels through them for everyone to travel to and fro in such a way was indeed horribly amazing. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Vietnamese education still laboured at poetry and struggled in a backward delirium with the antiquated writings of Confucian sages, the Five Confucian Classics, and the Analects of Confucius alongside mathematics, physics, and chemistry, history naturally projected the appearance of civil engineering works associated with a crowd of highly skilled ordinary citizens. I cried out, ‘Ohhhhhh….. raaaaaaaaccckkkk… raaaaillwaaaaaaay!’



It would have been truly hard for me not to take interest in that time when people from Dalat, Phan Rang, and Nha Trang glided by on the beloved train through the rolling terrain along a range of hills lined with a succession of verdant pine trees above and the long-winding cool earth beneath. As for the sound emitted on the railroad, it, too, differed from that of the railway that runs north and south along the seacoast below, because it rattles in quietude. When the train climbs a steep mountain pass, every single step weighs upon it as it strains itself, locks on to the cog track, and clings tightly, while sparks frequently coruscate beneath the tracks because of the heavy friction on the metal. To this very day in Dalat, with any mention of the railway the Dalat people smack their lips, especially those who have plied back and forth on this railroad track, which I refer to as the ‘railway that connects the sea to the flowers.’ Some recall vividly, others only vaguely, but all want to talk about it. They describe it such that you are captivated as you hear about the characteristic sound of the cramp iron bearing down on the cog track that is exclusive to their homeland. They cause you to rack your brains, imagining something that is an actuality, the scene of the train climbing from the low-land Phan Rang at the foot of Song Pha Pass up to an elevation of 1,200m and then 1,500m above sea level. They render you speechless about the railway that pierces on through the brume at moments when the entire highlands are submerged in mist. They say that the pine forest is paradise and that travellers on the train drift through that ethereal pine forest. Every day, the train zips from the lands inundated with sunrays on the seacoast, meanders through the twisted mountainside straits of wide-leaved forest in Song Pha Pass, and then enters the limpid pine forest and submerges into the frigidness of the highlands. And then back again. In the memories of many a person are images from the train car window of the tropical countryside, followed a few hours later by an immediate encounter with the temperate countryside, as the immense view is constantly and suddenly cut off and obscured by the mountains and hills.



Such sensations are not of this century, but rather right from the 30s of the previous century on up to the 1970s. That is the era in which the railway came to be and appeared on the journey from the Thap Cham (now Phan Rang –Thap Cham City or better known as Phan Rang) to Dalat. The history of world railways clearly highlights it as one of the three first rack railways in the world.
The more I tread upon the fading obscurity of the Dalat-Thap Cham railway, the more I slip into rue. I know that if the railway were to still exist, then Dalat tourism would not be merely as it is now. And not only tourism, but the entire economy and the picture of society of Dalat and Phan Rang would also be completely different in many ways. Excessive pride, chronic extreme willfulness, and the destructive might of benightedness are often quite terrifying when they not only cause material loss, but also the extirpation of even the spirit and the fruits of labor. Perhaps in the history of railroading in Vietnam there will be no weighty, abstruse, and strange as that generated by the decision of the Vietnamese Railway Enterprise Union in Hanoi during the dry season of 1976 to allow people to pour in and dismantle the Thap Cham-Dalat railroad. There is no railway only eighty-four kilometres long, yet required thirty-three years of ongoing construction like this railway that connects the sea to the marvellous mountains. Were the French crazy when, in 1908, they built this railway from an elevation of 3m to that of an elevation of 1,500m-1,650m above sea level? The lonesome, solitary railroad that ascends the highlands and breaks away from the main railway axis that runs through the country along the East Sea has its own life and is immensely special, as it even has poetry dedicated to it, owing precisely to the cold like that of the tunnels that traverse silhouettes of the pine forest: ‘Digging two kilometers into the tunnel’s mouth/ the people wasted away, eating and sleeping in the wind and mist/ Some collapsed in the earth, others crushed to the bones/ Some were hit by a detonation that shredded their bones and pulverized their skulls/ Speaking of it some were dismal, others sorrowful. To die in vain, the profound death of the spirit...’ (Excerpt from the anonymous poem ‘The Life of the Coolie’).
The railroad fading faraway on which I’ve lost my way today is simpler than at the critical period in history not too long ago. It is the railroad of trade in vegetable, flowers, fruits, lumber, firewood, aromatic scents, as well as salted fish, rice and paddy, and agricultural and construction materials between Dalat and Phan Rang and Nha Trang. For a period of time, all the heavy goods that came up from Saigon and down from the highlands were transported to and fro via the rattling that issued from the special rack railway. It is not just a railway, but also a part of the material and spiritual heritage that tamed the Langbian highlands and the sweat and tears of the people. And only then did everything fade into the past, blurring the myriad mountainous, and the sylvan roads.
Sitting in the old deserted railroad tunnel, I recalled a draft of a photo album by the photographic artist Tam Thai named ‘The Olden Days in Langbian… Dalat’ (Ngay xua Langbian… Dalat). In the draft, I was startled when I looked at the photographs of the Dalat people’s cog railway, of the Furka brand locomotive, which used to be the pride of all humanity during the industrial revolution in Europe and was manufactured by the Swiss. Heaven endowed me with sufficient memory to recall the simplest of things, so I remember that in the early 1990’s, it was none other than the Swiss who came to Vietnam in search of those locomotives to purchase and bring back as keepsakes. The records of the railway industry and the current government also record that those locomotives were sold as scrap iron. Looking at the photographs of the olden days that my friend had collected, I saw the train rushing headlong on the cog railway of bygone days and was speechless as if I had met an old friend from this native land in the flesh. Oh, Tam Thai! You live on the faraway Mekong Delta, why on earth do you so concern yourself with recondite tales of these frigid highlands? And how to forget Mr Che Dang, a communist revolutionary in Area VI, now deceased, who once told me about the tears that fell to the train tracks as he resigned himself to stand confoundedly on the day he witnessed the scene of people pouring in to dismantle the railway? At one time, labourers built it; and at another, they dismantled it. Mr Che Dang expressed his true feelings, ‘If that day we had been more courageous and resolute, perhaps we could’ve saved the railroad. They said that they were taking the scrap iron back to make the North-South Railway, but the structures of the two kinds of railway differ!’ He also said that during the war, when he organized the fighting, he always instructed his compatriots to avoid damaging the railway ‘so that after the reunification it could still be used to develop the homeland.’ Down in Ninh Thuan, when Ms Hoang Thi Ut Lan was the chairwoman of the provincial people’s committee, the female official often expressed to me her craving to ‘connect Ninh Thuan to Dalat through the railroad’ as she had seen in her youth. ‘If we had that railway, Ninh Thuan would no longer be just a place for people to glide right by. Even tourism would surely develop from qualitative interaction with Dalat between the value of the sea and the value of the flowers,’ she said.
Not long ago, on the dreary Dalat platform with a small staff to to operate the 7km of train track there, accidentally, I met a second character from Vietnamese railroading and listened to him convey, as we sat on the remaining stretch of railroad, that ‘It’s a weird feeling, quite different sitting on the trains that run down there (in the delta)!’
Gently, I asked him, ‘Do you guys mean to make amends regarding it, the only cog railway in the country, for a burden of debt to the people of Dalat?’
The deputy director-general let out the words, ‘Surely we’ll just have to rebuild it, because Dalat’s tourist potential is so great!’ I’ll never forget the moment he mused with sincerity of feeling, ‘But I don’t know where we’ll ever find a source of capital in order to pull it off!’ Rehearsing the scene above, in April, at the Economic and Social Development of the Central Highlands Conference in Gia Lai, the Minister of Planning and Investment Bui Quang Vinh, mentioned the need to have a railway line from the Thap Cham to Dalat when he spoke of the construction investment strategy to develop the region.
Documents show that from the year 1939, many newspapers in France and Annam (now Vietnam) popularized Dalat as a tourism area. Vietnamese newspapers the other day published an essay by a female Vietnamese tourist who told of the extraordinary sensation of sitting on a Furka steam locomotive in a mountainous region in Switzerland that was being propagated as a locomotive that the Swiss bought as ‘scrap iron’ in Vietnam’s Dalat.
The life of man is odd like that! At times we destroy that which we have, only to then long for the money to redo that which we’ve destroyed.
Stepping out of another tunnel of the old railroad, I stood right at the end of the tunnel and cried out, ‘Rack railway…!’ The sound was not as resounding, but the echo was still as of old, ‘Raaaccckkkk raaaaaaiiiilll wwwaaaaaa yyyyyyyy!’