Image this. You wake up early in the morning in Kunming, enjoy a bowl of hot rice noodle for breakfast, which is a signature dish of southwest China’s Yunnan province, then hop on a bullet train and arrive in World Heritage town Luang Prabang in Laos by afternoon.
Cross-border travels between the two neighboring countries used to take three times longer on the road, but now it can be easily achieved in the comfort of a high speed train. All thanks to the China-Laos Railway.
After the 1,035 km railway officially came into service in 2021 as the two countries celebrated the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, it kicked off cross-border passenger services last month.
On the morning of April 13, 2023, an olive green Fuxing bullet train was ready to leave the Kunming South Railway Station, and kicked off the cross-border passenger service of the China-Laos Railway connecting Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province to the Lao capital of Vientiane.
The D887 high-speed train officially departed on 8:08 am and went all the way south, carrying the joy of both the Chinese and Lao peoples. It was followed about an hour later by its sibling which operated in the opposite direction.
The trains, which were packed to capacity for their trip, traveled at a speed of up to 160 km per hour through mountains and valleys.
There are eight stations along the route that stretches over 1,000 km, and the journey takes 10 and a half hours, including the time spent on going through customs. In comparison, previous trips to Laos are usually by bus, when a journey often lasts more than 27 hours on winding mountain roads.
The railway stretches 422.4 km within Laos, linking the northern border city of Boten, UNESCO World Heritage site Luang Prabang, popular tourist destination Vang Vieng, with capital Vientiane.
The first train trip setting off from Yunnan has been a hit among the locals, with all of its 720 seats sold out three hours after release, with three carriages for cross-border passengers and five serving domestic travelers.
First-class tickets are available for 760 yuan ($110.57), while second-class seats cost 470 yuan. In March, the railway operator launched “LCR Ticket”, a mobile phone application that supports Chinese, Lao and English for services such as ticket inquiries, reservations, online payments, ticket changes and refunds.
The launch of cross-border passenger trains has ushered in a new chapter in deepening cooperation between China and neighboring countries, added another fast and convenient travel route between China and Laos, and becomes a new highlight of the already prosperous tourism industry in Yunnan.
People in Chengzi Village, which is adjacent to the China-Laos Railway in Yunnan's Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, are gearing up to seize new opportunities. Before the opening of the China-Laos railway, there was no railway in the whole Xishuangbanna Prefecture, and it took about nine hours to go from Jinghong to Kunming, the provincial capital, by road.
Trips between Kunming to Xishuangbanna only takes less than three and a half hours now, which forms a "weekend tourism circle" within the province. Xishuangbanna received more than 12 million tourists in the first quarter of 2023, reaching a record high.
In particular, the railway has emerged as a crucial factor in boosting Laos' tourism industry, which plays a pivotal role in strengthening its economy.
Tourists are swarming in for the Lao New Year holiday, and hotels in Luang Prabang were operating at full capacity. In northern Laos' tourist town of Vang Vieng, locals splashed water to celebrate the Lao New Year in the scorching April sun.
Despite its impressive landscapes such as karst terrain and strange caves, Vang Vieng has long been little known to the outside world for lack of transportation.
"Since the opening of the China-Laos Railway, it only takes one hour to travel from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, and the ticket price is cheaper than that of the bus. The number of tourists coming to Vang Vieng is two or three times that of the past," said a Vang Vieng station passenger duty attendant.
During the new year holiday, the ticket offices were crowded with passengers at the stations of Vientiane and Vang Vieng. Some were going home for family reunions, some visiting tourist sites, and there were also tourists coming from Europe and America.
In fact, the China-Laos Railway has become the artery of regional tourism development. Official data from the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism show that in the first 10 months of 2022, a total of 335,000 passengers arrived in Luang Prabang province using the railway, accounting for 85 percent of the tourist volume in the province.
As of April 18, the cross-border railway had handled 14.43 million passenger trips and 18.8 million metric tons of cargo, according to China Railway Kunming Group and the Laos-China Railway Co, the line's operators. The line's international service handled 2,326 cross-border passenger trips between April 13 and 18.
“Golden key” to connect China and Southeast Asia
The China-Laos Railway is a landmark project of high-quality Belt and Road cooperation. The railway also serves as a docking project with Laos' strategy to convert itself from a landlocked country to a land-linked hub.
The railway has not only promoted economic development along the route, but also accelerated construction of the China-Laos Economic Corridor and the community of a shared future between the two sides.
Since the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement took effect last year, the destinations for international freight via the China-Laos Railway have been expanded to more countries and regions, including Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia.
As a landmark BRI infrastructure project, the railway aims to promote the movement of people and cargo between the two countries, and further play a role as a key corridor to boost communications in the Southeast Asia region, facilitating areas such as trade and logistics.
The railway now becomes a "golden key" for Laos to connect with China and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which will greatly benefit the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation.
The World Bank estimate that Laos' GDP will rise by 21 percent as a result of the construction and operation of the China-Laos Railway, adding that the line will create more jobs for Laotian people.
"The service has not only further facilitated the flow of people and trade between China and Laos, but also presses the 'accelerator pedal' for the recovery of tourism and other industries, and injects new impetus to promote development between the two countries," said Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the BRI, and China will continue to cooperate with ASEAN members to promote the initiative and benefit 2 billion people in the region, he added.
Although Laos had a 3.5-km-long railway along its border with Thailand before the opening of the China-Laos Railway, many local people see the latter as the country's first railway, and they are proud of it.
"The China-Laos Railway will make Laos a bridge between China and Southeast Asian countries, and in general a link between Laos and the world," said Suanesavanh Vignaket, Laos' minister of information, culture and tourism.
Not only have local people praised the service, international tourists also see it as a convenient link. Tourists in Thailand poured in on holidays to cross the border to experience the China-Laos Railway since it was inaugurated in December 2021.
The China-Laos Railway has also provided a major transport route for Thailand to access the vast Chinese market. In the past, the transport of goods between China, Laos and Thailand had to take longer due to poor road conditions. The China-Laos Railway has cut travel time down to around 10 hours, facilitating the transport of the goods such as fruits which require speedy delivery.
So far, 25 Chinese provinces have launched cross-border trains along the China-Laos Railway, which reach Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore and other countries and regions along the Belt and Road. The number of cargo categories has been expanded from 10 to over 2,000, including electronic and photovoltaic products as well as cold-chain fruits. The value of cargos transported has exceeded 17 billion yuan ($2.48 billion).
The transport efficiency and capacity of the China-Laos Railway have significantly improved. The time of customs clearance for cargos transported along the route has been reduced to five hours from more than 40.
The potential of this railway has been constantly released since this year. In the first quarter, the railway transported 5.16 million tons of cargos, up 215 percent year on year. In particular, 1.1 million tons were transnational, which was nearly three times the amount from a year ago.
Executive Editor: Sonia YU
Editor: LI Yanxia
Host: Stephanie LI
Writer: Stephanie LI
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Produced by 21st Century Business Herald Dept. of Overseas News.
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