On December 1, 2019, Chinese artist Cheng Xinhao departed his hometown of Kunming to walk along the Yunnan-Vietnam railway all the way to Vietnam. A journey of 465 kilometers that – he reckons in his very first email in the book – would take him between 25 days and a month, depending on his physical condition and possible encounters along the way. In the end, he managed to complete the journey in 19 days.
Cheng Xinhao documented his trip in photographs. In each of the photographs, we see him and the railway tracks. These two elements do not change; they are our constant partners on this trip. What changes, though, are the surrounding landscapes, the weather, the time of day, the fauna, the people he meets along the way. For each kilometer of his journey, he picked up a small piece of ballast and added it to his backpack; by the last day, he carries twenty kilograms of the railroad on his back. Each chapter of the book marks another day of walking; we are told the start and finish of each day’s trip, the amount of kilometers walked, and the date. At the end of each day, Cheng Xinhao writes about his journey to X, an imaginary friend.
Throughout his letters, we learn about his motivation for the trip, about his intimate connection with this part of the world and its railroad, his hopes, his knowledge of the region’s history, the colonization of the countries in this part of the world, the modernization of South East Asia’s mountainous areas, his childhood memories, his encounters and his observations. The book’s true strengths lie in its meditative nature, the interplay between repetition and change of its images, the solemn, introspective character of Cheng Xinhao’s writings.
“An ocean! A railway towards an ocean! Can you imagine? Those lights in the dark night would eventually end up in an ocean! And what does this imagery mean to a child living in the mountain area of the hinterland? Since then, my perception of the ocean has been tightly bonded with this railroad. To imagine an ocean through a railroad. This idea still throws me into a kind of self-hypnotic excitement once I think about it. Is this a Kitsch? I have no idea. But this is where I came from and what defines myself.”
— from Cheng Xinhao’s second mail (2019.11.28)