20 April 2016
Seeing the streets of any Asian city completely devoid of people is a rarity. However, even the Burmese sleep at some point during the day, and 3 am seems to be that time. There were only a few dogs running around in the dark, and the rest was silent. We saw people sleeping in their establishments, on the tables of restaurants, in their taxi vans, on the floors – there seems to be little separation of work life and private life here.
At the train station, there was a long queue of locals waiting to buy tickets for our train and we were happy to have purchased ours in advance. Our upper class carriage was at the back of the train and we settled in with about 8 other foreign travellers into vast, reclining and cushioned seats, almost like business class on an aeroplane. The windows were down and the air was already warm. I watched people on the platform, many sleeping on mats right next to the wares they would start selling in a few hours, others carrying bundles and loads onto the train. We departed at 4 am on the dot, and as the train heaved into slow motion, I felt like a true adventurer of a century past, creaking into the night with no idea of what to expect.
Too excited to fall asleep, I watched as the rattled past shacks and shops beside the railroad, where people were waking up and getting ready for another hot day. We soon came to a halt and suddenly I could hear very strange noises nearby, somewhat terrifying, like an animal being slaughtered. I soon identified the braying to be that of goats – about a hundred colourful, long-eared goats gathered on the platform, which some men were unsuccessfully trying to herd into the freight carriage behind us. Stubborn as they were, they refused to be loaded, and when dragged by force, they let their displeasure be known by saying “meeeeeeeeeeeeh”! Finally, one of them decided it was safe to enter and as soon as it went up the ramp, the others hurried up after it to make sure they didn’t miss out. The entire procedure took about 20 minutes, with all the tourists out on the platform photographing this unique experience, and the loaded goats staring out of the open carriage windows.
The railway was built by the British over a century ago, and it runs from Mandalay to Lashio in the northeast, close to the border with China. Most of it is in Shan state, which has long been involved in struggles for independence, and some areas are still out of bounds for foreigners. From the flat plains of the Irrawady River (on which Mandalay sits), it has to rise up several hundred metres to the Shan plateau. This takes place about two hours into the trip, just as the sun starts rising.
The train approaches what looks like a vertical cliff, and then proceeds to zigzag its way up, forward and in reverse four times until finally reaching the top. If the dust and haze aren’t too heavy, there are splendid views of the plains below and the rising hills. From here, it rattles slowly through the country side, which gradually gets greener as it reaches the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin, a popular escape from the heat of Mandalay with its cooler climes and greener vegetation at 1300 m.
There were many people waiting at this major stop, including quite a few confused tourists who couldn’t figure out where their upper class seats were, as our carriage was already full. In fact, three more carriages were attached between ours and the goats before the train could proceed. In the meantime, hawkers balancing huge platters of fried noodles, green mango, “bia, tea and coffee” bustled up and down the train and along the platform, ready to feed hungry travellers. This takes place at every stop and the group of three (sitting in two seats) in front of us must have eaten the equivalent of 6 meals, all dripping in grease, during the 10 hours we spent on the train.
The highlight for every traveller on this railway is the famous Gokteik Viaduct, which traverses a deep gorge that cuts across the plateau. It was built around 1900 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company and the train creeps across it at walking pace as people lean out of all the windows and doors to get the perfect photo. It is quite the feat of engineering, even if it is a bit scary.
From there, we continue to rock and rolls slowly through the country side, inducing the occasional nap. The railway is narrow-gauge, as are the wheelsets, but the carriages on top of them are wider (presumably to accommodate more people), which makes the whole train jostle around in a rather disturbing manner. When it really gets going, the carriages rock from side to side and bump up and down, and it feels like being on an amusement park ride. Ten hours of this entertainment is quite enough, and I was more than happy to finally get off at our destination, the lively tea-trading town of Kyaukme. We were the only foreigners stopping here, as all the others continued on to the more popularised Hsipaw, another bone-rattling three hours down the line.
We walked past warehouses full of tea and diverse shops to our lodgings, booked by Thura – our guide for the coming three days. My stomach was feeling very poorly indeed, and I sank into the large bed in the shady but warm room to rest until he arrived to make plans for our expedition. Dany walked about the town for a while, and reported a lively market and cold beer in the neighbouring streets. Thura arrived right on time and as soon as I told him of my weak health, he scooted off with Dany to the pharmacy and brought back some serious medication and electrolytes to get me back in shape. I administered these and within hours felt myself recovering, an immense relief after six days. With arrangements made to be up and ready to go at 8:30 the following morning, we had a small dinner (I ate only white rice) and then slept under the vast mosquito net, looking forward to our off-grid adventure!