Six o’clock on the dot, the train gave a lurch then, as if reluctant to start, almost imperceptibly began to move. Outside, the air hung warm and misty. A large bat, beautifully silhouetted against the rose of dawn, overtook the train. Through the open windows I saw once-white concrete tenements festooned with razor-wire, drying laundry and feisty little wall-weeds. Progress was slow enough to catch snippets of unintelligible conversations.
The engine ran on diesel but our carriage could have been a relic of the Raj. It was bile green, smeared with the grime of decades. There was evidence that the seats had once been reclinable and they’d had
built in cushioning. Some of the tray tables still functioned too. This was Upper Class travel. The speed built from walking pace to perhaps 30mph, which caused the poor old train to creek and rattle and crash.
We were soon clear of Yangon city and looked out across the fertile delta of the Irrawaddy. The countryside was fat as flat, dotted with thatched houses on stilts and the occasional pagoda. Women in big-brimmed hats squatted in the padi fields, planting. People moved about on ox-carts, bicycles, motorbikes, scooter-trucks and other improvised modes of transport. Giant pods dangled from kapok trees. We passed a line of commuter-ducks marching off to work in a drainage ditch. Trees bore striking white blossoms which took to the air, screaming, and transformed into egrets. Flame of the forest and red silk cotton trees were in glorious bloom. I stuck my head out of the window for a better view. Crows shouted surprised aggh, agghs. I pulled my head back in, narrowly missing a mouthful of red spit emanating from a betel-chewing chap further up the train.
A man in a white shirt, bleached quiff and a big smile started moving through our carriage speaking earnestly to each passenger in turn. He had the kind of obsequiousness I associate with evangelists. When he came to us he handed us a small tract.
It was the breakfast menu, offering:
Deep fried sparrow
Deep fried eel
Hard boil egg
We shunned sparrow (only discovering later they were not avian) and chose On Toast, which proved to be two fried eggs on white sliced bread. We managed to gulp down glasses of sweet Nescafe without spilling much.
A three-year-old boy in front had been studying us with great seriousness over the back of his seat but his face broke out onto a sunshine smile when I shared some segments of orange with him. His Mum turned to grin at us too when she saw where the fruit had come from. I wished we had a language in common.
Actually everyone seemed genuinely friendly. When we spent a couple of days exploring Yangon, lots stared at us as but people always smiled when we did, and they returned our attempts at offering a greeting, which was something like “Mingle about”. Folks were even more interested when they learned we were English. I took this as a colonial connection but of course that was not it. They smiled, “Football!”, “Manchester United”, “Wayne Rooney!” “Chelsea”.
They seemed less friendly towards their wildlife than I’d have expected in a Buddhist country. At the central pagoda at Shwedagon, people sold live house sparrows and finches – which in the oppressive March heat were gasping and dying of dehydration. Devout people bought them to gain merit by setting the birds free.
The train stopped often but never for long. Families and food-sellers climbed aboard. The vendors shouted in Myanmar. I only understood the old man who said “Ye – pani – water – ye.”
Sellers strode through the train with huge trays of food balanced on their heads, never dropping anything. There was another big jolt. Water – fortunately it was clean water – poured through the roof behind us. The supply to the loo was incontinent. Eventually I had to go, but using the facility demanded some skill. There was nothing to hang on to while performing a precarious squat, guarding against head-injuries due to random train-lurches and coping with dizziness from looking at the speeding track down the hole beneath.
The smiley man with the bleached quiff came by often and when a passenger made a lip-smacking kissing noise, it took a moment to realise this was not a proposition but to attract his attention. Smiley was kept busy bringing boxes of delicious-smelling, thoroughly-fried, unrecognisable food.
The countryside changed. Low hills appeared on both horizons and, now that we had left the vast Irrawaddy delta, the land was parched. It was clearly a tough region for scratching out a living. It was challenging for us to follow our progress as most of the signage at each tiny station was in Myanmar, a script that although based on Sanskrit has so evolved that we could identify very few letters. Most seemed like circles with various pieces missing or twiddly bits added.
I spotted a large, usually shy bird: a chestnut and navy coucal. This is a non-parasitic cuckoo with a quite irritating whittering call. The whole train rattled and raunched, making us feel a little unhinged too. Over some sections, it rocked from side to side, but mostly it lurched and bucked like an unbroken horse. I even wondered if trying to rise to the trot might make me spill less of my drinking water because we had to drink somehow. The temperature rose to around 40◦C and sweat dribbled from my nose and down my back.
The bucking continued. There were often huge crashes as one compartment was wrenched out of synch with others. Some jolts left one carriage more than half a metre higher than its neighbour. It genuinely seemed only a matter of time before there would be a derailment. Discomfort and speed probably explained why so few people – locals or tourists – travel the entire distance between the two great cities, despite the cost being less than for one stop in the London Underground. We smiled at the fact that 384Kyats of the 9500Ks ticket price was for life insurance. We also began to realise that the ten-and-a-half hours timetabled for this 650km journey to Mandalay was optimistic. Indeed all the journeys we made on this trip were optimistically timetabled. Probably it is better that way.
At Pyin Mana Junction a bevy of police and soldiers joined us. Alarmingly one carried a machine gun and two others rifles that looked as if they might have seen service during the Korean War. Their uniforms were smart and kept so – as soon as they’d decided on seats, they removed their shirts and dangled them with their weapons. This was a stark reminder that the military are very much in control here, and unbeknown to us at the time, colleagues were doing battle with demonstrating students. It’ll be interesting to see whether the up-coming elections will change that.
At the ten-year-old
capital of Naypyidaw, Royal City of the Sun, we crossed several empty five-lane highways, wondering why, if the planners really anticipated serious levels of traffic, these were interrupted by level crossings.
Twelve hours into our ten-and-a-half-hour journey vendors offered chilled Myanmar and Tiger beers and half bottles of Grand Royal or High Class whiskies. We gazed out at a spectacular sunset, feeling ready for a sundowner. A can of Tiger hit the spot so that as we rattled into Mandalay after 15 hours, battered, sweaty and bruised of bum, we were suitably mellow and ready to do battle for a taxi.
My next blog is a short tale about buying train tickets in Yangon.