I was on the train from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin, a journey that would take all day. The carriage was grubby and broken. In fact, it was one of the filthiest trains that I had ever seen, not to mention that almost anything that one could possible break on a train was already broken. I knew Berlin punks that would have had trouble vandalising this carriage because any actions with a baseball bat, spray can or beer bottle would only improve the décor.
Once ensconced in the correct seat in what was inexplicably called “Upper Class”, it was only a few minutes before the train departed, shuddering and swaying its way forward alarmingly past the first few meters that led away from Hsipaw station towards Pyin Oo Lwin, the former British summer capital. The train wobbled so much that I thought that the next swinging motion may have us all over the side, but somehow the carriages managed to stay on the track.
A slightly worried expression must have played across my face at that moment. A local man sitting in the seat opposite grinned manically at me. This wasn’t so nice as he was a Betel nut user, so the grin looked like a cross between a broken window and a can of beetroot. The man’s teeth were in shocking condition, to put it mildly, but that didn’t stop his fervour for directing his attention toward a fellow train passenger, getting ready for a really good yarn.
I could tell from his mood that he was a train enthusiast and that he wanted to talk about trains. In fact, I am also quite partial to trains in general, but not this train in particular. I had been suffering from a persistent case of Burma Belly for the last few days and wasn’t all that amenable to being rocked, bounced and thrown around a train carriage as I usually am. However, I had to confess to being a fellow train buff nonetheless. Somehow, we just find each other.
“Narrow gauge.” said the man, who later introduced himself as Mr. Ko Ko. ” Pretty old too, but the train is broad gauge.”
“So?” I replied feigning disinterest. I did actually want to know.
“Well, that makes us swing so much. This is a Chinese train, but it wasn’t designed for these shitty tracks we have here.” Ko Ko’s English was indeed impeccable, as was his knowledge of all things railway. “They took all our nice steam trains and put them in the Shanghai museum, and now we’ve got their second-hand locals.” I assumed he meant trains. What followed was an interesting and enlightening discourse on the Burmese train system, the fact that they used to be much better and that we’d be crossing a very interesting bit of engineering, the Gokteik Viaduct, a little later on. The train would have to inch its way across, otherwise it would fall off and we’d all die.
The trainspotter stuck his head out of the window and spat out a gloppy mass of blood-red Betel nut detritus, then, with an air of self-satisfaction, reached into his pocket and got out a fresh wad of stuff wrapped in a green tobacco leaf which he stuffed into his cheek like a hamster.
After a while, the train began to settle down, as did my stomach. I was beginning to enjoy the train now, after the alarming start when I thought we were doomed to be hurled out of the windows by the carriage’s sideways momentum.
A passing vendor, who somehow managed to walk along the train without getting propelled out of the open doors, was offering drinks and I said yes.
“Toucan?” asked the vendor.
“Two cans of Coke, Sir?” My train buff companion grinned again. Why not.
A nearby French couple were appalled as they inspected their dirty seats. This was clearly not the first class scenic railway trip they had signed up for. They pulled a face and tried to ignore the train by reading eBooks at it, but it was no use. There was no way one could ignore the rumble and movement of the train. Somehow it reminded me of being at the helm of a yacht in rough weather. It was the same amateur ballet requiring continuous adjustments of the body to counteract the movements of the vehicle.
There were dangerous, sharp edges on some seats, bare metal frames where the armrest covers had fallen off. There were sharp edges on the windows as well, and the wildly swinging doors were all accidents waiting to happen. The windows of the carriage were mostly stuck in a wonky, half-open position, and the bottom half was either painted black or so dirty that a decent view could only be afforded through the top half, making me sit up straight in my seat and crane my neck. A difficult prospect, since half the reclining seat mechanisms on the train were broken and more then a few of my fellow passengers were also lying back, like sunbathers.
Definitely not first class transport, but it still had a charm to it as well. That was the epitaph of travelling in Myanmar so far – everything was broken and a little uncomfortable and possibly rusty and just a little bit completely filthy, but it was still a great place to be in. It was the people that more than made up for everything. The smiles of the lovely Burmese made up for everything and always pushed the travel equation well into the positive, despite of, and in spite of, anything else that was happening.
We had been rumbling along for over an hour when we slowed again for the scheduled first stop at Kyaukme. Since it was a 20-minute stop, there was plenty of time to walk the platform and buy some food. Lunch was a plastic bag of delicious, spicy noodles and my cup of tea also came in a plastic bag. It was when I was drinking my bag of tea that I remarked that the Burmese writing under the logo for the national railway resembled a pair of breasts. Then there was the unfortunate coincidence that the preceding English initials were MR, to signify Myanmar Railways. And so the train was dubbed “Mr. Boobs”. There was much rejoicing in the carriage at this simple revelation.
After another stop at Nawngpeng at around one, it was another hour or so before we reached the viaduct. I could see the gleaming white steel in the distance, but it took a while longer, passing through a couple of short tunnels, before the train stole across the high overpass. Everyone was excitedly taking photos, leaning out of the right-hand side windows for a better view, and I wondered if that was entirely safe. The doors to the carriages could easily be opened during the journey, and a few of the more intrepid photographers did so now. That wasn’t for me, and I looked over the vertigo-inducing heights to the small river of rapids below from the safety of my recliner. Slowly we moved forward and it took several minutes to pass over the length of the viaduct.
There were a few times that the train zig-zagged away from the pass, giving us at least three more opportunities to look at the colossal feat of engineering that had been a great experience to cross. Later on, the train swayed so much, some of the bags fell from the luggage racks, but luckily no one was hurt by the avalanche of backpacks.
The train reached Pyin Oo Lwin at around five, and we were very grateful to be picked up by the owner of the hotel I had pre-booked for the night. There were a lot of other travellers that got off here, presumably because they had also had enough of the rollercoaster ride.
I had experienced a train journey of extremes and was thankful I had not perished. My travelling companion, the illustrious Mr. Ko Ko, had turned out to be a most enlightening local character. Spurred on by his unbridled enthusiasm for railway, I turned on my computer and started researching other great railway journeys that could be had in this part of the world.