Published: October 7th 2010October 7th 2010
Managed to fit in a performance by the Moustache Brothers while in Mandalay. At an 8,000 kyats ‘donation’ it’s a bit pricey I think, but it’s more of a cause than a performance (Par Par Lay was jailed for his jokes, as immortalised in the film About a Boy, which is screened during the show). The ‘comedy’ isn’t very good, better is the traditional dancing, especially when sisters-in-law are roped in who look they would much rather be indulging themselves washing dishes or beating a few carpets.
Seeing as I had to gay the government’s $10 ‘archaelological zone’ fee, I get up early the day of the train trip and charge off to see the Golden Palace Monastery, another one and then the palace itself. The palace grounds are huge - a mile each side - and of course you can only come and go from one inconvenient place. After being pestered constantly by cab drivers not one is to be found when I actually need to go somewhere.
After feeling rushed trying to squeeze in internet - Mandalay is a black hole for communications - I end up at the station with plenty of time. Once there I buy some Oishi ‘beer match’ Potato Fries, which are ‘selected specifically for a beer drinker’s enjoyment’.
Finally we depart and pass the ancient cities, then a flat landscape of paddy fields, toddy palms, then just fields and trees.
A retired army officer is the other passenger in my compartment. He wants to practice his English. And sit on my berth. He informs me that he doesn’t like the top one, so we should both sleeping sitting up on the space allocated to me.
‘I can’t sleep sitting up,’ I told him. ‘That’s why I got a sleeper.’ He ignores this and proceeds to spread himself out in MY AREA. He seems to resent me sitting by the window, but he annoys me so I don’t care. Besides, IT’S MY SEAT.
Later he says that speaking English with me is far less satisfying than with this English teacher he met four years ago. As I repeat a simple phrase for the sixth time, I think how much nicer it would be not to speak to him at all.
He keeps asking me the same questions and accusing me of not telling him the answers. I think he has a problem with short-term memory. He gives me helpful tips like: ‘It would be much better for you if you had friends in Myitkyina.’ Well I guess it would, but I don’t see this guy stepping into the breach. In fact, when we finally do get to Myitkyina, he barrels out of the carriage without so much as goodbye.
A spectacular sunset brightens my mood, and as night falls I get a series of lectures on safety from my travelling encumbrance, I mean companion. He seems to be concerned for my wellbeing, but he won’t shut the door to the compartment because I am female. I guess people would talk - probably all those people I should be friends with in Myitkyina along with all the satisfactory English speakers.
He goes on and on about safety and there are a hundred people sleeping outside in the corridor. ‘I have to take care of you,’ he announces pompously. ‘You are the only tourist woman on the train.’
He gives me a lot of useless travel information and says I can’t get the boat back to Mandalay (except I do).
I am not afraid, just hot mainly, but it is feasible one of these dudes snoozing in the corridor could be desperate enough to steal something. In the end I decide to sleep up top mainly because I can lock my bags to a pole. Grumblebum is thrilled, he gets to snore down below in total comfort while I bake up above. I’m squashed into the space with my pack and I lie there sweating.
I fan myself until I fall asleep, then I wake up again when I overheat. This enjoyable and satisfying activity continues for hours. I also discover that there is no running water on this train, and I have to step over about 20 bodies to wedge open the door to the filthy squat toilet. The thought of using this again ensures no beer passes my lips. I wash my hands and brush my teeth out the window.
Meanwhile the train bucks and thuds and rolls along the track, every now and then rhythmically banging its way across the sleepers. Until about 10.30pm when there is a huge thumping and juddering and the whole train spasms and stops. Later I discover two passengers sitting between the carriages have fallen asleep and fallen off. We rumble to a halt and that’s it for the next five and a half hours. I fan, doze, and fan, cursing the train, but mostly Grumblebum below whose noisy slumber is very, very irritating.
At 4am we finally move again and I sleep, only to wake at 6am when the train stops again. There seems to be no compelling reason to move so I doze and fan until 9am. By then Grumblebum has disappeared and I go in search of … anything really.
Three people in the next carriage motion me in, but I want a bathroom. I get off the train and wander over to some huts. Then a young man appears and asks what I need. He helps me to find a bathroom of sorts, then urges me back to the train. He comes too, and turns out to be one of the three people I saw earlier.
Things look up here, mainly because they are nice and have a sense of humour. The young guy is a Lt-Captain in the army, commanding large battalions on the Thai border at the age of 26. The older man deals in ‘treasure’, which puzzles me, until I realize he means gold and diamonds. His wife doesn’t say much, although she is pleased I admire her bag.
The Army Captain speaks a little English, and likes Westlife and Chelsea Football Club. The gold merchant is good fun, although he doesn’t speak a word of English. After they’ve fed me and made me laugh, I’m almost glad to be on the train. Though we’re still stationary. I want to go and look at it, see if it was damaged by the people falling off, but there’s no enthusiasm from my new mates.
About 1pm there is a big panic to get back on the train. About 2pm we roll off. Twenty minutes later we stop again. But now we’re all getting off. I return to my carriage and get my pack and my caption appears at the window and takes it from me. Then the four of us struggle up the side of the train trying not to be trampled by the rest of the passengers who are fighting to get past. Captain takes me up the front now, and I am rather surprised to see the engine and first carriage are splayed and upended on the ground. I’m even allowed to take a few quick pictures, which gives me something to talk about the rest of the time I am in the country.
There’s a few sleepers over a ravine to be negotiated, with a railway employee attempting to stop people going too near the edge and falling off.
Peasants are scrambling over each other with chickens and bags of rice but we ascend to the relative calm of first class. First class Myanmar style anyway, it’s not as well appointed as the average tube train in London.
This arrangement lasts until the next station where we all alight again. My three friends usher me off and carry my things. The train manager pops by to make sure I am OK. At the station, everyone is squatting in the dirt but we go into the nucleus of management and put our crap on a bench in a hut. Then railway manager asks me if I’m OK again and decides I will be better off sitting outside where there is more breeze. He drags a colossal wooden chair with large armrests out front and as I sit on my throne, I suddenly feel very Princess Margaret.
I’m having a very colonial moment and want to laugh. My pals are sitting close by in the dust and they are laughing too. My Captain brings me a beer and I drink it with as much regal dignity as I can muster, though I have some concern about bladders and bathrooms.
Then I meet a lovely monk who speaks great English and he fills me in on the calamities. ‘In Myanmar you need to be patient,’ he says.
Finally work out that Burma comes from Bamar, the name of the dominant ethnic group. It’s not even wrong to call the country Burma. The monk talks about Rangoon. I learn how to say hello, or greeting that means I have good fortune to see you, or something like that.
It must sitting on the throne, but suddenly I don’t care about anything anymore. This will take as long as it takes. Then, eventually, it’s onto the next train - my captain takes my pack and I am ushered aboard. Sadly I am back with Grumblebum.
‘Mingalaba,’ I greet him when he appears.
‘Where you learn mingalaba?’ he asks crossly. I want to ignore him but then he gets out his book collection. Dear God, I am so bored as he drones on. Eventually he falls asleep next to me, taking up two thirds of the space.
Later on I decide I am going to like down. On MY berth. Grumblebum is not happy and I don’t care really. He stands next to me lecturing some poor sod who probably wants to throw himself off the train to get away from him. I am itchy and just lie there for ages. Grumbles whacks me when the captain pops in to say goodbye. That’s a sad moment, for he was so good to me and I shall never see him again.
I doze off again and Grumbles whacks me and barks: ‘Myitkyina.’ It’s 4am and this is where I could do with some help, but he just pisses off.
The station is teeming but there don’t seem to be any cabs or anything. Then one rattles up and takes me to the YMCA, which I could have walked to if I’d known where it was (no map in Lonely Planet, thanks again LP for all the useless maps of deadbeat towns and nothing of this major terminal. Oh, but it does say get a map at the YMCA. Really useful, that is.)
Cab driver asks for 300 kyats. ‘Do you mean 3,000?’ No, he insists it’s 300. Of course he does want 3,000 but that’s a ridiculous amount so I give him half.
Am desperate for a shower and there’s no hot water in the slightly slimy bathrooms but have a wash and it’s good to feel clean. And not hot.
I think back on the train ride, which was definitely the worst train I have ever been on, and yet in many ways I think it will be the most memorable.
It was probably worth it just to know how minor royalty feel at all those garden parties they go to. Though they probably get a cup of tea out of it. Still, the warmish Myanmar lager went down OK. Somehow I don’t think I can top this as a train trip, and nor would I want to. I fall into bed, a bed with sheets that is delightfully still.