Sunday, 30 December 2012

2012 - December. Burma: a train journey

"Railway equipment is decrepit; fatal rail crashes occur, although they may not always be reported." 

(Foreign and Commonwealth Office website description of Burma Railways)

We arrived at Rangoon’s (Yangon’s) fine railway station at 6.15am without a ticket, but followed the blue signs saying ‘Warmly welcome and take care of tourists’ in Burmese and English: exhortations that have largely replaced the traditional patriotic slogans.  

A very friendly man obeyed the instructions and took us into his shambolic office and laboriously wrote us out a ticket, this being the land of chits and ledgers.  We paid in brand new US dollars, reluctantly supporting a government enterprise.  

Our return ticket: Mawlamyine to Yangon

The platform was full of traders with baskets of bananas and watermelons or rows of cheap watches.  A goat wandered around, trying to snatch bits of produce, and a few families were waking up after a night on the platform.  We found our allocated ‘Upper Class’ carriage, with reclining aircraft-style seats.  In fact they were ‘reclined seats’, as the mechanism had collapsed years previously.  The carriages were utterly shabby but the seats were covered and comfortable, especially as the whole journey was spent almost lying down.

With a fanfare of whistles, horns and much flag waving we set off on time at 7.15, at around 20 mph, with initially a fairly gentle rocking.  As the state of the line declined, then the rocking got worse requiring a steady grip on the armrest.   Then, like an ocean liner in a storm, a different form of motion started, this time violently up-and-down so that we almost left our seats.  I had never thought that seat-belts might be necessary in a train.  We talked later to a hardier traveller who was in hard class, and he said that when the vertical turbulence started everyone just stood up as it hurt so much landing on the wooden seats.

At our gentle pace, and large glass-less windows, we had a fine view of rural Burma continuing as it has done for centuries: planting out rice in the paddy fields, buffalo wallowing in the mud, children playing by the track.   Meanwhile women selling food continued to walk up and down the train with their trays on their heads, perfectly timing their movements as the carriages lurched in opposite directions, threatening to send them out through the wide-open doors.  Some of them had half a kitchen on their heads, and with all the pots and pans to produce a whole meal on a banana leaf, but we stuck to the wonderful corncobs.  We threw the remnants out of the window, while the locals threw everything out including plastic bottles, adding to the ubiquitous litter that only we westerners seem to notice.

Bits are missing
Things seemed to be going rather well and the tales of delays and disaster seemed exaggerated, but then suddenly there was a huge crash right below our seats.  I genuinely thought we had derailed, but we cruised to a gentle stop: this took some time as when everyone piled out to take a look it was clear that the whole brake mechanism from our carriage had fallen off.  

Putting the bits back
We all stood around watching a single individual tie up some dangling bits with wire, while a passing motorcyclist was roped in to go back and pick up a few large bits of stuff from the track, which were thrown into our carriage outside the (indescribable) toilet.   Then everyone piled back in and off we went, arriving at Kyaitko only an hour late: we crammed into a pickup with other pilgrims, then at Kinpun transferred to an open truck which took 40 of us to the top of the mountain of the Golden Rock.

6 hours for around 110 miles is not something that First Capital Connect would be proud of, but any faster would (a) have been unsafe because of the terrible state of track and rolling stock, (b) not have allowed the extraordinary view of the beautiful countryside and people.

* I will call the country Burma rather than Myanmar as (a) it’s the name given to it by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and so I assume it is the English name for the country (and I don’t refer to Germany as Deutschland) (b) Aung San Suu Kyi calls it Burma.