The Road to Mandalay is nothing like the poem and not at all how I had expected it to be. It is a very busy highway, the arterial road from north to south. Huge Chinese manufactured lorries, piled high with watermelons, thrust their way north towards the Chinese border. Sadly the local farmers, who have been encouraged by the Chinese traders to grow crops of water melons, do not realise that their land will be barren for 4 years as apparently water melons poison the earth. The buses are piled high with people, stacked much like the melons, there are bicycles so overloaded that you can’t see the riders. Horse drawn carts, people walking, everyone busy, everyone bowed down with produce, everyone, it seems, is on their way to Mandalay for market day to sell their wares.
We stopped at a little cafe for a “comfort stop”, don’t you hate the phrase? The Vietnamese have a much better word they call it the “happy house”. I intend to devote a whole other blog to how to survive squat loos so I will say no more for now.
Mandalay is a sprawling town, not particularly noted for its buildings, but it is perceived as the cultural centre of Burma and has more than 700 pagodas. I have a nasty feeling I have a photo of every one. Nowhere in the world have I seen such an enormous amount of gold. Buddhas, Pagodas, Stupas are all covered in gold leaf, millions of pounds worth, in fact they are all getting larger due to the thousands of layers of gold leaf and some are six inches thick! The nuggets of gold are found in the rivers in the north of the country and they are beaten thin into gold leaf and then bought as offerings. A trifle OTT? Not really, I assure you the sight of pure gold glinting in the sun against a back drop of luscious green vegetation and clear blue sky is breathtaking.
We are bound for Pyin Oo Lwin, an old colonial hill station. Our trusty bus chugged on leaving the hot and dusty plains and started to climb towards the cool of pine-clad hills. The ancient bus did its best, but hairpin bend after
hairpin bend was a tough task. Any lorry travelling downhill had to wait whilst the up coming lorry did a three-point turn to get round the hairpin. The bus groaned on, grinding away in first gear, soon clouds of smoke were coming out of every outlet and there was a strong smell of overheating. The driver and conductor got out, our guide got out, there was much scratching of heads…. this was now becoming pure Thomas the Tank engine and I was expecting the Fat Controller to arrive at any moment. In fact he did in the form of a very nice Burmese man who poured a bucket of water over the engine! Our bus, now suitably cooled, was able to move on. In the next village we saw dozens of buses being hosed down…Water the horses… It’s water the buses in Burma!
Back to the Raj and Pwin Oo Lwin, the Hill station built by the British so they might get away from the searing heat and dream of home and loved ones. Letters took 8 weeks, poor old lonely bachelors no wonder they longed for the arrival of ‘The Fishing Fleet’.
The British had an extraordinary way of putting their stamp on everything, from the general post office, (excuse the pun,) to the railway station, the officer’s club, the cottage hospital, the golf club and the barracks. The buildings in Malaysia, Burma and India, from this period, are all practically identical in design. The bungalows that people built for themselves are another matter; there are black and white pseudo Tudor, heavy gables, pure Esher, lookalike Cotswold manor houses. The owners must have had such fun designing them, grand houses to remind the owners of their homeland. This is the land of Miss Hunter Dunn…. wonderful gardens long since unloved, once tidy tennis courts spawning wild flowers, impressive gates longing for paint, all rather sad, but obviously years ago magnificent. Interspersed in the, now neglected, gardens, are tasteless Chinese style houses, swathed in barbed wire, with intricate security around them. Now inhabited by Government Bigwigs, it all seems rather incongruous.
Our hotel, The Royal Parkside, sounded considerably grander than it was! Today was to be the first of the serious treks, of course OG and I had been in training and I had been practicing my squats for weeks! (There was another motive for that, which I have told you I will deal with in another blog.)
Our fellow trekkers were all serious walkers, Everest base camp, Bhutan, and the like; they had sticks and zippy trousers, foreign legion hats, serious boots, crampons and anything known to man for walking; OG and I looked a sad little pair in our Hush Puppies and Marks & Spencer non-blister socks but not daunted we were determined to show we had mettle and indeed we had.
The only way to really see, feel and absorb a country is to walk, it is at this speed that one catches the rhythms, meet the children, connect, begin to understand the problems and if you are lucky enough you may be invited into people’s homes. For this particular walk our guide had engaged the services of a local Mr. Fixit who was the leader of the village; a staunch member of the Nationalist Party, he proudly showed us his home which was plastered with huge coloured pictures of the Lady. His chest bursting with pride, he also told us that his son was a student at the monastery and we would be passing by so we must go and see him. The jolly Abbot greeted us as long lost friends with huge grins and waves. You are not allowed to touch monks, but the conversation always seemed to be very cheery. The little son was wheeled out and I felt rather sorry for him. He stood close to his dad as if gathering strength from him. He looked so slight, with his shaven head, skinny shoulders and robes. The novices all have to beg for their food every morning, so sharing is learnt very early. The smiling Abbot offered us food and tea but we had to decline, politely, as we needed to get on with our hike. A child being accepted into the monastery means a guarantee of education, a prized gift for life, since there is no free education. They do not necessarily have to commit to a religious life and the decision can be made at 17 or18 years old, which seems very fair but it does mean that the monks get all the bright children. The Buddhist monks have quietly been very strong in influencing the population.
The next morning we were up at dawn to catch the railway train from Pwyn Oo Lwin to the Gokteik viaduct, a seven hour journey. The train comes from Yangon and it is a 26 hour journey in
total. In true British fashion the railway station is instantly recognisable, with its special cut out roof covers for the platforms that you have on every railway station from Margate to Slough, Yarmouth to Bridlington. The station master’s office even had a patch of garden enclosed by a mini picket fence with marigolds growing in it! Apart from the architecture things could not have been more different! The platform was piled high with goods, which are obviously going to be transported, however they don’t seem to be packed. There are piles of woven mats, baskets overflowing with tomatoes, beetle nut, onions, chives, flowers, chillies, sacks of rice, boxes breaking open at the sides, hastily wrapped in twine, spices, live chickens, children, rugs and people…. lots and lots of people all going somewhere, all carrying their goods and mostly in baskets on their heads. I worked out that the woman carrying the tomatoes, at Waitrose prices was carrying £400 worth!
Everything grows in profusion in Burma, you only have to drop a seedling and it will multiply and flourish. Unlike many other places in the East, the gardens and farms are very neat, every available area of fertile soil is used to its maximum. Carrots, coriander, turmeric, strawberries, gooseberries, zucchini, onions, lettuce, spring onion, garlic cabbage, you name it they grow it. The Burmese are a nation of gardeners and farmers, they are all green fingered.
The train finally started to draw into the station, with a man walking in front of it. No wonder the journey takes so long! The man was in fact a coupler i.e. he coupled the train to the two new carriages. There are first class tickets and 3rd class tickets for this journey and I am happy to say we are travelling third class, the only difference being a piece of foam rubber one inch thick so it didn’t seem worth paying more for an inch of foam rubber to rest my more than ample bum on. I must mention that there are no windows on this train, there is the space that a window would be in but no shutters or glass unfortunately for me as I was sitting next to the window. As soon as the train started off and gathered momentum every branch and twig sprung through the window lashing me on my chest, I still have the bruises. Any pain was worth it however as the journey was magical. I loved every minute of it, from the lovely ladies who were selling foods from baskets balanced on their heads to the blind and crippled beggars who shuffled down the centre of the train begging for alms. We are in a Buddhist country and everyone shares. I was enchanted as I watched our guide order food and give it to each beggar as they passed us.
The train took us through the deepest countryside, every available square inch was tilled and what was not tilled brimmed with yellow windflowers. I will never forget the sea of yellow as I watched people harvesting, ploughing, hoeing, weeding, driving their oxen and washing their children in the river. People waved at us and the children ran by the train trying to keep abreast as we drew into each station more and more people got on, the seats were hard wooden slatted seats, and the ladies selling deliciously freshly cooked food nimbly ran up and down the train selling ready made meals wrapped in banana leaves. For those that didn’t have a seat they squatted on the floor, sat on boxes or stood on the moving footplates of the area which joined the coaches together. The travellers talked, slept, fed babies and counted their produce. There was not a mobile phone or computer or IPad to be seen.
I started conversing, though our guide, to a very elderly lady. She told me she was 94 years old and had spent her life on this stretch of the railway. She had been widowed and left with 6 children and she had managed to educate all her children by selling her tomatoes on the train – what a feat! She was very proud, she was a tiny slip of a lady and I marvelled at her quiet dignity.
The scenery was spectacular, first it was small farms and neat rows of vegetables and then we progressed to rugged hills. All day long we stopped and started, people got on, people got off. For all I know babies could be born and people must die as all of life was on this train, and people live their whole lives on it. Not us however as we were on our way to the Goiteik Viaduct built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1901. When it was built it was the second highest bridge in the world spanning 335 feet to the river below. Slowly, slowly, the bridge came into view… it reminded me of the film of The Bridge on the River Kwai as the train started to actually go over I looked down and the girders were creaking. Far, far below was the river, looking like a pale green satin ribbon wiggling at the bottom of the gorge. Here I was on the Burma Railway, the precious communication line that the Japanese had valued so highly that it cost the lives of so many men in the last World War.
On that sombre note I shall leave you for now, but there is much, much more, next week – a challenging night in a damp bed, hallucinations from the blankets, and the wonderful trip down the Irrawaddy, the country’s greatest natural highway and the focal point of Burmese life!