Travelling on the Express train from Bago to Mandalay
07.08.2011 - 07.08.2011 29 °C
Bago to Mandalay, Myanmar
Waiting for our 07:30 Express train to Mandalay few vestiges of the modern world were visible. Bago station was not replete with electronic (or any) departure boards, tannoy announcements or wi-fi enabled cafes. This station belonged to a much simpler age. A diagram of a train, made from green plastic discs, noted the order of carriages on our train – although as this was all in Burmese help with translation was required.
Waiting for our ‘11Up’ train – as we were heading north – the number of fellow travelers, on our platform, steadily grew. For roughly the next seven days an important nat or spirit festival was to be celebrated in Mandalay. As such the train would be busy.
Watching the dilapidated carriages arrive into the station we were reminded that these could have been the same carriages that a Kipling or Orwell may have travelled in. Clambering en board our reserved Upper Class seats were already occupied. Not that these were Upper Class in anyway comparable to Virgin Atlantic’s product offering of the same name. Offering some padding and a slightly bent foot rest they would be our accommodation for the 400 mile, 16 hour journey to Mandalay. After gesticulations and an extreme reluctance from our seat squatters movement encouraged us to think that our seats would soon be available. It was only as they arose from our seats that we realized one of the passengers was manacled to the seat with a short chain, around his neck, ensuring he could not make a break for freedom. As they headed to an Ordinary Class carriage with its wooden seats we stored our bags and settled in for the journey – the aging springs of our seats already make unfortunate and unwarranted explorations of their own.
Large, wide open, panoramic picture windows provided a startling view of the passing landscape. No signs of modern day life were visible. For endless hours we passed water buffalo working in the paddy fields and ox carts being used as transportation and delivery vehicles. Golden Stupa’s punctured the landscape, some overgrown, their previous glories now tarnished. This was not a land of tractors or mechanical farming aids.
Since it was built by the British, track and rolling stock maintenance is clearly not an important consideration in Burma. For the third day in a row our journey became reminiscent of a vicious rollercoaster ride. At times physically airborne our carriage jumped, swayed and jerked for most of the sixteen hours to Mandalay. Making few stops our average speed throughout our ride was around twenty-five miles per hour. Given the violent assaults on our bodies as we bounced along, at times concerned the carriage would simply jump off the tracks, we felt this ‘Express’ train was travelling quite fast enough. We also remained thankful that we had not sought out the overnight train to Mandalay. Sleeping in an upper bunk on the Trans-Mongolian Express was slightly concerning with our heavy footed driver. On the Yangon to Mandalay Express it must be truly terrifying. If our experience were repeated surely any passenger not physically tied to their bunk would find themselves involuntarily departing their bed as some particularly violent section of track is traversed.
Yet, as our time machine hurled us back into a colonial age without machines or modern technologies that make travel more than tolerable the stunning panoramas that presented themselves throughout our journey more than compensated. Yet, when the periodic rain showers did occur the panoramic windows offered little shelter from the elements. Where windows were not or could not be shut umbrellas were used, inside the carriages, to shelter from the rains. However, neither rain nor the bouncing carriages could deter the constant stream of ever changing vendors offering their wares for sale. Cold beer, rice and curry, sweets, boiled quails eggs and warm samosas were just some of the items available – the latter two being particularly welcome at lunchtime!
Our journey North passed through relatively view towns, stopping periodically more to allow new vendors on board than passengers as most appeared to be travelling from Yangon or Bago, not alighting until Mandalay. After many hours, however, it soon became apparent that we were approaching the new Burmese capital of Nay Pyi Taw. Whilst the train line passes some ten miles to the east of the Government’s purpose built capital its affect on the local countryside it still visible. Six lane highways, built for SUVs, yet essentially deserted when we passed through and automatic level crossing gates (the first we had seen not operated manually, with a rope) held back the non-existent traffic of this strange, over the top attempt at capitol building, a complete anathema to both ourselves and from our conversations the Burmese alike. Yet, within a few minutes our ride back to the future with a modern, tiled, brightly lit railway station and multi-level offices and houses unseen on our journey so far was behind us and we returned to a slower age, without technology or modern conveniences impacting.
As darkness fell and the fireflies played outside the endless parade of snacks continued until finally, some two hours late we arrived in Mandalay. Even at midnight the station was busy. Many were asleep on the platform possibly awaiting a late departing train, possibly using the relative comfort and safety of the platform as a makeshift home. For everyone on the train it was the end of their journey. Hustling out of the station to the typical cries of ‘taxi’, ‘where you go’ and the like we were soon in a small blue Mazda taxi, hunched on the benches in the back heading to our hotel ready to spend a few days exploring that fabled town of Mandalay for finally we were ‘On the Road to Mandalay’.