The 3am wake-up was brutal. It felt even worse when we realised that the hotel had not booked us a taxi to the train station as requested. The night porter suggested we walk a couple of blocks and we would find one. Really? At 3.15am? Inevitably we ended up walking the 30 minutes to the station through the empty streets of Mandalay.
As we got closer to the station, we started to see signs of life. What is less visible during waking hours is just how many people live on the streets on the ramp leading up to the station and on the station platforms themselves. During the day, this is camouflaged by market vendors outside the station and travellers on the platforms.
We boarded our train and in no time were buying onion and potato bhajis through the window of our “Upper Class” carriage. The carriage was fairly comfortable and kitted out with business class seats from a long-ago refitted aircraft. The reclining seats still had the foot rests attached to the back and the trays in the arms. Despite the bad press for Myanmar Railways departure times, the "131 Up" left Mandalay just after 4am, heading out into the darkness. Our carriage was very quiet as all the locals curled up on the seats under the blankets they had thoughtfully brought with them. As the windows were all open, it was chilly. Just before departure a 40 year old monk jumped on board and couldn’t resist the idea of sitting next to me for a chat.
While the rest of the carriage slept, he talked to us about his 15 years in a monastery in Thailand and then read our palms (I’m guaranteed a long life apparently). As Lynn drifted off to sleep in the seat opposite, the monk informed me of his preference for foreign women over Burmese women. I might have felt more disposed towards him if he hadn’t stood up every ten minutes to lean over me and spit red betel juice out of the window. I was keen now to enjoy a little snooze myself but first I had to make clear to my new friend that he couldn’t curl up on my shoulder to go to sleep.
At 8am we pulled into Pyin Oo Lwin (an old British hill station), our monk said his farewells and there was an influx of eight foreigners of varying nationalities (8am being a far more civilised time to join a train!). We munched on the delicious red rice and chick pea stew that a silent monk had presented to us whilst contemplating the day ahead and the crossing of the Gokteik Viaduct. The train line we were on was built by the British a long time ago. When faced with an impossible valley to cross, they simply commissioned the Pennsylvanian Steel Company to build the world’s second highest railway viaduct. Built in 1901, this viaduct has remained in service ever since despite having only received some “remedial work” in the 1990s. I think that the good people of Pennsylvania can be very proud at this feat of engineering.
We made our way slowly up through the glorious countryside, enjoying the life along the tracks: the endless neat vegetable patches, the golden wheat fields, the pagodas and the children waving as the train went by… This is the slow life: the 131 miles from Mandalay to Hsipaw takes a leisurely 12 hours. With all the windows open and the sun beating down, you can still work on your tan whilst enjoying the gentle breeze. The train does rock a lot and you do wonder if you are going to get thrown off the track but in the end, you just get thrown out of your seat from time to time! The answer is to just relax and enjoy the slightly fairground nature of the journey.
The train conductor was very proud of the Upper Class carriage and kept it spotless as passengers came and went. This is a man in tune with his foreign passengers – they are on this train to cross the Gokteik Viaduct. For the ten to fifteen minutes before arriving at the Gokteik Viaduct, you start to get glimpses of this magnificent structure and I will admit that it does look ever so fragile! The train pulls into Gokteik station before the crossing in order to change gear. During the stop, you are encouraged to jump down from the train to take a good look and a few photos. Our conductor positively insisted that we go through this rite of passage. Shortly afterwards, we started to crawl across. We, the foreigners, were captivated whilst the locals mainly read their books or slept. The conductor gestured to me to follow him and he lead me to the end of the carriage where I could stand at the open door and look straight down – I held on very tight! This is a truly awesome experience – in the original, not the over-used - sense of the word. I sat back smiling for the rest of our journey to Hsipaw.
Hsipaw is a small dusty town from where you can trek up to various Palaung villages. With rented bikes for a day, we roamed around town and then in the mid afternoon headed up to the Sunset Hill to read our books and enjoy the view and the silence. A monastery lies at the top and shortly after we arrived, a monk came out to see us with a visitor’s book. We filled in our details but as he walked away, he suddenly spun around: “Rooney?! Manchester United?” “No, Liverpool!” He walked away tickled but appeared again ten minutes later with a flask of tea and some glasses.
The next day we trekked up the Palaung village of Pankam with our guide “Mr Bean”. Here, we stayed with a family in a long house, were invited in for tea by another family, read our books at sunset under the Banyan tree (my Aung Sang Suu Kyi book caused Mr Bean much bafflement) and enjoyed the scandal of a night wedding between a young girl and a previously married man.
Before we knew it, we were back in Hsipaw. It was early morning again and we were setting off by train to complete the return journey over the Gokteik Viaduct…