Wednesday, 15 February 2012

An accidental day trip to Kachin State

“It’ll be here in an hour – this is Myanmar!” the nice man had exclaimed when I wondered when our train might arrive.  I laughed, “It’s really not so different in England!”  We boarded the 4.30pm train from Mandalay to Katha just over an hour late.  Upper Class was not quite so “upper” on this train, which was a shame as the journey to Naba (for Katha) was overnight.  Nevertheless, in preparation for our ferry journey back to Mandalay, we had new blankets so warmth would not be an issue.  Despite the lack of reclining seats, we consoled ourselves by ordering from the menu: our dinner would be delivered directly to us in our seats (playing safe with vegetable fried rice).  We could even buy beer.

The experience was quite different to the ‘Mandalay – Hsipaw’ line.  The carriage was full of vendors moving up and down filling the air with the call for their wares, nuns were collecting alms and we no longer had an attentive conductor keen to ensure our comfort.  The train progressed very bumpily through the pitch black night – only an occasional farmer’s roaring fire was visible.  The uncomfortable nature of the seating meant that the night passed very slowly.  Finally sitting up at 6.50am (just before our scheduled arrival time), I figured we had at least another hour to go (due to the late departure) but maybe longer as the train had stopped for long periods in the night.  When I enquired of some of our fellow passengers, they said “Naba?  About another three hours”.

This train journey was supposed to be uneventful and simply the easiest way to travel to Katha.  Unlike the Hsipaw train, we would be travelling mainly in the dark.  However, an unheard of event (Myanmar Railways making up time) changed the course of our day.  It turned out that we had arrived at and left Naba earlier than planned.  The conductor had not thought to point this out (perhaps because, the night before, we had seen no reason why he should move us to inferior seats so that a man in black velvet flipflops could have ours).  I perhaps should have guessed some time later when one of the vendors on the train insisted on giving me a “Kachin State” breakfast – coconut rice steamed in a bamboo pole (yummie!).  After 60 years of conflict, the Kachin State army had signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government earlier in the week – we were not supposed to be in Kachin State*…

Weary with so little sleep, we ordered breakfast and went back to our books, very keen for the train journey to be over.  Finally, 3 ½ hours later, we were told that we had arrived at Naba and we should disembark.  Climbing down onto the platform, something seemed not quite right.  For a start, the station sign read “Namma”.  A keen motorbike driver wanted to take us somewhere for 1000 kyat but there were blank faces when we mentioned ‘bus’ & ‘Katha’.  No-one spoke much English but everyone wanted to help!  A lot of life takes place at railway stations and there were plenty of people milling around, not seemingly intending to travel anywhere.  We had just livened up their Sunday.

Our train now long departed, it was eventually understood that we wanted Naba, not Namma, and everyone pointed back in the direction from where we had come.  We were escorted to station master’s office, sat down in the VIP waiting area, and the situation explained.  The station master (who had a good smattering of English) scratched his head and went into his office to start making calls.  The local military guard (in a hoodie) looked at us in a bemused way.  It was beginning to dawn on us that we were over 3 hours into Kachin State, possibly four hours beyond our original destination.

Our original platform helpers hung around to stare and smile at the funny white people.  Suddenly, plates were brought in and a variety of nuts and sunflower seeds laid out for us!  The high school English teacher was summoned to the station to act as translator.  He said not to worry; the station master would sort everything out for us.  To be honest, we weren’t worried at all, we thought the whole thing really rather amusing.  I could see the anecdote unfolding before my eyes.  In the meantime, some cakes arrived for our pleasure.

Fortunately, one daytime stopping train goes back down from Myitkyina to Mandalay each day and it was due in 1 ½ hours.  There was an earlier express train that came through but they didn’t stop that for us J  I did wonder at one point!  The school teacher was very kind but did keep telling us that it was not safe for us to be there.  We were to remain in the VIP waiting area until the train arrived.  Word of our presence went round the village and one by one, the villages came to stare and giggle at us from the door.  As the school teacher told us, “You are very strange looking to them.  We never see foreigners here.”

Not unpredictably in Burma, our passports** were requested, but amusingly all they wrote down was: Rooney/Liverpool, Shaffer/Texas.  This led to the obligatory football conversation.  The military man then gave the school teacher questions to ask us to ascertain why we were here and did our “got off the train at the wrong stop” story add up.  Journalists and NGO workers are not well loved by the Burmese authorities.  I saw the school teacher write two questions down in the exercise book he was given.  He looked uncomfortable so I steered the conversation to answer the questions – “What was our purpose in Burma?”, “Where are their cases?”  Efficiently, we had left our main rucksacks in Mandalay as they would be superfluous on the ferry.  As such, we were only carrying a small day pack each and two very large blanket bags!

We pulled out our itinerary (scribbled on a sheet of paper) and Burma guide book.  The station master took the guide book away and took a long look through – we were never sure if this was simple curiosity or if he was looking for something more sinister?!  Our military friend watched over his shoulder.  We discussed our route around Burma and in the end this all seemed enough to convince them that we were simply travellers trying to get to Katha.

Afterwards, the military guard gave the school teacher permission to take us outside the train station into the village’s main square.  Hearing of our plight, one of the food vendors had decided that she would like to meet us and present us with some complimentary special Kachin State food: she cooked us up some banana fritters and fried dough rings with a molasses sauce on the side.  We took them back to the waiting room to enjoy on the train (due any minute now).

The lovely school teacher remained with us, occasionally shaking his head and telling us that it was not safe for us to travel in this region.  I asked if he was able to travel around the area (his home town was 10 miles away) but in the presence of the military guard, I had obviously asked the wrong question.  He lowered his eyes and we quickly changed the subject.  An hour late, the “down” train arrived.  Shortly before it arrived, our military man disappeared, changed out of his hoodie and reappeared on the platform in his full uniform carrying a large gun.  Along with four more junior soldiers, they stood on each side of the track awaiting the train.  We wondered if this happened for all trains but realised that we hadn’t seen this when our original train had arrived.

As the train pulled in, we were requested to remain in the VIP seating area whilst the station master went off to view our seats and speak to the conductor (we were not charged a new fare).  We were happy to travel back in standard class (hard upright wooden seats) but the station master deemed this unsuitable for foreigners and secured the last two Upper Class seats for us (nice reclining airline seats again).  As we were escorted onto the train, a prisoner was escorted off the train by the five armed military guards.

There was no way we would be allowed to miss our station again and so four hours later when we arrived back into Naba, the friendly conductor came to make sure that we did indeed disembark.  He enjoyed telling the story to a few of the local passengers and they all laughed heartily at our expense.  We smiled and shrugged our shoulders as we waved goodbye.  Once off the train at the right stop, travelling to Katha is really easy peasy.  A bus awaits each train and for a few pence, it transports you the 16 miles to Katha in a just under an hour!  We arrived in the dark and once we had picked from the two guesthouses in Katha which accept foreigners, there was nothing to do but enjoy beer and noodles from the night market.  All the locals were very excited about the big game on TV that evening (Arsenal vs Man Utd) but we simply needed a very good night’s sleep.

Katha itself is a very sleepy place.  It has no internet connection and sees maybe 20-30 tourists each week in the high season.  Life revolves around the markets and the arrivals and departures of the government ferries which come and go various times each week.  To foreigners, it is most famous as being the place where George Orwell was stationed with the British army and on which he based his book ‘Burmese Days’.  The following morning, we wandered around and checked out old the British Officer’s Club, the Tennis Club next door and what we think was Joss’ house.

After this quick tour, we purchased floor mats for the ferry as we had heard that it gets very cold sleeping on the deck.  Added to the lovely big blankets we had bought in Mandalay, we predicted that we would be toasty!  Shopping completed, we retired to a riverside beer station to while away the time until the ferry’s departure at 5pm.  We had an excellent vantage point for watching the locals come to bathe in their longyis in the river and the water taxis load and unload continual streams of passengers and motorbikes.
Finally the loading of our ferry was complete, we were nicely relaxed and it was time to drift off down river.

* Tourists are allowed to travel by train into the Kachin State, but only to disembark at Myitkyina (approx another six hours from Namma).  Once you arrive in Myitkina, you are forbidden to travel on anywhere else and buses will not let you board.  The only way back out is the long train journey back to Katha/Mandalay!

** In Burma, each foreigner has to be registered each evening at the local immigration service.  Only licensed hotels can accept foreigners and they must send over an updated guest list each night.

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