February 6th 2017
What a perfect traveling day! I am obsessed with traveling by train. Feel free to skip this. Its long.
Given it will stop every 30 minutes and never go above 20 miles an hour the ‘Yangon-Mandalay Express’ nomenclature seemed somewhat ill-conceived. But in the end, what a train! Yes, it can fairly be said to be grimy (even very grimy) and yes the toilet is a squat (offering some challenges on a journey that has legitimately been described as like riding a horse) but the upper class seats are business class huge (unlike ordinary class which are park benches screwed to the floor), comfy and swathed in crisp clean covers. The nice young man who promised me the best seat on the train has been as good as his word; it’s a single, with full reclining capabilities AND a foot rest. Best of all the windows are thrown wide open. This is $9 well spent – for the next 15 hours we will have a bird’s eye view into a thousand lives.
The Burmese eat constantly, so keeping them fueled for a full 15 hours takes a serious masterplan. The onslaught of vendors appears the minute the whistle blows; breakfast – corn on the cob and those quail eggs no-one likes – is a bust, everyone, including me, has brought their own. But the Nescafe with sweetened condensed milk, is excellent and I am fortunate to discover in the nick of time that the teenage girl who is the hotel night manager has packed me soft boiled eggs. I avert disaster by eating them out of the window. For lunch my across the aisle family (I am the only foreigner on the train) give me permission to buy an odd looking peanut curry but with frantic arm gestures (they don’t speak English) suggest strongly I don’t eat the meat, which indeed looks like it might have been regifted a few times previously. Fruit, including a delicious dryish smoked banana with the texture of figs and dates, dinner and finally, whisky (my family don’t approve so I also shake my head primly). It should be pointed out merchandize is carried on the head, and then the horse ride analogy should be recalled. Different teams of vendors jump on when we stop and then are replaced at the next stop or so. This revolving crew can thereby provide the breadth and depth of menu options the Burmese clearly expect. Their ability to get back home after a day’s work suggests Myanmar railways may be more coordinated than it initially appears.
Nothing bad is going to happen on this journey. We have our own uniformed military detachment (6 in total) to back up the two guys in white uniforms (at the start at least) who have the only actual job of collecting tickets. The two in navy blue are chiefly concerned with making sure that no-one in Ordinary Class will seek out a quick half hour respite on an Upper Class padded seat. They are very assiduous at first, but then go off to sleep somewhere in the back. The two in dark grey, despite their military appearance are chiefly concerned with making sure each carriage stays attached when we stop, and so are very busy except when they are eating. The last two walk up and down looking dyspeptic. They ignore us and we return the compliment. Nothing bad does happen.
Through rural Burma at 20 miles an hour. All of it is a plain, but not a bit boring! Every inch is cultivated. And the texture and intense detail in the landscape mesmerizes me from 6am when we set off, until 6pm, when it finally gets dark. We are going just a bit too fast to take good pictures. So I need to take an inventory instead:
Decent sized cities, one. Decent sized small towns, a handful. But the prime real estate seems to be along the railroad, so we see life being lived right by the tracks. Each house is in a compound of pristine, hard sand. It is on stilts. Some walls are wood, but others are bamboo mats, like the roof, and sometimes elaborately patterned. Few windows have glass. The cooking fire and the kitchen are in the compound, as are the bikes, and maybe one cow, but not much else. Here is an inventory of what people do:
Dads: Get to drive the ox-cart (not one tractor or other mechanized equipment in 12 hours); get to herd the cows in the morning and get to do strategic planning. Moms: From 7am to noon moms are allowed to plant and pick in the fields, depending on the crop (this is when dads watch the moms and do their strategic planning). At noon moms go home and pretend to do housework while chatting with their friends (this is most easily accomplished if your friend lives next door). At 4pm moms hike their skirts under their armpits and pour water over themselves, then they disappear. Millenials: Both male and female hop onto little tuk-tuk scooters at 7am and leave. It is not clear where they are going because of the dearth of decent sized places (see above) still, they go, and then they come roaring back at 4pm. Sometimes the boys will go and herd some cows. Kids: Are dressed in their uniforms and off to school at 7am. Some of them walk along the railroad tracks and some have bikes, so they can give 3 lucky friends a ride. They come back in a better mood at 4pm. Then boys play volleyball and girls go to fetch water. After, girls get together and whisper a lot. Little kids: Little boys are allowed outside the compound to kick sand with their friends all day. Sometimes they pretend to throw rocks at the train. After 4pm they harass their brothers. There are no little girls. Grandma: Pinch hits for mom in the morning but more effectively because she has a louder voice. Grandpas: Worry a lot about Myanmar Rail so they gather at the station and congratulate themselves when the train arrives. Note: Some moms and dads travel on the train, but can it be for work? there are only 2 trains a day and in any case, there is nowhere near to go.
At 6pm darkness falls. No electricity in the villages so there are no lights, except the occasional headlamp as someone picks their way home. Two cars in three hours including the towns. Then onto Mandalay, and the Kyaung Mint hotel. Backpacker prices with 5 star pretensions. What’s not to love?