Karen’s flight was just a few days away, so she and Ne Lin headed back to Mandalay, while I decided to take a train east to the small town of Hsipaw. The eye-catching Celica dropped me outside the station about half an hour before the train was due to leave.
The ‘Foreigner price’ fare was US$2. I slapped down a $20 bill. The station-master said he had no change. “Well, I’ll pay in kyats, then,” I said. “Only dollars,” he replied curtly. There was nowhere to leave my pack, so I had no option but to cart it the quarter-of-a-mile into town to find someone to change the $20 for me. Eventually I found someone who could, and I ran – yes, ran – back to the station, where the station-master, smiling away, handed me my ticket.
I’d chosen the train because it goes over the Gothiek Viaduct, a marvel of turn-of-the-last-century engineering and once the second-highest railway bridge in the world. Although the bridge was built by an American company, such things always make me wonder about the old Colonial types. I mean, what on earth would someone from my home village in England in the 19th Century have made of the heat, the humidity, the wildlife, the locals, whatever, in a place like Burma? It’s not like they would have seen it on TV or something, or even, until the later part of the century, seen photographs – drawings and descriptions would be all they had.
Even in the 21st century going over the bridge was pretty hair-raising, as it’s a looooong way down. Actually, given the shoddy state of the bulk of the infrastructure I’d experienced so far, maybe going over in the 21st Century was even riskier than going over when the bridge was first built. All I could do was hope that its strategic importance – as a link between north east and the rest of the country – meant that the government looked after it better than it maintained everything else!
You’ll have to take my word for it about what a nerve-wracking experience going over the bridge was. I tried to take pictures as proof but I was stopped by a soldier, who watched me like a hawk until we were well past the bridge.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the train itself dated from Colonial times, with its solid wooden seats and (by now) knackered windows, and the track was so shoddy that we had to go very slowly. I kept myself entertained, firstly by watching three mice (yes, they were mice) playing in the sacks of vegetables, parcels of bamboo and shopping bags of the women sitting opposite, and secondly, by talking to Kyle, an American traveller, and his Burmese guide, Mr Christopher, who were also going to Hsipaw. I think the station-master put me with them because I was a woman alone and he thought they would look after me!