The ‘stranger on the train’

5.30am, Yangon Station, the platform gates open and a slice of Myanmar humanity rushes to board the 6am Express train from Yangon to Mandalay. We are booked upper class with reserved seats, and in eager anticipation we board, but things are not as shown on the Myanmar Railway web site. Seat covers are not the pristine white ones as proudly shown but are a shabby green. There are old cast ceiling fans and small fluorescent lights, the latter barely lifting the gloomy, grim interior. There are a few other upper class passengers, all from Myanmar, who have already reclined their seats and are sound asleep in seconds, perhaps to escape their surroundings

Before settling down I clean the window with hand wipes, but with deep horizontal window bars that obscure the view, it's pointless. Then to the seat positioning; there are two choices, upright or reclining which is very near to horizontal. Before deciding which to try, and with time before the off, I go exploring to see what our loco power will be to haul the ten coaches northwards on this 388 mile, 15 hour journey. It's an old but powerful diesel loco, and the solitary driver acknowledges my wave with a nod as if to reassure me that we will make it.

Walking back, I see that the ordinary class coaches are crowded with young and old, all cheery, all wrapped up against the early morning chill, and all with a welcoming smiles acknowledging that there are strangers on board.

Back to my seat and in upright mode with the inherent limited vision, and with the station master having waved his green flag, we are off, the diesel engine, in a cloud of fumes and with a blast of its horn, bursting into life, growling, disturbing sleeping Yangon. We slowly "clunk clunk" over rail joints, leaving the dimly lit station and entering the dark world outside, that of the Yangon suburbs.

There are no street lights here, no lights from the dwellings, and the only sign of life is the trackside fires that have been lit. Here the rail side folk sleep, but already some shadowy figures are moving, preparing for the day.

Realising that I have limited vision due to the window bars, I adopt the reclining position and, using my rolled up jacket as a pillow, I can see outside. By now we are creaking along at a steady 20 miles per hour. The motion of the carriage is unbelievable at such a slow pace. It is like riding a horse, camel, elephant, or a wave. The noise is deafening, a crescendo of bangs, drum beats, slams, squeals and screeches, and then..."dungedy dung, dungedy dung"...followed by a clash of cymbals..."tshush", the sounds of the heavy, barely sprung carriage rolling over the rail joints. A rhythm that is with us throughout the journey, the beat and sound changing by the hour.

6.15am and outside a pink glow in the sky appears from the east and the shapes of dwellings that back onto the railway can be seen. A variety of huts, shacks and lean tos, made from bamboo, reeds, rushes, timber, a few brick built. Around them is the detritus from human life. Piles of rubbish, plastic, black oily waterways and pools...and the ever pervading smell of wood smoke. Gradually more and more people are up and about, carrying out their early morning ablutions, some stirring the fire embers to start their breakfasts. The suburbs of Yangon are awakening.

Yangon Express, Blog. Trackside Life (1 of 1)

We cross a large iron girder bridge, the noises now echo from the overhead stanchions above us doubling the cacophony, and the rising sun reflects on the river below. We gradually increase speed, and the noises and bucking and rolling increase accordingly, into a steady rhythm. The engine horn blasts almost continuously.

Smallholdings appear running up to the track. They are filled with green produce and their owners quickly harvest this desperate to get it to the local markets. The train then slowly draws to a halt at the first of many stations. While we await those boarding, a family in an adjacent train presents their child at their carriage window to be photographed, the startled youngster frowning whilst the proud parents grin, giggle, and nod, and chatter to others in their train, proudly proclaiming to them that their starlet is en camera. But we are off again, our upper class carriage gaining more passengers, all of whom are quickly seduced into sleep by the motion and sounds.

Yangon Express, Blog. Child en Camera (1 of 1)

Vendors have now joined the Mandalay train, and shout out the names of their wares as they rush up and down the aisles vying for business. Sleep for us mortals is now impossible, but there are still those already knocked into a state of unconsciousness, safely locked into their dreams, oblivious to their surroundings.

6.45am, Yangon has now disappeared and we are out into an open countryside not unlike the plains of Africa. A red sun has risen and a pink mist hovers over this vast flat landscape. Naming the few crops that there are is impossible. The land is divided into small parcels for irrigation and ownership purposes. There is the odd bamboo shack built under the sparse trees. A few paddy fields lie by the line, and here workers are bent double frenetically picking the crop and planting new shoots. Children are nowhere to be seen. The first cow appears and ignores us as we roar and rattle by.

By 7am the sun is well up and a long shadow of the train speeds alongside, keeping up. Telegraph wires run with us too, the train is not alone on its journey. The pace quickens, and to a rhythmic "gding, gdiddlydung" and "tshush", connecting carriage doors crash and we race along at 40 miles per hour.

There are banana palms now, flocks of ducks in half filled river ways being guarded by their sleepy keepers, white and gold pagodas, egrets following large lumbering cattle. Two vultures circle high in the sky, more and more people surface to carry out their daily tasks, and always...the ever pervading wood smoke.

7.45am, and we reach Bago, our first large town stop. Vendors are changed so new produce appears with new shouts and bawls, and away we go again.

The pace has upped, but the rocking, rolling, bangs and rhythm of drum beats continues as we pass minor stations where their masters wave us through with their green flags. A blast from the horn of a long freight train heading south, the following wind slamming through the open windows, adds to the din. I am still the only person in the half filled carriage to be wide awake.

8am onwards. The journey now follows a regular pattern, stations come and go, some we stop at, some we are flagged through at a rip roaring speed of 50 miles per hour. The noises continue unabated, and changes now with the calls of new vendors selling different cooked vegetables, sweetbreads, newspapers, confectionary, bottled drinks and teas from tin flasks. Breakfast packs are being changed to lunch meals. At each stop, the changeover occurs.

Outside, children appear, smartly dressed in their school uniforms. Level crossing gates hold back a mass of tut tuts, motor bikes, the odd loaded lorry, a few cars, cyclists, pedestrians, ladies carrying their loads on their heads, as always colourful and smiling, always…the wood smoke. And now dust.

We pass more pagodas, and occasionally trees brush against the carriages. The telegraph wires have been replaced by fibre optic cable strung from metal poles and the first mobile phone mast can be seen.

By 10am the noise of the rhythm of the train changes to "da dee da dee", but the same following cymbal "tshush" reverberates around us. Now awake, one of our fellow passengers, an elderly lady in thick coat and woollen bobble hat, struggles to walk to the toilet cubicle, grabbing hold of whatever she can to remain upright with the bucking and swaying motion. After much time and effort she reaches her goal, only then having to repeat the trial to get back to her seat afterwards. All others sleep, missing this action and the ever changing panorama outside.

At Pyay, a line of rusting steam engine hulks lie outside the old loco depot, a spider web of vine weeds creeping slowly over them. Like other major stations, acres of disused sidings lie weed-covered with trees pushing upwards through the decaying sleepers. People abound in these areas where there are rush houses, smoke drifting across the forlorn landscape from their fires. Abandoned carriages and wagons provide a home for those lucky enough to grab one when these vehicles no longer have railway use. Smiling faces appear from their glass-less windows, with the odd wave back in acknowledgement to the stranger on The Mandalay Express.

Yangon Express, blog. A friendly wave (1 of 1)

The train’s regular rhythm is now often interrupted by numerous track repair works, our speed then no more than at walking pace. Yet southbound expresses still hammer past us, apparently ignoring the speed restrictions. Or is their track fixed?

Our shadow, for so long our companion, is now seeking shade itself, hiding under us, as the sun has fully risen. Occasionally the shadow reappears as we lurch around the few bends. Once more we run parallel with the telegraph wires; modern communications have yet to reach here.

Midday, and still nine hours of our journey to go if time is to be kept. People are now awake. The only sleeper is the suited man opposite us who has not stirred since we left Yangon. There are newcomers, a mother and young son who sit behind, playing games and counting one to ten in English to proclaim to us that, in school in Myanmar, pupils are proficient in English and maths. Ahead, a young man continuously chatters on his mobile phone, and amongst us, still the changing vendors with their shouts and calls.
At Tougun, a steam loco has been placed on a pedestal outside of the engine shed, whilst diesels of varying ages mooch about the yards.

We continue, the track repair works now less frequent, and our pace quickens. New track allows an increase in speed, and upon reaching the crazy height of 60 miles per hour, there is a more familiar "clicketty clack", and of course the "tshush", but the gait and pitch remains and connecting carriage doors still crash as we speed along. At this stage we gain an occasional roar like that on the London Underground, and then all other sounds are drowned out.

Mid afternoon and we have reached the new city of Naypyidaw, it's modern station, carrying no signs in English, totally out of place on the Myanmar Railway. Officials abound, long lines of people disembark to pursue government business, the city being built, due to a portent of catastrophe, to move administrators from Yangon to the new promised lands.

Green army vehicles drift along new motorways, new barracks and spartan housing blocks line these sterile roads, but soon we are in familiar territory and the fertile plains with trees, and villages that reach the edges of the track, return. Farmers still work the fields in the heat, some sleep in the shade. We pass bullock carts, horses, pigs, chickens, goats to name but a few, and as always, the wood smoke.

There are more stops with the resultant regular changeover in vendors. An old monk boards and makes himself at home amongst the throng, but sits in solitude.

I can wait no longer and precariously venture to the carriage toilet. The door locks both from the outside and inside with the same bolt, so no privacy. The stainless steel toilet bowl has no seat, no bend, just straight through to the track which rushes beneath in a blur. There is no flush, just a long hand hose that dribbles a strong smelling disinfectant. No paper. Next to this cubicle is the connection to the following carriage, and I peer through hoping to venture forth. People stare at the interloper but I cannot take a step, frozen to the spot. There is a no floor in the connecting section, just a large gap that opens and closes continuously with the train motion. The noise is also terrifying. I back away and return to the safety of my seat.

We continue northward, thrashing through many stations all with their masters waving the green flags, always the engine's horn blasting an acknowledgement. By 4.30pm the sun is going down and a halo of mist appears around it. Our shadow has long since changed sides and paces along. The mother with the son behind us asks if she can take a photo of him with us, and is delighted when she looks at her mobile phone screen afterwards having seen the image.

Yangon Express, blog. The Boy Behind (1 of 1)

By now the carriage is full and nobody sleeps. Instead, there is the constant noise, not only of the train, but of the chatter between fellow passengers, some friends, some strangers, but all in animated conversation, which is invariably about the new Myanmar political dawn.

The continuous warm breezes through the open windows bring an occasional different smell, some pleasant, some not so, but wherever we are, wood smoke still prevails.

The sun disappears at 6pm. Still three hours to go if we are on time. No more landscape to see, just an occasional light and fire in passing villages and towns, the odd shadow of movement as people prepare for the night. And then, the few stops at busy bustling stations, dimly lit, eager passengers rushing to get a seat on the now crowded train.

Inside, vendors are selling dinner packs, an example of their contents being displayed on an open tin platter so that any prospective buyer could see what delights they contain. These vendors are now family units, the husband carrying the packs, the wife (who is obviously the cook) expounding the virtues of her dishes...and they do look good.

Yangon Express, blog. Station Stop (1 of 1)

Draughts through the open windows are now cool. At closed crossing gates, bells are rung to warn those waiting that The Mandalay Express has priority as it rushes through.

Again, inside, many have joined us at the important station of Thazi and a brief argument ensues. People have arrived with pre booked seats that are already occupied, the train inspector is brought, two young ladies without booked seats stay where they are, people double up and quickly the equilibrium is restored without too much fuss, Myanmar kindness and calmness prevails.

The train continues at pace, racing along at the heady speed of 60 miles per hour. The rhythmic "clicketty clack" followed by "tshush" continues and resonates throughout the carriage. The babble of voices does not dim, but there are now no vendors. Trade has ceased, passengers have no time for repast, their only thoughts being of home or of their arrangements in Mandalay.

The train slows, and its sounds echo, reverberating off of the dark dwellings outside. There are many crossings with their accompanying bells. Like Yangon, there are few street or house lamps, and here no fires or wood smoke.

In the train people stir, their conversations cease, bags are brought down from racks above, aching joints are flexed and stretched, the aisles are full.

"Clunk clunk"…we ease into a well lit Mandalay Station, and with a final blast of its horn, the diesel engine draws The 6am Yangon to Mandalay Express to a stop. 9pm, dead on time. Passengers disgorge from the train, but soon a quietness descends, the first in 15 hours, the only sound the gentle gurgle of the same diesel engine at rest after its long journey.

Bob Reynolds - Myanmar, January 2016


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