2015
06.22

Across the Gokteik Viaduct.  Trains, the measure of things?

Yippie, it’s the train today!  I have been waiting for this day.   I am looking forward to every minute of this 8 hour ride as it will not only be my first but likely also my last ride in Myanmar.  Some things, like climbing Mount Fuji, only need to be done once.

If trains can be considered the measure of things, then Japan must rank first in the world: comfort, punctuality, frequency, network of tracks, speed, cost.  By extension, Myanmar must be just about rock bottom.  Every guide book warns of delays and derailments.  But one train ride is a must for every visitor who can spare the time:  the stretch between Mandalay and Hsipaw, which crosses the Gokteik Viaduct.

Are there still countries in the world that have no trains at all?  Train construction, so often is associated with colonial occupation and with incredible death tolls.  Myanmar is no exception.  In Mrauk U where I traveled earlier, one of the government-proposed train tracks had been started.  The route had been mapped out, the earth mounds had been heaped up.  Construction was to begin.  But the locals protested and in a rare show of listening to the people the former military government abandoned the project late in 2010;  too many local sites would have been destroyed.  Too much local life would have had to change.

If you are a glutton for punishment, you can go the whole way from Hsipaw to Mandalay.  What took the air conditioned overland bus less than 5 hours will take the train a whopping 13 or more; no air-conditioning either. If you just want to see the bridge, you can get out in Pyin O Lwin after about 8 hours and enjoy some time in this mountain “resort” town and then go on — that’s what I will do.

If it happens to be a sunny day you might just as well consider yourself a bun in the oven ready to be baked on top of being transported  I did get lucky.  It was an overcast day; I was spared the baking part.  The thermometer had climbed to 28 C/82F by 9:30 AM but at least there was no additional roasting through the metal cars in store for us.  The windows opened all around in the Upper Class wagon and a nice breeze made this feel very comfortable.  At times you wondered if this was a train ride or an ocean liner at high sea.  Despite the slow speed at which the 6-car train traveled, we were thrown from left to right opposite the cars in front and behind us.  No wonder derailments are a common occurrence…

For the first hour, the train rode on top of the mountain ridge almost at the height of the rim across the valley.  Then the mountain widened into a plateau giving way to fields and villages.  You can almost forget that we are still in the mountains.  But we are.  The rolling hills are a beautiful mix of green and red.  The red is the natural color of the earth.  It must be what is used for coloring the monks’ robes.  And judging by the lush green everywhere, there must have been enough rain here already to give nature a head-start compared to Mandalay, for example.  There are not only rice fields up here, but many acres of corn, beans, potatoes.  Every inch of arable land has been tended to.  All by hand, of course.  You see people, one or a few at a time, tending to the fields with their hoes.  You see young men behind man-powered tilling machines.  Occasionally, small motors are attached to them or larger tilling machines may be ox-driven.  How they got to every one of these many fields is impressive.

There are a few brief stops along the way.  Vendors line the train station; people get out to get food and drinks.  We foreigners have no idea what the name of the town may be; there is no indication in western script.

Our Upper Class car is only 1/3 full.  Instead of 6 seats on wooden benches, 4 and 2, there are only three nicely upholstered recliner armchair seats, 2 and 1 with ample leg room.  My stretch of the trip could have cost me $1.20 in ordinary class and $2.75 in upper class.  That is more than double, but still hardly any money to speak of in the larger scope of things.  For example, riding a taxi from the bus station in any town to your hotel easily costs you $3 to $5.

2/3 of all the people in the Upper are foreigners.  There are three French girls — they sit by themselves.  And there is a couple from GB and a single traveling guy from Canada.  We sit in a group and have been chatting when the noise level permits.  For the most part though, I listen to the guys chat and make use of my transit time catching up with my writing.

Once I get to Pyin O Lwin time will be limited.

About 1/2 way into the trip the moment comes: the Gokteik is in sight.  We are about to cross a deep gorge.  The train slows down to a snail’s tempo.   Not for us, to make picture-taking more enjoyable, but to minimize the stress on this aging and precariously balanced stilt bridge.  I hope they occasionally do put it to the test in a more professional way, too…

What you see when you approach the bridge is the impressive upper half of about a dozen or so pylons.  Nothing quite prepared me for actually being above the gorge and realizing just how deep it was and that the pylons were actually twice as tall as I thought or as anyone could see from a distance. My stomach took a little jolt…  We were 1110 feet above the valley!! Unlike any bridge I have ever been on, I have never lost sight of the fact that I am on a bridge.  Usually, you are on something like a two lane highway — there is oncoming traffic.  Or you might be on a train bridge and there is another track going parallel to yours.  This bridge is a single track lane.  It is as wide as it needs to be for the wheels of a single train.  When you are on it, you see nothing but a narrow strip of metal below you.  Nothing!   The pylons are below you. That’s when you realize that this is more like flying.  You seem to be suspended in air as high as if you were on top of the Eiffel Tower!  My stomach took another jolt… As the train inches along — no more of that shaking left and right or up and down — you are grateful that there is no wind, no rain, and no heavy cargo which might, just might make the train tilt.  And you hope it will all be over safely.  And five minutes later it is and you are on the other side.  Whew!

The scenery is breathtaking and as you now serpentine your way up to the rim of the mountain on that side of the gorge, you can catch a few more glimpses of the viaduct.  But never again will you see its true height.  That is reserved for when it is too late to change your mind, for the moment of mid-air suspension.  This truly is a remarkable and unique leg in world train travels.  Lucky me.  If bandwidth would not be such an issue, I would post a video clip.  But so far I had no luck with this, so don’t hold your breath.

For a few more hours we are going to rattle and shake along.  A pleasant change of pace from the bus travels and a most pleasant day to do so.  Well done, St. Christopher!

Strange, that there is no train-specific wish for a good journey like there is for ships.  I wonder why that is?  Train travel once must have been nearly as dangerous as travel by ship.  In Myanmar it almost still is…

Train ahoy!