The Book

A Long Ride North into Kachin State

We saw at the train station that our original coach had indeed been returned to Mandalay. Aung Aung went to see our first attendant, who turned out to be flat-out drunk. He refused to return the advance we had given him to buy food-all the more reason, I thought, to stay with the second coach and our likable, more than competent attendant, U San Win. He welcomed us with another tasty dinner, this time of an avocado and tomato salad and a broth containing thin, short noodles, prawns, and potatoes. Accompanied by a large bottle of Mandalay beer, this was fine dining.

As usual, our coach had been attached to another slow mail train. Its generator, which had not been working well recently, was now failing completely. A new belt for it had not been delivered, and the railway men who were working on it probably could not fix it. The battery we had could supply power for only limited periods, so we would have to conserve by turning off the fans and lights. A candlelight dinner would be fine with me, but we were a little worried about the refrigerator and our food supplies inside. Ahead of us lay the longest lap of the whole journey-from Mandalay to Myitkyina, twenty-five hours, 330 miles (540 kilometers), and sixty-eight stations. That would give us an average speed of a little less than fourteen miles (twenty-two kilometers) per hour. The tracks and roadbed were in poor condition and serious accidents were known to have happened. Even at a slow speed, we had to expect a lot of shaking, rolling, and noise.

As the train slowly crossed the long bridge spanning the Ayeyarwady, we beheld a grand view of a huge orange moon over the Sagaing Hills and its temple spires. By the time we reached the outskirts of Mandalay it was pitch dark and there was nothing to see anymore. I did not feel well that evening. A cold sweat dripped from my face and I felt weak. Perhaps my usually low blood pressure had dropped even more; and it was best to turn in early. Despite the motion and noise, I soon fell asleep, to awaken a full ten hours later refreshed and hungry.

Eggs, toast with marmalade, papaya, and some tea were just the right medicine. During breakfast Aung Aung told me about an incident that had happened the night before, when I had been sound asleep. Two men had been seen hanging on to the end of our coach near my sleeping quarters. At first, they refused to move, but some time later they had disappeared. They were probably only catching a free ride, but our attendant, who felt responsible for our safety (and who was afraid of bandits and "insurgents"), had already informed the police, about it, with the result that we now had two policemen sitting on our roof. This was most embarrassing to me because having them up there drew unwanted attention to the coach and to me. But given no choice in the matter, I decided that I could at least supply them with bottled water and some food.

The lengthy train ride left much time for reading and study. I finished Maugham's entertaining The Gentleman in the Parlour and Conrad's not-so-entertaining Victory. Unfortunately, my little Sony worldwide receiver, which would fit in the palm of my hand and which had made it possible for me to listen to BBC and Deutsche Welle even in the hills of Shan State, could barely receive anything in our steel coach, a kind of Faraday cage. Whenever I had draped the long antenna between two posts or bushes somewhere and listened to news programs in other-than-Burmese languages (of course), the local people looked more than a little puzzled about what I was doing. Aung Aung thought they had probably taken me for a spy.

Little by little, our mail train was making headway. We had just pulled out of the thirty-eighth station; only thirty more to go. Though still in Sagaing Division, we would cross into Kachin State in an hour or two. The journey was uneventful but by no means boring. It was a gratifying experience to sit in the restful coach, read and study, and watch the valleys and hills, villages and fields, lake and rivers pass by the windows.

At some of the stations I got out and walked along the crowded platform observing the same activities I had seen at so many other stations. Passengers, many of them military, boarding or alighting; freight being thrown out of the freight cars onto the platform; porters trying to push baggage and freight into the cars; hawkers shouting; women carrying bamboo trays and baskets of fruit and cooked food; and children selling drinking water from heavy buckets. The omnipresent mongrels, skinny and unclean, scurried along the tracks and crossed under the carriages, looking for anything edible. As railway workers inspected the brakes, the military and police checked the passengers' identity cards, but only in second class. At one station, people were raising funds for a stupa or pagoda by holding out decorative silver bowls to the passengers for their donations as a monk chanted his religious message on a loudspeaker. Some travelers would disappear into nearby bushes to relieve themselves. Only when the engineer sounded the horn twice would all passengers hurriedly return to their coaches.

As we reached the Kachin Hills, at first their elevation was only about five hundred feet (ca. 150 meters), then perhaps a thousand feet (ca. 300 meters), and later around fifteen hundred feet (almost 460 meters). Teak logs were being dragged down the slopes by elephants and then loaded onto large World War II-vintage trucks. Wide and fertile valleys with narrow rivers flowing through them lay between the ranges of hills. We passed a small military fort situated on a hill that reminded me of the prison compound in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai. It had a tall wooden fence around it that consisted of thick, pointed, and probably razor-sharp bamboo poles that had been rammed into the reddish soil. In addition, sand bags had been arranged to give the defenders some cover. Thus I gathered that all was not quiet here on the northern front.

And then there were only seven more stations to go, giving us time to have one last meal on the train and to bid good-bye to U San Win, our friendly guardian, helpful attendant, and excellent cook. I gave him a generous gratuity, enough to enable him to buy various local products and produce that he could later sell at a profit in Yangon (his salary was insufficient to support his family). We reached Myitkyina in darkness, sometime after seven o'clock, only about two hours late. When I walked down the platform toward the exit, I turned around to take a last look at coach number 1997 BTE. U San Win stood in the doorway, his right hand slightly raised in a silent farewell. A wonderful and exciting railway journey had irrevocably come to an end; what lay ahead were a few calm days in and around Myitkyina. Before we could proceed to the hotel, we had to register with the immigration office, the same cumbersome procedure as before. After flagging down a taxi-one of the miniscule Mazda pick-ups one would think were built for midgets and that I have seen only in Upper Burma-we were taken to the Patsun Hotel, a modern business hotel with lots of glass and concrete outside and much plastic inside. At the end of the long and, because of the terrible track, not altogether agreeable train ride, I had only two wishes-a hot shower and a clean bed.

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          Chapter 16
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