The Book

From Southern Shan State to Mandalay


Day nine of this Burma trip should be a great experience. When I went up to the Shan Plateau from Thazi, it was a nighttime trip, but on the return I will travel in the daytime and will be able to watch the scenery as we leave the mountain plateaus and cross the valleys in the slow descent into Thazi.

As we leave the Gold Star Hotel, I take a last look around me, as though I am taking mental pictures. I see that on this windless early morning, mist hangs like a soft veil over the lake. From farmhouses here and there, smoke rises straight into the cloudless sky. Children, their beautiful black hair still wet and combed back and neatly dressed in their green and white uniforms, walk (or ride on their black Chinese-made bicycles) to school. Mongrels prowl the neighborhood in search of food. On the way to Shwenyaung through the countryside, traffic is light on the narrow road, and soon we reach the bustling train station. Our long green and orange coach still sits under the yellow canopy of the spreading cassia tree.

The attendant makes some Burmese tea, and I present him with the bundle of cheroots from the lake. Later, I smoke one myself as I stroll over to the main platform where passengers are sorting out their belongings for the long journey to Thazi, or points between. Burma's passenger trains always attach some freight cars to the end of the train, into which is stuffed all the baggage-bales, sacks, boxes, crates, and barrels-that is too large or heavy for the passenger coaches to accommodate. At every station porters assist in the unloading, loading, and transporting of this unwieldy freight. Next up the line from the freight cars is a special car, a kind of steel-plated fortress on wheels for the guards. It certainly is a strange looking car. A round tower projects above the roof, and around the tower are several gun ports through which machine guns can be fired at potential attackers. Turrets on both sides of the car are also equipped with ports, these just big enough for firing smaller weapons. The guard car should make passengers feel much safer, but there is a slight problem-there are no guards. There are soldiers traveling on this train though. Carrying outdated rifles, they are poor, ill-clad country boys and men who bring few private belongings but lots of large boxes and sacks filled not with ammunition but with food-cabbage, rice, and potatoes. Soldiers always have priority on any train that requires reservations, as does our train. They also have priority on airplanes, which for civilian Burmese travelers means that they may get bumped because some officers have shown up at the counter at the last minute. But I should not complain about this system because the dollar-spending foreigner has second priority.

Once aboard, the enlisted men have to endure the heat in Ordinary Class and step over a great deal of luggage blocking the aisles to reach their seats, which are wooden benches. Many passengers take a shortcut by climbing through the windows. The well-dressed superior officers take the more comfortable seats in Upper Class. Soldiers and officers pay no attention to the foreign visitor; in fact, they even avoid eye contact. Contact with foreigners is still reason for suspicion in this country where a kind of paranoia is part of carefully orchestrated propaganda. The military government wants the foreign tourist's dollars, but they do not really want the foreigner who comes with it. (The Chinese Communist Party and government suffer a similar dilemma.)

Although we did have a small breakfast at the hotel, I do not object to a second one when the train pulls out of the station at 8:30 in the morning-right on time. It is a great pleasure to sit back in a comfortable seat with a cup of Shan tea and watch the countryside through the window.

According to the guidebook, which I consulted only later, a train trip to Thazi should take some eight hours, so I do not question it when Aung Aung quotes an arrival time for Thazi of nine o'clock in the evening, a total of thirteen hours. This is probably a mail train, not an express train. But thirteen hours for seventy miles (120 kilometers)? That is very slow indeed, but then, I am on vacation.

At breakfast I study the topography of today's journey and recognize that this should be a most interesting trip. Let us start from east to west: to the east of Lake Inle lies the highest part of the Shan Plateau, with mountains up to eighty-two hundred feet (twenty-five hundred meters). Traveling west from there, one would descend into Taunggyi, the capital, at 4,920 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level. As we continue our virtual journey to the west, we roll downhill and reach Shwenyaung railroad station and Lake Inle, at an elevation of twenty-eight hundred feet (850 meters). From here, today's train departs for Thazi and, after passing Heho and the airport, starts the ascent into the hills and into Aungban, which is located, together with the town of Kalaw, on a plateau at some 4,325 feet (1,250 meters). Soon after reaching Kalaw we will cross the highest point of the plateau, and from then on we will be slowly zigzagging down the mountains into Thazi. This kind of topography promises an exciting trip.

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