From Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin
The dust was beginning to get to me. I needed the kind of breathing space that a city could not offer, so I consulted the small map in my guidebook on possible destinations out of Mandalay.
The recently introduced 28-day tourist visa is finally beginning to reflect the time required to see a decent portion of the country. In the aftermath of the violent pro-democracy rebellions of 1988, it was only possible to get a tourist visa for a week. If you decided to take up this limited offer, all that was needed by way of currency was a single bottle of Johnnie Walker. Such was the value of the banned liquor – it would pay for your food, accommodation and other sundry expenses for your entire stay.
A tourist map is still a sparse affair. Only the routes open to visitors are visible, splaying out from the city centres like overworked veins. The rest of the map is smothered in a green of mysterious inaccessibility, roads and towns involuntarily veiled from curious foreign eyes.
I had regained my equilibrium after our 23-hour road-to-hell trip from Rangoon and was ready to move. When the human animal goes through unpleasant or painful situations, it generally edits out the really bad bits from the unreliable movie of memory, and I did this very quickly with our quixotic journey. In fact, I began to mythologize it in no time at all. I met people in Mandalay who looked at me straight between the eyes, ready to shock with their butt-numbing experiences. Fifteen hours to Inle Lake from Bagan. Fifteen? Ha! Child’s play. Twenty-one from Mandalay Myitkyina? Phew, that’s a tough one alright, but wait until I tell you….
So now I was one of THEM – one of those intrepid weatherbeaten types who put up with all manner of deprivation and discomfort to reach this malarial swamp or that rat-infested burial ground. The fact that the road to Mandalay is hardly the outback didn’t matter. I was relieved to have left my common-or-garden tourist days behind even if my Indiana Jones-type delusions were apparent only to myself.
I may have invited myself into the adventurer’s club with a blaze of self-congratulation, but this did not exempt me from further bone rattling escapades. At least now I had a clearer picture of what lay ahead, as spending a week between Burma’s two largest cities exposed me to every conceivable kind of earth-bound transport. Pick-up trucks (that pick up people rather than cars) jostled with antiquated looking buses, taxis, jeeps, minibuses, the odd tractor, thundering trucks usually enveloped in black smoke, tri-shaws (the Burmese rickshaw), the good old High Nelly, motorbikes, scooters, bullock carts, even horse-drawn carriages straight from the sets of BBC costume dramas.
There also exists a noise-polluting breed of Chinese diesel engine that serves as a multi-purpose power provider and is often seen attached to wheels. It drags by day a trailer that invariably carries the entire populations of small villages and their goods. By night, it doubles up as an electricity generator, water pump, or whatever. I don’t know into which category of the above list it fits into so I shall call it enginus primitivus multipurpus.
After I balanced a complex equation of distance travelled, time spent and pain inflicted, I had decided to travel northeast from Mandalay to the town of Pyin U Lwin – a tongue twister that sounds more at home in Northern Wales than mid-Burma. This three-hour trip was my introduction to the pick-up truck. I had seen these beasts careening through the streets of Mandalay and they always grabbed my attention. Empty, the pick-up is an anonymous canopied truck with hard wooden benches running down its flanks. But crammed with people hanging off the end and perched precariously on the cargo-laden roof, they are an awesome sight. The approach of a truck in a wake of dust with roof-bound leathery Burmese men and women facing proudly into the oncoming wind exudes a mythic, timeless quality.
I never saw myself as part of any myth that involved me travelling in such a vehicle. It was with a sense of disbelief that I handed the driver my bag and hopped into the back of a pick-up to catch a ride to Pyin U Lwin. I was thankfully spared the roof but was offered the seat at the very end of the vehicle that would have seen me splat on the road with one bad pothole. So I gracefully declined, opting instead for a more secure passage towards the middle.
A young woman with an oval face and a no-nonsense attitude sat beside me with little ceremony. In one hand she carried three live chickens by their bound feet, in the other a fire-engine red plastic bowl. The chickens were literally plonked beneath our bench. Unable to move, the feathered prisoners stared lethargically through our legs, letting out an odd dispirited quaawk. Much to the disapproval of my moon-faced neighbour, we waited an hour for the truck to really fill up, which is when the only possible body movements are fit-like jerks of the neck. Sacks of rice were piled in and baskets of produce hoisted overhead. At one stage I got a sharp dig into my back. Upon turning around I saw a flipflopped foot hoisting the rest of its owner up onto the roof.
Passengers jumped on and off along the way to the call of the yodelling conductor, who also paid tolls to the numerous officials at the side of the road. During these transactions, the truck would merely slow down as he jumped off, depositing cash with one hand, simultaneously snatching a receipt in the other and hopping back on with ballet-type grace.
We ascended sharply into the shark-tooth hills surrounding Mandalay, disappearing amongst the mottled green hide of forest. As we negotiated hairpin bends, I glimpsed dizzying drops through the tree branches, the limbs of the mountains surrounding deep chasms like humongous tree roots. No doubt there was a great view from the roof, but I was quite happy where I was.
An hour into the journey we slowed down to pass road works. A group of roughly fifteen people, mostly women, were resurfacing a stretch of road. Pairs of girls in their late teens and early 20s carried hand-hewn rocks in a sheet held between them, or singly on blanket-covered heads. Rusted tar barrels bubbled and spat with liquid pitch over fires. Workers squatted, placing the small rocks tightly together in the flattest possible configuration. A flip-flopped young man trickled the boiling tar over the prepared portions of road using a bucket, much of the steaming black treacle dribbling ineffectually between the cracks. There was not a single mechanical machine in sight. Dusty faced toddlers, presumably the children of the women, babysat themselves by playing with rocks in the shade.
None of the workers looked up to see the passing truck, and there was no discernable change of expression from the passengers within it. The only person to take any notice of us from the road was an army officer, rifle slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, who charted our passing with an expressionless stare.
Towards the end of the journey, the truck loosened out a bit and you could almost hear joints and limbs sigh with relief. Suddenly my neighbour plunged an arm between us and thrust the chickens upside down into the air for inspection. Feathers scattered in protest. Two of the dangled birds vocalised their annoyance but one neck hung lifeless. The other passengers, now part of the inspection process whether they liked it or not, let out a collective sigh. But my otherwise grim neighbour displayed unexpected humour by catching the dead bird’s beak and miming resuscitation, turning group concern into raucous laughter. To prevent further fatalities, the birds were placed into the makeshift haven of the red bowl.
We arrived in Pyin U Lwin stiff but intact. The only casualties appeared to have been the unfortunate chicken and my T-shirt, which had gathered a stain over the left shoulder from some foreign liquid that had dribbled onto it from the cargo on the roof. I hope it was the cargo.
I repaired to the first visible tea shop, beside the cinema. One of those great painted Hollywood posters, complete with buxom ladies and swarthy men frozen in abstract tableau, advertised the latest attraction from the Indian movie machine. Local men smoked and eyed my rucksack quizzically, its tangle of straps and buckles lying fatigued on the ground.
It being lunchtime, I was presented with oily but delicious samosas and tea without even ordering. I took a look around as I ate. This isn’t a town, I thought to myself, it’s a Merchant Ivory film set. Horse and carriage taxis rattled past, a single flower attached to the horses’ foreheads. Colourful colonial architecture flanked the street. An imposing building with a bell-tower boasted an edifice of Islamic-style arches in lime green and white, while Victorian-style trellis decked the upper stories of its’ neighbours.
This was colonial India writ small. The clock tower, a present from Queen Victoria, punctuated the main drag like a colourful exclamation mark. Apparently its gong replicates that of Big Ben, which I’m sure is dearly appreciated by the locals.
It was time for the least-liked task of the traveller – looking for a hotel. (The second least being packing unless you are of a spartan disposition.) I trawled the main drag. Golden Dream Hotel – full. Golden Dream II Hotel – Full. Grace Hotel – full. A commission-hungry individual gave me a lift on his bike to the Dahlia Motel on the outskirts of town – full.
I had noticed khaki uniforms lounging around the hotel foyers. My biker/taxi told me that this weekend is when the shiny new military officers graduated, or passed out, or whatever the term is, from the large military academy on the outskirts of town. This was the busiest weekend of the year. Terrific planning on my part.
From the Dahlia Motel, a friendly young man in a black suit jacket led me to yet another possibility of a roof for the night. His name was BoBo, and he was 24 years of age. He was very Indian looking, a common feature in a town of 5,000 Nepalis and 10,000 Indians.
BoBo was trying to sell me a trek. I was trying to find a room. A trek did not interest me in the slightest. Yet his enthusiastic charm and excellent English won me over and I said I would think about it. We found a hotel and BoBo said he would return to see if I had made up my mind. Once I had settled, we went for tea. BoBo tried to ingratiate himself by adopting an urbane air. He asked me if I wanted some dope. He could organise it. The many government signs saying that drug trafficking commanded the death penalty flashed across my mind. I said I was fine, thanks.
Changing the subject, I asked how he liked living here. His face clouded. Disdainfully dismissing his friends, he said they were too busy chasing women, and that he was bored of all that. He wanted to make a go of something, make some hard currency, get out. Gone was the smiling face of the sales pitch as he surveyed the street – a classic smalltown rebel without a cause. In BoBo’s case there was nowhere to run. No Greyhound to Penn Station or one-way to Luton. No money to buy a cheap amplifier to thrash out his anger in grungy pop songs – just putrefying boredom in a Legoland town of fairytale horses and carriages.
His favourite pastime was helping his uncle break in wild ponies from the hills. His uncle also used to act as a stunt double in Burmese movies, taking the saddle in place of precious leading men as their characters made good their escape from some daring adventure. BoBo brought me to meet his uncle. He had wild green eyes, very few teeth and said very little. We also visited BoBo’s own pony that had the unlikely name of Derek. Derek’s mane was spiky, like a punk rocker, he still looked very wild.
BoBo had a fascination with my walking shoes. He asked me how much they cost. Feeling embarrassed I cheapened them to $60. He sucked air in through his teeth and said that I could give them to him as a present if we went trekking. I said forget it. He responded that the trek he would bring me on would be so good, I would be happy to give him my shoes afterwards.
I had hysterical visions of being tied to a tree barefoot as he made off down the hill on one of his ponies, my shoes dangling around his neck like scalps. I decided I was not going to accept his offer. Although I really liked him, there was an unpredictability to BoBo that I did not trust, particularly since he planned to trek me off the tourist map on my own. Maybe I am not Indiana Jones after all.
BoBo was crestfallen, but he tried to hide it by lighting a cigarette and looking up into the hills. I felt bad, so I made excuses to leave before I changed my mind. After we parted I saw BoBo opening the gate that led into Derek’s field and closing it slowly behind him.