16.02.2013 - 06.03.2013
Mandalay is one of those evocative place names, like Samarkand, Kathmandu or Astrakhan, that epitomises the mystical east, instantly conjuring exotic visions of mysterious faraway places. Getting there involved the worst train journey we've ever experienced; getting away involved the second worst. The city itself is a grimy charmless dump, and most of the unfortunately long time we spent there involved being rather ill and/or very annoyed.
We left from the vast central station in Rangoon, something like a small town in its own right, with a considerable resident population of destitute families, including small thin children in filthy clothes wandering the tracks to beg or sell stolen fruit, and babies crawling around on the platform. In a bizarre small-world moment, our cabin-mate was someone I knew from a previous job, years ago - she was the head of the college where I worked as a lowly library assistant in the mid 90s (ie I remembered her but she didn't know me from a bar of soap). Dorothy, for that was her name, was excellent cheery company - just as well as the journey would have sheer misery otherwise.
The Burmese railway, the only beneficial legacy of British rule, is in a pitiful state of neglect. The ancient trains are decrepid, dirty, noisy and painfully slow, the tracks utterly knackered. While seated you bounce up and down in a comical fashion, food and drink never quite reaching your mouth properly, conversation shouted over the grinding and squealing of the wheels. When lying on the narrow rock-hard bunk hoping to sleep, for it was an overnight train, the bouncy becomes less amusing as you are violently thrown around, your whole body in mid-air, slamming down on the accursed 'bed' or against the wall over and over again. After several hours of what felt like being in a tumble dryer, in the heat and noise and darkness, aching all over, knowing that morning and our destination were many many hours away, I found myself for the first, and so far only time on this trip thinking 'Why on earth are we doing this?' My shoulders, back, hips, knees and head were sore for days after...and this was in the handsomely priced "upper class" carriage.
Ariving in Mandalay should have been a blessed relief. It wasn't. Mandalay station is a worse abyss of misery than Rangoon. The hotel was miles away and there were no taxis, only a drunk and and a babbling idiot offering us lifts. Caroline, who had been feeling distinctly peaky during the journey, promptly threw up. We walked to the hotel through long, hot, dusty, ugly streets. Our tiny grubby room was covered floor to ceiling in hideous bathroom tiles, the bathroom was a thriving mould farm with a large rusting contraption hanging off the wall, supposedly a shower, and generators roared day and night outside the window - odd as there was rarely any electricity to be had. Welcome to Mandalay.
The hotel was located in the market area which along with a thriving open sewer scene also hosted the city's dried fish trade. Actually we were in a fragrance-neutral street of monk equipment suppliers, next to a shop specialising in robes and begging bowls, which provided a little respite from the olfactory assault. But walking to and from the hotel it was impossible to avoid a route we affectionately referred to as Gag-Reflex Boulevard. Open sewers are to Mandalay what canals are to Venice and run along most streets, giving the city its defining ambience. The mingling of eau de sewer with the aroma emitted by sackfuls of dried fish would have been quite enough; the finishing touch was the pervading stench of a snack beloved by market traders of grilled dried squid, the mere recollection of which makes me retch.
Which brings me on to Burmese food. It's absolutely bloody awful. The market in whose midst we were lodged was piled high with all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables and herbs and spices, none of which actually seem to be used in any kind of culinary activity. The primary ingredient of every meal was oil, usually stale, or a slimy puddle of MSG if we were really lucky, accompanied by a lump of unwarm rice. It was inevitable then that the month we spent in Burma was accompanied from beginning to end and beyond by considerable gastric unpleasantness, of which you will be spared the details, but suffice to say we both felt pretty rubbish much of the time. Not only was the food horrible, there was hardly anywhere to eat, much like the two elderly ladies in a Jewish nursing home (via Woody Allen I think): 'Such awful food here' 'Yes and such tiny portions'. Despite being devout Buddhists vegetarianism is a surprisingly alien concept to the Burmese and finding suitable fare was harder here than anywhere else.
The reason for visiting Mandalay was not to soak up the splendours of the city or its fine dining, as you might have gathered, but as a jumping off point for other destinations in the region - one the plain of ruined temples at Bagan, and two others for family history reasons (these will be the next/last two posts). If Rangoon had the most terrifying bus service I've ever seen, Mandalay's network of pickups also deserves a mention. Pickups are what passes for public transport here, small flatbed pickup trucks (something like a light ute, Australians) driven by psychopaths, with narrow benches along both sides and a canopy, sometimes with storage above, which more usually serves as additional seating. We took one which was piled with crates of beer inside and on top - none of which happened to come loose despite being driven at ridiculous speed down a steep hill around innumerable hairpin bends. About six people can squeeze onto each bench, a few on the floor in the middle, a dozen on the roof, a couple in with the driver and a few daredevils hanging off the back. They are an enjoyable way to get around, if you have accepted your mortality and the transient nature of your existence and don't mind a few bruises. Burmese people, normally quite reserved, would always helpfully make sure we got on and off at the right place, and were quietly amused by the sight of foreigners using the local transport.
We took a pickup to see a big bridge over the Irrawaddy river built by my grandfather, who worked in Burma in the 1930s as a railway engineer and was in charge of that side of things on this project. True story: just before the bridge was due to open, three Buddhist monks came to tell him that the bridge had made the river spirit angry, and advised him to cancel the opening. Not really the sort of man to indulge this sort of nonsense he naturally gave them short shrift and sent them away. The next day there was an earthquake. True story!
And the journey back to Rangoon, the second grimmest in our considerable experience of grim long-distance rail journeys. Twenty hours on a wooden bench, the same bouncing and bruising, this time with a non-stop cacophony of bellowing hawkers trolling up and down the train selling snacks and tat. Caroline's extremely heavy bag fell off the luggage rack onto the heads of an elderly couple. Two hawkers had a fight. A bony old man parked his bony old feet in my lap. The official train food menu included fried sparrow. The train was four hours late, arriving at 2am by which time we were locked out of our hostel and had to find somewhere else to spend the night. But at least we weren't in Mandalay anymore.
Some miscellaneous photos making Mandalay look more interesting and attractive than it was: