Sunday, April 30, 2017

Taking the Train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw

April 30, 2017
Hsipaw, Myanmar

All Aboard the Hsipaw (not so) Express!
Day two of our hill station trip (day one link) promised to be more sedentary, yet no less eventful, as we would be spending most of our day on the train.  Our taxi took us to the train station early so as to ensure that we got our pick of seats.  In my haste, I forgot to turn in our hotel room key at check-out. Our innkeeper called our taxi driver on his cell phone moments before we arrived at the station. I asked him if he could take it back. He agreed, and seemed confused when I gave him a tip for doing so, as I'm sure he'd have gladly taken it back anyway.
Pyin Oo Lwin Rail Station
I was in a hurry to secure seats, as I'd repeatedly read that you've got to be on the left side of the train if you want to see the Gokteik viaduct.  Well, by the time we had arrived, the people in front of us got the last of the left side seats. We later discovered that there's plenty to see out of both sides of the train, and that the local rail employees sitting on the left side would give up their seats as we went over the gorge so that we could enjoy the view - so all was good. We spent around $3 USD per ticket to sit in the "Upper class" car, which had more comfortable seats.  "Ordinary class" was $1.50, but our splurge (ha) was well worth it, as the train has a considerable sway to it, since the Chinese cars were made for a different (larger) gauge than the Burmese track.

Watch it sway! There would be much more sliding around on the wooden bench seats
Ordinary class - roomy, but less comfortable seats
There were a few other westerners waiting for the train at Pyin Oo Lwin, but it was mostly a Burmese crowd - partly tourists, partly locals just getting where they needed to go.  We'd heard the trains are quite unpredictable, and can run several hours late. We were prepared to have to wait around a while, but the train arrived relatively promptly, maybe 20 minutes or so tardy.

If you need to go while you wait, make sure you head to your assigned rest room

Waiting on the train

The six-hour journey is split roughly in half by the Gokteik viaduct. During the first three hours or so, we passed mostly through peaceful and beautiful pastoral settings.  It was fascinating to see the rather primitive farms and houses we passed by.  Houses with no electricity or running water, with kids pulling buckets of water up from old-fashioned style stone wells. Farmers using ox-driven ploughs, as most of the farms we passed appeared to have no machinery whatsoever.  The whole scene may have looked exactly the same 100 years earlier.

The countryside, just after leaving Pyin Oo Lwin
Several types of two-wheelers
Our hats, trying to look all "old-timey" too
Happy to be riding the rails
Wetwun - the first of the few stops along the way to Gokteik
Vendors come scrambling out as the train comes to a stop at Wetwun
When not passing through wide open agricultural land, we occasionally passed through some pretty tight areas of vegetation, and even cliffs. If you must hang your head out the window, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for rock walls!  Later in the trip, the savvy local travelers closed the roll-down metal shutters over their windows to prevent getting smacked in the face by branches.
Rounding the rocks
Jungle train
Despite the swaying of the train (or due to it?), Caroline found herself able to nap several times along the way. I occupied myself writing blog posts about Yangon, and having a few beers bought from the trackside vendors and those who hopped on for a few stops to sell drinks and snacks up and down the aisles.
One can of Myanmar, please!
Mmm, Myanmar!
Since we're talking about drinking beer, let's talk toilets.  Yes, there was indeed a western style (i.e. non-squatter) toilet in our car. It did not seem to have any lights, barring the light seeping in through the cracks in the door and through the "plumbing" below.  And by plumbing, I mean open hole to the tracks.

No - that's not a passageway to an alternate dimension.  Those are the tracks below, and one more reason not to walk on the railway tracks
We eventually reached the Gokteik viaduct, and the tourists amongst us started scrambling for position to get the best possible photos.  The Gokteik rail station stop is just five or so minutes before the train reaches the bridge.  The viaduct was completed in 1900 using steel and contractors from Pennsylvania, and at the time was the largest trestle bridge in the world. It remains Myanmar's highest bridge, at 335 feet.

Approaching the Gokteik Viaduct
A brief stop at the Gokteik station before heading over the bridge
Scott and the Gokteik
The train slows to a crawl to pass over the trestle bridge, apparently due to the age of the structure and concerns for its integrity. 

Bridge, don't fail me now
You can definitely hear the groaning of the bridge as the train slowly passes across the viaduct.  The train was so slow, there was plenty of time to move back and forth from one side to the other, for more than enough opportunities to take pictures of the gorge, the train, the trestles, the surrounding cliffs... we took a lot of photos.

Don't look down, kiddos

Seems sound to me

We weren't the only tourists snapping away

Looking backward after the crossing
The gorge was definitely a highlight, but not reason enough to take a six- (or 10-) hour train ride. In my opinion, the whole ride was fascinating, and crossing the Gokteik Viaduct was just one of many fascinating parts of the trip.  Caroline could have stood for the trip to be a bit shorter (5-1/2 hours shorter?) but did get plenty of napping in.

Caroline, enjoying her upper class seat, during a session of consciousness, while the row in front of us passed tiffins of food back and forth
After Gokteik, I hopped off the train to grab some lunch.  The next stop had a very large number of food vendors, the most popular being a biryani stand that was doing a brisk business.  I grabbed a couple of styrofoam containers of chicken biryani which we enjoyed, though mine was more interesting, as I pointed to some of the extra "mystery ingredients" that some of the locals seemed to be ordering.

Quite a variety of eats at this stop
Nearly three weeks into the trip, and Caroline finally gets in on the Myanmar beer action!
During the final few hours into Hsipaw, we passed more lovely agricultural and mountain terrain, admiring the geometrically-shaped and terraced parcels of farm land, and trying to get a decent photo of one of the hundreds of oxen (water buffalo?) that we rode by.

Colorful Myanmar scenery

One of the many oxen tied to a swiveling, counterweighted bamboo pole, enjoying her own lunch

More picturesque landscapes of Myanmar
When within site of Hsipaw, we could tell the weather was turning.  The rain started just as we were approaching the station, and everyone had to quickly figure out how to close the roll-down shutters over the windows, which were open air the whole ride otherwise.  We didn't yet have accommodations, but were planning on walking around town to check out a couple of places we had in mind.  This sudden deluge wasn't going to help.

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