The International Steam Pages

The Land where the Gan-Tree Grows

Robert Hall writes of an unexpected opportunity to satisfy a long held ambition.

There is a sketch map at the bottom (with a link to return here).

Somewhat unusual circumstances made it possible for me to take part in December 2019, in a railway enthusiasts' / photographers' tour, lasting several days, in Burma. The tour revolved around chartered steam specials using preserved locos: the little remaining "genuine" commercial steam working in the country, finished in 2008. With my long-standing complete abstention from photography, and total lack of any wish or aptitude for engaging in it; and my being a rather fanatical (bigoted?) purist concerning the genuineness of happenings on rail -- such doings are about as far removed from my preferred kind of "railwaying", as could be conceived. However, Burma is a country which has long fascinated me, in railway and other contexts. With an unexpected and surprising opportunity having come my way to go as a participant in this tour, to a place otherwise not realistically attainable for me; I went: despite this trip being, in honesty, very different from the way in which I would have -- given a free hand -- chosen to make the acquaintance of Burma. As things were, I determined to do my very best to shelve my prejudices, and to take a positive attitude re what would come to pass.

This was one of the indefatigable Bernd Seiler's Far Rail Tours; as was that in Roumania in early 2018, in which I took part. The Burma event was advertised under the FRT banner, as "Steam and Semaphores". An aspect of Burma's having long been something of a "hermit nation", doing its own thing regardless of what the rest of the world got up to; has been a certain degree of antiquated-ness on the country's extensive metre-gauge rail system -- as with (as above) some regular steam working being retained for a while into the 21st century. With Burma's having spent the better part of a century under British rule, its rail system was set up while that situation obtained: essentially in unitary, fairly standardised fashion with the extensive metre-gauge secondary networks of British India -- although there was no physical rail connection between the two British-ruled countries. Railway signalling in Burma, as in India, was initiated and lasted very long, under Britain's semaphore system; with maybe small local variations (I'm no expert on this stuff). With the general march of technology, British-type semaphore signalling in all its maximum expansive glory -- once used, in its essentials, in sundry regions of the globe -- has over recent decades become more rarely, and less resplendently, to be found. Wilfully backward and obscurantist Burma was for long a stronghold of often elaborate semaphore signalling, controlling the country's -- busy and reasonably efficient -- railways. "Fake" but accepted steam trains, running under and observing complex -- and genuine -- gantry arrangements involving semaphore signals on the beloved British system -- the whole thing highly photogenic -- who could resist? (I could -- but, "as covered above"...)

"The downside to every upside" -- in tune with the recent certain degree in Burma, of liberalisation and opening up to the outside world: a big programme of upgrading and modernising the rail system, has been embarked on. This focusing first, on Burma's main trunk line, Yangon [Rangoon] to Mandalay; staring at the southern (Yangon) end. Our tour was based on the city of Bago, 46 miles north-east of Yangon on the Mandalay main. (Constraints of what was possible, meant that our party had to be lodged in two separate hotels, a few miles apart, in "greater Bago"; which complicated the tour's logistics.) 

Bago seen as a good centre for preserved steam locos; and the location of a couple of splendid multi-pole signal gantries. So it had been thought... the upgrading work being done by construction companies from some of Asia's dynamic nations, includes the superseding of semaphore signalling, by colour-light ditto; this involving the demolition of Bago's magnificent gantries. An arrangement was understood to have been reached between Far Rail Tours, Burma Railways, and the construction companies: that said gantries would be left in place, and at least equippable afresh with working semaphore arms; until the December Far Rail Tour had done its thing. Only days before the start of the tour, participants received an anguished e-mail from Bernd, telling of the ruthless go-getting construction companies' ignoring what they had agreed to, and being in the immediate process of tearing the gantries down anyway. (With my lack of any photographic investment, and perverse tendency to sympathise with the bad guy, I couldn't help thinking just a little, "Go, ruthless Chinese / Japanese / South Korean / whatever-the-heck, contractors ! Your disregard of our nerdish foolery, is no more than we deserve...").

Frantic damage-control measures ensued: and for the steam-and-semaphore-photters, "something was saved from the wreck" (more, it ultimately turned out, than had been envisaged at first). The next important point up the Mandalay main line, 41 miles north-east of Bago, is Pyuntaza -- home to relatively modest, but not-to-be-despised signal gantries; which were still working busily and unmolested. The first day of the tour's five scheduled days of events, had been planned to involve steam-special doings at and around Bago's gantries; but -- battle plans, initial contact, and all that. Things were revamped: the first day was expanded / extended via a not originally featured very early start, to (all being well) both take care of the signal-gantry business, and cover Pyuntaza's other attraction, the Madauk branch -- this latter originally planned for Day 2.

Off, thus, from the Bago hotels at crack of dawn -- in Burma in December, daylight is 0600 to 1800; here in the tropics, virtually no twilight. Travel for the group -- between steam-active locations and everywhere else, and paralleling / supplementing the steam specials -- was in a minibus which was able to accommodate, "almost" comfortably, the two-dozen tour clients, plus leaders / local "minders".

On arrival at Pyuntaza quite early in the morning, acquaintance was made with our first preserved steam loco -- 1940s-vintage Pacific YC 629. Burma's few steam locos preserved in working order are of this class or its freight 2-8-2 counterpart YD. These types are identical with those produced in large quantities some three-quarters of a century ago for India's metre-gauge lines --- basically the last generation but one, of Indian metre-gauge steam. (In this special context, Burma counted as part of India.) In Empire days, the Burma system's locos burnt coal imported from India -- Burma has, effectively, none. Oil-firing has been universal since independence in 1948 -- all the better for the photographers, in terms of spectacular smoke effects ! YC 629 was at the head end, pointing southward on the main line, of a simulated mixed passenger / freight train. This performed a number of southbound photographic run-pasts, travelling under a "three-pole" signal gantry (black-and-white "dead" sides of the signal arms toward the photographer) near the north end of the station; there were a couple of single semaphores, yet further north, which also featured.

After these doings came a look around Pyuntaza's steam shed -- essentially highly moribund, but apparently largely playing host to 2-8-2 YD 964, preserved in working order. The shed also contained -- "hulk" or "derelict" status definitely applicable -- five more YD, one YC Pacific (same class as our YC 629), one YB Pacific (the YC's "light" equivalent), and a -- withdrawn long ago -- World War II Macarthur type 2-8-2, US-built by Alco in 1943. Assorted derelict-looking diesel-powered material was present too.

The 11 mile branch to Madauk -- diverging from the north-to-south main at Nyaunglebin, 5 miles north of Pyuntaza -- was next on our agenda. As mentioned; original intention had been -- the second day, allocated to the Madauk "slot", with extensive doings on the main line on Day 1; but that was what was scheduled before the Bago signal-gantry crisis erupted. Circumstances concerning the branch were not altogether normal: it had in fact been closed to all traffic a couple of months before our visit -- we were to have a steam special travelling over it, after which demolition was envisaged. The Madauk branch had been one of Burma's last regular-steam outposts until the 2008 end of same: a couple of return mixed trains per day, originating and terminating at Pyuntaza -- usually worked by either a YB light, or YC heavy, Pacific; YC 629 was what was available, and appropriate, for our tour. After performing for our cameras with the signals, she propelled her train tender-first to Madauk; while we lunched at a "greasy spoon" establishment in Pyuntaza (food tasty, sanitary facilities not to everyone's liking), and were then conveyed in our bus to Madauk by the direct road route.

Several photographic "false starts" took place out of Madauk's terminal station. The plan had been for the train then to continue along the branch, pausing for photographic activity basically until daylight's end at 1800, wherever we might reach by then. However -- we had been warned beforehand that YC 629 was mechanically in less than wonderful shape; which in a worst-possible-case scenario might involve some spoiling of fun. After the run-pasts out of the terminus, it became apparent that there was a problem with the loco. She sat lengthily at the head of the train, just outside the station; while the loco crew and a tour participant who was, it turned out, learned about steam machinery tinkered with fitments on top of the boiler, not very far behind the chimney. Word circulated that there was a problem with the snifting valve. A couple of hours' "jiggering" apparently improved things to a point at which the train could cautiously head out along the branch; but only cautiously, and by then there was not all that much daylight remaining. I rode, with some of the photters, on the train -- for the relatively few miles which, including run-pasts, we covered. Then, with nightfall shortly ahead and the loco still not performing all that well, "time was called"; we were shepherded from the train to the faithfully-following bus: back to Bago for dinner and bed.

Worry ensued about what might happen if work overnight on YC 629 could not get her back into reasonable going order. (Return to the Madauk branch the following day, to give it fuller coverage, was envisaged.) Possible deputising by 2-8-2 YD 967, based at Bago; or Pyuntaza's YD 964, which -- the word went -- was itself not in the best of physical health -- but the amount which the photographers would finally get of their keenly-desired Pacific fix, would be likely to wind up as small. Happily, much burning of midnight oil delivered a good-to-go YC 629 the following morning.

So: second day of the tour, back northward -- mercifully, departing Bago on the bus at a more civilised hour than on the previous day: by road to Madauk, getting there about 1230. Things proceeded as per the overall plan for the branch line: as commenced the previous day, but more successfully followed-on-from. I travelled on the train, as on the day before. Part of the tour's Madauk branch agenda involved a re-enactment for the photographers, of a thing which had been a feature of the line when in regular passenger service. (A performance presumably originally planned for Day 1; but having, by reason of the circumstances which had come about, to be switched to Day 2.) A village whose station lay between Madauk and Nyaunglebin junction, is inhabited by skilled potters: who when the branch was running, had found it expedient to load their finished wares on to the train at the village station, and travel with them to bigger settlements, where they marketed them. This picturesquely photogenic operation was beloved by photographic railfans in "real steam" days; so Far Rail Tours roped the village potters in, to re-enact it for their steam special on the branch. In honesty, this lark struck me as making nine-bob notes look radiantly genuine in comparison; but my accepted role here, was that of a visiting barbarian tribesman from the fringes of the empire, trying to "do in Rome, as Rome does"...

A fact probably obvious to those whose chosen thing this is; but taking some time and effort for me -- not in this "fancy" -- fully to comprehend : the business of steam specials for the benefit of artistic photographers, is hugely time-devouring. With the pottery re-enactment (done "a couple-or-three" times over, to maximise and optimise the photographic product); and numerous and repeated run-pasts; rapidly waning daylight prompted end of photographic events a few miles short of Nyaunglebin, with all train-travelling participants ushered onto the bus, and so "homeward bound". I felt a bit regretful -- especially with this expected to be the last train ever to traverse the Madauk line -- to miss travelling, even if in the dark, over the branch's last shortish stretch to the junction. Not a consideration, per my impression, for any fellow-participants: things for them were about getting good shots in plenty -- and virtually nothing else.

My frustration here was intensified by its happening that in the haste of the train-riders' being got off the train and onto the bus, at "limit of rail operations": a couple of said riders inadvertently left some of their personal kit on the train. This necessitated the Bago-bound bus making a detour via Nyaunglebin station to recover the bods' stuff from the train, which had proceeded thereto: since this was what ended up being done, it would have been possible for anyone keenly desirous of covering on-train, the entire branch; to stay on the train to Nyaunglebin and board the bus there. Still, never mind: in a perfect world, all plans would be flawless and unfold flawlessly -- and life would probably be a bit dull. And, concerning the ways of, above all, rail photographers in general : our organisers-and-minders were landed in the first place, with a "herding cats" mission; so, as regards the wants of obsessed line-bashers (after dark, not even seeing what they'd be traversing) -- forget it!

The succeeding two days had an altogether different flavour: doings on the route which branches off eastward at Bago from the south -- north main line, and then runs "south-east-by-south", nowadays terminating far to the south at Dawai. A part of this route at the Bago end, featured in Japan's World War II Thailand-to-Burma rail link project -- new construction on which, further east, having of course been the infamous "Death Railway". This enterprise -- with its hideous connotations -- marked the only time (as things worked out, ephemerally brief) in which Burma's rail system has ever been physically linked with that of any other nation -- here, that (also metre-gauge) of Thailand and its neighbours to the south and east. It would not in fact nowadays require an enormous amount of rail (re)-construction, to restore this route in its entirety: but the way history's course has run, would seem not to have so far produced the requisite degree of desire to this end, on anyone's part; to have caused the thing to be done.

On our tour, smaller-scale stuff was commemorated. An element in Burmese steam's finale in the first decade of this century, was freight workings transporting stone quarried beyond Mokpalin some 38 miles out of Bago on this eastward route, westbound to destinations involving sundry construction works. Between Mokpalin and Bago, these were hauled by class YD 2-8-2s: scheduling-wise they were "the lowest form of life", travelling only in the gaps between other workings, often stationary for very long periods and taking several days to complete their runs -- they included accordingly, "mess vans" in which their crews cooked, ate and slept. For our two days on this line, an attempt was made at re-creating one of these workings: train made up of seven or eight bogie open wagons -- empty, but authentically of the type used "then and now" for carrying the stone, plus two bogie mess vans as above. Haulage was by 2-8-2 YD 967. The initial day involved the train's running from Ka Lay, first station out of Bago on the eastward route (transfer for us from our hotels, by bus), to Mokpalin; the following day, the same but in the reverse direction. The intervening night was spent at a -- decidedly luxurious, aimed at the tourist trade -- hotel some way from Mokpalin, reached from there by our bus. So as to be chimney-first in both directions for the photters' benefit, YD 967 was turned (with difficulty, as witnessed by us) on the decrepit turntable at Mokpalin's virtually derelict steam locoshed.

"Standard operational procedure" as on tours by this outfit: numerous repeated photographic run-pasts; and stops for lunch, and for operational reasons; meant that covering 40 miles took, each day, the majority of the local twelve hours' daylight -- not a problem; these exercises are not about getting expeditiously from A to B... Those participants who wished, could ride in the mess vans (a few hardy souls did some of same, in the wagons); or else one might travel in the ever-accompanying bus. For the first day, eastbound, I took the mess-van option. It was good to be travelling by rail behind steam; but these vehicles have meagre and uncomfortable seating. Contributing thereto: part of the van was occupied, authentically, by the train crew, often doing their cooking in situ, which of course they had every right to do -- and like nearly everyone we encountered in Burma they were, across the language barrier, most friendly and pleasant and benign folk. Plus, the vans' construction offered only very limited opportunities for seeing out at the passing scene. The tour participants in our mess van enlivened the proceedings with dubious-taste humour, involving likening the experience to chronicled rail travel for perceived "undesirables" some three-quarters of a century previously, in various of the less-nice places featuring in the assorted turmoils of that era.

Also, the mess vans' attached step-fixtures for boarding / alighting were, for one such as me -- elderly, overweight and unfit -- awkwardly high, especially when things were happening other than at a station platform. What with all these factors -- I chose for the second, westbound, day, to travel throughout in the bus, just enjoying the sight of the train at such times as it was to be had; and the general local ambient scene. For their "whatever" reasons, a couple of other participants used the bus too, they alighting to take pictures as circumstances dictated.

A supplementary pleasure for me of this section of the tour east of Bago, was not immediately rail-related. Inevitably, given the objective and the time-span, I would get to see only one tiny corner of a large and highly diverse country which contains among much else, lots of highly-scenic upland and mountain and bodies-of-water scenery. From Yangon to Bago and further up the Mandalay main line; landscapes are -- while indubitably lushly tropical with abundant small watercourses -- basically flat and undramatic. However, the route east from Bago crosses, near its Mokpalin extremity, the upper end of the estuary of the big Sittaung River on an impressive steel truss road-and-rail bridge. The last eight-odd miles from the bridge to Mokpalin, start to run through mildly hilly country; plus, looking eastward from locations in those parts, the horizon features a grand view of silhouetted mountains, looking to be of a generally purplish shade, and appearing surprisingly close-to. Going by the map, these mountains lie some 30 miles east of the Sittaung. From their summits, there would be views across the Salween to the Burma / Thai border.

For the tour's fifth and last full day, we were back on the main line and with YC 629. As recounted earlier: re the "semaphore saga", I was not highly au fait with its details or, to be honest, all that concerned; but, be that as it may -- it emerged in the course of the tour that despite the promise-breaking vandalism by the cultural / industrial imperialists, at least one impressive signal gantry on the main line at Bago proved to be after all still in situ, and possible to put temporarily back into working condition. It thus ended up that essentially, the original "Day Five" plan for the tour could happen. The morning was occupied by YC 629 and her "mixed" consist as had run from Madauk -- likewise as then, loco on south end of train -- going through their photographic paces under the fine five-pole gantry on the main line south of Bago station. The signal arms, lately removed -- though the gantry's structure was intact -- had been meticulously replaced and re-connected so that they could function in authentic fashion for this couple of hours' photography. My feelings were mixed: "saw with head", where the photters were coming from here; and recognised their angle on the multi-faceted railway hobby as being every bit as legitimate as my very dissimilar one. Could not help "feeling with gut" -- well, trying not to put things in an over-spiteful way: that the phony-ness and bogus-ness of this exercise was so great as to have it at least bordering on realms of the ridiculous. However, "judge not", etc. -- all spectacles of any kind, which people stage and perform, will seem ridiculous to some other people. And Far Rail Tours were hurting nobody with their semaphore-signal antics...

YC 629 and train then reversed about ten miles northward along the main line to a classic phot-spot; the station of Hpa Ya Gyi (Payagyi in colonial speak), whose attraction is an exquisite pagoda close by the east side of the line. The bus took us to this location; there ensued much photographer-delighting running to and fro by the Pacific and her train. This being the final day, "stumps were drawn" a couple of hours before nightfall; then for those, myself included, who wished (bus for those who didn't), a leisurely run behind our trusty YC 629 along the main line to Bago station -- thence the bus to the accommodation, for the last night.

The following day it was back on the bus to Yangon, where we had first met together at the start of the tour. For those whose flight times permitted it, an optional cultural interlude was offered in the shape of a brief visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's foremost architectural and historical gem. Finding it frustrating -- as previously mentioned -- though unavoidable, that this time in Burma let me see so very little of the land's more-standard attractions; I took the given opportunity for a quick look around this acclaimed and highly impressive -- "iconic" as they say -- venue. Then it was off to the airport and the short flight to Bangkok; changing there for the long haul home.

"Steam fun for mad Westerners" (and on our tour, one Japanese gentleman) aside: Burma Railways, though giving something of a down-at-heel aspect, were visibly -- if often unpunctually -- busy with normal everyday passenger and freight traffic: diesel-worked, largely by various types and vintages of Bo-Bo-Bo locos. Two-car DMUs were observed serving the short branch to Nyaungkashe, workings originating and terminating at Bago (this branch, like that to Madauk, was one of steam's last strongholds till a dozen-odd years ago). Gratifyingly for me -- though, my impression was, causing annoyance to the more photographically-tunnel-vision-characterised of the group -- we were delayed and immobilised now and again by our specials' having to be got out of the way to let "real" trains through. Incidentally, I discovered that Burma Railways' passenger trains have, not First and Second; but Upper and Ordinary, class -- which feels pleasingly incongruous for a sorta-kinda-socialist country.

I had originally had thoughts of requesting to be allowed to strike out on my own for a day, to experience a bit of genuine everyday modern Burma Railways travel. However, it soon became clear that on this tour, Bernd and his local assistants, beset with various problems, were getting a stressful time of it; this even without strange pesterings out of left field, from a single eccentric non-photographing bod. Feeling that bothering them thus would in the circumstances, be reprehensibly special-snowflaky of me -- plus, that I would almost for sure get the thumbs-down anyway -- I did not raise the matter.

As a whole, counting "getting there and away", a Burmese week-all-but which was -- whatever else -- highly interesting in assorted ways. Although I and the photographic fraternity were on radically different "pages" regarding the hobby (in broad terms, no doubt they found me as bizarre as I sometimes found them) -- it was the great majority of the time a scene overall, of mutually congenial folk of various nationalities. The tour's circumstances were at times hectic, occasionally getting into the "fraught" bracket; but the ultimate feeling was that essentially the clients had had satisfaction regarding what they had come for.

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Rob Dickinson