The International Steam Pages

The Gokteik Pineapple Express, 2009

This is the second part of our 2009 Burmese Odyssey.  To read more about our 2009 bash which includes many non-steam items, please see Rob and Yuehong in the Golden Land 2009.

This is Gokteik station in northern Shan State in Burma (Myanmar). Whether the name is familiar to you or not, you really read ought to read on. 

This is the view from a train passing over the nearby viaduct:

Most reports describe the ride here starting in Mandalay. For a change here's what it's like starting in Lashio...

It's 03.00, Yuehong is still asleep and I'm brewing a very necessary cup of coffee, not as bad as it sounds as it's 04.30 in China which we left yesterday and were so exhausted that we went to bed at 19.30. All my instant 'get up and go' has long ago got up and gone and only two cups of best Java will reach the necessary extremities. The hotel has solemnly promised us an early call at 04.00 not to mention transport to the station but that was the day shift and they're all safely tucked up in bed no doubt. An hour later with all the early morning business completed, the telephone remains silent but the packs are full and it's time to go. The night shift are indeed comatose, but I shake one of them awake and he reluctantly agrees to find us a three wheeler. Nearby the market is already working up a head of steam and we are pointed at a near empty vehicle. In we get and I am about to put my camera bag on a blanket covered sack of rice when Yuehong stops me. "It's a person!" she says and indeed it seems she is correct although for the next twenty minutes and even when we get off it doesn't move at all.

We rally a full complement and at the station the only train of the day is warming up. As always in Burma, I wander into the back of the booking office and wait for someone to notice me. Eventually I am asked where I want to go and 'First or ordinary class?'. For this very special train, it is unimaginable to lock oneself away in the first class, it's 11 hours at least to Pyin U Lwin and we need all the street theatre we can get to pass the time. On the train the only thing at all new are the plastic seat numbers, the lights are long failed, the glass has vanished from the windows and there are no bolts to hold the shutters open. Seizing the torch, I grovel around the rubbish on the platform for sufficient plastic string so we can have some kind of view when daylight comes and make a mental note not to dangle my arm or anything else out of the window frame on the journey.

Amazingly at 04.55, five minutes before 'right time' we are on the move and the train rapidly reaches full speed, estimated to be a generous 20 miles an hour (remember they still use imperial units here). Our Chinese diesel will not be too hard pressed today as the train loads to a mere five ordinary class bogies, a first class coupe and a van for incidental goods. I don't know what the line speed limit is but the driver doesn't need a speedo as the track condition is such that the whole train rocks uncontrollably if he goes too fast. It's our first train ride in Burma for nearly two years and foolishly we have placed the packs on the luggage rack. Fifteen minutes after departure, a bigger than average lurch launches my 20kg missile across the coach. No-one complains and after that they are both stuck under seats. 

The first station out is Namyao, the junction for the Burma Mines Railway. It's still dark as we arrive so it's impossible to tell if the link is still used, but even 10 years ago there was very little traffic and the narrow gauge line was in an appalling state. By Manpwe, the hawkers are already hard at work, age is no barrier and everyone pitches in when there are only two trains a day:

This lady's first customers are half a dozen of the Tatmadaw's finest in the opposite set of seats:


It's not even 07.00 when they crack open their first bottle of Grand Royal. One station later a full bottle which once contained Chinese Dali beer appears. Fortunately they are an amiable bunch of clowns and one by one they curl up and go to sleep as the journey unfolds, I haven't the courage to suggest to one of them that sleeping with his feet out of our window is not a very good idea for several reasons. In the early morning mist, we run along the river all the way to Hsipaw. We stop at wayside halts for a few passengers to get on and off and if a village doesn't have an official stopping place, the train slows to a crawl for people to leap on and off. 

The land is poor and scrubby and it must be difficult to eke out an existence here.

By the time we are approaching Hsipaw, the train is quite full, but almost everyone gets off there. However, there is a large crowd waiting to get on and an equally large amount of goods too. It all has to go on the train somehow and when the van is full the gangways and vestibules on the coaches have to be used instead. There's time for a samosa snack and a photographic session of the train and the hawkers in the soft morning light. 

Using a hole-in-the-floor toilet on a Burmese train is a challenge to the average female - it would help to be an Olympic gymnast - and is even more challenging when you have to climb over a mountain of bamboo and try to clear a way to a door which also lacks such simple refinements as a bolt to keep it shut. In our case, I have to ride shotgun outside for Yuehong.

And if you've got a baby with you, then nappy changing might as well be done while sitting down:

Compared to earlier, the Hsipaw area seems more fertile. There is rice and wheat and plenty of fruit including oranges and water melons. The former don't seem to travel well or far, but the water melons will be sent to China where they will be sold at an inflated price for the New Year as 'Product of Hainan'. Of course, since the going price in Yunnan is barely CNY 2 a kg and in Beijing it's 20, very little will actually filter back to the farmers. I begin to regret buying a set of donuts in Lashio, because the snacks on the train are as cheap and delicious as ever. Fried chicken anyone, a snip at GBP 0.20?

By the time we reach Kyauk Me, I am too full to have lunch on the platform, but the eatery is more than happy to sell me a couple of bottles of Dali beer for a reasonable Ky 1000 each, significantly cheaper than the local alternatives as usual; I have to restrain myself as it's nearly time for serious business. The oranges have vanished off the train,

but just what they are loading I don't know, but it is heavy:

The opposite working is crossed - spot on time: 

From here it's downhill all the way to Gokteik, I leave Yuehong and move into the middle of the train so we don't get in each other's way. There's a small pagoda built above the gorge:

It's as great as ever of course, 10 years older than last time for me and now well into its second century, even the locals are flashing cameras at it. Here is the first sight of the bridge as the train goes into a tunnel:

Emerging, the train slows to walking pace and cameras appear all down the train despite official prohibition:

It's not good if you suffer from vertigo:

It's a long way down to the emergency diversion route:

And even further to the bottom of the narrow gorge containing the river:

Finally the view looking back from the station:

Afterwards Yuehong complains that I had only told her it was a 'big, old bridge' and not that it was such a fabulous metal monster. It's a hard act to follow and I have to confess the last couple of hours start to drag, especially when we are overtaken by a water buffalo while waiting for some rare track maintenance to be completed.

Fortunately we have some live music for entertainment.

Arrival at Pyin U Lwin is only 20 minutes late and I quickly organise a horse taxi into town, another pleasant surprise for Yuehong. 

It has been a great day out, dare I say it, far more interesting and enjoyable than the previous one down the Burma Road, although without that we would have to ride the train twice which may have begun to pall. To my mind it's one of the great railway journeys of the world. Did you want to know about the pineapple? I thought you'd never ask. There were huge piles at Hsipaw and so cheap that the minimum quantity sold was three. Out of respect for our digestive systems we passed...

If you enjoyed this account of train travel in Burma, you will also enjoy other journeys we have made recently:

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson