The International Steam Pages

The Burma Road, 2009

This is the first 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.

Yunnan to Burma by land? It's never been easier or more expensive. Read how to do it...

Since 2005, Yuehong and I have been researching the stationary steam engines in Burma (Myanmar). With time on our hands in the middle of the Chinese winter (there being little left in the way of interesting novel steam locomotive activity on offer), it seemed a natural option to journey down the old Burma Road as the first leg of our warm weather escape. It's the only available land route into the country and one of those special journeys which has been available for quite a few years. However, it has never become fashionable, possibly because it's not cheap and it doesn't fit naturally into the average backpacker's overall itinerary being very much a one way trip leading only to an air flight out.

Our video cameras had suffered grievously on our recent excursions in China to the big pit at Jalainur and the Xingyang Brickworks Railway to the extent that both required replacement head systems. Like me, they are not in the first flush of youth, but paying out for new cameras was beyond our budget so we had to wait for Sony's creaking legacy spare part system to perform. In fact, after 3 weeks we had given up, borrowed a camera for the trip and bought our discount air tickets to Kunming when the spare parts suddenly materialised and we were given back the cameras just 3 hours before we left the flat. It was an auspicious start. We had originally intended to take the train but by 14th January 2009 we were less than 2 weeks from Chinese New Year and paying only a small premium to save 45 hours travelling not only seemed a good idea, it was probably unavoidable as train tickets would have been almost impossible to obtain.

The guide books correctly suggest that the Camellia Hotel in Kunming (with dormitories for those on a tighter budget) is a good place to start - you can get a better price on their rather tired standard rooms by booking ahead. Being able to 'do the business' in the Camellia and its excellent buffet breakfast made it attractive to us, but it seems many but by no means all backpackers have decamped to cheaper but newer places. We already had our visas from Beijing and the Burma (Myanmar) consulate is no longer present although the Lao one is and was doing a lot of business. These days increasing numbers of Chinese are making the land trip to Mandalay (and back) and there is a standard price of CNY 500 for them (including Yuehong) for the paperwork and transport to Lashio from Muse on the border (CNY 600 to Mandalay). For we poor foreigners, the price is a ridiculously extortionate CNY 1450, but at least this can be arranged more or less on the spot by the agent in room 221 at the hotel. Perhaps since this is of the same order of magnitude as or more than an air ticket, it's not greatly popular and we were told that barely a couple of dozen tourists make the journey every month. It is also necessary to first take a bus (less than CNY 250) down to Ruili on the Chinese side opposite Muse (tickets can be bought at the office by the Camellia gate). Ruili is a medium sized town with plenty of hotels and restaurants for those arriving too late in the day to journey on to Lashio - much better facilities than in Muse itself.

Kunming is still a small city by Chinese standards and while hardly full of character it has fewer tower blocks than most and the airport is not far south on the edge of the city area - the #52 bus is available if you arrive at a civilised hour (but be aware that a new airport way out of town east is under construction). The heart of the city is Dong Feng Square - the Camellia is two stops east on the #5 bus among others. South-west of Dong Feng Square is what passes for traditional Kunming, there are a few old buildings, a couple more which look as if they have been relocated there and plenty of small restaurants on the streets which are much appreciated by locals and (mainly Chinese) tourists alike. For us the main attraction was the excellent Yunnan Railway Museum at Kunming Bei station, an unexpected bonus was a short ride on a local passenger train. The #78 bus connects the main station and Kunming Bei station passing the Camellia but skirting Dong Feng Square (from where it's easy to get to the museum using the #23 or #K1 buses and no doubt others too). Local taxis are plentiful, happy to use their meters (a small official surcharge applies) and sensibly priced.

In a perfect world we would liked to have gone to the border from Kunming in the daylight, in the event only night buses were offered to us (we are not sure if daytime buses actually exist). To be certain of travelling by day we were told on arrival in Ruili that we would first have to go to Dali, then take a bus to Mang Shi and another bus onwards to Ruili (I guess these last would not be frequent). We were required to present ourselves at the bus station near Kunming main station for a 14.30 departure. "40 minutes and CNY 25 in taxi" said the receptionist at the Camellia who had obviously never done the journey - in fact it was 15 minutes and CNY 12. It was a scrum, but Yuehong quickly found our bus, a very nice three across two tier sleeper, and in due course it filled up. We left bang on time and spent the next two hours doing a tour of the Kunming suburbs in a succession of traffic jams before we ended up at a second bus station. After a half hour break we set off again with the bus stopping regularly for 10 minutes for no apparent reason as we cleared the city. By 19.00 we were barely 50km from Kunming and it was dinner time. Most of the passengers seemed to be students who talked incessantly to each other and their mobile phones, one of them was so attached to his beast that he carried on sending a text message while squatting on the open shitter at the back of the restaurant. An excellent 'Peking Duck' was on offer which with vegetables and a beer came to a very acceptable CNY 40 for two of us.

Back on the bus at 20.00, we finally hit the expressway big time and Chinese pop music blared out, interspersed with occasional western efforts, the most memorable of which seemed to have escaped the censor's attention as more repeatable lyrics included "I don't want some short dick man!" and "You got two tummy buttons!". The mobile phones never quite petered out and a few of the older male passengers surreptitiously puffed the odd cigarette, the driver had a weak bladder and stopped every hour on the roadside to relieve himself. The 'bed' was comfortable if barely long enough and wide enough for my modest frame. I dozed off and some time after midnight I found the constant curves were doing very strange things to my neck in my sleep. Outside we were past Dali and still on an expressway, which was well engineered and apparently of fairly recent construction. There was half an old moon which showed that the road alternately rose and fell again as it crossed one river valley after another. There were a fair number of tunnels too, some considerably more than a kilometre long. Traffic was not heavy, mainly a steady trickle of heavily loaded trucks in both directions. The old Burma Road it most definitely was not and in terms of adventure this part of the trip was scoring about 0/10. We crossed a particularly long bridge (presumably the Nu River which turns into the Thanlwin/Salween and emerges at Moulmein) and the road started a long climb round a large horseshoe and then about 03.00 we finally branched off on to an ordinary road. Even this was in excellent condition and after a brief stop to let off most of the passengers at Mang Shi at 05.00 we rolled into Ruili at 06.00. We should have stopped at the bus station for a tea, because when we took a taxi to the border crossing it was deserted. It has now migrated some way beyond the river bridge on the Burma (Myanmar) side and the Chinese have built what amounts to a 'new town' stuffed with shops for those few wealthy Burmese citizens who can buy just about any kind of consumer goods here.

We had been told we would be met at 09.00, but as the time came and went the Chinese immigration officials took a more and more (friendly) interest in us. 'Foreigners' apparently normally came in groups and only about once a week; my annual 'L' visa with multiple entry attracted great attention, no-one had seen anything quite like it before. Yuehong charmed them as usual and eventually one friendly officer volunteered to phone our local contact. He arrived looking more than a little flustered, he said he knew we were coming but not when. We were waived through Chinese immigration, the young lady who was chosen to serve me had an English degree from Xian, but I was the first foreigner she had ever had to deal with and was extremely nervous - not helped by the fact that Ruili had no machine to read my passport details. Despite what had been suggested, the solitary Burma (Myanmar) immigration officer we saw at the border was totally laid back and greeted us with a beaming smile, no doubt he was being tipped handsomely. We signed blank forms and half an hour later our passports re-appeared with some purple toilet paper attached while we sipped tea in a nearby house. If there was such thing as a customs check, I must have blinked. Such is the power of money...

It's a more than pleasant run from Muse to Lashio, basically it's what we would call in England 'a drover's road' because it follows the ridges and the high ground as far as possible and this makes for very nice views of the northern Shan State countryside at times. In this case, context is everything, and the huge trucks grinding slowly along it are reminders of its war time role. The road is rather wider than I expected and in rather better condition too although it hardly bears comparison with the Chinese section. It is only traversable for foreigners with the right paperwork (and then only southbound) and there are serious checkpoints just outside Muse and about 25 miles north of Lashio to enforce this. Everyone's papers are checked and for the locals this means visiting no less than 6 desks in a row, photography of this strange process is absolutely forbidden, of course. When I informed our guides that those who fail their college exams try to enter the police, those that fail that one enter the army and those that cannot manage that hurdle mainly end up in the immigration service, they collapsed in laughter. And they then pointed out that the only person ever to have failed that test ended up being elected President of the USA in 2000.

In terms of adventure, as we were forced to take an expensive guide, I would give it 2/10, and then only because the white Toyota hatchback taxis are so knackered as to make their condition dangerous - we saw one whose front wheel support had shattered resulting in it leaving the road. The journey took just five hours including a half hour lunch stop. We were naturally apprehensive about the trip given the lack of up-to-date experiences on the web, but in the event, it was incredibly easy to arrange and everything worked very well. However, we both felt a sense of anti-climax and very tired at the end so it was no surprise that we were in bed by 19.30 - we had a very early start next morning for our onward journey to Pyin U Lwin.

No one we met 'in the business' suggested that going directly to Ruili would have been successful let alone cheaper. A Chinese lady on the sleeper bus turning up 'on spec' was offered the trip for CNY 100 less by an agent at the border, but she would have had to wait another 24 hours to cross and have spent at least this to stay in Ruili; the same agent would not handle foreigners which seem to be a monopoly of Yunan Overseas Tourism Company (YOTC). A Chinese immigration officer told Yuehong that not so long ago an American with a Burmese visa but no more was left stranded in no man's land when he was turned back. They took pity on him and cancelled his exit stamp...

Was it worth it? A good question. Morally it is totally indefensible given where the money will have gone, but on the other hand we will have left a much smaller carbon footprint than flying. In money terms, we just about scored because Yuehong's lower permit charge got us both to Lashio much more cheaply than flying and in about the same time and we only had to use the Mandalay - Lashio train in one direction. I have been to Gokteik thrice before but it was Yuehong's first sighting of that railway wonder and Pyin-U-Lwin. Most importantly, it was another piece in my WW2 jigsaw. I've done the Kwai Bridge and trestles, the Thanbyuzyat mogul and many of the war graves in the region, not to mention a short trip up the Stilwell Road almost into Burma while we were at Tipong in February 2008. I had no regrets and we will maybe repeat it one day with a more leisurely approach to savour the Chinese side, but first I have to invent a Ponzi scheme to pay for it.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson