Up to the Shans

At Inle, I decided to follow my Belgian friend back to the North, to the mountains. The French couple had told us about the mountains in Shan State and the train to reach them. Only for the train, they said, it was worth the trip. So we went back to Mandalay, where we spent one day basically recovering ourselves from the bus trip.

Finally, on Sunday, we left the guesthouse around 5.00 am to catch the famous Mandalay – Lashio train. During my first days in Myanmar I had the opportunity to travel South by train and I can say that it was not precisely the Orient Express. I think that the train’s shock-absorbers have never been replaced since its construction so I spent the entire rail journey jumping on my seat, which was funny during the first ten minutes but annoying for the next ten hours, lol. This journey was not much more promising but the dense jungle panoramas that we were about to cross plus the Gokteik Viaduct made me want to repeat.

When we got on the train it was still night and we were sleepy. We had a ten hours journey ahead so I wanted to sleep for a while. But then I saw a mouse and I almost touched the ceiling with my jump! WTF !!! Our neighbors, a local family, smiled at me and tried to tell me not to worry, that it was just a little mouse. But how could I sleep with a little mouse around?

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With daylight the journey was more entertaining because the landscape outside was very green and exuberant. The short stops at train stations were also a good occasion to have a glimpse of local life. The train had a constant speed of about 15km/h. The quality of the railroads is generally poor, most remain in poor repair and are not passable during the monsoon season. Consequently, the speed of trains is heavily restricted on all existing links because of poor track and bridge conditions.

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Before climbing the hills the train stopped for 5 minutes and then it started running backwards for 1 – 2 kilometres. I thought that we were going back to Mandalay, lol! It seems that the train needs to do this operation to adapt itself to another kind of rails.

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But the most epic (or dramatic) moment was after Pyin Oo Lwing, when the train stopped before crossing Gokteik Viaduct. The French couple had told me about the “viaduct-crossing” freaking experience but it was only when we stopped and that huge steel monster appeared to us from the mist that I started to be worried.

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This 689 metres long and 102 metres high viaduct was built in 1900 by the British Empire to cross the Gohtwin Stream. This is the highest bridge in Myanmar and when it was completed, the largest railway trestle in the world. Due to its technical and natural condition it was considered at that time as a masterpiece. Renovated in 1951 after being bombed during WW2 and again in the 90’s, this viaduct is again in desperate need of repair. The atmosphere that day (rainy and foggy) did not help a lot either. And then the train started running again veeeery slowly, it took 20 minutes to cross the 689 metres in an attempt to minimize pressure and further any damage. Believe me, while crossing you can hear e-ve-ry screw of the viaduct creaking under your feet. I was not very relaxed until we arrived to our final destination safely. .

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Later I learnt that we were the last passengers to take this train for a while because only few hours later the strong rain damaged badly many kilometres of the railway. Uff I felt very lucky, lol!

Hsipaw was different from what I have seen in Myanmar before. I did not find the town very interesting and I preferred to spend my time there hiking. The following day I did a short hike up to a waterfall. Nothing impressive but at least all that fresh water was very rewarding on that hot day. We spent only one full day in Hsipaw and we left the town following day (by bus).

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