The runaway train came down the track and she blew…
I hadn’t thought of that song since childhood but it flew into my mind as we rattled along on the train to Mandalay.
I was travelling in Burma with my daughters Dale and Alice, and Ben, Alice’s friend. We arrived early at the station in Rangoon. I said I’d booked sleepers… Oh well, my mistake, I must have booked reclining seats… Surely?
I wanted to do this trip because my grandfather, Jimmy, did it in 1908. I'm sure he managed to organise a sleeper - I imagine him in a spartan but clean and comfortable teak carriage with brass fittings and plush curtains. He wrote precious little about it except that there were any amount of pagodas and rice paddies to be seen. That hadn't changed.
The carriages were gloomy and dilapidated, the seats decidedly fixed, but with nice clean seat covers.
I jumped when Dale unclicked her window and pushed hard to slide it down with a resounding bang. I shouldn't have been surprised - the first thing Dale does entering an enclosed space is make for any aperture and wrench it open as if she'd just entered a vacuum. I'm nervous with her in lifts in case she spies the emergency hatch.
The train took off with a hoot and a barrage of rapid-fire tortured metal crashes. The small neon tubes stopped flickering once we got going, the old-fashioned fans did an excellent job and the slip-stream quickly filled the chewing-gum-green polyester curtains and made them flutter madly; a theatrical touch as the train gathered speed - clickity-clack.
This was no pottering old train, we charged along, rolling and rattling, shaking and bouncing.
The doors at the end of the carriages alternately flapped open and banged shut the whole journey. The engine tore ahead, but the carriages were not letting up the chase. A change in engine tempo brought ear-shattering bangs and bonks as the carriages careened together. The carriages are old Chinese rolling stock originally made for a wider rail gauge which is why there is so much play and swing.
Heave-ho! Smokers Go!
Clouds of pungent smoke curled over us from the thick cheroot of a portly local gent sitting behind us. We pointed indignantly to the no-smoking signs and he signaled just one. A little later the motion got to him and he was desperately in need of the sea-sickness pills that I'd read passengers sometimes needed on this trip. I wondered if we should have let him carry on smoking! Ben and Alice rapidly decamped to another seat.
Other than the woes of the poor old fellow behind, our fellow passengers were delightful. A monk watching boxing on his mobile-phone made us smile.
Dale likened it to flying on a wobble board.
I gave up trying to take photos or read my book. Even more reason to admire the girls that cat-walked up the carriage with tin salvers of rice-filled wraps on their heads, calling out their wares. The food sellers changed at each station and brought different specialties. Durian, huge, spiky fruit bound up with pink ribbon for ease of handling; water and soft drinks. Little roasted birds on skewers made us all qualmish yet cellophane-wrapped strips of dried fish splayed out from the tail fin didn't evoke the same emotion. Huge lumpy guavas; rice and crayfish wrapped in bamboo leaves and hot cobs of corn. A man with an enormous thermos waved sachets of Nescafé and others hawkers bristled with plastic pods of biscuits and chips.
Sleep wasn’t easy, we all had restless legs, whatever position we took up. We got on the train drenched from monsoon rain and the question was whether to keep our soaking shoes on or reveal our water-logged feet, pale and creepy. I recalled that it was terribly rude to point with feet in parts of Asia and felt going to sleep with bare feet in the contorted positions we are adopting, we could easily make a cultural faux pas.
Yet even as the train bucked along - and at times I swore it left the track altogether - the clickity-clack beat a lullaby rhythm and rocked us to sleep. We woke now and then to stretch and peer into the darkness at a floodlit golden pagoda keeping watch over the flatness and blackness outside. Each body-stir excited the food vendors who never gave up trying.
Once daylight had woken everyone up, two monks appeared at the front of our carriage. The first held before him a white and silver Buddha – the head sparkling with a battery-operated casino of led-lights - blue, green and red. The monk stood, strangely still as the floor pranced beneath his leather sandals, and then began to walk slowly up the carriage, while his side-kick behind clanged rhythmically on a metal symbol.
“I think we’ve been blessed,” said Ben.
Spot on Ben. I hope none of us had feet pointing his way.
The runaway train came down the track, her whistle wide and her throttle back, And she blew, blew,
blew, blew, blew.