Runaway Train, Never Comin' Back (in Hsipaw)

Trip Start Apr 18, 2012
Trip End Jun 12, 2012

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Flag of Myanmar  , Shan,
Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I almost didn't create a post for Hsipaw, because I think that the photos speak for themselves. But then Kyla said, emphatically, "what do you mean you're not writing a post?!? Your reading public wants a post!" I have a feeling that, at this point, my reading public consists of my mom. So this post is for you, mom. Unfortunately, it contains mostly mom-inappropriate material. Oh well. Take a Valium and read on.

Despite Lonely Planet's warning that the railway journey between Mandalay and Hsipaw (near China) is "extraordinarily slow and bouncy enough to inspire sea-sickness," we read up on the journey online and decided the bounciness was a small price to pay for the views. Plus, the tracks cross the Gokteik Viaduct, which was the world's second highest viaduct when it was built in 1901. I didn't know exactly what a viaduct is, but it sounded exciting. And even after Kyla explained that we'd be crossing a gorge on a skinny little bridge built over 100 years ago, I thought that even I might enjoy the views of the viaduct, provided I had the right dose of ambien and dramamine.

Anyhoo, the ride started off as expected--incredibly bouncy, but sort of fun. And when I say "bouncy," I mean it was like a rodeo ride; we were literally getting thrown around on our wooden benches (oh, and as an aside, the benches were like church pews, but less comfortable. And the aisles were stuffed with produce. And there was only one other non-Burmese person on the train, a guy from Australia with a "chest infection" that I'm sure was tuberculosis. He sat in the pew facing us, coughing in rhythm with the bouncing.). As I was saying, we were enjoying the bouncing, and feeling pretty hardcore about the experience for the first few hours. Every once in a while, we would bounce particularly hard and I would think to myself, "woah, it feels like we are about to bounce right off the tracks!" More on that in a sec.

So, all was going well until we heard a loud "wooooooosh" and the train came to a slow stop. A neighbor pantomimed something to our TB-ridden Australian, and he told us that the hydraulic brake pipe came off, or something like that. A few passengers unloaded some long bamboo sticks (to use as tools?), and 45 minutes later, we were moving again.

We went back to bumping and laughing and enjoying the scenery...until we heard a loud screeching sound and felt a sudden pulling from the back of the train. This time, the folks who seemed totally unconcerned about the prior failure of...oh, you know, THE BRAKES, were yelling and pointing and freaking out. We came to a quick stop, and everyone hopped off the train to see what happened. Well, what happened is that we BOUNCED ourselves right off the tracks, just as I had feared (I called that sh*t). The two cars behind our car were tipped at a 45 degree angle and the track was all torn up. After an hour of discussion, and more attempts to fix things with bamboo poles, the crowd unloaded all of the cargo from the two derailed cars and the decision was made to abandon those cars and proceed to the next station. At the next station, we had to wait for four hours for a train to arrive from the other direction before we could continue. And by "station," I mean "platform with fruit stand."

We eventually headed off again, this time at a crawl. I was no longer looking forward to seeing the world's second tallest viaduct, what with the FAILING BRAKES and DERAILING and all. The good news is that the train crossed the viaduct slowly. The bad news is that the train crossed the viaduct slowly. No amount of ambien and Dramamine was going to get me to look out that window. I closed my eyes, prayed, and hung on to the back of Kyla's shirt as she took pictures and video out the window. Here is the video:

A few hours later, we hopped off the train in Hsipaw and made our way with the feverish Australian to Mr. Charles' Guest House. Phew.

This is a super-long post, so I'll keep the rest of my description short.

After a great night's sleep (the Dramamine and ambien finally kicked in), we awoke in the morning and went on a memorable trek with a guide and two other couples to tribal villages in the mountains. What we didn't know when we set off was that the trek was 18 miles long over several mountains, and is usually divided over two days. EIGHTEEN MILES. ON MY FEET. IN ONE DAY. I'm so glad that I missed that bit of information, because I never would have gone, and it really was a remarkable experience. Of course there were many moments during the particularly steep portions when I wished that I had splurged on the type of travel insurance that pays for your body to be "repatriated" if you die abroad, but I was proud of myself for making it. And, as Kyla can attest to, I hiked the entire way (ON MY FEET) with nary a kvetch. The lack of kvetching might be related to the fact that I was a half mile behind the group for most of the hike, so I had no audience. But I don't think that silent kvetching between god and me counts on the grand kvetch-o-meter in the sky.

Other details: we passed a few Shan villages and had lunch at a Palaung village with the chief (who is democratically elected every two years). On the way, we saw tea plantations, three different types of rice crops, watermelon farms, peach trees, dragon fruit trees, beans, tomato plants, pomegranate trees, a million types of cilantro ("here, try this Chinese cilantro. Oh, and this Shan cilantro. And this other cilantro. And this coriander. And more cilantro."). Post-hike, we had a celebratory drink with our hiking-mates, a tasty dinner and ice cream before collapsing into bed.

We splurged on a $35 shared taxi back to Mandalay today, and we are flying to our next destination (Kalaw) tomorrow. The next train I take will be the acella. And the only thing that was slightly off about our shared taxi is that we had to pull over occasionally, so that the driver could bathe the engine in cold water to...I don't know...keep it from exploding? See pic.

PS. Yes, mom--the train derailing is the "slight technical problem" I mentioned in passing in my last email. Aren't you glad that I didn't explain further until returning to Mandalay? No more train rides. I promise.

PPS. The butt-pain caused by biking in Bagan doesn't even compare to the post-hike ache. And this doesn't count as a kvetch either. Just stating facts, not registering a complaint.
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Gena on

Keep the posts coming! I can't stop laughing!

Monnie on

Please travel and be hilarious forever.

Sandra on

Loving your blog. Derailed trains. 18 mile hikes (on your feet). Ha!

Grace on

"More on that in a sec." DYING!

Steph on

that's awesome - so impressed with the 18 mile hike - how often did Kyla tell you only .2 to go? also impressed w/ Kyla's multimedia youtube video. Thinking maybe the blog should be published? Would like a dedication pls.

Simona on

This entry was beyond funny! Oh dear god I laughed hard. I can't believe that happened with the train! And I know this comment is very late in coming, but I can't seem to read fast enough. Keep going, though, please!

eggie on

this is so freaking funny. thanks for the shout-out. that was me. i've been following you this entire time which is why i'm just catching up on the blog now.

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