The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia by Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia by Paul Theroux

Author:Paul Theroux
Language: eng
Format: mobi, epub
Tags: Travel, Essays & Travelogues
ISBN: 9780141930763
Publisher: Penguin UK
Published: 2011-08-31T23:00:00+00:00

Chapter Seventeen

THE MANDALAY EXPRESS

AT SUNDOWN IN Rangoon, the crows that have been II blackening the sky all day soar to their roosts as the shrill bats waken and flap in hectic circles around the pagoda-style towers of the railway station. I arrived at this hour: the bats were tumbling past the crows, and the pale yellow sky was inked like Burmese silk with the brush marks of the black bodies. I had arrived by air in Rangoon on a Saturday night - there is no train from India - and the Burmese appetite for movies I had noticed on a previous visit was undiminished. Sule Pagoda Road, with its five theatres, was mobbed with people, dressed identically in shirt, sarong, and rubber sandals, men and women alike puffing thick green cheroots, and looking (as they waved away the smoke with slender dismissing fingers) like a royal breed, strikingly handsome in this collapsing city, a race of dispossessed princes.

I had only one objective in Burma: to take the northbound trains from Rangoon via Mandalay and Maymyo to the Gokteik Gorge in the Shan States, beyond which China sprawls. Across this gorge is a magnificent steel trestle bridge, the Gokteik Viaduct, built in 1899 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company for the British Raj. I had read about the bridge, but not in any recent book. Early in this century enthusiasm for railway travel produced a spate of optimistic books about railway travel: the French were building the Transindochinois line to Hanoi, the Russians had brought the Trans-Siberian almost to Vladivostok, the British had laid track to the very end of the Khyber Pass, and it was assumed that Burmese railways would extend in one direction to the Assam-Bengal line and in the other to the railways of China. The books had apocalyptic titles like The Railway Conquest of the World (by Frederick Talbot, 1911) and described, country by country, how the globe was to be stitched by railway track. The judgements were occasionally disagreeable. Ernest Protheroe in Railways of the World (1914) wrote: 'John Chinaman - cunning, tenacious, and virile - for centuries kept the "foreign devil" at arm's length... But, however much the Chinese hated the white man, they commenced to recognize the value of railways...' The Gokteik Viaduct, much celebrated in these books, was an important link in a line that was projected beyond the northern border town of Lashio into China. But the line had stopped at Lashio (nor were Burmese railways ever to meet Indian ones), and I had heard many rumours about this American-built bridge: one was that it had been blown up during the Second World War; another that the line had been captured by Burmese rebel forces under the command of U Nu; and another that it was off-limits to foreigners.

To avoid startling the Burmese at the ticket window of Rangoon Station I asked about the train to Mandalay. There were two men at the window. The first said there was no printed timetable I could buy.



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