The journey to and from Hsipaw, in Shan State, turned out to be so ridiculous that it deserves a blog post to itself. On Thursday, my Polish friend Ola and I left relatively quiet Mandalay bus station at 2pm aboard the Duhtawadi Express. To my surprise, we were the only Westerners along with two American dudes on an otherwise almost full bus. Men, women, children, families, teenagers, screaming babies – you name it, we had it. As we left the city, we headed into dark clouds which soon burst into a late monsoon shower, making the climb up tight hairpins just that little bit more exciting – imagine streams of mud cascading down the already-not-great-condition roads. It didn’t take long for a number of locals to start being sick, at which point the man behind me decided to blast out some Burmese pop from his mobile in an attempt to drown out the retching sounds.
Fortunately, I was sat next to a lovely lady who proceeded to offer me half of her orange. When, a little later, I tried to offer her a biscuit in exchange, she explained to me in sign language that we were stopping for food shortly. And so we were. I ran across the parking lot in the rain to find the toilets – quite the experience, I have to say – and ended up with 4 veg curries and rice for around £1.30. Having scoffed my meal and returned to our ride, my Burmese friend insisted I imitate her and stick my finger in her little tin of spices and then apply said finger to my tongue, gesturing that it was good for digestion (or motion sickness?!). I have to say it didn’t taste as bad as it smelt but I’m still curious as to what it actually was. She then gave me a large handful of sunflower seeds which I was too embarrassed to refuse. I don’t think I actually managed to extract more than a seed or two but I didn’t let her find out!
After a while, the bus boy turned on the TV and, despite starting it over 3 times, we eventually ended up watching a local film, which had the locals in hysterics. Hooting, snorting, guffawing – there was no stopping the general hilarity. I tried to follow and did indeed laugh at a housewife getting knocked out by a coconut and a man falling face flat in the mud but, apart from that, I didn’t take much away from the 3+ hours of in-coach entertainment!
My friend having put on her glasses to better peer at my phone as I drafted this, we suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere and the bus boy made his way to the back of the bus. I didn’t really pay much attention until we stopped again, 5 minutes later, and this time the driver stormed to the back of the bus and literally dragged a poor boy half way down the aisle, telling him (I guess) to get off his bus. And so he did, left in the pitch black countryside with nothing but his small bag. After speaking to the Americans who were closer to the scene, it would seem that he was drunk and had passed out in the aisle, which would explain his look of utter bewilderment at being thrown off. As he walked past, my friend grabbed me towards her by the shoulders in a very protective, motherly way. And so we arrived in Hsipaw and I was none too glad to check into Mr Charles Guesthouse.
I shall regale you with the tales of my stay in Hsipaw in another post but before I leave you I will briefly share my trek back to Mandalay. Considering my experience above and the fact that there is only one daily bus at 5.30am, I opted for the more expensive shared taxi option which I pre-booked on my first day. However, it turns out there was an accident on Saturday on the treacherous hairpin bends resulting in the only road out of town being closed and buses being cancelled or extremely delayed for the foreseeable future. When questioned, the lovely staff at reception were unable to say more than, “It can sometimes last 3 days.” After much to and fro, it was eventually agreed I would keep my shared taxi as eventually cars were being let through. That is until the next day when, stuck in the mammoth traffic jam created by the original truck tipping over, a bus’s brakes gave up leading it to crash into another lorry, re-obstructing the narrow road and apparently causing the bus driver to lose both his legs.
Hearing the horror stories of other travellers just arriving after 20-30hr bus rides, and not feeling entirely reassured by the safety on the roads, I woke up this morning doubting my decision to stick with the taxi. Having almost been persuaded to switch to the 7hr train to Pyin U Lwin followed by a 1.5hr taxi to Mandalay, it turned out I couldn’t get a refund for my shared taxi as it was already on its way. As I was sitting in reception with my bags, resigned to my fate and waiting for the taxi to show up, reception got a phone call saying the taxi was going to be 2hrs late – this didn’t exactly bode well since it hadn’t even reached the traffic jam. So off I went, fast as lightening, into a tuk tuk to the station to try to make the one daily train.
I got there with plenty of time to spare but boy am I glad I did. For those of you who know me, saying I’m impatient is something of an understatement. And this was possibly one of the most frustrating exercises in patience of my entire life. The station employee managed to issue a maximum of 10 tickets in the 45min I was there. He would take your passport, slowly flick through the pages, pause, talk to his colleague, meticulously write down all your details, pause again, write some more, pause, yawn, pause, write, pause, think, pause, take your money, pause, hand you one note after the other in change, pause. Finally, I got my ticket (penultimate upper class), boarded the train and into a filthy and incredibly rickety old train I hopped.
Not the smoothest ride by any stretch of the imagination – clearing branches off the tracks, leaves, twigs and various insects landing on me, perilous toilet expeditions, seeing some of biggest and nastiest-looking spiders I have ever seen – the list goes on. The highlight of the journey was definitely holding my breath going over the wobbly Gokteik viaduct but that was only half way through! Several bumpy hours later, and I found myself sitting in a dusty car park waiting for a 2hr shared taxi for the last leg of the journey. Fortunately, I was in good company and didn’t spend hours on end stuck in traffic. Things have a funny way of working themselves out!