Dirk Rohrbach has always been fascinated by this kind of lifestyle: being alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Accompanied by eleven dogs and illuminated by the Northern Lights, he experiences the icy winter nights.
Burma has mastered the art of being either dusty or muddy like no other country. Sometimes it’s even both at once. The soil switches abruptly between the two states, regardless of whether it’s rainy season or dry season, north or south, city or countryside. It’s the rebirth of dust from mud and from dust again, a samsara of grime. No sooner does the dust come into contact with water than it transforms into a viscous sludge with a distinctive deep red tone.
People can use the condition and colour of your shoes and feet to tell if you’ve been to Burma.
‘When in Rome,’ goes the saying, and the Burmese wear sandals to all occasions, even gala dinners. As a European, however, you sometimes end up feeling naked, or you’re worried about stubbing your toe, which isn’t entirely unjustified in a land full of potholes and open sewers, into which it’s easy to stumble carelessly. Moreover, it’s cold in winter – in northern Burma temperatures can reach freezing. It’s no climate for flip-flops.
Our journey to northern Burma, where we’ll pick up a steamboat back down to Mandalay, will be the last for a pair of navy blue Prada slip-on shoes that have served me well for more than five years, achieving an advanced state of disintegration in the process. Mandalay, one of the dustiest cities in the world, is a fatal environment for shoes, especially suede ones… but first, the mountains.
We definitely want to cross the bridge, which for decades was closed to foreigners and where photography was forbidden due to its strategic importance. The viaduct, completed in 1900, is 700 metres long, and was once the second highest bridge in the world. It has survived for more than a hundred years virtually unmaintained. A new bridge built by the government a few years ago across the valley was promptly swept away during the first rainy season. You can gaze down in wonder at the remnants of it as you cross the old bridge above.
Buying a train ticket in Burma is an interesting process. As a foreigner you need a passport to do so, and its number will be painstakingly noted down in all sorts of lists and books. Once the whole country was reminiscent of a tropical East Germany, and the bureaucracy still is. The train journey itself can’t be beaten on price, and it’s an experience that – especially in second class – gives new meaning to the term ‘cattle class’. This is where the locals sit, mostly cross-legged, on the benches, with bags of all kinds full of goods for their villages.
Men and women push their way down the aisles before we depart, then at every station, balancing enormous trays on their heads and selling every imaginable kind of snack. The small quail eggs wrapped up in plastic bags are genuinely delicious, and you can get them everywhere, although I’ve never actually seen a quail in Burma. Somewhere or other there must be a giant, clandestine quail farm.
The train offers plenty of opportunity to study Burmese winter fashions, which possess a certain chicness all their own that has absolutely nothing to do with our Western conception of style. Burmese women are masters of pattern mixing, and their taste in colour is very different: they’re quite happy to combine soft, fifties-style pastels with traditional patterns. They like to team their longyis with lots of layers of outerwear, hats shaped like comic-book animals and a colour-coordinated child in their arms. They might also wear elements of their mountain tribe’s traditional dress, with customised patterns painted onto their faces in thanaka paste. Sometimes they wind a sort of towel-like checked fabric with a fringe around their heads like a turban – all in all it’s an ethnic-wear-meets-comic-book look that would also work well in big Western cities.
After about two hours of being jolted around – the train carriages were a gift from North Korea, which until not very long ago was the only country that had a friendly relationship with Burma – the train crawls slowly and painfully around a long, leftward curve towards the viaduct, and you can see straight into the ravine.
I think about how a local once told me that the bridge is painted every five years by villagers, who get paid ten dollars a day. It’s a well-paid and highly sought-after job.
At the station after the viaduct we get out, but we don’t want to wait for the train back. There are no taxis or busses, but a friendly signalman takes us to the main road one after the other on his moped and hails a pick-up truck for us. After almost four hours on zigzagging dirt roads we’re back in Pyin Oo Lwin and treating ourselves to an astonishingly good cappuccino and piece of cake in the nice Golden Triangle Café on the main street.
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You can actually get around in Burma pretty well, even if at first glance there’s no transportation – just so long as you have no problem jumping aboard the occasional pick-up truck or oxcart. And so long as it doesn’t matter whether you arrive a day earlier or later than planned. You can always work something out with a handful of kyat, if you just slow down a little. It’s only flights that you shouldn’t leave to chance. My last attempt to travel down the Ayeyarwaddy by boat was scuppered by the fact that I couldn’t wait two weeks for a domestic flight, which would have taken me to Bhamo in northern Kachin State.
Back then there was conflicting information, too, about whether foreigners were allowed to travel on the local boat at all, or whether you could only get to Myitkyina and Bhamo by plane. In any case, you’re not allowed to travel out of there by land – or, at least, only with special permission – because the rebels are engaging in skirmishes with the army. Ever since Myanmar suddenly started getting along so well with the USA, the Kachin rebels have been supplied with guns and money by the Chinese.
This time we managed to hunt down plane tickets to Bhamo in advance, and from there it’s a three-day journey to Mandalay by boat. Bhamo itself turns out to be a pleasant surprise, not least thanks to a guide we’ve booked. Generally speaking, a guide is always an advantage if you’ve not got much time and there don’t seem to be any obvious sights around (other than the vibrantly coloured ordination ceremony for child monks that crosses our path). After all, guides know their way about. Our guide Sein Win, a sprightly old man in his late sixties, is a local celebrity.
After forty years of working in his front garden he’s built a functioning helicopter.
This is one of Bhamos’s two tourist attractions, and the only reason it doesn’t get off the ground is that Sein Win can’t afford the right motor.
The other is Bhamos’s best-known attraction, the longest bamboo bridge in the world. It doesn’t really grab me, at least in the abstract. Bridges are a last resort when I can’t think of anything else to do; as far as I’m concerned, even the famous U Bein Bridge in Mandalay is nothing more than a clichéd photo opportunity with rubbish-strewn villages on either side, and the most exciting bridge in the country, the Gokteik, is already behind us. In the hotel ‘Friendship’ the internet actually works for a change, probably thanks to a whole floor full of UN staff, who cruise through the city in white, sparklingly clean four-by-fours. But the internet has nothing to recommend other than the bamboo bridge. Fine.
We reach the bridge shortly before sundown. Once again, I’m pleasantly surprised: it’s not bad for a bridge.
In the first week of December, taking their cue from the shape of the moon, men from the surrounding villages rebuild the bridge. Its completion is celebrated with a party that goes on for several days.
Shortly after sunrise the next morning the atmosphere in the market on the edge of the river is magical. There’s only fruit and vegetables available to buy – as well as some completely useless Chinese trinkets brought from over the border – but the morning light turns everything into cinema.
* * *
‘Bus?’ my companion asks at reception every now and again.
I think the secret of travelling in Asia is making people feel like you’re in their charge. Then they’ll take responsibility and look after you. Today the bus actually forgets us, but in the end it isn’t a problem.
‘Coming back,’ says the woman at reception, pressing parcels of food into our hands. She probably knows what we’re in for.
The Ayeyarwaddy is a long, peaceful and – for extended stretches – very shallow river, up to four hundred metres wide in places. Always Burma’s most important artery, it’s seen powerful empires rise and fall along its banks, most of them leaving only ruins and glittering golden hillside stupas behind them. Here faith inhabits the mountains. Fed by melted snow and ice from the Himalayas and the drenching rain of the monsoons, the river wends its sluggish way through the heart of Burma, finally emerging into the delta by Yangon after more than two thousand kilometres. This was once the largest rice-growing area in the world, one of the things – along with teak and natural resources – that made Burma so coveted by the British Empire.
They sent their fleets along it to capture the country, and later it was home to the legendary Irrawaddy Flotilla, the largest river fleet on earth, which met its end in the confusion of the Second World War. More than two hundred ships were sunk outside Katha, to prevent them falling into the hands of the Japanese. The former head office of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in Yangon’s Pansodan Road, with its façade of Doric columns, is still one of the former capital city’s most glorious buildings. Remnants of the fleet are still serving on Burma’s rivers almost seventy years after the end of the war – like the three-level steamboat that’s going to take us to Mandalay, for instance.
Our floating coffin must have seen a few things in its time.
Our bus does come at some point, but in the end the departure of our ship is delayed by a day anyway, and we spend about half a day sitting on small stools on the dusty banks. There’s no need to panic – people bring us cold and warm drinks, and we still have the food parcels.
The passengers without cabins travel into the city, back to the Hotel ‘Friendship’. We, on the other hand, can check in straight away. A thin foam mattress, a porthole, a chair, a naked lightbulb – the cabin is a simple affair. The night-table drawer with the enormous cockroach is held permanently closed with gaffer tape.
In the last light of the setting sun, workers throw sacks over their shoulders as if the fifty kilos of rice inside were nothing. Sunburnt, sinewy and barefoot, their upper bodies naked, they keep their balance across narrow planks and sling their burden into the belly of the ship. They hardly have time to unload one of the rattling pick-up trucks before the next one arrives.
They’ll keep doing so by floodlight until dawn, their movements accompanied by the deafening Burmese hip-hop blaring out of speakers as tall as them. Those not actively working squat down in the dust and drink Mandalay beer – for ten bottle caps you get a promotional T-shirt – or they while away the time with karaoke, a multi-voice cacophony that sits uneasily with the starlit night. But in this sense the Burmese are no different to people in other Asian countries – they like it loud.
Noise drives away the spirits.
At daybreak they appear. We’re sitting with a bottle of Grand Royal Whisky on the side of the steamboat facing away from the bank and the noise, gazing at an increasingly dense white wall. Swathes of fog rise up from the water, until you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. That shadow – is it a large bird? That lapping sound – a rowboat? The din of the music and the generators are just an echo here, and the glass we set down on the railing is rattling a little in time to the rhythm.
The crew have locked themselves in a cabin with a few bottles of whiskey and a metal bucket full of ice cubes. They’re singing karaoke. The captain’s wife tries to open the door with a lock pick. She clearly can’t stand it when the men drink. Silent and dogged, she tinkers with the lock for almost an hour, apparently undisturbed by our presence. Eventually the door flies open, and after a loud argument the bottles are flung into the water. The party is over.
As broad and powerful as the Ayeyarwaddy is, for eight months of the year it’s also very shallow along much of its length. Sandbanks and rocks are treacherous for ships, which for most goods and passengers are still the only way of travelling across the country. Our ship can only depart in the morning once the sun has dispelled the haze. Two men are standing on the bow and poking at the mud with long bamboo sticks, checking the water level. Once it reaches one fifty it’s enough. That’s the minimum the cargo ships and ferries need beneath their keel.
If the boat runs aground anyway, it just manoeuvres back and forth until it’s gone a few hundred metres further. Only the rafts made of teak logs or bamboo can make it through with less water, and are heading southwards at a walking pace.
* * *
At some point we’ll simply arrive somewhere, and if we can’t go any further by boat we’ll find some other means of transport. I’m not worried about that. I’m soon seized by a feeling of lethargy, as the landscape scrolls past like a film: pagodas, rocks, water, herons taking flight. Buddha’s message is blaring out from the loudspeakers of an approaching ship. Thankfully I don’t really have to move much.
‘On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin‘ fishes play…’.
Maybe Rudyard Kipling was thinking in his famous poem of the rare Ayeyarwaddy dolphins, which apparently help out the local fishermen with their catch, presumably working on commission. By the time someone yells out ‘dolphin!’, I’ve obviously already missed it. It’s submerged in the unfathomably muddy waters.
Just like hundreds of years ago, women are washing clothes, naked children are playing in the mud, and huts disappear beneath the huge trees on the riverbanks. It’s only when we dock that chaos breaks loose. Women with baskets full of lunchboxes, snacks and drinks spring aboard, hands full of fruit reach out towards the travellers, children wave, various sacks and crates are carried on and off. It’s only a few steps from the jetty into everyday life. A monastery, a small school – a shop, if you’re lucky – all these riverside villages are like that. Dust-coloured dogs snooze in the shadows. Those who have business to attend to bustle quickly off the boat. It can take a while until the next one comes. As soon as we set off again the whole place is still and lifeless once more.
My shoes are holding up pretty well, though by now they’re two-tone. The red dust has settled in the seams and creases, creating an interesting and fashionable colour gradient. They have a water stain too, because there’s always a few centimetres of water on the floor in the on-board toilet. It comes from the flushing mechanism, which sprays water everywhere like a sprinkler system. Still, at least it’s clean water. There are a few wooden blocks you can balance on if you want dry feet while you’re on the squat toilet. There’s no shower, of course, and I decide against washing myself in a barrel.
In the open lower deck there’s a kind of restaurant with an open fire and a large, battered pot for cooking rice. There’s also an assortment of beer, whiskey, crackers and an incredibly sweet coffee three-in-one mix. The attendants are sleeping behind the bar or around the stove, thickly swaddled in plush Chinese duvets with a flowery pattern.
The local guests – and a German couple from the blog ‘Silverpacker’, aimed at older travellers – have settled down between decks. There are numbered sleeping places marked out on the metal floor, and in the morning the deck is cold, damp and slippery with dew. The Silverpacker couple seem to know absolutely everything, and have brought self-inflating sleeping mats, all sorts of functional clothes and probably also night vision goggles and a mobile water treatment unit.
I find our acquaintance distinctly informative, and absorb information about remote parts of the world that would take forever to research by myself.
If war broke out tomorrow, I’d latch on to them immediately and abandon my travelling companion to his fate.
My photographer Ken seems to sense this. They’re a thorn in his side. ‘A single European ruins the picture,’ he likes to say, and he hates anybody who spoils his pictures as a matter of principle. He breathes a sigh of relief when we reach Katha – where George Orwell once served as an officer in the English army – and the Silverpackers disembark in the middle of the night (thanks to the delay) and without a hotel booking. There’s no need to worry about them.
The other passengers fit perfectly into our scenario. We’re given them codenames: the spy, the general and the lunatic. We don’t know whether ‘the spy’ is just pretending to be mysterious, but a few years ago I would have sworn that the government had ordered him to keep an eye on us. He chews betel and starts drinking before midday, and his whole demeanour is like a lean question mark with claw-like feet. He speaks surprisingly good English, and he sticks to Ken, who struck up a conversation with him, like glue. He and another group of men urge Ken into handing round a bottle of Grand Royal Whisky. I, however, have ensconced myself behind a book and a pair of sunglasses on the upper deck. I don’t think I’d survive listening to the drunken ramblings of the locals for three days. People greet me respectfully – apparently the book makes me seem like an intellectual.
I’m more interested in the two soldiers. ‘The general’ is a sunburnt Nepalese man, about one and half metres square, who seems to have eyes on the back of his head. He’s accompanied by a younger, silent soldier, who stares into nothingness with wide-open eyes as if seeing terrible visions.
We discover that ‘the lunatic’ was traumatised in combat and that ‘the general’ is taking him for psychological treatment in Mandalay. ‘The general’ may look like a cuddly teddy bear in uniform, his pistol in his belt, but he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with. You wouldn’t want to bump into him on a dark night if you weren’t on his good side. We try to imagine what could have traumatised ‘the lunatic’ – certainly something to do with the rebels, who we’ve heard have recently been burning whole villages to the ground – but we don’t want to know the details. There it is again, the feeling that’s always fascinated me about Burma: sometimes you just can’t work out a situation and its players.
Maybe it’s all completely harmless – maybe not.
After an initial journey through spectacular gorges, the river becomes increasingly slow and broad, the temperature warms up and everything on board falls into a routine. You nod or exchange a few words with ‘the spy’ or ‘the general’. Ken’s drinking buddies feed us pistachios that they’ve bought in huge numbers when we docked at a village not marked on the map. The whole deck is covered in shells.
Soon the wind will have whisked them away.
We’re now eighteen hours behind schedule, but I built in an extra day as a buffer. Suddenly, however, everything goes very quickly. One last bridge, then Mandalay emerges from behind a bend in the river. We dock somewhere along the bank – why not the jetty, God only knows – and teeter across wooden planks onto dry land. There’s one final ascent up the moist, slimy embankment, then we’re standing in the dust once more, joyfully awaited by a horde of rickshaw drivers.
We’ve just missed our flight to Bangkok, of course – maybe by an hour – but it doesn’t matter. Getting upset isn’t going to help. A few metres further on there’s a stupa. I put my bag down and rummage around until I find my flip-flops.
I almost feel sorry for them, my trusty shoes, when I see them sitting there so alone in front of the little pagoda, and I cast a final backward glance as the rickshaw departs. So long!, I think. Someone or other will want you.
* * *
Translation by Caroline Waight