From Mandalay, we took the daily train up into the hills of Shan State. We planned to spend a day in Hsipaw before I continued to Lashio and the China border.
The train worked as advertised: it creaked out of Mandalay’s decrepit old station at the crack of dawn and got us to Hsipaw, 200 kilometers away and up off the Irrawadday plain, before sundown. It was an adventure of sorts. The narrow-gauge tracks laid down a century ago by the British, combined with some very evident shifting and settling of the track bed over the years, made for a train ride that sometimes felt more like an ocean passage on a storm-tossed vessel. The wooden bench seats, with slats smoothed to near friction-less by a hundred years of sitting, turned into steep chutes for anybody sitting on the top end whenever we rounded a turn. Fortunately, they were uncomfortable to enough to prevent any amount of relaxation, making it much easier for everyone to maintain their self-stabilizing bracing positions for the required twelve hours. The windows were where the real danger lurked, as well as temptation. Offering a fresh breeze to chase the smoke away from one’s face, as well as a rolling tableau of brown hills and hazy skies, they also exposed anyone nearby to sudden attacks in the face from whipping tree branches, with their coiled energy stored and unleashed in rapid succession from the front to back of every train car as we passed.