Saturday, 4 November 2017

Hell is a train journey from Mandalay - Pink-Headed Duck Expedition 2017

23rd Oct 2017 Train from Mandalay to Hopin

After a sleepless night, I kicked doors at 6am and greeted my intrepid explorers with the warmest alarm calls I can conjure from my caffeine tightened larynx.

A quick shower to wash away the film of sweat that clings like a wet blanket, some choice threatening words while doing a little repacking, stretching rucksacks to their limits, we all convene for breakfast. I’m starving so I fill up on white toast, water melon, papaya, banana, orange juice and lots more coffee. I not sure when I’ll get the chance to fill the rumbling void of my stomach again.

The taxi booked for 7.30 am fails to arrive; both myself and Errol share knowing looks from beneath our sweaty brows. We had a bad feeling about our arrangements when they were made; some call it intuition, we call it experience.

Thankfully it’s no problem to hail a bright pink taxi and our driver appears to have drunk more coffee than I have. No speed limit or safety restriction stood in our way as we weaved through the city. If we had of crashed I think we would have survived. We were all crammed and crushed tight into the cab with our entire luggage, we weren’t going anywhere and the law of inertia wouldn’t have applied to us, I’m sure.

At Mandalay airport, we were greeted with a shocking level of efficiency. Not only were we cordially invited to skip the lengthy cues, when at the check-in desk our fears about excess luggage went unfounded.  With all our camera equipment, I was at least 5kg over, maybe more. We had discussed off loading items into either Errol’s or Richard’s meagre holdalls but we needn’t have feared, we glided through like visiting royalty and before we knew it we were in our comfy seats inside our Air Asia jet.

Errol Fuller - John Hodges - Pilar Bueno - Richard Thorns Bangkok Airport

The flight to Mandalay took just under 2 hours, no problems to report, in fact quite the opposite. The stewardesses were immaculately attired and very healthy (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

On the last 30 minutes of the flight into the city we saw below us miles upon miles of flooding from the monsoons. My spirits dropped temporally, if we’ve timed our expedition wrong our search in the lakes and marshes of the north will be much more difficult.

Flooded plains of Mandalay

From the airport, we were hustled into a people carrier and spent the next hour sweating and bored being delivered to our accommodation, The New Nylon Hotel. New it certainly was, sparkling in fact and obviously recently finished, sparkling marble floors, high ceiling and hard wood furnisher everywhere. Our rooms were spotless and everything worked, first try, most unusual and a very pleasant surprise indeed.  I have only one critique of our temporary residence. The architect who designed this place has put our electricity sockets at least 7ft high on the walls, I’m not joking. To make matters even more bizarre, our kettle had a lead no more than 10cm, why? I can’t even start to understand or answer that. Not being a quitter I constructed my own Tower of Babel consisting of tables, bird books and a peddle bin with our kettle perched and lead stretched on top. Our kettle reached its two-pinned, electric nirvana; we had coffee for the morning, happy travellers.

Our residence for the night - The New Nylon Hotel, Mandalay

Outside in the city of Mandalay the chaos, grime and general decay reminded me very quickly that we were definitely NOW in S.E. Asia. We spent a confused hour pounding the dusty; smog filled streets searching for a pair of suitable and fashionable Wellington boots for Errol Fuller and a bank to exchange currency. We succeeded in finding the said banking establishment but unfortunately because it was three in the afternoon they couldn’t help … don’t ask!

A fashion God, Errol Fuller and his newly acquired wellies

What was confusing was that while being told ‘sorry we don’t want your currency and you certainly can’t have any of ours’, looming from behind the cashier desk was the largest pile of money I’ve ever seen. I’m not kidding, stacks of cash in piles across all the desks at least a metre high. It looked like a scene out of the Al Pacino movie Scarface and at this point I wish Al Pacino had of walked in off the street, coked up to the eyeballs and armed with large weapons to bring an end to our frustration and persuade the bank manager to change some damn cash for us; “come and meet my little friend!!”

Back at the hotel, Richard went to work on the manager and we did get some currency exchanged. While we waited we quenched our dusty throats with a cold Mandalay beer whilst discussing the finer points of theological and evolutionary principles with a certain ‘Mr Fuller’, with a large portion of his sardonic wit thrown in for spice.

 Pilar's first Myanmar selfie and first Mandalay cold one
The glamour boys

At 6pm we had our arranged meeting with our representative from SST and met our guide and interpreter, a fresh faced Lay Win. The meeting went well and we discussed search location and schedules as well as a few theories I have to the behaviour and approaches to searching the inhospitable habitat of the Pink-headed Duck.

In the evening we ventured out and dined at a very nice restaurant Richard had previously frequented (Ko’s Kitchen). Again, Pixie (Errol’s new name for Pilar) and I had spring rolls and a green curry, delicious. Stuffed and content we left the restaurant at approx 11pm and Errol commandeered a taxi, complete with the driver’s wife in the trunk; she was perfectly alive in case you’re confused, she just tags along in the evening for a ride, apparently! By midnight we were all tucked in bed, a long day of travelling lay ahead tomorrow.

Was it the heat, the fatigue or the fine cuisine? It's a mystery - Ko's Kitchen

24th Oct 2017

After a hurried breakfast and arrangements made by the GWC for Richard for a radio interview for a Canadian Radio Station, we were collected by our guide Lay Win with our mini bus and driver to take us to the train station.

Today we have to embark on a 17hr+ journey north to Hopin and from there we have a good 90 minute drive to Indawgyi Lake, our base camp for our expedition and search for the Pink Headed Duck.

Waiting to board, Mandalay Station

A selfie from Pilar as we leave Mandalay Station

Lay Win had arranged sleepers for the four of us, shared of course, we’re not spoilt. All I can say about the train is I’ve been on worse. The beds were firm and unforgiving but the alternative of sitting out the journey on old and broken bench type seats was not an option.

Pilar snapped Errol Fuller and I testing the firmness of our bunks

Shortly after departure our on-train meal arrived. Steamed rice and fried watercress with garlic, it was bloody delicious, a good start.

Richard Thorns and I discussing the finer points of flower arranging after our meal

The miles drifted by in a green blur, flood planes carpeted with rice paddies. Every mile or so a golden temple would loom out of the emerald scenery, towering above the poverty of the people, many of them children toiling in the fields under the hot sun, reminding them of their place in the universal scheme of things devised by their silent but ‘loving’ Gods.

"Train I ride, sixteen coaches long"

One of the smaller temples taken from the moving train

As is my usual practise on such a lengthy journey, I while away my time bird watching out of the window. Between us we spotted, Drongos, Kingfishers, lots and lots of Egrets, Pond Herons, the acrobatic Green Bee-eaters and the stunning azure blue Roller, as well as a large and beautiful selection of butterflies, many species new to my butterfly nerd eyes.

The miles rolled on and on, station after station filled with hawkers and peasants all trying to extract our crumpled money from out pockets. It’s very humbling to see such poverty in the second decade of the 21st century.

One of the many stations stop offs along our route with hawkers selling their wares through the train windows

What was obvious is the unwanted title that Myanmar has for being the poorest country in South East Asia is well justified. These poor people after decades of repression and exclusion from the outside World have paid a terrible price. Basic sanitation for most of the population is just a luxurious dream. I saw children, starving dogs and pigs digging through rubbish heaps for anything to sustain them. Yet across the landscape, towering above them are giant monuments of golden luxury, pagodas and temples glittering, to be seen to every horizon. Personally, I do not believe ‘any’ God would want such a disproportionate privilege heaped on his people for the sake of the absent deities’ ego.

Typical scene, I have no words

We also trundled past the largest wood yard and processing plant I’ve ever seen. Thousands upon thousands of hardwood trees staked like a giant’s ancient matchstick collection stretching out in all directions. A whole jungle destroyed to make planks of woods to be fashioned into kitchens, wooden floors and furniture. As our train rolled past this huge tree graveyard we saw lorries cuing up to bring to their final resting place glorious giants that were recently the homes to countless species, rare primates, exotic birds and a myriad of reptiles and invertebrates, many of which had most likely never been gazed upon by human eyes. Was what we were seeing the final gasp of a once pristine habitat? My heavy heart sank.

A small snap shot of the Jungle grave yard

The one thing that does come through from seeing these small but beautiful people is the gleam in their eyes and the warmth of their smiles. The troubles and often crushing oppression does not seem to dim their souls. We have a lot to learn if we care to open our hearts and minds and reclaim our humanity from the materialistic, modern World I come from.

The air outside the train was thick with moisture although the sun was fierce. Clouds of dragonflies raced each other and often flew in through the windows to check out the weary travellers.

As day dissolved into night, the sounds of the tropics permeated the air, frogs and cicada song harmonised over the dominant click, clickerty click of the train and we were treated to a beautiful setting sun dipping beneath the distant hills, bathing everywhere in a soft, golden warmth. Sleep was taken in short naps, rocked and bounced at times violently in our berths by the motion of the locomotive.

I'm waiting for the light

Our beautiful star before darkness

Our old train finally pulled into Hopin station at 2am; we were all ragged and exhausted but very relieved. Our guide, Lay Win, had our driver patiently waiting for  us and all we had left of our journey was an hour and a half drive to Lonton, on the shores of Indawgyi Lake.

Lay Win our always smiling, incredible guide

It had been another very long day but tomorrow our research begins and this is why we are here. Duck, if you’re here I’m coming to bring you into the 21st Century along with your forgotten country.