Checkpoint Charlies

I knew that they had every justification, but it still surprised me just how much the Burmese people hated their military rulers.  It takes a lot of courage to risk your own neck to help a foreign traveller break the law.  Especially when he doesn’t even want to.

The story starts on a misty morning in Maymyo, an atmospheric old hill station where the British would retreat from Mandalay's summer heat.  You can still get a reasonably authentic roast beef dinner from liveried waiters at the Candacraig's teak-beamed dining hall.  But my time in Burma was limited and I had to push on.  The way north to Lashio was by train, a ten hour journey on a hard wooden seat.  That was the point, though: the journey sounded more interesting than its destination.  The train would climb a slow, single line track through thick jungle and the main attraction would be the Gokteik Viaduct.  A bridge, then, but as Paul Theroux marvelled in "The Great Railway Bazaar", it's also a remarkable feat of steel engineering from the days of the Raj.  It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Burma's railways date from the same period, so I was looking forward to a journey back in time.

It was only fitting, then, to be driven to the station in a miniature horse-drawn stagecoach.  Colonial influence has lasted longer in Maymyo than anywhere else and the stagecoaches are for real, not just to trap the tourists.  A short trot away at the station, I found the ticket window at the head of a long and unruly queue.

I added myself to the line of prospective passengers, only to be beckoned past them into the stationmaster's office.  Shrugging apologetically to the queue, both I and Burma Railways took full advantage of my nationality by exchanging an inflated foreigner's price for a hassle-free guaranteed window seat.  My ticket proposed a coach and seat number but even before the train had come to a halt, hordes of Burmese were throwing themselves into the carriages to claim every inch of available space.  I stood little chance with my bulky backpack and no companion to help me: I couldn't even identify my proper carriage.  But at times like this I was always taken under somebody's wing.  On this occasion, I was led by an elderly man to my allocated seat.  It was occupied, of course, but the other passengers insisted on rearranging themselves to accommodate me.

For two hours the going was good, but after an hour stopped in a small station town miles from anywhere, the carriage grew restless.  Before long the train became a social club on wheels.  Food sellers did brisk business and the passengers snacked enthusiastically and exchanged gossip.  The carriage floor was soon littered with egg shells and banana leaves; the deep-fried crickets at least could be swallowed whole.  Five uninformed hours later, a rumour circulated that the train coming the other way had been derailed.   There was nothing to be done but to smoke a cheroot or chew some betel nut or, for the socially gifted, both at the same time.

Night closed in over the next hour or so, and brought the military with it.  Anyone wanting to give up on the journey and seek out a bed for the night was prohibited from leaving the station.  This was the food sellers' lucky day: they went home to replenish supplies, fed their captive customers once more and dispersed to celebrate a good day's work.

The station was quiet now: without light there was nothing to do but snooze as best we could, which wasn't much on those hard seats.  It took another four long hours for the derailed train to arrive.  After a twelve hour delay, the track was finally ours.

In truth, I had hoped to be delayed a few hours longer.  It was good to be moving again but by night I was going to struggle to appreciate the scenery.  I opened the window, trying to see more than my own reflection, but a blast of cold air chilled the carriage and woke my neighbours.  Nobody warns you how cold Burmese nights can be.

My head was soon back inside anyway: the foliage was scuffing both sides of the carriage now.  It was clearly only the daily train that was keeping the jungle's ambitions at bay.  The glimpse ahead that I had managed to snatch was of thick forest and mist lit by the single beam of the engine pulling us slowly through them both.  When the train reached the viaduct, I had to pull down the window again.  There, the jungle opened out and plunged below us.  How far, it was impossible to know: mist swallowed the steel supports before they could reach the ground.  The structure itself, towering above us like a Meccano model on a gigantic scale, was as incongruous as Theroux had described.  We clunked tentatively across the gorge before the jungle walls returned.

At the end of a 24 hour journey that should have taken 10, I surely deserved better than Lashio.  I can only judge by my first impressions, but those were of a bleak Chinese trading post with severely overpriced accommodation.  I checked my guide book to see what sights there were, only to find that there weren't any.  And it was raining, as it always is in situations like this.  So it was easy to decide that I wouldn't be staying.

I considered my options.  Lashio was the end of the line for the train, although the railway had originally been intended to reach into China.  Foreigners were forbidden from venturing any further north anyway.  I wasn’t about to take the train back to Maymyo and the daily bus south had left earlier in the morning.  I decided to treat myself to a seat in the next shared taxi out of town, a faster and more comfortable ride to Mandalay.  It would cost me more, but spending your way out of trouble can be a very attractive proposition.

Just outside Lashio, where the greys of town gave way to nature's greens, things became decidedly less comfortable.  The driver inexplicably mistook a stationary car for a slow-moving one.  Slamming on the brakes, we slid to a halt slap bang outside a military checkpoint.  As we had stopped so obligingly, not to say dramatically, the sentries decided that they might as well give themselves something to do by checking out the car’s occupants.  Discovering a foreigner there was a real bonus.  While the Burmese just had to produce their identity cards, I was escorted into a tented office where a self-satisfied superintendent informed me that it was not permitted for foreigners to leave Lashio by road.

If there’s an art to bribing officials, it's one that I haven't mastered.  If you know you're going to have to do it, you can plan ahead and secrete some cash in your passport for the official to find and pocket.  If you shake hands, you can surreptitiously pass on a folded banknote.  But what do you do when you don't have the luxury of preparation time and no one is in the mood to offer you a handshake?  I offered, weakly, to pay for a "travel permit".  Hardly inspired, I know.  The response saw right through me:  “No, no.  I am not allowed to accept.”.

By now I was even keener to take this road: there was clearly something there that I wasn't meant to see.  But there are few people brave enough to challenge the authority of the Burmese military and I'm not one of them: I had to resign myself to a damp and demoralising night in Lashio.

I got back into the car and the driver turned it around.  It seemed odd that none of the passengers minded him giving this foreign trouble maker a lift back into town.  At the time I put it down to the easy-going Burmese temperament.  After all, there are far worse things that can happen to you in Burma than having your journey delayed.  But when we had rounded the first corner the driver stopped the car.  I only discovered later what he did next.  Taking out a screwdriver, he removed the front licence plate.  Then he smeared mud over the rear plate.  Turning the car back around again, we accelerated back towards the checkpoint.  I think it was when the other passengers told me to get my head down and covered me with a blanket that I realised I was being smuggled through the checkpoint.  I expected shouts, or even shots, but none came.  At a safe distance, my accomplices cheered and laughed.  For a few moments, Burmese reserve was put to one side.  Hands were shaken and broad grins exchanged.  It was a small victory, but in Burma a victory of any kind over the military is something to be celebrated.

I didn't know quite what to think.  More to the point, what had they been thinking of?  They had no reason to put themselves at risk to help me.  I hadn't even asked them to, and I wouldn't have done if I'd thought of it.  Then, just as I was taking in this kindness beyond the call of duty, we approached another checkpoint and they did it again!  And then again for a third time further down the road!

I didn’t see anything suspicious on the road to Mandalay, and it wasn't just because I was under a blanket half the time.  Since the bloody repression of the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations, the military has not been stupid enough to persecute in public.  The worst thing I saw was the road, twisting and pot-holed for what seemed like its full length.  My partners in crime did their best to tempt me with a steady supply of snacks but the roller coaster ride made me queasy and I hope I didn't offend them by refusing.

Today it still makes me smile to look back on all of this.  Burma is just that kind of place: a place where you are helped even if you didn’t know you wanted to be helped.  I wish its people everything they wish for themselves.

©  Nicholas White 2012