Saturday, December 22, 2012

Gokteik Viaduct, Myanmar

Northern Myanmar is one of the lesser visited parts of Myanmar, and I barely scratched the southern tip, but scratched I did, and one of the highlights was the journey through the Gokteik Viaduct.

The Gokteik Viaduct is a railway bridge/trestle about 100km north of Mandalay, and at the time of its completed construction (1901), the highest/biggest in the world. It is currently still Myanmar's biggest/highest at over 100m high and almost 700m long. Creaking slowly and loudly over this metallic wonder is the train plying between Mandalay and Lashio.

However, I didn't venture till Lashio (from where you could then go further north into China), but visited Hsipaw instead, which is a delightfully laidback Shan state town. The north-bound train from Mandalay starts at 4am, so I took the bus instead to Hsipaw (and enjoyed a couple of days there) and experienced the viaduct via the south-bound train, which was scheduled to roll into Hsipaw at 9am. Trains in Myanmar are notoriously slow and unpunctual, though, and mine arrived nonchalantly at 11am. It was also the bounciest and rockiest train ride I had in my life. The sway and bounce were of such magnitudes, it would probably register a 9 on the Richter scale.

And it would be another 4+ hours before reaching the Gokteik Viaduct. The stationmaster at Hsipaw station was certainly familiar with our tourists needs, and had assigned seats for tourists on the right side of the train for better viewing as we cross the viaduct (remember this is the southbound train). And there were no worries about missing the views - as the train nears the crossing, there would a certain bustle in the carriage as the train conductor, if not the locals, would arouse us into position. The train would rumble straight into a tunnel right into the mountain, and slowly emerge onto the metal monstrosity. Then, slowly and laboriously, with curioius heads all sticking out of the train windows, the train crawled across the bridge. The bridge looked solid enough, but the sprawling lush green gorge below does quicken your heart rate a notch or two. But savour the views and spectable, for after the crossing, it would be another 3-4 hours to the next stop of interest - Pyin Oo Lwin.

Train going into a tunnel through a mountain before crossing the Viaduct

The tunnel in the mountain!
Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct!

The Gokteik Viaduct

While the train eventually does get into Mandalay, it also makes a ridiculously long stop at Pyin Oo Lwin, a hill resort town that many would recommend a night or two. So the wise would often alight at Pyin Oo Lwin where there would be many pickups going to Mandalay. The difference would be reaching Mandalay at 7-8pm vs midnight if continuing on the train.

From Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin, an ordinary class seat (a wooden bench) costs US$3 while a upper class seat (cushioned seat) costs US$6. The train looked as if it had not had any maintenance since it started operating, but this is easily forgotten once you get to the bridge (I hope!). If you want to experience only one train ride in Myanmar, this would be the best bet!

Local activity at one of the station stops
Apparently, the train is also the mail train and he is the mail man!!