A train with basic comfort makes it possible to reach, in about fifteen hours, the economic capital of the country from the former royal city of Burma. A journey rich in encounters.
My driver is driving fast. It is 5:30 am, the night is over but it is not quite daylight yet. The sun has not risen and already many Burmese are busy in the streets of the former royal city of the country, Mandalay. They moved ahead of the star to take advantage of a little coolness. I have to catch the 6 o’clock train to Yangon, Yangon in Burmese.
At the station there is a false calm. A few scattered families sleep on the floor with their luggage. Did they spend the night here? No time to linger, my train is in a quarter of an hour and I don’t have a ticket. At the counter, a crowd seems already installed to last. It’s hard to understand which way the line is going: it’s everywhere. It looks like a big auction house. We call out to each other in the queue which may not be one, we shout, we wait. Maybe you buy your tickets at auction in Burma? A man appears beside me.
– Yangon ?
– This way.
Between torpor and effervescence
Strangeness of the trip, now, without asking anything, I found the guide who will allow me to catch my train. Next to the counters “ sales room “Invisible at first glance, an empty counter! I step forward. The man behind his wrought iron gate judges me with a glance.
– Yangon ?
I hold out my passport.
– First class ?
– No, low cost.
Look of condescension. Pinching lips.
– The train will go at six and arrive at six tomorrow ! Platform 2
So here I am off for 24 hours by train.
– OK! Jezube («Thank you»In Burmese)
I pay my due, he gives me back my passport and hands me my ticket.
“Among the Burmese there is a very natural solicitude towards the foreigner. And unlike other places in Asia, they don’t expect anything in return. ”
No sooner have I got into the carriage than the train sets off. Phew! A woman leaves her place for me. Apparently it was mine. I try to tell her I can sit somewhere else but, with a smile in response, she lays down on the seat in front of mine and falls asleep again just as dry. Among the Burmese there is a very natural solicitude for the foreigner. And unlike other places in Asia, they don’t expect anything in return. No insistent request or lingering glance to signify that it would be fashionable to leave a tip. Kindness in its purest form.
The wagon is rustic. The benches are made of wood and face each other. A sort of weightlessness reigns in the train. Almost everyone seems to be asleep. Only a few insistent merchants carelessly trample the sleep of travelers by issuing their resounding invitations to buy cookies, cigarettes, betels, fruits and all kinds of essentially edible things.
In the midst of this strange mixture of torpor and effervescence, a man leaps up beside me, a photo in his hand. Sensing the good deal, he repeats to me ” Diamond, diamond While holding up a photo of a Buddha figurine. I dismiss him with a smile and the antique dealer of the moment disappears as he appeared.
The doors of the car are wide open. No glass on the windows. Only a large metal curtain that some passengers will close during the afternoon to protect themselves from the sun. But, for the time being, the few grazing rays of the rising sun stand out against the flamboyant lights that border the railway line, drawing luminous and fleeting patterns in the wagon. Never has a tree been better named.
On leaving Mandalay, a few golden stupas follow the paddy fields. The countryside is still white with mist. Already it’s the first stop, Kyauke Se. The animation is fleeting. Some jump off the bandwagon before arrival. Other sellers are added to those who have already tried their luck with the sleepers of the wagon. We load and unload huge bales, bicycles, anything and everything. Then the train leaves. The sleep of my neighbors does not seem unduly disturbed by these irruptions.
Eat and sleep
On board, the two main activities are eating and sleeping, as if the confinement of the wagon and the monotony of the journey brought us back to our most primitive nature: here we are all reduced to the first stage of life, undulating with the jolts. A procession arrives. Two people all dressed in white preceded by a Buddha and a bowl to collect the offerings. The second at the back rings the gong. The moment is solemn and the donors numerous.
Amused by my photos, my neighbors begin to strafe me in turn with their phones. One of them walks up and holds up a picture of General Aung San under my nose. ” Our leader He whispers to me.
The sellers continue their incessant ballet. Outside, rice fields and a few trees. The last sleepers emerge, eat and some fall back asleep. In front of me, a man makes a pillow from a rolled-up newspaper before propping his neck up against the wooden armrest. Everyone finds the comfort they can.
The cook in the dining car offers me artichoke tea. Images of medieval Épinal scroll through the window. The very recent opening of the country is measured by the yardstick of the Burmese countryside. In the fields, many peasants still turn the land with a plowshare pulled by oxen.
At noon, a monk sits next to me. His more than approximate English and my non-existent Burmese quickly put an end to our attempt at conversation. A sort of feverish excitement follows the morning torpor. We eat, we call from one seat to another. It’s like everyone knows each other and travels together.
I go to the dining car. In a small corner, the woman with artichoke tea prepares dishes embellished with rice or noodles sautéed over a wood fire. There is a man standing there in a uniform. He’s from the train police. The landscape continues to scroll monotonously through my window. A giant Buddha seems to watch the train go by like cows do in France. It is not for nothing that Buddhism is the national religion in Burma.
After the heat of the afternoon, the freshness of the evening feels like a balm. It is six o’clock. Already twelve hours by train. My neighbors got off at the previous station. Two small vendors are taking a break in their seats. They get intoxicated with the speed of the air. For a moment they are children again. They laugh, then pick up their baskets again and go hunting for the customer. The little boy of ten years old, maybe less, gives me a look… If doomed innocence climbed a scaffold, she could have that look. I still shudder.
As often, the setting sun offers a sumptuous spectacle. You are never disappointed by a sunset. Yet after this look, the bronze light seems very sad. This unknown child is the little page of cruel misery. Chained by invisible irons, he is forced to become an adult before his time. He did not choose, he suffered. It is the sheep of the little prince that we no longer know how to draw. The child without childhood, a strange and sad animal that it is difficult to imagine. Indigence made man.
The end of the journey is filled with these sad thoughts. A representative of the railway authorities comes to warn me that we will arrive in Rangoon in twenty minutes. It’s almost 9 p.m. and I was about to spend the night on the train. Who of us got it wrong at the start? We’ll never know. It does not matter. The arrival in the city at night is spectacular. Lanterns, street lights and other illuminations parade in this inky night of a nearby China. The lights paint an impressionistic picture of an invisible life.
Arrival at the station marks the end of the journey. Like any ending, it is a bit nostalgic. On the quayside very quickly deserted, I look around for my little salesman and the one I believe to be his big sister. I would like to make a gesture for them, even if I know it is quite unnecessary. Already I am the last passenger. Everybody is gone. Only the train driver and the few maintenance workers remain. I hurry towards the exit. I think I see a shadow that looks like him. No. It is other children who help their mother to carry her provisions. They disappear engulfed in the night. I leave in my turn, trusting the one with whom I have only exchanged a glance at a sky full of stars. It would be very unfair if in all this immensity, there was not a small one that would perhaps shine a little less than the others, but which would be there for him!