Monday, 10 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 5 (Mon, 10 Mar)

Itinerary: Day 3 Monday 10th March (Mandalay).
Arrive at the quaint little village of Shwe Kyet Yet after lunch. In the afternoon, enjoy a guided tour of the key sights of Mandalay regarded as the centre of Burmese culture and Buddhist learning. Return to 'Road To Mandalay' stopping enroute to admire sunset over the river. Dinner and local entertainment on board.

We weighed anchor and got away at first light. Pictures taken during our cruise. I spent much of the morning on the bridge, talking to our most hospitable captain, Myo Lwin. We started with engineering, because he was intrigued by my interest but then moved on to politics and the charitable work that the ship and its passengers support.

The waters of the river are ever-changing, so charts are useless. The safer channels are marked with painted bamboo poles driven into the sand. These are continually re-surveyed but, as the 'Road To Mandalay' is the largest vessel on the river, the ship carries out its own surveys from time to time and, in the trickiest spots, surveys each time the ship passes. So, at 9.00 am the 'Zodiac' inflatable was launched with three crew and long bamboo poles and this went ahead of us, radioing the results back to the captain. At all times, there's no substitute for alert crew members on the bridge keeping a sharp look-out. Once through the first tricky part, the 'Zodiac' was retrieved.

At eleven o'clock I, and a number of passengers, were shown round the Engine Room by the Chief Engineer. Most interesting. Technical Pictures.

The 'Zodiac' was deployed a second time in an area where there's only a very narrow passage between rocks and only about six inches of clearance under the keel.

At last, a bridge came into sight (until recently the only bridge). This was built by the British in 1934 and carries a single line railway and two lines for vehicles. The British destroyed two spans during the war, for strategic reasons, and it was finally repaired when hostilities ceased. Just north of this bridge, there's a new road bridge built by the Chinese, complete but not yet open. We passed under both bridges and prepared to berth at the 'Road To Mandalay' Main Station at Shwe Kyet Yet. The captain demonstrated the controllability of the vessel by bringing the ship in sideways very gently using both stern propellers and bow thruster.

Very soon, we were off by tour bus to see Mandalay itself, which lies on the East bank about 12km North of our mooring. I'll tell you more later.

My pictures of Mandalay.

First, we visited the crimson and gold Mahamuni Paya temple - a venerated Buddhist site renowned for its seated Buddha figure over 12 feet high, originally bronze but now covered with gold leaf over six inches thick, applied by male worshippers. I'm afraid women are not allowed to apply gold leaf to the statue - there role is to watch from a suitable distance and applaud as the men apply the gold. The temple complex was crowded with visitors and worshippers - it's quite a noisy, joyful place. I was intrigued with the large television monitors in the corridors around the gold Buddha. These are to allow ceremonies to be watched by worshippers who are unable to get into the fairly small central space around the gold Buddha.

En-route to our next calling point, we passed one lorry loaded high with cut-down oil barrels. These are apparently used for transporting the sugar syrup extracted from sugar cane. Lengths of sugar cane are passed through a 'mangle', crushing the fibres and releasing the sugar solution. We also passed the modern railway station in the centre of the city and the modern covered market. The market was devastated only a few days ago by a major fire, claiming a number of lives. Questions are being asked about whether Building Regulations had been properly observed in the construction of this building.

We then visited a factory producing gold leaf, widely used in temples as an offering. The production of gold leaf involves a number of stages of hammering the gold into successively thinner and thinner sheets. The process has been partly mechanised in some places but, in Mandalay, the process is man- and woman-powered. Women are involved in making the special paper which is used to interleave sheets of gold. This paper is produced by rows of women who beat the plant fibres in an underground hot, humid room. Blocks of interleaved paper and gold, wrapped in hide, are hammered by men. Each stage of gold beating takes around 40 minutes and timing is still carried out by a traditional water clock. There are a number of stages involved as the gold leaf progressively becomes thinner and thinner. It's thought-provoking to see how much hard, unpleasant labour is expended on apparently simple tasks.

Mandalay Palace was our next destination. There was some delay while our guide, San, obtained our tickets at the gate. Administrative processes can be very slow in Myanmar and there was, apparently, some reluctance to accept the paper money offered because of some minor signs of use. I believe this sort of problem can be quite common. Whilst we waited, we were able to take in the sight of the fortifications of Mandalay Palace which is surrounded by massive, forbidding stone walls forming a large square, with regular watchtowers and an outer moat. In the distance, we could see the hump of Mandalay Hill - a single hill rising out of the plain, topped with temples.

Eventually, our coach was able to pass within the walls and, having crossed large, not very well maintained, grounds approach the replica of the original palace. As at Old Bagan, the original Palace was wooden and did not survive. A modern reconstruction gives an impression of the layout of the original Palace, but I'm afraid it's rather disappointing - crudely built and painted with corrugated iron roofing! At one time, the grounds featured a miniature railway, now abandoned. The tracks are still intact (two foot gauge, I think) and hidden in the trees I spotted rolling stock and a couple of diesel locomotives, one steam outline.

After the disappointment of the Palace, the original wooden Monastery Building (no longer an active Monastery) was a joy. The deterioration of some of the carving is sad, the concrete reinforcing of the foundations a little obvious, but the spirit of the building is still triumphant.

Our final call was to what is sometimes called "The largest book in the world". One of the Kings decided to make a definitive copy of the Buddhist scriptures. Each section is carved on a large, stone tablet. There are hundreds - each protected by an individual white-painted 'pagoda' structure, arranged on a regular grid. The 'Chain Library' in England was an early attempt to prevent book theft by chaining each volume to the bookshelves but I think the arrangement at Mandalay represents the ultimate in security. Joking apart, this is an impressive and spiritual location.