Having visited the Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung Monastery we made our way towards the train station located at Shwenyaung. Our train was due to leave at 8 but from what Zar Zar had told us – could be a bit later kind of depends on how many passengers. Sounded somewhat like the lovely GWR back at home!
To buy a ticket for the train ordinarily you need to turn up on the day of travel and for this particular train be at the station at like 7am. We were all rather glad that Zar Zar knew the station manager and arranged to have the tickets saved for us for this trip and that she would pay for them on arrival at the station. I’m not even sure that I saw a ticket office as we walked through the station and boarded the train. The journey was going to take around 3 1/2 hours, I loved the vagueness and explanation that it depended entirely on how much produce needed to be loaded on at one of the stops as to whether we would be much longer or not. (Produce from the local area was loaded on to this train whose final destination was one of the big cities and so it would be sold there). Our seats were all in the Upper Class category, for which we were very thankful. This meant that we each had our own allocated seat which, interestingly, could be swiveled and set in either a forward or backward facing direction for the journey.the springs in many of them were busted and even the fixings to the floor were loose on some so some of us had a more eventful journey than others. I was glad that I had taken my neck support for the plane with me to help reduce some of the jolts on my neck. One of the group was opposite a guy who was making the full journey from start to finish in Yangon which was something absurd like a possible 26 hours (I’ll need to double check that with Zar Zar though. He was certainly not very Burmese looking and it felt more like we were in Mexico with his leather jacket and numerous bags. He was noting but polite none the less and helped Sue to open the window by her which was closed meaning she wouldn’t see the view. Our bags were on route to Kalaw by the coach which would meet us the other end. To some the train journey seemed pointless as the bus was going that way and in a shorter time but I enjoyed the experience, certainly very different to train travel in the UK!!
The ‘air-con’ did make us all giggle a bit as it would have done very little to keep anyone cool and certainly didn’t look like it had been turned on in donkeys years!!
We thankfully did manage to leave on time, much to everyone’s surprise and delight and with a backwards facing window seat I was in a prime position to be able to snap away as we passed through rural Myanmar slowly climbing upwards to our final destination of the hill station of Kalaw. https://youtu.be/LKceRAVjaAk
The scenery was beautiful and I found it fascinating watching the colour of the earth change as we passed through the countryside. It was revolting the amount of rubbish that was lying on or near the tracks it must be said, mainly looked like plastic waste – another apt reminder of the urgent need to reduce single use non bio-degradable plastics.
Our first stop was not one that we could disembark at and as a result I didn’t get the name of it. There were several ladies selling treats at the windows of local delicacies. This lady was selling a sort of sweet biscuit/pancake thing made of rice flour and sugar cane which were clearly then deep fried in palm oil I think. Rather sickly sweet but also delicious (not sure if they didn’t upset my tummie a little or maybe it was just the oil content in them) and I had a couple to keep me going along the way. The Mexican man got LOADS of different things which Zar Zar asked to show us which he was apparently taking to his family and friends in his final destination.
This gave me the ideal opportunity to walk up and down the carriage to stretch my legs but also to have a nose at the ‘economy’ travel. This was exactly what Simon Reeve has travelled in on his recent travel documentary that I watched on iPlayer not long before coming out. Hard wooden benches with wooden backs and no seat allocation so I guess when full you would just have to hope that if I’m a group, you would be able to get seats next to if not near each other. I was glad of the rickety old seats I must say.
As we got under way again and just a little bit further down the track we saw a mother and calf that must have literally just been born as after looking for a while we all realised that there were still entrails of the afterbirth coming from the cow and that she was cleaning the new born calf.
We got off in Aung Ban while the goods were loaded on and were able to visit the facilities in the station, with my tummie going mental I was pretty desperate. They were HANDS DOWN the worst loos I visited on the entire trip. A hole in the ground, already slopping with liquid. Trousers around my knees, wipes and tissues to the ready did nothing to prepare me for the stench or the vileness of the amenity. I think I need to add a mini air-freshener to the loo bag I take on trips like this as well as a peg to put on my nose to stop me from retching from the stink. But, if you gotta go, you gotta go!!
On arrival in Kalaw our coach was awaiting us. As we got on the coach I saw a sign for a hotel called Morning Glory which made me giggle and reminded me of my time in Vietnam!
After an early start of dragging what felt like a dead body in my case across half of Trinidad (ok so we were the closest possibly but pulling a case on the cobbled streets at stupid o’clock in the morning = not my idea of fun and made the whole short walk feel endless!) we headed out to a scenic viewpoint of the surrounding area and posed for a quick group photo before heading on to Santa Clara.
Santa Clara is one of the largest and liveliest cities in Cuba – so the guide book tells me – essentially owing to its large student population I guess. It is also the sort of main place of pilgrimage for any Che Guevara fans too as it is here that his body was finally laid to rest. It’s inland from Trinidad in a sort of north west direction almost in the centre of the island of Cuba (that would be of course, Linda, the infamous LANDLOCKED island of Cuba!)
The main focus of the city now really (bar the University) is the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara. Its on the south west side of the city about 1km from the centre and it is here that gigantic, no seriously, MASSIVE monument (pretty classic Cuban revolutionary style – big, bold & concrete!!) to Che lies. There are grey steps leading up to four big chunky monoliths atop the tallest is the impressive, dominating statue of Che – dressed in his usual military gear and on the move with his rifle in hand. Spreading out in front of this is the Plaza de la Revolución – similar to that in Havana and mainly just an open space with two huge poster boards the far end of the square to the monument with revolutionary slogans inspired by Che himself.
Underneath this monument and sort if behind was where you entered the Mausoleum and the Museo and Memorial al Che. No bags and obviously no cameras were allowed at all in either of these and in the mausoleum itself, clearly no talking. The queue was long and it appeared that those of us wantibg to go in, pay our respects and so on were all lined up according to tour group and were being called up a group at a time.
The mausoleum is a softly lit (and cool which was very much appreciated at this time if day as I was melting) the atmosphere of respect and reverance was moving. Che’s remains lie in a kind of tomb in which has an eternally flickering flame, also here are the remains of several of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans that died with him in Bolivia, each of whom are commemorated by a simple stone portrait which has been set into the wall. An ideal place of remembrance for such an icon in Cuban history and indeed culture.
The small museum dedicated to his life was fascinating with a whole load of photos on the walls showing Che from his early childhood through to his life as a rebel in the Sierra Maestra to his role as a Cuban statesman in the early years of the revolution. It was amongst these photos that I spied him playing rugby and it transpires that he once played for Argentina! This made me chuckle a lot. Other than photos there were other bits and pieces that he had owned and worn throughout his life as well as a plethora of his guns, I’d switched off by this stage as while interesting, I’m not sure I wanted to see lots of the guns that he used in combat but still it gave you quite a good picture of his entire life rather than just the sections linked to the revolution.
Once we had finished looking around there I popped out to see the memorial cemetery which was further back behind the monument. Here were the memorial graves of a number of the casualties of Che’s rebel column – Column 8 which he led from Sierra Maestra at Santa Clara. As they pass away even up to now they are being added with their rank and dates of their life to the cemetery. Quite moving.
Our next stop before we carried on to Havana was another monument that is key in the history of the city. The Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado. Essentially it’s the derailed wagons of an armoured train that have laid in this spot since they were toppled off the tracks during the Battle of Santa Clara back in 1958. That was between the dictator of the time – Batista‘s forces and about 300 rebels led by Che & is believed to be one of the last military encounters of the Revolution. Batista had sent over 10 thousand troops to the centre of the island from Havana to try and prevent the rebels getting any closer to the city – one of the main components of the defensive manoeuvre was an armoured train. Che took the upper hand by using only a small number of his troops to use a bulldozer to raise the rails of the tracks where upon the train crashed and they advised 408 officers & soldiers within it who soon after surrendered. The train it’s self was used by the rebels as a base for further attacks. It’s quite a weird monument for such a historic moment as it’s essentially sort of strewn all over the road with traffic passing close to it and almost as if it’s a stumbled upon monument rather than a site of huge significance to the Cubans. Clearly a must for a photo or two – it literally has been just left where it had fallen.
From here we headed to the same hotel as we were in for our first few in Havana a shower and some severe repacking was needed before I went anywhere or did anything! We had our last meal altogether with Marlon as well of course and no trip on the bus was EVER going to be without another rendition of Bilandos and so we sat – right outside the hotel all of us partaking in one final sing song before heading in (or out!).