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Main | Archive | Issue 6/2008

The Road to Mandalay. And Further on...
Column: Travels with Diplomat

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there arent no Ten Commandments an a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin, an its there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin-fishes play,
An the dawn comes up like thunder outer China crost the Bay!

Rudyard Kipling. Mandalay

Cyclone Nargis, which has killed tens of thousands of people and caused millions of inhabitants of Myanmar, a not very rich country, to suffer immense losses, was one of the most terrible disasters to hit mankind in 2008. Diplomats correspondent Yury Tavrovsky had visited that isolated country in Southeast Asia a month before the tragic events.

The city of Mandalay is located somewhere in the middle of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. For Westerners, the city was and remains a symbol of the mysterious Orient and unattainable eternal happiness, along with Shangri-La. Mandalay, otherwise known as Manderlay, was made famous not only by Rudyard Kipling but George Orwell, Kurt Weill, Daphne du Maurier, the Beatle George Harrison, Lars von Trier, and others as well.

The narrow road leading to Mandalay has not changed much since Kiplings times, except for the fact that it got paved. Trucks packed with people and carts pulled by buffaloes only rarely roll down it. All around are still the same paddy fields with ancient stupas rising here and there. New stupas, or prayer shrines, characteristic of Theravada Buddhism practiced in Burma since ancient times, are also encountered very often there. Attracted by the sound of the prayers being chanted, a small group of Moscow journalists witnessed the raising of the sacred Buddha Umbrella over a village stupa (a ceremony resembling our Exaltation of the Holy Cross). The residents of the village first listened to a sermon given by monks dressed in purplish-red cassocks, then walked several times around the stupa (in what resembled our Cross Procession), and a modest prayer platform. In the meantime, the adroit builders climbed the scaffolding and put in place a gilded Buddha Umbrella symbolizing the deitys invisible presence. The participants in the ceremony gave the foreigners staring at them friendly smiles. That greatly surprised us. Incidentally, friendliness and a kind of placidity are not only characteristic of the profoundly devout rural inhabitants but the vast majority of the citizens of Myanmar.

The builders of the Yadanabon motorway bridge, which had been commissioned only days before our arrival, also greeted the foreigners, with all their photo and video cameras, with smiles. There was no problem taking pictures of both the strategic facility and the construction site executives. Only the stern-looking soldiers at the checkpoint refused to pose before the Russian TV cameras. A beautiful three-span bridge connects the provinces of Mandalay and Sagaing, which are separated from each other by the Irrawaddy River. At some point in the future, motor vehicles will occupy all four lanes of the 1,700-meter highway laid by Chinese workers and with Chinese loans. For the time being, the state-of-the-art portion of the road to Mandalay is used by rare cars and motorcycles.

And here is Mandalay, where there is the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea. You can see a multitude of both run down and well-kept up shrines on the banks of the large Irriwaddy River that flows from the mountains of Tibet to Yangon (Rangoon) on the shore of the Andaman Sea, on the surrounding hills, and in all corners of the city with a population of one million. In its heyday, Mandalay was the kingdoms capital. It was taken by the Englishmen in the 1885 Anglo-Burmese War; 28 years after King Mindon had founded that new capital. The scale of the city built during the reign of Burmas next to last king is impressive. According to an old prediction, the king planned and had that remarkable city built from scratch at the foot of the Mandalay hill for the 2400th birthday of Buddha. The city was supposed not only to become the capital of the kingdom but that of the entire Buddhist world as well. The best wooden houses were taken apart and carried on elephants from the former capital, Amarapura. That definitely sped up the construction. But was it possible to relocate the palaces four masonry walls that were each two-kilometers long along with the deep moats shaped as squares? Besides the main pavilion where the king lived and worked, smaller wooden pavilions for 52 queens were built. While the king could visit any one of the queens, his wives were not allowed even to try to be with their sovereign spouse in his premises. The masonry structures of the Summer Palace, the Clock Tower and the Relic Tower were built anew. Only they were fated to survive the English occupation. During it, the palace was transformed into barracks called Fort Dufferin, while the bulk of the treasures were transferred to the Museum of Victoria and Albert in London. And then, in March 1945, after the final stage of the Japanese presence, the British Air Force totally demolished the palace that the soldiers of the Country of the Rising Sun had turned into an ammunition depot. The reconstruction of the palace was a matter of national honor for the Burmese. It took seven years and was finished in 1996. Simultaneously, other architectural gems of King Mindon were reconstructed. Among them was, first of all, the Kuthodaw Pagoda dubbed the Worlds Biggest Book. Along with the central gilded pagoda, the compound has 729 snow-white stupas, each containing a stone tablet with Buddhist texts. The Maha Muni Pagoda where the ceremony of washing the four-meter-high statue of the seated Buddha takes place every morning is yet another sacred place for Buddhists. While being a major center of spiritual life and traditional culture, Mandalay remains a railroad hub and river port indispensable for domestic trade as well as trade with its neighbors, notably India and China. Myanmars biggest and modern airport, built with Chinas help in 2000, has yet to play a major role. For the time being it looks fairly deserted.

Yury Tavrovsky.
Moscow Yangon Mandalay Naypyidaw Yangon - Moscow.
Photos by the author.
The editorial staff thanks the Russian Foreign Ministrys Information and Press Department, the Embassy of Russia in Myanmar, and the Information Ministry of Myanmar for helping organize the trip.

Continuation here


-, 2006