I was last in Myanmar almost exactly seven years ago, shortly after visits from the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and just before the then foreign secretary, William Hague. That diplomatic seal of approval added to the sense of a country just opening up to the outside world, albeit gradually. The Wi-Fi connection at my cheerful hostel was more theoretical than real, while the train that took me from Yangon to Mandalay had seen better days – in about 1956. Icons of Aung Sang Suu Kyi – aka 'The Lady' – had only recently been permitted for sale on street stalls.
This time round I made it to Myanmar's new capital, Nay Pyi Taw (which translates as the 'Abode of Kings'), it having moved north from Yangon in 2005/06. While Yangon is a recognisably colonial city, NPT is ostentatiously new. Dominated by the Hluttaw, Myanmar's parliament, it looks less like a city than it does a motorway interchange, so ubiquitous are the generously proportioned roads and highways, the most famous of which extends to 20 lanes.
I've always been fascinated by relatively new cities, especially those in unlikely locations. Canberra, for example, all municipal concrete and triangular grids, or Kazakhstan's new capital Astana. Even Washington, DC, was contrived to avoid inter-state feuding. So it was interesting to see the still fledgling Nay Pyi Taw taking shape. It has the large 'public' buildings sorted – parliament, city hall, concert theatres – but what felt absent were the palimpsests of older urban environments like Yangon – the accumulated layers of character that come with building and rebuilding, alleyways and distinct neighbourhoods. I guess that will come with time.
Curiously, the travel writer Norman Lewis – whose account of his travels in post-independence Burma remains fresh in 2019 – didn't bother with Bagan, Myanmar's ancient capital to the north-west of Nay Pyi Taw, making only a passing reference to 'Pagan' in his acerbic yet sympathetic account of his often-challenging journey to the far north. I'd missed out on Bagan – famous for its thousands of temples – during my 2012 trip, so was determined to see it this time round.
It was immediately clear that Bagan was the sort of town that holds pedestrians in contempt, regarding them as eccentric barriers to the constant flow of cars, motorbikes and 'e-bikes – basically scooters with battery packs. For half a day I somewhat tentatively followed a guide up main roads and sandy paths on one of these to take in but a fraction of the area's temples and stupas – many of them dating back to the 11th century. Near one there was a dozen or so families with their ox and carts – for centuries it's been a tradition to transport these from the nearest village every January. Last year, however, there were three times as many, so it's a tradition in decline.
In the evening, I managed to walk the 20 minutes or so to the Irrawaddy River to watch the sunset over New Bagan. A century ago this wide stretch of water would have been full of Glasgow-built ships owned by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. So strong was this Scottish commercial and administrative presence that several accounts refer to Burma as 'the Scottish colony'. One colonial administrator, Sir George Scott, introduced football to the country (where it remains popular to this day), while in 1936 Archibald Cochrane, hitherto a Scottish unionist MP, was appointed governor just as Burma was elevated from a province of India to a colony in its own right.
The most famous chronicler of those days was George Orwell, who spent several unhappy years in Burma, and his books remain ubiquitous. I saw copies of 'Burmese Days' in several different languages for sale at a newish pagoda from which I watched the sun rise the day I was due to head back to Nay Pyi Taw. Usually I find such things underwhelming, but this tourist fixture was well worth the early start and chilly wait. Just as I was getting bored, the sun crept above the distant mountain range and hot-air balloons glided across the horizon. It was a tonic for the soul, recently battered by a break-up.
From Nay Pyi Taw I made my way back to London via Bangkok, the ancient capital of Siam, and Tashkent, the contrived capital of a contrived country. The reaction to my Facebook check-in was interesting, prompting more shocked-face emojis than the usual thumbs-up, but the Uzbek capital conformed to my (general) rule that the most obscure and apparently scary cities can be the most interesting and safest. At times, it felt as if Gorbachev was still in power. At the 'State Museum' of fine art I was initially baffled by an insistence that I buy a ticket through a tiny external window rather than from a member of staff inside. Upstairs in the brutalist concrete building, two ladies scrubbed an Italianate sculpture with brushes and detergent.
The Tashkent Metro was also subject to a specific routine. Little blue tokens which looked like they had been in circulation since the Soviet era had to be purchased from an attendant sitting behind a lace-curtained 'Kassa' window, after which my bag was submitted to a perfunctory search. Then there were the stations themselves, all but a few grand, and occasionally, downright quirky. My favourite was Kosmonavtlar, a homage to Uzbek cosmonauts and full of futurist glass and metal, punctuated with roundels featuring friendly-looking helmeted space travellers. Until recently, photography of these had been banned.
Once I'd exhausted the sights of Tashkent, I took a day trip to Samarkand, at one time a major city on the old Silk Road. On the train I was surrounded by a trio of elderly Uzbek ladies, all chiffon and headscarves. No sooner had the train departed (right on time), video screens started playing a propaganda film featuring the current president boarding trains and getting off planes. Most passengers watched this with rapt attention.
Samarkand itself was exhausting and sprawling. Its many ancient 'ensembles' of mosques and mausoleums, meanwhile, looked suspiciously new – either rebuilt by the Soviets or under the direction of President Islom Karimov, who died in 2016. A statue of Karim stood close to the imposing 'Registon', which dominates the centre of the old city, while later I visited his ostentatious mausoleum, contrived to resemble one of the ancient Muslim burial tombs at the nearby Shah-i-Zinda complex.
A few hours later I boarded a high-speed train back to Tashkent. These, like the ubiquitous national carrier Uzbekistan Airlines, are clearly sources of considerable national pride and modernity. Indeed, the white 'Talgo' put ScotRail or Southeastern to shame, covering 167 miles in little more than two hours. There was even complimentary tea and sandwiches.
Photograph of Bagan sunrise by David Torrance