YANGON, Myanmar — To ride Yangon’s charmingly decrepit Circle Line train is to ride through history. Built more than 60 years ago to connect rural suburbs and townships to the city’s commercial heart, its trains — some almost as old as the line itself — move nearly 100,000 people a day, in a slow, 28-mile loop around Myanmar’s biggest city.
Like much else in the country, which is still emerging from decades of isolation under military rule, the Circle Line is a functioning, if fading, piece of the past. But modernization is on the way, and commuters who take the train daily say it cannot come soon enough.
Some of the trains are Hungarian imports from the 1960s. Newer ones, from Japan, were introduced in 2007, but even those were old, decommissioned trains. Comforts are scarce in the oldest carriages; the bench seats are hard, and many of the fans seem to be broken.
The older trains hobble along at what can seem little more than jogging speed. Passengers sometimes hop on and off while the train is still in motion.
My trip started on Platform 7 of bustling Yangon Central Station, Myanmar’s largest train station, built by the British in 1877. Heading counterclockwise, the train crawled through sprawling rail depots and repair yards. Soon the larger, national trains branched off and headed north, and the six tracks thinned to two, servicing the Circle Line alone.
As the train moved up Yangon’s east side, mildew-stained buildings started to give way to farmland. The carriages gradually emptied out as the train looped around the city’s northern reaches, past open fields, a golf course, a military base and palm huts where some of Yangon’s poorest live.
Railway employees are supposed to wear crisp, white Myanmar Railways shirts with epaulets. But at some of the route’s 38 stations, like Danyingon in the north, they frequently strip down to their undershirts to keep cool in the sweltering ticket booths and control rooms, which often do not have a working fan.