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Published: September 19th 2017
View from the rooftop restaurant at Hotel Lily.
I trekked in rebel territory. But, before we go there, I shall regale you with a woeful tale of my planning fail.
The Planning Fail
As you may recall from my last entry, I flew south from Mandalay to Heho, my jumping off point for Inle Lake. I had initially intended to go to Kalaw from Heho Airport to do a three day trek from there to Inle Lake, but I changed my mind because it rained most of my last full day in Mandalay and I realized I did not want to deal with rain and mud for three days. As it turned out, it did rain a fair bit during the three days I was at Inle Lake. But, this decision left some slack in my schedule.
While I was at Ostello Bello in Nyaung Shwe, which is the main tourist town at the lake, a couple of travelers told me that the train between Mandalay and Hsipaw was a major highlight for them, in particular the Gokteik viaduct. So, I made a decision to fly north to Lashio, find a (hopefully shared) taxi to Hsipaw about 35 miles south from there, do a day trek
Mosque and temple side by side. If only it were that easy.
there (I could handle rain and mud for one day), and then take the train from Hsipaw to Mandalay. So, I backtracked, and I spent a lot more money than I would have if I had just gone north from Mandalay to begin with. Fortunately, the airfare was cheap at $75, but my research told me that the taxi from Lashio to Hsipaw would be extortionate.
All went well on my flight. I landed at Lashio at around 3pm. Upon landing, there were security staff checking travel documents, and they sent me and the only other foreigner on the flight - a Chinese man - to a counter to have our details recorded. This also happened to me at Heho, but not at Bagan. After collecting my bag, I went to the taxi area outside and my heart sank - there wasn't anyone to share a taxi with. I at first asked to be taken to the bus station, but I was told that as this was a weekend all buses to Hsipaw would have departed by now. This may have been a lie, but I didn't want to risk getting stuck in Lashio so I just gave in
Lush green rice fields at the trailhead.
and paid the fare.
I arrived in Hsipaw around 4.45pm and checked in to Hotel Lily. The ride to Hsipaw was uneventful, but I did note the heavy Chinese presence in Lashio (Chinese signage everywhere) and the large number of trucks with Chinese script on them heading north, presumably to the Chinese border.
Trekking in Rebel Territory: Myanmar's Forgotten Conflict
After I arrived at Hotel Lily, I asked the receptionist about booking a trek. She made a phone call, and within ten minutes a guide showed up. We discussed options, and I agreed to do an 8-9 hour trek to some Shan and Palaung villages. I met my guide at the appointed time the next morning, and we set off on his motorcycle (no helmet, ugh) for the 10 minute ride to the trailhead.
The Lonely Planet did state that the rebel Shan State Army holds some of the territory around Hsipaw, but it also said that they mostly left the trekking routes alone, and that to date there have been no incidents involving foreigners. I thought this meant that I would not see overt Shan Army presence on this hike. Boy was I wrong. Within
Spirit house at the Shan village.
ten minutes of leaving the trailhead, we came across a checkpoint with two soldiers wielding rifles. They checked passing motorcycles but waved us through without any words exchanged. Yikes.
We got to a Shan Village soon after, and I instinctively spotted two houses used by the army - they both had multiple motorbikes parked there, and men wearing similar clothing (but not camouflage). Throughout the hike, we saw many soldiers on motorbikes - some uniformed, some not, some armed, some not. After the Shan village, we hiked up a very steep dirt track. Along the way, the views were fantastic, and my guide told me all about the crops grown, and about life in the area. After a hard climb with an elevation gain exceeding 2,000 feet, we got to a rest stop where we had tea and tea leaf salad. The views were spectacular. After a quick rest, we set off again to a Palaung village. This village had 600 occupants and was very interesting. The highlight for me was seeing four bulls loping; I had never seen overtly happy bovines before. We stopped by a family compound and the family there served us tea and gave us
lunch made from stuff they grew - a pre-lunch snack of freshly roasted peanuts (dirt still on them!), and a lunch of bean sprouts, mustard greens and gourd, cooked on their wood burning stove. They didn't speak much English but they were hospitable and generous. I loved sitting there and observing them as they went about their routines.
My guide told me some facts about life in the villages. These included:
• There is no electricity company there. Most houses have just one solar panel with a battery pack to store power. In contrast, it took six panels to generate half the power needed for my old house. I guess without a stove, water heater and refrigerator it may be possible to generate the power they need with just one small panel.
• Generators are also used.
• There are makeshift hydro-electric generators at some streams.
• The motorcycles have chains on their tires as the tracks are muddy and slippery.
• Their water comes from rainwater they collect. Many villages in the area also have a central water tank. These were built by the UN.
• While the people are Buddhist, they also practice old animist traditions. As such, each village had
Loping bulls at the Palaung village.
a spirit shrine and there are special ceremonies to ward off bad spirits.
• Corn is the preferred crop nowadays as they are sent to the Chinese border and sold at a good price.
• There are only elementary schools in the area. Kids have to go to the towns or join monasteries to get more education. Some families who cannot access schools within a reasonable distance just forgo their kids' education altogether.
With respect to the insurgency, I learned the following:
• The Shan Army conscripts young males. They will go to a village headman and tell him that they need his village to provide x number of males. The headman will usually conduct a draw a la Hunger Games
• The army used to only recruit childless men but they have recently started recruiting fathers.
• The army is involved in business to fund its activities. For example, they harvest wood and haul the wood to China to sell. I also saw some sand mining going on.
• They make their rounds around the villages to ask for vegetables and other food. I witnessed this happen during my lunch break.
• At times, they will also ask for cash. This
even happens in Hsipaw and other towns.
• They have planted landmines. Many villagers ceased foraging for mushrooms in the forest after a few incidents.
• Many young people move to the towns to avoid being conscripted.
Wow. What an eye opener. With international attention focused on Rakhine, it is easy to forget that other parts of the country have their own tensions simmering. The mind boggles when one considers how former colonial governments could think that the countries they created were governable.
We got back to my hotel at 3pm. My guide was amazed at our pace. I guess he underestimated me. Indeed, when we set off from the Palaung village after a long lunch break, other trekkers were only just coming up to the village. The hike in total was 14 miles, with an elevation gain of almost 2,900 feet. You can view the hike stats here
On The Road Train To Mandalay
After a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast, I set off in the rain for the 900 meter trek to the railway station to board the train that would take me over the Gokteik Viaduct, the main reason for my
The Train To Mandalay
Our chariot arriving into Hsipaw station.
diversion up north. I arrived at the station at 8.15am to find my Norwegian friends from Inle Lake there. We had a happy reunion sharing our experiences post-Nyaung Shwe. We then waited for the ticket office to start selling tickets. The guy selling tickets to foreigners was at his station, and he would take queries, but he would not issue our tickets until 8.40am.
8.40am arrived, and all nine foreigners lined up with our passports to purchase our tickets. One official carefully recorded our passport information, while the other issued tickets. Upper Class tickets to Mandalay cost under US$3! He assigned all of us seats on the right side of the train, which is reputedly the side with the better views on the southbound journey. The passengers going to Pyin U Lwin were sent to one coach while the three of us heading to Mandalay were sent to a different coach. I was separated from my Norwegian friends. Sniff.
The train pulled in to the station as scheduled, and I boarded my Upper Class seat. Sounds fancy, doesn't it? Well, not really. The coach wasn't air conditioned, the seats had cloth covers and they reclined slightly, and the
The Train To Mandalay
This is Upper Class.
entire coach was quite dirty. I saw a rodent scampering through the cabin. Ordinary Class consisted of wooden seats and no assigned seating.
The train left on schedule at 9.40am. It lurched sideways a lot. The vegetation on either side of the tracks weren't trimmed, so tree branches whacked me through the open windows. Leaves sheared off from the trees filled the cabin with a pleasant aroma. I learned very quickly not to put any part of my body out the window. As the train lurched violently sideways, I recalled something I read online about these trains being Chinese made and that they weren't the same gauge as the British-built tracks. The absurdity of what I was about to do hit home. Here I was, sitting in a Chinese-made boneshaker of a rust bucket, chugging along on a British-built railway track with a different gauge, on my way to cross a 117 year old viaduct spanning 102 meters above a river gorge. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and did I mention I am afraid of heights? Too late now, I am committed. I could, of course, do a runner at one of the stops en route...
The Train To Mandalay
Approaching Gokteik Viaduct.
train went through some very pretty countryside and lush farmlands. It rained on and off all day, heavily at times. A little over three hours into the journey, Gokteik Viaduct came into view. The train went through a series of tunnels (the only tunnels on this trip), and then slowed to a crawl as we creaked our way across the viaduct. It was high up. My heart was pounding. My hands were clammy. But, wow, what an experience. I've posted a video below. Note: If the picture quality is poor, adjust your settings on the top right corner.
Once the adrenaline rush was over, I settled in for the long haul to Mandalay. The rest of the trip was rainy and uneventful. At Pyin U Lwin, the train stopped for 40 minutes. It was wet and I knew I made the right decision to not stop there for a night. Around 6pm, with three hours to go, Mandalay appeared in the distance. I felt a brief glimmer of hope that this ride would end sooner than scheduled. After all, it couldn't possibly take three hours to cover that distance, could it? Well, as it turned out,
The Train To Mandalay
View of Gokteik Viaduct after crossing it.
we were at a much higher elevation, and the train had some switchbacks to go down. This involved covering a length of track, stopping, switching to a different track, reversing down that track, stopping, switching to a new track, going forward on that track... and over and over.
The train rolled into a deserted Mandalay Railway Station on schedule at 9.15pm. I declined all offers for a ride as it was a nice and cool evening and Mandalay City Hotel was less than a kilometer away. I couldn't resist going back there. As I strolled into the hotel, the receptionist's face brightened up momentarily when she saw me walk through the door, then she deadpanned: "you're too late to check in". I feigned indignation and turned around to walk back out the door. We both laughed, and she welcomed me back. I love it when service industry staff are comfortable enough with me to tease me.
After checking in, I headed out to the Indian street food stall at the corner for some roti and curry. That hit the spot.
I'm lazing by the pool at Mandalay City Hotel as I finish this entry. I declared
Roti and curry on the sidewalk.
today a rest day as I am fatigued. I will meet some of my Francophone friends for dinner tonight; they're staying at the Ostello Bello here. Tomorrow, I will fly to Yangon for the final stop of my Myanmar travels.
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