Thursday, January 14, 2010

Back and Forth

In Mandalay we meet up with Andrea and Gerhard again before going separate ways. We are heading up to Hsipaw (pronounced Seepaw) with Judith, another German we met in Mandalay. The bus journey is our first in the daytime so at least we get to see some of the scenery. This 'cinematic experience' can be best enjoyed with a soundtrack of your choice on the i-Pod. If the bus is fitted with a TV and speakers the length of the bus you may find yourself suddenly distracted by tepid mushy Burmese pop videos or, as today, footage of a Rolling Stones concert in Toronto. The latter is quite a culture shock but it comes to an end when Judith asks the bus boy if he has something more typically Burmese. He puts in a dvd of some traditional Burmese vaudeville which is meaningless to us tourists but soon has the all the locals laughing out loud.

We climb off the central plain and back into the hills. The rice paddies lay fallow now but there are plenty of vegetable crops being grown. The fields look fertile and abundant. Hsipaw is a little town on the road heading into Yunan, China. It's supposed to be a pleasant sleepy little place, but because of a road diversion there is a constant stream of giant lorries trailing through the town and kicking up dust storms that can be seen for miles. It's noisy and filthy. We meet Gertrude at our guest house and the four of us take a hike into the surrounding countryside. We get lost a bit but finally find some hot springs, which are not as hot as hot springs should be. As with many trips though, it's the journey that is the highlight rather than the arrival.

There's a rumour that our guesthouse is run by a government-friendly owner. I'm not really sure what this means but we all become slightly paranoid at breakfast when a Burmese man blatantly pulls a chair next to our table and sits down with his back to us, all the better to listen in. We're back in Shan State and apparently many Shan separatists have been arrested in this area. One man did speak to us about the forthcoming elections. He said the results had already been decided and that he knew who would be their local governor. But the Shan people were not interested in the outcome across the country. They will go their own way, whatever the Bamar people do. Afterwards we wonder if this man was simply speaking about what he hoped for rather than what may happen. It perfectly illustrated how the minorities view the majority and also how divided they are. There's no hint of a united opposition to the military regime.

We take the old train back the way we came with Judith to Pyin U Lwin, the old summer capital of the British. The train plods along quite slowly, rolling from side to side, through lovely scenery. At each small settlement we stop and hawkers appear, selling their food. An old fella is sitting with us and asks a few particular questions about where we're from and our itinerary in Burma. The usual things. But is it harmless enquiry or is he a government agent? If he's the latter, then his codename must be Breaking Wind, judging from his behaviour. The most notable part of the journey is crossing a huge old steel viaduct across a gorge - when it was built this was the highest railway bridge in the world, so it says here in our guidebook. And it's still standing. The train loops slowly around to gain or lose height over the hilly countryside.

In Pyin U Lwin there are a few buildings left from the colonial days, grand houses built of red brick with tiled roofs, and botannical gardens. We find a cheap guesthouse that has rooms that, to quote a guidebook, look like crime scenes. It'll do - we're only stopping for a night. The food offerings are poor but bizarrely there is a fancy cafe and bakery selling croissants and good coffee, which makes for a very nice breakfast change to the usual eggs and toast. Here we say goodbye to Judith and return to Mandalay by pick-up before continuing on to Monywa a couple of days later.

Our bus from Mandalay has only gone a hundred metres out of the bus station when it stalls right in the middle of the street and goes no further. No-one bats an eyelid. Me and a monk finally get off to see what the problem might be. The bus crew of three have their heads stuck inside the engine, buses and trucks struggle to pass around us. Eventually we have to push the thing to the roadside and almost immediately, with one tweak of a wrench, we are going again. The flat landscape on the plains surrounding the Ayeyarwady reminds us so much of India. It's dry season and there's not a lot to see, just the usual dusty villages, with tea shops and paan stands. Houses are built from wood and most look basic but in good nick. There are pumping stations taking water from the river to irrigate the fields. We might be on the link road that heads north into India, but it's hard to tell, it's so narrow and pot-holed. Piles of rocks are stacked up for huge lengths of the road in anticipation of a new road building programme. Most of this will be done by hand, with a steam roller being the only other equipment.

In Monywa I suffer the indignity of falling out of a rickshaw when we arrive, sprawling on the pavement like a drunk. The town doesn't see so many tourists, but there are a few sights dotted around, including the huge standing Buddha which we saw some distance out of town on our approach. We're catching up with Gertrude who is also here and with whom we're travelling to Bagan. She has been here a day and visited some of the sights. I'm feeling a little worn out with stupas and Buddhas and payas and transport seems a little expensive too. As it is, there's only time to stroll The Strand, a fancy English name for the road running along the riverbank. It's a busy place though, with lots of boats being loaded up with all kinds of goods. There are no docks. The boats moor up at the shore, and gangs of men carry or roll their loads down the steep embankment and over gangplanks and onto the boats. The rivers are still a useful transport link.

In the morning, after a large and elaborately presented breakfast, we take a bus southwards to another town where we can pick up a boat to Bagan. Thinking the bus stop is close to the 'port' we start walking. About one sweaty hour later we arrive at the dusty shore where a small boat toots its horn to attract our attention. The ride down the Ayeyarwady is a slow windy affair with little interest except for being on a boat. Still, it makes a pleasant change from the hectic bus rides.

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