Train ride but no Trekking

Trip Start Apr 23, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Mr Charles Guesthouse

Flag of Myanmar  , Shan,
Monday, April 4, 2011

My stomach had sorted itself by the next morning and we jumped on the back of some scooters for the ride to the train stations.

We had no probs in getting first class tickets ($5) on  the train but in hindsight we think they may have been the last seats. Unlike the day before the station was humming. Horse and cart delivered enormous loads of cargo and people swarmed about buying and selling all manner of foods and beverage.

When we found our seats we were totally surrounded by army types. They helped us stow our packs and then settled in for the tortuously slow journey. They must have been riding for free as when people got on board along the way with tickets, the boys moved off onto the floor.

At first I thought the guy that appeared to be the highest rank was drinking water but it wasn't long before his behaviour showed it was actually Vodka or something very similar. After about an hour of trying to get me to take off my sunnies so he could see my blue eyes, much to the embarrassment of his men, he finally went and layed on our packs and fell into a drunken stupor....Welcome peace but all I could think is ..."Please don't spew...Please don't spew"...

I wouldn't say the scenery was particularly spectacular but the adrenalin did start to pump as we headed onto the very narrow bridge across the very large Gokteik Gorge. The Lonely Planet describes it as "breathtaking" but thats more likely to be because you tend to hold your breath and cross your fingers (toes, legs...any anything else you can) that you get across without plummeting to a nasty death....No pictures unfortunately as the Train guard had made us put the camera away before we got in sight of the bridge and very clearly told us "no pictures".

We were a bit annoyed at one stage when the man sitting across the seat pulled down the shutters...What no view????? We soon found out why when water came flooding into the seats behind, drenching all those seated there...The water festival might not start for another week or two but the local kids were getting in some practice. When it was safe once again he raised the shade with a big wide grin....and we thanked him profusely! He performed this role of guardian quite a few more times before the journey's end.

The joy of the journey was definitely more about observing the people than the landscape. Both inside and out of the train, the daily life of the people of this part of the country provided a fascinating insight into the culture. With nary a word of english we were offered food and made to feel welcome.

At Kyaukme we were surrounded by a class of students of varying ages who been bought down to the station by their teacher to practice their english. What a brilliant idea...For twenty minutes or so I coached out of them their family make-up, their likes and dislikes and their career aspirations. I was delighted to see these range from secretary right through to journalist and world traveller. Clearly these kids weren't giving into the obvious limitations imposed on them by their current circumstances...

On arrival at Hsipaw we made our way to Mr Charle's Guesthouse. With a good range of rooms from very basic to quite luxurious, we made ourselves comfortable in a "mid-range" offering before heading out to enquire about village trekking.

We quickly found out our options were limited. The Government had recently instituted a ban on the overnight and multi day trips as well as the boat trip up stream. that left a half day trip around the local villages. We found out later that the ban was over some activity by Shan rebels in the area. They were afraid we might get kidnapped??? We were assured by some of the locals that that would have been extremely unlikely to have been in any danger...but the government had spoken...Obviously to the loss of the local villages and guides.

Anyway...just so we got some exposure to the area we chose to go out with one of the local guides the next morning. We visited some of the local viewpoints, the local monastery and several of the surrounding villages. It was a really nice taste of the area as the temperatur soared as we neared mid morning it was pretty clear 4 hours was probably enough.

A lot of the walk was through the fields and we were astounded at the sheer number of watemelon crops....Lots and lots of very big watermelons. We found out later that these crops were extremely bad for the local environment. The villagers had given over their traditional crops to grow watermelons for chinese companies...Lots of chemcials and fertilizers were required to grow these very large fruit and were quite damaging to the soil. Rather than leave their fields to rest on a regular cycle, the short term dollar was being pursued in lieu of long term sustainability. After two or three years the land became almost useless. We were also warned not to eat these large watermelons and to instead opt for the small round ones...much sweeter, far few pesticides and much kinder to the overall cycle of the land.

One of the more amusing/disturbing sights we saw was a young girl "walking" a cat on a leash....The unfortunate thing was that the cat was stony cold DEAD and she was literally dragging it behind her. We followed her down to the river where she unceremoniously hurled it into the river, just over the heads of some local kids swimming, then turned around and gave us a gorgeous grin...The cat had ovciously gone to a better place!!!

We had lunch at a tiny local food stand where we were lucky to taste some of the best shan noodles we were to experience in Myanmar. As we ate we were entertained by the young daughter of the cook whom we dubbed "Watermelon Monster" as she proceeded to devour most of one whole fruit (one of the local ones of course!)

After returning to our room, recovering from the baking we'd received and checking out the totally stuffed internet connection, we sat around over a couple of cold beers and chatted to other travellers from various corners of the world. As we no longer had the option of trekking further afield in this area we had decided to catch the early bus back to Mandalay the next day and go onto Bagan the day after that....We were also totally pissed to find out that some of the above said travellers had just caught the boat down from Myitkyina.......the very same trip they said we couldn't do when we were in Mandalay!!! Grrrrrrr!

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