We set off in the dark for a big day to reach the Shan hills and climb into the mountains. We sped through the last of the dry zone in darkness. I had noticed on the map an interesting train line switchbacking and winding through the hills. As the mountains loomed in the hazy distance with the sun rising bright orange just above them, and someone who called out Minglaba from the dim light we thought we would ask him about the train. There was one in about an hour, so as we were cycling near to the track, we knew we were an hour ahead of the train and decided to pedal on and to jump on it just before the mountains start and the track leaves the road taking the scenic route weaving its way through the towering rocky landscape.
Tickets purchased for us and the bike at a simple station with ox carts slowly passing on their way to work the fields.
The bike was loaded into a goods wagon and we climbed aboard for the five hour journey which cost us £1 each including the bike which had a separate goods ticket.
We chugged through the scenery, the reassuring clickety clack of the train running over the track joined with fish plates.
Several times the trains direction was changed as we zigzagged up sidings to gain height more efficiently. The old style signals operated by cables across the muddy trackside controlled our safe passage along the single narrow track. Banana palms and forest brushed against the train. The track clung to the mountain side. Mountains towered above the valley, as we passed through deep rocky cuttings and snaked our way past villages through empty colossal surroundings.
We left the train once deep within the hills and set off of on paths and tracks towards Lake Inle. The countryside was largely stripped of forest and neat terraced fields made a weblike lattice over the valleys, carefully engineered level platforms that contoured the landscape, utilising all the ground. Sometimes we were pushing the bike along narrow strips of mud that divided the irregular shaped plots, and sometimes cycling on rough ox cart tracks. At one point we had to carry the bike over washed away sections of path. Always hoping the path would change to an ox cart track and we would see the narrow wheel marks in the mud of the old rickety workhorses of Burmese agriculture. This reassured us that if they had found there way here, there would be a way through this rugged terrain.
The tracks petered out as we reached valley heads and crossed little water sheds to a new valley, when they returned. From village to village we went. Surprised locals laughed as we manoeuvred our cumbersome load through the mountains.
We slept a night in a village on the living area floor of someone’s house. Egg curry and rice was cooked over the fire by the kindly lady. Her father chanted Buddhist recitations facing the the home’s shrine that made up most of one wall, a small gold Buddha, various plants, offerings of rice and food, and photos of family and ancestors. It was a spiritual moment.
We continued along muddy paths and tracks through villages of woven bamboo houses, farming and drying chillis, and eventually reached lake Inle.
We had entered an aquatic world, a labyrinth of waterways between vivid green profuse vegetation, villages on stilts, serviced by boats only, and wide open water too.
There were large floating farms with neat rows of crops growing from long bundled rafts of compost. Small boats could just be manoeuvred between the rows. Farmers wearing pointed hats in tiny elegant wooden craft tended the crops.
There were markets, shops, and eating places on and around the huge expanse of lake Inle. At markets a huge jamb of wooden boats gathered, coming and going, loading and unloading, people delicately walking ashore across the raft of moored craft. Different minority groups, wearing their distinctive clothing gathered at these social gatherings, some with small stalls selling fruit and vegetables others for shopping, before they returned to the surrounding hills.
We whizzed about in a slender long tail boat to cross from one end of the lake to the other. Our bike lay cradled in the bow.
We climbed above Lake Inle to Taunggyi deeper into Shan region. This is the capital and there was a new feel. Wealth, people from all different parts of the world, Chinese, Sikhs and numerous local minorities proudly dressed in their tribal attire. Business was going on everywhere and there was a huge selection of goods from Thailand and China. There was quite a military presence too, particularly as Aung San Suu Kyi was visiting town. Guns were off soldiers backs and cocked as her convoy sped through the streets. There was a momentary heightened alertness and tension and then everything returned to normal relaxed state. A passer by offered a soldier some betal nut to chew.
Our route further east towards Laos was blocked with travel restrictions for foreigners. The next 280 miles of road is closed due to various Shan factions being in disagreement with each other and the Burmese army. So we have to fly over this section to Kengtung for our safety as we are told by the authorities. The reality is probably somewhat different. It seems convenient to have these troubled areas of Burma where all kinds of people are benefiting from lucrative drugs trade, from different Shan warlords to Burmese generals. The same goes for the gem mining areas. The closed status for safety concerns is a convenient cover up.
The flight was relaxed and quaint, a propeller aircraft and small rural airports where you pretty much collect your luggage from the hold door.
Once in Kengtung we were quick to sort out our final couple of days cycling through jungle mountains to the Mekong River and crossing into Laos.
Bureaucracy hit us again, for our safety we cannot take the road to Laos, just Thailand and you have to go by car only. The rules were becoming tiresome. Burma is a country of lovely helpful friendly people, who are so accepting of restrictions, just saying that it’s much better than it used to be. The regime though is a racket. Corrupt beyond belief. High up people involved in horrendous scams that are forgiven under dodgy amnesties. Or maybe they have paid there way out of guilt by funding some over the top temple, which seem far too numerous for everyday worship. The regime’s decisions are made after consulting fortune tellers who can earn huge wealth. Some even live in Yangon’s Golden Valley with the country’s elite. Dodgy warlord factions hobnob with the country’s leaders. A new capital city, that is empty, was built on the advice of fortune tellers, as was changing the side of the road you drive on, which was implemented overnight. There are thirty seven officially recognised nats, mischievous spirits, that have to be appeased to ensure smooth running of things.
We are deposited at the border bridge with Thailand, feeling like we are cycling to freedom, where we can stay where we want and go where we like. But we miss the smiles, the calling out “minglaba”, the humbleness, the kindness and the helpfulness of these gentle people.