THE TRAIN IN MYANMAR
To change a little bit from the bus, we decided to take the train between Mandalay and Hsipaw. Departure at 4am (outch it hurts), let’s go for almost 12 hours of travel. And what a journey! We’ve never had a train that moved so much before, and yet we’ve already taken a lot of them!
Sometimes we felt sick to our hearts’ content and it was hard to believe that we would eventually get off the rails! Fortunately, for once, we had taken seats in first class, which allowed us to have a little more comfortable seats because in second class it was a bit of a carnage: people were crammed together between the shopping bags and others, the ceiling was leaking and the seats were made of wood. On the other hand, the landscape was as always beautiful. Crossing the fields in the early morning with the colour of the sun was just sublime.
We also took this train to pass over the Goteik viaduct. Located after the town of Pyin Oo Lwin ,the train passes about 100 meters high on a distance of 688 meters (well there it goes very slowly anyway and fortunately !). This bridge dates from 1901 and was built by the English, it is nevertheless impressive and is the highest in the country.
ARRIVAL AT HSIPAW
We arrived around 3:30 pm and like almost everyone else, we had planned to go to the Charles Guest House but without reservation, it turned out to be full.
A small aside for travellers, Charles Guest House has become a real tourist factory. The prices are more expensive and all those we met who stayed there were disappointed from their room because of cold water, no windows, very poorly insulated walls etc… but obviously not breakfast which must be their only strong point. We were also eaten at Charles guest house’s restaurant, the prices are expensive for a minimal quantity and a most unpleasant service. That’s why we strongly recommend the Red Dragon, it’s a very recent hotel with a team of great and very smiling girls. It is clean and the rooms are more than correct. The only criticism we can make is that the common bathroom is on the ground floor so not very well placed and no buffet for breakfast.
We must admit that we were more than exhausted by the 12 hours of train (definitely the transports in Myanmar are not resting at all!), so we decided to take the next day to rest a little before going for a walk in the mountains.
We wanted to do a two-day trek with a night in a local house. We tried to make several agencies in the city to see the different rates offered. The cheapest one we found was Lily guest house (at 25000 kyats per person) but he had no one to make a band so we ended up at the Charles Guest House agency. And yes, “popularity” attracts the world, so it was the only ones who could offer us other people to go with to lower the price.
OUR HSIPAW TREK
At 8am, we are ready to leave with a Dutch couple who look very dynamic and a French one who is a little sick. Our guide is Minta, he is 21 years old, wears slim jeans and Converse type shoes… and he will walk two days with this? Well yes, it makes him laugh but it sells to never have had a sore foot and to say that we with our hiking shoes we can get blisters! The day’s program is about a 7-hour walk to reach the village where we will sleep and off we go!
As soon as we left the city, we were plunged into the rice fields and fields. The sky is a little foggy but we hope it will rise soon to enjoy the sunlight on the landscape. The kilometres pass by, we cross all kinds of landscapes on small roads not very busy. As it is winter, the landscape is generally very dry. Most of the fields have already been harvested and the diversity of colours is not necessarily there, but we appreciate the mountains as far as the eye can see and the calm surrounding them.
It’s starting to go up a little, or even a lot. For us it’s fine but the French girl we’re with is on the verge of discomfort and ends up on the morning road on a scooter. After having crapped a lot in the mountain roads, we arrive at a village very high where our lunch awaits us. No time to talk with the host family, we are sitting at the table and left alone to eat our feast. After having regained some strength, we go on a tour of the village which is a typical village (although he sees dozens of tourists passing by every day…) and we come across too cute children who play monkeys in front of the camera.
The 15 kilometers of the morning have passed, we have about 7 left to reach the evening village. The path is not easy again and the guide promises us that tomorrow it will be easier since we go down again (well yes of course!) We have the right to many explanations from Minta who seems passionate about her job and loves to tell the story of her country.
We follow a small path in the mountains and finally on the 16h30 hits and as the sun starts to be more discreet, we can see our village in the distance. We are welcomed by a very nice man (we didn’t remember his first name…) who prepared us some tea and who lights us a small fire to warm us up, it is good with perspiration we are soaked (glamour isn’t it? :-D) !
The meal is a delight and we don’t even have time to finish a plate that our hosts give us. We will spend some time around the fire but we must admit that fatigue quickly seizes us and that at 8pm we are all under our covers! We had a small outbuilding for us, small mattresses were installed on the floor with mosquito nets and lots of duvets. We slept rather well thinking that tomorrow the day would be easier….
After a good breakfast, a quick bit of cleansing (the water being more than freezing wipes will do the trick!) and a layer of tanaka on the face, we are ready to go back on the road. We do, but obviously Minta doesn’t… he explains that in fact he doesn’t know the way for today and that he has found us a new guide for the day. A new guide?! Like that guy over there with his shotgun and machete? Oh, yeah, that’s normal. We’re going to take a new path so the machete is to clear the path and the rifle is for the animals. Hmmm it promises but Minta tells us for the umpteenth time that it will be easier than the old one… You’re talking about someone who doesn’t know the way, we have a little trouble believing it but for the moment it makes us laugh more than anything else.
From the first kilometer we start climbing among the tea plantations but Minta tells us that it is the only climb of the day. We then go down into the forest to go down into the valley, the path is sometimes non-existent there which is not necessarily very reassuring. Once we get to the bottom we have to cross a river, there is a current and with water up to our knees it has the merit of refreshing us a little! Once on the other side of the shore we ask Minta for directions. She obviously seems as lost as we are as a new guide is about to take the road with us.
We take up the walk again but when we see the slope in front of us, we think that it won’t be easy, especially when we see that there is no path traced for the time being! So here we are, we are off to a good climb which in the end will have required a lot of energy from us. After a while we start to lose a little patience, we are exhausted, the climb is even harder than we imagined and never ends, but the worst thing is that no one knows where we are and how much time we have left. We continue to move forward with a machete through the tall grass and the precipice on the side. Finally, we see the long-awaited village in the distance.
It took us more than three hours to reach the village instead of the one hour announced by Minta. Unfortunately, with this waste of time, we didn’t enjoy the village any more and get to know the villagers a little more. We moved in with a family to get some strength back with a good meal but nothing to do with yesterday, we just had a chocolate wafer and a bowl of instant noodles. We get back on the road quickly because the night falls quickly and we still have two hours of walking to reach our tuktuk to take us back to the hotel. This time we go down well and as the landscape changes, it becomes less wooded and we see many more corn and wheat fields. We were still able to appreciate his last kilometers through the landscapes.
Conclusion: we are delighted with the physical feat (about 50 km of walking in 2 days) and the landscapes we have observed. On the other hand, we’re a little jaded by the way it was organized. We were supposed to come back on the second day around noon, finally we arrived around 5pm, we walked much more than the other groups, we took unconventional paths where if anything happened to us no one could come and get us, we know that the village where we ate on the second day was not at all the one we planned but simply “the only one we met on the road”, our guide although kind didn’t know the way and paid other guys to get us to the destination briefly for the price we paid we found it a little confusing but it was still a good experience.
WALK IN HSIPAW
To rest from the trek we took a short tour of the city. We started by visiting a noodle factory, we can’t miss them because the noodles dry in the street scattered all over the factory, it’s quite funny to see the drying system but a little disturbing to see that life around continues (vehicles go a few centimeters, animals walk around…) and say that after that it ends in our plate!
We continue our way to Litlle Bagan, there is nothing exceptional, just a few small pagodas, five in total… On the other hand, just opposite is a pretty wooden monastery that you can visit. With the sun rays overlooking the monks who were playing on their phones, you can get pretty pictures.
Lunchtime is approaching, we stop at Mrs Popcorn’s house, which has a good reputation among travellers, so we go there to taste a delicious avocado salad and a potato tortilla with vegetables from the garden. The place is quiet and pretty, we will stay there for a little while to appreciate the serenity of the place. Once your stomach is full, you go back through the village and fall out of a school. What was funny to see was that they all had their pickaxes in their hands, so we suppose that after school they would go to help the parents in the fields… Then we go to the covered market in Hsipaw where we find a little bit of everything, clothes, hygiene products, food, etc.
Next to the market, there is the municipal stadium where football training takes place every evening. Martin took the opportunity to play a little game with the children. Not only football is played here, but also chinlone, which is spectacular to see (looks like volleyball with feet but on a badminton court).
We spent Christmas in this city, we wanted to make ourselves a good restaurant but unfortunately we didn’t find any. We still had an aperitif (Myanmar beer with chips) at the top of a hill to admire the sunset. Finally we were eaten at Mr Charles who is finally the only one to offer European meals, and yes we wanted something other than a fried rice for Christmas! Anne had a pizza and Martin a chicken with pepper sauce, nothing very gastronomic. At that moment, we feel the lack of family more than ever (we will wait 2am to do a skype with everyone) but also good French food for our taste buds!