Cycling Eurasia - Burmese Days

This is a retrospective blog, and should really be posted on joshcunninghamcycling.co.uk, but due to some technical difficulties that's not possible at the moment. Before my London-Hong Kong bike ride recedes too far into the past though, I've resurrected the blog here to tell the rest of the story. The previous post had left Pete - my travelling companion - and I having just crossed the Bangladeshi border back into India after one of the most stressful weeks of the trip...

 Being raced out of Bangladesh by truck. Click  here  to read the backstory. 

Being raced out of Bangladesh by truck. Click here to read the backstory. 

For the third post in a row, the opening sentence will again contain the word India. But rather than this post's predecessor, where the backbone of Hindustan, its lowland plains and seething cities, were the subject, this will be more like the first. I mean this in the sense that like the far north west, where the coagulation of mountains and disputable borders disrupt the flow of ethnicity and culture to the extent that it feels like a quasi-Tibetan region, so too does the north east feel distinctly un-'Indian'.

These forgotten states, separated from the main triangular peninsula by a tiny channel of land - the Siliguri Corridor, or 'Chicken's Neck' - running between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, are largely inhabited by the Naga people, who are of Mongol descent and were bizarrely converted en masse to Christianity by some Italian monks in the earlier part of the 19th century. The terrain is an endless sea of minor mountain ranges, packed dense with forest and with only a meagre network of roads joining the valleys; the food blends South East Asia, India and China. As Chris, an American cycle tourist who I met in Dushanbe said when Nagaland came up in conversation: 'It's a pretty cool part of the world, man.'

 Agartala - Silchar road

Agartala - Silchar road

 Little and large

Little and large

 The ethnic mix of Nagaland

The ethnic mix of Nagaland

Despite the originality from a touristic point of view, the going on the bike was tough. The roads were often terrible, and never of a gradient that allowed for relaxed riding, but all the 'road less travelled' proverbs were coined for a reason, and some of the scenery was a real joy to ride through. 

 Imphal - Border road

Imphal - Border road

Not quite so enjoyable was being moved on from a campsite by the military (India's borders are crawling with men in uniform) , and told to ride 5km further up the mountain pass I was on, to their barracks, where I would apparently be able to sleep. After an initial welcoming and promises of a bed and food from the squaddies, word filtered back from the chief that I wasn't allowed to stay. I was told of a hotel at the top of the pass and sent off into the night, but after a few km I found myself in the pitch black jungle, with not a sign of light anywhere on the pass or an ounce of motivation to continue. I put up my tent on the road, tying the ends to my bike and kit to keep it up, and settled in for the night, only to discover my stove had terminally broken. Instant noodles soaked in cold water it was, and more of the wariness towards officialdom that this trip was continuing to perpetuate. 

To get into Myanmar through the north eastern Moreh-Tamu border we had had to prepare a special permit, which had been verbally confirmed with an agency after paying a cool $100 and setting an exact time and date that we would cross. Armed only with the telephone number of 'some guy', we arrived at the border and were told to sit under the foreboding words of the dated customs buildings signs. 

 Burmese customs

Burmese customs

A man duly appeared on a motorbike after being telephoned though, and after some transaction between him and the officials we were rushed through. 'Enjoy Myanmar,' he said once back outside, before hopping back onto his moped and careering off, leaving us slightly suspicious about the legitimacy of our permit fees. But regardless of whose back pocket the money found itself in, we had gained entry and had a over a thousand kilometres of the country now ahead of us.

Up until very recently, Myanmar's internal struggles have meant that travelling within its borders has been a severely compromised, if not impossible endeavour, but in 2013 the regulations were relaxed and areas outside of the main tourist sites of Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon were effectively opened up. As a foreigner travelling overland, with a  reputation that doesn't precede itself, as is the case in a lot of other South East Asian countries, the experience certainly felt quite genuine. More refreshing still were the smiles that crept over people's faces - universally painted by the yellow brush strokes of thanaka, a sun-protective mixture, with teeth stained scarlet from betel juice - upon the sight of Pete and I riding unannounced through the daily rhythms of their town, village or paddy field. Waves and cries of 'Mingalaba!' abounded, and after the stern looks that had sometimes swept across us in India, it was a welcome change of mood. Frequent sights and sounds, such as the bands of women walking around singing and handing out gifts, or the megaphone-wielding cars that drove slowly around deserted towns between 4 and 6 in the morning, blaring clamorous voiceovers and traditional Burmese music, were two such peculiarities that remain as bewildering now as they did when we were first exposed to them. Friendly and also completely bonkers; what wasn't to love?

 We were in Myanmar during the run up to the general election in November. The NLD (National League for Democracy) supporters were seemingly sure of Aung San Suu Kyi's victory long before the results came in. 

We were in Myanmar during the run up to the general election in November. The NLD (National League for Democracy) supporters were seemingly sure of Aung San Suu Kyi's victory long before the results came in. 

 We were mobbed and kitted out with bandanas. Memories of the sign at customs had clearly paled. 

We were mobbed and kitted out with bandanas. Memories of the sign at customs had clearly paled. 

 This lady made us some lunch in Kale. Didn't stop laughing, either. 

This lady made us some lunch in Kale. Didn't stop laughing, either. 

 A woman of the Kayan tribe in northern Myanmar - her identity given away by the apparently 'stretched neck'. Notice the betel and tobacco stained teeth. 

A woman of the Kayan tribe in northern Myanmar - her identity given away by the apparently 'stretched neck'. Notice the betel and tobacco stained teeth. 

 A Kalewa girl wearing a face of 'thanaka', a paste made from ground bark used as a protective measure, but which is often applied decoratively. 

A Kalewa girl wearing a face of 'thanaka', a paste made from ground bark used as a protective measure, but which is often applied decoratively. 

Pete was unfortunately not feeling too spritely though, and after dragging him out of the tent one morning, before watching him nauseously stir his noodles and fail to ride his bike faster than 10kmh, the pair of us found ourselves at the side of the road hailing down a vehicle and hashing out a plan for a future reunion, as he was in no state to be cycling.

After a series of truck and boat rides Pete ended up in a hotel in the town of Monywa, which lay at the end of the main Burmese northern road head. Travel further north, apart from the Indian-built border road we had so far been enjoying, is generally made by water or air. But firmly tied to my method of transportation, the obligatory alternative was a 200km stretch of road that from what I could figure would be the last real unpaved sector of the trip.

 Rural Myanmar. Temples everywhere. 

Rural Myanmar. Temples everywhere. 

 Some buffalo loving life

Some buffalo loving life

 A girl concocts some betel leaves with tobacco and flavouring for a customer 

A girl concocts some betel leaves with tobacco and flavouring for a customer 

In the sticky heat of the jungle, meandering past golden temples, decrepit monasteries, homesteads and eateries emanating the fermented fishy pong apparently synonymous with any Burmese dish, I became increasingly envious of Pete's Chindwin river voyage. There was one 40 or 50 kilometre section of cobblestones that was particularly nasty, and even had me throwing my bike on the floor at the end of a long day, after having slipped my foot and kicked the pedal back into my opposing shin. Compacted by the stifling heat, pitiful progress, hungry mosquitoes and prevailing feeling of solitude, the effect that Orwell's Burmese Days was having gradually felt very palpable, and as I collapsed in a frustrated, wincing heap at the side of the road, I could allow myself a modest glimpse into how Flory was suffocated by it all.

 On the Kalewa - Monywa road

On the Kalewa - Monywa road

 The daily 5pm skygasm 

The daily 5pm skygasm 

I eventually arrived in Monywa a day late, but Pete was feeling better and so we made our way south to spend some time in Bagan - the main tourist attraction of the country - and its surrounding temples. The hundreds of pagodas have an irresistible enchantment, with mouldy fascades, crumbling statues buried under an entanglement of vines that speak of ancient kingdoms and entrenched spiritualism. Further afield, even in the absence of temples, this is echoed only too perfectly by the streams of monks padding around in every town or village, queuing up for food donations, or standing at the side of the road - their arms wrapped around a big terracotta urn acting as a suitcase, waiting to hitch a lift. Rather than in other places, where monks might find themselves pedastalled, or on the fringes of society at large, in Myanmar they can appear to be almost as unremarkable and common asany other person.

 Young monks in the northern town of Kalewa

Young monks in the northern town of Kalewa

 Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan

Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan

 Temples of Bagan

Temples of Bagan

 Trueing a buckled wheel in Yesagyo

Trueing a buckled wheel in Yesagyo

 This cheeky duo served us some lunch in fits of laughter before tucking into their own at a popup roadside eatery near Napyidaw. Notice the purely decorative thanaka on the forehead.

This cheeky duo served us some lunch in fits of laughter before tucking into their own at a popup roadside eatery near Napyidaw. Notice the purely decorative thanaka on the forehead.

The last few days in Myanmar were tough. With the daily temperature between 35 and 40 degrees and humidity at some godforsaken height, it was hot and agitating, and every morsel of shadow that crept over the road - be it from tree, building or otherwise - was hungrily sought out, regardless of where on the carriageway it fell.

 Sweat-encrusted chamois 

Sweat-encrusted chamois 

 Negotiating the road traffic near Aba-Wa 

Negotiating the road traffic near Aba-Wa 

Darkness fell at around six o'clock, but well before then - even before we had time to finish our stove-cooked super noodles - we would be forced to seek refuge in our stifling tents. On one occasion this was because of a police tail we had picked up, who we suspected knew of our plans on breaking the law of no wild camping, but was usually on account of the swarms of mosquitoes that would descend upon us. Evenings became a daily nightmare, lying naked in one's tent for hours on end, trying to fan away the slimy coating of sweat and listening in fear for the fatal 'bzz, bzz, bzz' of a bloodsucking airborne intruder.

'You still awake Pete?' I would call across to Pete's adjacent tent after hours of solitary torture.

'Yep,' would come the immediate reply.

'I wish I was freezing my balls off in a blizzard on the Pamir plateau right now.'

'Mate, we'll be in Thailand soon. Just think; air con, nice food, cold beer. It's going to be...Oh shit, there's one in here.'

Bzz, bzz, bzz, bzz....

 Route through Bangladesh, the 'Seven Sister States' of NE India, and Myanmar, to Thai border. 

Route through Bangladesh, the 'Seven Sister States' of NE India, and Myanmar, to Thai border.