We are still putting together the overview for trekking in Burma. In the meantime enjoy Kirk’s Eyewitness Account to get introduction to travel in Burma.
In Burma, time is just time........And things take a lot of it!
I just got back from CostCo - the super warehouse shopping experience. Not long before that I just got back from Burma - which makes the “just getting back from CostCo” that much more poignant. The temples of the Himalaya, the temples of Buddha and the temples of Shopping - all in the same week. CostCo isn't really that much different from Walmart or Target or any other Large Department store anywhere in the world. In fact they probably have less selection. However, the display and quantity of goods stacked to the ceiling warehouse style fully embodies our raw consumer power and desires. It is America's Cathedral of Consumerism. Yes, but it is just a store! And hey, there is nothing wrong with a little shopping, right? After all, everybody all over the world goes shopping - everyday!
So why does this feel so strange? Why am I attracted and repulsed at the same time? How is it that the same person (me in this instance) is subject to the allure of a 62 inch flat screen HDTV and at the same time treasuring memories of, and longing for future adventures to, a far away village in Burma. Where it is two day walk to the nearest store (and it ain't no Walmart either)? Can these seemingly mutually exclusive forces coexist in the same mind?? Will the cognitive dissonance rip such a seemingly small brain in two?
Perhaps, the fact that I am living, breathing and writing this is a proof of sorts, that, yes it is possible to live in these two worlds at the same time....and maybe it’s even somewhat normal.
So lets go back in time, literally and figuratively. In December of last year I abandoned my Chicago winter's Holiday Spirit and high-tailed-it over to Burma. We spent a week in Yangon; the strangely appealing capital city of Burma. Yangon (formerly know as Rangoon) has this decaying Tropical Colonial feeling, a vague hint of an Asian Tiger style new economy, a wealth of Burmese style Buddhism including literally hundreds of temples and devout worshippers, Dozens of 1910 era Chevy buses completely packed with people and somehow still kept running after all these years, and perhaps most defining, an endless number of small shops and neighborhood markets. All of these elements spill onto almost every street and sidewalk making for an interesting bazaar (and bizarre) atmosphere that I find completely alluring if not often overwhelming.
And what did we do this with this week in the capital of Burma? We spent our time doing a little sightseeing and most importantly making the preparations for our trekking journey to the far north. And to make these preparations, what did we do? Well, we went shopping of course!! We had a lot to buy since we were going to do without any shopping for over two weeks of trekking. Yes, yes!! The irony, the irony!!
Our destination was the Kachin State in northern Burma. Yes, you may have heard that it's called Myanmar these days - but there is something more foreboding about the name Burma - jungles, war, mystery, seclusion, military dictatorship and, of course, really hard to build roads. The Kachin State is home to all of these qualities - both historically and in current times. This area is one of the least visited of all Himalayan regions and not surprisingly one of the least visited parts of Burma. Closed to foreigners since shortly after WWII, it has just opened up to travelers in the past couple years. Fascinating new tribes and rare new species from all phyla in the animal kingdom have recently been "discovered" in this remote area.
Going to Burma is like jumping in a time machine. You can go back over a hundred years pretty easily. Lots of people are living in a pre-industrial state. Literally, whole towns are living this pastoral life. Yes, it’s appealing to me to visit these people - to get away from all the stuff (and I mean we got a lot of stuff) that makes up our lives on our far side of the globe. Of course, things are not always as they seem the villagers living this idealized simple life want what we have - they want more stuff. All kinds of stuff - but most noticeable they want more internal combustion. Two years ago when I first visited Burma, everyone in the countryside traveled by oxcart or if one was rich and in a hurry they traveled by horse cart. Now the country roads are teeming with Chinese built tractors towing trailers jam packed with market goers and farmers taking their goods to and from market (its not the Eisenhower expressway or anything but they got a lot of these tractors going around) And they are really loud and polluting and annoying (to me) but, hey, they get these people and goods to and from market faster than before and even though I would definitely NOT go as far to say that "time is money" in Burma, because in Burma it is really not. In Burma, time is just time; and things take a lot of it. But time is still valuable....life is short..... and love is rare....so most people would take the tractor rather than walk.....
I digress (sort of), SO back to this time machine thing. Like I said you can go back a hundred years in Burma, but this is changing fast. However, what is really interesting is how the Burmese time machine can mix all these different years and eras together into one technological and cultural stew. For example you can visit ancient tea shops with open-fire-brewed tea served on little wooden chairs and tables on a dirt floor with a very large and out of place stereo speaker blaring some bad Burmese rock and roll covers. Or better yet, a village without indoor plumbing, paved streets, sewers or even proper garbage pickup has all its villagers huddled around a DVD player watching MTV type music videos or a pirate copy of Saving Private Ryan. Oxcarts, steam trains, Colonial Buildings, Cells Phones, DVD's and Internet computing all coming together - Its the history channel with all the different shows mixed into one....
So we are headed north first by train, and then by more train - virtually three days by train. Our goal (well, my goal) is to get away from internal combustion. Yes, to get to where there is no internal combustion we have to use lots of internal combustion. The irony, the irony!!
On our fourth day from Yangon we finally say our good-byes to internal combustion. Our farewell is a dusty and bumpy two hour WWII jeep ride from the small town of Putao (which you should be able to find on any decent size world atlas or map of Asia) to a small village called Upper Shandong(which you won't find on any map). We settle into our host's small wooden home with a large group of local kids and adults curious about these strange foreigners and all their strange stuff. We submit to their curiosity by emptying much of our backpack contents for their scrutiny. They seem to thoroughly enjoy examining everything from a US quarter to our family pictures to a world map.
Our goal is to trek to the remote mountain peak the locals call Ponkan Raze (poon con rah-zee). It is a modest peak rising to about 11,500 feet however not easy to get there in these remote parts of the world. We have quite an adventure before us as it is two more days to the last village and then three days from there to the summit.
In our mission, Nancy and I are joined by our intrepid trekking friend Jeff whom we met in Nepal last year. Jeff is an avid photographer and has a slew of the latest digital camera equipment to educate us on the new way of photography plus provide some shock and awe to the local population.
The second day offers us 3000 feet elevation gain while crossing a pass and then giving back 1500 feet (as you may remember from Nepal "Elevation gain is a terrible thing to waste") as we descend into the river valley that we will follow for two more days until we branch off following ridge-lines to the summit. We are led by out intrepid guide Ohn Lwin, his two primary assistants and seven additional porters. all the villages that we are visiting can only be reached by foot. Everything that comes in or out goes by its own two(or more) legs or is carried by man or beast.
Although Burma is generally associated with hot tropical climates, on this trip we have passed into a different weather zone of the far north. It is December and near freezing at night in this Himalayan region. Gathering round the fire is a daily and nightly ritual and we welcome taking part despite the oppressive amounts of smoke that permeate all clothing, possessions and even one's skin over the entire body. It's smokier than a Chicago Blues Bar on a Saturday 'round about midnight! But where there is smoke there is fire and where there is fire there is heat and when you are really cold, heat is a very good thing....
So ends part one....stay warm and stay tuned while our heroes go for the snow capped summit, attend the most interesting Christmas services, Chase down old steam trains and get down at the Jumping Cat Monastery