Burmese countryside

Last Wednesday we hired a taxi to take us from Inle Lake to Mandalay, a seven hour drive that we decided we’d rather not spend in one of Burma’s bumpy and sleepless overnight busses. On the way we stopped to visit statue-filed caves in the limestone cliffs above the town of Pindaya. In addition to the thousands of gold Buddha statues filling the caves, the ceilings of the labyrinthine complex are covered in stalactites, and the combination of both man and nature-made features created an almost mystical atmosphere.

The side trip to Pindaya took us away from the mostly-paved main route to Mandalay and onto 7 hours of rural dirt roads through Burmese countryside. Our suspension-less 80’s era Toyota wagon was by far the smallest of the dozen or so cars we saw on the road, but it made the experience all the more authentic. It also kept us eye-level with the periodic herds of cattle with which we shared the road. The region, in Shan state, is one of the most fertile regions of the country, and the ride was filled with scenes of rolling farmland dotted with enormous Banyan trees and the occasional golden hill-top pagoda. As much as anything else, our trip to Burma has been one of gorgeous natural scenery.

We spent most of our 24 hours in Mandalay planning our departure. Mandalay is a sprawling and dusty city that serves as the hub for Burmese and Chinese businesses mining, drilling, and trading in Burma’s resource rich north. Although there are a few ancient palace complexes outside of the city, we opted to forego them to squeeze in two day trekking trip another 7 hours north. There are certain cities that you know will take more time and effort to enjoy than you have, and Mandalay was one of those cities for us.

The trekking trip, based out of a small town called Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw) brought us to more of the same scenery as our Inle-Mandalay car trip, but it was great to enjoy things at a slower pace. We walked through tea plantations, fields of bright yellow sesame flowers, and got to see plenty of ever-fascinating low-tech rural farming contraptions including home built hydro-electric dams, an ox-cart mounted gas-powered corn kernel remover, and a foot-pedal hay chopper consisting of a bent bamboo limb and a 12 inch cleaver.

The trek included a home-stay in a small tribal village. It’s always hard to know what to expect when you’re told you’ll be visiting a community touted by guides and tour books as “untouched”. Despite many experiences otherwise, in my mind I always picture a primitive scene out of a National Geographic documentary. Despite knowing better, this ultimately leads to a slight twang of disappointment upon arriving to find people watching TV, drinking CocaCola, and wearing modern, western clothing.

In Pankam, I certainly had that moment of disappointment. After all, the town is a short, albeit treacherous, motor-bike ride from a well-connected town. The houses have tin roofs, everyone wears machine-made clothing, and many families have motor bikes. Taking a step back though, I realized I was in one of the least connected places I had ever been. In a town of 100 families, only a couple of homes have electricity, in the form of car batteries. People collect their water from a central town well and cook over wood stoves. As with the rest of Burma, there are very few mass produced packaged foods, virtually none of which are western brands. The only formal commerce we saw was at a local stall that sold snacks, cigarettes, and warm sodas. I’ve done trips similar to these in other countries and stayed in towns with no running water and limited electricity. It is always enlightening and refreshing to see a community that lives very differently from my own. However, I think the lack of western influence in Burma really sets my experience in Pankam apart.

It’s taken a few weeks to figure it out what exactly it is about this country that has made it so fascinating to visit. No one feature or experience of Burma has stood out as a single highlight. Rather, the scene of the country and culture as a whole is what really makes this place worth seeing, and seeing sooner rather than later.

Still no luck uploading photos, but we’ve got tons of great ones ready and waiting!

An unexpected post on an unexpected successful second day at Lake Inle

Sneaking in a quick half hour of internet in the middle of a jam-packed day in Burma.

We woke up early this morning and met Asher – a UPenn law student whom we first met in Yangon, and happen to bump into again last night – for a bike ride around Inle Lake. Based on the Lonely Planet map, we planned to take a 5 mile ride to the In Thein pagoda, a site of 1000+ crumbling 17th and 18th century stupas on the western edge of the lake. They’re usually visited by boat, but we didn’t get a chance to make it there yesterday, and a 5 mile bike ride looked like a piece of cake!

Well, an hour and a half in we chatted with a local on the side of the road who informed us that In Thein was a further 3 hours down the road… After another 45 minutes on our bikes, a stop at a local market, and a lucky tip from the only other westerners visiting the same market, we devised a hair-brained scheme to rent a boat to take us and the bikes to the pagoda, then back home at the end of the day. We managed to hire a reluctant driver and his boat, which was definitely not outfit for tourists and, ended up with a
smashing-success of an off-the-beaten path (i.e. not in Lonely Planet) afternoon. The crumbling stupas at In Thein were really gorgeous and, as seems to be the trend in this country, we were very lucky to get a chance to see the few remaining structures there which have not been restored into to relatively characterless gold-painted plaster mounds.

Our second day cruising the lake on our way back to town was no less scenic than the first, and felt all the more authentic and noteworthy sitting on the floor of our boat totally unfit for tourist use with our new traveling partner. After our return we experienced a beautiful sunset, if not quite a gustatorily (sic) noteworthy experience, tasting wine at the Red Mountain winery, one of Burma’s two vineyards located in the hills surrounding the lake, and are now headed to a traditional puppet show before dinner.

Again, our deepest apologies for the lack of photos, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed for faster internet in Mandalay in a few days.

Burma: a welcome change of pace

5 days without internet is the longest we’ve gone in a quite a while, and although we’re certainly remiss not being able to post more often for you all, being forced to unplug has been one of the many pleasant surprises of Burma.

We spent our first 2 days in Burma in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. Yangon is truly like no city I have ever seen before. Many of the British colonial era buildings in the city are still standing, most of which have undergone virtually no restoration and often seem to
stand moldy and crumbling as modern ruins. However, it’s clear that within the next year or two, this won’t be the case. We’ve heard that investment, trade, and development has skyrocketed tremendously in just the last few months, with trade restrictions from the US and elsewhere being lifted. I’m sure we arrived here just in the nick of time to see one of the last (if not the last) large, relatively stable, and resource rich country not completely tied into modern western trade, technology and culture.

The highlight of our two quick days in Yangoon was sunrise at Shwedagon Pagoda, a giant gold clad Buddhist Stupa capped with a golden Hti (crown) encrusted with thousands of precious stones and topped with a 76 carat diamond (or so we’re told, it was far too high to actually see). We also walked past countless colonial era buildings, sampled highlights of the local fare, and even visited the Yangon synagogue which served a Jewish community of several hundred at the turn of the 20th century, but now is only just a tourist attraction taken care of by one of the dozen or so Jews who have chosen to stay in Burma.

In addition to the multitude of regional ethnic Burmese groups, Burma is home to a large Indian population, most of whom came over as workers or traders during the British colonial period, and Burmese food is greatly influenced by southern Indian cuisine. After 5 weeks of soupy spicy food in China, we’ve been ecstatically chowing down on Burma’s rich and mild curries and chewy chapati breads since we arrived. Indian-style sweet and milky tea is also the centerpiece of Burmese social culture, and the streets are lined with small tea shops full of men sitting at knee-high tables drinking and chatting.

We’re currently at Inle Lake, a magnificently scenic landscape of fishermen in dug-out canoes, water villages of houses on bamboo stilts, and endless acres of tomato farms grown floating on beds of marsh. We took a boat tour of the lake today, and tomorrow will be biking around the edge of the lake to see some local temple ruins.

We’re eager to post all of the beautiful photos we’ve taken of this truly unique country, but don’t have our fingers crossed for fast enough internet any time too soon unfortunately, so stay tuned!

Preparing for Burma

Fancy hotel picnic with REAL BREAD.

Fancy hotel picnic with REAL BREAD.

In Tengchong we got couped up for a few days. Zev came down with a bit of a flu in Tengchong, but things turned around quickly. I’m so glad he’s feeling better. Zev’s fever broke after a night of mumbling in his sleep, the giant rat tiny mouse thumping around our hotel room finally went to sleep at 4:30am, and the electricity came back on later that morning.

The next morning we hit the road. After an overnight bus ride featuring a symphony of snoring and coughing, we arrived in Kunming. We were thrilled to bump into a Carrefour on our way from the bus station to the hotel, and splurged on lots of yummy Western food. We also splashed out on a nice upmarket business hotel. Our hotel picnic featured a baguette, President butter, real American cheddar cheese, and mustard. Le sigh, it was the greatest turnaround ever witnessed. A hot shower and some bread will really mend any problems in life.

Zev wielding a baguette with the backpacks in the shopping cart.

Zev wielding a baguette with the backpacks in the shopping cart.

Greatest picnic ever. CHEEESE, glorious cheese...

Greatest picnic ever. CHEEESE, glorious cheese…

The rest of the day was spent roaming around Kunming, shipping souvenirs home, shopping (got a new iPhone case!), and snacking on boiled peanuts, a fried chicken sandwich, and an ice cream cone. I don’t know what Zev ate, but I conquered those treats by myself…oink oink indeed.

omnomnom

om nom nom

Shipped some souvenirs home.

Shipped some souvenirs home.

The new iPhone cover!

The new iPhone cover!

Tomorrow morning we fly to Burma/Myanmar. So excited! Gotta get packing.

To market, to market, to get a close shave

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We have less than one week left in China before we fly to Yangon, Myanmar on December 11th. We’re looking forward to seeing a new country and getting a new stamp in our passport, but it will be somewhat sad to leave the Middle Kingdom.

We know enough Mandarin to eek by, the people here are incredibly nice, and of course the food has been a real treat.  Our time here has been wonderful, it really jumpstarted our 14-month adventure in a unique way. China was so completely different than any place we had been before.

Mount Haba in the background

Mount Haba in the background

The past week has been a real whirlwind; last Friday and Saturday we were hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge and this week we’re planning our next country. My thighs are still a little stiff from the ’28 switchbacks’ of Tiger Leaping Gorge but the views were breathtaking and totally worth the effort. I think those two days of dusty walking and scrambling up rocky trails were the highlight of my trip to China. These pictures don’t begin to do it justice.

Beautiful views, slightly scary cliffs.

Beautiful views, slightly scary cliffs.

Love these mountains.

Love these mountains.

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Artsy shot – mountain reflection in Zev’s glasses

After visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge and the nearby town of Lijiang, we headed to Dali. The town of Dali iDSC_0104s an old stopover on the hippie trail, and has the laid-back attitude to prove it. It is situated on beautiful Lake Erhai, a glittering lake with fishermen roaming in long dugout canoes. On a recent minibus tour around Lake Erhai we saw fishermen hauling in their nets using a motor, women paving the roads, and marijuana being processed (apparently it is somewhat legal in this part of the country).

On our first day in Dali we headed to the nearby village of ShaPing to see a weekly market. It was a good mix of produce, random sundries, and local crafts. Zev even got his beard clipped for 5 Yuan (about 80 cents). The barber had set up a chair on the outskirts of the market and trimmed up Zev’s beard with a comb and a pair of electric clippers, which were attached to an extension cord plugged in at a construction site about 40 feet away. The barber cleaned up Zev’s neck with a frightening straight razor. The result was a ‘70s style porn star ‘stache. It should grow out nicely, just like Zev’s Chinese hair cut.

Grinding peppers at the market in ShaPing, near Dali.

Grinding peppers at the market in ShaPing, near Dali.

Maybe the most death-defying moment of out trip thus far

Maybe the most death-defying moment of out trip thus far

After Dali we moved on to Tengchong, our current locale, which is known for its’ hot springs and volcanoes. We soaked in the hot springs and walked up some uninspiring hills. The exercise certainly did us good.

We’re excited for a stopover in Kunming before we fly to Myanmar. As far as preparations for Myanmar are concerned, we are emailing hotels and plan to stock up on some basic supplies such as shampoo, sunscreen, etc. which may not be available due to long standing trade restrictions – which are actually in the process of being rolled back. WiFi could also be somewhat intermittent in Myanmar, so our blog updating may be sporadic.