From Bagan we cycled SE on a gentle climb to Mount Popa, an extinct volcano that last erupted 320,000 years ago. Plenty to see en route: the main preoccupations appear to be collecting water from wells, and collecting wood, and mostly by women and children: a shameful existence in our modern age. I even saw women scooping water from a shallow stream, but most people have three wheeled carts that they push along, or use oxen. Again the villagers are friendly, teashops are clean, it seems that they are poor but healthy. Here crushing peanuts.
We met a plucky Polish cyclists, Ewa, I suspect the only other cyclist we will meet, laden with 4 panniers and a tent (please don’t be offended Sharyn but she reminded me of you. Her determination overcomes the weight of her luggage!). Ewa said that she feels safe travelling on her own, but was followed by the secret police for 4 days. There are dozens of hotels here in Kalaw and today she arrived in the one where we were eating lunch.
We stopped at a junction teashop, again a flask of free hot green tea, and coffee, again everyone interested in our bikes, our route. They showed us their betel nut counter and offered us a sample ( the white paste is lime). I was tempted for Charles to numb his niggling toothache! but he opted for a course of Amoxycillin, 75 cents! Look at this guy, cycling with 8 batteries.
The soldiers we saw at the teashop turned out to be part of a training area. Think Salisbury Plain during manoeuvres, only this plain is a dust bowl, and the tank tracks obvious because of their dust trails. Along the roadside soldiers waved cheerily, and there were vehicles on the road, but we didn’t stop to take photos! The army base entrance had a motto translated to English ‘move, shoot, communicate’!! Every road in and out of every town has checkpoints. We ride through but everything above two wheels is checked and recorded (simply paying a hotel bill can take 20mins of paperwork).
Taking breaks in the hot afternoon is essential. There are occasional 30m shady trees like the red flowered Amherstia Tree. We sat on a log and discovered it was part of a fossilised tree – would love to take that home!! There is a 737m volcanic plug which is actually the vent of Mount Popa, of course with a temple on top, and (for luck) 777 steps to climb. Whoopie! Just what I needed after a bike climb! It is called Taung Kalat ( pedestal hill) revered nationally so it was busy with people and Macaque monkeys pestering for food and peeing on the steps ( we are barefoot in temples, and yes I did)
The volcanic soils are fertile and there are 200+ springs and streams, so we enjoyed a greener landscape for a while, though noisy: volcanic igneous rocks were being crushed all along our route to make road chippings. Geography still matters here, making you who you are.
Our hotel was expensive and awful, least said the better. But we met an English speaking tour guide who was warm, funny, clever and interesting. He never used the words corruption, or bribe, but would pat his chest and say ‘and he takes his pocket money’. And everyone does!! So there are Chinese buying citizenship in the north so they can own property, and HEP schemes that send 95% power to China. Tourism is not a high priority here as most wealth comes from the mines.
Mount Popa to Meiktila is 120km of hilly dusty cycling, so we were glad to arrive at this military town ( above). Meiktila is notorious for the massacre of 32 Muslims in a boarding school in March last year. (And the defeat of the Japanese, 1948). Apparently it began when a Buddhist monk was insulted in a gold shop, and then another was pulled from his bike and burned. He survived, but the retaliations were severe. The school students and staff were attacked with machetes and some burned alive while the police did nothing. After 3 days the military took control and evacuated the Muslims, though it is suspected that the military were initially complicit with the police. This sparked attacks in many other towns. Meiktila is a major Air Force base so there were many military buildings and barbed wire with lookout towers, but generally it looked much like any other working town, and the residents were kind and friendly. One mosque was a burned shell but another modern and splendid. A conundrum.
With no desire to stay in Meiktila, and to avoid another 120km day ( including an ascent of over 1000m) we climbed onto an open bus/truck, bikes piled high on top to Kalaw. Probably never again! The bus ( here cooling brakes) was crammed with passengers, their babies, children, luggage, and sacks of onions, chillies, peanuts, cotton. Despite Charles’ best efforts our bikes were knocked about without care. In the same way that drivers sit on their horns as they pass, or passengers nonchantly toss litter or plastic bags of betel spit onto the road, it is not a deliberate harm, but sheer thoughtlessness. The simplicity of rural life here is also an ignorant life, responding to immediate needs of food, shelter, water and fuel without any thought for the environment. We have lost count of the lorries transporting huge trunks of hardwood. It’s upsetting to see. And I wonder if the same ignorance can explain Meiktila. Ignorance has no empathy, so people do not understand or tolerate other faiths. This leads to prejudice, then acting on those thoughts, racism. Or are there simply too many people frustrated in poverty with not enough to do?
Too morbid! The bus ride improved, I enjoyed it, friendly passengers ( won’t say that if I contract TB) Saw a young child struggling to carry the skinned bloody carcass of a goat! Also striking mountains- can’t wait to descend!!
Kalaw is delightful: it is 1320m high, nestled in the mountains with piercing clear air and blue skies. We spent 3 hours lunching on the terrace of the colonial Kalaw Hotel, from the book you bought for us Jan ‘ The Art of Hearing Heartbeats ‘ by J Sendker. I read that tea leaf salad itself was worth the plane ticket. Last night I had to agree, just wonderful! Fermented tea leaf, salted nuts and beans, mmmm.