The sound of rain on the roof accompanies a cacophony of snores coming from the dozen or so men around me on the floor of this monastery. I snuggle further into my sleeping bag, mummified to the extent that only my nose peeks out, uncovered. I’m still cold, but it’s a nice kind of cold. Despite the temperature, the hardness of the floor and the symphony of unsynchronised apnoea, I’m tired enough to know that nothing will prevent me from relishing the fatigued sleep of someone who has completed a decent day’s walking.
Early this morning we set off under clear, blue skies on our two-day trek from the small town of Pindaya. Our group, a gaggle of foreign trekkers of varying ages and levels of fitness and a small army of enthusiastic local guides, dutifully follow the energetic and enigmatic U Doh Soe Min (or Mr Doh as he is better known) like children being led by the Pied Piper. He’s excited and sets off at a cracking pace, proud to show us the twenty new trails in the region that he has spent months mapping. I struggle to keep up as he describes the variety of routes he’s been developing. The trail we are on is not one of the more technically different routes, but I discover that it is far from being an easy half-day stroll.
Within the first half-hour my knees begin to complain. It occurs to me that I don’t do that much walking anymore, not proper walking. I might potter around a market or take the dog for an evening stroll, but in my hectic life of meetings, schedules and sedentary work, I rarely have time to walk and I certainly never go walking for the sake of it.
If you are inclined to enjoy the luxury of stretching the old legs once in a while, then you are fortunate that Myanmar is blessed with a plethora of pathways, and trekking fans have long flocked to the Shan hills to ply the tracks and trails from and around Kalaw and Hsipaw. These well-established tourist routes have consistently provided great pleasure to hikers from all over the world. They offer a splendid stroll, if a not particularly challenging one. However, these trekking routes are in danger of becoming spoiled by their own success; in the height of the tourist season the Kalaw-to-Inle Lake trail often becomes a long queue of people wearing drip dry clothing or ethically-made ethnic leisurewear – a well-organised, well-equipped, slow-moving odyssey.
The Danu Self-administered Zone in Shan State is between Inle Lake and Mandalay, and comprises the townships of Ywangan andPindaya (site of the famous ShweOo Min caves, and a place where tourists often stop off as they travel through the area on their way to or from NyaungShwe or Kalaw). The trek I am on is one of the new trails developed by the Danu Literature, Culture and Development Association with support from the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development. It is hoped these new trails will encourage more people to visit the area for more than a day.
We wind our way uphill on a dirt road for an hour, before Mr Doh darts into the trees without warning. Following him through the gap we find ourselves at the bottom of a steep staircase that disappears into the thickets high above; it appears that our ascent starts here, that last bit was clearly just a warm up. We stumble our way up the uneven, red clay steps and because I am concentrating on keeping my footing, I am unable properly take in my surroundings. Although the steady narrative of entomological and botanical facts from the guides keeps me up to date on what I am missing, my focus remains firmly fixed on the ground. Leaves are plucked and their uses explained, wild fruits gathered and distributed. The guides are keeping themselves busy and are keen to impress. They even collect litter along the way.
As we reach the top of the steps, a light drizzle begins. The snippets of information and chatter dry up. Silently we each find our own pace, a comfortable speed through which we can settle into our reveries. Our group stretches out along the trail, each person with a little space to call their own, a place to be comfortable. As the compacted red soil of the path begins to shine, slicked wet with the fine rain, our shoes start to slip and we are forced to slow down. Unable to remove my eyes from the path for fear of foolishly falling, I occasionally pause to catch my breath, marvel at the scenery around me and snap a photo or step aside to allow elderly, slipper-wearing village women to overtake me like wiry mountain goats.
We skirt the edges of tea plantations, the smiles of waving tea pickers greeting us. We occasionally venture into the fields or work our way around large rock formations precariously close to the edge. Our journey follows a path stomped into the landscape over the centuries by countless pairs of feet. Occasionally through the trees I catch glimpses of the valley far below and the mountains high above. Then the path veers back through the lush green curtain of foliage, its dark tunnels hiding one another from those in front and behind.
Sheltering from the rain at a tea factory, I watch women fastidiously sorting the leaves through a giant mechanical sieve. They barely acknowledge my presence. The harsh flash of my camera momentarily freezes their labour into a frame, but it doesn’t do justice to the effort involved in the process. I feel awkward at the intrusion and wonder how I would react if a stranger appeared in my office and took a few snaps of me sitting at my computer.
At another village further up into the hills we are treated to a lunchtime feast – as we are at every meal – and devour our curries and rice in silent enthusiasm. Replete, we stretch and rub our calves, sip hot, bitter tea from delicate porcelain bowls, and gaze into the hills as women pick tea just below the cloud line. We encounter few men in the tea plantations; many of them are away working in mines. “Good money, but dangerous work,” one of the women said.
After several hours of steady uphill walking, we reach the clouds at a plateau and sprawl on the wet grass to catch our breath, the bells around the necks of nearby beasts playing a soothing and mysterious overture. Before we can get too comfortable, Mr Doh drives us onwards. “Not far to go,” he promises. We follow him, splashing through shallow streams, squelching across muddy fords. I am already wet and dirty so I don’t care. In fact, the change in texture of the ground feels wonderful on my tired feet. The word “leeches” is whispered back along the line and I instantly search my uncovered legs for unwanted passengers, racking my memory to remember what is was you were supposed to do if you found one. Do you use salt, or is that slugs?
Thankfully, I am leech free. We drop back below the clouds and arrive at our night stop, Yasagyi. Inquisitive children shyly welcome the foreign visitors and we respectfully and gratefully remove our boots at a monastery before being granted an audience with the abbot. This involves more warming green tea. The clouds seem to have followed us and the dramatic scenery of waterfalls and mountains quickly disappears as the weak light from the sun is filtered through the fog. A sepia tinge is cast upon our mountain refuge, turning it into an old faded photograph.
Eventually the sun gives up, leaving an eerie darkness that descends as swiftly as the temperature. We make ourselves comfortable on the floor of a candle-lit hut, the air warmed by steaming bowls of rice and curry. After emptying them, we retire to our sleeping mats.
The next morning, suitably fed and watered, I stretch my stiff muscles and make the necessary sound effects one must during such an activity. The sun takes the chill out of my bones and I feel ready for action. The guides are crafting rudimentary walking poles from stout lengths of bamboo, their tips sharpened at one end. This is a strong indication that the second day’s walking will be tough. Nobody refuses the offered assistance, even those like myself who would normally shun such things as an unnecessary accessory. They turn out to be essential.
When the first of our party slips onto their backside I stifle a laugh. When the second person hits the dirt, some of us might have tittered under our breath. But as the members of our party were picked off one by one as if by a hidden sniper, we each knew that it was only a matter of time before it would be our turn to join the muddy red bottom of shame club on this steep and slippery downhill walk. I was the fourth to join the club, and also the eighth and eleventh, if you are counting.
We survive the descent of the mountain intact, and in good spirits compare our wet-bottom trophies before finishing our walk to the blue lake (which as the name suggests is blue. Perhaps ‘lake’ is an exaggeration, as it is more of a pool. But is most definitely blue). What a marvellous place to finish. The lake is that exact shade of blue that it absolutely shouldn’t be; a blue that only appears in computer-edited travel brochures of idyllic beaches or in wickedly dangerous cocktails. It is a shade that no one can describe with any justice, a water so clear you could watch streams of bubbles chasing each other to the surface as they passed through a criss-cross frame of submerged skeleton trees.
We couldn’t get too close the lake, because of a tatty barbed-wire fence that kept us mere mortals out of the water. This is a sacred lake and a home to spirits, but it was a stunningly special and peaceful place to visit and a truly magical spot to end our trip.
Tired, dirty and happy we return to Pindaya by minibus. Long, hot showers and ice-cold beers help us reflect on our adventure. Discussing our trip, we all agreed that trekking in the Danu Self-administered Zone is an exceptional and exciting addition to the trekking options in Myanmar, and one we would all recommend.
Story by: Cliff Lonsdale