This stretch was done in two days when I travelled the first leg of the expedition from India. Doing it in a day would be a challenge, I knew, for the roads wound through mountains and were under repair in many places. To top it all, major part of the nearly 500 km is a single carriageway passing through villages and busy little cities. Monywa is about 150 km from Mandalay. From Monywa there are two routes to Kalay. The shorter one is 175 km and the longer route is 320 km. Thein insisted that we should take the longer route because the shorter route is frequented by heavy trucks that have churned up the mud road and made it unsuitable for movement of cars. Huge, spikey rocks damage the tyres, too. So, it was to be a long, slower drive of about 500 km this day.
As suggested by Thein, Myint Sang, Aye and I were ready to leave Mandalay Hotel by 5 am. Thein had stayed overnight in another hotel and could turn up only at a half past since taxis were scarce early in the morning. The early morning traffic and procession of monks had begun by the time we reached the Ayeyarawady River. I stopped there for a while to take in the sunrise, the river bed and the bridges across the river. While the New Ava Bridge was commissioned in 2008 the old bridge, Ava Bridge, was built by the British in 1934, which suffered extensive damage in aerial bombings of WWII. The third bridge is the rail cum road bridge. The bridges span Mandalay on one side and Sagaing Hill on the other. Sagaing Hill is dotted with pagodas and gompas. Almost half the monk population of Myanmar is resident in Mandalay and Sagaing Hill.
The Mandalay Hotel has an excellent breakfast spread. Foregoing that for an early start was a tough gastronomic decision. However, the stomach gave way to the heart; the hotel gave us packs that contained emaciated sandwiches, a heavier than shotput egg and a plantain that tasted nothing like a plantain. I shared that with Thein on the way, while Myint Sang and Aye feasted on their packs in the car. As we neared Monywa the bikes on the roads became chaotic and there was a lot of random behaviour by youngsters. I was told that that city has the dubious distinction of having the maximum number of road accidents! I was asked to be extra careful driving through the city and I was. We stopped at a tea house in Monywa for breakfast. The small shop that doubled up as residence also served excellent dal, vada and bajji apart from the traditional bread, ijakwey. I tucked into the bread with dal and lost count of the number of crispy vadas I had.
Myanmar is opening up gradually to tourism. However, it remains challenged as far as infrastructure is concerned. It has the most basic requirement of service oriented people, but the physical infrastructure has to see huge quality inputs. It was heartening to see new bridges being built and roads being laid. However, if modern construction methods were deployed quality and speed could also be ensured. With proper infrastructure new areas could open up to showcase the historical and cultural Burma of yore.
Chinese investments in mining and tree felling have resulted in clashes and confrontation with local people. I passed by one such location on the way to Kalay, where hills were being razed and defaced for copper mining. Huge hills have been turned into mud heaps with trees wantonly felled and environment violated with gay abandon. The Letpadaung agitation, against copper mining, had been a watershed in the protest against Chinese aggrandizement. But, over the years, the agitation has watered down. It is alleged that the Myanmar ruling party and Chinese government have struck unholy alliances disregarding the rights of the local people and their livelihood.
Some days and on some stretches the drive seems endless. The destination seems further away as you near it! The drive to Kalay was one such. The more I drove the more was the distance left to be covered, I felt. One of the features in Myanmar is the absence of sign posts or distance indicators. Therefore, without a guide it could be quite a task getting through, especially because of the many diversions and temporary detours. Even navigational aids could go wonky under the circumstances.
After entering the city of Kalay I tanked up at a fuel station. Between Mandalay and Kalay the price of fuel had gone up by over 100 kyats per litre for premium diesel. I was informed a few days back that fuel stations in Manipur may be dry. Therefore, I was keen to tank up wherever possible. In Myanmar micro retail selling of fuel is common. All along the many routes plastic bottles and cans of fuel were available. With increase in vehicle population in the country fuel stations are seen as lucrative investment. I saw numerous new facilities coming up on the entire stretch from Myawaddy to Kalay.
Nearing 5 pm I finally reached the Taung Za Lat Hotel. I was not physically tired because I had taken a short nap when the others had lunch. But, I was mentally drained. At the hotel I rearranged luggage in the car and got clothes and other equipment ready to re-enter India for the final week of the expedition. Pants, t-shirts, socks, hankies, underclothes and nightwear for the next eight days were settled into the overnighter and soiled clothes and stuff that would no longer be required were packed up for their haul to destination. The final border crossing would be tomorrow at Tamu on the Myanmar side and Moreh on the Indian side.