It had been Achachan’s plan, in the first place, to take a Xmas break in Madras, the present day Chennai. This was in the mid-60s and I remember being so proud of it because none of my classmates had been to the metro city. To top it all, the trip would be by car, a relative luxury in those days. Those trips served to reinforce many values, build extracurricular skills and understand how to plan such out of the ordinary trips. Most importantly, they were opportunities to observe and study from Achachan and Ammachi. Both of them ‘ran their races’ better than they were expected to and left for distant shores in 2006 and 2001 respectively. Today is the tenth anniversary of Achachan being called to HIS side. I join Geetha and Satheesh, my siblings, and our families in specially praying for his soul and keeping him close to our hearts.
During the trip to London I had entered China through Nepal. This time it is different because the Nepal route is still closed since the earthquake in April 2015. Moreover, the political turmoil in Nepal has also lent its hand in choosing an alternative, which is via Myanmar. Thus, Nepal’s loss has been Myanmar’s gain. I decided to retain Silver Hills as the tour agency to organize clearances and detail the Myanmar part of the Trans-Siberian Expedition. They told me that the toughest leg of the four day transit through Myanmar would be Monywa to Lashio. They kept sending me horrendous news reports of blocks, delays and accidents on that route. Finally, I decided to factor in another day in Myanmar, just to cater to the unexpected.
Despite the tough time we had yesterday I was more than apprehensive today. The schedules in China and Russia depended crucially on my getting to the Chinese border on 23 May. The matter weighed so much on my mind that I could not have the heavy breakfast that I normally have. I picked on two pieces of ‘nan’ with boiled channa and an egg. Htoo told me that the distance to Lashio is 400 km and would take about 10 hours without any untoward delays and a decent lunch break. Despite all the butterflies in the stomach, that is what happened. We left at 7 am from Hotel Monywa, which is on the banks of the Chindwin River, a tributary of the Irrawaddy River, and parked the car in front of the New Palace Hotel in Lashio at exactly 5 pm, with a one hour break for lunch.
The route from Monywa bypassed Mandalay, after 115 km. It was a wonderful experience going over the old bridge across the Irrawaddy River in Sagaing. The beautiful jade pagoda, the first in the world, is a masterpiece in Amarapura, the ancient capital city. The place was crowded because of pilgrims that thronged the place of worship on full moon day. Apparently the classic pagoda was a gift from a businessman who donated his entire collection of jade to build it.
Pyin Oo Lwin is almost exactly midpoint between Monywa and Lashio and was reached in slightly over 4 hours. Htoo planned to break at the December restaurant, just beyond the city, for lunch. Pyin Oo Lwin is variously referred to as ‘City of England’, ‘Hill Stair’, May Myo and ‘City of Flowers’. Lunching in the excellent surroundings of the December restaurant I thought that the references were entirely appropriate. At over 3500 feet the city has a climate different from where we had come from. It was cooler and the air smelt fresh and unpolluted. The city is famous for its strawberries and wine. It is said that when ‘Burma’ was a colony of the ‘British Empire’ children born in Pyin Oo Lwin were given birth certificates as if they were born in England! It is not difficult to understand why the place is referred to as ‘City of England’. The restaurant served all types of diners. There were separate restaurants for al a carte and buffet, people could sit inside the restaurant or sit out in the sun. Htoo and I opted for the buffet in the open while Hnin and Pyae went for the al a carte. The buffet was a very large spread and I delighted in tasting almost all the dishes - rice with green tea leaves, rice with soyabean, fried vermicelli, oily pork, sweet and sour chicken and fish, a wide variety of vegetables, four different soups and juices, salads and an array of desserts. I tucked into the fare with gusto despite the fact that the toughest part of the journey, the ghat roads, were ahead of us.
The ghat roads began just after Pyin Oo Lwin. The hairpin bends and sharp curves were challenging. But what made the experience most enjoyable were the condition of the roads and road discipline. Very heavy freight trucks moved on the ghat roads that looped in rings around the mountains. Slight indiscretion or disorderliness will bring traffic to a grinding halt on these roads. More often than not, it is breakdown of trucks that creates problems. During the drive I noticed that the trucks that took the ghat roads were in extremely good condition and most of them were articulated trailers that easily negotiated the hairpin bends and sharp curves. Once the loops were done we took time off at a view point to take pictures of the roads that snaked across the hills.
Another highlight of the drive through the winding ghat roads is the Gok Teik railway bridge that looked so far above the ground that it almost touched the sky. The nearly 700 metre long, 250 metre high viaduct spans two mountains bridges along the route from Mandalay to Lashio. The colonial construction that began in April 1899 and commissioned on New Years day in 1900 is a man made marvel of stupendous proportion.
During the course of the drive we passed through Kyauk Mae, which recently had been in the news for heavy gunfight between rebels and government forces. Apparently, even choppers had been deployed from Mandalay to bomb the hideouts! At one of the toll booths Htoo enquired if all was quiet in the said town. It was and we moved through it without any hitch. Thereafter the drive to Lashio was a breeze. During the course of the past three days we had moved from the Chin state (Kale) to the Shan state (Lashio) through a few divisions of the state. The landscape does change a lot. The red earth of Shan state is a feature that helps it to grow fruits and vegetables in plenty. The Chin state has 45 percent Christian population!
Htoo ordered dinner that consisted of rice, fried vermicelli, two vegetable dishes, fried chicken and dried chilly chicken. The last named was absolutely glorious with the rice and the vermicelli. Before turning in for the night the hotel staff exchanged USD for local currency. And as was usual, the internet connectivity remained far too slow for comfort.