Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The long (long) walk

Our half-day hike was only a warmup for the main event: a three-day trek from Hsipaw to Namhsan, up in the mountains of the Shan Plateau. We were told the first day would be the toughest, and that was no lie!

The path was quite good -- a lumber road bulldozed by the Chinese to get timber out of the hills faster. It rose at a comfortable rate and rarely turned downward, so you didn't lose any of your hard-earned elevation.We hiked through agricultural land for a good couple of hours before we started to see any untouched forest. The landscapes could have been from 200 years ago ...

and so could the farming implements. 

You can sort of see our guide in the back. He was a chatty guy with a wry sense of humor; he kept joking that we were lost, and honestly, I'm still not sure that we weren't sometimes. He was also a heavy drinker who clearly had a hard time going long without alcohol, which would be a problem for him when we had to stay at a monastery later on.

After about four hours we stopped at a little roadside place for a bowl of Shan noodles, the signature Shan hilltribe dish. In Yangon, Mandalay and even Hsipaw you can find many a bowl of limp, packaged Shan noodles with instant broth. But this was the real thing: chewy, substatial handmade noodles like the ones we'd seen drying the day before, in a real chicken soup with fresh herbs. On the side were tasty chili sauce and some pungent pickled mustard greens.

You coudln't ask for better hiking food ... or food in general, really.

After lunch the road got steeper for quite a while. We were so spoiled for amazing mountain views that I hardly bothered to take photos of them. As I grew tired, my mind wandered in random directions and I spent long stretches trying to remember lyrics to long-lost tunes like "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar."

I was pretty excited to get to the village before nightfall. We'd been hiking since 8 a.m., and in our guide's estimation, had covered more than 20k (13 miles).

We stayed at a typical village house, a big wooden structure with one large room and a couple of small side rooms. In the middle of the big room was a fire on a metal grate -- the most wonderful fire I've ever seen, because I could throw off my pack, sit right down in front of it and enjoy the sensation of doing absolutely nothing.. The owner of the house then put on the most wonderful kettle I've ever seen. Since it was a tea-growing village, he grabbed a handful of fresh tea leaves, roasted them quickly over the flames on a dry pan, and brewed them up strong and smoky like Lapsang Souchong. Normally I don't drink caffeine that late but this time I had no worries. Even though we bedded down right on the floor on thin mats, I slept like the dead -- or at least the dead-tired.

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