Saturday, September 12, 2015

A journey through wild Chinland

The below is a guest post by my husband who recently returned from a perilous journey to Chin State. I asked him to write his impressions as everything was still vivid in his mind, because what he told me of his trip was remarkable and worth publishing.

"Planned several months ago, way before the heavy monsoon rains had caused massive landslides, mudslides, floods and other misery to one of the least visited and most pristine regions of Myanmar, we could not have foreseen that our short journey through Chin would offer us such a spectacle.
As Chin State has no airport, we landed at Kale (or Kalaymyo) in Sagaing, at the gates of Chinland, situated on a flat plain at the foot of the high Chin mountains. From there we took two sturdy 4x4's and headed into the mountains. Our end-destination was Hakka, the capital of Chin State (around 40-50.000 inhabitants) with a stopover in Falam, another important city of Chin State (around 15-20.000 inhabitants). 

Chinland is wild and inaccessible. In fact there is just one single road from Kale towards Hakka, which passes through Falam. The road is more often than not a dangerous dirt-track dangling at a perilous elevation of 2500-3000 metres above sea level. This brings with it breathtaking sights of deep green valleys and mountain tops shrouded in mysterious milky white clouds that dissipate as fast as they envelop you and the entire mountain around you.

Very often we were driving in the actual clouds, a mix of incoming fog and mist, assorted with a light drizzle for company in this eerie landscape. We also experienced the occasional monsoonal downpour. There was beauty in this desolation.

The roads were dangerous. Very recent mudslides had been cleared by bulldozer, creating mounds of rubble on each side of the road, making it only possible for one vehicle to pass at a time. In some cases a new improvised road had been cleared atop the mudslides, further up the steep angle of the mountain as the road below had become utterly unusable, being buried under dozens of meters of overturned earth and rock.

Wild torrents descending from the mountain tops that were soaked in rain, would flow over the narrow road, more of a dirt-path in reality, creating the dangerous illusion that the 4x4 would be swept away in the abyss below by the sheer force of these wild streams. The 4x4's were using all the traction they could muster on the cambers and steep slopes, gravel mounds, big rocks, knee-deep mud and the occasional cracks that had opened up in the earth. Some of the bridges we crossed were made of wood, iron, brick or simply held together by some spell and looked as if they could collapse at any given time. As soon as we had gone over one everyone sighed with relief, until the next one appeared up ahead.

Oncoming traffic was careless and dangerous, seemingly oblivious to these bleak conditions and not so much concerned by the possibility of hitting an unassuming vehicle, which nearly happened. Luckily the oncoming truck, with virtually no brakes, was stopped by a pile of gravel at the side of the road, which was the only thing that separated the nervous smile of the truck's young driver from a plunge into the deep green valley below. However, most traffic consisted of motorcycles which were heavily loaded with all sorts of goods and sometimes 2-3 passengers at a time. 

And then there's the people. Their small wooden houses built on stilts in little villages of a few houses at a time, lining this only road through Chin. The stilts were firmly implanted into the steep slope below, but still vulnerable to the haphazard landslides. Children and their mothers were hiding from the rain in their houses' porch. Small and thin. Tough and friendly at the same time. Always ready to smile and help. 

A religious folk. Crosses abound by the side of the road and at the entrance of the small, elongated villages. Churches built of wood or of brick, gray as the overcast sky or bright as the multi-colour flowers in front of their houses.

When we had to leave our 4x4's behind and continue on foot through a recent and swampy mudslide, in the dead of night, in an unknown country, we came across a local villager with his pick-up truck after a kilometre or so. He offered to take us 2-3 remaining kilometers to Falam. Most of us climbed in the back of the pick-up. He showed me the passenger seat. Out of a sense of solidarity for my fellow-travellers I declined pointing at my dirty and muddy boots and trousers which had just had their first serious brush with Chin mud. He shrugged and said "this is Chinland, welcome!". I eventually took up the offer and climbed into the passenger seat. 

A resilient folk. Chin State is the poorest and one of the most remote regions in Myanmar. Despite this its inhabitants are tough, resilient and hard-working receiving little in return from this inhospitable land. Since flat land is scarce, most Chin have carved out a small plot of land under their stilt houses in the mountains' slopes below on which they grow corn and other vegetables. They hold chicken, whilst cows and horses seem to roam these wild lands. Occasionally pigs could be seen in their steep backyards. The food was surprisingly good all throughout this trip and there were no episodes of the delhi-belly, or more accurately "chin-belly". And being a religious folk, the Chin also produce an interesting tasting, thick and sweet wine, which is rather potent, which I know for having tasted it. It comes in recycled bottles of Myanmar or Dagon beer and is also held in big yellow canisters usually employed for transporting petrol.

Their capital Hakka is seemingly built on top of the world, on gentle mountain ridges with clouds reaching only further below creating this surreal impression. The city with its colourful houses with corrugated iron roofs has a frontier feel to it. Streets are lined with 4x4's, pick-up trucks and tough-looking weathered people are scurrying along in the rain. 

Many shops selling all sorts of survival kits, from shovels, to ropes, rain-coats, solar lamps, machetes, etc. Parts of the city are still freshly scarred by the massive landslides which only a few weeks ago killed several dozen and displaced several thousand people many of whom live in temporary shelters in camps spread around the city. 

For the tourist there are also a few fabric shops selling the traditional longyis and other hand-woven beautiful and multi-colour shawls, scarves, tablecloths, and fabric for clothes. Prices are absolutely below any sense of reality considering that these items are painstakingly hand-woven on big wooden looms for weeks at a time. Colours and patterns range from the more modern bright and intricate, to the more traditional darker and angular ones, with everything in-between. You will be hard-pressed not to like them and will be tempted to return several times and buy more of them until you run out of space in your luggage, or out of cash.

Will I return? I surely hope so. Most tourists will probably never visit Chin during the rainy season as it is simply too dangerous. I'm very happy that I did but I would only return during the dry season, when this wild land is tamed somewhat. But I have been very lucky to witness this region and its strong people at its rawest, during a treacherous monsoon, and I can only be filled with respect for them. To use a commonly-used Chin greeting which I want to address to all Chin people to thank them: "God bless"." 

Thank you for such an amazing story and for sharing this unique experience!

1 comment:

  1. Did you go with a guided your or by yourself? How difficult is it to travel there without a guide?