Late for Nowhere

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Archive for July 2014

Much ado about the ancient Pyu

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The road to Hanlin.

In June, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced that Myanmar’s ancient Pyu cities of Thayekhittaya (Sri Ksetra), Beikthano and Hanlin had been added to its World Heritage list. They are the first sites in the country to earn this designation. Following is an account of a visit I made to Hanlin before the UNESCO announcement was made.

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to get stuck in the mud.

Our pickup truck was bogged to the axles on an unpaved road somewhere in Sagaing Region, and we were going nowhere fast – but at least the sky was blue, the air cool, and the landscape of expansive rice paddies stunning in its emerald beauty.

It helped that our driver Thet Naing – who was also the owner of the floundering truck – maintained a cheerful disposition throughout our plight. He seemed oddly unperturbed about the prospect of being stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours or even days, laughing and shouting “Adventure travel!” as he gunned the engine and sent mud flying from beneath the spinning tires. Meanwhile, I struggled to push the vehicle from behind. Zero progress was being made.


Stuck in the mud.

How had we driven ourselves into this mess? Getting stuck was the price we paid for our monsoon-season visit to Hanlin, the site of an ancient Pyu city that flourished between the 4th and 9th centuries AD.

Thet Naing, my wife Pauksi and I had left Mandalay early that morning with the aim of spending the night in Shwebo 115 kilometers (70 miles) north. Hanlin was on the way, requiring a detour of only 15km off the paved highway, so we decided it would be worth a quick visit. We reached the turnoff to Hanlin after about three hours of driving. With locals assuring us that the unpaved road to the old city was “very good” despite recent rain, we proceeded without worry, bouncing our way through flat farmland.


Ethnic Bamar farm workers along the road the Hanlin.

As we neared our destination, the irrigated rice fields gave way to dry scrubland, an area once described by archaeologist Aung Thaw as an “almost barren and desolated” landscape that could have inspired a series of apocalyptic legends about the destruction of Hanlin.

In his 1972 book Historical Sites in Burma, Aung Thaw recounted one of these stories, which said Hanlin was founded thousands of years ago by a prince whose unspecified “misdeed” resulted in “a rain of ash and molten matter pour[ing] down heavily and bury[ing] the city completely”.

We heard a different account of the kingdom’s demise from Ma Khine, the guide who showed us around the ancient city. We met her at Shwegugyi Pagoda, our first stop when we reached Hanlin. According to Ma Khine’s version, Hanlin was destroyed by a rain of hot sand from the sky, after the king murdered his gentle brother with a dagger. The brother had refused the king’s order to demonstrate his ability to make gems fall from the sky for visiting Chinese diplomats.

While most of the city’s inhabitants died in the sandstorm, the gentle brother’s son escaped the destruction. Years later he returned to rebuild the city, and – as a devout Buddhist – his first project was to construct Shwegugyi Pagoda.


Old pagodas at Hanlin.

Shwegugyi is now surrounded by farmland dotted with dozens of ancient brick stupas. To the north lies the site of ancient Hanlin, while just south is Halingyi, a village of about 1,500 households famous for its natural saline hot springs.


Checking the temperature at Halingyi’s hot springs.


A villager gathers water from one of the hot springs.

Legends notwithstanding, archaeologists have determined that the area has been settled since at least the Bronze Age more than 4000 years ago, long before Hanlin was established by the Pyu sometime around the 3rd century AD.

Evidence of these early settlers is showcased at an excavation museum adjacent to Shwegugyi. The displays are arranged in tiers, with human remains and pottery exhibited at the subterranean level at which they were uncovered by archaeologists.


Excavation museum near Shwegugyi Pagoda.


Ancient human remains uncovered by archaeologists.

The site was one of two areas near Shwegugyi Pagoda excavated in 2005, uncovering fossilized human bones, earthen pots, bronze utensils, stone and iron weapons, and stone beads buried between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, according to a story published in the New Light of Myanmar at the time.

Most of the Bronze Age finds in the area have come from the salt fields south of Hanlin’s Pyu-era walls – including the area around Shwegugyi – with archaeologists such as Bob Hudson, an honorary associate at the University of Sydney, speculating that the occupation of the area in this “Late Prehistoric” period may have been related to the exploitation of local salt resources.

Hanlin itself did not appear until around the 2nd to 4th centuries, an era when “large walled central places” were established in the central Myanmar plains. These settlements – which also included Beikthano and Thayekhittaya – constituted the main centers of Pyu civilisation, described by Hudson in a 2005 research paper as “a system of largely autonomous walled sites with a shared culture”.

Segments of these ancient walls are still visible around Hanlin, and after we toured the museum we drove out to see the remains of the southeast gate of the ruined city, reduced over centuries to a low brick wall on the edge of an otherwise anonymous tract of farmland.


Remnants of one of Hanlin’s 12 gateways.

The presence of the city walls, encompassing a settlement 2 miles (3.2km) long and 1 mile (1.6km) wide, was discovered during excavations from 1962 to 1967. The city was determined to have had 12 gateways, of which three were exposed in the course of these digs.

Over the years farmers from Halingyi have also uncovered numerous ancient Pyu objects and ornaments made of gold, silver and bronze. According to Aung Thaw, many of these artifacts were melted down by farmers for their metal and thus lost forever, but some have survived and are on display at a modest museum in Halingyi village.


Pyu artifacts housed at a small museum in Halingyi village.

The collection, housed in a dark room on the grounds of a monastery, is small but fascinating. It includes Pyu coins, rings, bracelets, pottery and a few human skulls – the meager remnants of huge, pre-Bagan city about which little is known.

Legends of supernatural destruction aside, one of the biggest mysteries about Hanlin is why the city was abandoned. According to one popular theory, invaders from Yunnan enslaved or drove off most of the Pyu in the 10th century.

“It is noticeable that most of the structures where wood was used were destroyed by fire,” Aung Thaw wrote in Historical Sites in Burma. “The wooden gates at the entrances to the city were also burnt. Probably a great conflagration either by enemy action or by local accident had razed the city once and for all.”


An old monastery near Halingyi.

Other signs pointed to military action: “Of particular interest among the iron objects found outside the gateways are scores of caltrops with four spikes, any point of which inevitably protrudes upward when thrown on the ground. These were used to impede the hostile infantry or cavalry advancing towards the city.”

In whatever manner Hanlin came to an end, Hudson observed that the Pyu people continued to be mentioned in local histories until at least the 13th century, an indication that many of them survived whatever calamity destroyed their cities.

“Drift of people who had once identified as Pyu to new or more amorphous ethnic or other social identities may have been a matter of adaptation to new circumstances and new leaders,” he wrote, the new “circumstances” presumably being the establishment of Bamar culture in central Myanmar – and the subsequent rise of Bagan – after the 9th century.


Exploring Hanlin requires a bit of cross-country walking.


When our tour of Hanlin was over, Ma Khine pointed us toward an unpaved road that she assured us was in “good” condition and that would lead us north to the Shwebo-Kyauk Myaung highway. We followed her advice, and thus the real adventure began.

It wasn’t long before we started encountering stretches of mud that threatened to bog us down. Indeed, after about 10km of madcap rally driving by Than Naing, our truck succumbed to the sludge and ground to a sloppy stop.

After numerous attempts to free ourselves using our own limited resources – uselessly spinning tires and flabby muscles – we were rescued by a farmer who utilized an ingeniously traditional method: tying his bullock cart to the front fender of the truck and whipping the bejesus out of his two bulls until they pulled us out of the bog.


Rescued by a bullock cart.

Soon we were back in the pickup and speeding through the cool countryside, the endless waves of paddy tinted amber by the waning sun, the sky deep blue with the approach of twilight. Than Naing whooped with joy when he finally spotted pavement ahead. “Full action!” he shouted as he gunned the engine over the last bit of treacherous road before we touched down on blacktop.


Unstuck and back on the move.


Pavement at last.

We reached Shwebo around nightfall, all of us bruised, blistered and exhausted from pushing the truck through mud. But we were also exhilarated at having survived our own small calamity, which future chroniclers will surely add to the disastrous legend of Hanlin.

Written by latefornowhere

July 22, 2014 at 4:23 am

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized

A ghost town and a killer ranch

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During my recent visit to the US, one of the last stops on my way back to Los Angeles (and my flight back to Yangon) was the ghost town of Ballarat.


Located west of Death Valley, the town was active from 1897 to 1917 as a supply base for mining camps in the surrounding mountains. It’s now home to a collection of decaying buildings and rusting cars, as well as an eerily dusty “general store” that, upon my arrival, appeared to be open but was unstaffed.

Goler.05 Goler.03 Goler.04

I spent about 30 minutes walking around the town and taking photos, then started driving south on a dirt road between a mountain range to the east and bone-white salt flats to the west.


Salt flats south of Ballarat.

I drove for nearly 20 kilometers (16 miles), the road conditions deteriorating until I started worrying that I might get stuck in one of the sandy sections, which seemed to be increasing in length, depth and frequency as I drove. To avoid getting bogged down, I gunned the engine and flew across each of these sand traps like a rally driver.

I parked the car when I reached the turnoff to Goler Wash. This name will be familiar to anyone who knows the story of Charles Manson and his so-called “family” – Goler is the site of Barker Ranch, where Manson and a number of his followers were arrested in October 1969, about two months after they carried out the infamous Tate/La Bianca murders in Los Angeles.

My plan was to ride my mountain bike up the wash, take a peek at Barker Ranch, and then see how much farther I could go as the road entered Death Valley proper.


The entrance to Goler Wash.

My research had indicated that conditions in Goler Wash were highly variable, depending on the amount and the nature of precipitation in the preceding days, weeks and months: Sometimes it was easily negotiable, sometimes impassable, but usually somewhere in between.

I had found no references on the internet to mountain biking Goler, and I soon found out why: The dual presence of deep sand and sharp rocks meant there was a constant danger of losing control, falling over and cracking my face on any number of unforgiving surfaces.

Since I was riding alone, and hadn’t seen anyone for about two hours, I imagined that such an accident would end with me lying on my back under the blazing desert sun, incapacitated and bleeding as I watched the vultures making their slow, lazy descent to feast upon my eyeballs and intestines.

Inspired by this grisly image, after about a mile of exhausting and nerve-wracking riding, I turned around and returned to the car, loaded the bike, and headed toward more civilized territories – more specifically, a place where I could get a good burrito for lunch.


Back to “civilization”: A campaign poster in the spooky desert town of Trona, California.

Written by latefornowhere

July 18, 2014 at 4:53 am

A view of the Lower 48’s highest and lowest points

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It had been on my list of must-do hikes for years: Telescope Peak, which at 11,043 feet (3,366 meters) is the highest point in Death Valley National Park.

Located in the Panamint Mountain Range on the west side of the park, Telescope Peak is famous for offering hikers the chance to view the lowest point in the United States (Badwater Basin at 282 feet, or 86 meters, below sea level) to the east, and then, without taking a single step, pivot about 180 degrees and admire the highest point in the Lower 48 states (Mount Whitney at 14,505ft or 4,421m) to the west.

Hiking Telescope Peak via the “easy”, nontechnical route involves a 14-mile (23km) round-trip hike, starting at the remote Mahogany Flat Campground (8,133ft/2,465m). The trail clings to talus slopes, and crosses mountains and meadows where single-leaf pinyon, limber pine and, at the highest elevations, Great Basin bristlecone pines grow. The grade is steep for the last mile or so, and the thin air adds to the difficulty, but the panoramic view at the top is well worth the effort.

My solo hike took me about 5.5 hours, during which I saw only two other hikers. Photos from the hike are posted below.


My favorite street sign: Entering remote areas of Death Valley.





After a couple hours of hiking, Telescope Peak still looks far away.


The last few meters to the peak.


View from the top.


Retro-selfie (auto-timer) at the highest point in Death Valley NP.

Written by latefornowhere

July 15, 2014 at 5:25 am

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized

Mountain biking Carson City

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During my occasional trips back to the United States, I always spend a week or so in Carson City, Nevada, visiting my sister, her husband, and my two nephews. My recent visit was no exception.

On the day I drove to Carson City from Joshua Tree National Park, the weather looked ominous: Rain was falling in the lower elevations, and snow swirled around the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada.


Carson City sits at the base of the mountain range – at an altitude of 4,802 feet (1,463 meters) above sea level – so there was more rain than snow, but the air was still colder than I expected. Thankfully, the weather mellowed on the following day and stayed decent for the rest of my stay, with clear skies and low-elevation temperatures that were brisk but not too frigid: perfect conditions for cycling.

This is how I usually spend the daylight hours when visiting my sister: While her family is occupied with work and school, I go hiking or mountain biking on one of the hundreds of trails in the Carson City/Lake Tahoe area. Then we all reconvene in the late afternoon and evening for family time.

With the weather too cold for my liking in the high mountains, this time I stuck with trails in the immediate vicinity of the city. There’s plenty to choose from, and two of my favorites for mountain biking were Clear Creek Trail and Ash Canyon.


Clear Creek Trail, which just opened in April of this year, is 10.5 miles (17km) one way, making for a 21-mile (34km) return trip. Almost entirely single-track, it’s mostly uphill on the way out, but the grade is gentle and never too difficult. The elevation doesn’t pose too much of a problem either: The trail starts at 4,950ft (1,500m) with a high point of 6,200ft (1,879m). Added neat-o factor: My sister’s eldest son, 12 years old and an active Boy Scout, participated in the building of the trail.



Ash Canyon contains a network of winding and swooping single-track trails and jeep roads, flat near the parking lot but with a number of opportunities to climb up into the mountains. Like Clear Creek Trail, the lower elevations are characterized by sagebrush steppe terrain, giving way to pine forests and aspen groves at greater heights.


Signs are posted to remind trail users that Carson City is located in mountain lion and rattlesnake country, but all I saw during my days of riding were a few American desert hares and one nonpoisonous gopher snake slowly making its way across a trail in Ash Canyon.


Written by latefornowhere

July 14, 2014 at 3:00 am

Brief book review: “The Rules” by Velominati

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The Rules 3

This book is squarely aimed at cyclists, and more specifically road cyclists, and even more specifically serious road cyclists with an interest in the Eurocentric history and traditions of the sport. It can also be an instructional read for the partners of those who fit the above criteria: for example, those hapless spouses who can’t understand why their significant other would opt to spend their Saturday cycling in the rain rather than enduring a six-hour shopping spree at the local Ikea.

Some of the 95 rules are practical (“Maintain and respect your machine”, “Be self-sufficient”, “Train properly”), while others are jokey or downright inane (“Tan lines should be cultivated and kept razor sharp”, “Espresso or macchiato only”, “Always be Casually Deliberate”). Still others serve as a reminder that bicycle racing is the toughest sport on the planet: “It never gets easier, you just go faster”; “If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period”; and the most hallowed decree of all, “Harden the fuck up”. Many of these rules are illustrated with archival photos, personal accounts of past rides from the authors, and inspirational anecdotes about cycling legends like Eddy Merckx, Sean Kelly and Greg LeMond.

“The Rules” are presented as a humorous “bible” that combines concepts from Christianity, Eastern philosophy and secret societies to create a tongue-in-cheek “religion” of cycling. Unfortunately, the less-than-hilarious writers aren’t quite up to the task they have set for themselves: The idea of cycling as a secret religious order is not tremendously clever to begin with, and the conceit – Eddy Merckx as The Prophet, Mount Velomis as the mythical peak within which The Rules were forged, the Cognoscenti as a sub-sect of fundamentalists within the secret society, etc – grows old pretty quickly.

Still, the book does provide enough insight about bicycle racing culture and history to outweigh the annoyance factor, and in the end there’s not much that comes across as offensively unfunny – although if I ever hear someone actually utter the idiotic word “Velomihottie” to describe a significant other who is also a cyclist, I will not hesitate to slap them upside the head to set them straight.

The Rules 1

Written by latefornowhere

July 10, 2014 at 11:09 am