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Trekking for the timid in Putao

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Putao trek.09

The Malikha River in northern Kachin State

Myanmar’s far northern Kachin State is one of those places whose reputation for wildness has achieved near-mythical status, a far-flung, unspoiled Shangri-La that would seem more at home in the pages of a Tintin comic than in the real world.

It was here, in the foothills of the Himalayas, that British botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward embarked on 10 epically grueling expeditions from 1914 to 1956, during which he cataloged dozens of unknown orchids and other plant species. In the 1990s, American biologist Alan Rabinowitz, dubbed the “Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation” by Time magazine, followed local rumors to a mountain village and found the last 12 surviving Taron, a race of four-foot-tall pygmies who had mysteriously decided to stop propagating, and will themselves into extinction. He wrote about them in his book Beyond the Last Village (2001).

And Joe Slowinski, one of the foremost snake specialists in the United States, met his demise at the village of Rat Baw, the victim of the bite of a many-banded krait. He had the double misfortune of dying on September 11, 2001, a day when newspapers had bigger events to report than the passing of an American herpetologist.

Flatland trekking in the Putao region

Flatland trekking in the Putao region

Now a new type of adventurer is descending upon the far north, the sort who comes not to make scientific discoveries but to spend a holiday trekking in the proximity of the eastern Himalayas, which separate Myanmar from India to the northwest, and from China to the northeast. The name “Myanmar” does not usually evoke images of snow-capped mountains, but they’re here in abundance, including 19,295-foot Hkakabo Razi, the highest peak in Southeast Asia, conquered for the first time in 1996 by Japanese mountaineer Takashi Ozaki and U Nama Johnson from Myanmar.

Characterized by Kingdon-Ward as one of the “richest regions” for flora and fauna in the world, the mountains of northern Myanmar are home to a dazzling array of rare orchids and flowering rhododendron, as well as strange animals like the takin, which the botanist described as “half-goat, half buffalo”.

Villagers wash vegetables in a stream near Kaung Mu Lon village

Villagers wash vegetables near Taram Dam

Most visitors these days never reach the high peaks, which require at least a week of expedition-grade trekking to penetrate. Shorter visits are generally limited to the broad valley south of the mountain range, whose main settlement is Putao at 1500 feet above sea level. The town, located 50 miles south of where the high mountains begin, is the gateway to the region, its rudimentary airport served by three turbo-prop flights a week. Despite its gateway status, even Putao would be considered “out there” by many travelers – electricity is sparse, telephones landlines are rare, and mobile service is spotty to nonexistent. The single “stoplight” in town is a simply sign on which green, yellow and red circles have been painted.

There is plenty to keep adventurous travelers occupied in the Putao valley, which is home to the Lisu, Rawang and Kachin hill tribes that migrated from the Tibetan Plateau more than 400 years ago, as well as the original Hkamti Shan inhabitants who had settled in the area long before. Fishermen still prowl the snow-fed rivers with small spears, and hunters stalk animals using crossbows and poisoned arrows.

One trek through this lowland area took me from the Khamti Shan village of Kaung Mu Lon to the town of Machanbaw over the course of two days, a total distance of about 17 miles. Besides myself (an American), our multi-ethnic group consisted of two Bamar friends from Yangon, a Bamar chef, two local porters (one Rawang and one Khamti Shan), and Thomas, our Karen guide.

With snow-capped Himalayan peaks visible far to the north, the highest point we achieved during our walk was 1630 feet above sea level, which we reached at the very beginning via a short, steep scramble to the top of forested Noi Zaw Hill. From the small pagoda at the top, we enjoyed a commanding view of the crystal-clear Malikha River (which flows south to meet the Namkhan River near Myitkyina, both joining forces to form the Ayeyarwady River), as well as beautiful Kaung Mu Lon. The town’s main pagoda, at the foot of the hill, is said to be 2000 years old at its core, but in the year 2000 a new pagoda was built over top so the ancient structure is no longer visible.

A Khamti Shan woman in Kaung Mu Lon, with the village's namesake pagoda in the background

A Khamti Shan woman in Kaung Mu Lon, with the village’s namesake pagoda in the background

We started walking from Kaung Mu Lon shortly before noon, crossing a small stream and entering the Rawang village of Taram Dam 1. With a population of 200, the village did not take long to pass through, but a few steps later we were in another village, known as Taram Dam 2. This was the pattern for the first day, which seemed like a walk through a never-ending settlement of wooden houses, bamboo fences, stone walls, gardens and agricultural land: One village merged into the next, sometimes separated by streams or rivers, but other times the boundary was so subtle that we had to rely on Thomas to tell us when we had crossed the invisible line between towns.

That’s not to say that the villages were all the same. For starters, the Kachin, Lisu and Rawang, who make up about 70 percent of the population of the Putao valley, are mostly Christians, and their villages are unusual in Myanmar for their lack of pagodas and monasteries. Christianity was established in far northern Myanmar in the 1950s by American missionary Robert Morse (who also translated the Bible into Rawang language), and Baptist and Catholic churches abound in the region.

Meanwhile the Khamti Shan, the valley’s original settlers, tend toward Buddhism. In addition to being home to pagodas and monasteries, Khamti Shan villages are like huge gardens due to the ethnic group’s status as the main vegetable growers in the region. It is typical for each house, built on raised floors with thatched roofs, to be surrounded by a lush array of edible plants, including celery, cabbage, potatoes, and white and yellow mustard. As elsewhere in Myanmar, mustard is used in the Putao area not only as a food ingredient but also for making plant oil, which is thought to have medicinal value: It is spread on the belly to relieve stomach pain, for daily use as well as for women who have recently given birth. Uniquely for the Putao region, mustard oil is also used for cooking in the same way that palm, peanut, sunflower and other edible plant oils are used elsewhere.

Khamti Shan women wear traditional dress at their home in Kaung Mu Lon

Khamti Shan women wear traditional dress at their home in Kaung Mu Lon

It’s said among locals that Buddhist taboos against harming animals have also helped turn the Khamti Shan villages into refuges for wild birds, which seem to understand that in Buddhist villages they are less likely to be shot out of the sky with a traditional slingshot or crossbow than in non-Buddhist villages. Khamti Shan villages do seem to be alive with birdsong from dawn to dusk, but I wondered if they might simply be feasting on the garden produce rather than hiding from hunters.

One advantage of our walk through the never-ending village sprawl on the first day was getting the chance to meet the locals. In Kaung Mu Lon we were invited into a house to share tea with a Khamti Shan woman and her daughter. Later in the day we met a group of Rawang four adults and three children – who were on the last leg of a 10-day journey starting from their village near the Chinese border. They had walked 114 miles, carrying their infants and personal belongings across high mountains and through dense jungle, to visit their parents.

We also met the pastor of a church in Kan Jo Lisu village, and a few minutes later a Buddhist man who was repairing his bamboo fence gave us California oranges from the tree in his front yard. (Robert Morse is credited with introducing citrus fruit to the Putao valley, after he noticed that the residents were suffering from vitamin C deficiencies.) We also stopped to talk to men who were panning for gold in the river near Nam Khan 2, which was our stopping point for the day.

A Rawang woman picks fruit in

A Rawang woman picks fruit in Nam Khan 2 village

We spent the night in a small lodge owned by a Rawang family. Our reward for a day of walking was a candlelight dinner (from lack of electricity, not for romance) featuring vegetable tempura, bean soup, brown rice, sweet and sour pork, Rawang-style chicken, long-bean salad, seaweed salad, and cake for desert, all washed down with Myanmar-made Red Mountain Estate wine. Afterward we sat with our hosts around an indoor fireplace talking about nature, animals and, inevitably, ghosts.

The lodge did have a bit of a haunted house feel, its dark and creaky wooden interior illuminated by flickering candles and eerie light from the nearly full moon. In the early morning hours I was jarred from sleep by the sort of horrendous cacophony that I thought could only originate from a host of demons issuing forth from the darkest pits of hell. It took me a few frantic seconds to realize that the din was nothing more than the enthusiastic snoring of one of my Bamar travel companions in the next room.

The temperature that night dropped to 3 degrees Celsius, but there were plenty of blankets to keep us warm. In the morning the village was shrouded in thick, wet mist rolling off the nearby river. I took a solo walk around the town while everyone was still sleeping. The only sound was the dripping of water from trees and rooftops, and the only creatures stirring were a few cows loitering on the dirt road that ran past our lodge. The tranquility was shattered when ear-splitting Myanmar rock music erupted from a stereo in one of the village households, a 6:45am alarm that I imagine few neighbors could have slept through.

Misty morning in Nam Khan 2

Misty morning in Nam Khan 2

We ate a breakfast of noodles, fried beef, toast and coffee, thanked our gracious hosts, and started walking through the fog at 8:30am. The village had come alive since my morning excursion. We talked to a woman who was pounding rice flour using a foot-powered mallet, then photographed two young men on motorcycles who were carrying a big fish they had pulled from the river.

We followed a stone-paved road out of the village, and the trek quickly took on a different character from the previous day. Whereas on day one we had seen one village blend into the next, now there were wide open rice fields where horses roamed free, forestland where birds sang in the trees, and clear streams trickling over rocks and through meadows. We barely saw anyone else as we walked through the mist.

The sun broke through around 10am and the temperature immediately rose, but as with the day before, it never became too hot for comfort. We passed through the Kachin village of Inwayn Baw, from which we had a view of Ma Ket Mong village across the Malikha River. Our path followed the bank above the river, and looking down we could see groups of men searching for gold using concave wooden trays to sift through the silt. We entered another forest, then passed through the Kachin village of In Bu Baw, and then found ourselves surrounded by trees yet again.

Not long after noon we reached the big town of Machanbaw, home to Rawang, Kachin and Khamti Shan, as well as to Bamar civil servants from around the country. The town was the site of northernmost Myanmar’s original British colonial administration starting in 1913, before Fort Hertz was established in Putao in 1925. The far north had been considered a “punishment station” by the British, a place to send officers who had been banished from Yangon for disciplinary reasons.

The pool table in the old British Club in Machanbaw

The pool table in the old British Club in Machanbaw

Remnants of the colonial era are still visible around Machanbaw. Many of the old officer’s houses still stand in the middle of town, as does the moldering British Club. This sprawling building is now abandoned, and daylight streams through broken windows and cracked walls. The place is mostly empty, with the odd exception of an old pool table that still stands in one room. In better condition is the two-story British Commission House, which is now the Guba Guesthouse. Set on a wide lawn on the outskirts of town and overlooking the Malikha River, it has the feel of a well-tended rustic cabin. It is also said to be haunted by the restless spirit of a woman with dark hair reaching down to her waist.

We ended our small adventure by climbing the second hill of the trek, this one not as high as Noi Zaw but leading to a legendary site just outside of Machanbaw: a rock outcropping that looks like a petrified dragon. According to local lore, the dragon was once alive, prowling the area and feeding on people until one day it crossed the line by eating a pregnant woman. For this transgression the gods punished the creature by turning it to stone.

There’s a shrine near the head of the dragon with a small golden pagoda, and evidence of offerings for good fortune can be seen on the outcropping: candle wax on the dragon’s head, and broken egg shells and dried yolk around the dragon’s eye. Students also chip off bits of the rock, or “dragon scales,” before exams for good luck. Locals claim that if you visit at night, you can sometimes see the dragon quivering in its sleep.

The eye of the stone dragon

The eye of the stone dragon

We hadn’t brought any eggs or candles to make our own sacrifices, and I wasn’t too keen on furthering the destruction of a landmark, natural or otherwise, by chipping off pieces of the rock. We took photographs and, letting sleeping dragons lie, walked back down the hill to finish our trek.

This story was published in slightly different form in The Myanmar Times Travel Supplement 2013.