(Written by Nick)
We woke early. Was it due to someone doing the washing-up at 4am? Or the monks waking up around sunrise? Maybe it was the hard floor. Still, we were given a flask of green tea and noodles for breakfast. We thanked our hosts and made a donation to the monastery before getting back on the bike for the second part of the trip.
Being able to stay in Namshan had now allowed us the time to explore the unknown section of the loop with enough time to back out and return to our base in Hsipaw town if need be. There would certainly be no mechanics on the way.
As we made our way from the ridge Namshan was perched on, down to the valley floor, the road deteriorated and houses came to an abrupt end. This road was clearly not as well used. The tea plantations continued, but now there were not even any huts or signs of people or animals. “Where are all the workers picking the tea leaves?” we wondered. So much tea and so few people. Riding around Munnar in southern India we had seen pickers dotted all over the picturesque hills and the roads had been smooth tarmac curving with the contours of the roads. Myanmar’s tea plantations were also created by the British, but management decisions had clearly altered since then, and the quality of the product had suffered.
The Namshan area lost its ability to export tea some time ago and we found out why; the tea is foul. Instead of the leaves simply being dried, it tasted like they had been burnt and I wondered why they liked it like that. We found out that it wasn’t intentional and was a side effect of the small-scale growers bringing their drying leaves into their houses when it was raining or windy. The hills get cold at night and familes warm themselves around fires in the middle of the living room without chimneys. The smoke from these fires sadly ruins the tea leaves.
The steep dirt road was cracked and undulating but at least wide, which gave you a choice in how you wanted to pick your way through the larger rocks and the smaller, looser gravel.
It was here I became aware of the inadequacy of my back brake. It didn’t really work. It was about 20% functional when fully pressed. Using the front brake on loose stones or sand risks the bike slipping out from under you (something my knees and elbows had learnt a couple of times previously) and is especially dangerous when turning. The road down the mountain was not only a series of hairpin bends but was pothole-ridden, making a straight course impossible. The extra weight of a pillion passenger didn’t make it any easier, especially since she’d got addicted to Snickers in Nepal.
We switched between first and second gear whilst constantly deploying the back brake and just tickling the front one and arrived at a bridge over the river at the bottom.
Now we were presented with two options. Continuing straight meant we could continue up the other side of the valley and join up with a road on the ridge opposite Namshan; That road was at least on the map and therefore probably in fair condition. Following that ridge south would complete the loop back to Paluang and on to our hotel in Hsipaw. The second option was less obvious and only useful as a long way round. It went north, the wrong way, until it met the thinnest of paths before joining up with the same ridge road.
Google (street) maps was not much help here, showing a road arching east from Namshan that didn’t necessarily join up to the other side while also omitting the road we could see to our left. Thankfully we had another tool available – my trusty companion Google maps satellite view. I only knew about this road from studying the satellite images previously and seeing the telltale signs of a dirt road carved into the red rocks. There’s a lot these images don’t tell you like the condition of the road, how steep it is or even if it is still in use. They do, however, tell you one thing that is crucial to an adventure – that it might be possible.
After a discussion on the merits of both choices Steph could sense how much I wanted to keep the journey going and encouraged me to go with my heart. The thing is though, when you’re half way along a bad road, turning back isn’t going to be any quicker.
This was the third time I had embarked on a bike trip purely from satellite mapping rather than a road marked on a map and it was to be another wild adventure. This technology is still groundbreaking to me and so phenomenally impressive. That it is possible to navigate unmarked routes in remote lands with just a phone in you pocket is a beautiful thing. In my eyes this is sacred technology.
It was uphill for the next half an hour and the Dongtong DTY125 was making a racket but loving it as much as I was. Steph had to get off regularly so I could get through the extra steep and extra muddy sections and it was after a combination of the two that we came upon our first village of the day. The looks we got here were different and it gave us a funny feeling. The smiles were no longer instant. Faces were more of confusion than anything else. Even some children were reluctant to wave. A few of the children’s eyes were on stalks and I believe I even saw some younger ones run away at the sight of us. We tried to play it cool and nipped into a little shop for some snacks but we didn’t exactly go un-noticed. I took this as a sign we were on the “right” road. It was certainly feeling like an adventure now.
After only one other village we reached the ridge where we were to go round to the right. It was cooler up here at 1,800 meters, quiet, and with lovely views of the steep rolling hills covered in tea bushes. Now the way gave up all pretences of being a road and turned into a footpath weaving in and out of bushes and along ditches of mud. After one of these mud patches the trees lining the road made a clearing and provided a view down out over the tea gardens. Having slowed to just 1 or 2 KM/H I gently squeezed the brakes. That was the mistake. My motorbike instructor in England had warned me never to use the front brake when going slowly and this was why.
The front wheel slipped on a mud slick, the handlebar turned to the left, and the bike fell right. Steph’s right shin and knee hit the deck and made contact with the stones and rocks. I landed with my chest on the handlebar. Before attending to each other I knew we had to pick up the bike as, sure enough, the petrol was starting to leak out from the ill-fitting petrol cap.
When Steph pulled up her trouser leg she had a very red leg. Gravel had become lodged under the skin and there was a fair bit of blood running out. It looked bloody painful. She had 3 separate cuts in her leg and of course this was the one time we hadn’t packed the plasters. Weeks later my ribs still hurt everytime I lay down. It turned out I had injured myself too.
When this garden path finally got to the other ridge it met up with the proper road which was still a dirt road but was wide and flat by comparison. It looked like it would be plain sailing from here on and all we had to keep an eye open for were insurgents.
By early afternoon we arrived at our first village on this side of the valley and went in search of food. This one had no restaurant either so we decided to “Go Nepali” and eat dry instant noodles.
No no no. The shop owner was not going to let his foreign visitors suffer like that. We were ushered over to some chairs and given cups of the local tea while he cooked our noodles. Word of our arrival had got out and an English-speaker promptly arrived. After lunch he took us to his house for tea and Red Bull.
Luckily we could hold a decent conversation and he informed us about the security situation as he saw it. The area was under Paluang army control rather than the national army it was true. However that didn’t make it more dangerous in his eyes. And the Paluang certainly had no beef with foreign tourists. Perhaps it was just dangerous in the eyes of the non-Paluang.
I remembered the drunk man’s insistent repetitions from the previous night. “Paluang state! Shan state!”. He had been trying to explain his political aggravations but all I could grasp was that he wanted the Paluang people to have their own state, rather than being a minority in Shan South state.
He told us how he had found work in the jade mines in Kachin state, in the north of the country. The jade and ruby industries are big employers in Myanmar and with less than impeccable reputations in regards to safety, corruption, and environmental consideration.
What the area looks like now:
Despite this he said he didn’t mind the work and was paid fairly well due to the risk of danger.
Two weeks later over 100 were killed in an accident:
We were offered a bed for the night which meant a lot, and although we were tempted, we thought it best not to risk getting him in trouble. He enlisted a friend of his to show us a shortcut back to Hsipaw town – a way that was much shorter than our proposed route along the established road. I was curious that I hadn’t noticed it when doing my research, but we thought it best to listen to local knowledge.
The “short half hour” road down the mountain took an hour and a half and it was absolutely terrifying. It was perilously steep, had been damaged by landslides and was still under construction. And that’s being kind. A lot of it hadn’t even started being made and other sections had fairly large rocks in what would eventually be the base layer when finished.
If it hadn’t been for our guide shooting off in front, we would have turned back. He was much quicker than us but even he fell twice. I’ve ridden a lot of bad and ugly roads in the Himalayas but this road takes the prize of being the worst in all regards.
A steep descent on a mud surface with an unusable back brake and a passenger on back is the stuff nightmares are made of. Where the road turned and we had to be on the outside near the precipice (due to workmen, rocks, landslides etc) we may have said a little prayer each time. With no barriers or curbs to obscure our view, we could see exactly how long it would take us to tumble into the jungle far below. I tried to joke about the severity of our situation as I couldn’t allow myself to acknowledge what the cost of failure might be. If I had panicked I would have slammed the brakes on and skidded.
At the bridge crossing at the bottom our guide said farewell and laughed before turning his bike round to return home. He’d taken an hour and a half out of his day just to guide us down and he wasn’t even going that way. We tried to give him a donation for his help but he was adamant that he wanted nothing for it. We just about managed to buy him a litre or so of petrol in the end.
We managed to video one of the worst sections:
And finally, when all the drama had finished and we were on firm ground (well, flat tarmac), we went to wind down at the same solitary tea shop we had stopped at on the way there, just next to a large bridge. I can tell you, it’s hard to wind down when you pull up right next to a group of soldiers with their grenade launchers lent up against the cafe wall and their AK47s by their sides.
“Oh shit Nick, it’s the army!”
Oh crap. Not only did we just come from a restricted area, we stayed overnight too, despite being refused permission and being told it was forbidden.
“It’s going to look even more suspicious if we reverse and drive off!” I thought, so we went inside.
Well, they refused me permission for photographs but didn’t question us. Luckily they seemed too busy with their (illegal) gambling…