With a pained expression the young soldier hefted the mortar onto his shoulder and splashed into the mud. Behind him a column of thirty others trudged grimly onwards through unyielding sheets of rain. Purple lightning slashed open the sky, illuminating the dull gleam of kalishnikovs. An elderly officer with bare, sinewey arms and a red bandana tied about his head returned my stare before shouting at his men to pick up the pace. The rebels were on the run and the soldiers had been ordered to pursue them deeper into the hills. The ragged column looked exhausted, each man sported a thick cake of mud and carried a heavy pack. Some cradled soviet era weaponry whereas others carried what appeared to be Japanese bolt action Ariska rifles, last produced during the second world war. The group had two mortars, a light machine gun and a handful of rocket propelled grenades. The officers had dozens of dodgy looking Chinese made explosives strapped to their hip and chest belts. Bringing up the rear of the column two impossibly young soldiers, no more than fifteen, struggled under the weight of a crude bamboo stretcher. A tarpaulin roughly covered the drenched and badly hurt man inside. As the boys slipped and stumbled in the mud I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the wounded man they were carrying. Where they intended to treat his wounds I do not know but that night as I lay on a hard bed in the back of a teashop I was unsure as to whether I was hearing thunder or gunfire in the mountains ringing the village.
Very few travelers make it this far into the hills but the few that do are rewarded with one of the most untouched communities in the Shan region. The soldiers seemed surprised to see us and I later learnt that the dirt tracks leading into the hills are supposed to be barred to foreigners. I was not surprised, until recently much of the area had been a battleground between rebel and government forces and although the rebels were retreating deeper into the hills they were far from gone. The Shan hills have a long history of producing opium, more even than Afghanistan, and until 2007 the government had actually sold licences to grow the poppy. Despite the regions turbulent and bloody history the people are warm and friendly. Walking around the small town we are greeted by wizened grannies with toothless grins and twinkling eyes. Playful children smile at us shyly before laughing and darting away when we wave at them. In the pouring rain a group of men play glorified hackie sack with a woven rattan ball before inviting us to join them.
The next day we set off with a local guide, Momo, who spoke passable English and doubled as the town’s Christian pastor. Within minutes we had left the sanctuary of the town and were deep in the hills. Small tea plantations stretched out in all directions. Amongst them strode women with swirling thanakah patterns upon their cheeks and heavy wicker baskets atop their heads. Many sported beautiful long braids tied with red or blue ribbons and they giggled happily as we greeted them with our poor Burmese. At times we would see no sign of people for hours and then an isolated hut or even a small cluster of buildings would rise out of the mist draped across the curving hills. An aged tribal warrior walked with me for a while and gesticulated excitedly towards his numerous faded tattoos. Mythical beasts interwoven with tribal symbols and flowing text covered his arms, his chest and even parts of his face. Beaming at me the man proudly explained that the tattoos prolonged his life and meant blades and bullets could not pierce his flesh.
The villagers living in the hills spoke no English but were always happy to see us. Throughout the day we would stop every couple of hours to drink delicious green tea and devour bowl after bowl of steaming Shan noodles. Later that day we came across a young boy chewing beetlenut and picking handfuls of mushrooms, excitedly we bought a whole basket of the delicacy before heading to a cluster of huts where we were to spend the night. We stayed with a local family and although they spoke no English and had no beds to offer us they heartily cooked us a feast of fried rice, green vegetables, spinach with herbs, garlic mushrooms and young bamboo shoots. Following dinner I happily smoked a cheroot with the men of the household. A cheroot is a weak mixture of tobacco and herbs rolled in a dried banana leaf and resembles a cigar. Throughout Myanmar cheroots are smoked by everyone from wizened grannies to crazed motorbike taxi drivers. As we continued to head further into the hills a ragtag group of children followed us shouting “bye bye!” again and again. It seemed to be the only English they knew and they were damn determined to use it!
On our final night trekking we stayed in a local monastery perched above a small village. Upon our arrival the head monk was busily shaving novice’s heads with a razor and bid us to wash ourselves and peel off our filthy clothing before showing us to a small room with a set of reed mats for pilgrims to sleep upon. Later that evening the dutiful monks bought us tea as well as biscuits and honey which we wolfed down quickly before heading off to search for more delicious noodles. Throughout the night the monks sporadically chanted and rang gongs via a massive loudspeaker and so after a somewhat restless nights sleep we began our descent to the sizable town of Hsipaw. The trek back to civilization takes nine hours and passes through some truly untouched territory. Besides a small huddle of women in conical hats busily picking tea we don’t see another soul. As we round a corner a crumbling pagoda with peeling white paint bursts unexpectedly through the undergrowth. I cant help but wonder who on earth builds and maintains these structures. The insect orchestra envelops us as we follow a rough dirt track and penetrate further into the jungle. On my left side the path disappears altogether and the thick jungle mist half obscures a steep drop concealing unexplored valleys, waterfalls and tiny collections of huts. The simple beauty of the region and the warmness of it’s people continues to take my breath away. In the words of Rudyard Kipling “This is Burma, it is unlike any place you know”.