We leave Mandalay reluctantly but with the desire to explore what here they branded ‘the way to China’. The bus is comfortable, it ventures into the hills and soon reaches the colonial town of Pyin Oo Lwin, where the British colonizers lived when Mandalay’s heat became too oppressive. We stop for a quick meal break and then set off again towards Hsipaw, described by the guide as “a peaceful stopover”. After about three hours of travelling we approach a series of uphill hairpin turns where a truck that has rolled over a few bends higher forces our minivan to join an endless column of trucks carrying boulders, logs, sand, scaffolding, bulldozers and bricks (it appears that the construction industry is in vogue in Myanmar), sometimes alternating with pick-ups full of passengers and merchandise, as well as some cars. The darkness comes early and it is pitch dark; the vehicles in column form a strip of lights that move at alternate gaps and only in one direction: the north. Sometimes we follow local passengers who get off curious, or to smoke a cigarette or take a needed break when the waiting gets too much; they talk animatedly about the incident, creating small groups with drivers and passengers of other vehicles, and then get on in a hurry when the tail seems to move and drivers call passengers out loud and set the vehicles in motion.
A series of checkpoints and less than 7 hours later, we are approaching Hsipaw, a Shan ethnic outpost. A large village with a ghost appearance: wooden houses, closed taverns and shops, a few Chinese-looking characters, dark-skinned, almond-shaped eyed. It’s definitely chilly out here. After wandering along a pair of long, dark and deserted streets that correspond to the village ‘center’, we settle into a wooden guest house modelled like a Swiss chalet, only slightly less luxurious … It is 10pm, we calm our hunger in the little place nearby where a family of Nepalis (gift of the British colonial era) serves tea and Indians chapati to a mixed clientele of Shan, Indians, Muslims and Burmese. We sit on ultra low wooden stools and we enjoy black tea and chapati while observing the comings and goings of people. It’s amazing how many different races and ethnicities live together in this dusty village. The cold intensifies, as well as the tiredness. The shower is cold but the bed is made warm by a thick wool blanket.
The good morning is at 7am; it is still cold. We get out to explore the village and discover that it looks totally different than the night before: it is total chaos, with trucks that share the roads with bicycles, merchants, kiosks, mechanics, pedestrians and tourists. The sidewalks are broken off or uprooted, holes are frequent and large, the cobbled paths alternate with stretches of poorly cemented areas, making a simple walk an endeavour. A thick cloud of dust perennially rises from the potholed streets and makes the village look immersed in fog; a vaporous smoke comes out of the mouth while we breathe , but the sun is already dissipating moisture and warming the air. After breakfast we decide to head down to the river in search of something to do. We pass the market and reach a residential area of small houses and cabins overlooking the river. We somehow socialize and communicate with those we meet, who try as hard as they can to understand exactly what we want and to help us, whatever the need. The Dokhtawady River is clean and its waters clear, but it is said that his currents are really dangerous; the locals tells of malicious nats (spirits) that attract swimmers towards certain death.
We are finally able to agree on a boat ride with the wife of a boatman, who does not seem to like the idea of interrupting his meal, but who nevertheless accepts, changes and proudly lowers his 10-meter boat in the water. We navigate upriver for a few kilometers observing rural life, farmers, ruminating buffaloes pulling plows, paddy fields, kids running around or bathing in the calm waters. The boatman makes a stop after four kilometers and takes us to visit, on foot, a village built on the banks of the river: wooden houses made of stone or bamboo where women cook, wash clothes or clean the cobs and men build walls or artifacts made of bamboo or thatch roofs. There is calm, order and cleanliness in the village dirt roads, and all the villagers greet us as we pass.
Once back on the boat, we continue upriver up to kilometer 7, in the vicinity of an iron bridge, where our guide reverses the boat and starts the journey back. We get off three kilometers from Hsipaw in order to take a walk and enjoy the place in quietness. We say goodbye to the nice boatman and walk along a path that runs along the bank of the river. We make a couple of stops, one to eat a bowl of noodles artfully prepared by a woman who runs an improvised kiosk: the bamboo pagoda where we eat was built literally ‘on the river’, while the kitchen she uses is the one at home, just a bit higher on the hill behind. On the outskirts of Hsipaw, at about five o’clock , we walk past a temple that houses a school for monks where we witness the end of the classes; we join the ranks of children monks returning to their homes. The traffic becomes more intense as we enter the village, and the dust is the host . The day was hot yet it was cooled by a nice river breeze.
We spend the evening strolling along the central Namtu Road, where until the late hours of 9pm (!) Locals and tourists dine in the many restaurants of this street. We enjoy a plate of Shan noodles from Mr.Food, a bit for the name and a bit because it advertises draught Dagon beer. Mr.Food is just one of the many shops that follow Hsipaw Mr. craze. We are staying at Mr.Kid Guesthouse, we saw Mr.Charles Guesthouse, Mr.Book’s library, Mr.Shake fruit juices maker and other Mr. I can not remember the name. It seems that the inhabitants of Hsipaw think that we foreigners like these cute and unusual names they give to their businesses, and it also seems that their marketing strategy works…