I wake up with a start, it’s still dark outside the window. I look at the phone: it’s 5am! Extremely noisy speakers that broadcast repetitive litanies wake me up. It’s cold; I wear a thick sweater and get out to check what is going on. I thought it was the small mosque nearby I had seen the day before, but it is instead the old speakers from the Buddhist temple on the hill, on top of which stands, elegant, a golden pagoda. The punishment ends at 6 am, and as the sun’s rays are already lighting up the village, I go out to have breakfast and wait for my traveling companion for the trek to the mountains monastery.
The merchants are opening the accordion doors of their shops, they expose their goods and get ready for a long working day. In the generic stores, colorful sachets of shampoo, hair conditioners and various detergents, as well as candies and sweets, hang on strings that cross through the ‘shop windows’, and are the smoke and mirrors for a series of highly sought-after items here such as soap, skin whitening creams, lighters and matches, perfumes and a multitude of little boxes and sticks of doubt content. All the goods have a patina of dust that covers the packages with a dull veil, making them look old and undesirable. A Chinese merchant in pajama pants, t-shirt and a pinstriped gabardine jacket smiles at me as I pass him, while at his side a charismatic Muslim with a long white beard is setting up his stall. He is an umbrella repairer, and on his table are exposed the tools of his trade: bundles of spokes of various lengths and sizes, central gears, small screws and bolts, skeletons of umbrellas with only the handle and the central rod, cans of oil and grease as well as a series of essential precision screwdrivers. He smiles at us as he zips up his windbreaker jacket, shielding from a gust of cold wind; he then sits patiently, hands in his pockets, and watches the comings and goings in the street, which is becoming more and more crowded.
At the tea room, I meet the two guides from yesterday, whom inform me that the morning litany is part of the preparation for an annual festival called Tazaungmon, or festival of lights. This will culminate tomorrow night during full moon, an event that will mark the beginning of a special month, the Kahtein, during which faithful locals offer new robes to the monks’ community. The morning litany will continue every day until the end of the festival. As they see me very attentive, my friends do not just explain about the festival, and while I drink coffee and eat a pancake they fill me with new vocabulary in Palaung language, and they encourage me to repeat every word on the spot even though I am trying to mind my business, still sleepy from the early rising. When I tell them of our intention to walk up the mountains in search of a mountain monastery, they offer to come as guides. It was our initial intention to contract one of them for the trek, but considering the amount of words they both regurgitate per minute, I decide to deprive myself of their company and politely decline with an apology, so they take their leave and go out looking for tourists. They will search in vain, as it is only us, a Korean girl and a French boy that are staying at the guesthouse, the only one in Namhsan. Life is hard here for guides.
I meet with my companion at the tea room and we start walking along the main road heading south, crossing the area of tea processing: in every home, colorful characters, some looking over one hundred years old, are busy separating the good tea leaves from the bad ones. Old men flaunting colorful tribal costumes walk sustaining themselves with inlaid sticks. On the road, a sea of tea leaves is placed to dry on bamboo-woven mats resting on the pavements and on the street. These tea leaves have a pungent odor that permeates the air, making the place fascinating and mysterious. Once near the hills, we leave the paved road and venture inside a huge tea trees plantation, strolling through the rows and observing women who collect the leaves, gradually filling the jute baskets they carry on their shoulders.
Once we get back to the dirt road, we cross various groups of women that descend to Namhsan on foot. They each carry two huge bags full of tea leaves on their back with the help of a rope tied to their forehead. Conical headdresses shelter them from the sun that at times appears from behind an overcast sky and fluffy white clouds. There are also groups of people who travel to Namhsan on foot or by motorbike to buy gasoline and groceries. We then walk through a series of villages where we are greeted by smiling people, surprised when we boast that bit of Palaung language learned in the morning, which miraculously fixed in our memory despite the early hour. The old trail we follow climbs gradually, surrounded by a lush and silent nature. The sun has gained some space in the sky; we are alone along the path for at least another hour until finally, after over 3 hours of walking during which the temperature continues to drop, we arrive at the monastery of Ton Yu Priè, at an altitude of over 2000m.
There, snow-white clouds caress the hills; they travel fast, pushed by a cool wind. A group of young and well-groomed horses graze in a meadow dominated by a hill on top of which stands the huge statue of a Buddha sitting cross-legged on a bed of lotus flowers; it wears a brown tunic and gazes at the horizon, looking north. Scattered among the nearby hills are a series of white stupas of different sizes; the wide valley is revealed to us, dominated by the high mountains that form their background. We approach the main stupa and notice a nun with shaved head in a pink tunic, who is laying garlic to dry on a red mat on the ground; as soon as she see us, she gives out a sincere smile and waves us to approach her. She does not speak English but with gestures she asks us to follow her; she leads us to a building that serves as the monastery kitchen and dining room. Inside, we are surprised at the sight of two monks in burgundy robes and flip-flops, one elderly and the other young, who welcome us as if they were waiting for us. We sit around a fire lit in a hole in the ground, around which two cats rest and warm up, and on which a pitcher full of black tea is heating up. The room is blackened by soot; everything is dark as there are no windows, the only light coming from small skylights in various parts of the roof made by wood beams and corrugated iron.
We keep silent; the monks sit and attempt a conversation with the little English the younger one can speak, then get up and leave, waving goodbye. We enjoy the quietness while the nun prepares some food for us in the simple kitchen: rice and a curry of salty fish spiced to the extreme, as well as cooked vegetables unknown to us. The nun keeps us company until we are finished, then she collects the dishes, takes them to the kitchen and vanishes, leaving us alone. It is a magic moment; we lie on the wooden benches by the fire, drinking tea and watching the cats fighting for the space closer to the fire. They get so close to it that I am surprised they do not get burned, or that their hair does not catch fire. We hear a few thunders, after which it starts to rain: slowly at first, in droplets that can barely be felt on the roof, then with violence, with huge drops that shell the rusty metal sheets. The rain finds a way between the roof gaps and penetrates into certain areas of the room, flakes of soot detach from the ceiling and fall, tainting the soil and dropping on our sweaters and over our heads. We cover ourselves with wool blankets and fall asleep to the sound of the rain drumming…
When we wake up, the cold is biting, the air is icy and we realize we are not properly equipped for these temperatures. We leave the room and head to a building with large windows from which we can see the stone Buddha, but no longer the valley nor the horses now covered by low and dense clouds that enter from broken windows and shabby window frames, chilling us. We wait patiently for the heavy rain to stop and for the air to clear up, we look for the monks and nun to thank them and say goodbye but they are nowhere to be seen, so we set off. The rain comes and goes but slowly and surely wet all our clothes. At the bottom of the valley, we can see a small river flowing copiously; the yellow rice paddies that surround it are in contrast with the deep green of the nature and the river’s brown waters. At one point the rain is so hard that we bless the sight of a group of spartan wooden houses, where we are forced to take refuge in the home of a very poor but incredibly welcoming local family consisting of mom, dad and 3 males sons. They are all dressed in dirty and ill-fitting clothes and feature incredibly smiling faces that give us an immediate and indescribable warmth. Inside the house there are at least a dozen people, all very surprised of our presence but nevertheless intrigued and excited to have a distraction.
They revive the stove with some wood and invite us to sit around the fire. How nice it is to warm up and dry our soaked clothes. Among the general laugh, we socialize with the family friends, trying to communicate with the universal language. They offer us tea and a snack of chickpeas and spinach, as well as black sugar balls. We give them almost everything we have in the backpacks: fruit and biscuits. The householder monitors the rain on the outside; we propose to sleep here if it continues to rain heavily, after all we have at least another hour and a half walk to reach Namhsan and we cannot march under such heavy rain. Finally the downpour stops and it is replaced by a weak drizzle that gives us the strength to leave. We thank the lovely family, touched by their hospitality.
Leaving was not a good idea: the path is really muddy, sand and earth hide insidious boulders that put strain on my shoes, which are literally biting the dust. We reach the outskirts of Namhsan when the sun has already set, so we gather the physical and mental strength to deal with the last few kilometers. I am tired and exhausted, my bones ache, but inside me a great satisfaction for the success of the excursion is growing. In the village, the kids decorate the houses’ entrances with rows of lit candles, and set off noisy firecrackers. We treat ourselves to a dinner of noodle soup and tofu, followed by a quick shower and a cheerot cigarette before abandoning ourselves into Morpheus’ arms.