After leaving Mandalay in direction north-east, we had a pit-stop of a few days in Hsipaw, a small outpost town situated on the way to China and populated by people belonging to ethnic Shan. It is now time to leave for further traveling.
The alarm clock sets off early, we pack our backpacks and since it’s still early we decide to have breakfast at a place near the market, where they serve us watered-down coffee and oily but tasty pancakes. On the way back to the guesthouse, the pick-up van is waiting for us; we get on at the back of the vehicle, which is already full with people and sacks of wares, and undertake the journey to Namshan. The truck climbs on a road only half-asphalted. The journey becomes more and more interesting as we move away from Hsipaw: villages become scarce and people ethnicity changes. The asphalt at some point disappears completely, dust invades the cabin and we begin to see villages that are increasingly more primitive, inhabited by dark-skinned people with mainly Chinese features. We arrive at destination after a 7-hours ordeal (for merely 80 km…), after enduring hundreds of jumps and swings on roads that often turn into stone paths. The body hurts and is in urgent need of a shower and of a glass of water.
Despite this, I can assure you it the trip was worth it: mountains and mountains right in the heart of Myanmar, hills crowned with villages set in deep jungles, bamboo forests, tea plantations. At the bottom of the river, rice paddies of a ocher-yellow are in deep contrast with the heavy green of the surroundings and with the murky brown waters.
The sleeping village of Namshan, once the capital of the ancient Shan Kingdom of Tawngpeng, is perched on mountains at an elevation range of 1800-2000 meters above sea level, and therefore acts as a lookout into a series of peaks and hills that surround it. Some of these hills are covered with tea plantations, other with poppies plantations, these more discreetly hidden from view… The tea industry is the major resource in the area and provides employment for several of the inhabitants of Namshan and of the surrounding sleeping villages, friendly Shwe (Golden) Palaung people living in one- or two-floors wooden houses covered by rusty metal sheet roofs. The ‘Golden’ comes from the belts they used to wear. Other traditional belts worn by this ethnic group used to be made of silver; today, aluminum belts has long taken their place. Namshan also has a minority of Kayin, Lisu and Shan ethnic and tribal groups, as well as people of Indian and Chinese origins. Namshan means ‘shaking water’, named so after its location on a marsh that was often flooded during the rainy season. The heydays of Namshan were in the 1920-1930 period, when it prospered thanks to its silver mines and its tea industry.
At destination, we drop our backpacks in the only guesthouse in the area, located on the main road: a large two-story wooden Chinese-style mansion painted in green and run by government officials. We rent a room built entirely of wood, small in size and with outside bathroom, and with a window overlooking the rear of the property; we satisfy our basic needs and get out to explore the surroundings. It is 3pm, and the sun is already setting behind the mountain peaks. Namshan is basically a wide main road on the crest of a mountain; down on its sides one can see green valleys and views of the villages below. It is certainly larger and more picturesque than what we had imagined. Locals look at us with a hint of curiosity, giving us a mengalaba (hallo) when we cross them.
We are soon approached by two local ‘guides’ who invite us to drink tea in one of the traditional teahouses of the village. This seems to be one of the favorite activities of the villagers. You sit in low stools by a plank-wood table, you are served a plastic thermos flask plugged by a cork that keeps the warmth and freshness of the dark beverage it contains: Le Peyé. The teahouse is dark; teapots, dishes, plates, walls and the counter are covered by a soot formed by the wood-fire that burns at all times in order to heat the water that will fill the jugs of tea. The flat screen television (!) is under the control of one of the patrons who practices the international habit of zapping, passing from news to documentaries, to sports and soap operas, in a never-ending change of channels at 5 minutes intervals which leaves no time to become interested enough to one of the programs.
We then follow our new friends for a short walk to a lookout point at the top of a hill, where we watch a great sunset. We socialize with them, asking curious questions while our cameras immortalize the magic colors of a spectacular sky.
From the conversations we discover that Namshan is in fact a conflictive area and that the village marks the end of where travel is allowed to foreigners. For years, the warriors of the Shan Liberation Front have been fighting a more psychological than real battle with central government soldiers. These reprisals provoke tensions which often result in bans to visit this region, with the government applying the off-limit to the trekking routes for obvious risks of retaliation towards foreigners. Despite this, our two new friends are more than inclined to chat, and to help us in our search for areas to discover. The main reason that pushed us this far is that Namshan is a great starting point for trekking in the area, and also because it is fairly unbeaten by tourists due to the terrible conditions of the roads that reach it. The streets are problematic especially during tea harvesting, taking place between April and August, when the route to Namshan is often blocked by trucks overloaded and so heavy that they get stuck in the wet earth.
One of the two ‘guides’ has to leave us; we invite the other, affable Samir, to eat dinner at a restaurant run by Chinese people, where he recommends a delicious bowl of spicy-hot Shan Noodles, the traditional dish of the area. We later stroll up to his house, not far away, where his wife prepares us for a cup of tea (for a change) and he pulls out a guitar that we play in turn, singing songs and chatting about everything and nothing. After an hour or so we take leave; the main street is dark and almost deserted, the temperature is pleasant, with a fresh breeze that comes from the mountains. An aura of mystery surrounds Namshan at this time of night; it’s only 8pm but the place is already silent, shops and restaurants have shut their doors, and so have tearooms. Here people go to bed early.
We are tired but satisfied. Tomorrow we will start exploring the mountains. Namshan was just the place we were looking for; here all attempts of contacting the outside world are futile. We comment the day while the temperature drops, we cover with the heavy blankets provided and doze off.