With friends Gill Patterson, Kevin Murphy, Patricia Lemahieu and Peter Bale, guide, Zaw Zaw, 11 porters and two army guards Bob Boyle climbs Mount Victoria in Chin State
MOUNT Victoria, located about 100 miles west of Bagan, at 10200 feet (3109 metres) is the third tallest mountain in Myanmar. Khakaboratzi at over 18000ft is the tallest, followed by Fungumratzi at over 12000ft.
From the top of Mount Victoria on a clear day you can see the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh. The temperatures are close to freezing but rarely does the mountain have snow. The winds are usually quite brisk causing hands and ears to go numb from the cold and the mountain is usually covered with clouds.
There is a well-maintained dirt road up the mountain that takes you within an hour’s walk of the peak. However, for the athletic ones, the peak can be hiked from Mindat in two days, with an overnight stop at the small village of Aye. Our expedition of course chose the more energetic approach, hiking up from Mindat and taking Jeeps back down.
The expedition converged on Bagan on the evening of March 12. At the last minute Patricia, Bob and Peter decided that they must not miss an opportunity and took a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the magnificent temples of Bagan, before Kevin and Gill arrived from Yangon.
After we had all gathered, anticipating the days ahead of us with unrestrained excitement, we met our guide Zaw Zaw and were taken to the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River to catch a ferry boat to the opposite side, just south of Pakokku.
After a half-hour boat trip we were met on the other side by two Jeeps which were to take us to Mindat – a gruelling 100-mile ride.
With sleeping bags and tents strapped to the hood of the Jeep and the rest of us scrunched in the back – the shortest of our group may have been 5’4” but the rest of us were an average of 5’9” – we set off on a seven- hour drive through the rolling hills west of Bagan. Fortunately our drivers took pity on us and stopped every hour so we could stretch our legs. We reached Mindat at sunset, after a 3000-foot climb up a winding road.
After settling into a government VIP guesthouse, we had rather brisk showers to wash away half the road we had amassed.
Our kind host and his wife, the caretaker of the guesthouse welcomed us with a friendly smile and a couple of rules – the most important of which was not to take the towels. Apparently the last group had – leaving him to explain the situation to the lauthorities.
While waiting for our guide to take us to dinner, we watched Myanmar TV and got stuck into a lovely bottle of red wine one of us had had the forethought to bring along. There was even a floor to ceiling map on which we could plot out next day’s adventure, and a telephone which we could use to call the partner and kids back home that we had safely arrived in Mindat.
We then went for a delicious Chin-style candlelit dinner at a local restaurant before returning to our deluxe accommodation.
The next morning we woke early and made our way back to the same restaurant for breakfast only to be distracted by a souvenir shop loaded with everything from dried monkey heads to silver coin necklaces. The curator of this ‘museum’ was beside himself with excitement at the prospect of some wealthy customers, but this soon turned to disappointment after the potential benefactors contemplated the extra weight any souvenirs would add to their already enormous packs.
Unfortunately we returned by a different route so were unable to go back to buy the delightful items he had on show.
After breakfast we were taken to the market to pick up last minute supplies before heading to the starting point where we were to meet our porters.
We were all reluctant to show our packs to the porters – souvenirs or not they were all huge backpacks, duffle bags or Gucci carry-alls (yes, Gucci carry-alls) filled with everything you might need on a trip such as this.
You know what it’s like – “what if we get stuck and need a torch”, “what about a compass”, “we’ll need a couple of packs of cards or a board game”, “we might need this hair dryer to dry out our socks…”
Besides our packs the porters needed to carry six sleeping bags and six tents, along with their own things and food for two days.
Plus one rooster. This was to be our luxury dinner that first night in the mountains. Mr Rooster was carried on the back of one porter, tied to a pack and we became a little attached to him – a tiny squawking fowl version of us intrepid hikers and not once did we hear him complain.
We began our hike with a 1500-foot downhill climb to an Indiana Jones-style rickety old suspension bridge that had been built by the British nearly 100 years prior. At the bridge we were met by two army guards with rifles who Zaw Zaw informed us would be accompanying us on the rest of the hike. The discussions of their presence were endless, but they soon became just another part of the happy, tramping group.
Unfortunately the only animals we encountered were Chin dogs with interesting diet habits, fat pigs and of course Mr Rooster. At one point during the hike someone though they heard the cry of a rare Shriek eagle but it was difficult to confirm this.
Along the way we were greeted by Chin villagers coming down the mountain, many of the women adorned with facial tattoos much like the New Zealand Maori. We were informed by Zaw Zaw that long ago the beautiful Chin women would tattoo their faces to make them less attractive to ruling kings from Bagan who were in the habit of kidnapping beautiful women. Apparently there is now a Myanmar law preventing women from tattooing themselves, but from what we could tell it is still a tradition practiced in remote villages.
After a full day of hiking we arrived in the village of Aye and were shown our VIP accommodation for the evening – a hillbilly shack made from bits of wood and corrugated, galvanised iron sheets.
The women inquired about shower facilities and were escorted to the village chief’s house who had the only source of spring water fed from a series of bamboo and plastic pipes that snaked their way down a hill. The shower itself consisted of a black hose lying on the ground next to the house.
Peter stripped down to his shorts but the women found it a bit more difficult as they tried to keep a cold, wet longyi wrapped around themselves as they washed their hair. Kevin could not resist and got out his video camera to film Gill, his wife, as she struggled with the soap. Part of that evening’s entertainment was watching the resulting video.
We then watched the preparation of dinner; Mr Rooster was hauled up by his skinny legs and carried off to a chopping block. But by the time the cooking smells had worked their magic on our gurgling stomachs, all thoughts of that colourful hiking companion were gone as we munched on what was a superb Mr Rooster curry with rice and sweet and sour vegetables.
It was then announced that the village chief had organised a tribal dance around a bonfire, to which the entire village showed up. While the village band practiced their numbers, Kevin Peter and I practiced the Haka – a Maori war dance.
The show went off without a hitch, and we were all rewarded with a local corn wine served in buffalo horns. Though most of us were a little dubious about drinking it – having experienced other such ‘home brews’ before – Peter got stuck into it and the next morning said he was feeling only slightly off colour. The aversion to alcohol did not, however, include a heavy bottle of 25-year-old malt whisky which we managed to polish off that evening. Just so our poor porters would not have to carry it, you understand!
Then we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bage, laid out neatly by our porters, for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise. After a quick breakfast of rice and canned sardines we set off once more up the mountain. The weather turned cool as we hiked through dense forest, interspersed by burnt out areas. These areas are where the Chin slash and burn in order to plant crops in what is quite rocky, unforgiving soil. They take one yield from the plantations and then move on to another area.
Often we were following old trails made by the British, but for the most part we took short cuts straight up the mountain.
We reached the cloud-covered peak at around sunset and set up camp just below the summit. We were all freezing, so the first priority was to get a fire started and then set up the tents and sleeping bags. Dinner was another tasty meal of canned sardines, coupled with our last bottle of Boujalei wine. A small satellite radio belted out oldies tunes, making our mountain ascent finale truly memorable.
The night was cold, and many of us spent it trying to figure out how to stay warm inside our sleeping bags, but a couple of us were up early the next morning to catch the stunning sunrise at the top of Mt Victoria before starting the one-hour trek down to meet the Jeeps at the road.
After taking group photos, tipping our porters – who were attempting to surreptitiously stretch their stiff limbs – we set off down the mountain by the road route. The trip back was long and dusty and all of us were happy to see Bagan, and its promise of a hot, luxurious shower. A sunset cruise over the river back to town completed what was a wonderful trip – sore muscles, rooster curry, Chin dogs and all.
Zaw Zaw was from Himalaya Tours, Summit Parkview Hotel tel: 227 978