Hsipaw is a small city north-west of mandalay, part of the Shan state that is sometimes subject to armed clashes between government forces and armed groups backed by China. Some areas are off-limits for tourists but it nevertheless remains safe to go there – you need a guide depending on where you go.
Getting there was a bit tricky because there was no direct bus leaving in the evening from Lake Inle, so we first took a night bus to Mandalay (somehow both of us instantly fell asleep despite the loud techno music the driver had decided to play). Once in mandalay (at 4am) we took a taxi to another bus station at the other side of town and
found a tiny bus packed with locals to bring us to Hsipaw (7 hours drive, 4 $). The back of the bus was filled with boxes and bags that kept sliding into our necks everytime the driver was breaking, and we picked up more people on the way so in the end there wasn’t a square inch left in this bus.
Luckily, I was checking our location on Maps.me and saw when we were in Hsipaw, because the driver didn’t realise we were getting off there (nobody was), and we would have ended up lost somewhere in the north, where the famous “Burmese Road” starts (in Lashio). That road was built by the British after the Burmese war to help them control the region and later extended to reach China and used by the allies in WWII to bring material to the Kuomingtang and help them fight the Japanese invaders.
We first explored a bit the city of Kalaw and convinced two Scots and one guy from New York to go watch the sunset together on top of a hill outside of town. Arrived there, dozens of girls in red jerseys were jumping around us, giggling and asking tons of questions. Their teacher then invited us to their school. A few minutes later we were packed like cattle ready for slaughtering are the back of a pick-up.
Turns out this school, the Shan Youth Network, is a 45-day program in which youngsters from the Shan tribes can join to learn/uphold Shan dialect, culture and traditions as well as improve their English. We were thus offered a delicious dinner before the whole school (200 students – 100 boys and 100 girls) sang a few English songs for us. They then invited us to perform some dances together and finished the evening with demonstrations of traditional Shan bird dance, music, and martial arts.
The next day we went bicycle riding and trekking by ourselves, through villages and fields. On the way we passed by some small hot springs pools where locals were bathing. They invited us to join them, which we did! We played with the kids in the water, but also drank some whisky with the father, who showed us which stone to use for peelings, and even gave us laundry detergent to wash our hair…
In Hsipaw we also went to a Shan Noodles fabric (yes, food !), and visited the “palace” of the former Shan Royal Family where we were lucky to meet the descendents who told us their story. The discussion was very inspiring, and made us think a lot about our responsibilities as travelers as well. We might write a post about this another time 🙂
To get back to Mandalay, we took the rail. This train is said to be one of those you should take once in your life. The ~200 km are covered in almost 12 hours though. You could fall off the train and easily catch up if you run a bit. The best adjectives to describe the ride are probably “bumpy” and “shaky” (literally felt like a vodka-martini in a shaker… or rather in a Japanese earthquake simulator). But beyond this, beautiful exciting, and even enjoyable ! The seats were comfy and we rode through kilometers of fields, forests, valleys, and countless villages where kids were greeting us with energetic hand waving. Each stop was an excuse to get off the train and buy little snacks, some more convincing than others. You have to be careful and keep your head away from the “window” because from time to time branches and leaves would make their way in and slap you in the face.
We crossed the famous Gokteik Viaduct, built by the British in 1901 over a 100 m high gorge. Almost 700m–long, it was then the second longest bridge in the world! Of course Rebekka was freaking out and kept holding onto the train in case the bridge wouldn’t hold (that would certainly save her life if the train were to dive 100m down); meanwhile Quentin was leaning half outside to get a good shot of the valley.
We made it safe and sound to Mandalay, only to discover that Rebekka’s phone had disappeared. A little bummer, although it had had a good, long life. We wish we could have explained the new owner that it was anyway too old to install any apps!