Burma to India Overland – Part 1

The last two weeks have seen us move away from the course we had set out, essentially to travel to north west Saigon division, in order to cross the Burmese Indian border at Tamu/Moreh. Every day we check for updates on the situation but everyday we are told that the road from Monywa to Kalaymo is impassable. We set a cut off limit to our waiting: our Myanmar visas expire on August 17th, if we try for the border and cannot make it then we also need to leave enough time to get back to the only other land crossings available, the closest being the now familiar Myawaddy – Mae Sot border that takes us back in to Thailand. From there? Malaysia to Indonesia, perhaps? We ponder the option…

On the 11th of August we leave the alluring comforts of Hsipaw and complete an eight-hour journey that will bring us back to Monywa via Mandalay. A retracing of our steps, a return to the point of turning away. But this time a clink of light reveals itself when we are told that the river boat from Monywa to Kalaymo has started again. This would take us within 115 miles or so of the border. L, having scanned Internet traffic relating to the crossing has located a Spanish cyclist attempting to do the same, she is also in Monywa. We meet for chapati and dhal and exchange similar slivers of information. She is adamant that she will try to cross the morning after and we decide to go along.

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At 4 a.m. on the 13th we board the river boat. The boat itself is a well worn necessity for many traders and families, there are also some Burmese aid workers on board with bags of sundries and supplies packed tight between bamboo baskets with banana leaf exteriors hiding contents. Along the milky river, the boat slows periodically to take on passengers and goods from currach-sized boats whose navigators expertly steer the smaller boat to the rim of the larger ferry.  Buoyancy at times is a mystery with the roof of the boat weighed down with people, scooters, motorbikes and boxes.

The river carves through a flat valley and carries the flotsam and jetsam of post flood. In the distance to the west mountains emerge out of pre dawn darkness. Villages shoulder river banks and trees display their intricate winding roots at the slice of the earthen banks. We arrive at Kalaymo just after 4 p.m., some three hours after anticipated. In the couple of hours leading up to arrival the flat valleys at river verge become gorges and sand coloured karst cliffs punctuate our voyage. We struggle to disembark as a hoard of traders bearing edibles launch themselves on to the boat as if carrying out a pirate raid. Our weighty backpacks paralyse movement. Pre-panic slices my stomach but we stay resolute and with the inevitable assistance of locals, who reach out and lift Killian and Aela off the boat, get to dry land. I spot our Spanish fellow traveller following her bicycle up the ramp, one local man holding it above his shoulder. Before I can blink L., children at her side, prepares to hop on to a mini truck taxi. We are on our way! Maybe it is possible to get to Kalay, some 28 miles away!

The truck brings us and our fellow passengers, a young Burmese family of four and two women, along coiling roads that I can only describe as treacherous, the devastation that has taken place clearly marked in the roads gaping scars, the shovelled away remains of landslide and the collapsed and folded Tarmac on road verge. As the road weaves around the upper base of the mountain  we glimpse the river some 15 meters below: it is utterly mind boggling to consider that the high water mark was above stretches of the road we were now on. A deathly grey, silt-pasted land with scars of collapsed bamboo housing articulates devastation. True, some houses stood and their inhabitants have returned to pick up the pieces, but the damage looks totally unforgiving.

The mini truck stops at an eroded cement bridge and unable to cross over the scree concave, we are forced to get off and walk to where another open air taxi awaits. This time a Protestant pastor and two doctors from Rangoon come to our assistance. They are in the area for three days to disperse aid supplies that they have personally fundraised for. The quoted fare to get us the remaining 18 miles was cut to one fifth with their minding. The journey took over an hour, during which we are briefed on the best strategy to cover the rest of the road, where five bridges are no longer existing  (apparently a similar vehicle-hopping cum foot-crossing mix), and provided with emergency phraseosolgy in Burmese. When we leave the V shaped river valley we come to what have recently been rice fields; now  only mud and the remains of wooden houses as if, like Dorothy’s, they had fallen from the sky and landed in the earthen remains of deluge. The telephone lines that still stand display wooden flotsam hanging from them, likewise the leaf bared trees. A man waste high in mud attempts bravely to push open the front door of his home, nearby an abandoned petrol station looks like a prop from the set of a climate change dystopia film. A foreboding and indiscriminating greyness that pales all light, predominates and envelopes both the sky and the land, helplessness seems to ooze from the silent vacancy of aftermath.

At once, I have a deep impulse to shield my children, hold them tight in to my chest so as their eyes are saved from such portents of inevitability.  The vast mud wastelands is a result of the worst floods in living memory, the monsoon rains cut slices of mountain away, added unprecedented amounts of water to mountain stream and tributary. The water rose to such a level that 2 story houses were entirely submerged. I feel almost like a voyeur, staring helplessly in to the face of climate change. Mercifully the river had risen slowly, its sheer volume allowed time for people to evacuate to makeshift camps. This fact is what saved hundreds if not thousands of people.

In darkness we pull up to the one hotel we identified in Kalay. The price, $50, is  three times what we paid for our most expensive stay in Burma and the room is four or five times as big as our normal standard. A notice on the wall adveritses a position with Oxfam: this  is the choice hotel of aid organisations and UN staff who have a presence in the area. We are escorted by a young man and behold clean tiled floors, clean bathroom with a hot shower and bath, air con, multi channel television, complementary water; luxuries that although mostly non-functioning, churn in the stomach like broken glass. The juxtaposed experience is too much. Although much has still to be discussed as to how we are going to tackle the logistics of tomorrow, we wrap silence around us while the children sleep soundly. Tiredness, sadness and privilege has defeated us.

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We awake at 5.30 am and desperately attempt to put a plan in place: my mind, sullied by the previous day’s experience, projecting vignette after vignette of the destruction wrought by the flooding. What lays ahead? Is it worse than what went before? What about the Indian side? Manipur, the neighbouring state, was also hit hard and landslides were reported on the road we plan to take from Moreh to Imphal. What about our children? Can we honestly expect them to take on what we do not know if we can take on ourselves?
All that is clear is that we could definitely make it to Kamphan, roughly half way to Tamu. After that loom the five collapsed bridges. We want to leave early and briefly toy with the idea of hitching. Filled up on the complimentary breakfast, ingeniousily crafted with a handful of ingredients to look its part, L. negotates with a taxi driver a ‘fair price’ mindful of where his life may have arrived at in the last two weeks. We are off again. The friendship highway is on more elevated ground and as a result the colour green in all its vivid manifestations abounds. Villages along the route are buzzing with school children in uniform running hand in hand, people on bicycles and scooters, women selling pineapples and apples at road side stalls and the general hub hub of daily errand makers. Life is again in colour.

On reaching our destination at Kamphan, which is, in fact, the road verge at the start of what once was a two hundred or so metre long bridge, we come across a scene that will be replayed a further four times along this route. The bridge, until recently a two lane cement and steel feat of engineering , has been swept away by what must have been a formidable and frightening sight. Now, in the wide span of river bed, is a mismatch of streams, pebbles and rocks which we cross on foot like a gymkana. For the remaining 50 metres an ankle high river rushes its way from the mountains and we cross over on a series of makeshift but sturdy bamboo footbridges. The children all the while seemingly taking all of this in their stride. At the other side we are greeted by locals on motorbikes, mnivans and mini trucks, ready to take us to the next bridge. The scene repeats itself after a few kilometers. At one of the crossings, a bamboo raft is pulled by a group of men, to carry people across the wide stretch of river bed where water still flowed. At another crossing, we have to climb through the remains of the steel structures of the bridge and down a bamboo ladder about 6 meters high.

The ingenuity and solidarity of the locals is plain to see. People pass us, many smiling and curious, it seems, as to what the hell a western family is doing in such a scene; we wonder ourselves at times. Others go about their business with what looks like a steely determination, eyes fixed on what lays ahead. People set up stalls at on river banks at road verge, organised reconstruction workers mount JCBs, there are people carrying rice sacks on their heads, others bags of cement. We keep saying we are ‘sorry’, in our daze like movement over what is wreckage, steel girdings astride river beds all mangled and distorted as if a monstrous giant had stomped through.

We meet a young man from a village a few miles shy of Tamu who has been stranded in Rangoon for the past month, others also seem to be making their way to Tamu: this gives us hope we will at the very least reach the border. And soon we are there, having travelled the eighty-eight miles from Kalymo in just over 4 hours. We treat ourselves to chai and buns at a tea house in the picturesque border town of Tamu. Flower potted walls, wide smooth surfaced roads, the multi coloured canopy of market stalls and bucolic surrounds belie its frontier town status. This is the town where a war was being fought, yet there are no signs of the Naga Independence groups nor the Indian Army who performed ‘daring’ cross border raids at times. We hop on an ‘auto’ (motorbike taxi) and soon are sitting at the desk of the Myanmar Emigration Office. Four passports (with relevant visas),  four passports copies and four travel permits for the region are handed over and duly stamped with a cheery ease and then we are escorted by the official to another bridge, this one standing. At the other side is India. We made it. It is 2.00 pm August the 14th, the eve of India Independence Day, and 34 hours since embarking the river ferry at Monywa. It is also, we will learn later, Nagaland’s Independence day.

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