Into the Back of Beyond - Part Three / by David Johnstone

A road less travelled 

Having quit the Priesthood in the morning somewhat perturbed by last night’s late events (and stung that I’d given the grubby bastard $40 school contribution the night before), we continued on through a series of descents. That could only mean one thing - ascents. The nature of road building in Burma means that the line of least resistance goes in a series of steep hairpin bends so I knew that the t-shirt would need to be issued to avoid melting.

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Chin State has only very recently opened up to foreign tourism and large parts have, like other regions in Burma, suffered simmering and often violent insurgency that’s been ongoing since the late 1940’s. Of course, since Chin borders Rakhine where the well-publicised eviction of the Muslim Royhingas has taken place recently, it’s best not to venture too deep. And there are still large stands of tropical forest that remain unexplored and out of reach. So the area I was trekking in, though remote, was populated by numerous villages (more like hamlets) which relied chiefly on agriculture and the slash-and-burn methods that laid waste to both flora and fauna. There was little chance of seeing much wildlife and the bird life was scant. In some areas, we trekked through pine and flowering rhododendron forests that were lush and felt relatively untouched, prime habitat for larger apex species like tigers who once roamed here freely. The  demand for the hocus-locus of Chinese medicine put paid to that and sadly these great animals were largely wiped out by the mid 1980s. 

However, the main point of interest for many are the hill tribes. Though now largely converted to Christianity and Buddhism (though pockets of animism still exist even within the converted) there are unique traditions that are fascinating though disappearing fast.

 

A DISAPPEARING WORLD

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The tribal women of Chin have uniquely tattoed faces which date back to their days of animistic practise. These come in a variety of forms, from simple to intricate patterns through to small markings that make the entire face appear blue. The practice was banned in the 1960s though some women in the remoter areas continued this tradition. So, when one encounters these women, they tend to be older and the patterns fainter. The younger generation tend not to carry on these traditions and the practise is likely to die out. With the region opening up, these women may sadly become relics of a disappearing world, a freakshow to be paraded and photographed for tourists (the ring-necked women of the Karen tribe in Kayin State being a depressingly obvious example). 

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My trekking over the next days continued apace with a familiar pattern - up at dawn, a breakfast of rice and eggs with a coffe blend, out at 8.30am (a little too late for me), walking through small villages and sometimes chatting with the locals, a lunch stop then more of the same before (usually) a hyper-ventilated climb into either a village to sleep the night. After the church came the monastery. I was advised by my guide Thang that no alcohol could be consumed there. 

We got there and the monk was hammered. 

 

GUNPOWDER, REASONS AND SHOT

The villagers are a resourceful lot - I suppose you have to be with such limited contact with the outside world. One particularly fascinating encounter was with the local hunters who make their own gunpowder and use improvised guns handed down by the British many, many years ago. Using a mix of ground charcoal and rum (!) along with a primitive form of gelignite and lead shot, they go into the woods and take aim at anything they can find. With such firepower in almost every village, it’s inevitable that the place is hunted out. Wild boar and barking deer are still around though and these seem to be the main prey for the villagers. I sampled some newly culled deer along the way, gamey and strong but tasty too. We stopped a local hunter who let me use his gun and I can only report back that banjo and barn-door spring to mind.

Preparing the shot - I liked this man’s glasses, an odd sight

Preparing the shot - I liked this man’s glasses, an odd sight

This hunter let me use his gun - much hilarity followed

This hunter let me use his gun - much hilarity followed

Village life was peaceful, laid back and the welcome was extremely friendly. It is literally a world away from the stress and competitiveness of the West. And whilst I may not have seen the things I enjoy - forests and wildlife - the warmth, generosity and good nature of the people made the trip a very special one indeed.

Haircut-time

Haircut-time

A boy prepares bamboo, used in everything from construction to food to alcohol

A boy prepares bamboo, used in everything from construction to food to alcohol

A local girl poses in traditional Chin dress

A local girl poses in traditional Chin dress

Rain never stops play

Rain never stops play

My guide, Hthang, shows me a local school his guiding income helped to construct

My guide, Hthang, shows me a local school his guiding income helped to construct