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

Trekking around the villages of Chin State

Isolated villages sit perched over steep ravines

Isolated villages sit perched over steep ravines

Jesus, I thought, my feet slowly forming into blocks of ice. How the hell can they wear a woolly hat but walk around without socks on! The hot but pleasant mountain temperatures of the day had succumbed to what felt positively Arctic.

We all sat huddled around a solitary charcoal burner, whilst the cold ate into me and any thoughts of respite from the millet wine were quickly annulled by the need to put my hands back in my pockets.  The stove had long since extinguished itself and the eerie twilight cast an almost primitive nature to the proceedings.

It was reassuring that the locals were frozen stiff too

It was reassuring that the locals were frozen stiff too

I’d arrived in my first Chin village and the rustic, romantic nature of it all was quickly dispelled by thoughts of hunkering under blankets on wooden floors, washing with a bucket of cold water and long days of trekking up mountains in sweltering conditions ahead. Still, this was the adventure I was after before I hit my half century, right?

The cat had to keep warm somehow   

The cat had to keep warm somehow  

I’d arrived from Mindat to find myself and my bags plonked in a darkened room surrounded by a plethora of noisy children all blissfully unaware of my presence. Home tonight was to be a house filled with 20 people, all related and with barely a word of English between them. When in Chin and all that, I tucked into a lovely meal and polished off a considerable amount of wine, chatting to the locals with a mixture of sign language and bad, basic Burmese before retiring to my blankets.

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Bizarrely, I awoke at dawn having had a decent night’s kip. As the sun rose above the mountains all appeared well and I was ready to start my trek.

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Things had shifted somewhat though. The appalling weather of the previous days had lead to the trek being curtailed from the remote to a more circuitous route around Mindat - off the beaten track for sure but more Arbroath then the Amazon. The slash-and-burn nature of the agriculture here, as with many parts of South East Asia, leads not only to rapid deforestation but to serious landslides that can isolate areas for weeks on end. And my original guide had pissed off while waiting for my late bus to arrive and was replaced by his reluctant elder brother Hthang. There was little preparation on their part too. I can’t say I was ecstatic and felt a little duped.

My guide and cook - Ni Hthang and Super Ni, two fine lads

My guide and cook - Ni Hthang and Super Ni, two fine lads

After a couple of hour’s white knuckle motorcycle ride up through the mountains, we headed by foot through a well trodden path passing piss-poor hamlets with wide-eyed children busying themselves with whatever work that was needed to be done. Schooling plays second fiddle to the graft of getting enough to sell and, sometimes, enough just to eat and survive.

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A young girl grinds the fruit of coffee trees  

A young girl grinds the fruit of coffee trees 

The trekking itself was hard work. The sun was relentless and the exposed hills were merciless. I had my own wet t-shirt competition, soaking one in cold water and shoving it over my head to provide some relief. It helped, just. The flat terrain was bearable, the hills less so and I was relieved to get to our accommodation on the first night, a priest’s house on top of a hill. God help me...

The church on the hill

The church on the hill

One Hail Mary and Two Our Fathers

Sweating like the proverbial priest with Ebola, I lay exhausted on the steps of the house awaiting divine intervention. A game of football was taking place.

”Hello” bellowed a man distinctly similar to Maradona gone bad.

“I’m Father Anthony, and welcome to my home.”

Mustering up all my lapsed Catholicism into one steaming heap I genuflected robotically and introduced myself.

”Ah, Scottish!” He chuckled. “Great whisky!”

It seems the entire nation has been distilled into a bottle of Jonny Walker’s.

”I’m actually a Monsignor and trained at the Vatican. I’ve travelled all over the world but never to your lovely country. But you can call me Father, it’s much simpler” he mused.

We were then joined by another younger, more avuncular priest, Father Francis. Discarding my previous attempt at religiosity for an altogether more measured approach, we chatted intently about the grinding poverty of Chin State, the role of the Church, the agricultural methodology of the country folk and Manchester United’s defensive issues.

Over a fine spread prepared by my guides, Father Anthony said grace and I tucked into my food. It’s a local tradition to feed the guests first so I ate alone as I did throughout the trip.

The boarding school

The boarding school

It transpired that Father Anthony had set up a private school in the village, providing religious guidance, a simple education and some basic ball-dribbling skills.

Millet wine was again dispensed generously and the evening petered out into frozen quiet under a spectacularly starry sky.  Before retiring to my blanket bed, the room wedged between my guides and the Father Anthony’s, I headed to the washroom double-taking to see a prone, naked Monsignor being rubbed down in a distinctly un-Catholic style.

Ignoring the clucking and whirring, I turned the blankets over my head, whispered one Hail Mary and prayed for forgiveness.