Wall Weary

During the course of our week on Hadrian’s Wall, David Thomas, John Walton and Angela Walton who organise and managed treks were given a name based on certain letters as highlighted above. We became known as the T.W.A.Ts.

Towards the end of the week one or two people put pen to paper and wrote a poem based on W H Auden’s Roman Wall Blues. Below is the work of Ann Jones. What a star she is.

Wall Weary.

I’m cold and alone sitting on this stone
Watching the sky and people passing by
They all have strange faces and speak a strange tongue
And I dream of my home, the place I belong

I stand on this wall of cold, hard grey stone
And wish for my family….. I’m so far from home
Why am I here in this bare hostile place
Another hard day I am dreading to face.

The wall is my prison, the land is my jail
And I dread what will happen if my duties I fail
The food it is sparse and strange to my tongue
I pray I’ll go home to the place I belong

I sleep, If I can…. on cold dirty floors
Never kept warm by windows or doors
I’m covered in lice and pestered by rats
So never again am I booking with T.W.A.Ts!

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Hadrian’s Wall

Arriving at Wellhouse Farm Camp Site late on Saturday afternoon to find camp all set up, the kettle on, the beer chilled and dinner in preparation was a welcome sight. David and Simon had done a good job after their arduous journey north the day before. At least our journey went to plan and time.

Enjoying the comfort of camp. The "Sword of Humiliation" hangs ominously above the table

Enjoying the comfort of camp. The “Sword of Humiliation” hangs ominously above the table

Having invested some money in new shelters, mess tent furniture and kitchen equipment was really beneficial and camp was very comfortable. The atmosphere was good and everybody was in high spirits and looking forward to the walking challenge ahead.

As is the norm for all of my trips, we had a “Wally Award”. This week it was a plastic sword, the ‘Sword of Humiliation’. Each day it is presented to the group member who has done or said the silliest thing and they have to look after it for twenty four hours, have it on view at all times and protect it from those who desire to steal it from them. I cannot remember what I was supposed to have done but the group voice was much louder than mine and they engineered for me to be the first recipient. This meant I would be carrying the sword through Newcastle, making a very public spectacle of myself. Sometimes my ideas and plans turn round and bite me on the bum!

It was the longest day and it did not really get dark until 11.00pm, significantly later than at home. It also got lighter earlier and the dawn chorus from the hedgerow beside camp burst into song at about 3.45am, just loud enough to ensure that we woke up. Strangely, after that first song burst it went quiet again as, I guess, the birds concentrated on their breakfast. The combination of light shining through the orange canvas, the background birdsong and excitement for what lay ahead prevented any further sleep and I soon found myself sitting in the mess tent reading the guide book and going over the details of the route for the day.

At a more acceptable hour the smell of cooking sausages wafted across camp encouraging those still in their sleeping bags to emerge and stock up on a few callories before we undertook the 15 mile walk from Wallsend to Heddon on the Wall. Fifteen miles is not a huge distance but when much of it is on tarmac and pavement it is far enough.

The start at Segedunum

The start at Segedunum

The minibus took us through the quiet streets of Newcastle, still sleeping off the excesses of a busy Saturday night, to Segedunum, the remains of the Roman fort in Wallsend and the start of our walk. Standing above the Tyne as it ebbed and flowed with the tide it must have looked impressive. Today this area of Newcastle is looking a little depressed with the adjacent Swan Hunter Shipyard now lying dormant, falling into decay along with other riverside factories once vibrant with activity. The white lookout tower at Segedunum looks conspicuous in its surroundings, resembling the bridge of a ship towering over the remains of the fort. With the museum not opening until 10.00am, there was not a lot to keep us from getting started with the walk, so soon after 9.00am we set off, me with my sword, having first had the obligatory start line photo.

The redeveloped marina at St Peter's

The redeveloped marina at St Peter’s

The first two or three miles passed through an industrial area, some of which was in a state of decay, and a clearly deprived area of Newcastle. The path, shared with the Hadrian’s Wall Cycle Way, was littered with rubbish, burnt out mattresses, a burnt out motorcycle and piles of rubbish dumped by people who neither appreciated nor cared for the environment. It was a disappointing start, but deep down, we knew that it would soon get better. And get better it did as we approached areas of new development, areas where there had been an injection of enterprise and areas which had been regenerated to the extent that they were now highly desirable.

The Millennium Bridge with the Tyne Bridge behind

The Millennium Bridge with the Tyne Bridge behind

Our first stop was about four miles into the walk at the Cycle Hub, a café cum cycle shop serving the many weekend cyclists and, of course, those of us embarking on walking Hadrian’s Wall. From the terrace overlooking the river we had tantalising glimpses of the Millennium Bridge and the Tyne Bridge beyond.  The coffee was welcome and the chocolate brownie was to die for. I decided I would use the walk as an opportunity to conduct a chocolate brownie survey, to decide who sells the best. The Cycle Hub would be difficult to beat.

The Sage

The Sage

Having made excellent progress for the first few miles, it slowed significantly for those miles passing through the centre of Newcastle along the riverbank. Firstly, we had to experience walking across the Millennium Bridge, a huge, sweeping curve with a complementary arc rising at an angle above it. On the Gateshead side to the east of the bridge there is the old Baltic Flour Mill, now an art gallery, while just to the west is the Sage Conference and Concert Centre, an armadillo shaped building of glass. Notices on either side of the bridge told us that it would be opening at midday, but as it was still only 11.30 it seemed too long to wait. However, by the time we had been distracted by the river side market between the two bridges and gazing at the iconic Tyne Bridge, the forerunner for Sydney Harbour Bridge, we were able to watch the winking eye of the Millennium Bridge as the arc pulled the walkway up to, supposedly, allow reasonable sized ships to pass through. On this occasion, one riverboat passed through that would not have needed the bridge lifted. It is a remarkably simple piece of engineering but very effective and was well worth waiting for.

Nesting gulls on Tyne Bridge

Nesting gulls on Tyne Bridge

The Tyne Bridge seems to evolve out of the buildings on the north bank of the river some of which are reminiscent of the older style building in New York. Unlike, in many cities, there has been no attempt to prevent birds from settling on the bridge and its surrounding buildings so that every nook and cranny has a nest with a gull’s backside poking from it as they sit on a clutch of eggs. Hence the pavements and the facades of the bridge and buildings are covered with white streaks and smears of gull poo. Linger too long under the Tyne Bridge and you too will be covered.

The Millennium Bridge in the open position

The Millennium Bridge in the open position

Having lingered long enough enjoying the vibrant waterfront of Newcastle, I was conscious that we still had several miles more to walk; we weren’t yet half way . We needed to get two or three more miles behind us before we stopped again for lunch. I knew exactly where I wanted to stop, some way upstream from the city centre, at Elswick where there would be a view of the Angel of the North rising above the gently rolling hills to the south of the river. It was not the best place for a picnic but the riverbank was pleasantly landscaped with modern technology factory units behind, water skiers on the river, rolling hills and the Angel peering across at us from a distance.

It was soon after lunch that we began to see some very tired looking, heavy legged runners heading towards Newcastle. They were competing in an ultra marathon, running 70 miles along the Hadrian’s Wall route from Carlisle to Newcastle over two days. We continued to see them in dribs and drabs for the next few hours, until we left the riverbank  to climb up to Heddon-on-the-Wall.

They were in varying states of agony, some worse than others, and I couldn’t help think that there would be some very tired people going to work the next morning. Remarkably, the women competitors seemed to be in much better shape than the men and could muster up a cheery welcome to us. It was noticeable that we, in return, would clap them and make encouraging remarks to spur them on their way. No such treatment for the men.

We were now on the outskirts of Newcastle. We had left industrial Newcastle behind and were walking through leafy suburbs, through riverside parks and pasture. We seemed to emerge from one of the UK’s major cities quickly and the walking became easier as we left the tarmac in favour of grassy paths and tracks.

Measuring the width of the wall which we found to be 1 Sandie and half a Gerry!

Measuring the width of the wall which we found to be 1 Sandie and half a Gerry!

By the time we climbed up to Heddon-on-the-Wall and met Angela at the Three Tuns pub we were ready for the pint of beer, or two. After some inner recovery we staggered, for now the muscles had begun to seize up, to the minibus, but not before visiting the first significant stretch of wall.

Camp was a welcome sight with more liquid refreshment and a hearty meal to soothe the aching limbs and sore feet. Despite the tarmac beneath our feet and the early rubbish we encountered it had been an interesting day. Newcastle has a lot to attract the visitor and may well be worth a return visit.

Clearly the walk through Newcastle had done us all good as we had a really good night’s sleep and even the dawn chorus failed to disturb us.

Fortified with a bacon breakfast the minibus returned us to Heddon-on-the-Wall for the resumption of our walk. Again I seemed to be carrying the Sword of Humiliation, this time because I kept putting it somewhere safe from thieving hand, forgetting where I had put it and accusing the innocent of stealing it. Life is cruel but at least I didn’t have to explain to quite so many people why I was carrying a sword on this section of the walk .

Light and shade

Light and shade

The vast majority of the route on the second day followed the course of the Military Road just on the south side of the line of the wall. This was largely a dead straight, undulating road. Although the road is dead straight it is not Roman. It was built in 1746 as a means of moving troops quickly in order to suppress the Jacobite rebellions of the period. The construction caused the most damage to the wall throughout its history as much of the stone was used as hardcore and now sits under the tarmac of the B6318. Interestingly, where the wall veers away to follow the line of crags which create a natural barrier, the wall is much more complete, simply because that route would have presented greater difficulty for the road constructors. It proved too far to carry the stone from the wall to the line of the road, so, thankfully, there are still sections for us to enjoy today.

DSC_0067As a result we were not going to see very much wall on this second section of the walk. And we were never going to stray far from the road with it aggregate lorries and speeding cars enjoying the undulating roller coaster which is the B6318. Despite the road we did walk through some wonderful fields of wheat bordered by vividly red poppies and there were increasing evidences of Roman settlement and activity. Sites where forts once stood but now are just a series of mounds of earth and ditches either side of where the wall once stood kept us aware of the areas Roman history.

Stopping for coffee at Vallum Farm, a complex of artisan food outlets, was a welcome respite from the constant placing of on foot in front of another. Known as the River Cottage of the North it was another opportunity to try out a chocolate brownie, which, while good, did not quite match that of yesterday. Somehow my sword was stolen and fell into the hands of a toddler. Here was my opportunity to get rid of it but, despite all my efforts, the little girl’s mother declined my generous offer.

Chollerford Bridge

Chollerford Bridge

As the day progressed it was beginning to get a little tedious; there wasn’t enough variety to break up the monotony and it was a welcome relief to finally reach our destination for the day, Chollerford and the garden of the George Hotel where a couple of pints slipped down beautifully.

That night we ate out at the Black Bull in Corbridge where I was able to pass the Sword of Humiliation on to Steve who, having spent much of his time trying to steal it, clearly indicating that he wanted it more than most. He had even tried commando crawling through short grass! Clearly his King’s education did him no good at all.

The next day we were due to move camp from Wellhouse Farm to the Hadrian’s Wall Campsite near Melkridge. Typically, the weather had taken a slight turn for the worst and while Angela took the group to Chollerford to resume their walk, the rain fell making the camp pack up a damp occasion. At least it would also be raining on the rest of the group as they progressed towards the most spectacular and dramatic section of the route along the escarpment with rolling hills and the Tyne Valley to the south and a bleak, hardly habited landscape to the north. This section would include the fantastic roman remains of Housesteads adjacent to the wall.

Meanwhile, Angela and I moved all the kit to Melkridge and set up camp in preparation for the group completing their day’s walk. This proved to be a nicer campsite, with better facilities and a very friendly and helpful owner.

Looking east from Steel Rigg while waiting for the group to arrive

Looking east from Steel Rigg while waiting for the group to arrive

Camp set, we drove to Steel Rigg, a five-minute drive from our new camp, to meet the group at the end of their long day. The walk had only been 12.5 miles but there were lots of ups and downs and, of course they had had the distraction of Housesteads to delay them. Before returning to camp we paid a visit to Twice Brewed for some liquid refreshment. In the evening Ann was presented with the Sword of Humiliation – what for I cannot remember. She must have spent all night devising a secure fastening to her rucksack, making it almost impossible for anybody to steal it.

on the summit of Winshields Crags, the highest point along the wall at 345m

On the summit of Winshields Crags, the highest point along the wall at 345m

The next day I rejoined the walk taking us from Steel Rigg to Banks. The route  continued along the ridge-line and took us to the highest point along the wall at Winshields Crags. From the summit we could look back at the undulating ridge as far as the eye could see and ahead of us there was just a faint glimpse of the sea and the coastlines, which make up the Solway Firth. The wall on these higher stretches was pretty solid and complete, only the mile castles seemed to have suffered extensively. One section where the wall has completely disappeared is the sites of Cawfields Quarry and Walltown Quarry, now both closed and full of water. These are attractive sites drawing water activity enthusiasts to the former and bus loads of tourists to the latter. Sadly, the desire for road building material outweighed the need to preserve the wall and at both sites the wall has disappeared. I doubt such callous activity would be allowed today.

The ruins of Thirwall Castle

The ruins of Thirwall Castle

Soon after leaving Walltown we came across Thirwall Castle, its ruined keep perched on an imposing hill above the few houses it dominates. This was clearly post Roman and built to protect the area from Scots who came over the border to plunder the English farmsteads. It may have been post Roman but it was certainly made out of Roman stone. Thirwall means ‘hole in the wall’. Whether the hole was already there or was created for the castle is an interesting question to which we will probably never know the answer.

Leaving the escarpment and heading towards Gilsland

Leaving the escarpment and heading towards Gilsland

The route now left the escarpment and descended towards Gilsland. The wall became less continuous but the ditches seemed to become more pronounced. As we passed Gilsland we saw a large, very derelict house, with a section of the wall passing through its garden. There were large holes in the roof, a tree growing out of one corner of the roof, clearly a good refurbishment project for somebody. It was hard to believe, as we saw a white haired woman in the garden, that somebody actually still lived in such a decrepit house. What it must be like inside only the imagination can tell.

From Gilsland the route progressed to Birdoswald, the site of a large Roman fort. Unless you were a member of English Heritage you had to pay but if you continued a few yards along the path you saw pretty much all that there is to see over the fence.

The path again ran parallel to the B6318 but veered away every-so-often to pass round present day farms and homes. It was on one of these minor detours that we passed through a beautiful woodland where we spotted red squirrels, something we don’t see in the south. Eventually we reached Banks where Angela picked us up for the return to camp. The wall was narrowing all the time along this section and by the time we reached Banks it was little more than three feet across. Soon it would disappear altogether and become nothing more than a linear mound of earth.

After several attempts by Steve to steal the Sword of Humiliation, including more commando style raids through short grass, he finally succeeded, much to everyone’s amusement.

Enjoying a night out at Twice Brewed

Enjoying a night out at Twice Brewed

That night when we ate out at Twice Brewed, I presented the sword to Steve because he had shown on several occasions that he really wanted it. He was leaving us at the end of the next day and I thought it was something he could happily entertain his twin grandsons with. God help them!

On day five it was David’s turn to move camp. The group had efficiently packed away the tents and helped with the dismantling of the two shelters before the minibus took us to Banks to resume the walk. The route was largely flat passing through delightful agricultural land and pleasant villages. We stopped for a coffee and my chocolate brownie in Walton but I still had not had one as good as that on the first day.

During the course of the morning, I had a phone call to say that the campsite I had chosen, and booked for the next two nights, Highfield Farm at Boustead Hill, was not suitable. David had been there and, unable to rouse anybody to help him, had had a nose around. The site was not accessible by vehicles and this was going to be a problem. The kitchen facilities were very small and rather dirty and there was one shower in the corner of the kitchen. He could not find the toilets. Deciding it was definitely not suitable, he set about finding an alternative site. The area west of Carlisle appeared to be bereft of campsites so he and Angela turned their attention to the east of the city and eventually decided upon Sandysike Farm just outside the village of Walton, where we had stopped for coffee earlier in the day.

The River Eden approaching Carlisle

The River Eden approaching Carlisle

In the meantime, the rest of us headed towards Carlisle. I had set a pretty good pace throughout the day, particularly in the morning, as we wanted to make sure that Steve arrived in Carlisle in time to catch his train south.

As it was we arrived in good time and, leaving him behind, Angela took us back to camp. She had given us a hint that it was somewhere special and indeed it was.

Our lawn camp at Sandysike

Our lawn camp at Sandysike

We were camping on the lawn in front of a beautiful Georgian farmhouse owned by a rather eccentric but interesting couple. The view from the lawn looked out across the Pennines and the north Lakeland hills; a beautiful location. There were no other campers there, which was just as well with only two showers and two toilets between us. The buildings around the farm were a rambling pile and there was much that could be done to improve them but there was a charm about them. David was less impressed as a spike of metal had pierced one of the tyres on his trailer as he passed over a cattle grid in need of much repair. Richard, the farm owner provided him with a spare tyre from one of his trailers and his son had it changed so it was not a problem for long.

The last leg of our journey took us back to Carlisle to complete the walk to Bowness on Solway. It was easy walking and while some of it was quite pleasant , there were parts that seemed tedious and unnecessarily dull, particularly when we were diverted inland to walk along farm tracks, which, like the early part of the first day in Wallsend there was a lot of rubbish, but this time debris wilfully dumped or carelessly left by farmers.

When we reached Boustead Hill, David and I went to visit Highfield Farm to see if we could have a conversation with the owner. Initially, nobody was in evidence so we went and had another look at the kitchen. It was very small and had been left in a mess.  Eventually, the woman who owns the farm came out and we had a conversation which deteriorated quite rapidly, and significantly so when I asked for a refund and David questioned the accuracy of the content on her website. It referred to “posh camping” and a list of wonderful facilities, all of which were not in evidence. After she had slammed the door in our faces David went to find the toilets and found one very dirty toilet to serve the whole of the camp. Hardly ideal and we were both relieved that we had made the right decision to go elsewhere, even if it meant losing money.

Sally and Stella at the finish

Sally and Stella at the finish

For a couple of days I had been suffering with uncomfortable twinges in my back and it was most uncomfortable when I stopped. While the rest of the group finished their lunch, I continued along the trail, expecting them to catch up at some point. There was still four miles to go and I wasn’t moving that freely. Nobody did catch me and I reached the finish at Bowness-on-Solway at 3.55pm. Trevor, who had horrendous blisters on the soles of his feet and who similarly found stopping and starting painful, limped in ten minutes later. Sally and Stella were next, fifteen minutes later and the rest of the team arrived after another ten minutes.

The rest of the team at the finish. They don't look too bad considering they had just walked 87 miles

The rest of the team at the finish. They don’t look too bad considering they had just walked 87 miles

Then it was off to the pub for a well-earned pint or two, although some preferred visiting the tearooms a little further on into the village. I, for one, was not going to walk any further than I needed to get a drink.

It was Sandie’s birthday, so we celebrated back in camp with some fabulous steak bought from the butcher in Brampton, some good beer and several bottles of wine.

You would have thought that that would be the end of the story, but not quite. The following morning the well-oiled team dismantled camp very quickly and we headed south. David, who had managed to get ahead of us was towing the trailer and reported that the tyre he had been given had shredded near Crewe on the M6. As we were behind, we could pick him and the shredded tyre up, find a replacement, return him to his vehicle and continue home, arriving a little later than planned.

One of the iconic views along Hadrian's Wall

One of the iconic views along Hadrian’s Wall

It had been a super trip. The weather had been particularly kind to us, being mostly dry and not too hot. The route is extremely well marked and maintained throughout, with the exception where it has shared use; those first couple of miles in Wallsend and the farm tracks in the last few miles. Otherwise it is excellent. I can thoroughly recommend the route if you want to travel along a route in its entirety, but if you want just the best bits, then I would recommend walking from Chesters Fort to Birdoswald, which can be done in two days, or three if you want to spend a day visiting Vindolanda and the Military Museum. If I was to do it again, I would certainly include a day off in the middle for the museums and archaeological sites.

 

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Frank Loveder 1951 – 2014

After a long illness, Frank Loveder passed away on the 2nd May.  This is my tribute to him.

I first met Frank when I joined the staff of King’s Worcester in January 1988. He had already been Head of Chemistry for a few months. Initially our paths did not cross but Frank was very difficult to miss as his blond head stood head and shoulders above everybody else in the school.

Our friendship began with the Himalayan Club. Frank was already running a hill -walking club for pupils when I went to talk to him about my intentions of taking a group of Sixth Formers to the Himalayas. His eyes lit up and his immediate response was that he wanted to be a part of it. Hence, with his support, I launched the Himalayan Club. Frank was a great asset to the club and a huge support to me. We created a fairly comprehensive training programme in order to prepare the boys (it was only boys in those early days) for a major trek in the Himalaya. As well as numerous visits to Snowdonia and the Lake District, we backpacked the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, Wainwright’s Coast to Coast and the hardest of the lot, the Lakeland Round. When Frank organised a trip to walk part of the GR5 in the Alps for a group combining his hill-walking club, scouting friends and the Himalayan Club I was only too happy to lead the support team.

Frank had a huge reserve of energy, and after a full day of hard walking he would happily set about erecting tents and preparing a sumptuous meal, regaling us with tales of adventure in the mountains and on the sea. He was immensely practical and, although I had years of experience of my own, I really appreciated his help in those early days of the Himalayan Club.

In addition to all the training, we had three fantastic trips to Nepal together. I say fantastic. The first to Everest went a bit pear shaped but the second to Annapurna and the third to Everest again were successful in every respect, inspiring me to carry on and Frank to set up his own Himalayan Clubs in St Edward’s College, Liverpool and Presentation College, Reading. On that first trip we had a lot of illness and ended up with students dotted about in various parts of the Khumbu. Frank had the constitution of an ox, so while I was not wanting to venture too far from a toilet, Frank forsook his own ambitions and focused on gathering the various lost sheep, ensuring they were well and cared for. I think, had we not been returning to Nepal three months later with the next group, we might have thrown the towel in.

At the end of that first trip Frank bought two t-shirts and had them embroidered. His idea was that we would wear them in school on our return. We wore them with pride. Frank, being a chemistry teacher, had not checked his for spelling and it caused great amusement to everybody when they read his embroidered message. It read, “Been there, done it, and this is the t-shit.”

Our relationship was not always a bed of roses. We often shared tents and hotel rooms and it did not take me long to discover that Frank snored. It was important to get to sleep first. However, on one night in the Marshyangdi Hotel the combined efforts of Frank lying in the bed next to me and the dogs barking in the streets around the hotel, sleep was impossible. I tried encouraging Frank to rollover on to his front only to discover he was already lying on it. At about 3.00am the solution to my problem was found. I heard a window open, a gun shot, a dog yelp and die. I was so close to opening our window and asking if I could borrow the gun.

Occasionally at Christmas, the staff at King’s would put on a pantomime and for some reason Frank and I found ourselves playing the Ugly Sisters. These were fun time, especially as neither of us were confidently word perfect and tried to trip each other up by adlibbing. However, we were so used to each other by this time that we managed to pull it off, much to our own and the audiences amusement.

I alluded earlier to Frank’s culinary skills and was fortunate enough to experience his world famous pancake parties where he produced pancakes with every conceivable filling and, boy, were they delicious.

In 1992 I had a serious skiing accident, which required surgery to put me together again. The six weeks I had to take off work were mind numbing and Frank knew how hard I would find confinement. One afternoon, when he was not committed to the lab teaching, he turned up at my house laden with Tesco bags. He then proceeded to destroy my kitchen while he concocted six fabulous main courses and numerous puddings for a group of friends he had invited that evening to cheer me up. Frank was a true friend and was always there when he saw there was a need.

It was a shame for the Himalayan Club when Frank moved on to St. Edward’s in Liverpool but it was not the end of our working together. Once Frank had settled he set about forming his own branch of the Himalayan Club, and I went up to visit and help him launch a trip to Everest Base Camp. The event coincided with another of his famous pancake parties.

When he moved to Presentation College he fulfilled his ambition to become a Head Teacher. I went along to present the prizes and I also helped him launch a trip to Nepal for his pupils. Sadly it was not to prove a happy move and through the callous behaviour of the chapter of monks who owned the land and through no fault of Frank, the school went into a decline. I am convinced that that very stressful time was the catalyst for Frank’s subsequent ill health, which makes me feel very bitter.

In more recent years we kept in touch, largely when Frank would appear unannounced on our doorstep during his annual Christmas or New Year travels to visit people. Then we would catch up on his news. In recent years he would update us on his health and treatment but, at no time, was he less than positive or down hearted about the hand he had been dealt. As I write this I am so pleased that he was able to join us for the two Himalayan Club 20th Anniversary Dinners that I organised last year. At those dinners he was able to meet up with those boys who had gained so much from sharing a remarkable experience with him. I too am so grateful for his knowledge, his skill, his towering sense of fun and his friendship, and I can forgive him for his snoring.

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Myanmar – Lake Inle

Yangon Airways - the flying elephant

Yangon Airways – the flying elephant

A twenty-five minute flight took us from Mandalay to Heho on the very efficient Yangon Airways. It is the same flight we have taken each time we have moved from one area to another as it flies in a loop. This time we flew at 11,000 feet because, as we headed east the land rose up to meet us. Everywhere was parched, red earth, a patchwork of fields now harvested and being prepared for the next growing season when the monsoon rains come.

We are now in Shan State, the largest state by area with a population of about six million. For many years there was unrest here as they wanted autonomy but that dispute was sorted in 1990. Being adjacent to the Chinese, Laos and Thai borders it is fairly sensitive. Agriculturally it is very prosperous and this us evident in the houses they live in. There has been a housing revolution in recent years as they have moved from the traditional woven house to brick built, two storey houses. Agriculture is the mainstay of the people as the land if fertile and they are prepared to work hard. For a very few, part of that wealth may be attributed to the growing of opium, which is illegal but very difficult to control. There seems to be a stronger military presence here, possibly a throwback to the old days but there are problems with child trafficking that they are trying to combat. Children are trafficked for the Thai sex trade, for Chinese second wives and for organs. There are some evil people in the world!

DSC_0847We were not going to Lake Inle straight away but were travelling to see a cave with ten thousand Buddha statues of all sizes in it. It was a couple of hours drive from Heho along a narrow road through farmland. En route we stopped off at a village to get a closer look at how they lived. There were few people around and we discovered that nearly all the villagers had gone to an umbrella ceremony, the topping out of a pagoda. Those that remained had chosen not to go. Again we were greeted with nothing but friendliness with one woman insisting we have a look in her house. She said that next time we come we would be able to see her new, brick built house that was nearing completion behind her present bamboo screen house.

A proud land owner

A proud land owner

We met one man who had just received a visit from a local government officer. He was holding a piece of paper. When asked what it was it turned out to be the rights to his land. Now he could relax. the land he has been working on for most of his life is officially his and he has the piece of paper to prove it. There have been problems over land rights throughout the reign of the military regime, but now he can sleep peacefully at night knowing that what has always been his, is actually his.

Everything about the village was very tidy, everything having a place and organised, a sharp contrast to the litter that we had seen at roadside. I can only assume that most if that came from passing traffic although there did seem to be specific dumping areas, which the wind had spread further. Plastic bags seem to be a real problem and there are plans to ban plastic bags in some areas but it will all take time to filter through and have an effect.

DSC_0885Reaching the Pindaya Caves, we climbed a flight of steps to the entrance where we were faced with a wall of Buddhas disappearing into the roof of the cave. From the entrance it did not look very deep but on entering the walkway snakes between the statues. It is an incredible sight to see so many but it is also a little gaudy. Within the cave there are steps leading up to higher levels and platforms that give different perspectives, and squeezing through a shirt tunnel gains access to a meditation chamber. As you delve deeper into the cave the temperature and humidity suddenly increase. The floor is damp and the air unpleasant to breathe. There are also fewer statues and I am sure that in time all the gaps will be filled with newly sponsored statues and that there is the potential for the number to double to twenty thousand.

Leaving the caves we drove to Kalaw, an old colonial town where the British migrated to during the hottest part if the year.

The hotel was a little out if town but was a series of colonial houses and bungalows set in well cared for, weedless gardens. The accommodation was a little rustic but perfectly adequate, particularly as we were only staying one night. The dinner in the wood panelled dining room was good although the green track suit tops of the waiters did not fit with wood panelling. Breakfast was in the outside dining room under a large framed canopy more suited to a tennis court. Parts of breakfast were good but it lacked fruit.

Kalaw Station trying to look like and English country station

Kalaw Station trying to look like and English country station

Before we left Kalaw we visited the railway station, stemming from the colonial days with its mock Tudor facade. There are only three trains a day and sadly none came through while we were there. The railways do not have a good reputation and journeys can take a long time and are uncomfortable. From the 1st April tourists will pay the same fair as locals in an effort to entice more people on to the trains.

From the station we went to look at the market in town but it wasn’t as unusual as some of the markets we had been to. It seemed a very quiet and subdued market.

Collecting the nursery plants ready for planting out

Collecting the nursery plants ready for planting out

The drive from Kalaw to Lake Inle takes a couple of hours with occasional stops to photograph people working in the rice paddy fields. The fields provided a splash of green in an otherwise earthen landscape. Men, working up to their knees in muddy water, were gathering the young shoots from the nursery beds, putting them into bundles ready for planting out. While men tend to do this task the job of planting out tends to be done by women.

Exquisite glass work

Exquisite glass work

On the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe we stopped at a temple with a thousand small Buddhas housed in niches in the walls with glass work depicting stories of Buddha. The colours were rich and possessed none of the gaudiness of many other temples we had visited. There was a sense of age about the place. The glass work was particularly interesting. I guess it helped in that there were no other visitors there to distract us from looking and admiring.

Adjacent to the temple was a monastery for about thirty novices. They were having a rest, presumably after lunch and were lying in their sleeping quarters away from the heat with all the doors and windows open. As they played games on their phones or game boys they appeared no different to any other young boy.

After our own lunch we went down to the water to meet our three boats and boatmen. The boats were long canoes with an engine attached to a long propeller shaft, which also acted as the rudder. The shaft was not quite as long as the boat we had in Bangkok but the principle was the same.

To access the lake we had to travel down a long wide canal busy with boats going out and returning. Most boats were occupied by tourists but as we entered the lake proper there was a lot more other activity on the lake.

DSC_0966The most amazing were the leg rowing fishermen. To the watcher it seems such a cumbersome firm of propulsion but necessary because of all the things they have to do with their hands. They have small dugout canoes, the front and back being identical with flat platforms. The fisherman stands on one end of the boat with a leg wrapped around a paddle. His hands hold a thin pole and his fishing net, which he gradually plays out as his leg provides the forward motion of the boat. When bringing the net in he tends to squat so that he can extract any fish he may have caught. I couldn’t help but think that such an awkward action must cause hip problems in later life, particularly if they favour only one leg. However, they are equally dexterous with both.

Others were collecting weed from the bottom of the lake and loading it into their canoes so that the weight of it seemed to push the canoe below the surface. Every so often they would bale out the water collecting from their soggy load.

DSC_0970As we neared these people going about their daily business we would cut power so that we could watch and photograph. There are differing styles of fishing. Some, as I have pointed out, played out a long net and then beat the water with their paddle to try to drive the fish into it. Others used a frame with a triangular net and trawled it through the water for a few metres before bringing it up to extract any fish and weed they had picked up. A third method used a conical framed net, which they placed in the water. They then poked a stick into the top and, with a stabbing action, forced the fish into the net where it became entangled. Finally, a fourth group placed bamboo woven tubes into the water to pull up after a given time. These were fresh water prawn traps. All this activity gave us plenty of interest.

Thousands of tomato plants on floating beds

Thousands of tomato plants on floating beds

Leaving the open water the lake becomes a series of channels between floating islands surrounding a stilted village. The floating islands are made up of the weed that has been collected. These islands are held in place by long bamboo poles driven through them and in the mud bed of the lake. Smaller bamboo canes stick into the floating island for row upon row of tomato plants. Tomatoes from this area are the sweetest I have ever had. To break up the monotony of tomatoes vines have been erected for the growing of cucumbers and various types of squash. It is a remarkable system and it is easy to forget that this is still a lake and not a wetland with a network of canals.

During the monsoon the water level rises about four feet

During the monsoon the water level rises about four feet

The village we travelled through was quite large. Houses protruded from the lake on stilts, many larger than you would expect. The lives of the people revolve entirely around the water – it is their source of food, their income, their water supply and their playground. Children learn to swim at a very early age and they are as comfortable in the water as they are on land. Travelling slowly around the village we were given an insight into their daily life. They even have temples and schools built on stilts and all transport is via the water.

There are twenty-two such villages on or around the lake sustaining the the lives of a great many people. I couldn’t help but think that with the increasing needs of a growing tourist population and the increasing needs of the villagers, there is a danger that the resources of the lake could be stretched in the coming years.

We arrived at our hotel on stilts. Shwe Inn Thar Floating Hotel in the late afternoon. Our boats deftly entered the hotel gateway and deposited us at the teak steps rising out of the water leading to reception and the dining room. From this central hub a series of walkways led to avenues of wooden bungalows beautifully constructed on their stilts.  To one side of reception there was a bar overlooking the swimming pool, a remarkable structure suspended above the lake level.

Our accommodation is on the left

Our accommodation is on the left

Our bungalow was at the end of an avenue with a perfect outlook to the west, from our balcony, of the setting sun. It is a beautiful location, only spoilt by the regular passage of boats, carrying tourists and locals alike, with their noisy engines.

Having arrived at our hotel we were trapped, unable to venture out to a restaurant, even if we wanted to. There were few other guests as the end if the season approaches so we were well catered for in the restaurant.

In our bungalow there is a notice letting guest know that there is chanting at 4.00am in the monastery in the nearby village. They hoped we would understand and that it would not spoil our stay. Indeed, at the allotted time the microphones chanting could be heard as it drifted across the water. It was quite melodic and not at all disturbing. However, it was obviously the call for all locals to get up and it was not long after that the boats started chugging by. That sound was less pleasant but still had a certain charm about it.

The following morning we had a relatively late start, 9.30, but a full day ahead of us, being transported from place to place by our three boats.

DSC_0097Our first stop was at a cigar making workshop. Again no cigars were being rolled on the thigh of a dusky maiden. A group of five women sat on the floor with all the necessary ingredients and tools in front of them. The tobacco leaves contained a mixture of tamarind, star anise, coconut and a little tobacco. Being paid by volume they can make between 800 and 1000 cigars in a day. We were invited to try one. Not having smoked since 1992 I was a little nervous. It tasted quite nice but immediately made me cough. I will not be taking up the weed again.

DSC_0101Travelling through the village we were able to observe life from our boat. Nearly everything happens outside, either on the bamboo platforms or on/in the water. People knelt on their platforms washing themselves, pouring water taken from the lake and pouting it over themselves, washing clothes, preparing vegetables, tending their floating vegetable patches from within a canoe or simply watching the world go by. All life is there for everybody to see and I felt privileged to be able to watch it.

DSC_0137Next we visited a lotus silk workshop. The clatter of looms was quite deafening. All the workers, in three workshops were women, none of them being particularly young and a warning sign that this is a dying craft that will one day be replaced by machines. Young girls prefer to work in restaurants and hotels. You saw each stage of the production from the extraction of the silk from the lotus stalk, the spinning, the dying and finally the weaving. There was a final stage, the shop! Having spent so much time at these two craft centres we had to go for lunch in a stilted restaurant before visiting a pagoda, the most interesting aspect of it being the golden boat that is brought out at festivals. By now we were pretty well pagoderd out and it was interesting that we were spending more time in craft centres and their outlets and less in the religious sights.

DSC_0169Talking of which we next went to a silver craft workshop where we saw the smelting of the rock to burn out the impurities and leave a silver bar which is then cut and worked into fantastic jewellery and ornamental pieces. There seemed no shortage of young men in the workshop, probably because the pay is commensurate with the skills required.

The final visit of the day was to the temple of the jumping cat, although cats no longer leap as the abbot felt it was cruel to poke them into jumping. The temple is also renowned for a number of ancient altars. We saw some cats but they weren’t jumping.

Back at the hotel we cooled down in the pool before watching yet another sunset.

My aggressor!

My aggressor!

I have been having some difficulty with a pair of swallows. Every time I step outside from my stilted room I am dive bombed by the pair. I believe them to have a nest underneath the platform and, for some reason, they consider me to be a threat. They are such skilled flyers, able to divert at the last moment to avoid hitting me but being close enough for me to feel the wind from their wings. I have to force myself to stay still to avoid there being any chance of them hitting me. It would certainly hurt me and would probably kill them. I decided to wear my GoPro and film them. They appear as very fast flashes across the screen. Each time they pass me they tweet a warning. It is wonderful getting so close to nature, or, in reality, nature getting so close to me. I was pleased to discover that I was not their only victim and that others who ventured too near were given the same treatment.

Two Paduan women and Angela

Two Paduan women and Angela

Our last day on Lake Inle was more relaxed with fewer places to visit. The plan was to visit the Five Day Market. That is not a market that lasts for five days but a market that occurs every fifth day. Our boats came to pick us up and take us to the market site. There was a degree of excitement as we were told that there would be some women from the Paduan Tribe, renowned for wearing neck rings. Sure enough, as we stepped out of our boats and went into the shop at the top of the steps, they were there. They were clearly there as a tourist attraction, looking immaculately groomed and willing to pose for photographs. Everything was precise about them, with perfect hair and make-up, poise and long necks encased in a collection of rings. The ones that they were wearing were light weight but on a table were some of the original brass ones which were extremely heavy. The rings gave them an elegance. I wanted to know if they ever took them off. They don’t, although they can if they wanted to. Underneath, their necks would be extremely slender and soft.  I was pleased to know that their heads would not flop from lack of strength in the muscles.

DSC_0226Moving on to the rest of the market, it was clearly geared up for tourists with lots of stalls, in a rectangle, selling mostly tourist trinkets and clothing. A lot of the items were of a good quality and it would be easy to spend a lot of money. There were a few local food stalls in a small section. I was more interested in the people rather than the products as there was such a varied selection or people of all ages and skin textures.

Returning to the shop where we started the women were now more active. I think they were mother and daughter. The daughter was playing a home made guitar and singing a rather monotonous, but captivating song, while the mother was weaving.

Flower sellers

Flower sellers

Leaving them, we sailed off to visit the Indein Pagoda ruins. To get to Indein we sailed along a canal with far less commercialism and an opportunity to see local people going about their business, men fishing, women paddling canoes laden with flowers, children playing. This was a pleasure to see before hitting the commercial approach to the ruins, a long corridor of stalls up a covered walkway. We managed to avoid their lure on the way up to the pagodas.

DSC_0267The ruins were spectacularly good, a huge collection of tumbling pagodas with little niches where small statues of Buddha once sat.

Closer to the main pagoda a lot of new ones have been, or are still being, built. Only a few have been gilded with gold leaf, the remaining one the natural grey or red depending on the type of plaster they have used. It made a pleasant change not to have everything gilded and, in some respects, I prefer them when they are not.

The return to our boats along the corridor of stalls was less easy with temptation getting in the way of forward progress. Dragging ourselves away from the stalls we returned to the hotel via a lunch stop and had the afternoon free.

Our leg rower

Our leg rower

In the late afternoon, six of us took three canoes, with a member of the hotel staff each, and went for a paddle around the village. It was very peaceful to be on the water without an engine sputtering behind us, but it was impossible to avoid hearing them as they passed near by. Our paddlers took us through some of the narrow backwaters and although we did not see a great deal in the way of human activity or wildlife, we were taken to places that larger, motorised boats could not reach. Occasionally our oarsmen changed style, preferring to leg row some stretches, particularly when an element of competition entered the fray. It was remarkable what a difference leg rowing made to progress through the water; it was significantly faster. It surprised me that such an ungainly action could be so effective.

DSC_0360The following morning we were up early for our boats to take us on the hour long journey back to Nyaung Shwe where our bus was waiting to take us to Heho and our flight back to Yangon. The early morning light on the lake was fabulous and for a while the rising sun washed out the colour in the lake, the mountains to the east and the sky, making the early morning fishermen stand out darkly against the light background.

DSC_0372Arriving at the airport an hour before departure we were beginning to relax in the departure lounge when our flight was called. The weather had been particularly clear that morning so all flights had been early, so instead of a 9.30 departure we took off at 8.45. this meant we would be arriving in Yangon much earlier than expected and much too soon for us to go the the hotel. Usa decided we should mix and mingle with the masses and take the train from the nearest station to the airport to the city centre, a journey of about an hour, not really exceeding 25mph.

Like many railways the world over it was a corridor of deprivation and filth with litter thrown on to the embankments and out of tenement buildings that lined the trackside. Putrid streams of black water oozed its way around the rubbish. We were seeing the worst side of Yangon but it was a thrill to travel on the train in a carriage of bench seats down each side with open windows and no doors. Despite the openness of the carriages it was very hot and sticky. Remarkably, in the space of three hours we had travelled by boat, bus, plane and train.

That was it. We had finished. We had just one more night in Yangon before we split up and took our various routes home.

A jade market trader

A jade market trader

It has been a fabulous experience. Myanmar is a beautiful country with much to offer. If temples and pagodas are not your thing, they are hard to avoid and you cannot visit Myanmar without visiting a few. It has been a surprise and an eye opener. I really felt that it would not be as advanced as it is, having been ruled by a firm military government for several decades. We had been warned that there would be no ATM machines but there were some, and they worked, and given time there will be many more. They claim to have internet but the service is very limited and, at the moment it is best not to waste time trying. Myanmar is gearing up for more and more tourists with large hotel building projects. They have big plans to renovate all the old colonial buildings in Yangon and the transport infrastructure is being upgraded. A lot hinges on the election next year and whether the constitution can be changed in time for Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected. If it can, she will most certainly be elected and then she will be under pressure to deliver all the social reform the country needs, particularly in education and health. If the constitution cannot be changed in time for her to be elected there might yet be more problems, which could slow down the rate of progress.

This sums up the people in a single expression

This sums up the people in a single expression

The most impressive aspect of this two-week visit has been the people. They are the friendliest people I have ever come across. They welcomed us with open arms and smiling faces wherever we went. We could not have been looked after better. They are a beautiful people, slight in build with stunning facial features. They deserve a peaceful time ahead of them where they can prosper and develop in a way they so richly deserve.

We have focused our attention on the main tourist areas for this trip but it has set the seed for a return visit to go off the beaten track. We will be back!

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Myanmar – Mandalay

A twenty two minute flight took us from Bagan to Mandalay, a place that has conjured up all sorts of images in the mind going as far back as my childhood. It was one of those places that cropped up in geography. Kipling wrote about it and, of course, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby travelled the road to Mandalay. As we drove into the city all those romantic images of Shangrila were dispelled in the chaos of the roads, the slightly ramshackle approach to building and the general scruffiness of the streets. They weren’t Kathmandu dirty but they were not as well cared for as some. It was particularly noticeable that the pavements were more hazardous and the allowance of thousands of motorbikes on the roads meant that they seemed much more dangerous, as much for pedestrians as anybody else.

This was just a fraction of the total!

This was just a fraction of the total!

Our first visit was to the Jade Market. I was expecting the usual demonstration workshop and a sale room. How wrong was I? I should have realised before I got there as there were thousands of motorbikes parked several deep each side of the road. I remember thinking as I walked past them, “How do they know which bike is theirs when there are so many that look alike?”

The entrance to the Jade Market revealed all. The cacophony of noise from thousands of voices haggling, bartering and making a deal was deafening. Most of the traders were Chinese who seem to have captured the trade in jade. We were hit by a wall of sound.

DSC_0392The market was made up of a series of alleyways in a grid system. Each alleyway was heaving with people, mostly men, although there were sections where women worked. Very few women roamed the alleys apart from nuns who were going around collecting alms. Some were young children, far to young to be in this sort of environment. On either side of the alleyways, and sometimes down the middle if width allowed, buyers sat at little desks armed with a small torch which they shone at the jade to check its quality. If an acceptable price was offered a deal would be sealed, if not the seller would move on to another buyer until he got something close to satisfaction. It was difficult to move around but nobody minded us being there even though they knew we were not there to buy or trade. The women tended to have trays at their little desks with small polished pieces if jade in little clusters according to size or quality. It was like a stock exchange. By lunch time things would begin to slow down and by the afternoon the market would fall silent and hopefully everybody will have found their motorbike and gone home.

DSC_0409As we drove further into Mandalay there were a number of motor processions on the streets. The vehicles were generally pick up trucks with plastic chairs on the truck carrying ornately dressed children and adults. They were all heading towards the foot of Mandalay Hill as part of the initiation ceremony for children, boys and girls, entering the monastery or nunnery. For some children this will be a life changing event as they leave behind their family and home to live in a frugal environment. For some they may spend years, if not the rest of their lives in service to Buddha. Others may only be there for a matter of days or weeks. If they are not happy they can leave at any time. However, the education that those who stay for a number of years will benefit them in later life whether they remain a monk or nun.

DSC_0424Driving to the foot of Mandalay Hill we joined the throng. Having processed, they were now going into the temple with offerings and then having a picnic lunch anywhere where they could find some space. There was very much a party atmosphere and everybody greeted us with happy, smiling faces. Over and above the noise of the human throng loud music played from vehicles stacked with speakers. It was great to mingle freely, clicking away, and I could have stayed there much longer but a couple of small trucks were booked to take us to the top of Mandalay Hill and the temple. The drive took us uncomfortably up a series of hairpin bends, at the top of which we gratefully disgorged ourselves from the trucks.

From the top we had views over the whole of Mandalay, although the heat was making it a bit hazy.

DSC_0491In the late afternoon we went first to see the wooden palace of Shwe Nandaw Kyaung. The palace was originally built in Amarapura, the then capital under the ruler King Mindon. The original building was heavily gilded with gold. The wood carving is fantastic in its own right but when it was golden it must have been a spectacle. When Mindon died in 1878 his son, Thibaw, became king. He moved the capital from Amarapura to Mandalay. In the process of moving Thibaw built a new palace complex in Mandalay behind a high walk surrounded by a wide moat. Each side was two kilometres in length. It was a relatively easy process as not a single nail was used. It was all held together with joints fixed with wooden pegs. I haven’t quite understood when and why it was moved to its present position but it is a good thing that it was as the whole of the palace complex, with the exception of the watch tower, was destroyed by the Japanese in 1945.

A film crew was at the palace filming a story about an American of Burmese descent returns to Myanmar to trace his roots.

Cooking on a large scale

Cooking on a large scale

En route to see the world’a largest book we came across activity in a garden where large quantities of food were being prepared for a feast the next day, part of one of the initiation ceremonies we had been watching earlier in the day. Having processed today they have large family parties the next day provided by a sponsor, usually a relatively rich family member. It was fascinating to watch the men stripped to the waist, their bodies glistening in the dual heat of the day and the fires. Huge woks and cooking pots were bubbling away as they deep fried huge quantities of fish, chicken and pork. Another ingenious stove was cooking a mix if eggs and sesame paste until it was thick enough to put in flat pans to set. Three holes in a line had been dug in the dry earth. The middle hole was where the cooking pot sat above a fire fed with sticks from the first hole. The third hole allowed the flames to escape and not over cook or burn the food. Brilliant! Again they were happy to show us everything.

Each small pagoda holds a page of the largest book in the world

Each small pagoda holds a page of the largest book in the world

From there we continued to see the largest book in the world, the 729 double sided stone tablets with the entire works of the Buddhist canon recorded on them. Each tablet is housed in its own shrine surrounding the Kuthodore Pagoda. It was an impressive sight looking along these rows if white structures.

In the evening we visited a small local restaurant where they produced an “all you can eat” buffet for as little as 4000 Kyats, about £2.50.

Tina being made welcome

Tina being made welcome

The following morning, on our way to Amarapura and Mahagandayone Monastery to watch two thousand monks process into lunch, Uza spotted a gathering for the second day of an initiation ceremony. Music was playing and there were lots of children dressed in their vivid and ornate initiation costumes. We were warmly invited to join the ceremony and as we sourced the hub if the noise we came across a large room where people were sitting on the floor at low tables eating a considerable meal of rice, vegetables, fish and various meats, as we had seen cooking the day before for another ceremony. People beckoned us to sit down and join them and as soon as we did a plate was thrust in front of us, a ladle of rice put upon it and an invitation to tuck into many of the succulent dishes on offer.

DSC_0540On a small stage the boys being inducted sat displaying a mixture of emotions. They were all wearing pink costumes and make up, both of which made them look very feminine. Although we could not use language as a means if communication, smiles, gestures and body language said a great deal. I couldn’t help but wonder how we would react if a group of fifteen strangers gate crashed our party.

Out in the yard a number of giant woks and saucepans kept the supply of food constantly refreshed as more people arrived. We could have stayed there much longer and we would certainly have been welcome but we had to move on. It would have been interesting to stay for the ceremonial head shaving which was due to take place at midday.

If only my legs were longer!

If only my legs were longer!

Moving on we arrived at Mahagandayone Monastery in time to have a look around to see something of their lifestyle before watching their lunch procession which started at 10.15. The kitchens were producing food on an industrial scale with wood burning pits and pots bigger than anything we had seen. One pot full of pieces of pork, probably from a number of pigs, waiting to be cooked was providing interest to a small puppy who could look into it but not reach any of the succulent pieces.

Before the allotted time some of the younger monks began to line up in silence trying to ignore the increasing number if cameras lining the route. Tourists vied for the best spot, hoping for an uninterrupted view. An electronic clock illuminated the time and at 10.15 a bell chimed and the procession moved forward in somber silence as the monks contemplated their lunch. It felt a little as those we were intruding but it was such a spectacle that it was something not to be missed.

DSC_0610The monks came in all shapes and sizes and it was particularly noticeable,with so many shaved heads, how varied the shape of the human head can be.

From within the dining hall chanting could be heard. Remarkably, monks were beginning to leave the dining room before some had finished processing. They do not eat all of their lunch but save some, knowing they have until midday to finish it, trying to spin it out, knowing that there will be nothing more until the next day.

DSC_0634From the monastery it was a short walk down to the Lake Taungthaman to see the world’a longest teak bridge, U Bein Bridge. There were two villages on either side of the lake. The village chief of one used to row across the lake to visit the girls on the other side who were reputedly prettier. However, this took time and energy so he appealed to the king to allow him to build a bridge. The king gave permission on the understanding that it allowed free passage for all villagers on both sides of the lake. So the U Bein bridge was built using 1200 old teak piles sunk into the mud supporting a wide teak walkway. At 1.2km long, it is a remarkable sight. Along the way there are a number of sheltering areas which are wider than the rest of the bridge. These are under canopies which today are used by stallholders selling all sorts of tat and extremely orange cooked crabs brought up from the lake. The most bizarre is a fortune teller.

DSC_0652Walking from one end to the other and back it was noticeable that it is used a lot by young local people who socialise, take lots of photos on their mobile phones etc. with so many people walking on the bridge it has a noticeable wobble and I can imagine a news report one day telling of the collapse of U Bein Bridge. Some of the supports suggest that day will not be far away. It is a remarkable structure and well worth the visit. There are boats on the lake. A boatman will take you out on the water and give you a different perspective of the bridge and a closer look at the fishermen and the water birds that live and feed on the lake.

DSC_0670Having walked the bridge I went down to water level to photograph the bridge in silhouette before returning to Mandalay via Sagaing where we visited a nunnery to see how they lived, and going to the top of Sagaing Hill. From the top we looked  down on the plain below and the Ayeyarwady River. I was already looking forward to travelling on the river the next day and bringing to life some of those rather boring geography lessons that I had to endure as a child.

Back in Mandalay we visited the old palace within its walls. A large part of the area within is taken up by an army barracks but where the palace had been before it was destroyed they have build a replica. Instead of gilding it with gold leaf they have simply painted those areas gold. It gives an impression but it is not worth spending a great deal of time there.

Boats of the Ayeyarwady

Boats of the Ayeyarwady

When I was at school the Ayeyarwady River often came up in geography lessons. It is one of those rivers that has a mystical air about it. It is 2000km long and all but 400 of those kilometres is navigable. Hence, at Mandalay the river is busy. On our final day in Mandalay we were taking a boat up river to Mingun. The journey took about an hour as we chugged up river. There was so much to see. There were boats of all shapes and sizes carrying tourists, teak, coal, vegetables, sand and probably much more. Rafts of bamboo were being towed to a bamboo market on one of the banks. They too provided interest with men cutting away at the loose sand banks to gather building material which they would shovel into small boats and take away. Fishermen cast their nets or set traps. On one sand bank makeshift bamboo shelters were being erected for a forthcoming party.

The depth finder is sitting at the bow

The depth finder is sitting at the bow

Many of the boats had men sitting at the bow with a long stick which they would put into the water every so often to test the depth. When it became threateningly shallow a rapid change of course would be made. The river is so large and carrying so much silt in it that the sandbanks and channels under the surface are constantly changing. It was a fascinating journey and brought to life all those dull geography lessons.

Most of the cargo boats travelling on the river would not get a license to sail in the west. They seem to be held together by nails in such a fashion that they look very Heath Robinson. Repairs have been done and bit added on to make them look very rough and ready. The engines are noisy and often belch out noxious fumes. But despite everything, I think they are wonderful. They have character and I could watch them all day.

The Unfinished Pagoda

The Unfinished Pagoda

Arriving a Mingun we went ashore to look at the unfinished pagoda. It had been guarded by two enormous lions but they, like the unfinished pagoda are ruins. It is hard to imagine what they would have looked like but they were the height of a three storey house when they were complete. The reason it is unfinished is because a massive earthquake did its best to destroy it in 1838. By then only the bottom third had been built. The desire was to build the biggest pagoda of all. The base that remains is a huge cube of bricks rising 50m. Huge cracks from the quake have split into it and large blocks have collapsed.

DSC_0742A short distance away is a shrine that houses the largest working bell in the world. There is a larger bell in Russia but it is broken. Weighing 87 tons, it is suspended from a huge beam. It is difficult to imagine why it was necessary to have such a big bell. I guess if you are wanting to build the biggest pagoda, you naturally want to supply it with the biggest bell. What  engineering difficulties they would have had to face had the pagoda been finished would have been interesting, particularly when they would have had very limited mechanical aid. Man has found solutions to such problems for thousands of years, so I expect it would have been successful if they had been able to finish the job. You can crawl into it and try to decipher all the graffiti that has been written on it over a great many years. The sound is not as deafening as I expected but I suspect that if it was hit with something more substantial than a piece of wood it might well be.

DSC_0744Just beyond that there is a pagoda that us unlike all others. It is blindingly white. There are seven tiers with wavy edges representing the seven oceans. Above is a dome with a small temple with two Buddhas, one white and one gold. The gold one sits in front of the white one. The gold one is a relatively new one because somebody cut off and stole the head of the original white one. It would be sacrilege to destroy the white one further so they placed the gold one in front. Since, the stolen head has been found and returned to its rightful place. Hence two Buddhas.

The boat took us back down stream and dropped us off at a riverside restaurant for lunch.

After lunch we visited a gold leaf workshop to see it being made. How the men do that all day and endure the constant noise of hammering is unbelievable.

The Mandalay City Hotel where we have been staying is right in the heart of the city. Access is through an arch into a courtyard space and an entrance that looks quite impressive. The lobby is airy and air conditioned but doesn’t have enough seats for all those wanting to use the wifi. It is the only place in the hotel that wifi works and that is not always the case. There is no lift. The rooms are adequately sized but a little tired. In my room only one light switch worked all the lights and there was no choice, it was all or nothing. Not all the sockets worked. The aspect of the rooms varied a great deal. Some looked out on to the small garden and pool area, and presumably adjacent buildings while on the other side you looked out on the drab buildings and a mosque which called you to prayer at five in the morning. I never really opened my curtains. The minibar was empty.

However, the food was excellent, both at breakfast time and in the evening and the staff were excellently trained and deserving of their tip.

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