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Gokteik Viaduct

Myanmar's highest bridge

We arrived at the train station just before eight to stand in a long line of foreigners buying tickets. If there was one train journey that guidebooks recommended in Myanmar, it was the Gokteik Viaduct over a deep river gorge, the longest railway trestle in the world upon its completion in 1901. At 102 metres high, even today it is the highest bridge in Myanmar. The viaduct stretches 698 metres from end to end. The bridge was built during British occupation by the Pennsylvania Steel Company.

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It took about ten minutes for the line to start moving, but it moved quick enough. We'd debated catching the train from Mandalay, but the price wasn't terribly different and if we caught the train in Pyin Oo Lwin, we departed at a gentler 8:20 am compared to 4:00 am in Mandalay. The train was an hour late anyhow. Once it arrived, something got lost in translation where we were mildly worried that our train was bound for Mandalay and not Hsipaw. But the staff assured us this was going to Hsipaw and that we'd be fine. The couple in front of us asked to switch to the left side, the one recommended by Lonely Planet to get the best views en route to Hsipaw. We asked if we could switch too and they obliged. The downside was a far more worn out seat cushion. The price to pay for photos.

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The train crawled along like a horse carriage in the beginning and gradually worked up more speed. We stopped in small towns where the stations consisted of only a small ticket cabin and locals would hop on and off.

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Eventually, we made it to the Gokteik Viaduct, a gleaming silver bridge across from the plunging gorge and river below. More than a century old, you can only imagine how well maintained the bridge has been, a bit of an eerie thought. The train inched its way down the winding path to the bridge. The long tracks gave us time to take photos of the bridge, peeking out between the trees, and then observe hill as we switched sides about three times. Locals were used to us crazy foreigners jumping around and let us take pictures out their windows too. The final approach had spectacular views of the reddish rocks and viaduct.

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Soon we reached the end of the safe views and headed for the bridge. Luckily, it didn't quite look its hundred plus years old and it had been restored recently enough to inspire confidence. The creaking wasn't as ominous as described since the train had done that the whole time. Below us, the river meandered through forested landscape. Large hills were visible from either side. Out the windows, elbows and hands stuck out attached to smart phones and cameras. An unmarred shot was almost impossible.

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Soon we reached the end of the spectacular gorge and viaduct views. We travelled through a few tunnels. As we neared Hsipaw, more rice terraces dotted the relatively flat landscape.

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We arrived late afternoon. Lily the Home guesthouse was there to pick up its guests so we grabbed a ride to check out their $10 per person rooms with private bathrooms. We pulled up to a hotel-like building and double checked the price. Typically the places we stayed were a little more toward the bottom of the barrel. The room they showed us was nice, clean and had facilities to do laundry, a never ending task for us. Once that was out of the way, we set out to find food since our cinnamon bun and Oreo train lunch hadn't quite filled us up.

At the end of the street, near the river, there was a quaint park. After going inside, we noticed bridges over calm ponds, a children's structure, decaying paddle boats with panda faces. There were plenty of trees for shelter in the area. There were some people but not a whole lot. We left down the main road and saw the digital clock tower.

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We ventured down a street with a few restaurants and settled on Sein restaurant which had a barbeque and cheap enough food. I ordered a skewer of potatoes and one of okra. Ryan had fried rice, a frequent choice of his. The food was tasty and came with teriyaki and spicy sauces. The portions were affordable and a good size. The man working there was friendly and funny too, poking fun at the grumpy tourists walking by without acknowledging his greetings. "Why you come to Myanmar?" He'd jokingly ask. "So angry, why can't they smile?" He was from Southern Myanmar and had just started working at the restaurant a few days earlier.

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Posted by Sarah.M 04:20 Archived in Myanmar Tagged train rice terrace myanmar hsipaw gokteik_viaduct pyinoolwin lily_the_home Comments (0)

Day two at the Longji rice terraces

semi-overcast 18 °C

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Our second day at Longji we woke up early to take on a 4 hour hike to the JinKeng rice terraces. After light breakfast at the hostel, we took a look at our not so detailed map and headed out. We had to climb back up to the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers view point to get to the hiking trail, but the views were so amazing we really didn’t mind. While climbing, we saw some more village dogs exploring the terraces, and one decided to be our guide up the hiking trail. Whenever we were taking too long to catch up or stopping for some oranges, he would run back to investigate what was taking us so long.

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After about an hour of hiking uphill we came across a sign assuring that our little tour guide “Buddy” was leading us in the right direction. We passed a cemetery shortly after with large brightly colored flower wreaths lying atop large stone tombstones. Buddy decided to go jump around some tall grass, chasing birds and what not. We stayed along the path occasionally passing some local farmers who use the paths to get to one field to the other. After about 10 minutes of walking we could hear Buddy barking, looking for us. We kept going hoping he would catch up but he never did.

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Following the narrow winding path, we made it to a clearing where a local woman lured us up a hill for a good view by her pig barn. She was member of the Yao cultural group, where the women are known for having very long hair. She wanted us to pay for her to let hair down so we could take a photo. We declined and quickly kept walking.

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The closer we got to the Village DaZhai, the more pushy hawkers we would come across. Many signs to the terraces seemed to be missing and locals were of little help except trying to get us to eat at their restaurants. Fed up, and hungry we turned around and stated making our way back to Ping’an. The menu we checked had been all in Chinese, little help when Sarah needed vegetarian food.
As we were leaving, we got another tag along dog, “Buddy 2”. We were quite creative when it came to naming rice terrace dogs. The way back was quite a bit easier as it was mostly downhill, letting us enjoy the scenery. Buddy 2 followed us all the way back to Ping’An, quite a feat, considering it took the better part of 2 hours to hike.

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It seemed every time we tried to make our way back to our hostel we would get lost in the village’s complicated streets. Once we finally found our way we ran into a fellow Canadian who was also getting lost in the complex village. We pointed him in the direction of the hostel and would have a early supper with him. He was from B.C. and skipping a Canadian winter for ninth straight year. He was also eager to tell us, and all the other hostel patrons about his blog.

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After supper, we headed back up to the top of the hill to enjoy a sunset over the rice terraces. It was quite the sight.

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-Ryan

Posted by Sarah.M 16:19 Archived in China Tagged rice dogs hike terrace Comments (0)

Longji Rice terraces

semi-overcast 14 °C

The next morning, we slept in and had breakfast at the hostel. We could see the beautiful harvested terraces out the window in the lobby area. Cats wandered in and out of the front door, leaving rodent treats for their owners. The hostel girls weren't too impressed. Construction rang out next door.
We used the free map to plan out our day of visiting the sights at Ping'an village and maybe the neighbouring one with the oldest rice terraces. The girl working at the front confirmed that it was possible to do.

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We started up toward the viewpoint of the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers. I wasn't sure I could do the whole hike with the uphill sections not letting up, but we eventually made it to the top. The view was pretty incredible every time we took a break. Our cameras got no rest during that climb.
The first crop of rice had been harvested and now the second crop was coming in slowly. Many of the terraces in this area were flooded, giving the spectacular views for miles. An impressive irrigation system was in place to transport water from one terrace to another via a dug channel or bamboo or cement open pathways. Small streams ran down the side of the rock path.

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At the viewpoint, the flooded terraces blended, one curve into another. Even with the overcast sky, the reflection still gleamed. A man at one of the shops at the top offered to take our picture with the Nine Dragons view in the back and we took him up on the offer. He had clearly done that a few times before. It was a bit odd to see the commercial shops up at the top of these beautiful terraces, although the terraces weren't naturally occurring either.

We walked to the next view point Seven Stars with the Moon, which took a bit longer than our first climb, maybe an hour. The green terraces rewarded our efforts along the now mainly flat trek. We passed larger bamboo forest as well as bamboo chopped and split in half that showed off the different segments.
This viewpoint had more shops and restaurants that the previous one had had, but luckily, there were enough Chinese tourists ahead of us to keep the vendors occupied. Some of the women would pay to get dressed up in ethnic-wear from the local tribes, like the Yao with a reputation for their incredibly long hair, and take pictures at the viewpoints.

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The visibility was starting to improve, the fog lifting and almost showing the mountains opposite us. We continued down the path to Old Zhuang village where the first rice terraces were a hundred or more years ago during the Qing dynasty. Our first attempt at reaching it got interrupted by us taking a random turn to marvel at more terraces at our level, but we soon realized the path would take us back to Ping'an, the village where we were staying.

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The real walk to Zhuang was pretty short and each viewpoint required a fair number of stairs. We walked on many concrete stairs and narrow paths through the village a bit to find the second viewpoint. There would be no way to bring a car up to any of these points which was why we saw everything hauled by people or animals. Chickens wandered the paths and dogs too. I couldn't help but pet an adorable one on the way down.

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We finally found the second viewpoint, a bit trickier when half the signs were uprooted and lying on the ground and we had to pick them up, reorient them and then find our way. The views again were nice, but I think the ones near Ping'an were probably the best.

The way back to the hostel was equally tricky. From our entrance point last night, we thought the town was small, but from the other side, hundreds of hotels, restaurants and other wooden/concrete buildings crawled the hillside. As we walked by, many had been locked up or were under construction. I read that during peak season, this village could hold up to 6,000 guests. A far cry from the current maybe hundred around in mid November.

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Eventually after climbing and descending many staircases, we found the road with some construction that we had walked up yesterday and we followed it down to the hostel. It was quite the trek yesterday, looking at it in the daylight. It was crazy how the body could just power through.
We settled in for a late lunch/early supper. I tried veggies and mushrooms, since they had such flavourful mushrooms around here but wished there were more of those and less greens. Ryan had his heart set on the sweet and sour pork (off the western food menu) as a French woman had recommended it to us yesterday.

Posted by Sarah.M 18:30 Archived in China Tagged dog village rice hike terrace longji zhuong Comments (1)

On the train to Guilin

semi-overcast 18 °C

Despite almost missing our train, the whole ride was a great experience. We slept soundly on our bottom and middle bunks. Trains in the hard sleeper class (still not as hard as my mattress in Thailand) had three bunks, the top one being the most cramped and cheapest, requiring quite a climb. It was nice to enjoy the bottom bunk where we could actually sit up and have a conversation in the morning.

We bought some snacks for breakfast which turned out to be expired dried yam and we could really tell that those weren't fresh. Quite the chewy affair. I also snagged expired orange juice that thankfully didn't make me sick. It was carbonated and sugary enough that I figured it'd be okay. The dates also could be packaged dates but based on our expired chocolate we couldn't be too sure.

We kept watching the countryside migrate become less and less urban as we headed away from the coastal areas. The landscape became more rocky, and mountainous. Ryan spotted some rice terraces as well.

The captain of the train -- perhaps just a worker, their uniforms were so official looking -- was quite intrigued with our presence. Although he spoke no English and we no Chinese, he kept trying to have conversations with us. Our short sleeves were too provocative for his tastes and he was quite concerned we'd be cold. He checked out Ryan's luggage tags on another visit too. When I finally changed into a shirt with three quarter length sleeves, I gained his approval.

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A few hours later, one of the woman working helped us get off at the right stop at Guilin. From the train station, there were tons of vendors calling out for tours to Yangshuo or to the rice terraces, but we wanted to find our bus station instead to avoid getting scammed. Once we walked the street, passing many fruit vendors -- selling oranges, bananas, pomelo, rambutan and even one that was yellow and appeared to have fingers called Buddha's hand -- and restaurants, we made it to the train station. We were happy to find a woman who spoke English at the ticket counter, but less thrilled that we still weren't at the right ticket station. Luckily, she wrote us out directions to the next one in Chinese to show the driver along with the bus driver.

At the other bus station, another woman spoke English at the ticket counter. We were getting spoiled in Guilin and we boarded a bus to Heping that left about twenty minutes later. The driver really gave our nerves a workout with a driving practise that's less common in North America: driving into the oncoming lane to pass even when there's oncoming traffic, as well as honking the horn when the other cars, in their own lane, refuse to move over. It really got the heart racing and I was surprised they still had functional horns on their vehicles.

We didn't arrive at our transfer spot, the town of Heping, until after five. All the public buses had gone, but there was one guy willing to take us up for 40RMB each. It seemed steep but he was the only game around so we hopped in, got our rice terrace entry tickets at the office, and he drove up the mountain as the sun began to go down. We could still see the terraces climbing the side of the mountains as we drove. The driver stopped at one point on the mountain and Ryan got ready to fight him, unsure of his motives. It was just nature calling and the man came right back.

When we arrived at the gate, I figured out why our driver had been texting people along the drive. Woman and men with large baskets offered to carry up our bags for us but we declined. Others were trying to sell us rooms. A woman followed us for a few kilometers advertising her hotel, but we knew of a hostel we wanted to stay at, since they would have some English to help us plan, and we told her we had already booked a place. It was another kilometer or two up the road, past construction, but luckily the hostelling international sign helped reassure us that by pure luck we were in the right place.

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The room was alright, thin wooden walls and a bit cold, but the right price. The floors creaked like nobody's business to go down to the third floor to use the washroom. But they had free laundry facilities, aka a sink and clothes line, and a restaurant with an English menu so we could eat supper: noodles and beef for Ryan and bamboo and egg for myself.

Posted by Sarah.M 15:59 Archived in China Tagged train rice fruit hostel terrace expired longji chewy Comments (1)

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