Up to the Shan Highlands

From Bagan, our first destination was Mount Popa, a sacred volcano jutting out from a range of low-lying mountains nearby. Most tourists visit as a day-trip from Bagan, so accommodation is scarce. Sweaty cyclists pulling in to Popa in the late afternoon are easy prey for high room prices. Thirty dollars got us the cheapest room in town, with cold water showers and a rotting piece of foam on a bedframe with most of its slats missing or broken.

Even though we were tired, we dragged ourselves to the top of the mountain, an additional 5km and 777-step climb away from our hotel. A stairway lined with shrines and temples dedicated to both Buddhist and nat (spirit) worship leads to a monastery at the summit. The stairs are covered with a rickety tin roof that echoed with the sound of the hundreds of bouncing resident monkeys as we made our way up. The tiled stairs are completely covered with monkey excrement and as with all sacred sites in the country, pilgrims must go barefoot. Neither of us were particularly enthusiastic about trudging through monkey urine, but we made our way to the top, facing dozens of mean monkeys who blocked the narrowest parts of the path. The highlight of the visit was Yann getting hissed at when he tried to shoo them away with a squirt from his water bottle. It was an experience, albeit not a very pleasant one.   A Mount Popa temple monkey, ready to pounce at the first sign of food

The next part of our route to Inle Lake wasn't broken up as optimally as we would have liked. Because foreigners are only permitted to stay in government-sanctioned establishments and camping is prohibited, we had few options for overnight stays. We spent our next night in the town of Thazi, 137km from Mount Popa. It was the closest we could get to the base of the Shan Hills and it was a long day of riding to get there. Our next stop was a daunting 1200 metres up and 95km away.

Thazi is tiny but has two guesthouses due to its strategic location at the intersection of the Yangon-Mandalay highway and the rail line to Inle Lake. Especially in contrast to our Popa hotel, our guesthouse in Thazi, aptly named "Wonderful Guesthouse" was welcoming and great value. The owner proudly showed us her collection of stickers and cards from other cycle-tourists to which we added our own. She even had pre-prepared hand-drawn maps with the distances between the villages and sources of food and water for the next day's climb. We got the impression that mostly cyclists stay in Thazi.

Following the advice of our guesthouse owner, we left Thazi at sunrise, hoping that we would make it to Kalaw, our destination, before sunset. We did, but just barely, using up all eleven hours of winter daylight.   Sunrise breakfast in the town of Thazi

  Leaving Thazi at day break in order to make it to Kalaw before dark

It was a very tough day. We didn't start the big climb until 65km into the ride, at the hottest time of day. Psychologically it was difficult because we could see how fast we were going (not fast) and we could see that if we didn't keep up a steady pace we would be riding into the night. We rode mostly in silence, with few breaks. Although there were some great views of the Shan Hills along the ride, we were so focused on the climb that we rarely stopped to take them in. We were hungry, sore and really really happy when we pulled into town. The relief that you feel after finishing a day like this one almost makes the pain worthwhile.

We stayed in Kalaw, a former British hill station, for an extra day to rest our legs and take advantage of the cool weather. It was a nice place to relax, scenic with a few decent food options. It was also small and there were few things to do, so we didn't feel guilty about doing nothing.   Downtown Kalaw by day

  Downtown Kalaw by night, note the absence of street lights

By chance, our last morning in Kalaw coincided with the rotating-market day. The town centre was completely transformed, streets bursting with vendors from neighbouring villages. We happily wandered around for an hour or so, before starting our downhill ride to Inle Lake, leaving as the market was getting busy enough that we were getting in the way (and right when the tour buses rolled in).
  Peeling garlic, market day, Kalaw

  Market day, Kalaw

Stats for Nyaung U (Bagan) to Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake):

Days of cycling: 4
Days of rest: 1
Kilometres cycled: 357
Metres climbed: 3424
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 1 independent + 1 organized tour

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support


Margox said...

I'm always afraid of aggressive monkeys because of the whole rabies thing, and it seems like they could jump up at you really fast!

As always you guys are super impressive!!! Can't imagine an 11 hour day WITH major climbing!

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