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October 27, 2013 / brianb8175

Up the Holy Mountain, Round the Hairpin Bend By Pat Nolan


Up the Holy Mountain, Round the Hairpin Bend

Holy Mount Popa

A stairway to paradise

Through monkey business

Aung San Suu Kyi fixed us with her steely gaze in Grand Canal Plaza in Dublin and told me and my lump sum we could help bring normality to Burma by going there.  So we did.  Go there, I mean.

I felt a bit like Stanley setting off into the heart of Africa, though it’s easier to find a people than a specific person.

In Yangon I learned how to knot a longyi so it doesn’t fall down.   In Mandalay I dodged the ubiquitous Chinese motorcycles.

In Bagan we had a sampler tour, visiting the big five temples (that’s five out of two thousand plus), and experiencing an epic sunset, temples glowing pinkly and evening mist on the Ayeyerwady as the moon rose.

Next day our bus sets off for the eleven hour drive to Kalaw, the trekking centre, via holy Mount Popa, which rises green and clouded from the dusty plains.  A switchback ride takes us almost to the top of the mountain where a volcanic plug is crowned by a temple complex built way back in … 1964.

We have 777 steps to climb to the top, and first we learn about Nats, household spirits absorbed into Burmese Buddhism as supporting players.  TheNats are called by evocative names and have distinct roles, like patron saints.

And so, through Mr Han, our knowledgeable guide, immaculately turned out in dazzling white shirt and dress longyi, we make the vicarious acquaintance of the Lord of the Mountain and Lady Goldenface.  I picture them as Brad and Angelina but when I read up on my Nats I find out they are brother and sister.  So, more like Warren Beatty and Shirley Maclaine.  I am taken with the Little Lady of the Flute, a kind of dogsbody among theNat community.  I picture her as Martha, eternal drudge to the patrician Lady Goldenface’s Mary.

Our barefoot climb up the holy mountain is enlivened by:

monkeys eating, distributing their droppings liberally across our stairway to heaven and snatching bananas from unwary Westerners;

freelance stair cleaners seeking donations from the pious for ridding their own small privatised patch of monkey shit; and

vendors of gewgaws and comestibles.

We make it! It’s cloudy, but the hills are decked in autumn colour and back in the distance lies the Ayeyerwady’s pewter gleam.

We leave Mount Popa’s drizzle and press on up the escarpment to Kalaw at 4,300 ft.  It’s a long journey.  Then, maybe three-quarters of the way there, we have a problem with the bus, simultaneously our haven and our prison.  Not a puncture, as we had all feared, but we are told the nuts require tightening, due to the bone-shaking state of the highway.

But when we restart the engine judders and wheezes, requiring careful nursing on every hairpin bend upwards.  The intrepid driver copes with spells of heavy mist, intermittent downpours, darkness falling, a potholed road and oncoming traffic.  My own nuts tighten in solidarity as I wonder which Natis the analogue of St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers.  Oh, Little Lady of the Flute, can you wield a miraculous torque wrench?

In the end we do limp into a damp and muddy Kalaw, thrilled to reach shelter.  Our hotel, impressive on the outside, has cramped bedrooms redolent of old trekker, damp towels and cold wet bathrooms.  But it’s journey’s end.

And there is solace nearby.  Later that evening we find a harbinger of normality in this imprisoned land. A hole-in-the-wall bar, Hi, with mostly local patrons, all men, and a mouse that runs up the light flex.  Not to order, but as the vagary takes him.  Talk about mood lighting!  But the bar is fun and convivial and we chat to the locals, Premiership fans all – the universality of man.  Or men.

There are guitars, as there often are in Burma.  And everybody sings, gin sours enhancing volume if not harmony (The colonial heritage means liquor is generally good).  Natives and visitors alike cross-culturally butcher Country Roads.  I have a  deeply meaningful and entirely unintelligible conversation with an instructor in the local military college, before he gets on to his motorbike to ride home, swaying, in the dark, wet night.

And I return to sleep soundly in my cell, warmed by that special afterglow of relief coupled with alcohol.  Who knew normalisation was so satisfying?

Wet muddy Kalaw room

Emanates old trekker ghosts

In nocturnal chill


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