On the China-Myanmar Border, Trouble Ahead and Trouble Behind

LashioThis post continues the incredible saga of my trip from Myanmar back into Yunnan.

The last stage of my journey was actually supposed to be the second-to-last. But then I lost my day-pack, and plans went awry.

Not just the day-pack was lost. The contents, in ascending order of importance: cellphone, Kindle, camera, iPod touch (which is my laptop when travelling), highly marked-up copies of 《中国非传统安全研究报告(2012版)》 and Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, and lastly a notebook filled with crucial research notes for a thesis due in six weeks. Bad things to lose. Real bad. 

But although furious at myself for my carelessness, my later-that-day self did still cut my earlier-that-day self some slack. He had, after all, woken up at 4AM after two hours of sleep in a Burmese massage parlor, been harassed by a combination of border officials and criminal gang members at the Myanmar-China border fence, and spent two hours in the blistering sun waiting in various lines and working through the necessary paperwork to get back into China. My earlier-that-day self had been exhausted. My later-that-day self, still exhausted and more so, could sympathize.

The original plan was to take the “Burma Road” (click here for “information”) up through Lashio, to the Chinese border at Ruili 瑞丽, and then wander north for a few days in Yingjiang 盈江 County, which abuts Myanmar’s Kachin State and is where Myanmarian fighter aircraft had recently made news by violating Chinese airspace. After a day or two of checking the place out, I’d then hop on a bus along the “Stilwell Road” (click here for the 1945 US Army documentary–narrated by a young Ronald Reagan) to the airport at Kunming. However, things started going wrong before I even got to Lashio.

Since foreigners need a permit and some kind of qualified accompaniment to travel beyond Lashio to the Chinese border, I hired a guide/driver in Mandalay. The plan was for him to pick me up in Hsipaw on the designated day at the designated time and take me the rest of the way to the border. This, it turns out, was a mistake. Although he left Mandalay before dawn for what was supposed to be a six-hour drive to Hsipaw, there was a “traffic jam” that day somewhere near the Gokteik Viaduct. Not just any traffic jam, mind you, but one of those crazy Asian traffic jams, the kind that can last for days, where the vehicles at the front can’t get out of each other’s way because they’re boxed-in by an increasing number of vehicles behind them. The kind where more and more vehicles from both directions arrive, and each arriving driver thinks he is smarter than everyone else and tries to go around the mess without tumbling off the road. Then each arriving driver gets stuck in the mess himself, and is quickly blocked from behind by the guy arriving after him. You know, this kind of traffic jam.

So, traffic jam. My driver was late. Fortunately, when the highway police arrived on the scene, he was able to claim special privileges because the Myanmar government has very specific priorities: it’s more important to provide a private taxi to a foreigner, for example, than it is to make sure those with children, elderly, or their month’s income in highly perishable goods don’t spend too long stuck on the roadside in 95-degree heat. My pickup, originally scheduled for 11AM, thus was only delayed until sometime between 6 and 7PM.

But we had a long ways to go to get to Muse, the Myanmar town on the Chinese border, and the dangerous condition of pitch-darkness along the narrow highway was compounded by the sporadic emergence of speeding convoys of military trucks flashing their high-beams. The driver was also clearly very tired. Fortunately none of this was really a problem either, though, because we had betel nut, Myanmar’s national stimulant. To foreigners, it seems like betel nut only works to keep you awake because, well, it’s hard to be anything but awake when your mouth is filled with bad-tasting juice and you’re worrying about your teeth being stained artery blood-red for the rest of your life. But my staying awake wasn’t the point. A little ways into our drive, I bought a bunch of packets at a roadside stand, and kept the driver well-supplied as we progressed.

After a brief stop in Lashio to stretch, eat some late dinner, and peruse the night market filled with cheap Chinese goods, we continued on to Muse. After some point we stopped getting blinded by passing military convoys. We finally arrived in Muse sometime between 1 and 2AM, still in high spirits but looking forward to finding some beds. But our luck had run out. At the first hotel, the staff took one look at me, the foreigner, and basically said No Way in Hell. The next hotel was the same. And the next. It wasn’t that there were no government-approved hotels for foreigners in Muse. Being a border town, that was practically their specialty. But as far as I could tell, the problem was just that all these government-approved hotels didn’t want to take on a foreigner after the government had already gone to bed.

I don’t remember how exactly we figured it out, but eventually we found a solution. Here in the seediest part of this seediest of seedy Southeast Asian border towns, there was of course another option: the all-night massage parlors. And aside from their obvious purpose, you could, in fact, just get a massage–and then be allowed to sleep there, at least for a couple hours. And it was safer, the driver convinced me, than sleeping in the car. He noted that they provided security for one’s belongings and, most importantly, were in the business of keeping trouble to a minimum.

Great. The only problem, though, was the massage. After being shown to the blazingly brightly-lit room with the mats on the floor, we picked our spots and took our sandals off our stinking feet. I immediately started drifting off. But it couldn’t be so easy. I felt somebody grab my smelly foot, and then felt sharp pains as that person began attempting to fold that foot in half. I opened my eyes. The massage had begun. For the foreigner, they had brought out the biggest lady I’d seen in all of Myanmar, and she was all smiles but holy crap was she painful. Using her big toe to dig around my joints until she found the pressure points, she’d then stand with all her girth upon individual tendons and rock back and forth until I felt like I was going to pass out. (If only I’d been so lucky.) Meanwhile, the driver, who was on the mat next to mine, got a masseuse who looked like she weighed 75 pounds and was mostly concerned with just letting him sleep. As for me, staring up at the loud-buzzing, bright fluorescent lights at 2AM with a smiling fat woman stomping on my knee cap, I managed a single positive thought: tomorrow I will be back in China. You know, where things are, relatively speaking, normal.

To be continued.

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Filed under Foreign-er Travel, South of the Clouds

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