Ride: Magwe to Yenangyaung
Terrain: Moving inland means more hills. Long and very shallow at first, but getting ever steeper. It's harder going than before. Arid and dry, and at one point, you cross a bridge over what must be a large river some of the time, but was bone dry as we passed through. The run up to this is a brilliant downhill which is just long enough to get your hopes up, until you have to haul yourself up the other side of the valley in the baking heat.
Eat: Quite sparsely populated in these parts, but still, the odd village here and there selling bottled water, soft drinks, and snacks to keep you going.
Sleep: The Lei Thar Gone Guest House is a must. Plan your entire trip around it.
To read more about the town of Yenangyaung, click here.
We've now been in Burma for two weeks, and we haven't yet tried the national breakfast dish. Time to rectify this frankly disgraceful state of affairs.
Mohinga is catfish soup with rice vermicelli, onions, lemongrass, garlic, chilli and lime, and it is delicious.
It looks like this:
Right now it might not be your idea of breakfast, but try it and be converted. Wonderfully tangy and full of flavour, it's a fine start to the day.
These were provided by the bakery across the street as you leave the guesthouse, and sorted us right out. The staff didn't speak much English, but a friendly businessman who did spotted us, introduced himself and ordered for us. We willingly placed ourselves in his hands, knowing that whatever turned up would be good, and he didn't let us down.
We were looking forward to today, knowing that it was a fairly short ride. But our enthusiasm didn't last long as it dawned on us that it was incredibly hilly right from the word go, and although the climbs weren't steep, they went on and on for an hour at a time. Coupled with the ever rising heat, we ended up with only 25 kilometers under our belt in two hours, and weren't feeling too pleased with ourselves.
As cyclists, you need to keep properly hydrated during these bouts of nothingness and take advantage of whatever roadside stands you find. Turns out that this particular one we visited had a very special proprietor:
On the endless climb out of Magwe, we passed a plethora of army and air force bases. We saw truckload after truckload of police cadets. Hundreds of young recruits being ferried up and down the road. As ever they were friendly, and we did our usual waving and smiling as we pedalled behind them.
At one point, we became aware that one motorbike with two coppers had been sitting on our tail for a while. We thought nothing of it – it's become quite normal for curious locals to tag along. Presently they came alongside us, passed smiling, and headed off into the distance. A few minutes later, they were sitting on the roadside, as if waiting for us. They passed us once more, and disappeared.
Not much further down the road, one of the cops on the bike was standing by the roadside, flagging us down. We duly pulled in and he ushered us to sit down in a teahouse, which turned out to be run by the wife of another policeman. A bottle of toddy* was produced, and he poured us a mug each, and one for himself.
He asked Neil where he was from. Grinning and slightly confused, Neil answered "England", choking as ever on this white lie as it passed his lips.
We had barely said anything else but "Thank you" at this point, when he turned to speak to the other two officers standing around.
"America. Korea." he said, glancing over at Jess.
Say what now?
That's when the penny dropped. This policeman knew who we were. He wasn't just randomly pulling us over because we seemed interesting. He'd been briefed. Most probably we've been watched the entire journey, and the authorities were sharing information about us along our route.
We'd read about this happening to other cyclists, and whilst it didn't really surprise us, it was still incredibly disconcerting to know that you were so interesting that they thought this was worth the bother. Imagine if every new town you arrived in not only knew that you were coming, but had your details and previous travel plans, and were on the lookout to see where you'd go next.
In a bid to get the police onside, which was challenging given he spoke next to no English, there was only one thing for it...
After playing the game for awhile, we were able to ascertain that he was friendly enough. But still, it felt like we were gently being made aware that we were being watched. He told us, "I am Myanmar Police", as did his friend, and as we sat there watching the clock tick by and being acutely aware that we were on their time now, we just quietly sipped at the toddy until we were free to go.
The toddy itself was very good - tapped right behind the teahouse and available in two different types: one that had been tapped very recently and had a light watery colour (and was also weaker in alcohol content), and one that had been fermenting for a few hours longer and was a milky white.
The officers kept offering us more, but we politely declined lest we get drunk. Probably the first and last time we'll be plied with alcohol by a policeman while on the road.
What was even more bizarre was when the main copper rose to leave. He gave us a kiss on each cheek and breathed in deeply whilst doing so. Obviously, that got the giggles of all the other Burmese locals there. We just rolled with it, and waited until he finally pulled away on his motorbike, two gigantic bottles of toddy in tow. Sighing in relief, we took our leave as well. But for the rest of the day, we were on alert.
*Toddy: the local tipple. Milky in colour and with a slightly sour, coconutty taste, it is produced by tapping the top of the tree in the morning and leaving the sap to ferment. By afternoon, it's roughly beer-strength and makes for a refreshing drink.