I got into the Mandalay airport at around 9 a.m. It struck me on my way through to Bagan as about 20 years behind the times - I got a hand-written ticket and boarding pass, for crying out loud. Since I hadn't made prior arrangements to be picked up I marched past the touts looking for the taxi queue...only to find there was no taxi queue. So I turned to ask the one who'd followed me how much a ride to my hotel in the city center would cost. All the other touts descended on me to tell me how much their services cost, which basically got them yelled at for their trouble, since I couldn't hear the one I was actually asking. It wasn't exactly a great start.
The drive into the city was nice - between fields being threshed by hand - and then we got to the city proper. I don't know what I was expecting Mandalay to be like. Quaint old buildings, perhaps, maybe kind of like Kathmandu? Whatever it was, it was wrong. Mandalay is teeming, crazy traffic, a million motorbikes, loud noise, a feeling of decay in some buildings while others are shiny and new. Brand new streets that have been covered with sand that shop owners have to wet down each morning to keep the dust from blowing onto their wares. It was kind of an overload.
As I mentioned a few days ago, my friend Kristen was back in Mandalay, and I called her after I got settled at the hotel. She made arrangements with some friends to come pick me up and go on an adventure. I'm pretty sure without her I would have had a dismal opinion of Mandalay, because I really didn't want to go back out into that. I probably would have anyway, since the internet was so slow in the hotel (in all of Mandalay, it turns out - it takes a lot to make me think Shanghai internet is fast, but you've managed it, Mandalay!), but I wouldn't have been in the proper mental state to enjoy it.
She introduced me to Wayan, Jess, and Robin, with whom I'd be riding, and then we set off for lunch. I was a little nervous about being a passenger on a motorbike. I haven't done it since I was probably 8 years old, and then it was either Shaggy or my Dad driving. I kept an eye on Kristen to see what she was doing, and as a result I neither fell off nor gave Robin the impression that he was carting around a Burmese python. We drove a short distance and had a ton of food. Burmese food shares a lot in common with cuisine throughout the region - spicy and saucy, but with more oil than maybe other places. We all had a good laugh when Robin ordered us mutton, since I'd just mentioned that Mongolian food was basically mutton, mutton and noodles, or mutton in dumplings, but this mutton was tender and hardly muttony at all.
Then we rolled out of Mandalay proper for a little hike. We drove past a lot of construction - the Chinese on the move - and through small villages. We even got to see the parade of offerings - including young boys and girls, cleaned and dressed in new finery - going out for a donation ceremony. Kristen later explained that families give everything to the monasteries - there is gold everywhere while the people starve - and this means that when there's no food for one of the kids, they may enter the monastery or nunnery, which will at least guarantee them two meals a day. It's kind of strange, seeing so many monks. I've seen them in Mongolia and other countries, of course, but never so many. Never so many young.
Tea shops actually have a plethora of refreshing beverages. Jess started talking about avocado juice long before we got there (which made me think, "Avocado juice???") I followed Kristen in getting a strawberry juice, and the five of us sat talking across from the palace moat, sipping on some delicious drinks as the afternoon wore down.
|On the way up: a spread-eagled eagle. Kristen is the kind you can take outrageous pictures with.|
Finally...FINALLY...we got to the top of the hill, just in time for the sun to go down and the concentration of tourists to hit its peak. The monks and other English students that we'd managed to politely put off had found other, juicier prey - older men and women from other parts of the globe, who must have been thrilled to be chatting with a monk. The sun was blood red and the whole city was on fire. We could see everything, and Kristen explained parts of the city to me as we walked around the top of the hill. Once the sun had disappeared and some of the tourists had left, we joined the throng trickling down the hill. We made lots of stops for souvenirs, and eventually found ourselves wondering why we were the only people walking down through the dark in our dirty, bare feet. The answer, of course, was that we were travelers, not tourists, and travelers take the long hike, while tourists drive to the top.