Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Beauty, contrast on the Ayeyarwady

Glazed pots are floated downstream on the Ayeyarwady River for sale in the delta region. Douglas Long / The Myanmar TimesGlazed pots are floated downstream on the Ayeyarwady River for sale in the delta region. Douglas Long / The Myanmar Times

During the winter months, when rainfall is scarce in Myanmar, the Ayeyarwady River retreats to its mother channel, becoming quite narrow in some areas and impassably shallow in others.

Sandbanks that are hidden during the monsoon season emerge from beneath the surface after the heavy rains stop. In Bhamo in Kachin State, this wintertime transformation means that boats must dock quite far from the town, as the water becomes too low for a close approach.

I visited Bhamo in December, and reaching the dock from the town required taking a shabby bullock cart across the sand dunes, through the flying dust. I could see the river flowing in the distance, long before we reached it.

The scene at the riverbank was hectic, with dockworkers shouting and snarling at one another as they loaded goods onto the moored boats. I quickly found the boat I would be taking downstream to Mandalay, a two-deck China-made vessel named the Pyai Gyi Tagon (3).

With three loud whistle blasts, our boat took off downstream at 3:30pm. Within two hours we reached the Second Defile of the Ayeyarwady River, just as the sun was setting beyond the hills and disgorging orange fluff over the skyline.

The Second Defile was 23 kilometres (14 miles) long. The winter conditions meant that in some areas rocks jutted from beneath the surface. The current was fast, and our boat moved quickly between the cliffs on the right-hand side and the river road on the left, where I could see the sparkling headlights of trucks travelling overland to and from Bhamo.

Night had fallen by the time we exited the defile. Light twinkled from small cooking fires on the fishing boats we passed. At 7pm the boat docked at the town of Shwegu, and 15 minutes later we were off again, loud goodbyes and the shouts of vendors fading in the distance behind us.

The winter night was freezing cold. As the moon waned toward the horizon, more and more stars dotted the sky. Fog also started rising from the water, and by 9pm it was so thick that we had to moor overnight at a sandbank in the middle of the river. With the ship’s engines and lights turned off, the night became very tranquil, the silence broken only by the whisper of the current.

The next morning dawned chilly and foggy, and the sunlight barely penetrated the thick mist. It wasn’t until 9am that the fog dispersed and we were able to set forth on our second day on the Ayeyarwady River.

Egrets and ruddy shelducks sunbathed on the scattered sandbanks, cranes flew across the sky and the occasional Ayeyarwady dolphin frolicked in the water. Such a kaleidoscopic view filled me with inspiration. This was the Ayeyarwady that had flowed through time and history, sometimes in might, sometimes in anger, sometimes in retreat.

The ship reached Katha dock at noon and stopped there for half an hour, which was enough for me to have lunch and look around the riverside market.

After Katha the river broadened a bit. At 5pm we reached Hti Gyke village, which had no dock. Passengers had to disembark by walking across a narrow wooden plank propped against the ship’s lower deck from the bank. When he left Hti Gyke, the Ayeyarwady was dozing under the shimmering light of the setting sun.

Night fell, and we arrived at Tagaung at 9pm. The town, said to be the first capital of the original Myanmar people, was grave, silent and dark. I couldn’t even see the town’s riverside pagodas from the boat. An hour later we docked at Kya-nyat for the night. The wind whispered in my ears like icy dew and I fell into a wintry reverie.

The ship resumed its journey at 5am the next day. Two hours later we slid into the Third Defile of the Ayeyarwady, where the water was dark green with rocky banks hinting at its depth. Four hours later we cleared the gorge and river widened, its channels spreading like fingers with spacious sandbanks in between.

Later in the day we passed the village of Nwe Nyein, whose residents are potters. Glazed pots were piled on the riverbank, glittering in the sun. They were destined to be fitted with rattan ropes to make rafts and floated down to the Ayeyarwady delta, where they would be sold at villages for use in fermenting fish.

We passed more villages and farms on both sides of the river. Far from the banks, farmers worked at peanut and sugarcane plantations. Tomatoes planted in the sandy soil reddened in the sizzling sun. Life along the river was a study of beauty and confusing contrasts, with ferries, fishing boats, farmland, wasteland and jumbles of huts all sketched in by the brush of nature.

As the sunlight faded in the early evening, we neared Gaw Wein Jetty in Mandalay, our destination. Our ship would stop there. I would get off there. But the Ayeyarwady River would go on forever.