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Thursday 31 Jan 2013
Mandalay, Myanmar

The most dangerous activity in Mandalay is going for a walk!

We started our day in Mandalay with a walking tour. This turned out to be not so much a walking tour, as a long trek on foot between only a couple of places of interest. We walked up towards the Imperial Palace and the Royal Mile - an enormous palace compound which covers about a square mile, separated from the city by a wide moat and turreted wall. Inside this square, we could see the roofs of some of the palace buildings and vast areas of trees and flowers. Unfortunately, the palace wasn't open for visitors so we had to be content with the view from across the water. Along the side of the road, overlooking the moat,  was an outdoor gym with metal playground style equipment - rotating paddles to work arms, pendulum style foot platforms made a kind of treadmill, and a lazy-Susan platform with fixed armrests for trunk rotations to work the core. Naturally we had to amuse ourselves on these for a while - the view was much better than the Holiday Inn gym in Oxford!

We walked for nearly 45 minutes along a busy boulevard. The pavement was so bad that looking around was a dangerous activity. The drainage channel was covered loosely with concrete blocks that were unevenly laid, unevenly spaced, broken or simply missing completely, so twisting an ankle or falling down a hole was a risk with every step. Somehow we reached the Central Station without losing anyone. The ticket windows were completely unintelligible to us as they were covered in a mass of writing in the Myanmar alphabet. Catching a train by ouselves would have been interesting. The complaints desk was the best thing though - it was one small table, a bit like an old school desk - stuck right in the middle of the concours with a very bored looking man and a pile of papers.

From the station we walked back toward the palace and stopped at a famous bakery. Joseph said this shop was reknowned in Myanmar. If anyone travelled to Mandalay, they would always visit this shop and buy sweets and cakes to take home or they would be in big trouble for returning empty handed. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of it was not Gluten Free, but there were a few things I could try. The delicacies consisted mostly of soggy cakes - carrot cakes, coconut cakes, nutty cakes and a lot of very sweet things. I was content with a bag of crisps and a few bottles of cold water. I pulled my regular audience by refilling my platypus on the steps outside, much to the amusement of the local children when they realised what it was for. (A platypus/Camelbak is a 2 litre bag with a drinking pipe on the bottom. It sits in a pocket inside the back of a rucksack, with the tube coming out of the top of the bag and snaking over the shoulder. The end has a drinking valve, so you can drink whenever you want without having to stop or remove the rucksack.) While generally designed for sports and hiking, I have nevertheless found they are great for being on holiday in hot countries as it ensures I drink enough to avoid dehydration. I often wonder what the locals must make of it and these funny Westerners.

On the way back we also stopped at the Nylon Ice Cream bar, also quite well known. Ailsa and I were a bit suspicious of ice cream in a place without 24 hour electricity so we just had cold drinks instead. After using their toilets, I was quite glad we hadn't eaten there. I had to walk through the kitchens to the back room, where I found squat toilets that seemed to have been carved out of the hill itself, with no paper and no means of handwashing! Oh the joys of hand gel while travelling...

We met up with our dala dala driver and headed off to see the sights of Mandalay from a new perspective, waving to all the scooter drivers and packed buses on the road behind and around us. The afternoon was spent on a tour of the local crafts. We visited a gold leaf workshop. Tiny amounts of gold powder are placed between 50 sheets of what looked like greaseproof paper, then sandwiched between two thick pieces of leather. This wedge is placed on an angled block on the floor and pounded several hundred times with a sledge hammer by some young and extremely fit lads. One of them showed us his abs with a cheeky grin - impressive! The pounding generates heat which melts the gold powder and squashes it into a very fine foil. In another part of the workshop, another group of workers use tongs to peel off the gold leaf and wrap it around tiny squares of paper, or other objects, ready for sale. One of the more imaginative souvenirs I saw in their shop was an actual leaf covered in this fine gold foil - a gold leaf, geddit?

After the gold workshop, with the clanging noises of the sledgehammers still ringing in our ears, we moved on to a wood carving studio. The carvings ranged from pocket sized ornaments up to intricately carved doors and huge statues. The shop also had lots of embroidered pictures for sale. These really captured my imagination. The pictures were partly stuffed to make some sections stand out, then covered in beads, sequins and other embellishments. They must have taken weeks to make. I would have loved to buy one, but it would have been very hard to get it home, so I had to settle for taking photos.

Next up was a stone carving village. The marble dust was hanging in the air as we wandered along the street looking at the different studios, so we didn't stay here very long. I found a lovely white marble elephant and Ailsa and I both spent ages deciding which ones to get (and got very silly making white elephant jokes in the process). We also stopped off at a teak monastary which Joseph thought was about 300 years old.

That evening some of us drove up to yet another temple, this time high on the hill overlooking the whole of Mandalay, all the way out to the river and the hills beyond. The road up was very steep with a lot of hairpin bends, so I was very glad of our little truck which saved us the walk. We still had to climb a number of steps lined with souvenir and craft stalls, but that was much easeier than the walk up would have been. There was a thick dusty haze over the city which made the colours interesting as the sun set, but meant we couldn't see the city very clearly.

Driving back, the roads were packed with scooters and motorbikes.  The law requires bikers to wear helmets during the day, but strangely not at night, so people were definitely letting their hair down.  It seems that cruising around is the done thing for the younger crowd and we waved at big groups of friends out biking together.


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