The Joint Friendship Expedition to Myanmar
Since many years Hkakabo Razi was a familiar name to me, a magic name for a dreamer far away from my home country, in a legendary inaccessible land called 'Burma'. Finally, after a long time We received the permission to visit it. It took only two years to receive the final approval for the first phase of our expedition project from the Myanmar Government. The first 'Joint Friendship Expedition Myanmar/France/Japan' with Myanmar Hiking and Mountaineering Federation was born.
The dream became reality by the end of 1993, when the Kachin people signed a peace agreement with the central government in Yangon. During the winter 1994/1995, my husband Takashi Ozaki, our son Makoto, ten years old, with the Major Kai Khan Moong and Saw Aye, reached close to north face of the Hkakabo Razi. after more than thirty-day walk, The snow and persistent bad weather, the narrow and avalanche valleys made progress slow and difficult. With the help of the Tibetan and Tarons people of the last villages we reached the upper slopes. But we were forced to renounce and return back. The Hkakabo Razi stayed mysteriously invisible, hidden in its opaque shawl. No photograph, nor any identification of the summit were available to prepare for the summer expedition in 1995. But we could collect important information and above all, the friendship of the village people.
Following the trail from the south to north through the Kachin land, at the end of a long journey, in a remote corner of Myanmar appears the mysterious Hkakabo Razi. To go to the Hkakabo Razi, the approach followed very deep valleys and tropical jungle almost till the base camp. This difficult and very long approach was not so much good feeling to compare with the other Himalayan base camps. But here are very charming people staying in harmony with nature and surviving in their hard daily life.
We were ten members, including our children Makoto (10 years) and Sarah (7 years) to embark from Yangon airport on 9 July 1995. In the F29 of Myanmar Airways, we reached Putao situated 1200 km north, following the Irrawaddy river. Suddenly m landed on a rice cultivation carpet unrolled until the foot of nearby hills. Between the rain showers appears small bamboo houses situated on the wild green fields of Putao valley.
The tropical humidity and mosquitoes made take preventive medicine against malaria. This epidemic sickness was devastating this district. The villagers are not educated to take any protective treatment. It is also expansive for them and the only hospital we saw was in Putao.
Since years, the 250 km road connecting Miychyina, the Kachin capital, to Putao is 'out of order'. At least a three week-journey by jeep and by walking is required to each Putao. We could think of this during the monsoon season. The only access to Putao was by plane, and cost for a local passenger is US $ 4 one way (US $ 2000 annual per capita income). The only travellers are the military officers, their families, monks and some traders.
On 11 July, the only day with sunshine brought the announcement on BBC of Han Saw Su Shin's liberation . The news was to remain secret on Myanmar programmes.On the next morning, we had uninterrupted r.ain. Dwigh, the liaison officer and representative of the Myanmar Federation, was the most important person of our team. He managed to freight our luggage by the only two trucks to reach Machambo bridge on Mha Likha river, one of the feeder of the Irrawaddy. Our seventy four porters, our team and luggage are crammed on the back of these trucks. The thought was sobering, we were standing up, catching everything. With nothing to keep the balance we fell down, but were absolutely happy. Our porters will go only for the first seven-day walk, up to Nomung. They were not professional porters like in Nepal. People living there were mostly farmers, and Putao village people must plant their rice before 21 July, date decided by the astrologers to have a good harvest. Until the small city of Nomung. we would not see any shop in the villages. Their life style was interdependent, and based on individual barters. The path was easy and comfortable between the rice fields, but Dwight told me with a laugh. 'Enjoy today but don't cry tomorrow!' Sometimes, there was no way, almost no path to penetrate in the thick jungles, with intermingled bamboo, wild variety of trees and green plants. The four trackers' hasten with eagerness to trace out the way. They had a cross bow on their shoulder, and their long Kachin knife (type of machete), cutting the bamboo in a strong and regular movement. Very often, for each step we had to walk crouching, and taking care not slip on this skating rink made by firmed humus,, the sharp bamboo were waiting for us ! Makoto and Sarah's size made it easy for them to walk in the forest. Walking on any type of land, or crossing a hanging bridge became a natural thing for them. I was under Makoto's control and I heard his voice quite often: 'Look out mum! Again! Stop, don't fall... dud!! ' I had never seen a route like this one, but let say we all 'enjoyed the difficulties'. When I met my husband for the first time in Kathmandu, he was challenging the 14 Himalayan mountains over 8000 m. But his love for high peaks, this romantic challenge, was over after Reinhold Messner's success in 1986. Since more than a decade we have shared many expeditions around the Himalaya. This trip was a special one, with family in a special atmosphere.
This expedition was the first one authorised by the Myanmar Government. Since and even during the British time, no foreigners had reached so far to the remote corner of the Kachin State. It was also the first endeavour to climb the 5881 m high Hkakabo Razi by its north face. This was the special mountain of 'Burma'. Hkakabo Razi with its mystic name, is in the north of Myanmar. It borders the Kham district of southeast Tibet (China), and is last link of the Himalayan range, the eastern-most peak. To get there, we had to cross the Kachin State from south to north. This state was in rebellion against the central government of Yangon until the end of 1993, to keep their independence. In spite of some approaches, this people, land and mountains kept their mystery until now. The famous British naturalist, F. Kingdon Ward, between 1937-1939, during a long survey had been attracted by this mountain. He tried to reach it by the south face, following the abrupt gorges of the Gamlang river. Later in 1956, a Burmese military expedition led by the Colonel Saw Myint approached the north face of Hkakabo Razi. These two pioneers brought back interesting reports on the local ethnic groups, flora and fauna of this unknown region. We visited Col. Saw Myint at his residence in Yangon. Very kindly, he agreed to show us his expedition photos and report. Bending over a military map placed on a low table, we listened to his precise memories, like explaining story which happened only yesterday/Unfortunately, I am too old to come with you, but my mind will follow you. Please come back to tell me how it is now, forty years after".
Day by day. following and crossing countless feeders of the Irrawaddy river we reached one of its springs, situated at the foot of Hkakabo Razi north face. Specially during the monsoon season, the wild forest grows every where. We could not know if the sun was up or the sky is cloudy. We crossed the precarious bridges, well cut by our guides made slippery by moss and slippery stems. There were wonderful hanging bridges made by plait bamboo and cane, to cross the tumultuous torrents with meandering imposed by a wilderness. We progressed slowly to our dream, still 300 km away. Evening time, Makoto and Sarah still had the energy to play with children, then preparing the camp fire with porters for drying shoes and clothes. Darkness was already deep when we all gathered for our second meal of the day. We sat around the fire in a charming rickety house on a slope. The village gathered around, like a painting done on the wall smiling nicely and looking curiously every movement we did.. Mu So, the head man of Garetu, was very friendly. He told me 'if you wish they go, just blow the candles, and they will understand. But otherwise, they can spend all the night here. Tomorrow, I will come along with your group.’
HKAKABO RAZI (Miyanmar)
We were in the heart of the Jinghpaws (Kachins) country, covered by hills, stretching till the Sham plateau in the south. The Kachin dominion include a palette of ethnic groups of this region like the Shans, Bamars, Maru. Lashi. Azi, Lisu, Rawans, Tailay, Kadu and Kanang people. The real Kachins are the Jingpaws. This important hills tribe had a formal Independent army resisting the Central government, of Yangon until the end of 1993 for their regional autonomy. The Kachin. Rawan and the other sub-ethnic groups were sober and lived in a perfect harmony with the nature. They were so far untouched by the modern civilisation and troubles. Almost all women, men and children wore the traditional longyi. They worked in rice-fields, lead farmer's life, untroubled and hard. When the time was due the men went hunting with their cross-bow, in group or alone. Sometimes they walked more than ten days from their village, and returned three or four weeks later, whether lucky or not in their hunt. At the end of summer, generally one member of each family of the villages, went for trading, sometimes to Arunachal Pradesh (India), Tibet or Yunan (China) borders. For them, it was only a few days walk to reach the pass by small tracks, earning heavy baskets. They exchanged fells, baskets, musk, dry mushrooms, medicinal plants (appreciated by the Chinese), against Chinese wears, textile and for other products from the 'outside world'. I do not know what will be the future for this people, how long it will take to be affected by the modern world. In these remote villages, somehow modern objects from China appears - clothes, dishes, torch, batteries, and recently few village headmen have a radio.
The view was of a succession of forested hills, as if stuck with one another. The green and foggy scenery dominated. We were absorbed by this luxuriant jungle. Multitude of birds sang, agitated and hid in the dense foliage. The first orchids in full blossom, stood in luminous colours in this green atmosphere. Our friend So Lwin, an orchid specialist, had his eyes shining, looking, collecting, preserving some specimens with precautions. For him, this was the first journey in the Kachin land. 'I wish to arrive soon in the base camp to start a temporary nursery and under-press my specimens. What a wide variety, it is fabulous, I cannot believe my eyes. !
The villages were rare, with few houses, churches, schools dispersed between fields, made by wood and bamboo. The villagers welcomed us and often we shared charm of their household, well ventilated, but also with invasion of mosquitoes and other beasts, replaced during the day by leeches, our imperishable true-companion all along our way. The majority of our porters were Baptist, and Sunday's camp are soon transformed in a nocturnal choral. Small groups formed around books, enlightened by the faint candle light. Men and women united their voices, singing in Rawan. A different atmosphere in the country of the gold pagodas. In the Kachin state, the percentage of Buddhist is 54.9% and the (Christian) Baptist is 41.7%, animist is only 1.1%. (I felt that the Baptist percentage was more in the parts we crossed).
More we went north, more the tracks narrowed. It did not gave enough place to two feet even. Recent land-slides obliged us to climb and cross slippery unstable sandy land, catching roots. Sometimes the (racks climbed up to the impressive precipice above tumultuous rivers. I was always in admiration looking at the porters walking easily, with heavy load on their back. They could see any difficulties with I heir sharp eyes. They were born for the jungle.
Wan Shiwan was one woody shanty suspended on the hill. We thought of reaching it in two hours as we walked in a forest with high trees, following traces. Suddenly an old man, wrinkled like an old history book appeared from nowhere. His longyi rolled up, barefooted, the cross-bow on shoulder, he stopped next to us with a large smile and shook our hands. He tried to explain us something, by motion of his arms, his looks and in an incomprehensible language. We could not catch his message, but few minutes later the answer appeared. It was a chaos of uprooted trees by a monster land-slide which went across for a kilometre. We took care to cross this gloomy place. That evening, Dwigh explained to us old man's story: The only two sons of the head man of Tasutu (a village to the north, three days walk away), was on their way to meet each other. When they met they were surprised and carried off in this indescribable landslide.' The unceasing early rains this vearhad devastated and changed the soft faces of hills. The torrents forded last winter easily, now hurled down, as if they were going through narrow gorge to an important rendezvous.
We walked between rice fields along the Malikha river, forming a semi-circle around Nomung, a big city of 6600 people. The river was wild, and the current was fast and muddy. Takahi and Makoto were so surprised! They could not recognise the river. Last January, two elephants were carrying big trees, crossing the river with water not up to their knees even. Nomung was an administrative town in a middle of green wild valley. The population was mixed from many of the ethnic groups seen in the Kachin state, but principally Kachin, Nung. Lisu and Rawan. There were many schools for primary and secondary education level, a lot of churches started by different missionaries since (at least) last century (Church of Christ, Baptist) and one Pagoda. There was a market with small shops where we could find some items, especially coming from China. After this jungle trip, we enjoyed the 4
city life', going around and appreciating the wares. We tasted excellent noodle-soup in the small tea shop-restaurants. Between 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. electricity was available run by an enormous generator - every two days and for two hours only !
We stayed for three days in the Nomung Government bungalow and everybody made our stay comfortable. We had nice welcome with the traditional Kachin 'Victory dance' in their festive wears.
Dwigh, with the help of the head-man recruited new porters. These rest days were sunny and we enjoyed a peaceful feeling. Every day we felt to be in a special atmosphere. It cannot be compared, with other farmers' life in countries nearby. Here, there were no terraced-fields, like in Nepal. The cultivation changed slowly following the altitude; paddy-fields in the low tropical valleys, then buckwheat, maize and millet, and potato fields. Now only ten days from the foot of Hkakabo Razi we were at 1510 m, and for the first time far away the snow cap of Giran Razi (4337 m) appeared. The landscape changed and became mid-tropical, mid-highland. The big bamboo alternated, then blurred, giving place to rhododendrons, conifers and other big trees,
The isolation of Small humans9, the Pygmies of Adunglang river valley
On 29 July, in the middle of afternoon we arrived in the Krong village, where we stayed three days. From the other side of the Adunglang river we could see small wooden houses. On the other side of the hanging bridge a dozen of dwellers were waiting for us. They warmly welcomed us and were curious too, recognising Takashi and Makoto. These people were small in size, around 1.45 m, these were the Pygmies from the Taron ethnic group.
The latest Pygmy Diaspora recorded was around 1880. but it was said that some of them came many centuries ago, following the legendary history of village rivalries and tribal warfare. They spoke Taron language, had Mongolian origins like the Rawan groups, and were the only Pygmies in this part of Asia. After several earthquakes which occurred in 1949, 1950 and 1951, this Taron of Adung Long river valley became an isolated group.
They had a very primitive way of life. The remained subsistence farmers, and occasional hunters.
Next day was the shortest walk of our trip, going to Taphungdan situated at 1785 m. Taphungdan was one of the four villages of Tibetan migrants in north Burma. They were only a few days walk from Tibet (Kham region), and this was another discovery for us.
Along our way, in Nomung, we saw a Pagoda and one Monk. Except that we saw only churches, churches, churches until Krong. It was such a surprise to see so many churches in the land of Golden Pagoda. The missionary impact was large in such an uneasy country. But the four villages were Tibetan Buddhist (Mahayana), though the Burmese are followers of the Hinayana Buddhism. It appeared that they had not been concerned with the missionaries.
Taphungdan was settled in a wild valley tucked between hills and Adunglang river. We crossed the village from south to north and in the middle of the valley. There was a Burmese Pagoda surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags. The Monk, U. Tiloka, from Yangon came to settle here three years ago, and the Pagoda had been built on 8 April l994
We set up our camp for few days in a villager's house, of Gyantsu and his family. The house was in fact was made of two houses attached together by a veranda-corridor. Like other constructions, his house was on high grounds and made of wood. Gyantsu took fifteen years to build it.
I discovered the secret room of Gyantsu which was locked, and opened almost hundred times a day. He stocked his important personal things there(especially a radio, to listen to Radio Lhasa), food storage, and some goods brought from Tibet. They cam' to Tibet, animal skins, medicinal plants (collected during summer, from around 4000 m high 'zayu') called locally 'machit', 4
kado' the gland of musk deer, and also the baskets from lower valleys and some other goods. They brought back Tibetan salt, Chinese clothes, batteries and other needs. From Myichyina they exchange almost the same things.
Their life followed the seasonal rhythm for culture, hunting and some trading. They had a simple life style and they looked happy. They were very busy and remained occupied by all their daily work.
The local language was still Tibetan. Some of them could speak Burmese, Kachin or Rawan to communicate with other villages. Their friendly nature made them integrated to this place, chosen by their ancestors. This place was quite isolated, and remaining traditions and language were impoverished. In fact, now they don't know much about Tibet, except for the first village for their trading.
During the British days, Burma always welcomed Tibetans. The Tibetans had independent villages. Their houses and lands were their own. Nobody from low part, tropical people, wanted to settle in such a high place.
Before to leave Taphungdan, we went, for a visit to the Monk U.Tiloka. His wild smile and kindness always welcomed us and today was a special moment when we received his benediction for our safety during the mountain trip.
So we continued our trip up, with almost the entire Taphungdan and Krong village population. This expedition gave them some temporary jobs, but we also created some difficulties in their culture and village life, but they helped us well.
They already prepared the way for us, cutting bamboo, making a trunk and bamboos bridges to cross furious -rivers Evening time, after a hard day's walk and carrying loads, they prepared a camp-fire, cutting wood for us and for them. The weather condition was wet very often and almost most of the time we had to sleep in the humid forest. Camp was installed around the fire, to make the short night comfortable. The ritual tsampa and Tibetan tea was their main food, and they often shared it with us during evening talks.
Finally, we reached close to Hkakabo Razi, one of the last hidden places in the Himalaya, Floating Mysterious ice mountain in green country ! We felt more and more excited, approaching to aim, and after 27 days we reached the base camp on 8 August, at 3200 m. Our advanced party had already arrived there on the 5th and they had worked hard to install a comfortable camp. A clear water stream was flowing from one of Himalayan glacier spring, singing between rocks and grass. The place is fenced by sharp granite peaks, covered in the lower parts by rhododendrons and fir-trees. Unfortunately, our camp was in the permanent humid forest; no other place to install tents and equipment. The weather was changing very quickly, between rain, fog, clouds, with sometimes a small piece of blue sky.
There we met for the first time Nyima Gyaltsen. Gyantsu's younger brother, fast and strong like the mountain goats. The next days was very busy for every one; adjusting crampons, preparing equipment...
Our two communication operators, whom were working exceptionally hard since our departure, installing line anywhere in any condition, became more occupied. Every two hours they had to send message to Yangon through Putao. Gyantsu and three other strong men, went hunting with their cross-bows for us, to get some meat. They liked hunting, not only for hunting animals, but they liked to run in the forest, to have the feeling of freedom. They found trails of taken (mountain goat), a heard of around twenty takins. They started early morning and came back after sun-set the same day, with heavy baskets. Their hunting was exceptional, they followed trails all the day for more than 16 km and killed two Takins. The next morning, six men went to pick up the part of the meat stocked in the forest.
Takashi was not satisfied with this base camp. ‘
It is too far from the foot of the mountain, which could make difficult for the communication between the BC and altitude camps, tomorrow we go to recce for another place', he said. So, some of us went to find out new BC. We found a safe place between rocks at the end of the glacier tongue. The only problem was obtaining fire-wood. But Dwigh and villagers managed to carry wood.
Five days later, we moved up to the advanced base camp at 3900 m, mi the glacier-moraine, at the foot of Hkakabo Razi. Route to the camp was a lovely walk, with dwarf orchids and rhododendrons, and so many other varieties of colourful flowers. It was a beautiful landscape, almost as it would have been at the origins of the Himalayan mountains. A confusion of sharp peaks, and between them avalanche corridors. The summit was very often in a heavy white shawl, but when it appeared, its long ridge in a white corolla was beautiful. (Hkakabo Razi is the Kachin name for this mountain'. The Rawan name is 'Athanbum Razi' and means Mountain of the Avalanches, where no trees can grow .’
Takashi did not lost any moment, and started climbing while the BC w as being installed. Immediately he traced the route and installed Cl at 4300 m. in a middle of a 'pilier d'angle'. The access was not difficult technically, but they had to cross dangerous glacier parts, where there was danger of falling stones and ice seracs.
The climbing team composed of: Takashi Ozaki (leader), Nyima Gyaltsu (Tibetan from Taphungdan), with his natural ability he learnt the technical skills soon - from using rope... to... using crampons. He became climbing partner of Takashi. So Aye. Thet Tounand So Mou. also from Myanmar Federation, were going for their first experience and felt excited and worried, for attracting wrath of Gods and about dangers of the mountain.They lent maximum support earning the equipment to install part of the route and camps. Climbing team included Eiho Otani, Asahi TV Programme director (summitter of three 8000 m peaks, and first ascent of the west ridge of K2 in 1981) and Fumihiko Yamanushi, assistant cameraman with a good climbing experience in the Himalaya. They were here to film the first expedition and make a documentary on this district.
On 13 August the climbing team slept at Cl. The next day, Takashi followed by the other three members, recceed the most direct route. After many different trays, escaping the avalanche corridors they arrived face to face with the upper glacier. The access was too dangerous due to an enormous hanging glacier ready to collapse, so he decided to climb via a long couloir and a chimney, 250 m high , emerging over the upper glacier. The falling stones and the crumbly rock made him climb in a speed and concentrated efforts.
They were back to the Cl before 3 p.m., and not even ten minutes later, an enormous avalanche in infernal noise was rushing down, bringing down big pieces of ice and stones. We were sure this avalanche had swept away fixed ropes and pegs on way for more than three hundred meters. The morning after, Takashi went to check this reality.' The damage is much, but no way to escape this part. We have been lucky yesterday to be back early! I will just make the route little more on the rocky part, up 2 or 3 meters, if needed . It will be all right'. From the base camp, we followed the climbers, between clouds and fog and walkie-talkie contact.
Clouds since yesterday were coming up from south, meeting above us the clouds from the north. They brought with them monsoon and bad weather. This Himalayan part is not allowed any period without rains. Humidity is unpleasant. Evening time in the BC, we communicated by walkie-talkie with Cl. Takashi informed us, 'If this weather continues, as it is snowing up, the fresh snow will not be stable in the couloir, so I am thinking that all of us will come down tomorrow, for one or two days. Over' All night heavy rains, followed by a drizzle soaked descending members. Of course, after the rain the sun would appear... but when? We discussed the next step and the conclusion was voiced by Takashi. 'It is impossible to know anything about weather, I have never seen so many changes in so few minutes'. It appears that good season is very short. In winter there was lot of snowfall, and even the access to the BC could be risky. The village's people always said 'The only good weather for us is during July and August, nobody goes to mountains after that. We go in this season to pick up medicinal plants and for hunting'.
Few days after, when Takashi reached the upper glacier, he had beautiful blue sky on the south face. But we on the north face, were still in the clouds. It means that the impressive south face is more protected from climate... but may be not. F. Kingdon Ward, the British pioneer, and the famous naturalist during his different journeys (1932/1939). always noticed such weather conditions. Colonel Saw Myint also noticed it during his 1956 survey.On 18 January, they crossed the upper glacier starting at 8.10 a.m. At 5 p.m., Takashi was still climbing. They found a good place to set up the C2, at 5100 in. Takashi wanted to finish to fixing rope above C2, and reach beautiful granite stone at 5200 m. The first stone wall of good granite quality! At the top of the main ridge, Hkakabo Razi showed his shining face, his long white snow -collar, like a wave emerging from the deep dark rocks. The upper glacier appeared with its gaping crevasses. It looked like a circus, where the only way to escape was to find the way through a labyrinth. All around them, hanging glaciers and seracs as high as a building were standing. They had to give up in face of this last difficulties. The fixed ropes were cut by falling seracs, the crevasses had a new dimension. After a long dangerous day, they were back safety in C 1 at 9 p.m. It looked very risky for our members to go alternate days to occupy C2 and acclimatise. The risk
would be in addition with the weather conditions. After studying the situation and we reached a wise decision. We decided to give up this time. We will continue the story next year, by the north or the south face, we will decide. The Tibetan name of this mountain is 'Raown' - 'Super Natural Guardian Goodness'. They believe there is a guardian for this mountain. And I also believe so - we could not reach the top, but everybody had been safe.
This expedition did not succeed to climb the summit of the Hkakabo Razi. But what was important that everybody came back safely. We can challenge it again. We do not consider it a failure, a failure which left us a lot of reasons to come back in this part of the world, a great experience in which we learnt a lot. I don't know what will be the impact of the first visit by foreigners here, and what the future will bring to our friends. Hkakabo Razi is no more a mysterious mountain.
When we arrived back to Taphungdan, everybody came to see us with warm Tashi Delek', and to listen our stories.
During our last night there, the sky was clear and stars were shining. The entire village came to Gyantsu s house, where they made a big fire in a dry field. The Taphungdan village and many Taron people from Krong came to share their time with us. The Tibetan women were beautiful. They wore traditional dresses. They wore simple stones necklace as no one had rich Tibetan ornaments, like rings or earrings. They started to dance and sing until late in the night. Krong people dressed in their traditional wear also danced and sang. Thet Toun, So Aye, So Mou and Dwigh danced joyfully.
The children observed with wide eyes. Tru Dorma sat next to me on the steps of Gyantsu's house. She held my hand strongly in her hands, laughing, smiling, happy to see the young dancing. The two elder brothers were looking and tossing their heads as if approving everything.
Then, when finally everybody was tired, they went back walking with small candles in a long procession, still singing. This wave of harmony between the voices and the feeble candle-light was, magically absorbed by the darkness.
An expedition to the unknown areas of the northern Myanmar (Burma). Peak Hkakabo Razi (5881 m) was attempted.