The plan from Bhamo was to try our hand at hitchhiking to Indawgyi Lake via Myitkyina. I’d heard about this route from someone I’d met in Laos – the catch being of course that this part of Myanmar (Kachin State) is currently embroiled in a civil conflict… but we didn’t plan to stray too far from any main road. That being said, the main road gets to within 5km of the Chinese border and we did end up passing through quite a few towns that are on the “no foreigners” list. The locals were often confused as to what we were doing in their neck of the woods, but were always friendly.
We tried to explain to our hotel staff in Bhamo what we were planning to do to get some tips on a place to start but our ideas didn’t quite translate through hand gestures. We did have a receptionist write a sign for us though!
Our first ride was an absolute beauty! He didn’t take us very far, only about 14km since we seemed to enter a more serious exclusion zone at the town of Momauk and he wasn’t too keen on that…
As we tried to catch another ride, locals on the street started to ask questions and offered to call immigration to check if we should actually be in the area. They also informed us that the only way for us to get to Myitkyina from Momauk was to catch a plane. In order to get the well-meaning but obstructive locals off our backs we promised to head to the airport, walking far enough out of sight so we could start waving down cars again.
Car #2 was an SUV full of a group of decidedly “cool” kids. They all had Chinese ancestry and as such Vivian could communicate with them a lot more effectively than we’d been managing up to that point. We climbed into the back of the SUV and were on our way again. Sitting in the back, with a cake and cases of beer as arm rests, we agreed to join the gang for the birthday celebrations they had planned.
We pulled up next to a bridge over a river and, after the requisite posing and selfies with the foreigners, they unloaded the beer into the cooling waters of the river and we all hung out on the rocks for a while. Although they seemed happy to have us there for the rest of the day, Vivian and I had a long way to go to Myitkyina. The teens wouldn’t let us walk back to the main road so they gave us a quick lift down the hill and we had our thumbs* out once again.
*It turns out that waving your thumb at cars on the streets of Myanmar doesn’t really get you very far, although it does make you a lot of friends! Everyone would either tell us they were full (a back-and-forth twist of the wrist, kind of like an aggressive Queen Lizzy wave – Burmese for “no”) or not have a clue what we were up to and just return the thumbs up. We eventually learned that we had to WAVE cars down, raising our arm in front of us and flapping our hand – like patting a llama (or Shaq) on the head.
A guy with a motor-scooter strapped to the roof of his sedan pulled over and let us hop in. He and his scooter gang (3 guys on scooters would zoom ahead and then wait for us, check the one on the roof and then zip off again) took us all the way to Myitkyina. We passed several military checkpoints during this part of the journey. At the first checkpoint (also the first time I’d seen hand-grenades hanging off people’s belts), our driver asked for our passports and I think he arranged for our passage through to Myitkyina. He returned with a slip of paper that he would then show to the rest of the checkpoints, except for two. The next checkpoint we blew through without slowing to answer any questions or talk to the guards. An hour or so later, there was a bridge crossing with a guard and our driver passed something from his door to palm of the guard. I would assume that it was a packet of betel nut but couldn’t be sure. No questions were asked. The scooter gang raced on to Myitkina without further incident and we arrived, frazzled but safe.
Vivan and I celebrated with an ice cream from a food truck and walked through the colourful markets, visited a Hindu temple, and finally chilled in a playground while the sun set behind us, quite proud of our success in hitchhiking through a red zone along the Chinese border.