As visitors swarm to Burma the tour operators new favourite, readers of The Vintage Magazine may be interested to learn of a recent expedition to the land of steamy jungle, icy peaks and turquoise seas.
Largely isolated by the western world for over half a century, Myanmar as it now prefers to be called, is the home to many little known wild creatures and probably the location of some undiscovered species.
Indeed, only in 1998 the eminent American naturalist, Alan Rabinowitz discovered a species new to science in the remote mountainous terrain of Northern Burma. The Leaf Deer, a small primitive mammal was brought out alive and kept for some years in Yangon. But as Rabinowitz admits, there may well be other unknown animals living in this vast, thinly populated jungle where distant snow capped peaks rise majestically above the emerald tree line. Furthermore there were rumours of colonies of rare voles living in this remote region. As President of the Vole Club one of these rodents caught my attention. Pere David’s vole (Eothenomys Melanogaster) is described as a soft, shaggy, sooty-brown mouse-like beast with a blunt nose, short legs with a small tail covered by short hairs that obscure the rings of scales. The soles of the feet are said to be hairy behind the pads, the young are blackish and the females have four teats. Sightings of the little fellow had been made near Mount Imaw Bum (9000 feet) where a specimen brought in by a pygmy’s cat measured 141mm from head to tail tip. Before being consumed by the hungry little people, who regard it as a delicacy, it was weighed at 27 grams. There were also reports of other voles invading Northern Burma including the Chinese Vole (Pitymys Pinetum) and the Korean Meadow Vole (Microtus Montebelli) but these usually live at lower altitudes.
However, my real interest was Pere David’s and with two vole-unteers from the Vole Club, I launched an expedition to the valleys leading down from Burma’s icy mountains. Lady (Pamela) Coleridge who had played a leading role in seeking the dwarf chimpanzee in the Congo on the Scientific Exploration Society Zaire River Expedition (1974/75) and my wife, Judith who studies voles in Dorset, joined me. Equipped with measuring tapes and cameras with close up lens, we set out clutching drawings of our target. It seems there are no photographs of this elusive mammal, indeed I wondered whether it was a myth, Did Pere David’s vole really exist?
Arriving in Yangon after a most comfortable Singapore Airlines flight, we were met by our friendly and helpful German agent, Carsten Schmidt who, excited by the quest, cried out “Ja-vole!” and took us to the comfort of the old colonial Savoy Hotel.
Here our plans were laid and wildlife experts consulted whilst we built up our strength before flying North to our first objective, Inle Lake. Some 22kms by 11kms and 875m above sea level, this vast shallow waterway is dotted with patches of floating vegetation and canoes propelled by boatmen standing on one leg whilst the other is wrapped around a paddle which enables them to perform a strange one legged rowing technique and spot fish – or voles. This is where we expected to make a first sighting of our quarry.
Foot Paddler fishing on Inle Lake
Speeding along in a swift long tailed boat, we passed through villages of the leg rowers’ attractive houses rising on stilts from the still waters. We noted the great array of flowers and vegetables cultivated on floating gardens create a useful feeding area for voles.
Talking to kite flying children, potters, weavers and silversmiths, we sought information on the beasties but although we saw borrows in the banks of streams and canals and heard of rodents attacking the tomato plantations, there was no sign of Pere David’s Chinese nor Korean voles. The presence of hordes of cats, trained by monks to keep fit by leaping through hoops at the Nga Phe Monastery may account for the decline in voles. Even at our hotel we encountered evidence of the destruction of the creature for it was said that the French Manager served Fricassee de vole on special occasions.
Disappointed but undeterred, we drove to Heho (not connected with the Seven Dwarfs) to catch a plane on Yangon Airways, who although its logo depicts a flying elephant, happily became airborne. At Mandalay no flights were available to the Far North so our intrepid trio braved the express train.
Upper Class sleeper
Booking a sleeping compartment in “Upper Class” and escorted by a string of porters bearing our baggage, we waited for the station to open. Pam and Judith had stocked up with rations, some vintage Myanmar Merlot (actually, quite drinkable), water, loo paper, insect repellent, air freshener and blankets. With military precision the gate swung wide at 1545 hrs and regiments of travellers dashed for the carriages. Second class, first class and lastly Upper Class were soon filled with families and smiling children. Monks prayed on the platform before boarding and food vendors sold their wares through open windows. Our compartment had four leathery cots and bolts on the door. The window, once opened, would not shut but at 85 degrees Fahrenheit that was no problem.
At 1615 hours with several loud “woo woos” on its hooter and children still climbing in through the windows, the big yellow diesel electric began hauling us North up the 300 mile narrow gauge track to Myitkyina in the Kachin State.
Located near the dining car, we were soon visited by a jolly waiter who offering us tea, coffee, beer and whisky, urged us to take refreshment as the arrival time at our destination could not be predicted. The smell of spicy cooking led us to inspect the First Class Dining Car. Greeted by staff, somewhat surprised to encounter foreigners, we were shown the kitchen where two sweaty cooks slaved over a glowing open fire. The smoke from burning logs added an aromatic air to the carriage. Diners offered us a taste of their noodles and Judith gallantly bought a dish. The steward was delighted and offered a free whisky!
By now most passengers had got stuck into the betel nut, said to kill worms in the digestive tract, produce mild stimulation and promote a sense of well being. For certain, in spite of blood red teeth, they were very friendly. Even the solemn faced guard, armed with not one, but two old Lee Enfield rifles was amiable. I enquired if he thought it likely he would have to use them, pointing out that the barrel ends were blocked with wads of blanket. He replied by working the well oiled bolt with enthusiasm. The novice beside him bent his head in prayer. Stepping over packs of sleeping babies, I regained the compartment to find Pam had used her Swiss Army knife to open the wine.
As usual in the tropics, darkness fell rapidly and as the train clackety clacked through the jungle, branches swept into the open windows, depositing beetles that Judith dispatched with a well aimed squirt of potent bug killer. Unperturbed we chewed roast chicken legs and opened the second bottle.
Earlier I had managed to squeeze passed some incontinent nuns to visit the loo and a kindly child had held the door shut whilst I was within, but now the corridors were packed with sleeping monks, and soldiers lying on rented mats. Clearly we were cut off from the vital facility. Luckily our lady members were innovative travellers and Pam’s knife was used to remove the tops of plastic bottles to created a serviceable “bed pan”. Fortunately there was no one in the passing bush, worried by the disposal.
Food Vendor on station en-route to Myitkyina
Stops were made at lamp lit stations where cheroot smoking women bearing trays of hors d’oeuvre illuminated by burning candles, on their heads offered a wide variety of dishes to our windows. Small boys proffered local liquors for the hard headed and then with a “Woo Woo” we were off again. Under our blankets, helped by the Myanmar Merlot, we enjoyed an uneasy sleep being rocked from side to side, rather like riding an elephant. In the corridor it was dead quiet. I wondered if any ever went to the loo.
The dawn came up like thunder, as Kipling wrote, but it was another eight hours before we chugged through the rice fields into World War Two battle site of Myitkyina. It was 1415 hours and after 22 hours we were not sorry to step down into the glaring sunlight of the old colonial town.
Sipping Tiger Beer beside the moon lit Irrawaddy, we planned our move north. Fortunately there was a plane going to Putao (or Fort Hertz as it was once called) and next morning, the snow packed summits at the Eastern end of the Himalayas greeted us.
The North has a history of political conflict and security at airports was strict. Examining the 15 copies of our special permit, the Immigration Officer asked,” Why you come Putao?” “To study voles,” I replied. “Ah so”, he nodded clearly appreciating the importance of our mission.
Chalet at Putao Trekking House
Making a base at the Putao Trekking House (altitude 1342 feet) we got our first indication of the voles. The people, studying our drawings, said “Poo”. “No, no,” I replied, “It’s a vole”. “Poo” they insisted. Perhaps my sketch has given the wrong impression. A lady who spoke some English came forward. “Here we call that a Poo or a Pwe” she said. “They are found in the fields”. So the search started in earnest. For days we tramped miles asking the Kachins to show us a Poo or even a Pwe. We examined mouse holes, rat runs and stream banks. No sign of a vole but intelligence now revealed they might be on the Malikha River. Pam organized a long tailed boat and a gastronomic feast with wine, a cook with a guitar, three curious schoolteachers and a Nepalese white water guide. Having issued life jackets, our helmsman navigated the turbulent rapids in fine style. After each he cried out “Pwe” or perhaps it was “phew” in relief.
Gold Dredger on Malikha River
Half naked gold panners watched us speed past and enter a gorge with towering sides that led to an extraordinary island. Fairy Isle, named because of a local myth, was littered with Henry Moore sculptures which, on closer inspection, were found to be eroded pillars of rock. One had clearly been carved out as an image of a vole, but still no sign of the living animal! As Judith and I were celebrating our Golden Wedding Anniversary, Pam had arranged a beautifully iced and decorated cake and we opened the wine, enjoyed delicious grilled river fish and sang to the cook’s guitar.
Back at base, “The Poo are at the Mula River” said our guide, appropriately named Stanley. “No cars, too far to march. Can you ride bicycles?” he asked.
The Expedition Members and their Mounts!
I had not cycled in 50 years but a fleet of multi geared brakeless bicycles was provided and we peddled north using the uncertain steering to avoid bullock carts and much to the amusement of the local children who cheered us on. After seven bottom slicing kilometres on a narrow saddle designed to castrate, we reached the river. The cook came up by motorbike to serve noodles and coke whilst we questioned the people. An old Tibetan knew of the Pwe. Stanley translated. “They spend most of their time mating in their underground borrows in the mossy ground of the rhododendron forests below Mt HkakaboRazi.”
Myanmar’s highest mountain is 19,434 feet and even with my reborn skill, I doubted we would reach it by bicycle, so it was back to base. This was down hill all the way. With little help from the brakes, it became a hair raising ride, holding on for dear life, dodging Chinese three wheelers, ox carts and dogs.
Young Taxi Cart Driver under instruction at Naungkhine
As dusk descended a small sooty-brown creature scuttled under my wheel but there was no way I could stop. Stanley joined me at the bottom of the slope, where a grassy verge had brought me to a halt. “Why didn’t you stop?” he exclaimed. “You ran over a Poo.” Despair was slightly reduced by a passable bottle of Claret that by a miracle Pam found in the bar.
After arduous expeditions, it is important to relax and write one’s report so we flew South for a magnificent dinner in Yangon with an old Burmese friend from Sandhurst and a few days at the beautiful Ngapali Beach, where we watched the sun setting over the Bay of Bengal and dined on sumptuous sea food. We shall certainly return to seek the elusive Burmese Vole!!
Some Experiences encountered on the Journey in pursuit of the Elusive Burnmese Vole!
Top images:- Upper class restaurant kitchen Street market – Myitkyina Fishing boat on Bay of Bengal
Vole sculpture? on Fairy Island, Malikha river Well armed train guard Map of Myanmar
By John Blashford-Snell