The Sagaing Hills

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Our programme this afternoon was to take us out into the hills above Mandalay, where there are many pagodas and monasteries.  The nine of us in our minibus rattled around like peas in a bucket, though any time we felt sorry for ourselves, we only had to look ahead to feel better.

 

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After all, there are always some less comfortable than oneself, don’t you find

 

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This was a dry but leafy landscape with a bit of farming on each side of the road and the occasional village to drive through.

 

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The toll plazas come surprisingly frequently here and there’s always a queue.

 

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A little further on we make a brief stop for photos at this temple, the Kaung Mu Daw pagoda and Aung told us the story of its foundation.  Can you imagine where the idea for the design is said to be taken from?

 

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Before we reached the hills, we made another brief stop at a silversmithing shop.  The smallest member of our group was pleased to hand round the surprisingly weighty piece of silver she’d been given to hold.

 

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Items here are made using the lost wax process and the craftsmen finish the job by hand with some skilful techniques.

 

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Some were working on larger pieces, maybe for purchase by a group or a village to donate to a temple.

 

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The end result was lovely – just not to our taste.

 

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I wondered too, how long before the silver would tarnish, and how often it would need (tricky?) cleaning?

 

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Unsurprisingly the exit was through the gift shop, though like everywhere else we’ve been, there was no hard sell – no soft sell, even.

 

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Up the hill we drove, along the narrowest and windiest of roads to the top where there was a temple with a viewpoint.  Mid afternoon by now, we were all pleased to enjoy a little cool air – the silversmith’s shop had hardly been the coolest of places – and the open viewing platform was a lovely place to stand and stare for quite a while.

 

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Even though it was hazy, it was good to look over to see the monasteries around these hills, with their golden domes and intricately shaped pagodas.

 

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Looking down a little further along, we could see over to the Ayerarwady and beyond.

 

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All around us were glistening golden pagodas.  If only it had been clear.

 

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Since we’d come so far, we did drop in to see the Buddha himself, but it was hot and sticky indoors and those views were a rather more tempting outlook.

 

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So we stepped outside again for another look.

 

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Aung pointed out the Kaung Mum Daw pagoda we’d seen earlier before suggesting that it was time to go.  He had an idea for somewhere else to stop by on the way.

 

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At the bottom of the hill was a nunnery.  (I know, that sounds like the start of a story, doesn’t it!?)  These young girls had just begun their time as novices and were sitting in a shady corner learning the buddha’s teachings by rote, chanting together.  They smiled and waved, happy to be distracted from their learning, it seemed.

 

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Aung suggested we take a look around, peer inside the buildings and maybe he’d see if he could find someone to talk to us in the meantime.  Look, here are some batteries being used in a balance, just like in the market.  I wonder what they weigh out in that bowl?

 

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The balance was on the step of the nunnery kitchen, a dark and gloomy place in which to cook, I thought.

 

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The room next door was worse still – this was the food preparation area.

 

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In the meantime, Aung had found Mary, who told us she was 59 and had been in the nunnery since she was 17.  She was happy to talk and to answer any questions we may have about her life and Aung would translate for us.

 

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There followed a fascinating fifteen minutes or so as we learned about the life of a nun here in the Sagaing Hills.  She told us how happy she is here – both her parents had died when she was young and she had little family left, just a few nephews and nieces, one of whom was here in the nunnery too.

 

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Her days were full, with an early start at 3am to begin her prayers.  She cooked for much of the day, preparing food for the monks in the monastery opposite (that raised a smile from several of the group, I can tell you) and her hours were busy and productive.

 

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Though she’s lived here most of her life, she’s free to leave whenever she wishes, but she doubts that she will.  The oldest Nun is 98 and there’s no reason why Mary wouldn’t live out her days here.  Whilst I find that quite thought rather sad, there was nothing at all sad about Mary, who bid us farewell and went back to her duties.

 

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One of her young colleagues was holding a bowl to collect alms as we left.

 

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As you can imagine, the conversation on the way home centred on the lives of monks and nuns here.  Most boys become monks for two short periods in their lives and some remain in the monastery permanently.  I seem to think it’s not quite so commonplace for nuns to do the same, but certainly we’ve seen some very little girls who have taken their place in a nunnery for who knows how long.  Hmm.

 

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So Aung shared his experiences as a monk, telling us how he benefitted and why he chose to do it – and why he chose not to stay.  All fascinating stuff.

 

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This deep and rather serious conversation was interrupted by the charming pair in the tollbooth, who waved and smiled “mingalabar” as we peered into their little office.

A little further up the road was one last call for the day and it happened to be somewhere right up my street.

 

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The silk weaving workshop was at the back of a small storefront and inside were a dozen or so looms mostly being operated by a pair of young women.

 

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What we were able to see here is the traditional Mandalay style of weaving, which we would classify as tapestry or pick up weaving.

 

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Each young woman had her pattern pegged in front of her and two pegs to mark her place.

 

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As many as two hundred small shuttles were in use at a time, each one creating the smallest part of the overall pattern.

 

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The colours of the silk were gorgeous.

 

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Many had just a touch of metallic glitz in the pattern too.  Beautiful.

 

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I imagine it’s quite difficult for two pairs of hands to work on the same piece – after all, we all work to a particular tension and maybe work at a different pace to someone else.  But these women seemed to be getting along just find and looking closely, it was impossible to see the join!

 

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Some were working on a different traditional pattern.

 

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whilst others had gone for a rest.  This was such close and detailed work, I would think it needs a high level of concentration not to mention perfect eyesight.

 

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The exit was – you’ve guessed – through the gift shop but surprisingly, not a single piece of the work we saw being completed was on sale.  My guess is the price was beyond the purses of those passing through, but it would have been good to have had the opportunity to take home the smallest of pieces. 

Anyway, with the best of timing, my camera battery flashed empty and since my spare one was in the minibus, the photos of the shop are still in my hero’s camera.  They might appear here sometime soon!

Spectacular surprises

Friday morning adventure