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Guardian on the Northwest
by: Hpone Thant

"It was really exhilarating. A sense of mission accomplished. We've alwa hoped to go back to Saramati and now we've done it!" said Professor Dr. Paing Soe, President of the Myanmar Hiking & Mountaineering Federation (MHMF). He was all smiles as he related his experiences on the recent expedition to Mt. Saramati.

Mt. Saramati or Nwe Mauk Taung as the locals call it, is on Myanmar's Northwest frontier, in the northwest corner of Sagaing Division. It is 12553 feet (3825 meters) in elevation and the summit lies inside Myanmar territory marked by the border marker post No.138 a little further away. This 

marker was set up in 1971 by the joint Myanmar-Indian Border Demarcation Team led by Col. Hla Aung, the then 
Director General of the Survey Department and his Indian counterpart. And that was the last time anyone had reached its peak from the Myanmar side, a non-too easy trek through deep virgin forest. 

Myanmar Hiking & Mountaineering Federation had long sought to repeat this feat but due to many unforeseen circumstances the plan had to be shelved. But now with the active support of the various local NGOs, the MHMF was ready to tackle this elusive objective with the aid of students-members from the Mandalay branch of the Federation and
support from commercial enterprises.

Led by Dr. Paing Soe, President of the Myanmar Hiking & Mountaineering Federation and Maj.Kang Khang Mong, Vice President of the Federation; the Expedition Team comprised of 31 members. "The team was made up of members of MHMF, students from the Mandalay branch of the Federation and two foreign mountaineers," Dr. Paing Soe told us.

"The remarkable thing is that there were 15 Myanmar girls in the team plus a foreign lady mountain climber, "he continued. "So out of 31 members of the Expedition, l6 were women!"

Starting out from Mandalay by flight on February l7 the team arrived in Hkamti the same day. Early the next morning a boat took them down the Chindwin River to Htamathi.

"Are the stories of humans changing into tigers really true?" one of the students wanted to know. Htamathi was notorious, or famous, depending on your perspective, as the place of were-tigers. However, it is still not the end of the road for the expedition members and no time available to enquire into the matter. 

Arriving at Htamathi around 1600hrs two cars were waiting to take them to Layshi, deep in the Naga country. The road to Layshi is approximately 56 miles and hugs the almost vertical cliffs on one side with deep gorges on the other. When the Expedition started on the road it was already 1800hrs. One wag in the group could not help but tease another friend, "Hey you know there is a road here that crosses over a mountain range called Myauk Chaw Le Taung (Mountain where even a monkey slips), maybe they named it after you!"

The moon hung bright with millions of twinkling stars in the ink black sky, as it was the first day after the full moon of Tabodwe (February).But the Expedition members were too tired to notice the moon; all were flat out, exhausted after a whole day's travel. The Team arrived at Layshi just after midnight where the authorities were waiting expectantly. 

After two days of careful planning the Expedition was ready to begin the mission. "Tomorrow we shall start our journey", Dr. Paing Soe briefed the members before they went to bed. "Tomorrow is a historic day for the MHMF. Saramati was last conquered by the then President of the Federation Col. Hla Aung on February 24th, 1971. So for more than 30 years Saramati had not been climbed by anyone from Myanmar and we are the first group to do so". After that pep talk everybody was ready to meet all challenges.

Reveille on February 21 was early. After a hurried breakfast of fried rice washed down with hot green tea the Expedition started out. From this point onwards it would be walking and walking!! The destination for today was Amimi village, situated at over 3900 feet elevation. 

The scouts sent ahead reported, "Saya, (Teacher) the bridge over the Nantalat Creek is not safe.
We should use bamboo rafts to get over to the other side". Bamboos were cut and hastily made into a raft to ferry the members to the other bank and by 1600hrs all members reached the destination. Amimi, which is a village inhabited by the Lonpuri Naga race and has only 11 huts.

After the first day the expedition members quickly settled into the rhythm of the march. Early starts at with breaks for lunch and a night halt at a Naga village or at a convenient location where water is available became the set routine. Mathawyi village inhabited by the Makuri Nagas was the destination for the second day. This village is also on a high peak of 3000 feet and there are about 25 huts. 

For the next night the Expedition stopped at Latte village on the elevation of 5250 feet. It is a small village, of only 6 huts and also inhabited by the Makuri Nagas.

A girl member of the Expedition asked between gasps, "Why must all these villages be on high peaks?" The Nagas normally build their villages on high ground to make it inaccessible and to protect them from marauding enemies; this tradition has been carried on to this day. Latte is the last village on the route and the land beyond is seldom used and had reverted back to its wild state. The team members would need machetes to hack away the vines and creepers
that had invaded the bridle path.Also from this point onwards,night stops would be in the jungle. 

From Latte village the team headed towards Khavakazu stream. It was also a whole day's trek, arriving at the destination only about 1700hrs. They decided to camp for the night here as water was easily available although it was at 4900 feet. Next day they crossed over a high ridge estimated to be over 5900 feet before arriving at Tishiti stream around 1700hrs.

Tishiti Stream Camp to Katha Wong Thi Stream Camp was another full day's trek over very steep and unknown paths Sometimes clambering over slippery footholds, sometimes grasping small trees to pull oneself up, all the members were exerting maximum energy, arriving at the destination around 1700 hrs. Katha Wong Thi stream is also called Shumi Taung stream and is situated at 9000 feet , elevation. And here a complication occurred,
Dr. Paing Soe related. "Our trekkers told us that they have never been beyond this point and they don't know the way. We huddled for a council of war and it was decided to send a team ahead to find the way around Shumi Peak, which rose above us at more than 10000 feet. It was decided also to designate this Katha Wong Thi Camp as the Expedition's Base Camp and the assault on the Saramati Peak to begin the next day."

Dr. Paing Soe held a final briefing that evening, "Tomorrow we shall begin our assault on Mt. Saramati. As you know the summit of this mountain has not been reached for more than 30 years. Please observe all the rules and regulations of safe climbing and I wish you success".

On February 27, 2003 the camp broke at 0800 and the assault on Saramati began. 

At 10000 feet the first snowfield was encountered. Undaunted they carried on and at 11000 feet found a small clearing free of snow and ice and suitable for making camp.
Water was also made available by melting the ice. They named the spot Yegai Sut Sakhan (Camp On Edge Of Ice).

"While the rest were making camp U Thet Tun, a technical instructor from MHMF, volunteered to take a team and find the best route up", Dr. Paing Soe explained, "It had been such a long time that anybody had climb Saramati and also Col. Hla Aung and party had climbed to the top from a different route than the one we were taking. So it was prudent that the best route should be found".

While the rest of the Expedition was waiting for the scout party's arrival the weather at this camp turned very cold. Snow started to fall
and the temperature dropped to -7 degrees C .Maj.Kang Khang Mong added" All the student climbers were city folks and coming from hot and dry Mandalay they had never seen snowflakes before! Some thought the snowflakes were ash from the bonfire until they saw the flakes melting on their clothes."

"Rise and Shine For This Is The Big Day", an energetic student from Mandalay was shouting the morning wake-up call at the top of his voice the next morning. Everyone struggled out of dreamland and in no time they were ready. Starting out early, the first group of mountaineers reached saramati Peak at 0830hrs and the rest followed. Everybody was in high spirit. "Come here, see the border marker erected by Col Hla Aung's party" another member of the Team shouted. The Expedition members had found the border marker post erected by Col Hla Aung and shutters clicked as all crowded around to take souvenir photos.

The mountain ranges stretched out towards the west as far as the eye could see. However the Expedition members were not able to stay long on the peak as the temperature went down to -11 degree C and a strong gale had started up. After putting up the Union flag
and the other flags of the participating organizations, the Team left the summit at 0915hrs and after a hurried lunch at Yegai Sut Sakhan arrived back at Katha Wong Thi Base Camp by 1330hrs.

From there it was retracing their steps to get back to Layshi and then to Htamanthi. 

But instead of going back to Hkamti and flying out, it was decided to cruise down the Chindwin River to Monywa via Phaungbyin, Mawlaik and Mingin and then to drive to Mandalay. Leaving Htamanthi by boat on March 6,2003 they arrived in Monywa in the morning hours of March 8,2003. Because of shortage of water on the mountains and to prevent unnecessary accidents during the cruise nobody was allowed to swim in the river. And so only when they arrived at Monywa were the Expedition members able to wash themselves, after 21 days! Transferring to cars they then continued on their way to Mandalay and were safely back by the evening of the same day. 

"We can say this Saramati Expedition is a great achievement, not only for the MHMF but also for the whole nation. Seeing our Union flag fluttering in the wind really makes your heart beat faster and made us very proud. We wish to thank all our sponsors and everyone concerned who has so kindly assisted us to make this conquest possible. All together 47 people reached the peak. These include 31 Federation members, 5 security personnel, three government employees from Layshi plus eight helpers," Dr. Paing Soe said in conclusion. And the Saramati will still stand sentinel faithfully on our North-West frontier. 

Acknowledgement: The author wishes to thank Professor Dr.Paing Soe (President of the Myanmar Hiking & Mountaineering Federation), Major Kang Khang Mong (Vice President of MHMF) for sharing their experiences and impressions on the Saramati Expedition and making this article possible. MHMF and Mr.Gerald Schreiber also graciously provided the colour slides. 
Hpone 77Jant is a regular contributotor Enchanting Myanmar Travel Magazine and other publications on the culture and traditions and nature of the country. He can be reached at: harry@swiftwinds.com.mm

Contents | Letter to Our Readers | Pagodas of Sagar:Lost Treasures | Marble Images |
Mysterious Jewels of the Jungle | Guardian on the Northwest | Birders' Delight | Pwe | Events Calendar

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