Of Mountains and Mysteries: a journey through northern Chin State

Sunset in Siansawn.
Sunset in Siansawn.
Words and photos by Marie Starr

We left Kalay for Tedim with a live pig in a basket strapped to the roof of the minivan. Almost immediately we were ascending dusty, narrow mountain roads with motorbikes skittering past us in the meter-wide ledge by a seemingly bottomless drop. As we climbed, the temperature fell, and I worried about piggy on the roof.

Ahead on our winding road, which we could see clinging to the mountainside, huge brown scars were cut into the foliage across the landscape. Not long ago, tons of rock and soil had given in to the weight of monsoon rains and yielded to gravity, violently dragging everything in its wake to tumble down the precipice. I was glad the last of the downpours were two months behind us.

Stopping for breakfast, our driver ordered fried rice and a glass of whiskey.

crossroads along the mountainous route to Tedim
A crossroads along the mountainous route to Tedim.

As we drove through village after village perched on stilts on the edge of the mountain, the landscape became an epic sea of rolling green mountains and shocking blue sky that would become the backdrop to everything for the next few days. Bryan Adams anthems blared from the speakers – almost loud enough to drown out the sound of the unfortunate girl vomiting in the back.

Five hours later we arrive in Tedim, a deeply religious town, sprawling over the top of a low mountain amid a range of peaks. On the Sunday morning we arrived, from the common room of Cinnmuai Guesthouse (K10,000 per person in a twin room with shared bathroom and hot water, sometimes) the view across the rolling landscape was dotted with churches and crosses. Live Christian rock, voices in song and prayer echoed around the valley.

There was only one place open for lunch on a Sunday: Asia Restaurant 2. The food was very good and the pokey private rooms were the only options but had fantastic views. The owner’s brother, Kai Pi, came and spoke to us in good English and explained a little about himself and his eagerness to show us around.

With three of us on his bike we zipped to a strange village on the next hilltop called Siansawn. Around 300 people live there and follow a new religion called Pau Cin Hau, which was invented in the 1930s by a man of the same name. Light is an important symbol in their worship, and a large house made of mirrors stands in the middle of the village. Khai Pi sees these people as puritans whose religion follows many of the same principles of Christianity. Community members don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs, and the village headman decides who marries who.

Siansawn with the mirror house
The village of Siansawn with the mirror house and communal gardens in the center and the “church” to the right.

Accepting that a trip Rih Lake (four hours each way over bad roads) was unattainable given the public holiday and lack of transport options, we decided to trek to Kennedy Peak, the second-highest in Chin State at 2,700 meters, instead. Leaving early in the morning, we zipped out of Tedim in the direction of Kalay.

We drove for about 1.5 hours to the starting point of our trek. On foot, we would traverse the eastern side of the mountain at an easy pace and mild incline. A cloud mass was rolling towards us as we passed rhododendron trees, a symbol of Chin State, and mountain cows with bells around their necks. The path ends at the house of the groundskeeper, and we had a tough, steep hike for the last 15 minutes to the Buddhist pagoda at the top. The pagoda was a clear sign of the Burmanization campaign that took place across Chin State in the 1990s; Burmese donors’ names are inscribed on plaques around the pagoda. Chin State is more than 90 percent Christian.

Mountain cows at Kennedy Peak
Mountain cows at Kennedy Peak.

Now, the cloud was all around us and totally obscured our view of the surrounding landscape, but we were high on endorphins and didn’t mind too much. It took us about 2.5 hours to the top and back.

During WWII, Kenney Peak was an important Japanese stronghold until a British Indian army unit attacked and seized the strategic base. The unit’s leader, Ram Sarup Singh, was killed while defending it. Khai Pi told us that somewhere below us was Fort White, which had been a British outpost, and that reminders of the war are everywhere – scars in the landscape, an upturned tank in a gorge, a graveyard for British soldiers. But it was getting dark, so we opted to return to Tedim.

On our way back, we stopped at a shop for Khai Pi to have a beer and help a kid repair his broken-down motorbike. At the shop was a young Karen man who, while passing through the area, had decided to settle in this mountainside village after falling in love with a Chin girl who was now his wife. Three kids aged between four and eight with teeth red from betel nut darted around us, crying and laughing intermittently.

boy playing in Siansawn
A boy playing in Siansawn village.

Back in Tedim, all shops and restaurants still closed, Khai Pi invited us to his family home for dinner and to warm up after the chilly ride. After greeting his large family, my face still frozen in a grimace, we sat down at a low table and feasted on rice, chicken curry, vegetables, and deliciously fresh avocados from the garden. He showed us the beehive in the corner of the kitchen and scooped out some honey for us to take. After lots of photos and a brief video chat with his cousin in Malaysia, we went back to the guesthouse warm, well-fed, and grateful for the incredible Chin hospitality.

The next day we would move on to Falam, but nowhere on the trip would top the sweeping views or the warmth of the Chin people we met in Tedim.

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