It's been a few weeks since I explored south Myanmar and savored the new year's celebratory mood in Pha An. Finally, I am headed to the west, a particularly mountainous area of the country. Myanmar is located in the subtropical zone, though at this time of year the temperature drops so radically both in the morning and the evening that even Myanmar natives wrap up in leather jackets. To get to the west, you have to cross the Arakan Mountains, found to the west of the bike city of Mandalay. Fortunately, the altitude isn't particularly high. Unlike Japan, however, there aren’t tunnels that cut through the mountains, and I end up challenging the bouncing, meandering road before me. It appears like a complex natural fortress as rugged hills swell across the land whose surface is covered by unfamiliar vegetation. By noon, the temperature rises. Every time I steer the handlebars to either side, dazzling reflection from the XTZ125's fuel tank flickers across my sight. Sporadic breaths of wind sweep up my skin, carrying an invigorating aroma of the lush vegetation with them. Intoxicated by the feeling as though I were melting and drifting into nature, my whole body is immersed in the ride. I think to myself about how much of a blissful environment the Arakan Mountains actually are for riders. At this point though I realize that the route is much longer than it seemed on the map, and with no sign of settlement or end in sight, I start feeling a little depleted. Perhaps the cause of this mood change, or in addition to it, hunger pangs start settling in, having not eaten anything since this morning. That makes it such a deep relief when my eyes catch a sight of a rest-station-like building, where I have an unforgettably rewarding Myanmar curry. A comfort after hours of loneliness, a fairly ordinary dish turns into a magnificent feast. The restaurant staff, amazed by a foreign visitor who has come this far, give me an enthusiastic welcome, serving extra fish curry and a special local soup despite my mere order of chicken curry.
Having beaten my fatigue and satisfied my appetite, I continue touring with an energized spirit and arrive at the small city of Ann. In the search for an inn, I find a guest house where I request a night's lodging in rudimentary Burmese only to receive an unexpected response: "Are you Japanese?" asks the young female owner in Japanese. She says she studied the language at the University of Foreign Languages, Yangon. There may be quite a few people speaking Japanese in Myanmar, but it is beyond my expectation to have a chat in Japanese in such a remote area. If I had been traveling by coach, I would never have stopped over in Ann as we would have just plowed on to the next city. This is what bike touring is all about: surprising encounters.