Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Unbelievalble Landscapes from The Glass Palace

Again from Glass palace… A unique landscape along the Irrawaddy river in Burma...fascinating read…

…Of all the river’s sights the strangest was one that lay a little to the south of the great volcanic hump of Mount Popa. The Irrawaddy here described a wide, sweeping turn, spreading itself to a great width. On the eastern bank of the river, there appeared a range of low, foul-smelling mounds. These hillocks were covered in a thick ooze, a substance that would sometimes ignite spontaneously in the heat of the sun, sending streams of fires into the river. Often at night, small wavering flames could be seen in the distance, carpeting the slopes.

To the people of the area, this ooze was known as earth-oil. It was a dark shimmering green, the colour of bluebottles’ wings. It seeped from the rocks like sweat, gathering in shiny green-filmed pools. In places, the puddles joined together to form creeks and rivulets, an oleaginous delta that fanned out along the shores. So strong was the odour of this oil that it carried all the way across the Irrawaddy. Boatmen would swing wide when they floated past these slopes, this place of stinking creeks. Yenangyaung.

This was one of the few places in the world where petroleum seeped naturally to the surface of the earth. Long before the discovery of the internal-combustion engine there was already a good market for this oil; it was widely used as an ointment, for the treatment of certain skin conditions. Merchants came from as far away as China to avail themselves of this substance. The gathering of the oil was the work of a community endemic to those burning hills known as twin-zas, a tight knit secretive bunch of outcasts, runaways and foreigners.

Over generations, twin-za families had attached themselves to individual springs and pools, gathering the oil in buckets and basins, and ferrying it to nearby towns. Many of the pools had been worked so long that oil level had sunk, forcing their owners to dig down. Some pools had gradually become wells, a 100 feet deep or even more - great oil-sodden pits, surrounded by excavated sand and earth. Some wells were so heavily worked that they looked like small volcanoes, with steep, conical slopes. At these depths oil could no longer be collected simply by dipping a weighted bucket. S twin-zas were lowered in, on ropes, holding their breath like pearl divers.

Standing on the lip of a well, Rajkumar would go over to watch the twin-zas at their work. A man went down the shaft, rotating slowly on a sling. The rope would be attached by way of a pulley, to his wife, family and life stock. They would lower him in by walking up the slope of the well, and when they felt his tug they would pull him out again by walking down. The lips of the wells were slippery from spills and it was not uncommon for unwary workers and young children to tumble in. often these falls went unnoticed; there were no splashes and few ripples. Serenity is one of the properties of this oil; it is not easy to make a mark upon its surface…

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