Published: November 2003

Burma Road

By Donovan Webster
Photographs by Maria Stenzel
Carved through mountains and malarial jungles at a frightful human cost, the infamous World War II Allied supply line that linked India to China now conevys gold, teak, opium, and the promise of a troubled nation's future.

The old soldiers urge me not to go looking. They'd prefer to think that the road they hacked across India's steep Patkai Range and down through the jungles of Burma to China during World War II is gone. That its two stringy lanes—now six decades old—have been devoured by time and landslides, jungle monsoons and swampy earth.

But right now, step after step, I'm crossing a steel bridge near the northeastern Indian village of Jairampur: a dilapidated span the old soldiers laid above the muddy Khatang Nalla in early 1943, the first true bridge of the Burma Road's 1,100-mile (1,800-kilometer) length.

I leave the bridge's far end, walking between walls of rain forest that rise like green tapestries a hundred feet (30 meters) high. As I walk, I'm thinking of Mitchell Opas, now 86, who served as a U.S. Army medic during World War II and whom I've interviewed at reunions from Massachusetts to Texas. "If that road's still there," Opas has instructed me, his finger pointed in my direction for emphasis, "then you send pictures of it."

Up the pavement ahead of me, dogs doze in the sun as children run back and forth across the otherwise empty road's chipped asphalt. Two hundred yards (180 meters) farther along, a wood-planked district police station encircled by razor wire sits off the road's left shoulder. When I begin to pass it by, a green-uniformed sentry—his assault rifle slung across his belly—lifts his weapon. Using the gun's black barrel, he motions me inside the front gate. "Please," he suggests, "come inside."

I'm led to the commander's office, where I'm offered a handshake and a chair. The commander is an imposing man in his 40s named G. K. Grung, his olive uniform festooned with flashing gold stars. Seated behind a wooden desk, he examines my passport and visa. He's especially interested in my Restricted Area Permit, the paper authorizing me to travel the final 18 miles (30 kilometers) of road inside India's otherwise off-limits state of Arunachal Pradesh. Here in Arunachal's jungle, the road crests a 3,727-foot (1,136-meter) mountain notch called Pangsau Pass, which constitutes India's hotly defended border with Myanmar, the nation formerly known as Burma.

Commander Grung looks up. "I'm sorry," he says, "but we have been issued new orders about the road to Pangsau Pass. No visitors are allowed past this point. Unfortunately, this means you." He smiles, then taps his desk with his right fore-finger. "There is significant rebel activity here at the moment. The jungles are something of a no-man's-land. We cannot assure your security. Therefore, you cannot proceed."

I smile back. This is how my journey along the Burma Road begins: with recollections of old soldiers and a warning backed by machine guns as I get close to India's touchy frontier.

The Burma Road has many names, and in reality it is not one road but two, completed seven years apart and connected. Some people call it the Ledo Road, because it starts in the coal town of Ledo in northeastern India's state of Assam, at the spot where the rails from Calcutta's seaport finally peter out after more than 500 miles (800 kilometers). During World War II, cutting a road from Ledo over Pangsau Pass provided a way to move weapons and goods into Japanese-besieged Burma and China. (The hurriedly built first section—the original Burma Road—was created as a supply track by Chinese laborers in 1937 and 1938, following a Japanese invasion of China that began closing its seaports.) Some others call it the Stilwell Road, since its completion was overseen by U.S. General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell during the ferocious fighting against the Japanese in Asia. The men who built the Ledo section between 1942 and 1945 sometimes called it Pick's Pike, after its chief engineer, U.S. Gen. Lewis Pick. Other troops nicknamed it the "man a mile road," for the regularity with which the roadbuilders died by sniper fire or malaria or mortar explosion or accident. But mostly, if people know the road's name at all, they call it simply the Burma Road.

Today the remains of these roads—the 1937-38 supply track and the 1942-45 spur—link India, Myanmar, and China, winding through the lands of at least three dozen mountain and rain forest peoples, some nearly as isolated today as they were in the 1940s—or the 1840s, for that matter. All along the way you can still find the "red," "green," "white," and "black" trades (rubies, jade, heroin, and opium), as well as commerce in gold, sapphires, teak, diamonds, oil, rubber, and dozens of other commodities.

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