But while the Burma Road is still there, it exists only as sweat-scented memories for most of the men who built it and fought for it, and while the name clings exotically to history, the route seems lost to time. My goal, over the next two months, is, in a sense, to reopen the Burma Road. Nearly half its length is off-limits to foreigners, but thanks to the goodwill of the governments of India, Myanmar, and China, I've been allowed inside a world few Westerners have seen since the closing days of World War II. Still, as Commander Grung has already intimated, insurgencies and other unforeseen events may render this retracing harder than originally thought. It promises to be a heck of a trip.
Whatever you call the road," Ranjit Barooah is saying, "it's famous in this part of the world. For the people who live along it—people all the way to China—the road is a way of life." In Assam, in India's resource-rich Himalayan foothills west of Pangsau Pass, where Barooah makes a comfortable living on his family's Hollonghabi Tea Estate, the road is indisputably the area's economic artery.
As the sprightly and enthusiastic Barooah and I stroll his 383-acre (155-hectare) plantation a few miles from Ledo, a green quilt of chest-high tea plants covers the hillsides beneath a swirling morning mist. I watch full dump trucks and packed buses, cars, and motorized rickshas clatter along the pavement, which functions as the eastern boundary to Barooah's tea bushes.
The road seems to be carrying everything at once. A green pickup truck, its bed covered by a screened box, transports perhaps a ton of tea leaves to a nearby processor. On the far side of the shade-dappled pavement, several shops have opened for business, selling everything from Indian newspapers and cheap batteries to the season's fresh crop: oranges. Motor scooters rattle past. And through it all stroll the sacred cows, oblivious to the chaos around them.
Resources like tea, teak, and coal have been cash earners here since 1823, when a soldier named Robert Bruce—on reconnaissance for British colonization—was served a steaming cup of the local leaf. Soon plantations across the region were exporting Assam tea, which today is considered among the world's tastiest varieties. Following the tea planters came the teak harvesters, who began extracting the stands of resilient hardwood ahead of every new tea-plantation clearing. Then in 1870 a British physician named John Berry White, on a hunting expedition, saw jungle tribesmen burning black stones. Within a year a 2.4-billion-metric-ton (2.6-billion-ton) coal reserve was identified, and the Ledo Mine had opened. Today the mine exports up to 800,000 tons (725,000 metric tons) of coal a year from a rail siding along the road's shoulder, just northeast of town.
These riches have come at a cost. Angered by the arrival of multinational tea syndicates and resource-harvesting companies—and with them a flood of inexpensive laborers—a core of unemployed locals called the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) engages in an often brutal insurgency. Travel in the region for a few days, and you'll likely see newspaper accounts of rebels blowing up processing plants or popping up on isolated roadsides to tear apart workers' buses in hails of bullets. During my stay here, in fact, the government accused the ULFA of carrying out two incidents in which grenades were tossed into markets or meeting spots, killing dozens of people.
The fighting back in 1942 took place on the other side of the narrow, steep ridges that separate northeastern India from Burma. Undeclared war had been going on in Asia for a decade: Beginning in 1931 the resource-hungry Japanese had invaded and occupied much of eastern China, preparing to capture the country's seaports and cut off its trade to the world. In response, China's Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, in 1937 ordered the creation of a road out of southwestern China to the railhead at Lashio, Burma, allowing trains from Rangoon's harbor to reach Chinese cities. But in early 1942 Japan overran Burma, capturing the road.