Published: November 2003
Burma Road
By Donovan Webster
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.

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.

It became the job of General Stilwell to retake northern Burma, reopen the Burma Road, and build the Ledo Road 500 miles (800 kilometers) through mountainous jungle, connecting the Burma Road with India. (Once the Ledo Road and Burma Road were joined, Chiang Kai-shek renamed the entire passage the Stilwell Road.) To keep China in goods and weapons while the road was being built, Stilwell cranked up a massive airlift between China and India over windy, 14,000-foot (4,300-meter) peaks: the infamous Hump route, which eventually claimed 607 supply planes.

But the Hump's perils were equaled by those facing General Pick's construction battalions. In 15 months Pick's men, despite snipers and malaria, moved 13.5 million cubic yards (10.3 million cubic meters) of earth to cut the roadbed—enough dirt, wrote Tillman Durdin of the New York Times, to build a wall ten feet tall (three meters) and three feet (one meter) wide from New York City to San Francisco.

"It was crazy, and it was miserable," says George Erban, a U.S. engineer and a shovel operator on the road. "Every day was the same. Up at dawn, sweat and work until dark. It was so hot sometimes, where we'd lay concrete, it would be dry in an hour. We'd cut a stretch of road over some jungle mountain, and the monsoon would wash it out. But we kept going. We had no choice."

Entering the jungles of Myanmar today, I am coming to understand what an epic undertaking the road was. Nearly three travel-wracked weeks after visiting Ledo, I am—once again—just a few miles from Pangsau Pass, this time approaching the border from its Myanmar side.

It's been a long, muddy trip. Because Pangsau is closed to outsider traffic, I've been forced to fly from northeastern India through Calcutta to Yangon (the former Rangoon). Then, once inside Myanmar, I hopped another series of airplanes, taxis, trucks, and conveyances (including a 1943 Willys jeep left over from the war and, later on, a pair of elephants) to approach the Myanmar side of Pangsau along the road.

For the past hundred miles (160 kilometers) I've watched the road go from pavement to gravel to mud to its current state, a single-track footpath through enclosing jungle. As that path climbs one last mountainside before Pangsau, I find perhaps the most remote village along the road's length: Namlip. Like many villages in this part of Myanmar, it is home to the Naga, a people reported to be active headhunters as recently as 1991. That's when my friend, Delhi-based backcountry guide John Edwards, visited a village southwest of here just a week after an intervillage disagreement. The men from one village had "hacked 28 heads from the enemy village," he told me. "Then they brought them home as souvenirs."

It is therefore with some trepidation that I approach Namlip, whose low-roofed, palm-thatched stilt huts crowd the hills on both sides of the trail. As I step out of the jungle and into the village's grassy clearing, a gaggle of children—barefoot and wearing short pants and ragged T-shirts—spot me. Shocked, they streak for home, leaving only chickens and pigs to greet me. Ten minutes pass before a tiny sticklike figure emerges from a hut up the hill on the left.

He's an older man, dressed in a blue Nehru-style jacket, leather sandals, and a cloth sarong, or longyi. As he approaches, he is smiling—hardly the threatening headhunter—and I notice that his pierced earlobes dangle low.

"Hello," he says in Naga, which my guide translates. "I am Ah Naung, more than 80 years old. Welcome to Namlip. Welcome." Then Ah Naung makes an admission that startles the explorer in me. "I'm sorry for the coldness of your greeting, but you are the first white person most of these people have ever seen. You are the first white man I myself have seen since 1945."

Ah Naung shakes my hand. He calls loudly back up the hill toward his hut, ordering us some tea. For the next 90 minutes as we visit, a crowd gathers to stare and listen.

Life in Namlip today, Ah Naung says, remains much the same as it was before 1942. "We farm and hunt to eat," he says. "We live very simply. I would like to tell you the road has changed our lives—but no. We use it to travel, though there was always a trail there, even before the war. Rice is transported to us along the road, since rice is difficult to grow here."

When I ask about head-hunting, Ah Naung laughs.

"Oh no," he says. "Not in Namlip anymore. In other Naga villages, I don't know, but not here!"

Ah Naung explains that Namlip, like much of this area, is now mostly Christian. He became a Baptist in 1961 and is now the village's minister. "I don't know what the outside world thinks of us, but because of our isolation, outsiders' impressions and ideas—perhaps left over from the war—have probably been overtaken by the reality of today."

True to Ah Naung's statement, the northern Myanmar of today—all of contemporary Myanmar, in fact—is far different from the reality confronting Stilwell's troops when they invaded from India in October 1943. But although there are no known headhunters today, Myanmar isn't exactly a friendlier place, as anyone who has opposed the militaristic government can attest. And because the country's leaders have until recently pursued an isolationist policy, there is also no longer a passable road to India in this part of the country.

Working my way south down the road, I pass through the town of Shingbwiyang (pronounced Shin-bwe-YANG) at mile 109 along the road from Ledo. In 1943 Shingbwiyang, Stilwell's forward base in Burma, was a village with a few hundred inhabitants. What I see today is a shanty settlement of some 30,000 people, most of whom have come to sluice-mine the rich gold deposits recently discovered nearby.

From Shingbwiyang the road heads south, negotiating the flat Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys along an efficient track as straight as a taut string. On either side hulking mountain ranges hem in rice fields, which in November stand golden and ready for harvest. Elephants drag logs and roof beams up and down the road's patchy gravel, and water buffalo wallow in the mud of roadside ditches, their swept-back horns and rounded brown bodies looking like something bolted together in Detroit.

Like me, the southbound traffic in World War II was headed for the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River port of Myitkyina (Mit-chee-NAH) 180 miles (290 kilometers) south of Shingbwiyang. At Myit-kyina, from May to August 1944, Chinese and U.S. forces under Stilwell engaged 3,500 Japanese defenders. Before the siege was over, 790 Japanese were killed and 1,180 wounded, while the Allies suffered 1,244 dead with 4,139 wounded.

Today Myitkyina is a busy port overlooking the glassy, broad Ayeyarwady. The city has a raucous market where fish, meats, leg-hold traps for tigers, fruits, teas, vegetables, fishing nets, and piles of red, green, and orange spices sprawl over three blocks. Scattered across town—and on the forested mountainsides overlooking the city—sit dozens of exquisitely crafted pagodas, their white-painted brick walls and bulbous gilded roofs glittering in the sun. Thanks to a 1994 ceasefire by the Kachin people, who warred for years for local self-rule, tourism reopened a few years ago in Myitkyina, though most of the outlying countryside is still off-limits to visitors.

It's easy to understand why outsiders are drawn here. The Kachin, who love to eat and dance and celebrate, are friendly and accommodating people—provided you don't cross them. During World War II their ambush skills and ferocity (they cut the ears from Japanese dead as trophies) assured that the Kachin lands of the north remained the country's only unoccupied region. As my Kachin friend, former jungle fighter turned leader Ah-Gu-Di, says, "We Kachin love progress. We love visitors. I welcome the world to visit Myitkyina. Just don't bring an occupying army, or we'll be forced to defend ourselves."

Myitkyina is also the focal point for two of Myanmar's greatest cash generators: jade and opium. Near Hpakan, northwest of the city, huge deposits of translucent green jadeite—one of the world's rarest gemstones—are excavated by thousands of workers. Even more valuable are the riches southeast of Myitkyina, in the lands of the Shan and Wa peoples, who cultivate Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

Yet on this visit to Myitkyina, I rarely see the purple-black squares or white balls of opium I witnessed on previous trips. When I ask a government official about the change, he says that Myanmar has embarked on a program to stamp out opium. According to the government, 8,500 pounds (3,900 kilograms) of opium and 645 pounds (293 kilograms) of heroin were destroyed in 2002. Indeed, two days later I watch on TV as officials burn hundreds of pounds of opium and heroin set out on tables for public display.

Like the current plan to reopen the Ledo Road between Myanmar and India (jump-starting trade between the two nations), drug eradication is another way Myanmar is trying to reconnect with countries beyond its borders.

"After a long period of ignoring the larger world," my official acquaintance tells me, "the government is starting to engage its neighbors again. The time of Myanmar's political isolation, I think, is coming to an end."

But like the road's story, my story hardly ends at Myitkyina. Tracking south from town, the road jumps the Ayeyarwady by bridge, then continues to the smaller, yet equally restful, Ayeyarwady port of Bhamo. Along the way I find myself in the lands of the Shan. A standoffish people, the Shan have long claimed independence from the rest of Myanmar (calling their territory Tai-Land), and they possess a guerrilla army perhaps 10,000 strong—its weapons allegedly bought by drug money—to enforce their beliefs. Consequently, travel inside Shan country is circumscribed, and I must keep strictly to the road. Heavily defended Myanmar army checkpoints loom at river crossings and crossroads. I find the tension and constant roadblocks exhausting.

South of Bhamo even the road surrenders. As it begins snaking east across rugged mountains near the border with China, it degenerates to potholed mud and cobblestones. Army checkpoints are even more frequent. I'm not sorry when, two days and 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Myitkyina, I top one last rain forest ridge and see the mountains of China in the distance.

No matter how you enter modern China, it's always a shock. Whether you fly in through Hong Kong or Shanghai, or come in by road or rail, once inside you can't help but experience China's vitality through a condition the Chinese refer to as renao, meaning "hot and noisy."

Crossing from Myanmar to China above the wide Shweli River, I feel renao's zing as soon as I reach the other side: honking cars and trucks and constantly beeping cell phones. My first stop, the city of Ruili, is full of neon lights, skyscraper hotels, and audio speakers blaring pop music from storefronts. I have a sense that, were I to ask, I could buy anything along its streets—from opium to weapons. Prostitutes cruise the restaurants and bars; magically, it seems, they discover where I'm staying and telephone my hotel room at night, even knock on my door.

After two days in Ruili, it's a relief to head on up the Burma Road, advancing deeper into southwestern China just as the Japanese did in World War II. (Ironically, after the fall of Burma in 1942, Japan used the Burma Road as its own artery of invasion.) The road is fast and the hired cars new; scenery hurtles past. Soon after Ruili I climb the first of several mountains and pass through the town of Wanding, close to where in 1945 the Ledo Road met the Burma Road. Then the road begins a long climb onto a windy plateau. Everywhere mountains spike into blue sky, with rice growing in tiered steps that climb endlessly toward each summit.

When I reach the west bank of the raging Salween River, I confront one of the most imposing mountains I've ever seen: Songshan (Pine Mountain), also known as the eastern Gibraltar. In World War II, with 26 miles (42 kilometers) of ridgeline and thousands of armed Japanese entrenched along its summit, not to mention the boiling river at its base thousands of feet below, Songshan must have glowered like an impossible redoubt. But by September 1944 the Chinese had reached the top, and after nearly a month of fighting, the Japanese were finally bludgeoned and blasted into defeat. When it was over, at one battle site alone, 62 pairs of Chinese and Japanese soldiers would be found dead in each other's grasp. Overall the Chinese lost 7,675 men, and the Japanese roughly 1,300.

On this December morning, as I walk the pine-covered mountain, examining the war trenches, what I find is not the horror of death but hundreds of schoolkids. They're from the nearby village of Dayakou, and they're practicing a parade march for a local holiday the next day. As they drill, with their bright red Chinese flags flapping, their drums pounding and cymbals bashing, I turn and take in Songshan's enormous vistas. The road is still here, the mountain is still here, and because of the blood spilled over both, the Chinese children of Dayakou are safe to rehearse a clanging, ebullient, dust-raising parade beneath the warm sun.

Two hours beyond Songshan the Burma Road converges on its modern counterpart: a new, six-lane highway connecting Ruili and Kunming. While the two-lane cobblestone road I'm on clings to the mountain flanks, the new road streaks down the valley floor below. My driver, mindful of getting home to Ruili, suggests the faster option, which can put us in Kunming in four or five hours. No, I reply; we'll keep to the old road all the way from India to Kunming.

At a spot where tiered paddies seem to be stepping toward a naked pink-granite mountaintop in the distance, I meet an aged goatherd in a blue Chairman Mao coat, driving his animals home in the afternoon, all the while smoking an endless succession of cigarettes. He is wrinkled, has matted hair, and wears broken, unlaced shoes. His name is Lu Shaocang, and he is 75 years old. After introductions he says, "I built this stretch of the road, right here."

In fact Lu helped build the next six miles (10 kilometers) of the road in less than two years. "It was not easy. I was a boy. In 1937 the engineers came through with stakes, marking where they wanted the roadway." Lu pauses and puffs on his cigarette. "We worked seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset. Then the Japanese came up the road from Burma. They asked: 'Are you a farmer, a laborer, or a rifleman?' If you said you were a rifleman, as three men in my village did, the Japanese shot you."

Lu had heard that in the cities the Japanese raped Chinese women and killed civilians. "But I did not see that. I cooked for them and did labor. They weren't too bad. They didn't beat me. They even paid me, which is more than I got for almost two years of roadbuilding."

Below us, trucks carrying goods cruise the new road. The commerce of modern China fills the valley floor. And yet here on the old road I'm standing with a goatherd, surrounded by livestock, with only my car in sight.

How does Lu feel about the Burma Road?

"I know it's famous," he says. "I know it's a part of history. But it's now forgotten. To me, I use it, but I can't eat it. And, really, it has too many turns. I say: Take the new highway, and leave this road to the goats and to the past."

Even as I finish my journey along the Burma Road, even as I consign it to my own past, I don't want the road to be forgotten. But after leaving Lu, I pass through the cities of Baoshan and Xiaguan, where I can find almost nothing from the war, other than the memories of a few elderly people. For that matter there's not even very much I recognize from my first trip here just two years ago. The new China is going up as fast as the concrete can dry, white-tiled skyscrapers all but replacing the old single-story structures with their upswept eaves and red-tiled roofs.

Late one afternoon I find myself standing at the West Gate to the city of Kunming, its red enameled timbers rising from the city park. All around me the citizens of today's China, wearing loafers and Levis and windbreakers, their mobile phones abuzz, hustle along beneath skyscrapers. Just across the busy street from the gate, crowds are entering one of several department stores that ring an open traffic circle. I stare at the West Gate again, remembering the road's other end, with its patchy mud and asphalt, all the way back in India.

Sunset is coming. Across the street neon-lit Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's franchises are at war for modern China's waistline and pocketbook. Who recalls what stood in those spots in 1945, long before this newest invasion?

Then I have to chuckle: Even the West Gate itself is new. The original was destroyed in 1966, during China's Cultural Revolution, when all symbols of an exploitative past were expunged by loyalists of Chairman Mao. The people of modern Kunming rebuilt their West Gate in 1999. But standing here, in front of the rebuilt gate, I know that even time and landslides and cultural revolutions haven't been able to extinguish the road.

Despite what the old soldiers and goatherds advise, the road is alive, moving people and animals and all manner of things over more than a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers). Its track may be ignored by a world that has moved on, but still the road is there. Which brings me back to the U.S. veteran Mitchell Opas and his finger-pointing directive: "If that road's still there, send pictures of it."

You got it, Mitch.