National Geographic : 2003 Nov
1937 and 1938, following a Japanese invasion of China that began closing its seaports.) Some others call it the Stilwell Road, since its com pletion 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 Barooah makes a comfortable living on his fam ily's Hollonghabi Tea Estate, the road is indis putably the area's economic artery. As the sprightly and enthusiastic Barooah and I stroll his 383-acre plantation a few miles from Ledo, a green quilt of chest-high tea plants cov ers the hillsides beneath a swirling morning mist. I watch full dump trucks and packed buses, cars, and motorized rickshas clatter along the pave ment, 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 "I'm sorry for... your greeting, but you are the first 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 com merce 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 for eigners, but thanks to the goodwill of the gov ernments 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. >I " hatever you call the road," Ranjit Barooah is saying, "it's famous in this WV 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 Hima layan foothills west of Pangsau Pass, where 92 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * NOVEMBER 2003 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 rat tle 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 varie ties. 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 phy sician named John Berry White, on a hunting expedition, saw jungle tribesmen burning black stones. Within a year a 2.4-billion-metric-ton coal reserve was identified, and the Ledo Mine had opened. Today the mine exports up to 800,000 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 bru tal 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'