National Geographic : 1943 Oct
Burma: Where India and China Meet In the Massive Mountains of Southeast Asia, Swarming Road Builders Wage the "War of the Highways" for Free China and Her Allies BY JOHN LEROY CHRISTIAN PATIENT Chinese workmen appear to excel at doing the impossible. In May, 1942, after five years of devastating war fare, the people of China were confronted with the tragic fall of Burma and the severance of the Burma Road. Except for parts of western Arakan, the Chin and Naga Hills, and the distant head waters of the Irrawaddy beyond Sumprabum, all of Burma fell to the Japanese invader. Thus was lost the principal base for Allied aid to China. Less determined nations would have nego tiated peace. But the indomitable Chiang Kai-shek insisted upon access to the demo cratic world by breaking open doors from Free China to the Indian Ocean. New road, rail, and caravan routes were developed to the west and southwest from the heart of China. Old roads through Turkistan and Tibet were called into heavier service. Loaded transport planes took off from new air fields among jungles and tea gardens of Assam for Yunnan, where their cargoes con tinued along the untrammeled end of the Burma Road to Chungking, China's wartime capital. Among the new routes under consideration, none are of greater interest than those leading across the wild terrain just north of Burma. These new routes will pass through one of the least-known regions in all Asia, the area where India, Burma, and China meet. Captain F. Kingdon Ward, the plant hunter, has written vividly of the "unimaginable diffi culties of this terrible country." Yet some where through this anyman's-land, in an area 100 miles square where the frontiers of India, China, and Burma march together, must pass the alternatives to the now blocked Burma Road (pages 505, 510, and map, page 492). Thus Burma, now a vast area of air and land combat, again becomes a focus of pub lic attention the world round. One September in the golden days of peace, Bernice Christian and I and our young son, Winslow, were astir early as our steamer, 24 days out of Liverpool, slowed down to pick up the pilot off the coffee-colored Rangoon River. The tail of the monsoon was thrashing about in the Bay of Bengal, and it was anything but smooth in the shallow waters off the Irra waddy Delta. Through low-flying clouds the glistening, yachtlike pilot brig put off a ruddy Britisher who swung up the Jacob's ladder and took charge, chipper and exuding con fidence from 22 years' experience bringing steamers up the tortuous channel. Soon we passed Elephant Point. Rice fields with waist-high paddy appeared on each side; next came cultivators' huts, fishing sampans returning home with the night's catch, stolid water buffaloes wallowing in the mud flats of the river, and strange sights and smells that told us we had reached the Burma about which we had read so much. Rangoon Means "End of the War" As the ship neared Rangoon, we glimpsed through the morning mist the magnificent 368-foot gold- and jewel-encrusted spire of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Holy of Holies to Bur ma's Buddhist world (page 495). Since then I have seen it many times. Luminous with floodlights by night, dazzling by day, it greeted me from a distance of twenty miles or more as I returned from jungle trips. The word "Rangoon" means, in Burmese, "End of the War." But the Japanese occupa tion of Rangoon has meant only the beginning of the "war of the highways" for Free China and her Allies. After a few days in the sticky heat of Rangoon, we left by comfortable meter-gauge train for Mandalay and the blessed hills of Maymyo forty miles beyond. The very first day in the summer capital of Burma I saw a ten-foot tiger which had been killed with a long Burmese dah (sword) by a Chin soldier. Mr. Stripes was stretched out before the Deputy Commissioner's court while the Chin, surrounded by his admiring friends, collected his bounty. In Maymyo we put in nearly a year of hard work acquiring the foundation for a fair knowledge of the Burmese language before going on to Meiktila, where I was to be prin cipal of Meiktila Technical School. There after, Meiktila was home, with the exception of time for eight trips to India. Every hot season vacation was passed in the remote parts of Upper Burma.