National Geographic : 1940 Nov
Burma Road, Back Door to China Like the Great Wall of Ancient Times, This Mighty Mountain Highway Has Been Built by Myriad Chinese to Help Defend Their Homeland BY FRANK OUTRAM AND G. E. FANE With Illustrations from Photographsby Mr. Outram WE HAD heard so many superlatives showered upon China for her con struction of the new motor road from Burma that we were determined to go and see it as soon as the highway was open to traffic. Our main object was to verify from per sonal experience the Chinese claim that they were building an "all-weather" road. To do this it would be necessary to see how the road would stand up to the deluge of a mon soon, the torrential series of storms which sweeps across southwestern Asia every year from May to October or from June to nearly November.* The map shows the extent of the highway -and highway is the right word, for it crests a dozen mountain ranges (map, page 631). It follows in many places the old Tribute Road, once trod by the adventurous feet of Marco Polo and still used by mule caravans with bales of silk. Though the entire 2,100-mile motor route from Chungking to Rangoon is sometimes re ferred to as the Burma Road, the term is usually reserved for the spectacular stretch from Kunming (Yiinnanfu) to the railhead at Lashio across the Burmese border. The older parts are not comparable in grandeur to the new road over the Mekong and Salween watersheds. The section from Kunming to Siakwan was built in 1934-35, but the last link in the chain-from Siakwan to the Burma frontier-was forged less than two years ago. This link, though only 307 miles long, is the culminating achievement which has given China a front-rank place among road build ers. It passes through country as difficult as any in the world for a motor road, cutting across lines of mountain ranges and great rivers, through soil varying from rock and limestone to laterite and loose shale. Between January and September, 1938, nearly 200,000 Chinese engineers and coolies were engaged on this 307-mile section, an aver age of more than 650 men per mile of road or less than three yards per man. It might seem leisurely work for one man to build about eight feet of road in nine months, but such figures are purely academic. The road required the cutting of mountains and the building of innumerable bridges and culverts. Methods have been extremely primi tive-earth removed in small baskets, rock cut without machinery, and stone rollers drawn by hand or by water buffalo. To us, the experience gained from a rapid reconnaissance earlier in the season was help ful in forming plans for the more serious on slaught later on. This first trip was made early in December, 1938, soon after the road was opened for traffic. In the same month a convoy of thirty lor ries containing fifty tons of arms and muni tions went through to Kunming for a test; nothing passed up or down the road again until the middle of February, 1939, when a regular traffic of war stores commenced. Braving Mountain and Monsoon At the time of our first journey the road was three-quarters finished. In the higher sections it was extremely cold-we even saw rice fields under ice-but otherwise we met with no bad weather. For the monsoon journey we decided to cut down our personnel. That first trip had necessitated hiring a motorbus and lorry. The second was accomplished in an ordinary car. The Chinese interpreter and the cook were scrapped. At all the recognized halting places English was understood. The interpreter was not really necessary unless we fell by the way side, and in such a calamity vernacular ver * On July 18, 1940, the Burma Road was closed to military supplies for three months by Great Britain on condition that Japan consider a settlement of all differences in Asia, including the Sino-Japanese War. This period coincides with the rainy season, during which traffic over the raw new road is sharply cur tailed by the weather. November ushers in the sea son when the highway is at its best for the motor truck fleets of the beleaguered Chinese Government, cut off from its other chief sources of supply by Japan's control of the coast and the closing of the route through Indo-China. The only remaining route is from Russia.