The younger generations would not have heard of it except in history books. But for those who lived through the horrors of the 2nd World War knows it as the "Road Of Death" no less infamous as the "Death Railways" in southern Myanmar.

      The Death Railways was a project by the  invading Imperial Japanese Army to connect Thailand and Myanmar by rail and bring in war materials and supplies to their forces in Myanmar. But the Ledo Road was the opposite. It was the brainchild of the American General Joseph "Vinegar" Stillwell to build a road across northern Myanmar from Ledo in India to Kunming in the Yunnan Province of China. His plan was to avoid the hazardous flight path over the mountains of northern Myanmar to ferry supplies to the Chinese KMT forces fighting the invading Japanese Army in China.

To the American engineers who were charged with the construction of the road it was a green hell, full of creepy crawling things,  malaria, and an ocean of mud. Their task was to begin the road at Ledo on the Indian side of the border, cut through the Hukaung Valley at Pansau Pass and then via Bhamo to Wanting in China and further to Kunming. It was said that the US Army spent USD 148 million and Indians, Nepalese, Sri Lankans as well as Naga, Kachins, Shans and Chinese workers totalling a workforce of nearly 25000 took 2 years to build this road stretching approximately 1000 miles. Construction started on December 1, 1942 and on January 28, 1945 the first convoy successfully travelled the road and entered Wanting. Altogether from January 1945 to October of that year a total of 34000 tons of supplies were carried on that road.
<--- The markers at the border

 However after 10 months of operation the Ledo Road was regarded as useless as the Japanese forces in Myanmar surrendered in August with the official capitulation following a month later. Some sections of the road are still in use.    A group of artists/photographers from Yangon  recently travelled this route, albeit the Myitkyina-Tanaing-Pansau Pass section, just to relive history. Our group of four,  comprising   artists Maung Maung Hla Myint, Min Wai Aung, Zaw Min and me, photographer Sein Myo Myint, departed from Yangon on January 9th 2005 and reached Kanhla village after two days of serious driving. Kanhla village is the junction for roads going to Myitkyina, Mogaung and Tanaing. We took the Tanaing branch and continued on our way. The sign at the junction said Tanaing was another 89 miles but we were happy. We had step on to the Ledo Road but our journey was to take us further. Our destination was to reach the Pansau Pass on the border with India.

The scenery had changed as the car travelled further. The forest on both sides of the road crept in closer and closer. The bridges that spanned the small streams look fragile but   luckily our car was not a heavy-weight. Suddenly a signboard appeared. It announced the border of the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve. The sign also said that the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve is 8484 sq miles. Continuing our journey eastwards we were stopped unexpectedly at Warazup bridge. It seems that the bridge was under repairs and there was a long queue of vehicles of on both sides. But due to the efforts of the repair crew it was soon rendered safe for traffic and we entered Warazup. Passing through Warazup and a small village strangely called Bangkok we approached Shadazup and a little further another small village called Tengkop.

typical houses of the region

Here we saw a signboard announcing that this is a wildlife corridor and cautioned the  drivers to drive slowly. Also there were other signs put up to educate the local people on conservation and prohibiting hunting and gathering of forest produce inside the protected area. Wild animals are said to cross the Ledo Road here on their search for food and habitats. Finally we entered Tanaing, a township headquarters, on the edge of the Tanaing River. A travelogue written around 1986 described Tanaing as a small town with just 6 residential wards inside the town area and the whole township was made up of 17 village tracts with the population of 13000 only. But now it has grown. Quite a number of expensive looking residential houses, teashops and restaurants as well as shop-houses selling a variety of goods had appeared. Also about 30 passenger buses ply between Myitkyina and Tanaing daily. All these developments were mainly due to newly discovered jade and gold mines in the area.


collecting thatch for roofing

It was January 12 when our group started our journey again. Beyond Tanaing was a big village called Makaw on the banks of the Tawon stream. Even in January the depth of the stream was around 4 feet but between the bank and the stream was a huge gravel patch and a bog. Scouts were sent ahead to find out the best fording point and slowly we waded through the water. But our biggest challenge was still to come. Our car laboured to extricate itself across the vast expense of the bog but was unsuccessful. After being bogged down for 3-4 times we gave up and decided to return to Tanaing to look for a more suitable vehicle. We were finally able to start again on our journey on January 13 after transferring to another car. For back at Tanaing was our saviour: a locally assembled hybrid car made of assorted brands of engine and transmission parts and with a super high ground clearance was available for hire. The driver/owner agreed to take us to the Pansau Pass. But it was a mixed group that made the journey: a group of persons

who had not been to Pansau Pass in a vehicle of uncertain make and model and driven by a driver who was not familiar with the road. Between Tanaing and Numyun is another famous name, Shimbuiyan. Once known as a Naga town it is now a mixture of Naga, Kachin, Shan and Myanmar. It is also the entry point for the gold mines in the hills beyond the town. We also saw an old airstrip which could be one of the many built during the construction period of the road in the 1942. Braving all the hardships the group finally arrived at Numyun at dusk. We were now just 34 miles from Pansau Pass.

      But before getting to the actual Pass we needed to rest at Pansau. Although called  a town Pansau is just a big village with the usual administrative buildings, some residential  quarters and the bazaar. It was also just 6 furlongs from the Indian-Myanmar border. The biggest problem for us was to get food. Accommodations were provided for us, courtesy of the town administrative organs    but there were no shops selling food, no estaurants! So dinner that night was from  our MREs (meals, ready to eat) that we had brought along with us.

An elderly Naga lady

The next day was January 16 and this would be the culmination of all our hardships and countless mosquito-bitten nights. The day dawned but the sun was unable to penetrate the dense mist of the morning. Leaving the car we decided to trek the remaining 6 furlongs and started out towards the border but they were a hard 6 furlongs. The track twisted and turned and got steeper as we progressed and we were fortunate to have engaged some  porters to carry our photographic equipment. Finally we saw a border marker on a flat space of land. The border marker bore the number     BP 173 and also the records, in both Indian and Myanmar languages, that it was put up on 19th February 1971, by the Joint Indo-Myanmar  Border Demarcation Team led by Col. Sithu Hla Aung, Director General of the Myanmar Survey Department and Brigadier J.A.F Dalal, the Chief Survey Officer from the Indian Survey Department. A signboard with the words "Pangsau Pass, elevation 3727 feet above sea level" also in both the Myanmar and Indian languages was to my right.

      This was an exhilarating moment for us.     We had dreamed of this for sometime and now we had done it. So we came, we saw and we had done it!                   

 

Acknowledgement

      This article is based on the author’s travels in the area and he also wishes to extend his sincere thanks to his good friend, U Sein Myo Myint who graciously permitted the author to use excerpts and photographs from his serialized   articles in the magazine “Shwe A-myuteh” about his experiences on the Ledo Road.

      Hpone Thant is a regular contributor to “Enchanting Myanmar” travel magazine and writes mainly on nature, customs and traditions. He can be reached at: harry@swiftwinds.com.mm

 

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