Part 2: Stone of Heaven Tracing the Green Line, a Journey to Yanmar’s Jade Mines

June 5 – Hpakan

For over 30 years, Myanmar’s military government has kept the Crown Jewel of “jadedom” locked away like a virgin in a tower. It has taken four long days of travel covering a scant 35 miles just to get a glimpse of the tower. But here we stand, on the cusp of the town of Hpakan. Rapunzel has let down her long hair – now we are poised to climb the strand into a fairy-tale world, one where dreams come true and all the dragons are colored imperial green.

Considering the difficulty in getting to Hpakan, what awaits us in the valley below is all the more amazing. Among locals, Hpakan is known as “Little Hong Kong” because, like the British crown colony, you can get anything you want. Whatever the apple of your sweetheart’s desire, it’s available in Hpakan. Just be prepared to pay the price, which is two to three times that found elsewhere in Myanmar. But exorbitant prices matter little at Hpakan, a topsy-turvy town in a topsy-turvy country, where today’s taxi driver might be tomorrow’s tycoon.

Driving into the Uru (Uyu) river valley, we first come to the town of Seikmo (previously called Saing Naung), which is bigger than Hpakan itself. Picture Cripple Creek, Virginia City, Fairbanks and every other wild-west town in its heyday and you have some idea of this place. Driving down its dusty boulevard, you almost expect to hear a honky-tonk piano or see somebody fly through a saloon window. We are struck by its temporary air – many dwellings are little more than makeshift shacks, and almost everything is of recent construction.

Passing along the bustling main street we see signs for Rolex watches and Hennessy cognac, testifying to the tremendous wealth simmering just beneath the dull exterior. Above the tin roofs are satellite dishes; beyond that lie the green hills, splattered everywhere with the brown of mining activity. In places, entire mountain tops are eaten away as the human quest for the green stone oozes deeper and deeper into the surrounding jungle.

We continue on to Hpakan, which lies astride the Uru River. After a brief stop at the government guest house, to wash up and check in with the local police, we plunge straight into this green chasm that is jade.

June 5–7 – Greenhorns in Greenland

Upon reaching the mines, the first question any self-respecting gemologist asks is: “By jove and George, how in the heck do they do it?” Meaning, how do miners separate the quite occasional jade boulder from the thousands of others they also dig up and that look so completely similar that, if you or I had found it, we would simply chuck this potential fortune straight into the neighbor’s back yard? This is the question.

Our investigations did put the question to rest, somewhat. After asking various and sundry jade traders, cutters and miners, we offer these pearls of wisdom to identify jade:

  • Texture – In separating jade from ordinary boulders, miners look for something called yumm, a fibrous texture. Ordinary boulders show a reflection of mica or sand while jadeite is smooth, with yumm, and without particle reflections.

  • Weight, sound and feel – In addition to the fibrous texture, jadeite also tends to stick slightly to one’s hand or foot under water. And it has a different sound when struck with a pick, as well as having a greater heft (density) than ordinary stones.

  • Sheen – Miners look also for shin, which, from what we could gather, is the type of sheen seen on schist. Black shin is said to “damage” the stone, apparently being an indication of increased iron content (chloromelanite). They also look for pyat kyet (show points, areas where the skin is thin enough to see through).

Jadeite types

Jade is roughly separated according to the manner in which it is mined. The vast majority is recovered from alluvial deposits of the Uru River conglomerate. This occurs as rounded boulders with a thick skin and is termed river jade.

In contrast, mountain jade appears as irregular chunks with a thin skin and is recovered directly from in situ deposits (those in the original position).

The green and lavender colors are independent of the deposit type, but red to orange jade is limited to pieces recovered from iron-rich soil. The reddish color results from a natural staining of the porous skin.

By the way, jade is not the only gem found in these hills. The famous Burmese amber deposits are located in the Hukawng Valley, some 60 miles north of Hpakan, while ruby is had at Nanyazeik, a few miles from Kamaing, on the Mogaung-Hpakan road.

We inquired about ruby from Nanyazeik (locally termed “Nanya”) and were told there is mining, but it has yet to receive official sanction. One Burmese source said he saw ruby from Nanya and it was good, similar in features to that from Mogok. When we reached Mogaung, we bought a 1lb. rounded piece of low-grade ruby, which was offered as red jade. This was possibly from Nanya.

The business of jade

“From the time jade is won in the jade mines area until it leaves Mogaung in the rough for cutting, there is much that is underhand, tortuous and complicated, and much unprofitable antagonism. In my opinion, the whole business requires cleansing, straightening and the light of day thrown on it.” – Major F.L. Roberts, former deputy commissioner, Myitkyina.

It’s said the jade business involves “luck.” That’s like calling a lottery ticket an investment in the future. The jade business is not about luck; it’s about strapping your hopes and dreams straight onto the rim of the roulette wheel and letting the creator give it a long, hard spin.

Just how much luck is involved is illustrated by the tale of U Tin Ngwe, one of Hpakan’s many lao pan (kingpins). He got his start behind the wheel of a large piece of rolling Japanese steel with a “taxi” sign on top. One day, a local jade trader he picked up offered him a spin of the green wheel in the form of a grab bag of jade boulders. Picking up each piece, he studied them carefully. “Why not,” he thought, as he forked over 3,000 kyat ($23) for the heaviest boulder in the lot, “I feel lucky.” He felt even luckier after selling the piece to another trader for 650,000 kyat ($5,000). That trader felt even luckier after selling the same piece for over 3,000,000 kyat ($23,076). “Hmm,” he thought to himself, “this jade stuff is interesting.” It was so interesting that, today, U Tin Ngwe owns several jade mines and is one of the biggest traders in the valley. When the steel ball finally came to rest, it had stopped at his number.

Of course, every crapshoot has its losers as well as winners. None who lived in Bangkok in the late-1970s can forget the story of … let’s call him Sia Poh, who had invested a small fortune in one promising jade boulder. Many others were also eager to possess it; one went so far as to offer him several times his money. But Sia Poh refused to sell. He would cut it himself and, in the process, squeeze every possible drop of profit from the green stone. Alas, it was not to be. Cutting open the stone revealed but a cheap, ornamental-grade lump worth perhaps $50. Lady Luck had passed him by.

Jade – Stone of Heaven

In humanity’s recorded history, there has never existed a more intimate relationship between a people and a stone than that between the Chinese and jade. To the people of the Middle Kingdom, jade was not simply hardened earth, rather crystallized magic – a tiny piece of heaven bequeathed by the gods to those of us destined to suffer here on earth. It was the link between heaven and earth, the bridge that allowed mortals to cross into immortality.

People of the Middle Kingdom valued the green stone beyond all else. Gold and precious stones might capture interest in the rest of the world, but in China, they were simply also-rans. In Chinese athletic competitions, for example, ivory was given for third place and gold for second. Jade was reserved solely for the winners, including high officials in the imperial court. As the saying went: “Gold has a price – but jade is priceless.”

Within jade’s verdant interior, the Chinese saw all that is good with humanity – virtue, purity, justice, humanity and more. But while jade itself might be priceless, many are willing to extract coin for the honor of holding it in their hand or wearing it on a finger or ear. In fact, the search itself has its price.

So what exactly is jade? This question is important because in the Orient, almost any translucent green stone that can be carved is called jade.

Such indifference to definition does not sit well with the Occidental psyche, which displays what is, to Orientals, a curious proclivity to classify. Just how do you classify a piece of heaven? If you are Chinese you don’t, which was why it was left for the intruders from the West to finally cross all the t’s and dot the i’s of this most arcane of gem substances.

In 1863, a French mineralogist, Alexis Damour, analyzed the bright green stones from Burma and, finding them to be different from the ordinary Chinese jade, named the “new” jade jadeite, in contrast to the old, nephrite. Today, gemologists apply the term jade to nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite is a fibrous subspecies of the actinolite-tremolite series, while jadeite is a member of the pyroxene mineral group. The ideal composition of jadeite is [NaAl(SiO3)2], but it is frequently mixed with diopside [CaMg(SiO3)2] or acmite [NaFe-(SiO3)2]. Jadeite rich in iron (mixed with acmite) is dark green to black and is called chloromelanite. Some boulders display this chloromelanite skin, which Myanmar miners say “infects” the stone and is a harbinger of bad luck.

Judging quality:

Desperately seeking green

Much jade is simply sawn open to judge its quality. This is the approach used at the government-sponsored auctions in Yangon. But because owners don’t particularly like their boulders defaced in such a manner, you have to pay to play that game. Why? Parting a boulder down the middle has the added danger that you may cut right through a good area.

Experienced jade traders are said to be able to predict, by studying the outside of the boulder, what the inner color will be. But anyone who has seen boulders sawn open can prove the lie in that old wives’ tale. Even for experts, much guesswork is still involved. Before cutting, traders look for color spots at the show points. Color spots going all across a stone indicate color is relatively consistent. Traders also try wetting the surface, using a penlight and other such tricks to check color and quality.

Before cutting, the surface is carefully examined to select the best place for sawing. While it is difficult to see through the skin, some cracks can be seen. This is important, because fractures can have a dramatic impact on value. There is no specific formula for cutting – it all depends on individual judgment and the rough’s features. In buying, say, a five-piece lot, sometimes all are good, sometimes all are bad. Much depends on luck, or as the great 11th-century gemologist al-Biruni, put it: “God grants honor to some and disgrace to others.”

Opium and the jade trade

According to one Bangkok source, mining concessions in the Hpakan area are granted according to the projected value of the jade in the ground. Of course, the best spots cost lots of money, which the (mostly) Chinese mine owners pay to the central government. According to this source, only those with mighty deep pockets get involved. In these hills, that usually means opium merchants.

This source, who is quite close to one of Myanmar’s top jade traders, told us the jade business is often simply a sideline. Those in the drug business don’t mind putting up a billion kyat (about $7.7 million) and only getting half back, because that half is now “clean” money. They also can afford to stockpile jade, giving buyers the impression that fine stones are more rare than is actually the case.

Those in the drug business also have a ready means to control the miners, many of whom are opium or heroin addicts. Diggers believe that taking the drug will help to prevent malaria and other diseases, but it’s more likely the drug just eases the pain that digging holes in the ground inevitably brings. In any event, once addicted they are easily controlled by regulating their drug supply.

The cocktail of opium and jade is a highly flammable one, and mafia-type gangland violence occasionally erupts. Just a few weeks before our visit, a major miner (and also, reputedly, a drug dealer) was murdered in Myitkyina.

Taxing questions

In all good businesses, it is inevitable the government should want a piece of the action, and so it is with the green stone. Each jade boulder we saw had writing on it. This is a registration number, along with the weight, signifying that tax has been paid on the boulder. Tax is paid in Hpakan, after evaluation by a government-appointed committee. The levy is 10% of the appraised value, but because many who sit on the committee are traders themselves, valuations tend to be “generous.”

Without paying tax, it’s theoretically illegal to cut a boulder. But it doesn’t take too great a leap of faith to see people simply cutting boulders without paying tax. In any event, almost all the boulders are said to be “legal,” meaning the tax has been paid.

A mining we will go

In Hpakan, we hire a car to take us to Lonkin, several miles away. Along the way, we stop at Maw-sisa, among the most active and interesting jade mines in the Hpakan region.

Maw-sisa, in many respects, is the quintessential mine, with jade recovered from alluvial deposits in the Uru river conglomerate. This formation is as much as 1,000-feet deep in places, and mining there has just scratched the surface. Thus jadeite hoarders should take note: from what we could see, there is a good millennia or three’s worth of material remaining to be extracted.

Each mining claim is just 15-feet wide; to keep from encroaching into the neighbor’s area, a thin wall of earth and boulders is left as a partition. When seen from above, the result is spectacular – several square miles of stair-step like benches, resembling nothing so much as a massive archeological dig. But diggers here don’t search for mere bones or shards of pottery. Instead, they seek the Chinese holy grail, small pieces of heaven.

Dig it

At Maw-sisa, diggers are mining a black layer, locally termed ah may jaw. While jade is said to be richest in this layer, it can occur anywhere in the conglomerate.

The first step in mining is removal of the overburden, taung moo kyen (literally “head cap removal”). Because the overburden is also conglomerate, it may also contain jade, so workers must search this too. We saw people working about 50 feet into the conglomerate, which is stripped away with primitive tools.

Asked how often they find jade, miners say it depends on luck. While some days they might find up to 25 pieces, other times they might go for days without finding anything. In terms of size, some boulders are 440 to 660 pounds, some even as big as a house, but most are less than 2 pounds.

At one spot, we see two people carefully washing a blackish boulder, apparently to see if it is jade. When approached, they quickly toss it aside, but then go back to it after we leave. We watch from a distance. Brows furrow as they scrape away at it, only to throw it away in the end. Apparently even the miners themselves sometimes have trouble identifying heaven. Walking back through the village, we see some people smoking opium, while others down local whiskey. A few feet away there’s a sign in Burmese giving some local laws:

  1. Do not smoke while walking (to prevent fires, which are common in the area).

  2. Do not consume alcohol or drugs.

  3. Respect other cultures (people of a variety of ethnic groups live in the area). Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

Dike and river mining

It’s said that to find a dike is to become an instant millionaire. For while ordinary miners flail away in the common soil, only rarely turning up a boulder of jade, the dike is the mother lode itself, a bridge straight to heaven. In the Hpakan area, several mother lodes have been located, the most famous of them at Tawmaw. Formerly, miners used fire and water to break away pieces of the jade there. Today, peace has another dividend – dynamite – a godsend when dealing with a rock so tough that a day’s worth of drilling might penetrate only 12 inches.

River mining is another way to seek jade. During seasons when the river is high, men dive for jade. Air is supplied through a crude air pump, something akin to a triple bicycle hand pump. While those on land furiously work the pump, the diver hops into the water and searches for jade with the plastic hose between his teeth, all the while hoping and praying those up above don’t forget who’s down there.

June 7 – Road (back) to Mandalay

To leave the jade mines, we take the Hpakan-Mogaung road, the “good road,” as we are told. Unfortunately, this turns out to be every bit as wretched as the one on which we had come up, only flatter and busier. Just outside of Lonkin, it degrades into a sea of mud, with all manner of stranded vehicles. Coming upon one stuck lorry hooked up to a rather ingenious winch, we ask how long the driver had been stuck. The answer surprises even us. He has been resting in the same mud hole for 10 days.

Our journey from Hpakan to Mogaung is as follows: truck, Jeep, foot, elephant and truck. Most interesting was the elephant. Two beasts are offered, but one is already on his third “driver,” having killed the previous two, so it’s clear which one to take. As the jumbo kneels down, we climb aboard.

Comfort is not one of the pluses of elephant travel, but we can say this: it does not get stuck. The driver says he bought the beast many years before for 60,000 kyat ($462) and recently turned down an offer of 3 million ($23,076).

The final leg of the journey is completed by truck. It has one of those fancy do-hickies on the dash that indicates when you are leaning, and when you are leaning too much. In our case, it seems to be the latter, but the gauge must be broken, because even when the little yellow needle tilts several degrees beyond the scale, we still don’t tip over.

We won’t go into the many trials of the rest of the journey. Suffice it to say that in the end, the jungle spits us out, panting and dusty, at the Mogaung trail head, over 12 hours after leaving Hpakan.

June 8 – Stopover at Mogaung

Considering the large quantity of jade taken out of the ground in the Hpakan area and the tremendous difficulties involved in its transportation, it’s surprising that so little seems to be cut on site. But this is the case. Other than one market just outside of Lonkin, we see no cutting in the Hpakan area. Instead, most jade is hauled out for cutting elsewhere.

Mandalay is by far the biggest cutting and trading center for jade in Myanmar, but there is also a jade market in Mogaung. The morning we visit, some 200 people are involved in cutting and trading jade. In addition to jadeite, the unusual ornamental gem material, maw sit sit, is also on offer. One member of our party buys a boulder of maw sit sit weighing over 65 pounds.

End of the green line

A hill just above Seikmo looks down upon one of the most remote and inaccessible mining localities on the face of the earth. In the valley below, ant-like figures labor in the river, searching, hoping to find that one special stone, the green rock that will bring them a slice of heaven right here on earth.

Some might see this search and, indeed, this cross, as a tower of babel, a symbol of man’s vain quest for material wealth. But it matters not to those who search for the green stone. The fact is the green stone exists – no preacher or holy book – be it Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Tao or Christian – can change that. Is the green stone, as the Chinese assert, a bridge to heaven? Though we had traced the green line to its terminus, all the way to its very apex, we are still unable to provide an answer. But one thing is certain: as long as the demand for jade persists, man will continue to risk all in following the green line. And that line will continue to lead straight to Hpakan.