It is morning in Hweka, deep in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State. Outside, the roar of the river below awakens us from our slumber, nudging us groggily into yet another day. Already it has been four long days since leaving Mandalay and exactly when we will reach our destination is still uncertain. Nevertheless, we are unfazed, our spirits are high. Because we are convinced. Today is the day. Today is the day!
THE ROAD TO JADE LAND
Perhaps it is better to start at the beginning. We had come to these jungles to follow the green line to its source, in search of jade — what the Chinese call the “stone of heaven.” Until 200 years ago, jade meant nephrite, a tough, spinach-green stone that was the ideal canvas for China’s stone carvers. Then, in northern Myanmar, a new type was found: jadeite. Unlike nephrite, jadeite occurred in emerald-green shades.
The people of China’s Middle Kingdom were smitten, head over heels in love with something that came only from one remote locality in upper Myanmar (formerly Burma). It was the search for the source of this green stone that had brought us to Myanmar. Little did we know the trials this quest would entail. This is our story, our quest for green.
ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE
For more than 30 years, foreigners had petitioned the Burmese government to visit the jade mines. Due to a war that had raged between the central government and successionist rebels, the answer always came back no. But times had changed. And the central government had recently made peace with the rebels. So, hat in hand, we went and asked again. And we received. They said we could go.
In Myanmar, it’s considered bad form to inquire about arrival and departure times, and there are good reasons for this. The country’s transportation network is bad, operating just slightly above the stall speed of a bicycle. Couple this with some of the most rugged terrain this side of worse-to-forget-it and you get the picture. Locals understand, realizing that any answer will likely be wrong. Hence the local policy is one of pragmatism — akin to gays in the U.S. military: don’t ask, don’t tell. But ask we did. And so we were told: we would leave for Hpakan, in the heart of the jade mining area, on April21. This was our first mistake, but would not be the last.
On April19, we called Yangon to confirm the arrangements. “Sorry, try again on April28,” we were told. A week later, we called Yangon again. “Sorry, try again on June5.” We called again on June3 and were told: “Sorry, the rainy season has now begun, try again later” — as in November!
ENTER STILLWELL’S SON
We had all spent enough time in Asia to realize that, while patience might be a virtue, a bit of the “I-won’t-take-no-for-an-answer” impatience also works wonders. We went to Myanmar anyway to see just how soon “later” could be.
A meeting was arranged and we pressed our case. The official’s concerns were real enough — this area was extremely rugged, tough enough in the dry season, let alone the wet. But we said: “We are tough. Locals can go, so can we.” Then we played our trump card. Richard Hughes asked if they remembered America’s World War II Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell. Of course, came the reply. “Well,” Hughes dryly intoned, “I am Stillwell’s son.”
Passing through the jungles of northern Myanmar, it’s hard enough to imagine walking, let alone fighting, but human conflict has boiled in these steaming lands for close to half a century. When the Japanese invaded Myanmar in 1942, the British and their confederates were left to flee to India. One man who went with them was Gen. Stillwell. Over 50 years old at the time, Stillwell would leave men decades younger in the dust as he marched.
“Vinegar Joe” was one of the finest fighting men the U.S. has produced. America’s military attache to China in the prewar years, he was called out of retirement when the U.S. went to war with Japan. During that conflict, he took Chiang Kai-shek’s rag-tag nationalist Chinese Kuomintang army and turned it into a first-class fighting force, routing so-called “invincible” Japanese troops all across northern Myanmar. But his main claim to fame was overseeing the construction of a road from Ledo, in eastern India, to Bhamo and then to China. The 1,200km route from Ledo to Wanting, China, cut through some of the most inhospitable jungle on the planet, spanning 10 major rivers and 155 secondary streams. So many were lost in its construction that it became known as the “mile-a-man” road. Today, due to destruction of the major bridges, only a bare track remains. But the name of its creator lives on. The trace, which passes within miles of the Mogaung-Hpakan road, is known as Stillwell Road.
When the guffaws over Hughes’ remark subsided, the government officials agreed to give it their best shot. If it was in their power to arrange it, they would do it. As it turned out, it was not. Final approval eventually had to come from the No. 2 man in Myanmar’s ruling SLORC junta. But in a week’s time, we were on our way to Hpakan, center of Myanmar’s Jade Land.
JUNE 2 — BY RAIL FROM MANDALAY
We begin our journey in Mandalay, a hot, dusty urban sprawl that locals say is fueled by the “three lines”: the white line (heroin), the red line (ruby) and the green line (jade). Our guide is a Burmese army captain, a military engineer who has spent much of his career chasing rebels across the Shan hills.
We board the Mandalay-Myitkyina train shortly after noon. Our first destination is Mogaung, the largest city near the jade mines and itself a famous cutting and trading center. From here we will proceed to Hpakan. The scheduled time to Mogaung is 20 hours, but the journey may take up to 40 because of the deplorable condition of the tracks. In 1993, the government signed a truce with the Kachin Independence Army, but three years of peace have done little to wipe out 30 years of neglect. The train screeches wildly as it strains against the sides of the rails. At high speeds, our carriage rocks violently back and forth, reminding us that derailment is a very real possibility. In early 1995, at the railway bridge near Mohnyin, just such a derailment killed more than 100 passengers. We are not entirely unhappy with our speed.
Another aspect of the rail journey that scares us even more is the prospect of meeting up with the night-biting female Anopheles mosquito, which carries deadly strains of malaria. It was once believed this scourge could be wiped out a la smallpox, but the malaria parasite has proved a far more formidable foe. Today, the parasite has developed resistance to virtually all prophylactics. Thus the best protection is simply to avoid being bitten. Rather than quinine, chloroquine or Fansidar, we arm ourselves with insect repellent and apply copious quantities every night. Malaria is not to be taken lightly. The cerebral form strikes quickly and, if not treated properly, can kill as soon as 48 hours after the onset of symptoms.
Time on the train is whiled away with the exchange of stories. Dr. Thet Oo regales us with tales he has heard of Hpakan or “Little Hong Kong” –so-named by locals because whatever the object of your desire, you can find it there. Among the products said to be on offer there are Hennessy cognac, Rolex watches, Nike running shoes, opium and heroin.
We continue north into the unknown. The train moves slowly through impenetrable forest, where the dense foliage literally slaps against one’s skin. This area contains some of Southeast Asia’s last remaining virgin forests, but signs of logging are everywhere. The night’s full moon illuminates small towns, where shadows of hundreds upon hundreds of logs lie stacked alongside the tracks.
Occasionally, for no apparent reason, the train stops dead in its tracks, only to creep forward again after a pause of 30 minutes or so. With the onset of the monsoon, which had begun several weeks before, everything is green, with the moon creating ghostlike shadows on trees stretching hundreds of feet into the sky. Wheels scream in agony as we pass through a series of low hills, with the river in the valley below. Occasionally, the train nudges in and out of fog, with the surrounding hills shrouded in mist.
Everywhere there is jungle, green, jungle, green, ubiquitous. Humans gnaw and nibble at the forest’s edges, but it continually creeps back, as relentless as the rains that give it sustenance. The train is like an intruder, its clickity-clack a foreign language, tapping its message of approaching humanity like a morse code. But if you listen closely, you hear native tongues –the buzz of cicadas, a bird’s caw and the trickle of rushing water, occasionally punctuated by the howl of a wild animal from the nearby forest.
HOPIN’ FOR HPAKAN
About 10 a.m., the train stops in the small town of Hopin, some three hours from Mogaung. Here we learn there are two roads to Hpakan. The flatter of the two leaves from Mogaung and goes via Kamaing, while the other starts at Hopin and heads to Hpakan through the mountains. One of the train’s passengers points to some nearby trucks and declares: “There. They go Hpakan.” After nearly 20 hours on the train, no further encouragement is needed. We scramble off, determined to head directly to Hpakan from Hopin.
Transport is arranged quickly, consisting of a four-wheel drive pickup, modified with three rows of seats in the bed. The cost is astonishing — 35,000 kyat ($270 at the then-exchange rate of 130 kyat to the dollar). Though we later found this to be double the local price (a “skin tax,” as the captain called it), we learned that, like the boom towns of the old American West, the quest for green brings out that most fundamental of human characteristics — pure naked greed.
TWO DAYS IN THE MUD
The journey to Hpakan, which took us “only” two days (we were told it was a seven hour trip!), leaves us with memories of mud, broken trucks, elephants rescuing truck after truck (including ours) and other extraordinary sights. We spend hours in the mud, becoming human beasts of burden as we joined locals in pulling our vehicles out of god-awful mud holes, shared by pigs wallowing in hog heaven (a tired statement, but one that must be made).
When we stop overnight to regroup, Dr. Thet Oo, with characteristic daring, makes a bold statement: “We can only get this kind of experience here in northern Myanmar.”
By the time we reach our next destination at Namlam, we ruefully agree. We had spent the day walking in ice-slicked clay mud while rain poured down and the large bull elephant, brought along for insurance, tugged our trucks out of the mud again and again. The route is a Nike graveyard, with shoes left everywhere. We arrive in Namlam shoeless ourselves, our shoe soles literally torn off by the mud.
At Namlam, a new military unit is waiting. We bid the old team farewell and, after a short rest, pile into a truck and continue the journey. The new unit is headed up by a manic major who is a dead-ringer for Charles Bronson, albeit in his Burmese reincarnation.
Slish, slosh, we splash down the track, eventually coming to Makabin (also spelled Makapin, meaning “clover tree”), roughly halfway between Nyaungbin and Hpakan. This is a substantial settlement of some 1,000 people. Major Charles points at a group of men digging beside the Hweka river, and casually mentions they are digging for jade. Excitement grips us — we have finally entered Jade Country.
Makabin is a typical jade village, with an alluvial jade-bearing conglomerate being worked. Though mined for decades, it has the look of a brand-new village. In the past few years, government liberalization of the mining and trading sector has brought renewed vigor to the quest for jade. Makabin, with its broad array of goods, wears the new prosperity openly, shamelessly.
We stop for a drink in the riverside restaurant of the village headman, a tall, friendly Kachin. He says we are the first foreigners to visit in over 30 years and, in our honor, serves up potato chips, venison and beer as he relates information on the village.
According to the headman, all mining here is private (meaning joint-venture). While the village is some 800 years old, only in the past four years, with government liberalization of the economy has jade mining been revived. It is said to cost 10,000 kyat ($77) to mine 10 square feet at Makabin.
All too soon, we must move on. As the sun sets over the surrounding hills, we come to the important village of Hweka. This is destined to be our night stop.
JUNE 5 — HPAKAN OR BUST
As we awake in Hweka the next morning, the tension is palpable. A peek out the window reveals the expected –gray and green — gray skies, green jungle — our constant companions. When we began this journey, our thoughts were of how much time we might spend at Hpakan, whether we could visit the famous deposits of Tawmaw and Maw Sit Sit, etc. Now we are concerned with only one thing –actually setting foot in Hpakan. Little Hong Kong is so close we can smell it, taste it, tease its rough texture with our tongues.
The night before, we were told we could make it to Hpakan the next day, as long as it didn’t rain. And it didn’t, for rain is not a proper term for what poured down that night. No, this was a torrent, a rage, a hurricane blast of fury unleashed by some power greater than any of us had previously known.
Today, shaken, we climb out of bed and into the new day. The first order of business is to resupply. All of us are in need of fresh footwear, among other things. In Jade Land, the markets are well stocked. First, we slip into brand new Chinese Super Dog(tm) socks. Then come the camouflaged canvas jungle boots –a wicked cross-breed of Converse All-Stars and Rambo running shoes. Slapping Moon Rabbit(tm) batteries into our torches, we are locked, loaded and primed for whatever the jungle might care to dish out. Bring it on. Today is the day!
The trace leads straight up the mountain face on the north bank of the Hweka river. But the previous night’s downpour has made it impossible for our truck. At this moment, fortune smiles upon us in the form of a backhoe owned by a jade miner. Like a giant insect, the mechanical beast lumbers over to where our truck is resting and, with agonizing slowness, raises its arm into the sky. With a deft move, the bucket empties its contents. On the mud in front of us is a slender thread –a steel cable that will bring us up the mountain.
Ever-so-slowly, the spider pulls us up the mountain. So slick is the trace that even the backhoe’s treads spin and whirl in the mud. Yet again, we set off on foot.
Signs of jade mining lie everywhere alongside the road as we continue toward and past Hpaokang, about one mile from Hweka. At the top of the mountain, ingenious mining pools have been excavated. When enough water accumulates, a gate is opened, allowing water to rush down and “sluice” the hillside below. Later, men will come to examine the boulders thus uncovered, looking for that special texture and feeling that sends the pulse racing: jade.
BACK TO THE SOIL
Walking along the ridge here, where the sun has now come out, we enjoy one of the most pleasant stretches of the trip. We pass donkey trains and small villages, along with the ubiquitous vendors selling refreshments. The forest, in its stillness, is lovely, green-green, like the stone that brought us here. But as quickly as the jungle seduces, it also reminds one of its force, its power. Rounding a bend, we see a woman sitting on a blanket, furious. Coming closer, we see why. Her truck identical to ours, lies in the gulch below, cocked at an obscene angle.
BACK ON THE BUS
While watching an elephant attempting to extract the wounded truck, we hear the approach of another vehicle from behind. Could it be? Yes, it is. Our truck is with us again. We pile in, but for a short distance when, once again, we must trade army units. Then it’s back on the road, which wriggles and winds over the Kachin countryside. The previous night’s rain has made the track all the more treacherous, particularly when moving downhill. So steep is it that, at times, we slide sideways with a sickening motion and it appears the truck will overturn. Our driver wrestles with the wheel as we continue the plunge downward, only to right the vehicle and repeat the process around the next corner.
As we lurch over hill and dale, the crest of one rise reveals a sight forever etched in our memories. Seven hours had turned into several days. But there below us is a lush valley. And in that valley lies a town. Hpakan is at our feet.
End of Part 1