The Ghost Road
Winding a thousand miles from India to China, the Burma Road was built to defend China in World War II, but the atomic bomb made it irrelevant and the jungle reclaimed it. Mark Jenkins vowed to do what no one had done for nearly 60 yearstravel the entire Burma Roadand discovered the madness of present-day Myanmar.
DUCK OFF THE ROAD, RUN.
Down dark passageways, right at one corner, left at the next, no idea where I’m going. On a main street in the town of Namsai, I spot three armed Arunachal Pradesh border policemen up ahead. It is the spring of 1996, and I’m traveling in this northeastern Indian state illegally. I slide into the flow of tasseled trishaws, pedestrians, clicking bicycles.
A vintage white Ambassadorthat lumpish fifties-era sedan still found throughout India’s hinterlandcreeps along within the bright human throng. Behind it a young tribal girl carries two buckets of water on a bamboo pole. I step up alongside her. She smiles, then covers her face. I snap off my baseball cap and place it on her head. She laughs and unwinds an orange cotton wrap from around her shoulders and hands it to me. I knew she would do this; it’s not possible to give a gift in this part of the world without receiving one in return. I dive both hands into one of her buckets, slick back my shaggy hair, and whip the fabric into a turban around my head. Then I step to the rear passenger door of the Ambassador and jump in the backseat. I find myself sitting beside a large Buddhist lama in maroon robes. I adjust my disguise and scan the crowd outside.
“You are being chased,” says the lama.
The lama speaks to the chauffeur. The chauffeur taps his horn, maneuvers around a brahma bull seated in the road, speeds up. In the outskirts of Ledo, we roll onto a long grassy driveway, pass a freshly gilded stupa, and stop in front of a group of wooden buildings. The lama lifts his frock above polished black shoes and steps out.
“My name is Aggadhamma,” he says, in British-accented English. “This is the Namsai Buddhist Vihara, a monastery for boys. You are safe here.”
That evening I have dinner with the lama and a dozen shaved-headed acolytes. We are seated on the floor around circular tables. The walls are Easter-egg blue. A tin plate heaped with rice, dal, vegetables, and burning-hot, fuscous curry is set before me. I eat with my right hand.
After the meal, the boys slug back a last tin of water and scatter into the warm, lampless dark.
“Now,” says Aggadhamma, “please tell me, what brought you to this distant corner of our earth?”
I don’t have any reason not to be truthful. “I want to travel the old Stilwell Road and cross into Burma.”
I outline my obsession. Six decades ago, during World War II, American soldiers under the command of General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell carved a 1,100-mile road, starting in Ledo, in the Indian state of Assam, through a wilderness of dripping mountains and leech-infested jungles in northern Burma, and across the border into southwestern China.
No one even knows if this old military road still exists. Perhaps it has vanished entirely, consumed by the jungle like a snake eaten by a tiger. It’s a mystery I’ve been hoping to solve.
“This is your plan, despite the fact that Arunachal Pradesh is in the midst of civil unrestcar bombings, assassinations, and the likeand therefore closed to foreigners,” responds Aggadhamma. “I take it you are here without government permission.”
I admit that I do not have a Restricted Area Permit.
“It’s not as serious as it sounds,” I add. “Mostly just a game of cat and mouse with the border police.”
Aggadhamma eyes me. “You can get away with this in India,” he says. “India is the greatest democracy in the world. The government here is like an old elephant: vast, but slow and avoidable. Clever people can keep from being stepped on.”
I don’t tell him that I have already been arrested, and escaped, a half-dozen times, but he already seems to know.
“You are clever, then,” he continues, “and yet you wish to sneak into Burma and play this same game?”
I just nod.
For the next three days I hide out in the Namsai Vihara. I help spade black soil in the vegetable garden and teach the eager pupils American slang in their English classes.
My last night in the monastery, Aggadhamma tells me he has someone for me to meet. After supper, he introduces me to a nine-year-old boy named Myin. The boy is as beautiful as a girl, with brilliant eyes and a perpetual grin. He is also an amputee, his left leg vanished at the hip.
“Myin is from Burma,” says Aggadhamma, and tells the boy’s story as Myin stares at me with a guileless smile.
Myin is a Jinghpaw, or Kachin. The Kachins are an ethnic group whose homeland includes most of northern Burma; they are one of seven major ethnic minoritiesalong with the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Chin, Shan, and Arakanesethat make up about 30 percent of the country’s population (68 percent of the 50 million citizens are Burmese), each with its own state. All told, there are some 140 ethnic groups and 100 dialects in Burma.
Two years earlier, soldiers under the military regime burned Myin’s village to the ground and took all the boys. They were tracking pro-democracy Kachin guerrillas through the jungle. The soldiers knew the trails were booby-trapped, and they used Myin as a human minesweeper, forcing him to walk alone in front of the soldiers. He was seven years old and couldn’t have weighed 40 pounds when his leg was blown off.
“We have several boys from Burma here,” says Aggadhamma. “Each has been maimed in one way or other. This is what Burma does to humans.”
After dark I leave Namsai Buddhist Vihara. Aggadhamma shakes my hand with both of his hands, holding on tightly even after I release my grip.
DURING THE LATE EIGHTIES and early nineties, I went to the Himalayas on a mountaineering expedition every two years. When I was stormbound at high altitude, the best escape was always a good book, so I blame historian Barbara W. Tuchman for my original fascination with the Stilwell Road. Deep inside my sleeping bag at 23,000 feet, with waves of graupel slamming the tent, I read her 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, and was transported to another world and another time.
By the time the United States entered the Second World War, Imperial Japan had been penetrating ever deeper into China for more than a decade, gaining control of nearly one-third of that weakened giant. In the first five months of 1942, Japanese forces rapidly subjugated much of Southeast Asia: the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and a large swath of Burma. If China fell, all of Asia was threatened, from the rice fields of India to the oil fields of Baghdad.
America had been attempting to bolster the Chinese Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek by supplying his forces via the back door, through India. Pilots were flying ordnance and ammunition from India to China over “the Hump”the dragon’s tail of the Himalayas that hooks south into northern Burma. But China was still losing. General Stilwell, commanding general of the China-Burma-India Theater, believed these supply flights weren’t enough. A tough, wiry West Point graduate who had spent years on clandestine missions in China, Stilwell was a military traditionalist. He was convinced that in order to adequately supply the Chinese, an all-weather military road had to be created from India through the unknown mountains and swamps of northern Burma. This 478-mile road, dubbed the Ledo Road, would connect with the old Burma Road, a convoluted 717-mile track built by the Chinese that ran northeast from Lashio, Burma, to Kunming, Chinacreating an 1,100-mile supply route called the Stilwell Road. (Today, it’s popularly, if erroneously, known as the Burma Road.)
British prime minister Winston Churchill characterized Stilwell’s endeavor as “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed.” Stilwell was undeterred.
Completing the road cost $150 million and required the labor of 28,000 American soldiers, almost all of them black, and 35,000 ethnic workers. It was a dangerous job; casualty rates were so high that it was dubbed “the Man-a-Mile Road.” Japanese snipers, monsoon floods, malaria, and cholera took the lives of 1,100 American soldiers and untold numbers of Asian workers before the Stilwell Road was completed, in January 1945. Over the next seven months, 5,000 vehicles and 35,000 tons of supplies traveled it. Then the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrendered.
In October 1945, the U.S. abandoned the road. Churchill had been right.
Over the following decades, the old Burma Road across southwestern China remained in use, but the stretch of Stilwell’s highway that crossed the remote fastness of northern Burma reverted to a blank on the map, an enigma that became my obsession.
Detouring on the way home from various mountaineering trips, I managed to travel the entire Chinese section of the road by the early 1990s. I would sit on the roofs of listing, overloaded trucks grinding up and down hundreds of switchbacks across the gorge-scarred Yunnan province. It was my own private adventure. I didn’t talk about it, didn’t write about it.
But minor triumphs gradually set the foundation for great expectations. Over the years, my desire to get into Burma and traverse whatever was left of the Stilwell Road began to displace my passion for mountain climbing. Mountains were simple, predictable beasts, compared with nations. I knew the unknownsthe brutal cold, the avalanches. I knew how to suffer, how to summit, and how to fail. What I didn’t know was Burma, a different kind of impossible challenge.
In late 1993, during an expedition into eastern Tibet, I tried to enter Burma from the north with a partner. We were caught by the Chinese border patrol, interrogated, and jailed for a couple of nights. We signed a confession and were released.
In the spring of 1996, I traveled to the Indian state of Assam to write a magazine article about wildlife poaching, then veered off to Ledo to try my luck again. Two weeks after leaving the Namsai monastery and traveling most of the 20-mile stretch of the Stilwell Road through Arunachal Pradesh to the India-Burma border, I was nabbed. I was detained for three days in Tezu and politely interrogated (tea and scones were served) by Indian army officers, all of whom assumed I was a CIA agent. On the fourth day I was placed in a jeep with two armed guards, driven to the banks of the enormous, mud-brown Brahmaputra, put on a leaky tug dragging a mile-long raft of timber, and deported downstream to Assam.
Still, I felt that I’d successfully completed my apprenticeship in duplicity. I knew how to operate alone, how to lie, how to stay calm while looking down the barrel of a gun. I had completed the Chinese and Indian sections of the Stilwell Road. All that remained was the 458-mile ghost road in Burma.
BACK HOME, I WROTE to the Myanmar embassy in Washington. (Since 1989, Myanmar has been the military government’s name for the country.) In 1996, with great fanfare, Myanmar launched a campaign to promote tourism, and visitors could obtain a visa to travel in the southern part of the country, but northern Burma, including the region the Stilwell Road passed through, was off-limits to foreigners.
After pestering the embassy and its representatives for several months, I managed to get an appointment with U Tin Winn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States. I did my political homework before our meeting.
General Aung San, leader of Burma’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, demanded independence from Britain in 1947. While writing the constitution, Aung San, along with six of his ministers, was assassinated, igniting a series of bloody coups and bringing Prime Minister U Nu into power when independence was granted, in 1948. In 1962, General Ne Win overthrew the civilian government and abolished the constitution. A gallows hood was dropped over the face of the nation. Through coercion, repression, state-sponsored murder, and Stalin-style domestic terror, Ne Win maintained control for nearly 30 years. By 1988, conditions were so unbearable that pro-democracy demonstrations erupted throughout the country, led by returning exile Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD). These demonstrations were brutally crushed by the dictatorshipbetween 3,000 and 10,000 peaceful protesters were killedand the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a cabal of Burmese generals, was created to run the country.
In 1989, SLORC declared martial law and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Diplomatic pressure and agitation by the NLD forced SLORC to hold general elections the next year. When the NLD won a landslide victory, the generals declared the results invalid and subsequently imprisoned hundreds of NLD members. In 1991 Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prizeperhaps the main reason she is still alive. In short, Myanmar has the dark distinction of being one of the last totalitarian regimes on earth.
At my meeting with Ambassador Tin Winn, I outlined my plan for traveling the Stilwell Road across Burma, tracing the route on a WWII-era U.S. Army map. Ambassador Tin Winn was enthusiastic about my “daring historical journey” and introduced me to an embassy official named Thaung Tun, who was to arrange a special visa and assist me in navigating the Myanmar bureaucracy.
On the phone and in a series of letters, Thaung Tun was invariably gracious and upbeat. “Everything looks goodwe’re on course. Proper papers are assembling,” he told me. “Things take time only.” At first I believed him, but as the months passed, I came to recognize this behavior as classic puppeteering. After more than a year of strategic confoundment, Thaung Tun suggested I break the impasse by seeking permission in person. He knew who I should talk to. I flew to the capital, Rangoon (renamed Yangon), in the fall of 1997.
For three days I sat in a hot, dank hallway waiting to meet Thaung Tun’s government colleague. Making you wait is how bureaucrats exercise dominance. I took to bringing bread crumbs for the rats that scurried along the walls. When I finally met the man, a pinched homunculus with nervous eyes and no eyebrows, he pushed me right out of his office.
“Stilwell Road gone!” he screamed. “Disappeared! No possible!”
This only served to incite me. Stilwell and his men had faced countless obstacles, tootorrential rains that raised rivers 20 feet, titanic mudslides, jungle diseasesand Stilwell had been repeatedly told that it was impossible to build a road across Burma. I began to envision defying the Myanmar junta as not merely just, but obligatory. I was still young enough to believebewilderedly, arrogantly, passionatelythat through sheer force of will, I could bend the world to my ambition.
IN FEBRUARY 1998, I return to Assam and the town of Ledo, the beginning of the Stilwell Road. After several weeks of bureaucratic wrangling, I manage to sidestep obtaining a Restricted Area Permit and inveigle permission to travel the road up to the border of Burma. A platoon from the 28th Assam Rifles garrison, led by Commander Y. S. Rama, is enjoined to escort me on foot from Nampong, the last Indian outpost, up to Pangsau Pass, on the border, and then directly back. It is illegal to cross the border in either direction.
The night before our hike, I pull out several bottles of whiskey and start pouring drinks. The soldiers regale me with tales of the horrors unfolding nearby in Burma. There is a command post somewhere past Pangsau Pass, and the soldiers there are almost starving. Many have malaria. Rice is in short supply, and they never have salt. Salt is worth anything to the Burmese soldiers. They sneak over the border with something they have taken from the Naga or Kachin tribesa bearskin shield, a wooden maskand trade it for salt. Pangsau Pass, they say, is a punishment posting for Burmese soldiers who have run afoul of the military leadership.
Commander Rama, in his blue uniform and white ascot, sits ramrod stiff after polishing off most of a bottle of whiskey by himself. “Across the border is the end of the world,” he declares. “You can go backward in history, Mr. Mark. Americans want to believe that everything goes forward. But if you went forward on this road, you would go backward.”
When I leave at five the next morning, the platoon is fast asleep, as if the warm night air were an anesthetic. I know I have a head start of only a few hours at most. The road hooks uphill, disappearing into the black Patkai Range, taking me with it.
My intention is to cross over into Burma, alone and illegally. I don’t think I’m delusional; I have a plan. I also know that my plan might fail. The difficulty itself is no small part of the appeal. If success is a certainty, where is the challenge? I am still entranced by the road, but now the seeds of something darker have taken root inside me.
The Stilwell Road was built to stop the spread of totalitarianism. For 2,000 years, from Caesar to Stilwell, building roads was how one nation conquered another. That ended with the rise of air power: Planes in the sky, not trucks on a road, would thenceforth largely determine the course of warfare. Some generals could envision this not-so-brave new world, but Stilwell was not one of them. It was an airplane that dropped the atomic bomb and pushed us across a new rubicon of technological morality.
The Stilwell Road is a paradigm for failure, another one of humankind’s grandiose exercises in futility. As I know in my heart, this means that my own attempt at traveling the Stilwell Road is stained with the same futility. But of course this doesn’t stop me. On the contrary, I charge forward, carrying through with my complicated, contradictory convictions. Is this not what all humans sometimes do? We deftly lay out snares and then proceed to walk right into them.
I LEAP THE GIANT TROPICAL TREES that have fallen across the track and move between the moss-sheathed embankments. The road narrows to a tunnel. I step through spiderwebs larger than me, strands clinging to my face.
In two hours I reach Pangsau Pass, a roadcut through mud walls. There is a rotting concrete sign atop the pass. I snap a photo and walk into Burma.
Just over the border the road begins to disappear. Light and sky are closed off by vines thick as hawsers, leaves large as umbrellas, bamboo stalks rooted as densely as prison bars. I begin to wonder if the trail might be booby-trapped.
A queer uneasiness comes over me: I’m being watched. It makes me want to stop, but I don’t. I keep walking. When I finally look over my shoulder, two soldiers, as if on cue, part the jungle with the barrels of their rifles and step onto the road. Two more soldiers appear in front of me.
They are small men in dark-green fatigues and Chinese-issue camouflage sneakers. They have canteens on their belts and AK-47s and bandoliers of rounds across their shoulders. One wears a large knife on his hip, another a black handgun in a polished black holster. I wave to the two soldiers ahead of me and move toward them eagerly, as if I am a lost backpacker. Their jaws tighten. I hold out my hand, talking and smiling. The soldiers train their weapons on me, their faces flat and strained.
The soldiers behind me begin to shout. One soldier starts prodding my stomach with the barrel of his rifle, as if he’s trying to herd me back where I came from, but I won’t move. A soldier behind me grabs my pack and starts to pull me backward. I spin around and he lets go.
This is the momentthey know it and I know it. The soldier in charge, the one with the black handgun, steps forward and holds my eyes in a cold, searching stare. I stare back. I know what he’s looking for: fear. Fear is what he most wants to see, what he is accustomed to seeing.
But I have a secret weapon: I’m white. My whiteness protects me. My whiteness is a force field around my body. I know it is unjust, immoral even, but my whiteness means he can’t act unilaterally. White people can cause trouble. He knows this.
The soldier shouts in my face but drops his eyes. His men begin to march me down the road, deeper into Burma, barrels at my back. Eventually we arrive at a burned-out building in a clearing. Laborers in rags are squatting in the mud in front of the building. Using machetes, they’re hacking long bamboo poles into three-foot spears and hardening the points over a campfire.
From the color of their sarongs and the way they wear their machetes in a shoulder scabbard, I know they are Naga tribesmen. The Nagas were headhunters until the early 20th century (British colonial authorities outlawed the practice in the 1890s); although the Nagas have their own language, architecture, religion, and customs, the junta lumps them in with the Kachins.
As I come close, the squatting men do not look up. There are soldiers all around. The soldier with the handgun continues up steep stairs cut into the mud embankment, while the other three remain to guard me. I drop my pack and lean against the roofless building and watch the laborers. Their machetes make muted hacking sounds, the sounds you hear in a butcher shop. The men themselves are silent, as if their tongues have been cut out.
I realize that this is exactly what I was not supposed to see. This is why northern Burma is closed, why so many remote regions of Burma are closed. According to the Free Burma Coalition, an international alliance of activists dedicated to the democratization of Burma, most ethnic minorities across the nation have been viciously persecuted; more than 600,000 have been removed from their villages and forcibly relocated. By interviewing refugees, Amnesty International has documented forced-labor camps hidden throughout the country.
I WAIT FOR SEVEN HOURS, tearing engorged brown leeches off my legs and watching the blood run down into my boots. Late in the afternoon, the soldier with the black sidearm comes down the embankment, grabs me by the hair, and jerks me to my feet. I knock his hand away. He wants to hit me so badly the muscles in his cheeks quiver.
I am pushed up the mud steps. Seated against the building, I could see only the laborers and the rolling jungle. When I reach the top of the mud steps, I truly confront the world I have entered. It is medieval, something from the Dark Ages.
Before me is a 400-foot-high hill, stripped naked. Cut into the base of the slope, circling the mountain, is a trench, 20 feet wide and ten feet deep. Two-foot bamboo spears, sharpened pungee sticks, stab upward from the bottom of the trench. Just beyond the pungee pit is an eight-foot-high bamboo wall. The top and outer face of the wall are bristling with bamboo spikes.
Past this is a strip of barren dirt too smooth and manicured to be anything but a mine field. Beyond that is another lethal bamboo wall. There are five walls and four strips of mined no-man’s-land ascending the hill in concentric circles. The only break in the stockade is a narrow passageway that zigzags up the middle.
I am dragged over the first pungee pit on a bamboo drawbridge and through the first wall via a small, heavy door with bamboo spikes. We enter a tunnel, the walls and stairs dug out of the wet mud, the ceiling roofed with logs. Passing through the tunnel, I try to imagine some purpose for this surreal jungle fortress. It lies on a forgotten, forbidden border and would be a ridiculous target for any combatant. It can only be protecting the Burmese soldiers from the local people they have enslaved.
After passing through four doors, the mud steps rise back up to daylight. We are on top of the hill. I am taken to a table set in the red dirt beneath a canopy of leaves, behind which is seated a fat man with a pockmarked face. Underneath his sweat-stained fatigues, which have no insignia, I can see red pajamas. He is wearing green flip-flops.
There are four armed soldiers standing behind the man. He says something to them and my pack is torn from my back and a bamboo chair forced against the back of my knees. I sit down. One of the soldiers dumps the contents of my pack onto the dirt and starts rummaging through my stuff. I stare at the fat man, wondering who will interpret, when he speaks for himself.
I take my passport out of my money belt and hand it to him.
His eyes don’t leave my face. Without ever looking down, he flips through the pages, then throws the passport back, hitting me in the face.
“Visa. Show visa.”
I open the passport to the correct page and hand it back. He studies the stamp. I make every effort to appear bored. I have an official visa for Myanmar. It is a large stamp that fills one page of the passport. At the bottom of the page, in blue ink that matches the stamp, I’ve blotted out the words ALL LAND ENTRY PROHIBITED.
He shakes his head and shuts the passport.
“Not possible. No one come here. Border closed.”
I expected this. I am already unfolding two other documents from my money belt. I hand them to him. One is a personal letter from Ambassador U Tin Winn, written and signed on embassy stationery, inviting me to Myanmar and urging all officials to help me travel along the Stilwell Road. The other is an official Myanmar Immigration Department Report of Arrival. My photo is affixed to this document, and it, too, has an official stamp from the Myanmar government. Along with my name, passport number, and visa number, there is a list spelling out my itinerary and the towns in Burma I have permission to travel through: Pangsau Pass, Shingbwiyang, Mogaung, Myitkyina, Bhamo.
These are all forgeries, but I have confidence in them. He has no way of checking their authenticity.
The documents make him angry. “Where you get?” he demands.
“From the embassy of Myanmar. I had lunch with Ambassador U Tin Winn. He invited me to your country.” I surprise myself with the calmness of my voice. I tell him I have brought gifts. I gesture for one of the soldiers to bring over a sack from the pile of my belongings. Inside he finds a five-kilogram bag of salt, a package of 20 ball-point pens, and three lined notebooks. Each notebook has a $100 bill paper-clipped to the cover.
He looks back down at the documents. All of his fingernails are short and dirty, except for the nail on his right pinkie, which is clean and long. I can only assume that he is the warlord of this lost jungle fiefdombeyond civilization and beyond the fragile wing of moralityand that there is no law here, no God. He is God.
But I have these troublesome documents. I can see his mind working. Someone must know I am here. Why wasn’t he informed? If these documents are real, he would’ve been notified of my arrival. I would’ve had a military escort.
He raises his small black eyes, stares at me, and says something in Burmese. Two soldiers leave. A few minutes later, a boy is dragged up to the commander. He is clearly a prisoner. Skeletal, wearing nothing but torn trousers, he has an angular head, protruding ribs, legs so thin his knees are larger than his thighs.
The commander barks at him and the boy cringes, then speaks to me.
“Why are you here?” His English is catechism-perfect.
“I told him already,” I reply, feigning weariness. “I have been invited by the Myanmar government to travel the Stilwell Road.”
The boy translates this.
The commander stands up and slowly walks toward me. He stops with his face in front of mine. Then he walks over and stands like a bear next to the emaciated boy and says something.
“He doesn’t believe you,” the boy tells me. “Why have you come here?”
When I give the same answer, the commander turns sideways and slams his heavy fist into the boy’s rib cage. The boy screams and crumples to the ground.
The fat commander looks at me and laughs. The message seems to be: I may be someone it would not be prudent to harm. But this boy, this boy is perfectly expendable. This boy could easily disappear without a trace.
I am sickened by my naiveté. I’ve been willing to imperil my own life to travel this road, but not the life of someone elsethat’s why I chose to go alone. I should have known better. I’ve read shelves’ worth of books about Burma.
When I refuse to answer any more questions, my audience with the warlord is abruptly terminated. I’m hustled back down through the mud tunnels and out of the compound. At dusk, my pack and my passport are returned to me, but my forged documents have disappeared. The film has been ripped from my camera, and all pages with writing have been torn from my journal.
I am marched back up to Pangsau Pass. Commander Rama and his platoon are waiting for me at the border. Rama stares at me with his old, oily eyes but doesn’t say a word.
THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN the end of it. But what began as a private passion, I now twist into a professional goal. I secure a contract with a publisher to write a book about the Stilwell Road. This, I think, will legitimize my bewitchment. Although my editor believes I already have enough material for the book, I insist I have to complete the route.
I return to India in the fall of 1999, hell-bent on finding a way around the Pangsau Pass military compound. The Naga tribesmen I manage to speak to refuse to guide me. No amount of bribery will change their minds, and I can’t do it without them. I briefly consider bushwhacking my way into the jungle in a parallel traverse of the Stilwell Road, or whatever is left of it.
Instead, I decide to attack the problem from a southern approach. I’ll take a train from Rangoon to Mandalay, then another train up toward Myitkyina, a city of 75,000 on the Stilwell Road. Recently opened to foreigners, Myitkyina is accessible only by plane or train, the region between it and Mandalay remaining closed. I intend to secretly hop off at the closed city of Mogaung, 25 miles southwest of Myitkyina, and light out from there, to the west and north, along the Stilwell Road. I buy a black backpack and a dark-green bivy tent and dark Gore-Tex raingear. I conceal a knife and cash in the sole of one of my boots and obtain declassified Russian and American maps.
This all somehow seems appropriate to me. I have only one crisis of confidence.
While studying the maps on the flight to Bangkok, trying to guess where the military checkpoints along the road will be, I suddenly experience a visceral foreshadowing of my own death. It isn’t a vision, just a profound blackness, a terrifying emptiness. My body goes cold, and my mind feels as if all the synapses are short-circuiting and exploding. Then I begin sweating profusely, soaking my seat. It is such a powerful presentiment of my own death that I begin to cry.
For several hours I convince myself that I will get on the next plane home. Instead, I write farewell letters to my wife, Sue, my eight-year-old daughter, Addi, my six-year-old daughter, Teal, and my parents. I mail the letters from Bangkok, but they never arrive.
HEADING NORTH FROM MANDALAY, I climb onto the roof of a passenger car to avoid the conductor. The train lumbers along, stopping at every rice-pig-child village, then chugging slowly back into the country. Water buffalo chest-deep in black mud. Women bent in half in green rice paddies. Deep teak forests. Bicyclists on dirt paths. Asian pastoraljust like the brochures.
Twenty-four hours later, as the train slows outside Mogaung, I hop off, run down a dirt road, and leap into the first trishaw I see. The driver pedals me through Mogaung, but there is a roadblock on the far side of town. He wants me to get out right there, in front of the soldiers. Wagging cash, I get him to pedal down a side street before I step out. Not five minutes later, the police pick me up off the street. They don’t say a word. They are very youngadolescents with weapons, driving a souped-up Toyota Corolla. The driver flips on flashing lights, plugs in a bootleg tape of an Asian girl singing Cyndi Lauper songs, and flies north out of Mogaung.
We’re on the Stilwell Road, heading toward Myitkyina. After half an hour, we pull into a compound across the street from the railroad tracks, on the edge of town. I peer out and shake my head in surprise and relief. They’ve taken me to the Myitkyina YMCA. I register and am given a spare, clean room with a high ceiling. I shave, drop the key off with the clerk, and go back onto the street to explore. I hike muddy cobblestone streets between squat, nondescript buildings. I try to speak with people here and there, but no one will say a word to me. They ignore me, their eyes darting left and right. I end up in an outdoor market where wide-faced women sit under umbrellas amid a cornucopia of brilliant, alien fruits and vegetables.
Back at the Y, the desk clerk asks me how I enjoyed the market.
The next morning I hire a trishaw driver to take me out to the Irrawaddy River. When I come back, the clerk asks me how I enjoyed the river.
In the afternoon, it rains and I go for a walk alone, zigzagging randomly and speedily to the outskirts of town. At a wet intersection, I find one of the trishaw drivers who usually hang out in front of the YMCA waiting for me. I yank a handful of grass from the side of the road before accepting his offer to give me a lift back to the Y.
Early the next morning, I repack my bag, folding tiny blades of grass into my clothes and equipment. I leave and walk the streets of the town, returning to my room at noon. I find my pack right where I left it, everything folded precisely the way it was, but there are blades of grass scattered on the floor.
That night I slip through the window of my room and steal away, carefully climbing over a block wall with pieces of broken glass embedded along the top. I find an unlocked bicycle and take it, pedaling through the darkness to a corner where several old women, perhaps lost in opium dreams, sleep on the street. I lift a conical hat off the head of one of the women and slip a wad of bills into her shirt pocket. Now I’m disguised.
For the next five nights I leave my room and ride right past the roadblocks, with their sleepy sentries, and pedal out to the villages around Myitkyina. At dawn I return the bicycle and sneak back into my room at the Y.
In these neighboring villages, under cover of darkness, I finally find people who will talk to me. They are Kachins who are dying to speak to someone. A deluge of stories, always told behind closed doors, beside candles or oil lanterns that are frequently dousedand always in whispers. They are everywhere.
A shopkeeper who says that everyone is an informer here: “Trishaw drivers, businesspeople, teachers,” he says. “Even good people are informers. This is the only way to protect their families: to give up someone else. It is poison.”
This shopkeeper takes me to see a former government official who was tasked with beating tribals used for road gangs in the Karen state, in far eastern Burma.
“I was expected to hit them with a club,” he says. “Not systematically, because then they could plan and train their minds to resist, but randomly. This works very well. It maintains the fear of the unknown. This is how to create terror in a human heart.”
Sometimes I ask questions about the Stilwell Road, but they have stories of their own. What happened to me at Pangsau Pass is happening again: Traveling the Stilwell Road is becoming irrelevant, almost insignificanta profoundly selfish misadventure, compared with chronicling these stories of suffering and struggle. On the third night, an interpreter is provided and people are brought to me at a secret location, an outbuilding on the edge of an old teacher’s enormous vegetable garden.
A truck driver who uses the Stilwell Road delivering construction materials: “My wife washes clothes in the river for the bribe money,” he says. “I must pay the soldiers every time I pass through a roadblock; otherwise they will take a part from my truck.”
Two ancient soldiers who tell me about fighting for the Americans during the construction of the Stilwell Road, traveling ahead of the bulldozers and clearing the forest of snipers: “We knew the jungle,” one says. “We could kill the Japanese. The Americans were brave but did not know the jungle, so we helped them. Then they left us. Now we are in another war against our own government, but America has forgotten what we did for them.”
The son of a father who was imprisoned for friendship: “The bravest of all, Aung San Suu Kyi, came here in 1988,” he says. “My father knew her; they were schoolmates. Just friends. When she left, my father was taken away. He managed to get letters out to us. How they tortured him with electricity. How they used an iron bar rolled on his shins. How they used snakes with the women. Put snakes inside the women’s bodies. He was released after five years, and then he died.”
A middle-aged woman who tries to speak but can only cry and wring her hands.
I write pages of notes, hiding them in a jar in the grass behind the YMCA.
On the fourth night, the woman who wept brings her daughter. The mother sits quietly in the shadows while her daughter speaks. She tells me she is 19 years old. She learned to speak English from Christian missionaries. She has dense black hair braided into a long ponytail.
“My mother came to tell you my story, but she could not do it,” she says. “We have heard you are interested in the Stilwell Road.” She tells me that, except in the far west, between Shingbwiyang and Pangsau Pass, the road still exists. She knowsshe has been on it. Junta warlords have been logging in northern Burma and, in places, are rebuilding the road in order to transport the trees to China. Kachin households must provide one family member for the labor.
She was 14 when she was taken away in a truck and put in a work camp with 13 other girls. At night they were locked in a large bamboo cage in the compound. Nearly every night, she says, a different girl was dragged out and gang-raped by the soldiers. One of the girls in her crew bled to death. Another girl went mad. After a year, she was set free to find her way back home, walking barefoot back down the road.
She does not pause or weep as she tells me this, but her lower lip trembles.
“We have heard you want to travel the Stilwell Road. It could be done, but it would be very dangerous. I mean, not for you. For the people who would want to help you. But we would do it.”
She tells me that since Myitkyina is now open to foreigners, tourists are coming. She believes someday there will be tourists on the Stilwell Road, and she wants them to know the truth. That it is not a road built by Americans. That was history. History is over. It’s a road built by the Kachins.
“Do not believe it is a noble road. It is a road of blood. A road of death.”
With both hands, she wipes away the tears now in her eyes, stands up, bows, and leaves with her mother.
My hands are trembling too much to write. I cannot listen to anyone else. I ride the bicycle around in the dark for the rest of the night, looking up at the cloudy Burma sky, asking myself, What am I doing here?
THE NEXT MORNING, the desk clerk asks me how my night was.
I look him in the eyes. He looks at me. He’s on to me. I realize I’ve been endangering the people who shared their stories with me.
That night, to reduce suspicion, I decide to go drinking with the trishaw drivers. We end up in a bar, a dark, low-ceilinged place where women walk out on a little stage and sing pop songs under a ghoulish red light. When I’m ready to go back to the YMCA, my companions insist I have one more drink. A toast. It doesn’t taste good. I drink some and spill the rest down my neck.
Something starts to happen with my eyes. Things begin to slide. My glass glides off the table and I reach out to catch it and knock it onto the floor. It shatters into little pieces that turn into cockroaches that scrabble away. I can’t move my feet properly; they spill and flop like fish. Someone is slapping me, and I stand up swinging, screaming, spinning around.
I open my eyes. Nothing. Darkness everywhere. There’s a bird over me in the dark, flapping.
I wake. My head is sideways. I try to focus. Lift my head. I’m naked, bloody, and filthy, covered with feces and dried urine. It’s broad daylight. Two wide-eyed little boys are looking down at me. I sit up. I’m in the alley behind the YMCA.
I make it back to my room and fall asleep on the floor. The next time I wake up, I crawl into the shower, wash off the blood, and look at my bruises and cuts. Just beat up. Then I notice the words written in black ink on the palm of my right hand: LEAVE OR DIE.
ADVENTURE IS A PATH. Real adventureself-determined, self-motivated, often riskyforces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankindand perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.
I spent a year of my life trying to complete the Stilwell Road, but I gave back the advance and didn’t write the book. I wasn’t ready. To this day, my arrogance, ignorance, and selfishness appall me. Adventure becomes hubris when ambition blinds you to the suffering of the human beings next to you. Only at the end of my odyssey did I fully accept that traveling the road didn’t make a damn bit of difference. That wasn’t the point. It wasn’t about me. It was about Burma and the struggle of its people. And I plan to return the day the junta falls.
Since 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than eight years under house arrest; according to Amnesty International, 1,850 peaceful demonstrators have been taken into custody, interrogated, and, in many cases, tortured as political prisoners.
IN MAY 2002, after 20 months of house arrest, Suu Kyi was released by the junta. She immediately picked up where she’d left off, guiding the nonviolent democracy movement in Burma as much through her defiant, selfless bravery as through her words and speeches. “In physical stature she is petite and elegant, but in moral stature she is a giant,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, in 2001, on the tenth anniversary of Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize. “Big men are scared of her. Armed to the teeth and they still run scared.”
On May 30, 2003, while Suu Kyi was on a lecture tour with members of the National League for Democracy near Mandalay, her small convoy was ambushed by members of a pro-government militia. Four of her bodyguards and some 70 supporters were reportedly killed, and hundreds injured, including Suu Kyi herself, who suffered face and shoulder wounds. Suu Kyi was arrested and held incommunicado at an undisclosed location. In late July, Red Cross officials met with her but were not permitted to give any details of her detention.
“Courage means that if you have to suffer for something worth suffering for,” Suu Kyi told reporters prior to her recapture, “then you must suffer.”