We are excited – today, we go down the Stilwell road, from Ledo to.. well… to as far as we can. The plan is to try to get to a market a few kms into the Myanmar side – we don’t have a visa to enter Myanmar, so we will be depending entirely on lady luck and M’s capabilities of cutting through red-tape to get us there.
The caretaker of the Coal India guest-house in Margherita feeds us some decent breakfast of toast and eggs (inspite of the bird-flu scare, we all eat the eggs) – we take off well fortified for the day. PPM warned us multiple times about the scarcity of good food beyond Ledo ( “Be sure to take apples and oranges along!”) – we decide to take a chance, and take along nothing but water.
We reach Ledo in about 20 minutes – this is where the Stilwell road starts. A large signboard has a map of the Stilwell road with distances marked from Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China.
The sign-board also announces the name of the local MLA whose enthusiasm for the restoration of the road led to its reconstruction for the first 50 kms from Ledo in Assam to Nampong in Arunachal. Unfortunately, it is a full 1700 kms from Ledo to Kunming in China – who will build the rest? In their enthusiasm in talking about the Look East Policy and land routes, the politicians of our country are glossing over the fact that restoring this land route would probably not figure very high on Myanmar’s military juntas to-do list.
The stretch of restored road from Ledo to Assam border is very good – we are flying along at 120 kmph – scaring cows and goats out of the way. Once we reach Arunachal the road turns Kuchcha (mud road) – through still very serviceable. Our pace slows down – to 40 kmph.
We reach Nampong – and meet the civil official who was to give us a pass to continue. Officially one could not cross into Myanmar without a visa. However, people on one side of the border have relatives on the other side they want to meet, they have things they want to buy (Myanmar side lacks basic needs -this part of Myanmar is kind of like what the NE is to India, though the NE is in better shape relatively). The border authorities on both sides had worked out a deal – every Friday people from the Myanmar side could come over and buy what they needed at Nampong, and every 15th and 30th of the month people from the Indian side could go over and sell stuff on the Myanmar side. Unfortunately for us, it’s a Thursday, and neither the 15th or the 30th – and the civil official is an upright Bengali gentleman. He simply would not give us a pass. We would have had to turn back ( “Sorry, I really want to help you, but I cannot. Please have some tea instead” – says our friend the Bengali gentleman. Ya, right – we have traveled thousands of kms to have tea with you).
Here is where lady-luck comes to our rescue.
At Nampong, just before we went to get our passes, we were stopped by an army officer – who happened to be from JNU! On learning that M and J were from JNU, the officer turned nostalgic, and became really pally.
When we were refused the passes – we decided to resort to name-dropping. We unabashedly used the army officer’s name at the two remaining army check-posts, were politely waved through, and reached the Myanmar border at Pangsau pass, with an escort of two army personnel.
At the border, I was sorely tempted to bribe/ cajole/ emotionally blackmail the two army guys who were with us – to let us walk a few kms into Myanmar to the market. M did not entirely approve of the idea (he was glad to have come this far, and had given up on the market idea) – so I dropped it. We got cheap thrills out of walking a little into the road in Myanmar and taking photographs on no-man’s land. The Myanmar side was covered with dense jungles of the Patkai hills.
The pass through the Patkai hills had been in use for a long time – it is known that the Tai people migrated through this pass from Burma to India, in the 1200’s. Su-ka-pha, the leader of the Tai people, established the Ahom kingdom that reigned in Assam for the next six centuries, until the British came along in 1826 to help expel invading Burmese (who used the same pass to cross the hills and wreak havoc in Assam). During WWII, the Stilwell road was built to supply war necessities to the Allies (China was on the side of the Allies). A lake on the (then) Burmese side of the road, not far from the border, has the name “Lake of no return” – planes that caught fire tried to land on the lake, and “never returned”.
We sat for a while under the “Union of Myanmar” signboard painted in bright red colors.
On our way back, the army official (JNU history) invited us for beer and snacks, and eventually lunch. Really, when it rains, it pours! And boy, the drinks really seemed to be pouring today – PPM invited us for dinner later at his house. This time it was whiskey pouring.
In the evening, we happened to also see a gathering of all the tribes in the nearby areas, getting together to discuss the upcoming “Dihing-Patkai” festival. Among them was the Raja of the Singpho tribe – a tribe that had (along-with the Tais) migrated from Burma a few centuries ago. The Raja, in case you are wondering, looked just like every other ordinary guy.
The day was hectic – but we had to go out to see the moonlight over the tea gardens. It was heavenly!