China in sight
Lashio is a large city and a bustling market town 150 kilometers from the border with China. The town also marks the end of the Mandalay – Lashio Railroad. Historically, goods and material came in by railroad and were loaded on trucks to be transported over the Burma Road to besieged China (the first blog contains more background information on the Burma Road). There remain little signs of that time due to a major fire that ravaged Lashio in 1988. What stands out today is the Chinese presence in Lashio. Shops and hotels advertise with Chinese signs and the markets are loaded with cheap Chinese goods. A road born to supply China, seems now used the other way around. I find myself a 2 Euro sweater in preparation of the unexpected cold.
Why again we did not have rain and warm gear with us? Because in Myanmar it doesn’t rain in January, normally. On the first slope of the day, just out of Lashio, we both lose grip. It was the first rain after weeks and the oil, sand and dirt turned the road into an ice track. It didn’t stop raining that day. On one of the days mountain passes two trucks had fallen into a ravine and caused a jam of trucks and cars of about 20 kilometers on both sides of the mountain pass. We could zig-zag our way through the stinking Chines Fusos, Dongfengs and Nissan Diesel trucks, but the pace was gone. To make matters even worse we got caught without fuel and the five hours drive became ten. Wet, dirty and far after sunset we arrived in Muse, on the border with China. After being refused at the first five hotels (which could have had something to do with our appearance) we were finally welcome and could bargain a reasonable price, including hot shower.
Muse is a weird, but therefore interesting town. On the Myanmarese side of the Shweli River the city is called Muse, on the other side of the river lies its Chinese counterpart named Ruili. Like in many places around the world a river is a logical natural border dividing two countries, but not here. A part of the Myanmarese side of the river is in Chinese hands. It’s like China took a big chunk out of Myanmar and made it their territory. This strange division is marked by a wall running right through the heart of Muse. Other things are less divided. Entire Muse is running on water, electricity and internet of the Chinese grid. In our Myanmarese hotel we were not able to open Facebook, for instance.
The contrast between the two almost couldn’t be bigger. Chinese and Myanmarese people can easily cross the border, unfortunately as foreigners we were not allowed to enter China. We could go as far as the river to see the distinction up close. Looking east from the river there are the high rise modern Chinese Skyscrapers stretched out over a vast city. Looking west, there are the paddy fields with the low rising buildings of Muse in the back.
The contrast with their bigger and richer brother must have been a pain in the ass for Myanmar. Right at the river side, where the contrast between the two is most evident, Myanmar is busy developing what seems to be a showcase project named the Muse Central Business District (CBD). In the next few years Muse CBD should grow into a world class business, residential and leisure location. It’s waiting to see if that is going to happen, but at least the first part of the project and the visitor centre make us hopeful. It also shows Myanmar wants to move forward and not just be the little brother that is controlled by a powerful China.
We were in Muse, the endpoint of the Burma Road in Myanmar. From Muse we planned to go up north following the old Stilwell Road. That was the plan, but we were not sure how far we could go as large parts of the area’s through which the Stilwell Road runs could be off limit to foreigners.
Built out of wartime desperation the Stilwell Road was constructed by Americans (mainly Afro-American), Indians and Myanmarese in 1944 over high mountain passes and dense jungle of Northern Myanmar (In the first blog you can find more information about why these roads exist and about their importance during the Second World War.). From the mountain passes marking the border between India and Myanmar, the road winds down towards northern Myanmar major city Myitkyina. From there it goes down to Bhamo, Muse and the Burma Road, which connects Kunming (Yunnan province) in China with Myanmar.
Out of Muse we started following the Stilwell Road eastwards along the Shweli River. While leaving the dust of Muse behind the landscape turned into a beautiful valley with a snaking road. The first stretch of the Stilwell Road leads to Bhamo, about 200 kilometer from Muse, a days ride.
High level talks have been going on recently to reanimate the historical Stilwell Road. Reopening the road could increase trade between India and China. There would also for Myanmar be lots to gain. Upgrading and finally reopening the road hasn’t come of the ground as of yet. One of the major problems is the ongoing conflicts in Myanmar’s northern territories between the army and armed rebel groups.
Since independence in 1948 struggles have been going on in Myanmar’s remote north. Ethnic insurgencies, illicit drug trafficking, jade mining, logging and gun running have been present. The largest Independence fraction in the North, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) controls extensive territories. Only a few cities in the North are open, the rest including the roads have been off-limits to foreigners over the last decades.
Foreigner restricted areas are changing every now and then and don’t necessarily mean it’s not safe to travel as a tourist. Over the last years Myanmar has opened up and former restricted area’s have come into reach for foreigners. If you can get past the checkpoints, you are safe. Following the historical Stilwell Road into territories where for decades no foreigners had been allowed was an attractive force. With that in our minds and a healthy dose adventure we would see how far we could get.
After following the river for about 50 kilometer the roads passes the river and turns northwards to Bhamo. Before and after the bridge we encountered the first military and police checkpoints after Muse.
‘No road, to dangerous’ was the message from the military and police forces present. I couldn’t believe it and tried to discuss our passing with them. A phone came and calls were made, but the message remained the same. It was hard to find out why, as they weren’t keen to tell us more then that there was no road and to dangerous. One of them though (I think he got tired of talking) made a universal gun firing signal with his fingers and softly said, ‘shooting, shooting’. We lost our intention of passing, this was the end of our Stilwell Road adventure, which lasted for about two hours. We had to turn back.
With old plans in the trashcan, new ones can be made. There was a route through Northern Shan State leading to famous Inle Lake. This route was technically also off-limits, but we had heard that others had recently drove it. The area was also peaceful for many years now.
Read more about this motorbike trip along the Burma- and Stilwell Road in Myanmar in the following blogs.