Gemmology Canada - Special Issue

Tracing the green line

A journey to Burma's jade mines

By Richard W. Hughes, Olivier Galibert, Mark Smith & Dr. Thet Oo

It is morning in Hweka, deep in northern Burma's Kachin State. Outside the window, 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.

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." Up 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 Burma, a new type was found--jadeite. Unlike nephrite, jadeite occurred in emerald-green shades. The people of the Middle Kingdom were smitten, head over heels in love with something that came only from one remote locality in Upper Burma. It was the search for the source of this green stone that had brought us to Burma. Little did we know the trials and travails this quest would entail. This is our story, our quest for green.

Ask and ye shall receive
For over thirty years, foreigners had petitioned the Burmese government to visit the jade mines. Due to the war which had raged between the central government and successionist rebels, the answer always came back no. But times had changed. The country was now called Myanmar. 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.

Don't ask, don't tell
In Myanmar, it is considered bad form to inquire about arrival times, and there are good reasons for this. The country's transportation network is, in a word, 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 US military: don't ask, don't tell. But ask we did. And so we were told: we would leave to Hpakan on April 21. This was our first mistake, but would not be the last.

On April 19, we called Yangon, just to confirm the arrangements. And we were told: "Sorry, try again on April 28." A week later, we again called Yangon. And we were told: "Sorry, try again on June 5." So we called again on June 3. And we were told: "Sorry, the rainy season has now begun, try again later," as in November later.

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 can also work wonders. Thus we paid a visit to Myanmar anyway, to see just how soon later could be.
A meeting was arranged, where 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 told them: "We are tough. Locals can go, so can we." Then, we brought out our trump card. Richard Hughes asked if they remembered the American World War II general, "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell (see box). Of course, came the reply. "Well," Hughes dryly intoned, "I am Stillwell's son."

"Vinegar" Joe Stillwell
Passing through the jungles of northern Burma, it is 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 Burma in 1942, the British and their confederates were left to flee to India. One man who went with them was General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell. Over 50 years' old at the time, Stillwell would leave men decades younger in the dust as he marched.
"Vinegar Joe" Stillwell was one of the finest fighting men the United States has ever produced. America's military attaché to China in the pre-war years, he was called out of retirement when the US went to war with Japan. During that conflict, he took Chiang Kai-shek's rag-tag nationalist Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) army and turned it into a first-class fighting force, routing so-called "invincible" Japanese troops all across northern Burma. But his main claim to fame was overseeing the construction of a road from Ledo, in eastern India, across to Bhamo, and then to China. The 1200 km route from Ledo to Wanting, in 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 the "Stillwell Road."

When the guffaws had subsided, they 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 Number 2 man in Myanmar's ruling SLORC junta. But in a week's time, we were on our way to Hpakan, center of Burma's Jade Land.

June 2--By rail from Mandalay
We begin our journey in Mandalay, a hot, dusty urban sprawl which locals say is fueled by the "three lines"--the white line (heroin), the red line (ruby) and the green line (jade). The group which assembles in Mandalay is a disparate one, consisting of a French dealer, Olivier Galibert, an American ruby and sapphire expert, Richard Hughes, a Bangkok trader, Mark Smith, and a Mogok dealer, Dr. Thet Oo. All are gemologists and all are old Asia hands, with much experience in Burma. 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 to be 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, due to the deplorable condition of the tracks. In 1993, the government signed a truce with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), but three years of peace have done little to wipe out thirty years of neglect. When the locomotive reaches speed, 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 over 100 passengers. Thus we were not entirely unhappy with our speed.

Mosquito watch
Another aspect of the rail journey is the mice and other vermin, which scurry to and fro in the carriage. But we had little fear of them nibbling on our shoes. A pest which did scare us was far smaller--the night-biting female Anopheles mosquito--which carries deadly strains of malaria.
It was once believed this scourge could be entirely wiped out, à 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 armed ourselves with insect repellent, and applied copious quantities every night of our journey.
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 onset of symptoms. Witness the two western reporters who ventured into rebel Burma during the late '70's. Both came down with fever upon their return to Bangkok. One immediately fled to Hong Kong, thinking the medical care in the British colony would be better. Doctors there diagnosed him as having hepatitis and 48 hours later he was dead.

Miniskirts on motorbikes
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, heroin, and, as Thet Oo leaned forward and conspiratorially whispered: "miniskirted girls riding motorbikes." That sure primed the pump.

The train is a' coming
At 11:00 p.m., we stop in Kawlin, a bustling market town, some eight hours and 40% of the way to Mogaung. It is 11:00 p.m., but still hot and humid. Along the platform, vendors, town criers and assorted other seers and seekers of coin shriek out the nature of their produce. The scene is a cacophony of sound and activity, as people hustle and bustle for business. Young, flower bedecked children run up and down beside the train searching for that special someone who will lighten their load. Even at such as late hour, so many are stirring--the arrival of the train provides one of the day's major events.

Into the night
Kawlin is but a brief respite from the monotonous pounding of the rails as we continue north into the unknown. The train moves slowly through impenetrable forest, where the dense foliage literally slaps up 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 thirty minutes or so. With the onset of the monsoon, which had begun several weeks before, everything is green and the moon casts 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, 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 which 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 one listens closely, native tongues are heard--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.

June 3--Hopin' for Hpakan
About 10:00 a.m., the train stops in the small town of Hopin, some three hours before Mogaung. Here we learn that 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 quickly arranged, consisting of a four-wheel drive pickup, modified with three rows of seats in the bed. The cost, for what we are told is a seven-hour trip, is, frankly, astonishing--35,000 kyat ($270 at the then exchange rate of 130 kyat to the dollar). Although we later found this to be double the local price (a 'skin tax,' as the Captain called it), we soon 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.

Seven hours to Hpakan
A brief meal, the purchase of some supplies, and then we set off for Hpakan. The dirt road heads straight for the hills, but after hearing so many horror stories about monsoon travel in this area, we are pleasantly surprised at its benign condition. Visions of cold beer in the evening, served up in imperial jade goblets by miniskirted damsels on motorbikes dance in our heads.
The first 12 km are flat; then the road ascends, twisting through the jungle up to a small military post, some 16 km from Hopin. Wreathed in several layers of sharpened bamboo and punji sticks, just one year before this base had been a lonely outpost of the Burmese army in their battle with Kachin rebels.
From the pass, the road plunges down onto the broad, flat plane that surrounds Burma's largest fresh-water body, Lake Indawgyi. In the nearby rice paddies, beautiful pink cranes are seen feeding. After two hours, we reach the small town of Nyaungbin, perched at the northern end of the lake, and halt for a brief break.

Nyaungbin
At Nyaungbin, we get a glimpse of the shape of things to come. The small, L-shaped town is basically a staging point, where vehicles gear up for the push into Hpakan. Our driver begins to strap on chains. "Hmm," we think, "this is starting to get interesting." Next to our truck, another vehicle is removing chains. What makes it all the more notable is that it is a motorcycle. The mud-spattered rider tells us it had taken ten hours to come down from Hpakan and he had only fallen five times. Yes, this was looking interesting, indeed.

All aboard
After a short break, we are all aboard for Hpakan. Immediately, the road changes, becoming far more rugged and muddy, while the forest creeps ever closer. This is obviously the road less traveled; whether we will be better for the experience is yet to be determined.
Due to the difficult nature of the track, we are now traveling in convoy, the lead truck with a stencilled "Bradley" on the side. As Bradley races ahead, splashing through mud, it is all we can do to keep up. Caution is quickly jettisoned as Bradley speeds over hill, dale and other obstacles. Our stomachs sicken when, at one point, he tilts onto two wheels, but, incredibly, does not tip over. Later, we learn that not everyone is so lucky. The previous day, a truck overturned near here, killing its driver.
As we crest yet another hill, a giant mud hole awaits, with a stuck truck right in our path. It is here that we see our first elephants, a ubiquitous sight in the days ahead. All along the road, the giant beasts are used to tug stranded vehicles from the mud, at a cost of 1,500 kyat ($12) per pull. But we do not yet need them, as our driver is able to squeeze by.

Welcome to mudtropolis
The bottom of the next hill reveals the mother of all mud holes. Here, a ten-wheeled truck lies like a beached whale, submerged up to its windows in the slimy goo. While elephants make ready to free the vehicle, three vendors sit on the sidelines selling refreshments. The implication is clear--"You're gonna be here a while." And we will be. Andy Kaufman would have loved it.
First up is a single elephant, whose chain is strapped around the truck's bumper. When everything is secure, the signal is given. The rider gives the elephant a sharp whack on the head with his machete and all pandemonium breaks out. Trumpeting roars rock the forest's stillness as the great pachyderm strains to tug the truck free. Again and again it pulls, yanking, yanking, while the truck's engine shrieks and moans. Black clouds of diesel cloak the participants as both engine and elephant whine in agony. But all to no avail; the truck has sunk deeper still.
A second elephant is now brought to the fore, and chained to the stranded vehicle beside the first. Again, machetes flash and the jungle seethes with the sounds of the straining beasts. Again, the truck rocks and whines, but refuses to budge.
Refusing to admit defeat, Bradley decides to grasp the nettle directly. Gunning his engine, he makes a desperate dive into the hole, trying to pass alongside the truck. But it is not to be. Now two vehicles are hopelessly mired in the muck. As the sun slowly sets on this forlorn corner of the globe, its fading light carries with it our hopes. And in its place, a grim realization descends--no Hpakan tonight, no miniskirts on motorbikes, no cold beer, no little Hong Kong. We now understand--we are gonna be here a while.

Not happy campers
Regrouping, we discuss the possibilities. The thought of camping beside this malarial watering hole does not make any of us happy. But as the line of vehicles on either side lengthens, an idea is conjured. Why not trade vehicles? Those on the other side of the hole can take our car and we take theirs. Thirty minutes of negotiation later, a deal is struck. We are on the road again. Our new driver is nicknamed "Rambo."
If only things were so simple. But they are not. Around the next bend, it is more of the same, mud hole after mud hole, each of which presents manifold hazards. As twilight descends, we pass small villages, each laying out the welcome mat, in the form of Tiger Beer, Heiniken, Coca Cola, Pepsi, etc., for sale. We pass one house with a small white cross above the door; many Kachins are Christian--it is clear, we are now deep in the heart of Kachin land. We also pass a church, but too late--it's Monday. Still we press on.

Hogging the road
Huge trees dot the landscape as our truck variously slithers and blasts through countless mud holes. At one, where several vehicles are stranded, someone suggests we open a Pizza Hut. Now we are told we are approximately 15 miles from Hpakan, with just two or three elephant spots left to pass.
It's 6:15 p.m. and nearly dark, but we continue to push ahead. Cresting a hill, we come across a truck with a broken tie rod. No problem--except for the large pig wallowing in the mud beside it, blocking our path. Shouting and screaming produce only angry glares from the pig, which refuses to move. This is a tired statement, but one we must make--the pig is obviously in hog heaven.

Inching along
By this point, anything under two-feet deep is a baby mud hole and hardly merits mention. But there is a problem ahead, a stuck jeep and people digging. The jeep is seriously high-centered, and no amount of our tugging and pulling can free it. So our driver decides to slip by on the edge, only to become helplessly high-centered himself. Additional vehicles halt behind us, as darkness and mosquitoes descend on the jungle.
A shovel is produced and we dig in the mire, but to no avail. Finally, a rope is procured. More than twenty of us pull and shout at the jeep, willing it to move, to give up its muddy tomb. With agonizing slowness, it begins to slide forward, inches turning into feet, as we strain against the rope, up to our knees in mud. Eventually, with one final tug, the jeep is freed, amidst cheering and shouting.

Holiday in hell
Now we have only to free our truck, but this proves impossible. So, once again, we rats desert our sinking ship and switch vehicles, this time to a truck loaded 15-feet high with an odd assortment of gear and people. Although Rambo tells us he will bring our gear up later, the wise amongst us grab our packs and bags. Seeing the truck's unsteady nature, Hughes and Smith decide that being in a position to leap off this tottering ship of fools when it runs aground beats any view of the stars from above. Thus they alight on the truck's rear bumper, where a slender space has been cleared, just enough for their feet. Again, we are on the road to Hpakan.
The truck careens wildly through the slop. Every fifty meters or so, we encounter impassible mud holes. But with a full head of steam, we slam through, only to repeat the process again and again. At times, it is all we can do to hang on, the grip made all the more treacherous due to our back packs and the fact that we cannot see the road ahead. In places, the bouncing is so great Hughes' and Smith's feet leave the bumper entirely, leaping over a foot in the air, only to come crashing back down on the bumper. During one particularly nasty portion, a Burmese man riding next to Hughes' and Smith turns and asks in perfect English: "Are you here on holiday?" We mumble and nod, not having the heart to tell him that, if we had even a single shred of intelligence left, we would now be poolside at the Oriental in Bangkok sipping a cold drink, not clinging to some Burmese mud buggy in this god-forsaken jungle.

Bridge of sighs
After but a couple of miles, progress is halted by a bridge, surrounded by one huge mud pit. But our driver, apparently feeling his oats, decides to chance it. Gunning the engine, we speed into the gully and onto the bridge, only to have one wheel slip through the timbers. Now, with the truck tottering on the brink of major disaster, Hughes decides to hell with it all. He will walk. And walk he does, like some roller-blading drunk--two paces--until his leg, too, slides through the timbers. Cursing under his breath, he gingerly extracts it and, not finding bones sticking out at crazy angles, staggers slowly into the night after the Captain, who has also decided that walking looks too good to pass up. At this point, Hughes begins to seriously question whether the green line to the source of the stone of heaven might actually be a bullet train to the hereafter. Stillwell's son is feeling mighty tired.

The missing link
At Taung Ché, our night stop, we sit down for a much deserved meal and drink uh make that a double. The breather gives us cause to reflect on "the road" and "the jungle." All agree that we now understand the true meaning of the phrase: "dry-season offensive." Only some beret-bedecked special forces yoyo would even consider fighting a war here during the rainy season. As a hubble-bubble is passed round, Dr. Thet Oo, with characteristic daring, makes a bold statement: "We can only get this kind of experience here in northern Burma." Indeed, only in this valley
While pondering that basic truth, Rambo wanders in, covered head to toe in brown ooze, but otherwise little worse for wear. Bereft of all human rodents, he dug his truck out alone and continued up the road, only to get stuck yet again. That said, he asks if driving a truck is like this in America. Sadly, we reply in the negative. Driving a truck is like this only in this valley. And we expect, some 200 millennia later, an anthropologist will dig up the fossilized remains of just such a truck in one of these mud holes and declare it to be the missing link between savage and civilization. We just hope it's not our skeletons in it.
As the night wears on, Galibert engages in a spate of arm wrestling with Rambo, while the rest of us watch, recklessly fortified by a mixture of banana leaf and something else. Rambo remarks that Galibert, with his shaved head, looks like the famous actor, Yul Brenner. And because Galibert is a happy, jolly type, he will return the following morning with his truck and take us all the way to Hpakan. On that note, we retire. Our dreams are filled with visions of cold beer in green goblets, served up by damsels in miniskirts on motorbikes.

June 4--A new day
The night had been spent in the home of a former KIA leader. As we awake in Taung Ché, the sun is shining and all well in the world. We are convinced we'll be in Hpakan by lunch. Today is the day. Today is the day!
Unfortunately, Rambo doesn't show. Thus two of us (RWH and MS) walk back down the road in search of his vehicle, the truck that will take us to Hpakan. Greeting us is a sight straight out of Dante's Mudferno. All manner of vehicles litter the road, some in the most unlikely of spots. In places, the muck is so deep it looks like only the onset of the dry season, eight months ahead, will free them from their brown tombs. It is now looking like Rambo might be awhile.
Thirty minutes' walk brings us to a military post. Although we had passed it the previous night, in the confusion we had not properly checked in. Hence the sight of two Caucasians walking down the road from Hpakan sends soldiers scrambling. Expecting to be staked down in the hot sun and grilled for our secrets, instead we are offered Fantas. But there is more than a little explaining to do.
An hour's worth of frantic radio traffic later, our host smiles broadly and, in broken English, declares that we are "okay." But us okay folks were supposed to have left the train at Mogaung. As we are shortly to learn, an entire army unit had been sent down to Mogaung to act as our escort. Whipping out a set of US Air Force maps, ca. 1946, he proceeds to show us where we are, and where we are going. This is depressing. The previous day's and night's slipping and sliding from Nyaungbin netted us just 10 miles. We are still some 25 miles from Hpakan.
But not to worry. The current unit resolves to do the dirty deed. As clouds form ominously above, a dilapidated Willy's jeep is commandeered and off we go. Just behind the jeep plods our insurance policy--a large bull elephant.

Two steps up, one step back
We push ahead. By now, clouds have turned to rain, and it surges down with vengeance. After only 200 meters, the elephant's services are called for. It is obvious walking will be quicker. Thus we all pile out and begin the trudge up the hill. As we walk, the forest echoes with the sounds of elephants trumpeting, laboring to drag vehicles up the hill.
The rain makes the clay ice-slick and it is all we can do simply to maintain balance as we skate ahead--two steps up, one step back. Rambo's no- show has created severe problems for Dr. Thet Oo and Capt. Khin Maung Zaw. Both are now reduced to day packs and the clothes on their backs, since their main bags had been left in Rambo's truck.

Nike graveyard
The trace is a veritable shoe graveyard, muck tugging and tearing at footwear with every step. Here lies a sandal, there the sole of a boot, and over there the mud-covered carcass of what was once a pair of Nike running shoes. Halfway up the hill, the Captain's shoes give out, but he bravely strides on, bare feet sloshing through the sometimes knee-deep Kachin mud. Galibert offers the Captain sandals--which last less than half a mile before they, too, are torn to pieces.
After several hours climb, the sun greets us and we begin to head down again. But going down hill is even more difficult, due to the slippery nature of the track. All of us are thoroughly encased in the sea of brown. By 3:00 p.m., we reach the small Kachin village of Namlam. The shoes of three of our party are now destroyed, their soles literally torn off by the mud.

Jade!
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; 'clover tree'), roughly halfway between Nyaungbin and Hpakan. This is a substantial settlement of some 1000 people. Major Charles points at a group of men digging beside the Hweka chaung (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. Although mined for decades, it has the look of a brand-new village. In the past few years, government liberalization of the mining and trading sectors has brought renewed vigor to the quest for jade. Long-abandoned mines are being reclaimed and everywhere one looks, signs of the current renaissance are on display. 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 thirty 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 last four years, with government liberalization of the economy has jade mining been revived.
It is said to cost 10,000 kyat ($77) to mine ten square feet at Makabin. With the exception of imperial green, all colors of jade are found. The most valuable stone Makabin jade sold for a few million kyat.
All too soon, we must move on. Now our truck, packed tight with soldiers, draws a bead on the river, driving straight through the middle of the channel. Along the way, we pass steep cliffs, where the Hweka chaung has carved a narrow passage through the country rock. High on a cliff face, is a spot of bare rock. Perched like an eagle's aerie, it is a jade mine. This is but one step in the long green line, all to bring a bit of color and shine to fingers, ears, egos.

As the sun sets over the surrounding hills, we come to the important village of Hweka. This is destined to be our night stop.

One night in Hweka
Hweka is the center of jade mining in the Hweka Makabin area. But Major Charles has other things in store for us. After a quick dip in the Hweka chaung, to kick at least the outside layers of grime off, it's back in the truck and off into the night. The Major has promised us something special.
The track climbs steeply above town as we lurch through the mud, heading towards the jade workings near Kadonyat. Nearing the top of the hill, the inevitable occurs--stuck again. But no worry. Amidst vigorous pulling and shouting, the vehicle pops like a cork out of the mud, landing at the doorstep of something special--the local disco.
True, there is no mirrored ball, but the one-room hut has that special something--atmosphere . We soak it up by the bottleful. Eyeless in Gaza? No! We are shoeless and muddy in Hweka and dance the night away. Once again, Dr. Thet Oo soberly reminds us: "We can't get this kind of experience anywhere else." Verily.

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 filled with how much time we might spend at Hpakan, whether or not 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.
Many Kachins are animists, people who worship the nats (spirits) said to reside in hills, trees, lakes and other natural features. While Burmese settlers have brought their Buddhist beliefs and European missionaries introduced Christianity, to many people in these hills, it is but a thin veneer. Scratch the surface and one finds the old beliefs, which still remain strong. Perhaps for good reason, as the previous night's events suggested.
The night before, we were told we could make it to Hpakan the next day, so 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 wasn't rain, this was a torrent, a rage, a hurricane blast of fury unleashed by some power greater than any of us had previously known.
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. But in Jade Land, the markets are well stocked. First we slip into brand-spanking new Chinese Super Dog socks. Then come the camouflaged canvas jungle boots--a wicked cross-breed of Converse All-Stars and Rambo running shoes. Slapping Moon Rabbit batteries into our torches, we are locked, loaded and primed for whatever the Burmese jungle might care to dish out. Bring it on.
The trace leads straight up the mountain face on the north bank of the Hweka chaung. 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 caterpillar-treaded backhoe owned by a jade miner. Like a giant insect, the great mechanical beast lumbers over to where our truck is resting and, with agonizing slowness, raises its arm high into the sky. Then, 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.

Hooked up
Ever-so-slowly, the spider pulls us up the mountain. So slick is the trace that even the caterpillar's treads spin and whirl in the mud. Thus, yet again, we set off on foot.
Signs of jade-mining lie everywhere alongside the road as we continue towards 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, is 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 which 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, washing tomatoes. Coming closer, we see why. A truck identical to our's lies in the gulch below, cocked at an obscene angle. Scowling, she explains to us that, when the truck did its impromptu disappearing act into the ravine below, she was on it. And she is none to pleased--all her tomatoes got soaked.

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 down hill. 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

Editor's note: This is the end of Part 1 in our two-part series on the authors' recent journey to Burma's jade mines. Part 2 of A journey to Burma's jade mines.

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