The Book

A Day-Trip to the Former Principality of Hsipaw

Aung Aung was again on the phone with Military Intelligence, probably for the last time. It was hard to give up trying to get permission to visit the Burma-China border area. Perhaps the military men at the other end of the line did not know what to do with a foreign tourist who was riding around the country in a salon car normally reserved for generals. But whatever their reason for failing to give us a definitive answer, time was running out for me, and so I decided to undertake a day-trip to the town of, and former Principality of, Hsipaw, about forty-five miles (seventy-two kilometers) southwest of Lashio.

We set out early in the morning of my fourteenth day in a dilapidated Toyota Corolla that made my stomach roil and my back twinge. Before long, our boyish-looking but rather unkempt Shan Chinese driver had to stop at his boss' house to gas up the tank. The boss, a Chinese in his late twenties, seemed to me of a sort one would not like to meet in an empty alley on a dark and stormy night. He was growing a mustache, but it looked more like leftovers from his morning noodle soup, and he was obviously angry about something because he shouted at the driver and finally hit him on the arm. I think we were all glad to be on our way once that errand was accomplished.

Though our young chauffeur was a skillful driver, he was going much too fast for a road that seemed to have more potholes than asphalt. Our request for a slower speed was granted only temporarily, then he would step on the gas again. Upon reaching the outskirts of the city, we were rewarded for our patience with a splendid view of high mountains beyond a broad green plain, and the scenic route took us along a road lined with many trees and shrubs like teak, tamarind, and banana plants. In the villages we passed through, Shan girls were selling green but tasty oranges and ripe pineapples.


Outside one of the villages along the way we noticed a large red sign pointing to a detour, which we dutifully followed on the reddish dirt road around a bend until suddenly we came upon some high wooden gates and ramps, all manned by many soldiers in olive-colored uniforms. It was an inspection station, mainly for trucks and pickups Aung Aung explained, and, I would soon find out, for people as well. A young officer in his late twenties approached our car and politely asked for my passport. His request came as a surprise to me because Aung Aung had not instructed me to bring it along. (I learned that day that whenever you leave a city or town in Burma, you must carry your passport, even if it is only for a short excursion. The police and the army will treat foreign visitors politely, but they will almost never allow an exception to this rule.) Since I didn't have my passport with me, I was sure that our trip to Hsipaw was not to be and that we would have to return to Lashio.

Sitting there in the car, I realized there was no use in getting excited or arguing, and so, while Aung Aung and the driver were being escorted to a small wooden bungalow nearby, where they would probably be interrogated by the commanding officer, I stepped out, lit a cheroot, and struck up a conversation with the young officer. Almost apologetically, he explained in halting English the purpose of the inspection. It was a customs and identity-card checkpoint supervised by customs, border, and immigration control, and it served as the "third security ring" in Shan State. Because the military cannot possibly control the entire length of the long border with China, and because separate, isolated checkpoints along the border cannot protect the country adequately, roadblocks have been set up at some distance from the border on all major roads outside the larger towns and cities of northern Shan State.

The first checkpoint (or first ring) is the border crossing at Muse, opposite the Chinese town of Ruili on the Burma Road, and if one followed that highway, one would encounter the second security ring just outside the city of Lashio; we were at the third ring. Although criminal elements in the country would certainly know about the security system, the officer pointed out to me that they did have some success in discovering contraband and drugs and arresting illegal aliens. Finding narcotics on the overloaded trucks was a bare possibility, however, so they depended largely on tip-offs. He told me that they had confiscated about 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of heroin and opium in recent months, and freely admitted that they were well aware of their Sisyphean task. But lately they had arrested four North Korean agents who, having entered Myanmar by way of China, were trying to make their way to Yangon in order to fly from there to South Korea. (Many remember an incident that occurred in October 1993 when a bomb that had been planted by North Korean agents exploded in Yangon during a state visit by members of the South Korean government, killing about twenty people, among whom were several South Korean government ministers. Undisputed evidence pointed to Kim Jong Il, then head of the North Korean espionage and intelligence agency and the son of President Kim Il Sung, as the mastermind of the bomb attack. The younger Kim is now leader of his country.)

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