The Book

Myitkyina, the Birthplace of a Mighty River

Patsun Hotel, a contemporary four-story building, is a business hotel primarily for traders and wheeler-dealers from nearby China. For the price of US $20 the guest gets breakfast, a tiny and reasonably clean room with air-conditioning (mine was out of order), and no chair, but there was a high-pressure shower with plenty of hot water. I intended to get a good night's rest, but was rudely awakened around 2:30 in the morning by someone banging on my door. The intruder turned out to be a beautiful girl (a "model girl" is what they are called in Burma) who had mistakenly come to my door instead of the one next to mine. She apologized profusely and disappeared into the next room, welcomed by a middle-aged Chinese merchant. Though I did go back to sleep, I was awakened again at 5:00 and yet again at 6:30 when hotel employees knocked on my door. I have no idea why they came; they just apologized and quickly disappeared. It was still dark when the first church bells started ringing and the early morning trains blew their whistles. At that point I gave up and took an early morning stroll around the awakening neighborhood before returning to the hotel for the usual breakfast of fried eggs in pools of oil, toast, and tea.

Myitkyina is not a particularly beautiful place and it seems to have no center. In many respects, it is a village that has grown larger and larger over time, but it still remains a village. Only thirty-one miles (fifty kilometers) from the Chinese border, it is situated in a valley of the Ayeyarwady River and is surrounded by high hills. The Ledo Road ran through here. First the Allies built the 745-mile-long (twelve hundred kilometers) Burma Road from Lashio (via the Burma-China border crossing of Kougok, Burma, and Wanting, China) to Kunming in order to supply Chang Kai-shek's Kuomintang army. American Gen. Joseph Stilwell then saw the need for an alternate route that would connect India with China by way of Kachin State in Burma, a road that would lead from Ledo in the northeastern Indian province of Assam to Myitkyina and Bhamo, from where a connection could be constructed to the primary Burma Road. Approximately thirty-five thousand men built the Ledo Road-all five hundred miles of it (eight hundred kilometers) through the jungles, across 160 rivers and streams, and over countless forested hills and steep mountains. By the time it was finished in 1945, thousands and thousands of workers had perished, and in a grotesque irony, the completion of the road came too late because the war was almost over. This extraordinary road is now largely forgotten. Neither my Burmese guide nor my Kachin driver had ever heard of Ledo Road.

About fifteen thousand people-Kachin, Shan, Indian, Karen, Gurkha, and Chinese-make their home in the Kachin capital. Many of the Kachin belong to such Christian churches as Roman Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, or Methodist. The city contains more than a dozen churches in addition to Buddhist pagodas, Chinese and Hindu temples, and a mosque. Because of the numerous missionary schools, many Kachin speak English.

Myitkyina is a hot place in the dry season and gets a great deal of precipitation during the rainy season. During my November stay, the daytime temperature was not too warm, and in the evening and early morning, a sweater or jacket was necessary. The city and the area around it are well known for the wide variety of subtropical and tropical fruits and vegetables and for a famous, high quality but expensive type of rice that grow there.

There is not much to see within Myitkyina itself except when the popular and well-known three-day Manao Festival is celebrated in early January. All of the interesting places are outside the city. Fortunately the fifteen-mile-radius (twenty-five kilometers) travel restriction for foreigners has been relaxed, but the Wildlife Reserve, which contains wild bears, tigers, and elephants, is still not open to foreigners. Although the jade mines of Hpakan and scenic Indawgyi Lake are still off-limits to most foreigners, Myithson is open. This is where the Ayeyarwady River is formed by the confluence of two rivers. Also open are the scenic Kraing Naw Yeikth Park and Prayer Mountain, a hill tower overlooking the Kachin Hills.

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