Roaming the legendary Burma road Lifts the Heart
-- Excerpts from John Parris' "Roaming Yunnan"
Wanding, China - She has always been there.
She was there, albeit only a trail, when spice and tea caravans made their tortuous journeys westward out of China.
She was there when Kublai Khan's Mongolian warriors came storming down from China to conquer Burma after a colossal battle a hundred miles northeast of here with the army of the King of Mian (Burma).
She was there when Marco Polo rode up from Mandalay and crossed into China on his fabulous travels in Asia during the 13th century.
History and legend know her as the Burma Road, a 548-mile route running from Kunming, the capital of China's southwestern province of Yunnan, to Wanding, here on the border with Burma.
But until 1920 she was little more than a path that passed across towering mountains, over great rivers, through gorges and plains, and villages ignorant of motor vehicles.
During that year construction was started from Kunming to make it more than a trail. But it took more than a dozen years for 160,000 Chinese with teaspoons and mattocks and their hands to carve the one - track light - surface road out of the mountains, some almost 11,000 feet above sea level.
After the Sino - Japanese war broke out, the road was opened to Wanding to which the Burma government by then had built roads to connect with their Irrawaddy River ports of Bhamo and Rangoon and with the railhead of Lashio.
The road became China's lifeline as some 3,000 overseas drivers and mechanics and administrators were brought in to transport needed military supplies from Burma.
But in 1942 the Japanese gained control of the Burma termini of the road. The defending Chinese, in an effort to stop the advancing Japanese, blew up the vital, Salween River Bridge and destroyed 25 miles of the road along a section of the Salween River canyon.
In September, 1943, with Col. Leo Dawson, a U.S. Army engineer in charge of the project, reconstruction of the road was begun, with the Chinese furnishing engineers and up to 30,000 laborers at a time, as well as supplies and materials.
Completed by mid - August 1944, the road connected with the newly built Ledo Road from India to Bhamo, Burma,in territory held by the Chinese, and it was soon carrying more tonnage than ever.
Land transports have been using the road ever since, albeit it has changed time and again, following new paths. Instead of going through some of the larger towns, she skirts them. There are places where she has abandoned her old route and taken a new, straighter and less steep route.
To travel this modern thoroughfare - they now call her the Kunming - Wanding Road - is to take a journey that lifts the heart and pleasures the eye.
We recently spent five days traveling from one end of the road to the other.
Once you get out of Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring, she becomes a 6 - lane toll road, with a median strip of flowering shrubs and blooming flowers, and flanked by forested hills and terraced farmlands where fields of yellow rape seed raise their heads to the sun.
But she soon narrows into two lanes that can almost handle four cars abreast.
We see new sections, paralleling the old route, under construction, not with hand labor but with modern equipment - huge bulldozers and earth movers.
Tankers and trucks and tractor trailers share the road with pony
carts and herds of goats.
Along the road stand new houses of adobe brick painted white with pumpkin - colored doors framed in glittering red.
Slash - and - burn lands that stood stark and bare when we came this way six years ago now shimmer with the green of reforestation.
We cross the Star Sent River and farther on stop to listen to the Roaring River.
All the trees within reach of the road wear a four - foot coat of white paint on their trunks which makes for safer driving.
At a mountain pass, a pack train of 17 donkeys rests on the side of the road in the shade of firewood trees.
We come into Dali,an ancient fortified town, now painted in glittering red and gold, known for her handsome mottled gray marble.
Palms rustle in the breeze and snow shimmers on the mountains.
At Dali, if you turn right, you go to Lijiang and Tibet. But if you
go straight on, as we did after a detour of several days in the north of
Yunnan, you follow the Burma Road to Wanding.
From Dali the road crosses two mountain ranges that tower almost 11,,000 feet into the clouds.
At three check points before we reach Baoshan, police check our passports because we are now in border territory where drug smugglers pose a problem.
Giant bayan trees spread their many arms above the road.
The countryside dazzles with its beauty. Water buffalo work in the paddy field.Men and women with great knives move through the fields of sugarcane.
Then we come into Wanding. And here at the Wanding River Bridge, on the border with Burma,the road now ends.