Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stilwell Road, Assam

I have been travelling a bit via Google Maps lately and following the old Stilwell Road, a legendary road built by the Americans in WWII.  The road starts near the improbably named town of Margherita in Assam and passes through Burma and onwards to Kunming in China.  Starting in India, you can drive up to the Burma border on that road today, and—in passing through one of the most rugged and remote outposts of the world--it touches upon three distinct worlds.

Near Margherita is the town of Dibrugarh.   Zoom into the town on a Satellite view, and it still looks like the randomly nucleated small town that it was.  A haphazard jumble of streets, and names of places like Little Flower School, Hotel Mona Lisa, Little Mermaid Swimming Pool, and John Gym.  I can imagine that there are musclemen there, in John’s Gym, with posters of Schwarzenegger on their walls, and would be guitarists wailing out their amps in make shift rock bands practicing under tin roofs (Assam is full of them).  This is the first of the three worlds.

About 60 miles west of Dibrugarh is the town of Ledo and from there Highway 153, aka Stillwell Road, aka Ledo Road, heads eastward passing through the fields and the tea gardens of the Brahmaputra valley.   Looking from above, on Google, it seems a peaceful place with farms, and small huts and namghars (prayer halls).  The Burma border is about 38 miles from Ledo, and the road climbs into the Patkai mountains, and makes a series of switchbacks into rugged, remote land that leads to the romantically named Pangsau Pass at the India-Burma border.  This is a road where the Burmese Kachin guerillas travel.  It can get waterlogged in the monsoons and is criss-crossed often by elephants and the logging business.  Stillwell road then leaves the mountains and drops into the plains of Burma, and into the second world.

Seen from Google, this road looks like a thing of the past.  It appears to be a dirt road.  There is very little habitation.  Whatever settlement there is, has built up around the economy of the road.  Burma—this second world--looks like the Assam of 60 years ago.   Within a few miles the road re-enters the mountains, and into what now looks like godforsaken territory.  After a few hundred miles in Burma, Stillwell road climbs up a second mountain range and passes through into China.

This is the third of the distinct worlds and it is a new world.  Highways are clearly marked.  There are many more cities and towns.  I zoom into the border town of Baoshan.  It looks like a modern city.  Baoshan airport is a few miles away.  The downtown is arrayed within a grid pattern of streets.   Zoom in higher, and there are wide streets with cars and pedestrian cross walks.  It is a world that would be familiar to someone in Delhi, or London, or Beijing.  Yet it is 70 miles from nowhere and the border with Burma. 

Stilwell Road is named after the four star American General George W. Stilwell, an Allied hero of the war in Assam-Burma, and the ex-quarterback of Yonkers High School who led his school to the Westchester County championship in 1899 (  The 1000-mile road was built in about 3 years by a crew of largely African American soldiers and local labor, at great cost and risk to human life.  My mother, as a child, remembers American soldiers in their small town in Assam--they would be viewed partly with curiosity and partly with awe.  It is a curious, personal aside, that this man, who grew up a few miles from where we live, has a road named after him in a remote, almost unknown corner of Northeast India, where I come from. 

Once completed, Stilwell Road transported goods from Assam to Kunming in China  for logistical support during the war.  Following the war, the road fell into disrepair.  Recently I understand that the Chinese and Indian legs have been revived, though the Burmese portion remains undeveloped.  Pangsau Pass, the entry into Burma from Assam is open on specific days for local traffic both ways.  My trip has been of the armchair variety—for a poignant account of a real trip up to Pangsau pass take a look at

Margherita gets its name from the reigning queen of Italy in the late 19th. century, so named in honor of an Italian engineer involved in civil construction here around that time.   These are the delicious anomalies scattered about the North East, like the foxgloves and wainscoting of old Shillong buildings that have now become part of the genome of this place.

Dibrugarh to Baoshan is less than 300 miles as the crow flies, about the distance between NYC and DC.   I can get to DC and back on the same day for a business meeting.  But China has remained ever so far in our minds, beyond the great-unknown forests and rebels of Burma.  This same distance, transposed to the mountains of that land, is magnified by geopolitical differences.  I would love to go to Burma.  Someday before they turn Stillwell into a 4-lane highway.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Supratik for referring to my blog here.
    We must have walked the Stilwell road a thousand times 'virtually' before making it in person to Pangsau Pass. Yes, the power of Google maps.