The stories I learned walking the Burma Road—perhaps WWII's greatest engineering feat – National Geographic
Meet hundred-year-old Xu Ben Zhen, one of 200,000 Chinese whose backbreaking wartime labor built the Burma Road to resupply their country.
Writer and National Geographic Society Explorer Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a 24,000-mile storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. He sends this dispatch from southwestern China.
Tengchong, Yunnan Province, ChinaWar built the road.
It unspools north from Myanmar, or Burma, to the jungled hills rumpling the border of China. Near Tengchong, an ancient Chinese trading post leveled by U.S. bombers in World War II, it bypasses a McDonald’s closed by COVID-19. It rolls on through tile-roofed hamlets where farmers use its tarmac verges to dry their corn. It turns right around high, subtropical mountains that comprise a nature preserve. And it dead-ends in the corrugated palms of retired schoolteacher Xu Ben Zhen.
Teacher Xu is a hundred years old.
Eighty-three years ago, when Xu was 17, he was recruited into a legion of 200,000 Chinese laborers who, armed with little more than shovels and rattan baskets, helped save China during the Second World War: They clawed into existence the famous Burma Road. It was 1938. Invading Japanese forces had blockaded all China’s seaports. The besieged nation desperately needed a new backdoor resupply route to survive. Working frantically seven days a week, brigades of men, women, and children from local villages hacked a 717-mile truck road through some of the rainiest, most malarial, and craggy terrain on Earth to bring in American munitions, food, and medicine via British-ruled Burma. About 2,300 roadbuilders died.
“I was like any other country boy, nothing special,” Xu says of his backbreaking contribution to China’s war effort. He is a courtly man who smiles often, as people with impaired hearing sometimes do. He stares down with watery eyes at his wrinkled hands. “It was very hard,” he finally allows.
I am walking the world.
For the past nine years, I have paced off Ethiopian camel trails, pilgrim roads in Saudi Arabia, and Indian superhighways as part of a global storytelling project aimed at retracing the first human migrations across the planet. History is my guide. Meeting Xu Ben Zhen in Yunnan, China, however, feels like my first encounter with a ghost—like facing an actual Roman centurion while hiking a Roman road. I ask the ancient teacher what lessons he draws from a murderous conflict fading now into the realm of folklore.
“You need to develop power to protect the peace,” Xu says rotely.
Sitting in the courtyard of his village house, he waves a pale, century-old hand at a hovering granddaughter. This is the signal to bring tea. He then proudly shows me a fountain pen. Two visiting U.S. Air Force officers gifted it him years before as a memento of Sino-American friendship during World War II.
Some historians rank the Burma Road as the greatest engineering feat of World War II.
But there were several Burma Roads.
The first was wholly Chinese and distilled from sweat.
One of its senior engineers, Tan Pei-Ying, was initially convinced it would fail. In a now forgotten memoir, The Building of the Burma Road, Tan writes how a vast carpet of gravel was carefully laid, by hand, across three wild mountain ranges, ultimately paving a roadbed 23 feet wide and more than 600 miles long: “The picture of these millions upon millions of stones all put in place individually conveys more clearly than anything I can think of the tremendous mass effort on the part of hundreds of thousands of obscure toilers that went into the construction.”
Hundred-person teams of workers hauled crude limestone rollers to compact the soil, Tan recalled. On steep slopes these five-ton cylinders often broke free from the laborers’ grip. Workers “unable to get out of the way of these rollers were flattened to death . . . This also occasionally happened to the little children who delighted in running downhill ahead of the great unleashed beasts; for, childlike, they like to play while working.”
By the time China’s emergency supply route from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, reached the Allied railhead at Lashio, Burma, the road’s toll averaged roughly three souls per mile.
Thousands of trucks steered by hastily-trained Chinese volunteers plied the track in ragged convoys for three years. Then, in 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Burma and cut the route. And a second mechanized phase of roadbuilding began.
Eager to keep China in the fight against a common enemy, the U.S. deployed thousands of troops—mostly segregated units of African Americans—to bulldoze a slippery new road from India into China, bypassing the Japanese front line. This newer, 1,079-mile segment of the Burma Road again took its toll: About one U.S. soldier died per mile of construction, mostly from disease and accidents.
“Some people say it was too late,” says Ge Shuya, a World War II historian in Kunming, noting that the American road opened in early 1945, just months before the Japanese surrendered after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Winston Churchill dismissed the road as “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed.”)
Ge estimates that as few as 60 or 70 U.S. Army trucks made it over a rugged northern branch of the American-built Burma Road in Yunnan called the “Tengchong cut-off.” This is where my walk begins.
My foot traverse of the Burma Road spans 94 miles.
I trek from the ancient frontier town of Tengchong to Baoshan, once a small logistical hub bombed out of existence by the Japanese and now a city of 2.5 million.
Today, the route wends between tile-roofed villages on peaceful market lanes. Its last miles lie buried under the new concrete of superhighways proliferating under China’s economic boom. Still, the wartime roadway surfaces occasionally. Look up at cliffside road cuts: The rocks often are stippled by the impact of thousands of pickaxes swung by long vanished roadworkers. And portable “Bailey bridges,” hastily erected by the U.S. military eight decades ago, still straddle a few Chinese river gorges.
The original roadworkers can reappear too.
Larger-than-life bronze statues depict exhausted phalanxes of villagers: a repeating motif of lean, half-naked men pulling huge stone rollers. Some look uncannily like aged teacher Xu.
It is a curious time to be walking the Burma Road.
The U.S. and China may be modern political and economic rivals. And relations between the two superpowers might be cool. But from 1942 to 1945, troops from both countries fought and died side-by-side in Yunnan Province, a strategic gateway to Southeast Asia partly occupied by the Japanese.
For China, the conflict it calls the “war of resistance against Japanese aggression” was nothing less than an existential struggle. Estimates vary wildly, but between 14 and 35 million Chinese citizens were killed during Japan’s long and brutal occupation of the mainland. For the United States, which lost a total of 418,500 dead in World War II, the obscure China-Burma-India front in the Pacific theater was nonetheless vital in tying down hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops.
“When President Roosevelt died, there was a public memorial service here. The whole town attended,” says Boshao Hai, the deputy director of a sprawling war cemetery in Tengchong. “Many Yunnanese are still grateful to the American people for their support during the war.”
Tengchong’s memorial cemetery is unusual for two reasons.
First, its 3,000 headstones honor the Chinese forces under Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, whose army, after battling the Japanese in World War II, lost a bitter civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. And second, 19 U.S. soldiers are included among the ranks of the dead. The Americans were advisors who helped China retake Tengchong from the Japanese. Over the summer of 1944, tens of thousands of Chinese troops armed with U.S. weapons such as Thompson submachine guns assaulted the town by scaling its medieval walls on bamboo ladders. U.S. air power, including volunteer pilots from the fabled Flying Tigers squadron, blasted holes in the stone ramparts for the attackers to pour through.
Today in Yunnan, the Burma Road isn’t often called the Burma Road.
It’s called the Stilwell Road after the dour U.S. general, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who pushed through the American bypass. Hulking grey boulders inscribed with his name in Mandarin mark its course. They make good places to shade up under the tropical sun.
From canyon trails to tea houses: trekking the Burma Road in China
Old Teacher Xu joined the Chinese army after surviving his stint on the Burma Road.
He talks of it as if it were a promotion, despite the fact that between 1.3 and 3.8 million of his comrades died in combat. He was assigned to guard an airstrip used by the U.S. Air Corps.
“I watched them load their bombs into their panes,” Xu says, his hoarse voice steeped even now with impossible innocence. “I can’t imagine how heavy they were.”
World War II crash sites dot the jungles of southwestern Yunnan. This was the third Burma Road: resupply by air. Last year, just across the border in Myanmar, a vintage American cargo plane emerged from a river bottom. A Facebook post shows local farmers walking on its submerged wing, as though atop the bones of some forgotten prehistoric creature.
I walk on.
Past a Stilwell Villa resort emptied by the pandemic. Past a curbside Stilwell Restaurant. I cross the Nujiang River, an old front line breached by Chinese boys on bamboo rafts.
Outside the Burma Road city of Baoshan stands a tea house that has been serving travelers tea and nothing but tea for about 200 years. Its timbers are blackened by woodsmoke. It survived the war. On its wall hangs an old black-and-white photograph of GIs grinning and sipping tea somewhere in Yunnan. A farmer at the next table gruffly insists I get up to inspect it. I do. But he keeps telling me to look. To look harder. As if he wants me to remember.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Paul Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk project since 2013. Explore the project here.