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At army vantage point, arrows pointing north towards India.

The Ledo-Stillwell Road: From India to Burma and China

World War II can be regarded as one of humanity’s breaking point. The tragedy of Hitler’s Europe is well known, but there are also places far away, where the war brought with it the same approach to death. One such is the China-Burma-India (CBI) region which remains not much publicized.

It began in 1942 when the Japanese invaded Burma and occupied it after having defeated the British India forces. This led to the closure of the Burma Road, the only route of the time that led from India to war torn China. It was an urgent need to come with an alternative route that led to the creation of the Ledo Road, one of humanity’s mightiest construction projects. The road was to start midst the tea gardens of Assam in North-East India, and travel all the way to higher Burma and then China.

Ledo & Burma Roads. Assam, Burma, China in 194...

The handiwork of United States Army and forced Indian labors, the road was an engineering excellence, crossing some of the toughest terrain of the planet that consisted of mountains and the densest of rainforests. Combined with the relentless rain of monsoons for more than six months of the year, the Ledo Road became an extraordinary feat of human creation. One of the men who commanded the building of the road, General Lewis A. Pick, had commented, “it is the toughest job ever given to U.S. Army Engineers in wartime.”

Starting on 16 December 1942, it took 3 years of continuous construction work for the road to be completed. Finally, the road ran 465 miles, starting from Ledo in Assam, then, through some of the wildest mountains of the world, and ending near Wanting in South China. And even though the completion came almost when the war was over, the road still managed to transfer an estimated 35,000 tons of supplies to China. But beyond all the glory, the road was built upon death, of soldiers and poor laborers. More than thousand American soldiers and many more thousands of Indians died in the making of the road, facing hell-like terrain.

Today, most of the road lies abandoned, overtaken by dense rainforest vegetation of the wild eastern Himalayas. The Indian side of the road is still navigable by car, but once in Burma, the road soon disappears into unfathomable territory of rebels and cruel Burmese army men. In India, one can easily drive through this historical ‘road of death’, like I did, last winters. Starting from Dibrugarh in Assam, the road for most parts lies in horrible condition. Nevertheless, the drive is very scenic and crosses many significant attractions. In the Assam side of the road, there are the usual unending miles of tea plantations which stretch till as far as the eye can see, forming an almost greenery carpeted magical landscape. In Digboi, apart from the oldest running oil refinery of the world, there is also a museum devoted to the oil revolution which is very informative. The drive also crosses through a few World War II cemeteries, where beautiful flowers grow midst inspirational messages written by people all over the world who lost loved ones in the China-Burma-India region. As the road nears Burma, the landscape changes to verdant hills which form the very eastern part of the Himalayan ranges. In these remote regions, you will come across charming tribal people who live in simple and sustainable villages. The Government of India allows travelers to visit till as far as Burma starts, provided, you take an army escort with you. At the very edge of the Indian side of the road, a worn-out signboard stands desolated, announcing your arrival to the Union of Myanmar. It is an empty and surreal place where time feels paused. It is a place which I found had a perpetual silence. Though the war is long over, the road still lies wasted, consisting of dark and dense jungles where humans are not meant to survive, where tales of death can still be heard from the locals. When beginnings are wrong, the outcomes are too. Such is the story of this ‘road of death’ – overshadowed forever by dead men tortured alive by terrain and war.

One of the most in-depth pieces on this road can be read in this must-read article written by Mark Jenkins for Outside Magazine. He writes, “I spent a year of my life trying to complete the Stilwell Road, but I gave back the advance and didn’t write the book. I wasn’t ready. To this day, my arrogance, ignorance, and selfishness appall me. Adventure becomes hubris when ambition blinds you to the suffering of the human beings next to you. Only at the end of my odyssey did I fully accept that traveling the road didn’t make a damn bit of difference. That wasn’t the point. It wasn’t about me. It was about Burma…”

Lonely signboard welcoming tourists to Myanmar.
A tribal house.
All that remains now of the glorious road.
At army vantage point, arrows pointing north towards India.
Remote landscape of the vest eastern Himalayas.
Driving through some remote landscapes.

18 responses to “The Ledo-Stillwell Road: From India to Burma and China”

  1. what a story!!!! and what a journey it must have been!! considering the state of the road and the conditions you mentioned, i guess you would have had to take umpteen permissions before setting out? and i guess the ledo giving its name to the road is the place which has the easternmost railway station in india? does the road originate from there?

    • Thank you very much Anuradha for appreciating this article. Yes, special permission is needed to reach the border, from the Arunachal Pradesh government and from the Indian Army. Ledo is indeed the eastern most railway outpost of India. It is also the place from where the construction of the road started in WWII, hence the name Ledo Road.

  2. What a great story. There were two Landrovers that went through this road en route from London to Singapore in 1955 and already the road had been semi reclaimed by the jungle. Here is the link to the BBC documentary :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OS8G-103ZRE
    Is there any way to cross from India into Burma by road apart from this overgrown ‘scenic route?’ We want to go from Europe to Australia later this year via India/Burma.

    Also, how did you set about arranging access to this road? Thankyou.

    • Thanks a lot Todd for the link to the documentary. I cannot wait to watch it.

      As of now, the best route to cross over to Burma by road from India is through Moreh in Manipur. There is a fully functional road present there. Recently, the ASEAN car rally was held where participants drove from Indonesia to India (http://in.news.yahoo.com/blogs/fullthrottle/asean-car-rally-2012-live-updates-193038584.html). They used the Moreh road.

      To visit the Ledo Road, you will need special permit from the Indian Army and from the government office of Arunachal Pradesh.

      Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.

      PS – From London to Australia sounds like one helluva adventure. Best wishes. Let me know if you come across northeast India by any chance while on your way. Would be great to meet.

      Regards,
      Vaivhav

  3. Thankyou for your reply Vaivhav. I believe at this moment in time that the Moreh crossing is closed to foreign tourists. I was following the progress of the ASEAN rally, wondering whether this will auger more change. With Myanmar being in flux at the moment I am hoping that by the time we reach the border ( Feb/ March 2014?) the situation will have eased and it will be possible to cross from India into Burma. Do you know who would be able to provide information about this?

    I really like your website/blog and I feel that it is likely that we shall meet upon Manipuran soil. I have seen many parts of India but never the north east.

    Thanks again and Merry Christmas to you from southern Germany.

    Best Regards

    Todd

    • Hi Todd,

      With how diplomacy works in our side of the world, I doubt the Moreh crossing will open by 2014. But I do believe that if you seek special permission for crossing the border through the governments of both Burma and India; they might allow you. I also know of a certain driving enthusiast who will be driving to Southeast Asia this year through India and back. I’m sure he might be able to help you when the time comes.

      Thanks for appreciating our website and blog. I look forward to meeting you in Manipur and I’m sure you will love the northeast as its a special part of India.

      Let me know of any help you might need, and wish you a very happy new year!

      Best,
      Vaivhav

  4. These are fascinating lands.For Todd to enter Myanmar, the only ingress is through Yangon.To auger any change for the betterment of the people there,,the insurgency in the Kachin State of Myanmar, and the extortion in the Naga Hills and in the State of Manipur, needs to stop.Further is anyone aware of the ‘Lake of no return”down the Stillwell Road through the Pangsau Pass(Hell’s Gate) into Myanmar at Zapthakhaw, where there was a pitched battle between the Allied forces and the Japanese soldiers?

    • Hi Kisholoy,

      Things do look bright in the eastern front but however I’m sure it will take a few years for any real good to happen. The “lake of no return” is very near from the Ledo Road border at Hell’s Gate. The government allows civilians to visit the lake and the nearby Burmese town twice every month. Special permission is needed from the Indian Army beforehand. Recently, my friend had visited the lake.

  5. Hello Vaivhav,

    Happy new year to you too and thankyou for your reply. Yes, I appreciate how things work in your corner of the world : a work in progress. Your ‘driving enthusiast friend’ sounds like a useful contact.
    Would it make any difference with crossing the border if an Indian national was driving our vehicle for example? You for example? I will start to pursue the question of ‘special permission’ with the powers that be ( any clues who exactly?). I suppose a handful of baksheesh wouldn’t open any doors once we’re standing there at the border??
    I have enjoyed looking at the wild and remote places that you travel and trek to – I can’t believe how pristine it all looks, some of the photos remind me of the Tasmanian rain forests – but unfortunately with our three small children we cannot participate in these outdoor pursuits at the moment! Perhaps you could arrange a more gentle programme for us?
    You are based in Assam yes? Are there still special entry visa requirements for the north east areas still? Thankyou once again and have a look at our blog :

    http://vanoverland.com/

    Best Regards Todd

  6. Mr Todd
    I do not belong to any travel agency nor am I known to you but the great enthusiasm you have shown is so heartwarming. Incidently , I came across your posts to Vaivhav ( I do not know the gentleman either) when I myself wanted to find out the best possible route to reach Pangsau pass. Indeed it would be a great adventure for you if you could manage the documents from the authorities concerned. Am sure you are working on them. However, am a freelance journalist from Shillong, Meghalaya, another wonderful hill station tucked in the north east corner of India.

    Thats all for now.

    Nazim

  7. Hi,

    Could someone tell me what is the best way to make this road trip till Pangsau pass? From where should one start the trip and whether there are any travel agents/ car rentals available.

  8. in 1972’s scorching summer my college friend and I had been to that part .Then I had no idea about its significance .But it so happened say coincidentally I came across men in a tea garden who were once indentured in hoards to build the infamous general stillwell road in midst of Japanese assault .Learnt scores of true facts and incidents taken there from the 1st hand .

  9. Thankyou for unwinding this great historic facts which i am sure no present generation knows about.

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