The Burma Road.

The road was constructed between 1937 and 1938 during the 'Second Sino-Japanese War' by combining existing roads and tracks and upgrading them for use by heavy transports and even building completely new roads and bridges. This all through an area in which till then hardly any roads had existed. The purpose of the road was to keep supplies coming in while the eastern sea ports of China were controlled or blocked by Japanese forces.

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The road got closed off by the Japanese occupation of Burma and western Yunnan. Control over the road resulted in critical battles like the battle at the Huitong Bridge and the battle at Songshan Mountain in the Gaoligong mountain range.

During the second world war American engineer regiments constructed a new road from Ledo in India across Burma to connect to the original Burma Road. The combined road got named "Stilwell road" after American General 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell.

Burma road at present. The present day enlarged and improved Burma Road crossing the Gaoligong mountain range near Longling.

At the turn of the century the British had attempted to extend their rail network from Lashio in Burma into Yunnan but had given up because the terrain was one of the hardest in the world with many mountains and big rivers to cross. The only east/west connection was the 'Southern Silk Road', a combination of footpaths and horse trails leading to footbridges and ferry crossings.

The Burma Road was constructed by an unskilled local labour force of thousands recruited from the various tribes living along the route. The tools used were local farming tools and complicated constructions were avoided by letting the road hug the higher parts of the mountains and avoiding the valleys with rivers and streams as well as muddy flat lands as much as possible.

The cobble stones of the Burma road. Finally the Burma road got an all-weather surface (Well some of it). Empty spacer Road signs on the Burma Road. It takes skill to find the original road even when there are road signs.

Nowadays.

Over the years the road got widened and paved with cobble stones but the road in its full length does not exist anymore as such. National road G320 incorporated parts of the old road and some parts got abandoned. Now the new G56 four lane motorway replaces the G320 again. This modern, road with many bridges and tunnels, makes it possible to drive the entire length of the old Burma Road in hours.

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However there are still some original parts of the Burma Road that zigzag their way from Kunming to the border. All long distance traffic takes the motorway and local traffic takes the national road so those small stretches of abandoned road are nearly free of traffic and often lead through interesting landscapes.

empty spacer Burma road. Also the sign does not indicate so this is part of the Burma Road. 19.8 Km of gravel track through the forest and mountains. Designed speed 20Km/H. You will need a good four wheel drive to do that. empty spacer

The remaining bits of Burma Road form a great way to travel for those who like to go off the motorway and travel the slow way and absorb the historic atmosphere of this road.

It takes however some skills to find the remaining original bits of road. They are hardly ever indicated as such and go through some rather remote area.

The Burma Road is great for cycling as well but the road surface is a challenge. (And so are some parts of the G320. This road has been neglected and only recently gets refurbished). Another challenge are the 13 mountain ranges to be crossed of which the biggest have the worst road surface.

Burma road. The road in the forest near Beidou with an abandoned rammed earth building. Hard to imagine that China had to be supplied via a road like this.
Rollers used on the Burma road. Heavy stone rollers used during the construction of the Burma Road are now used as monuments and can be found at various points along the road such as here at Yunnanyi where they were used as well to maintain the airstrip.

Construction.

The Burma road was hastily constructed by connecting existing tracks and upgrading them in order to handle fully loaded trucks year round. Work was started in 1937 and the road was opened in 1938. A local labour force of up to 200,000 people was recruited out of the local minority tribes living in the area; people who often had never seen any motorised transport before in their life.

Statue of road workers on the Burma road. Monument in Tengchong to honour the hard work done by the local population to construct the Burma Road. In reality in required much more than three strong guys to move these heavy rollers. empty spacer

After the road had been opened, work had to continue to improve and restore the road. Critical parts washed out during the rainy season and had to be built over and over again. Upgrading the bridges was needed in order to upgrade the capacity of the road. At first loads had to be hand carried across the iron chain bridge at Gongguo or ferried across truck by truck. In 1938 that bridge got upgraded and in 1940 a new bridge with a ten ton capacity was completed.

Drawing of a large labour force pulling a roller.
Huitong Bridge 1941. The Huitong Bridge seen from the west bank in 1941. (©1) Empty spacer Huitong Bridge 1944. The improvised Huitong Bridge seen from the West bank in 1944. The blown Eastern bridgehead is still missing and there are no overhead cables thus the bridge can only handle limited traffic. (©2) Empty spacer Huitong bridge 1945. The fixed Huitong Bridge seen from the East bank in 1945. The blown Eastern bridgehead has been rebuilt and the bridge can handle fully loaded trucks again. Note the fuel pipeline hanging under it. (©2)

During WW-II.

The Burma Road functioned as supply line till the Japanese forces invaded and overran Burma in 1942. The Huitong Bridge crossing the Nujiang (Salween) and the Gongguo Bridge, crossing the Lanchangjiang (Mekong) were on many occasions the target of aerial bombardments. The American Volunteer Group, better known as the "Flying Tigers", moved over the Burma Road to Kunming in December 1941 just before the road was closed off by Japanese Army units fighting their way up. The Japanese made it till the Huitong Bridge that crosses the Nujiang River (Salween). The Chinese commander stopped them by blowing up the bridge when he suspected that Japanese soldiers tried to come across dressed as refugees. The Flying Tigers tried to stop the Japanese by bombing the road and cause landslides and strafing Japanese military transports.

The river stayed the frontline and the farthest point of Japanese infiltration in western Yunnan.

With the road cut off the allied had no other option than to airlift their supplies across the mountains from India to Kunming. This got known as flying "the Hump". One of the most dangerous air routes due to the high mountains, the often very bad weather and the Japanese control of much of the air space.

The American General Stilwell made it a top priority to open the Burma Road again and ordered a road to be constructed from Ledo in India to meet up with the Burma Road at the Chinese border. Work on the Ledo Road was started on the 16th of December 1942.

The campaign to open up the Burma Road was started in 1944 when the Chinese Expeditionary Force (before known as Y-force) crossed the Nujiang on bamboo rafts and American supplied inflatable boats to recapture western Yunnan (See the battle at Songshan Mountain) while the Chinese X-force army worked its way up from India.

The first supply convoy reached Kunming again on February 4, 1945 over the reopened Burma Road now named Stilwell Road. Soon this convoy was followed by nearly 26,000 army trucks and Jeeps (and 6500 trailers) that stayed in China to improve logistics there. The fuel pipeline got functional as well and more than 11 million litres of fuel was supplied in the last two months of the war for use in planes and trucks (Until than trucks had been running on locally produced alcohol and wood gas).

Huitong bridge part of the Burma Road. The Nujiang spanning Huitong Bridge in its 1951 rebuilt state. Now no longer used but preserved as a monument.
Burma Road now. Burma Road 'Then and Now' September 2012.
Burma Road then. Burma Road 'Then and Now' January 1945. (©2)
Stilwell road. Only recently signs pop up indicating the road. This stone, at Beidou village, indicates the Stilwell road. empty spacer New Burma Road. The G56 motorway being extended to the border town of Ruili now the main gateway into Burma/Myanmar.

After WW-II.

The Burma Road as supply road for the allied forces stopped to function as such at the end of WW-II when this back-door access to China was no longer needed. The Chinese civil war closed the door further down also it was a way out for some of the Kuomintang armies.

Burma Road nowadays. A trace of (post WW-II) tarmac indicating that this now abandoned piece of the original Burma Road was ones important. empty spacer

As part of the 'China Western Development' policy new roads are developed and ones sleepy market towns like Longling, Mangshi and Ruili, in the minority dominated west of Yunnan, are now becoming boom towns. And finally, after a hundred years, a rail link is being build to Myanmar.

The old Burma Road is nearly forgotten. But not by Tiny Adventures Tours.

Pipeline construction. Construction work on the twin pipeline.

History repeats.

At this moment two new pipelines are being constructed for the transport of natural gas from off-shore gas fields and crude oil from a terminal at the Bay of Bengal. In China these pipes roughly follow the same route as the old Burma Road.

Stock of pipes for the pipeline. The new pipeline is quite a bit bigger than the 4 -inch WW-II pipeline.
Burma road in the forest.
USA 29 cents Burma Road stamp.
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The USA stamp series 'America Remembers The World At War 1941-1945' includes the Burma Road stamp (First day of issue 3rd of September 1991).

The Burma Road in Shan State, Burma. The Burma Road in Shan State, Myanmar.

The Burma Road goes through China and Myanmar. In Myanmar the road goes through Shan State. The road starts in Lashio and goes to Wanding at the border. Nowadays it can, with special permission, be travelled between Lashio and Muse but only with special tourist busses. It is not possible to cycle the road.

Cycling the Burma Road. Cycling the Burma Road.

Tour options:

Cycling the original Burma Road.

Tiny Adventure Tours specialises in cycling the original Burma Road. Our experience tells that cycling provides the right atmosphere to absorb the historical significance and physical challenge that the Burma Road offers.

Our package includes among others:

  • Guidance & Maps.
  • Books & documentation library.
  • Technical support.
  • Support vehicle and recovery.
  • On request motorbike escort.
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Guided Burma Road tour by car.

Tiny Adventure Tours offers a specific Burma Road Tour package or can include the Burma Road in a visit to western Yunnan. It can be combined with visits to Tengchong, Heshun, Yunlong, Pianma and the Southern Silk road.

Our package includes among others:

  • Guidance & Maps.
  • Books & documentation library.
  • Vehicle.
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Maps:

Map Burma Road tumbnail.
Staff map of the Burma Road compiled by the US Army in 1954. [1:250,000]
A map of the Stilwell Road from the US Army published in 1946.
A map of the Burma Road from the book 'Burma Road' published in 1940.

Web information source suggestion:

On the web there hardly is any information on the original Burma Road in English, but there is quite some material on the Ledo/Stilwell Road. The National Geographic magazine over the years published several articles on the road.

National Geographic published in 1945

National Geographic published in 2003

The Yunnan historian Ge Shuya did a lot of research on the Burma road.

Reading suggestion:

There is very little written in book form about the original Burma Road in English.

"Burma Road" by Nicol Smith first published in 1940 is the story of travelling the road up and down between Kunming and Lashio just on completion in 1938.

"The long road back to China" by Carl Crow.The author of "Four Hundred Million Customers" describes his return to China via the Burma Road. ISBN:9-789881-815408.

"The Burma Road" by Donovan Webster gives the general story of WW-II in Burma and western Yunnan. ISBN 0-330-42703-2.

Dian Mian Gong Lu / Burma Road is a Chinese picture book depicting both the construction of the original Burma Road and the modern highway. ISBN:7-5414-2590-7.

Burma Road book by Nicol Smith.
empty spacer Burma Road by the American journalist Nicol Smith is the account by the writer who travelled as one of the first westerners the road just on completion in 1938. On the way back from Lashio to Kunming (Still called Yunnan-Fu by him) he gets stuck and they trait their car in for a similar model on the other side of the blockage. He gives as well a shocking account on the mining operations along the Yunnan-Vietnam railway.
The Long way Back to China.
empty spacer Carl Crow (1884–1945) was an American businessman, and author who managed several newspapers in China. He was very anti-Japanese, and fearing retribution he left Shanghai for good in 1937, just days after the Japanese attacked the city. He returned to Chongqing in 1939, entering China via the Burma Road. He wrote a diary of this time which has been edited by Shanghai-based English writer Paul French. The road on the cover, the 24-Zig, is often mistaken as being part of the Burma Road but it is actually the extension between Kunming and Chongqing in Guizhou province, Crow travelled this road back.
The Burma Road by Donovan Webster.
empty spacer Webster tells a comprehensive story of the war in the CBI area (China/Burma/India). Starting with the war in Burma and the walkout of Stilwell to India and his return to the Burma front. It contains the story of the Chindits of Orde Wingate and Merrill's Marauders as well as the story of the Bridge on the river Kwai. It describes the campaigns of the Japanese army into India (Imphal and Kohima) and the British campaigns into the Arakan. Chapters are dedicated to the fight for the reopening of the Burma Road and the battles for Longling, Tengchong and the Songshan mountains.
Burma Road Book
empty spacer Dian Mian Gong Lu / Burma Road is a picture book depicting both the construction of the original Burma Road and the modern highway.
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At the Michigan Technical Resource Park, a proving ground for vehicles, one can hire time to test vehicles under various conditions. For testing vehicles on an extreme cobblestone road they have a 300 feet track called the Burma Road. That is only one hundred metres. The real Burma Road was a thousand kilometres thus ten thousand times longer.

For more information and hiring prizes go here.

© MITRP.

Burma Road on the Michigan Technical Resource Park
All pictures by the Lemon3s group unless indicated. (©1) From AVG archives. (©2) Copyright holder unknown.
Version: 3.09. Updated: 2014/11/24.