The Burma Road runs from Yunnan into Burma; it was built during World War II (see Pacific War for background) to bring supplies to beleaguered China, to help them resist the Japanese invasion. Not much of the original road survives today, but parts of the route can still be travelled.
The campaign in China, and therefore the Burma Road, was an important part of the war effort, probably more than most Westerners appreciate. From the viewpoint of Japanese expansionists, taking Korea in 1910 and Manchuria in 1931 were very successful moves. However, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 turned into a major disaster for both sides.
The Chinese were fighting an invader with far better armament and training, making do with whatever weapons their allies could send (many of them World War I surplus), enduring some spectacularly vicious oppression, and taking enormous numbers of casualties — over ten million military and civilian deaths, far more than any other nation except Russia. Moreover, they were disunited; the Communists and the Nationalists (Kuomintang) were sometimes more interested in their own disputes than in battling Japan.
Despite all that, the Chinese Army (run by the Nationalists with American advisers) managed to give the Japanese a remarkably hard time. Japanese planners thought they could take all of China in three months, leave a small force to hold it, and move most of their armies elsewhere. Actually, it took them three months just to take Shanghai and in eight years of fighting, 1937-1945, they never managed to take more than about half of China. The Chinese Army fought on through the entire war, often retreating but always at a cost to the enemy. Chinese guerrillas and saboteurs — Nationalist, Communist and independent — harassed the Japanese everywhere. Roughly half of the total Japanese ground forces were tied down in China throughout the war, including troops they had planned to use elsewhere. Allied land victories in the Pacific War were partly due to Chinese tenacity and the supplies delivered via the Burma Road.
Most of the engineering work on the road during the War was done by the US Army, most of the trucks were were American, and most of the drivers were black American soldiers; at the time the US Army did not allow them in combat roles. There was a good deal of fighting in Burma with the Allies battling Japanese forces that held much of Burma and at one point even threatened India. That was a much more international affair: Allied forces included British, Indian, other Commonwealth, American and Chinese troops. Keeping the road open was an important Allied objective. Chittagong in what is now Bangladesh was one of the most important Allied bases, since it had a good harbour and could be reached by rail without leaving British-controlled territory.
The alternative to the road was "flying the hump", which was taking supply planes from air bases in Assam to ones in and around Kunming over a number of mountain ranges east and south of the main Himalayan chain. This was done by American pilots at great risk. Another Allied objective in Burma was to knock out bases used by Japanese fighters harassing the hump flyers. Today "The Hump" is a popular tourist bar in Kunming and there are commercial flights from Kolkata to Kunming.
The Burma Road proper
The Burma Road was largely built by the Chinese in 1937 and 1938 — about 200,000 workers with no heavy equipment hacking a road through Western Yunnan and Eastern Burma, from the regional centre Kunming on the Chinese side to the railhead Lashio in Burma (now called Myanmar). The road is about 1150 km (over 700 miles) long and the area is extremely mountainous and heavily forested, so this was an amazing accomplishment. Starting in 1942, US Army Engineers did considerable work upgrading parts of this road.
The Burmese part of the Burma Road is short, from the border town Ruili to Lashio, and can be traversed today only one way (Ruili to Lashio) and only under escort.
Travellers on today's Yunnan tourist trail cover some of this route, albeit on far newer and better roads. Traces of the old road, including some milestones, are still visible.
The Ledo Road
Another road was partly built by the British and Indians, starting in the 1920s, from the railhead Ledo in Assam (Eastern India) over the mountains into Burma. This Ledo Road was upgraded and extended by US Army Engineers during the war, and is also called the Stilwell Road after American General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. The total distance on this route from Ledo to Kunming was just over 1,700 km (almost 1,100 miles).
Travelling this road today is nearly impossible. On the Burmese side, the 400 km (250 miles) between the border with India (near Pangsau Pass) and Myitkyina is off-limits to foreigners. The road had mostly returned to the jungle but has been rebuilt, allegedly with forced Naga and Kachin labour. The Myanmar junta is converting this section into an all-weather section for trade with India.
The Indian section of the road, from Ledo to Nampong is also a restricted area.
For holders of most passports heading to this area, a visa will be required for each country you plan to visit — for this route, China, Myanmar (Burma) and perhaps India; see the country articles for details. Visas can be obtained in your home country before you depart or, in most cases, in regional centers near the destinations such as Singapore or Bangkok.
Parts of this route — Assam near the border and Northern Myanmar — are in areas where travel is restricted. You will need permits to visit these; see the linked articles for details. There may be additional complications such as dealing with the rebels who control the area around Laiza and with the official government. For most travellers, visiting these areas may be too complicated and risky to consider.
One end of the road at Kunming is readily accessible, with some international flights plus air, road or rail connections from anywhere in China. See the Kunming article and Hong Kong to Kunming overland. The border town Ruili, on the old Burma Road, is southwest of Kunming and accessible by road or air from there. From Kunming you could also travel northwest, partly on routes close to the old road; see Yunnan tourist trail.
If sections of the road open up to travellers, the following are some of the highlights along the Ledo Road and the Burma Road.
- Nampong is a border town in the Indian state of Assam.
- Pangsau Pass, just inside the Indo-Burma border, 1,125 m elevation.
- Pangsau is the first town on the Burmese side.
- Lake of No Return (Nawng Yang) (Kacin Province, near Pangsau).
- Myitkyina, in Kachin State, is open to travellers and is connected by road, rail, air, and ferry from Mandalay.
- Bhamo, also in the Kachin State, is open to travellers.
- Namkham, a village in the Northern Shan State in Burma. Travel to Namkham is restricted and a permit (almost impossible to get) is required from Yangon.
- Ruili, a Chinese town at the border with a large bazaar mainly selling Burmese goods. It is reasonably easily reached and quite popular with Chinese travellers, especially for buying jade.
- Longling, a county in Western Yunnan, site of the Battle of Mount Song, a decisive battle fought in 1944, which finally enabled the Chinese military and the Allied Forces to retake control of the Burma Road from the Japanese. The well-preserved battlefield is now Longling's top tourist attraction. You can also visit the Huitong Bridge, one of the very few surviving bridges on the Burma Road.
- Tengchong, a city in Western Yunnan. Though bypassed by the Burma Road, Tengchong is an interesting detour, as it played an important role in the Battle of Northern Burma and Western Yunnan. There is a major war cemetery in Tengchong, and the museum near the cemetery has an exhibition on the Burma Road.
- Baoshan, a city in Western Yunnan. The Baoshan Museum has an exhibition on the Burma Road.
- Yunnanyi, a small town in Xiangyun County, Dali Prefecture. Best accessed via the county seat of Xiangyun County, which has a high-speed train station.
- Chuxiong, an important city in Central Yunnan. Accessible by high-speed train from Dali and Kunming.
- Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan Province and major tourist centre on the Chinese side.
As anywhere in Asia, routine precautions against pickpockets and tourist scams are advisable, though the risks here are likely lower than in more heavily-touristed areas. Altitude sickness may also be a hazard on parts of the route.
Much of this area is relatively isolated mountain country that sees very few tourists; be sure your health, skills and equipment are adequate before setting out. Consider hiring a guide who speaks the local language.