HUKAWNG VALLEY, Kachin State — Hukawng Valley is like Burma in miniature, a place where the entire country’s problems are concentrated.
8 am: The mist is the last to get up in the town of Tanai. Long before it rises, you can hear the roar of engines and human conversation. It’s cold and people are putting on hats. As the mist descends, it drums on the roofs like hail. That’s why the locals call it snow. It’s always here, every day.
First the mist obscures the road, which two years ago was laid with asphalt. But the asphalt ends just outside town. The road eastward leads to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, which from here is a bumpy seven-hour ride away. To the west the road leads across the territory of the Naga people—until recently, notorious headhunters—all the way to the Indian border at Pangsau Pass. Beyond the town of Shinbwayang, the road becomes a steep mountain path, which can be traveled on an off-road motorbike or by foot.
Ledo Road was built by Americans during World War II to connect China and India overland. The workers building it died en masse of malaria, which is why this place was known as the Valley of Death. More recently it has gained a new nickname, the Valley of Darkness. Nowadays lorries run along the red, dusty road, as do luxury jeeps and, acting as long-distance taxis, dust-caked 40-year-old Mercedes cars.
A few weeks before my trip, a driver pulled over, got out to relieve himself and was blown sky high after stepping on a land mine. Motorbikes cruise around the town of Tanai, bypassing the elephants that parade down the middle of the road.
Once the mist starts to clear, you get a better view of the faces: ethnic Shan, Naga, Kachin, Bamar, Indian and Lisu people. Houses come into view, clustered near the road. Many of them are new white villas and hotels, where it’s hard to get a room without a reservation, or shops selling expensive amber jewelery. There’s also a new teashop, run for the past two years by a young Muslim man. There’s a large television screen on the teashop wall, always showing football matches or boxing. The waiters serve a tasty breakfast and fresh coffee.
By the time the mist has completely lifted, the restaurant is full of men. Tanai’s most important representatives of authority come to eat here, including policemen, immigration officers and administrators, as well as the head of the Elephant Keepers Union.
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The teashop also acts as a local press agency of sorts, a focal point for swapping rumors. The gossip circulating during my visit appears to be bad news for the Muslim owner: Local Buddhists accuse him of corrupting civil servants, who eat at his shop for free, by promising to lay asphalt on the road to Tanai in exchange for the right to build a mosque. The Buddhists say they worry he will bring more Muslims to the town—a concern that is likely unfounded, although it highlights the ongoing religious tensions throughough Burma.
By the time breakfast is over, the mountains can be seen in the distance, surrounding the entire valley in a vast ring. Wild jungle stretches in every direction, criss-crossed by a labyrinth of rivers. Buddhist monks wander down the streets collecting alms. The men get up from their tables and leave. Many of them have Christian crosses hanging on their chests. Only one man is left watching the television in the teashop.
11 am: On his athletic body, he usually wears a leather jacket and a striped sleeveless T-shirt, sometimes a peaked cap. His leg twitches nervously, a sort of tick. He watches a boxing match on television, looking as if he’d like to lay one on someone himself. He doesn’t need to go to work. He gives orders over his mobile phone. These gadgets have appeared in Tanai only recently, with the transition from military rule.
This man is the “elephant king,” head of the Elephant Keepers Union in Tanai. In Burma the white elephant is a symbol of power. According to locals, there are still four groups of elephants in the Hukawng Valley, each consisting of about 25 animals. In Tanai itself, about 100 are kept. This is the exclusive occupation of the Shan.
Some of the elephants are born in enclosures, but most are caught wild in the jungle and domesticated. There are several trainers in Tanai, who start to learn their profession during childhood. They know how to lure an elephant in the forest by singing, and then they catch it with a lasso. Their expeditions last for several weeks.
Sometimes the hunters come back injured. Male elephants are lethally dangerous during the cold season when they secrete musth, a sort of liquid secretion, from a gland near their eyes. The secretion coincides with a rise in testosterone that can make them go beserk, trampling houses and raping female elephants. One policeman in Tanai lost a house that way. Usually the locals tie an elephant in musth to a tree with a chain. Some elephants take months to calm.
A single elephant can sell for as much as US$40,000, and they are mainly bought by the Thais. The elephant keepers pay a tax per elephant of $100 dollars for three years.
The elephants work tirelessly in the dry season on timber felling, transport and agriculture. Several years ago, when gold fever in the valley had grown weaker, new deposits of precious amber were found. The largest amber mine in the area is situated four hours’ march south of Tanai. For the elephant keepers, it’s a highly lucrative business.
The men in the teashop have gone into the forest. To find elephants, they listen for bells attached to the animals’ necks. Then they saddle up. The sun starts to get hot as they set off for the mine, south from Ledo Road, and disappear into the trees on the far side of the river.
A few years ago a sensational piece of news went around the media. Scientists from Oregon State University showed the world a photograph of the oldest conflict ever: a spider trapped in amber just as it was attacking a wasp, 110 million years ago. At the teashop, they say this amber came from near Tanai, and a Chinese buyer purchased it from a local businessman.
2 pm: It’s the afternoon, and a policeman is opening the door of an office where the tiger reserve wardens were once based. The mouldy walls are crumbling now, and broken tables lay on the floor. The policeman uses a stick to push aside a picture hanging on the wall, and bats fly out from behind it. I duck.
On the wall there’s a large map of the Hukawng Valley, the biggest tiger reserve in the world. It was founded in 2001 on the initiative of American naturalist Alan Rabinowitz from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which ran training programs for the wardens. The policeman took part in these programs. According to estimates from 2010, about 50 tigers live in the reserve. But for the past four years, nobody has been counting the animals or working at the reserve. These days, it’s a pretence.
The policeman draws a line on the map about five miles north of Ledo Road. It represents the border beyond which not even the elephant trainers have ventured for four years, because the terrain has been occupied by the Kachin Independence Army (the KIA), an ethnic armed force hostile to the government.
Customers at the teashop make a number of allegations against KIA soldiers, who are described as unwelcomed kings of the valley. They accuse the soldiers of dredging gold, extracting amber and chopping down timber by the ton, in addition to trading in opium, and stealing elephants and food. KIA officers allegedly use the money from their illegal businesses to build villas for themselves in Myitkyina, so for them peace doesn’t pay.
There was a lot of noise in the media about the battle for Laiza in January 2013. But nobody knows what’s happening in Hukawng. Land mines keep most travelers far away. In the jungle, I am told, the KIA post watchtowers on the hills and live at base camps, which look like ordinary villages. They dress in civilian clothes and work on farms. They keep their weapons underground or in stores. They come down to the villages for recruits. After several weeks the young boys are sent back to their families. They’re called again when fighting breaks out.
Only the Lisu, another of Burma’s ethnic minorities, are believed to know the location of the KIA camps. And only the Lisu are superior to the Kachin in the art of jungle survival.
5 pm: The sun is setting over the valley, gilding the idle course of the rivers. The Lisu are coming home to their villages from the farms. They alone are not afraid to live north of Ledo Road, though they avoid encounters with the KIA.
Still, they claim to steal food from KIA camps. They are also known as the best hunters in the jungle, unrivaled by even the Naga. They venture to remote peaks on the horizon, beyond which extends the Putao plain. Their villages spring out of the jungle unexpectedly. Formerly, in the middle of a thicket, you might have come upon the occasional small opium farm. After work, at dusk, men stuff opium into wooden holders filled with water and inhale the smoke, holding their breath. They do it again and again; opium can soothe any pain.
More than 30 years ago, the first Lisu family arrived in one of the villages from Putao in search of a better life. The flat terrain and heavenly colors of the vast Hukawng Valley were tempting, so they sold their farms in Putao along with all their oxen.
It was not easy after the move. Wardens at the tiger reserve took away their guns, promising money in exchange. The Lisu signed the wardens’ documents, but the wardens disappeared without paying. Still, many Lisu acquired new rifles, which they continue to keep illegally. Without guns, they cannot defend their enclosures.
The Lisu are allegedly responsible for wiping out all the tigers and elephants in Hkakabo Razi Park to the north of Putao—some Lisu have even admitted to hunting them previously, although they are believed to have stopped now. In the past they smuggled out the skins and organs and sold them to the Chinese. Now they’re left with no livelihood.
Many Lisu appear to loathe both the government and the KIA, both of whom attempt to take away their control of the forest. Sometimes the Lisu come down to Tanai and pass the teashop. They say they have only experienced one benefit from the political opening in Burma: On the bridge on Ledo Road, which leads to Tanai, nobody has been checking their IDs for the past year. In the past, if they did not have an identity card, they had to pay a bribe.
8 pm: The mist is the first to lie down in Tanai. For a long time afterward, you can still hear the roar of engines and human chatter. There’s a full moon, which is casting a silvery light on the backs of the oxen. At night there’s lively traffic on Ledo Road. That’s when the timber, amber, gold and precious stones are transported to Myitkyina and onward to China. At the checkpoints, the smugglers pay bribes, as everybody knows. But rumors at the teashop suggest there will be friction in the future because the road to Myitkyina is guarded by Burmese soldiers.
The men at the teashop move across to a bar, where they start to drink alcohol. Everything is imported from Myitkyina or India, and it’s often too expensive for locals to buy. When I arrive to join them late in the evening, they say I am the first foreigner they have seen in seven years. A policeman and immigration officer show up before I’ve had a chance to sit down. Tomorrow, once the mist rises, I plan to travel north of Ledo Road on an elephant’s back, to Lisu villages, although authorities in Tanai have refused to consent to the trip.
In the morning, before the mist has lifted to unveil the mountains, they change their minds.
This article was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.