The famous Hpakan jade mines are located at the Myitkyina District in the Kachin State in upper Burma about 600 miles from Yangon. This small town is accessible by air and from Myitkyina it is about 68 miles by land route.
Hpakan is a rebel mining town designated as a black area and foreigners are not allowed access to it unless a special military permit is issued by the Burmese government. In fact very few permits are issued to foreigners as the military junta is wary of journalists giving the world a contorted view of how it runs the civil administration in jade land. A military permit is only issued in Yangon by the Army Chief-in-Command for which you may have to wait for years or months in person and after a thorough background check with the embassy of your nationality for any political affiliations and the purpose of your trip.
For the very few who obtained passes into this forbidden area it would be a trip worth taking in spite of the hardship, the long journey hours, the harsh climate and the discomfort in travelling to a very remote area in a backward country. The permit came with a stiff payment of US$5,000. And the company of my own secretary who was my Burmese translator cost me another 50% of the fees, also in US dollars. However, once your permit was approved you would not think of all this. You prepped yourself in going to the fabled land of jade. After waiting for more than three years, the permit was finally issued to me after many recommendations from some of my senior friends in the army. They knew that I was only a gemologist, who was apolitical and had no ambition of writing any derogatory stuff on human rights and the harsh living conditions.
Once the permit was issued I had a grand vision of Indiana Jones in pursuit of some long lost religious icons or going into the dark African continent in search of King Soloman’s mines, that was how I felt initially, but in actual reality I was not going into a war zone or a jungle with inhabitants known for their cannibalistic appetite. I was going into the green line area – the jade business. To the locals in upper Burma, there were only 3 main lines of business. Red line was the ruby business. The most nefarious would be the white line – white powder No 4 heroin – a business for bandits and the drug barons, where poppies grew in undulating hills and manned by armed insurgents.
Now the first most important matter that I had to attend to was to get ready some personal medical kit – syringes, lamotil, paraceptemol, C-vit, gauze, burnol, dettol, antacid, medical ointment, mosquito repellant and if you were on any special medication remember to bring more than extra. Before that I had already obtained a supply of fancidar and chloroquinine pills in Bangkok as Hpakan was heavily infested with a virulent strain of anopheles mosquitoes associated with malaria. I also brought along some dry food provisions just in case that my stomach could not agree with the oily and greasy Burmese food.
Then I made a courtesy call in person to the embassy of my country telling them when would I be going and when would I be expected back. They would of course know of my impending journey before hand, as my background would be checked by Military Intelligence (MI) of Burma. I too got some friendly persuasion of not taking on such a hazardous journey. But just in case I had to be transported back in a body bag or I need medevac – the embassy staff would be there to help me. The Malaysian embassy staff members overseas were perhaps some of the finest people I had met in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia – countries of which I travelled often. They were courteous, friendly and helpful and they extended their assistance to me beyond their call of duties.
Now I was ready to roll.
The journey started in Yangon where I boarded a plane to Mandalay with my long time Burmese secretary and an MI officer baby-sitting us all the way. After a brief stop-over in Mandalay, we flew to Myitkyina in a Fokker F-27 which took about 50 minutes. The plane was more than 30 years old – a relic of the post World War II period but still air-worthy. The plane was full or rather had more than a 100% load factor because there were not even seats for their air stewardess, not even a jump seat. After about 10 minutes climbing into air space, condensation water started to drip down from the overhead luggage compartment, the PA system screamed, a number of passengers fingered their Buddha worry beads, some clasped both their palms, closed their eyes and murmured continuously, a few ladies rubbed a brownish thick camphor-scented ointment onto their noses, my secretary squeezed a fresh lime into her mouth and gripped my arm with a stevedore firmness and a number of Burmese started to puke into their air-sickness bag. You would have thought that the plane was going to crash. They were good land travelers, traveling continuously for days in rough country terrain, jam-packed in small pick-up trucks but on an airplane they had wobbly legs, stomach up-sets, palpitating hearts, hyperventilation, vertigo and motion sickness.
Praise The Lord, the plane landed Myitkyina safely in the late afternoon.
My sojourn will continue on my next post………….