In the 1930s, Japan’s military presence on Chinese territory wrecked havoc on major transportation routes, creating all kinds of geographical challenges for transporting supplies, the movement of people and information in and across different regions.
By 1937 the Japanese military had captured the city of Nanking and was making inroads southwest. The Burma Road, which served as a vital military supply route for the Allied Powers, was effectively cut off by the Japanese leading to the construction of an alternative road. The Ledo Road was a 1,736 kilometre road from Ledo in India to Kunming in southwest China.
The Road, also called The Stilwell Road after the U.S. Army General Joseph Stilwell, facilitated the growth and expansion of trade along caravan routes, a web of long-distance trade networks between Kunming, Lijiang, Lhasa, and Kalimpong in West Bengal. Business people of all stripes and colours–bankers, merchants and their agents, moneylenders, landowners, hired muleteers, itinerant traders–swarmed to these trades routes in pursuit of profits, connecting urban and rural centres, states and empires.
Sino-Indian trade was already a fixture of the commercial landscape in China by the second century BCE and both India and China developed and fostered close cultural, economic and spiritual ties. When the Buddhist monk Faxian embarked on his journey to India from Chang’an in 399 CE, among hundreds of Chinese monks who made pilgrimages to India during the first millennium CE, he trekked across the Takmalakan Desert, the Kingdom of Khotan, along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, and Tashkurghan in northern Afghanistan, before arriving in India. Faxian later sailed south to Sri Lanka, across the Nicobar Islands in the East Indian Ocean, then Sumatra, China’s southeastern seaboard to Qingzhou in Shandong province and finally Yangzhou on the Yangtze River in Jiangsu. It had taken the monk fourteen years to complete his journey.
Ma Yundeng (马云登), carpenter-cum-businessman joined a tea caravan from Zhongdian (present-day Shangri-la) bound for Kalimpong in the summer of 1912. The route: westward via the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim in the Himalayan Mountains. The journey there and back took eight years.
Another tea caravan destined for Kalimpong, this time in the summer of 1923, did not take well-worn routes to India travelling northwest via Lhasa, but started in Yunnan’s deep southwest traversing Burma, India, then Lhasa. There were often more delays during the winter as routes to Lhasa from northwest Yunnan were blocked by snow, a waiting period measured not in days but perhaps weeks, a crucial factor that could have serious repercussions on the anticipated sale of goods. Muleteers were used to accessing the advantages and disadvantages of routes to maximize both time and profits.
The alternative route started in Fohai (Menghai), southwest Yunnan, then Burma, Rangoon, Calcutta, Kalimpong and finally Lhasa. The entire journey took forty days–caravan, truck, train, boat (Rangoon to Calcutta), and a twenty day caravan from Kalimpong to Lhasa. Joining the tea caravan was Ma Zhucai (马铸材), Ma Yundeng’s son, who by his late twenties had accumulated enough capital from his trading ventures to consider India as a potential market. Within a few years, Zhucai had opened a number of businesses in Kalimpong, including tea, wool, medicinal herbs, cloth, jewelry and precious stones.
Under normal circumstances, the Fohai–Lhasa route would be a highly workable route transporting goods both coming and going, but during the Japanese occupation much needed supplies for China were loaded in Kalimpong, sent to Lhasa by truck or caravan, then Lijiang, Xiaguan in Dali, and finally Kunming.
Kalimpong, Lhasa, Lijiang and Kunming were all major trading hubs. Lijiang became a major gateway and terminal hub to access other trade networks and consumer markets in China. Many if not most merchants from Tibet and India terminated their transactions there. And many Chinese merchants went no further than Lijiang. Changing geography, unfamiliarity with long-distance trade routes and language barriers are plausible reasons why Lijiang became a major terminal station.
Lijiang in the late 1930s was a world trade centre, serving as a terminus for other routes across China’s hinterland. The ‘pack animal transportation network’ was massive and the logistic professionals, the muleteers, were ubiquitous from the villages and towns to the roads, paths and trails connecting urban centers. It was snail mail, but it was delivery service that nonetheless traversed long distances and crossed international borders.
Goullart, Peter The Forgotten Kingdom, John Murray Publishers, 1955.
‘Ledo Road’ on Wikipedia
Li Qunfu, ‘Yazhou Dalu zui gulao shenqide shanglu (‘Asia’s Most Ancient and Mysterious Trade Route’), in Fu Ba Lijiang yu Chamaogudao (Lijiang and the Horse Tea Road, Yunnan Daxue Chubanshe, 2004:43.
Ma Jiakui, ‘Huiyi xianfu Ma Zhucai jingying Zhongyi Maoyi (‘Recollections of My Late Father Ma Zhucai Work in Sino-Indian Foreign Trade’), in Fu Ba Lijiang yu Chamaogudao (Lijiang and the Horse Tea Road, Yunnan Daxue Chubanshe, 2004:160-168.