Southwestern Silk Road

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Southwestern Silk Road
Author: Hideyuki Takano
Specifications: ISBN  978-4062765015
523 pages
10.8 x 14.9 cm / 4.3 x 5.9 in (WxH)
Category: Nonfiction
Publisher: Kodansha Ltd.
Tokyo, 2003
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A “nonfiction entertainment” in which author Hideyuki Takano travels the so-called “Southwestern Silk Road” from the city of Chengdu in the central Chinese province of Sichuan through northern Myanmar and into India.

The Silk Road of renown stretched from Xian Province in China across the deserts of Central Asia and on to Western Asia and Europe, having gained its name from the silk that was transported along it all the way to the Roman Empire. A sea route that carried silk from Southeast Asia across the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Peninsula has sometimes been called the “Silk Road on the Sea.” But the overland route here referred to as the “Southwestern Silk Road” is believed to have had an even longer history than the other routes. Takano states that he has found no record of anyone traveling the full length of this route since the end of World War II.

Following a period of poor health when he remained cooped up at home, our author-adventurer has a drunken inspiration, persuades a young cameraman to join him on his journey, and in short order is setting out from Chengdu with very little in the way of preparation. The narrative recounts the thrill- and danger-filled progress of their journey, which lasted from February 2002 until June, when the two travelers were deported from Kolkata, India, back to Japan.

In spite of its moniker, the route through mountainous jungle terrain offers nothing resembling a modern roadway to travel on. The sweltering heat of the southern latitudes sets in all too quickly in early March, the travelers must contend with frequent violent squalls, and they are beset by blood-sucking leeches. They must also traverse politically contested territory in northern Myanmar and neighboring Northeastern India, where minority group guerrillas and government forces have long been at odds. Although China and Myanmar are currently enjoying a honeymoon, nationals of other countries are not permitted to cross from one country into the other by land. At the same time, the border between Myanmar and India is closed to all, even to citizens of those two countries.

But finding a way where there is no way has become this author’s trademark. Takano places his hopes on a man he met during a previous stay in Chiangmai, Thailand—a high-ranking member of a Myanmar guerrilla group. Through this contact, he seeks out and gains the protection and help of the Katin Independent Army, an anti-government group that controls more than half of the ancient trade routes in Myanmar. The KIA agrees to smuggle Takano and his heavily equipped cameraman from China into Myanmar, but their travel documents are identified as forged and they are detained by the police. Yet even with the authorities all but certain that they are Japanese, they stick to their cover story and manage to gain release. They then travel within Myanmar mainly from one KIA camp to the next until they are handed off to another anti-government guerrilla group, a tribe of former headhunters called Naga, which ushers them across the border into India. Except for a brief illness in which he loses all appetite for food, Takano stands up to the many challenges of the journey with vim and vigor, at times traveling atop elephants, at times imbibing wine or opium, but always resolutely forging ahead through the forbidding terrain.

Readers may well wonder where Takano finds such endless stores of energy, and their hearts will be in their throats as he throws caution to the wind with such abandon time and again. But his ability to pull through safely in one way or another owes to the strength of his personality, which allows him to befriend the locals and win them to his side wherever he goes, no matter how alien the culture. Even when describing arduous hardships and impossible feats, his narrative remains brisk and induces endless laughs. It is an exhilarating masterwork in which the author’s irresistible appeal overflows from every line.