Pianma: The Flying Tigers


Yunnan Province


June 9, 2014 

At the height of the Japanese military power during World War II, their armed forces occupied large areas of China, blockaded the ports, and closed almost all of the roads.  “The Burma Road”  -the one open route that snaked through the mountains from India, through Burma to western China - was bombed by Japanese fighter planes.   Eventually, trucks ceased to transport goods to the Chinese Nationalist Army fighting the Japanese.

“The Hump” became the vital lifeline. 

Here at the “Wind and Snow Mountain Pass” I can only begin to imagine what the American and Chinese aviators described as “Flying The Hump.”  

We drive west from the Yunnan city of Lo Shui.  The mountain road twists and turns and curls and snakes and ever rises, ever rises, ever rises, ever rises through Gaoligong Shan, one of Yunnan’s north-to-south parallel chains that form the foothills of the Himalayas.  Terraced farmlands rise to meet the evergreen forests; forests rise to meet the shroud of clouds and fog.

After almost two hours we reach the summit of Wind and Snow Pass.  In every direction, layer upon layer of mountains and peaks crowd the horizon.   The pass stands at 3153m (10,344 ft).  How high are the other nearby mountains?  Higher still?  And these are only the foothills of the Himalayas!    

Modern cargo planes, modern four engine jet airplanes routinely fly at 30,000 to 35,000 feet.  How did the undertrained aviators of the mid-Twentieth Century navigate their overloaded, inadequately maintained, low-powered two-engine propeller aircraft through unpredictable vicious air currents coursing up from the Himalayas?  How did they make it over “The Hump?”  How did they avoid enemy interception and gunfire?  Some didn’t.  They never arrived at their destination.  But many pilots successfully carried their load of war materiel from Assam to Kunming.  They are the unsung heroes of The War.  

On the far side of the Wind and Snow Pass lies the remote village of Pianma.  From across the border in Burma, enormous trucks navigate the mountain road and arrive bearing their monstrous cargo of gigantic tree trunks and agonizing root stumps.  The stumps are fashioned into ingenious sculptures or powerful pieces of home décor, especially prestigious tea tables.  

I suppose you’d have to be dedicated (crazy?) to drive a 22-wheeled truck through The Hump.  But history is replete with folks who are dedicated (crazy?).  In Pianma, there’s a museum to honor them - the Nujiang Tuofeng Aerial Line Memorial Hall.

The focus of attention in the museum hall is a Douglas C53 Skytrooper that crashed in bad weather into the inaccessible mountains in March, 1943.  Only in 1997 was the wreckage retrieved and brought to town and reconstructed.   On the wall of the hall are photos of other war planes and the not unsung heroes of the War in the Pacific: The First American Volunteer Group better known as “The Flying Tigers.”

Led by General Claire Lee Chennault, The Flying Tigers was a combat group with volunteers from the United States, England and China.  General Chennault trained the pilots in aerial combat and bombing.  From bases in remote areas of China, they scored notable success against the Japanese forces in China and Japan.  

Surely it is trivial by comparison, but my driver today has achieved a measure of notable success.  The paved route through the mountains is narrow, quite narrow in places, and at the high altitudes the road is a bone rattling cobblestone.  At the pass, the fog was as thick as … well, as thick as a fog. 

Am I a dedicated (crazy?) traveler?  Maybe.  But for me, riding through The Hump here in Yunnan Province, far from the burgeoning east coast cities of China and the grid-locked eight-lane popular tourist routes, “remote” is where the action is.