CHAPTER XXXII. PRISONERS OF WAR IN BURMA
The camp at Nam-ka was a supremely happy one and we left it on March 7, with much regret. Its resources seemed to be almost exhausted and the Mohammedan hunter assured us that at a village called Ma-li-ling we would find excellent shooting. We asked him the distance and he replied, "About a long bamboo joint away." It required three days to get there!
Whether the man had ever been to Ma-li-ling we do not know but we eventually found it to be a tiny village built into the side of a hill in an absolutely barren country where there was not a vestige of cover. Our journey there was not uneventful. We left Nam-ka with high hopes which were somewhat dampened after a day's unsuccessful hunting at the spot where our caravan crossed the Nam-ting River.
With a Shan guide we traveled due north along a good trail which led through dense jungle where there was not a clearing or a sign of life. In the afternoon we noted that the trail bore strongly to the west and ascended rapidly. Soon we had left the jungle and emerged into an absolutely treeless valley between high barren hills. We knew that the Burma frontier could not be far away, and in a few moments we passed a large square "boundary stone"; a hundred yards on the other side the hills were covered with bright green stalks and here and there a field glistened with white poppy blossoms. The guide insisted that we were on the direct road to Ma-li-ling which for the first time he said was in Burma. On our map it was marked well over the border in Chinese territory and we were greatly puzzled.
About six o'clock the brown huts of a village were silhouetted against the sky on a tiny knoll in the midst of a grove of beautiful trees, and we camped at the edge of a water hole. The pool was almost liquid mud, but we were told that it was the only water supply of the village and its cattle. As though to prove the statement a dozen buffalos ambled slowly down the hill, and stood half submerged in the brown liquid, placidly chewing their cuds; meanwhile blue-clad Shan women with buckets in their hands were constantly arriving at the pond for their evening supply of water. We had no filter and it was nauseating to think of drinking the filthy liquid but there was no alternative and after repeated boiling and several strainings we settled it with alum and disguised its taste in tea and soup.
After dinner we questioned the few natives who spoke Chinese, but we became only more and more confused. They knew of no such place as Ma-li-ling and our Shan guide had discreetly disappeared. But they were familiar with the trail to Ma-li-pa, a village farther west in Burma and, moreover, they said that two hundred foreign soldiers were stationed there. We were quite certain that they must be native Indian troops but thought that a white officer might perhaps be in command.
We did not wish to cross the frontier because of possible political difficulties since we had no permits to shoot in Burma, but there seemed to be no alternative, for we were hopelessly bewildered by the mythical Ma-li-ling. We eventually discovered that there were two villages by that name - one in Burma, and the other in China, where it was correctly placed on the map which we were using.
While we were discussing the matter a tremendous altercation arose between the Chinese mafus and the servants. For some time Roy did not interfere, supposing it to be a personal quarrel, but the disturbance at last became unbearable. Calling Wu we learned that because we had been so careful to avoid English territory the mafus had conceived the idea that for some reason we were afraid to meet other foreigners. Since we had inadvertently crossed into Burma it appeared to them that it would be an opportune time to extort an increase of wages. They announced, therefore, that unless extra money was given them at once they would untie the loads and leave us.
They were hardly prepared for what followed, however. Taking his Mannlicher rifle, Roy called the mafus together and told them that if any man touched a load he would begin to shoot the mules and that if they made the slightest resistance the gun would be turned on them. A mafus' mules represent all his property and they did not relish the turn affairs had taken. They subsided at once, but we had the loads guarded during the night. In the morning the mafus were exceedingly surprised when they learned that we were going to Ma-li-pa and their change of front was laughable; they were as humble and anxious to please as they had been belligerent the night before.
The trail led over the same treeless rolling hills through which we had passed on the previous afternoon. There was only one village, but it was surrounded by poppy fields in full blossom. It must be a rather difficult matter for a native living in China near the border to understand why he should not be allowed to produce the lucrative opium while only a few yards away, over an imaginary line, it can be planted without restriction. Poppies seem to grow on hillsides better than on level ground. The plants begin to blossom in late February and the petals, when about to fall, are collected for the purpose of making "leaves" with which to cover the balls of opium. The seed pods which are left after the petals drop off are scarified vertically, at intervals of two or three days, by means of a sharp cutting instrument. The operation is usually performed about four o'clock in the afternoon, and the opium, in the form of dried juice, is collected the next morning. When China, in 1906, forbade the consumption of opium and the growing of poppies, it was estimated that there were from twenty-five to thirty millions of smokers in the Empire.