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Driving Assam: oil and war

Ledo train station in Assam © Craig FastThe drive from tea-centric Dibrugarh to India’s oil capital Digboi and war-history-heavy Ledo passes through scenery so verdant and fertile I swear I could see the earth swell as it heaved in great lungfuls of carbon dioxide.

The banyans, telephone poles and road signs are draped with vines; trees grow on trees; paddy fields, tea plantations and jungle stretch out in every direction; and vans loaded with green bananas and plucked tea leaves trundle along the roads. It’s not only the surface that’s seething with life; oil is so abundant here it literally bubbles to the surface. Digboi is home to Asia’s first successfully drilled oil well and now, uncomfortably contrasting with the surrounding greenery, a massive oil refinery. The Oil Museum traces Assam’s relationship with oil from when it was first drilled for here in 1866.

A little further along the road is an Allied World War II cemetery. This oasis of cultivated lawns and well-tended flower beds holds the remains of British and Indian soldiers, plus an Italian, Belgian and American. Two hundred brave Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists who lost their lives during World War II are buried here, and the plaques bear messages such as “He lies here far from home, dear England, but will always be with us. Mother.” Visiting was a moving experience – not many people reach this out-of-the-way cemetery and it felt important to take the time to notice it, despite the 38C heat drawing sweat from my eyeballs.

Next stop was the start of the Stilwell Road – the easternmost point of India you can visit without a permit. The Stilwell Road, which leads to Kunming, China, was built under the determined instruction of American General Joe Stilwell after the Japanese army cut off the Burma Road, a vital army supply route into China. It’s incredible that Stilwell succeeded in building this replacement – the route wound through mountainous, be-jungled territory controlled by the enemy – but the road has now fallen into disrepair and nature has reclaimed her territory.

Thanks to Indus Tours and Purvi Discoveries for providing the guide, driver and accommodation in Assam.


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