The road is narrow
and winding, the sky a gunmetal blue and cloudless. The day is hot!
A cloud of brown dust hovers over the single lane that is paved
only in places. The monsoon rains that will soon turn it all into
a muddy quagmire have not yet arrived. The road leads to Moguk and
the ancient ruby and sapphire mines of upper Burma.
Riding through the countryside, we pass through
villages, seeing houses of plaited bamboo, creaking bullock carts,
and peasants, reed-thin and brown as dirt, plodding along the road.
The green fields of rice stretch along both sides of the road, like
a well-tended lawn, on toward the horizon. Farmers in conical straw
hats bend over rice paddies in a tableau from centuries past.
Moguk is a provincial town one hundred seventy
miles west of Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city. Since
antiquity the valley in which the town is situated has been famous
as the legendary Valley of the Serpents. According to the ancient
tale, somewhere in the mystic East was a nearly bottomless valley
carpeted with glittering gems. Poisonous serpents stood guard over
the gems. Merchants seeking the stones tossed the sticky carcasses
of skinned sheep into the valley. The gems stuck to the meat and
the great eagles circling the valley floor would swoop down, grasp
the meat in their talons, and bring it back to their nests high
on the rocks surrounding the valley, thus allowing the men to retrieve
the precious stones. Among the stones found in or near this valley
were ruby, sapphire, peridot, and tourmaline.
The valley today is still the stuff of legend:
deep, enveloped in mist, and surrounded by rocky crags. The Burmese
government has kept it closed to foreigners for over thirty years,
and in that time the modern world has all but passed it by. Special
government permits are still required to travel in this area. Traditionally
stones have been found on the valley floor, in the streambeds and
catch basins, and in the limestone caves that honeycomb the mountainsides
surrounding the town.
It was on the sultry afternoon of our second day
in Moguk town that I got my first glimpse of a legend. I was with
my friend Joe B., one of Asia’s premier gem dealers. We had
just finished lunch at an outdoor restaurant where the customer
chooses his noodles and condiments. The partially cooked noodles
are plunged into a cauldron of boiling stock, ladled into a bowl,
and the condiments added. The dealer approached our table. He was
a thin, dark- haired Burmese in his forties dressed in a Western