Up to Mogok, Valley of Rubies

The winding mountain road that leads from Mandalay up into the mountains of Mogok is known colloquially as “the road of 999 bends” and roughly follows the track that traders would have used when coming down from the Shan Hills to the settlement of Yadanarbon and Amarapura.

Breakfast at the red canal meant that we were late leaving Mandalay but this did not deter our driver from insisting we stop for a tea-break at the mountain village of Shwe Nyaung Bin. Here I opted for a white grapefruit juice and with our guide wandered along the stalls selling coffee beans and macadamia nuts from Mogok.

Here, under the shade of a great banyan tree, my education begun.

Tunneling for gems in Mogok began in the 6th Century and mining commenced in earnest in the late 16th Century when the Bamar King Nuha-Thura Mara Dhama-Yaza annexed the settlement. In 1886, Mogok came under control of the British “Burma Ruby Mines Ltd”. In the 1960s General Ne Win revoked all foreign licenses and for a modest fee locals were free to mine.

90% of the world’s rubies come from Mogok including the much-coveted “pigeon blood” ruby. Royal blue sapphire is probably the second most famed stone from the Mogok Hills, but as well as these two in the markets of Mogok can be found moonstone, amethyst, garnet, and hibonite. In fact, except for emerald, almost all gemstones can be found in Mogok.

But rubies is what Mogok does best. In 2015 a 25-carrot stone from Mogok was sold for 30$ million in Switzerland. In fact, the top ten most valuable rubies have all come from Mogok.

Those familiar with the jade mines of Hpakant in Kachin may expect Mogok to be a similar version of “Myanmar’s Modor”. As you arrive in the town such fears are dispelled. From the “Eastern View Point” you can look over the town cradled in the hills where the green ponds interspersed through the town show the locations of disused mines and the communities that have built up around them.

The lake in the middle is the site of the original Mogok settlement. The village was evacuated and the site excavated when the British discovered that the this was the location of Mogok’s richest gemstone deposits. A flood in the 1820s created the lake you now see.

Artificial banks and a boardwalk have been constructed rendering the lake enjoyable to circumnavigate when rosy-fingered dusk colours the hills and young sweethearts come out to whisper sweet nothing on the benches.

The night market is nearby and here on our first evening we hopped from stall to stall – Mogok mee shay! tufu nway!! steam mustard leaf!!! – ending with freshly squeezed soya milk.

The mist that envelopes the basin of Mogok in the morning is enchanting and best viewed from atop the summit of “Spider Mountain” – a climb we managed in 45 minutes.

At 8.30 it was still too cold for most townsfolk to leave the comfort of their homes. We had the teashop to ourselves and tucked into fried tofu and Shan noodles before driving up into the hills to visit our first mine.

Mining in Mogok normally takes the form of quarrying in primary host rock and what is called “open cast” mining of secondary deposits, both by artisanal miners and semi-mechanized operations. Like scars on the hillside, these mines are not pretty.

Though it is often read that the mining at Mogok is mainly done by hand, mechanization is in the ascendancy. However what is still evident in Mogok is the policy of “kanase”, whereby individuals – mainly women – are permitted to seek for gems that have escaped detection in the sorting process.

The ban imposed by the US on Burmese jade and ruby in 2008 is largely considered to have missed its target – ie. the military, their cronies, the horror of Hpakant … – and instead affected small holders in places such as Mogok. The ban was lifted in 2016 but large industry players are still squeezing out the minnows.

At Mogok’s Morning Market precious stones are cast over the small tables that acted as stalls and I was allowed to prod and poke to my heart’s content while my guide – finally coming into her own – kept up a furtive, whispered,
commentary in my year: “… lapis lazuli … peridot … amethyst … painite, only semi-precious …” and then at a particular favourite of mine in a gleaming blue: “synthetic.”

At “Bernard’s Village”, just outside of Mogok, there is a small British cemetery. Mainly of the Devonshire Regiment, these young men died in the closing the years of the 1800s, some from fighting insurgents but most from malaria.

Crumblind and overgrown, places such as Bernard’s Village – like Loimwe “Hill of Mists” or even the abandoned hill station of Maing Thauk at Inle – remind travellers just how far the British Empire stretched and how long the fraught relationship between Britain and Burma is.

Before it was time to return to Mandalay we made our way to the King Chaung Waterfall where local day-trippers fan themselves in the crooks of trees and local lads do backflips into the plunge pool. King Chaung is on the road to Pyin Oo Lwin, a road off-limits to foreigners, and as we returned to Mogok we were pulled over by an elderly guard to make enquiries.

This encounter was genial but that evening, asleep on the bus, I was roused to stand before a red-faced and indignant immigration officer bellowing because the bus company had not informed him I was on my way through.

My papers were in order and our guide had accompanied us all the way to the checkpoint. We had acted correctly and were allowed to proceed.

It would seem that despite the rise in foreign footfall to Mogok, it is still off-piste enough to raise the blood temperature of some.

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Source : Myanmar Times

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