Myitkyina in Monsoon – Map, Essay and Photos

Jacob Shell

After my most recent trip to the city of Myitkyina (pronounced MEE-chee-na), which is the capital of Kachin State in the far north of Burma/Myanmar, I felt inspired to draw a map which conveys some of the distinctive geography of the city and its environs.

I drew the map below during September of 2019. It’s 31x24 inches and drawn with pencil and colored pencil on mylar paper.

Note that the left side of the map is (more or less) north.

Myitkyina, with river mudflats and inland wet rice paddies.

The map shows several geographical qualities which get little to no treatment in Google-style maps or other contemporary maps.

Firstly, the channel of the Irrawaddy River, which loops around the city (flowing in from the upper left corner of the map, exiting and then reentering the map’s right side, and then at the map’s bottom flowing away from the city, towards Mandalay and Yangon) is broken up by numerous dynamic sandbanks which flood during the wet season of July through October. This map portrays the sandbanks by dividing them into two types, vegetated and non-vegetated.

The map shows the vegetated sandbank areas in green, with a “hollow” looking light-green infill to suggest some moderate floodability of these flats.

The map shows the non-vegetated sandbanks in tan-gray, with light blue infill to suggest that these flats are more floodprone than the vegetated flats.

The river also has several islands which usually do not flood, and have permanent houses and farms—these received the same beige infill as the mainland. Parts of these islands also get a faded deep blue infill beyond the shoreline, to suggest that sometimes the main river channel (also shown in deep blue) goes right up to the edge of the island.

Trying to convey a sense of transience in the sandbank geography was a real cartographic challenge; it’s not something I’d done in any map before. I didn’t come up with these visual solutions out of thin air. The 1883 Japanese “Rapid Survey” topo map series, shown elsewhere on this website, gave me the idea of infilling a mudflat with light, faded blue so as to suggest that the sandbank is especially floodprone.

Detail 1. Shatapru and oxbow converted to paddies.

Another distinctive geographic feature is conveyed by the maze of light blue corridors (mostly on the left side of the map). These may look like an elaborate swamp, or perhaps an underground aquifer—but in fact this is a complex geography of rice paddy fields which flood during monsoon. I selected this lighter blue color to suggest that these spatial forms are water, but not year-round water features like the main channel of the river (see Detail 2).

The idea of mapping this “paddy geography” was sparked by some personal observations visiting the city. One of the most pleasant neighborhoods in Myitkyina is Shatapru, which is cut off from the rest of the city by an old river-oxbow converted into paddies (upper-center portion of main map, and see Detail 1 above). Crossing the paddy area in both dry and wet seasons, so as to get to delicious Kachin restaurants or to visit with people I knew, got me thinking about how most Western urban maps graphically depend on showing all urban territory as either “land” or “water”—whereas the Shatapru paddy oxbow frustrates the distinction. Looking at satellite photos of the area around Myitkyina, I noticed that the oxbow is in fact just a part of a much more elaborate labyrinth of floodable paddies, whose configuration intriguingly suggests subtle undulations in topography as well as a previous geography of streams whose beds have been converted to wet-rice agriculture.

The aquatic aspect of the monsoon-season paddy geography is also evident from the air. Flying over Myitkyina (and other Burmese landscapes) during the wet season, an airplane passenger can be struck by just how much the paddy landscape resembles a vast shallow lake, the upward reflection of the sun broken up only by corridors of slightly elevated ridges of land, where roads, houses and trees are set apart from the fields of rice grass.

Detail 2. Paddy complex.

Myitkyina is one of my favorite small-size cities which I’ve visited in South and Southeast Asia. What brought me to the city was my elephant research. Kachin State is the last place in the world which combines two elephant domestication practices which are core themes in that research work: one, using trained elephants as a means of transportation in forested or flooded areas where roads don’t go; two, releasing trained elephants into the forest at night to let them search for mates there. I elaborate on these themes in my recent book “Giants of the Monsoon Forest” (WW Norton, 2019).

I hasten to note, here, that the city of Myitkyina itself does not have elephants; they’re to be found farther afield. But this city has been my “base” when I’ve done research in Kachin State.

Myitkyina has two market areas which may be of note to any visitor from away. In the urban center (the gridded riverside area in the center-right portion of the map, where the rail line ends, see Detail 3 below), a sprawling central market complex sells freshly butchered meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, grains and spices, local herbs, Kachin and Shan fabrics, and traditional tools alongside more familiar modern appliances from China. Outside the formal market building, on the margins of the district, some hunters’ stands sell parts of killed jungle animals for medicinal purposes.

Detail 3. Downtown market area and major river mudflats and island.

Myitkyina central market. Jacob Shell 2019.

Products from jungle, Myitkyina downtown district street stands. Jacob Shell 2019.

Looking at Irrawaddy River and sandbanks from Shatapru neighborhood of Myitkyina. Jacob Shell 2015.

A long hike from the city center (or 15 minute motorbike ride) is a second important market hub, the jade and amber market. This market, also quite sprawling, is at the fork in the paddy-field oxbow which surrounds Shatapru (that is, just to the left, or north, of Shatapru, where the oxbow splits in two directions).

Kachin State is the world’s primary source of jade, a gem with marked cultural significance in China. The Kachin jade is from the Hpakant mining area in southwestern Kachin State, where much of the upper Uyu River has been turned inside out by gem mining occurring at a vast industrial scale. It’s estimated that 30 billion dollars of black market jade flows from Hpakant to China, an extraordinary sum if accurate (perhaps half of Burma’s formal GDP!).

I’m not much of a jade connoisseur—of greater interest to me at the gem market was the amber. The world’s primary source of amber is the Baltic region, especially in Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg, coincidentally the subject of a previous map project on this website). The Baltic amber is from our own geologic Era, the Cenozoic. Whereas, the world’s primary source of dinosaur-era, Mesozoic amber is Kachin State. This amber mostly comes from a Kachin region called the Hukawng Valley, just beyond Hpakant, closer to Arunachal Pradesh.

Kachin amber is oftentimes loaded with bits of flora and fauna matter, much of it from around 99-100 million years ago. This is where one finds preserved mosquitos who used to drink dinosaur blood. Looking through potential souvenirs, I was torn between one with a mosquito, another with an ant, and a third with a mid-size winged beetle. I finally chose the beetle, a species from 100 million years ago called a cupedid. Dinosaur feathers have been found in the Kachin amber too, beautifully preserved in the burmite’s reddish hue—though I strongly doubt that such a find would be casually for sale at the public market.

Myiktyina jade and amber market. Jacob Shell 2019.

100 million year old cupedid beetle in Kachin amber from Myitkyina. Jacob Shell 2019.

Myitkyina is a mix of many different ethnolinguistic groups: the main group is Kachin (a designation which can be split into many smaller tribal identities, the largest of which is Jinghpaw). Also present are Shan people, Burmese, Karens, Indians, Chinese, Nepalis, and a growing number of ex-pats from various parts of the First World, usually working in the NGO sector. Christianity looms large in Kachin religious culture, as do some lingering elements of animism. The city is full of many church structures from numerous denominations. Buddhist temples and pagodas are also present everywhere. The downtown district has a Hindu temple and a mosque.

The city and its immediate hinterland is a pocket of calm in a broader territorial conflict which envelopes large swathes of Kachin State. The conflict, which is frequently violent, is between the Burmese central government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). Despite the fact that the dispute is ongoing, the KIO has a large tactical advisory office in the middle of the city, right on the isthmus which connects Shatapru with the downtown central market area.

The tactical office is across the street from the Manau Park, which on the map is the circle-shaped street on the same isthmus, adjacent to the Irrawaddy riverbank (see Detail 1 above). This park provides a setting for important Kachin cultural festivals, which the central government restricts to varying degrees depending on political climate. The park’s main visual feature is the colorful Manau stand, which to my eye vaguely recalls some indigenous aesthetics in the North American Pacific Northwest. Perhaps the aesthetic affinity is a coincidence, but doing research for a different project, I could not help but notice that the greater Kachin area and the Pacific Northwest do share something distinctive in common: forests which are unusually tall (see map below).

Manau Park. Jacob Shell 2019.

Map by Michael Lefsky. Note how the Kachin-Arunachal region between India and China and the coastal Pacific Northwest in North America are the two outstanding regions for forest height.