The valley of Mogok, located some 200 kilometers northeast of the city of Mandalay in Burma (now known as Myanmar), has been yielding the world's most beautiful gems for more than a thousand years. Some scholars even suggest that the area was first settled, and the precious stones first discovered, more than six thousand years ago. Whatever the date of its birth, it is clear that the area is inhabited today for one reason only: to uncover and appreciate the mineral secrets nature put there millions of years ago.
Travelers to Mogok today must pay a price to view the area's natural treasures: a bone-jarring, seven hour trip through farmlands, jungle, mountains, and hilltribe villages. To some extent it is a trip back in time, as much of Burma remains an agrarian society, farming in the same way and with the same implements of a hundred generations past. While the ride over the narrow, partially paved road is a bit uncomfortable, the scenery and the glimpse into the daily lives of the Burmese people are fascinating. Rich in both beauty and natural resources, Burma is not a wealthy country in financial terms. Its people, however, carry themselves with a grace and a dignity which immediately grab the attention of the foreign visitor. Nowhere is this dignity more apparent than in Mogok.
Arrival into the Mogok area can be a bit surprising after the long journey. Neither the nature of the road nor the sparse population evident along it prepares the first time visitor for the vast expanse of the valley and its 500,000 inhabitants, who are comprised of Burmans, Lisu hilltribe people, and Gurkhas whose ancestors migrated from Nepal. If not for the rubies and sapphires, it is quite unlikely any humans would be there, and the principle denizens would still be the tigers and leopards which now roam further up in the hills.
As with most mining towns, one rather expects that Mogok should have a honky-tonk, wild-west atmosphere, similar to the Gold Rush cities of 19th century America, with the rich and the hopeful, the desperate and the failed, all combining to create the kind of town where one best leaves the children home. Mogok is not like that, however. Certainly there are people with grandiose dreams, just as there are people down on their luck whose dreams literally never panned out. One can also find those who would take advantage of the unknowledgeable gem buyer, perhaps trying to sell something which they themselves once foolishly bought. For the most part however, what one sees throughout the area are people with a deep respect for and admiration of that which nature provided. Both the town's residents, and foreign visitors lucky enough to be there, can move about day or night in complete safety. Could one do the same in any other mining area of the world?
Almost everyone in the town has a gem collection of sorts, and much of it is simply not for sale; rather it is held by the owner merely for its enjoyment. In addition, most homes have a small area where stones are cut and polished, the final step in unleashing the fiery beauty within. The valley has all the businesses one would expect to service the needs of a half million people, but what is particular to the area are the vast number of shops catering to the gem trade. One passes by dozens, if not hundreds of shops, whose wares include bamboo gravel baskets, pans and sifters, rope, shovels and pick axes, as well as shops offering cutting equipment, scales, and loupes.
The mines themselves dot the towns and the surrounding hills, and range from simple open pits, to single deep shafts, to tunnels blasted out of marble hillsides. Some of the mines, located in areas where gems are contained in associated limestone marble or calcite, are more than 300 meters deep, and many have to be pumped out each fall after the end of the rainy season. Most of the smaller mines are privately owned by Burmese citizens who have paid a license fee to the government. Other mines are owned by corporations, either solely, or in joint ventures with the government. The government was once the sole owner of many of the most productive mines, but has now turned these over to joint venture consortiums. These are among the richest mines in Mogok, with names such as Yadana Kaday-Kadar, Shwe Pi Aye, Lin Yaung Gyi, and Pyaung Gaung. These mines are easily recognized by their sophisticated and expensive equipment, as well as the vast numbers of top-notch geologists roaming the premises.
Most of the mines operate in the same way: gem bearing gravel is hauled away from the pit or shaft, emptied into a series of sluices which wash away the lighter material, and the heavy residue, which hopefully contains the gems, is then dried and methodically studied for the telltale shine or color of precious stones. It is backbreaking work, only for the strong of limb, but the rewards, in a relative sense, can be substantial. It is tradition in the area to share profits with the workers, partly as a reward and partly as an incentive to keep everyone honest. It is also a tradition to allow anyone who chooses to search the gravel at the end of the sluice network for any stones which might have slipped through the system. This tradition is called "kanase" or free washing. It was long the province of women and girls, but today one can see men also taking part. Schoolchildren can often be seen joining the action after their day's lessons end, a pursuit similar in form to a Western child getting together with friends for a game of football after school. While usually only small pieces are present at this point in the process, one always hears tales of someone who found the big one.
Each day, at various parts of the valley, one can find a number of outdoor gem markets, where townsfolk come to trade stones, stories, and gossip. In these markets one can see literally thousands of stones, although most are of quite average quality. The finer stones, if sold in Mogok at all (and not Mandalay, Yangon, Bangkok or elsewhere), are generally only visible within the walls of the town's more grand homes, and then only to those deemed able to both understand and afford them.
Mogok is a town that follows the old adage "early to bed and early to rise..." From five thirty in the morning one can see schoolchildren with books strapped to their backs, already on the way to class. Shortly after, the street fills with food hawkers, women carrying local delicacies atop their heads, calling out to the awakening inhabitants. Next come the monks, barefoot, and clad in crimson robes, out to gather alms from the deeply religious Buddhist population. As the sun begins to rise, tea shops open, and the morning produce markets come to life, with at least as many types of people as foods. Lisu women, Palaung, Shan, Pa-O, Wa, Nepalese, Hindustani, Burman, Kokang and other tribal people sit proudly behind their abundant fare, as the rest of the town's population does the daily shopping.
Miners, many of whom live in huts onsite, eat their breakfast and dry their clothes over an open fire. By eight o'clock, one hears the putter of gas engines, running the pumps that carry out whatever water accumulated in the shafts and pits overnight, and later lifting byon, or the gem gravel mixture, to the stations where it is washed and processed. Slowly, other miners, or kanase people who search the mines' tailings, can be seen carrying pans and hoes, and making their way to the mining sites. Before the sun's rays have warmed most parts of the valley, Mogok's people are hard at work, in the same way their parents and grandparents before them worked, all in pursuit of nature's perfection.
For a photographic tour of the Mogok mining area and its people, visit Mogok Photo Gallery