AS we jounced along what was the famous Burma Road, our minds were on potholes, not history.
We were en route in a 10-hour drive - from Kunming, capital of China's southern border province of Yunnan, to Dali, a compact village more than 5,000 feet up in the western mountains, perched beside the finger-like Erhai Lake. The occasion was the Third Moon Street Fair, originally a Buddhist holiday, that has become a mass outing for thousands of Yunnanites to dance, sing, buy, sell, and race.
Dali is just off the highway that follows the route cut by hand from mountain jungles more than 50 years ago. The old Burma Road, a 9-foot-wide, single-lane highway stretching more than 700 miles from Lashio in Burma to its Yunnan terminus of Kunming, was the last supply channel to the West for Japanese-occupied China.
Scratched out of the mountain sides by 200,000 men, women and children, the Burma Road became a highway of desperation. Although celebrated in the Western press as a monument to human courage, the road actually failed to channel supplies to China in any major amounts due to mismanagement and congestion.
Mirroring the corruption and inefficiency bedeviling General Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, only one-fifth of the tonnage sent from Burma managed to get through before the Japanese captured Lashio in 1942 and cut the line. Japan then used the road to invade Yunnan.
Fifty years later, the highway is badly rutted. Where trucks once carried war supplies, today they chug along, loaded with logs cut and dragged out of the mountains of western Yunnan and Burma. The road is also the main conduit for Burma's other major export to China: drugs, which are clandestinely transported to Kunming and then on to Guangzhou and Hong Kong, eventually reaching the United States and Europe.
The topography is dramatic and the trip would be stunningly beautiful if the scars of deforestation weren't everywhere. As a sad testament to China's environmental disaster, the road that snaked through hills once covered with lush jungles is now denuded of nearly every tree.
Still, the road serves as the gateway to the western heart of Yunnan's constellation of minorities. China's sixth-largest province, Yunnan is home to 24 major ethnic groups and one-third of the country's entire ethnic population.
Still showing strong local identities, the minority groups have given the province its own flavor that stands in sharp contrast to much of the rest of Han-dominated China. Although most Chinese belong to the Han majority, the province's minorities still nurture cross-border ties to ethnic kinfolk in neighboring Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.
The isolation of western Yunnan, connected to Kunming and the southern border only by the old Burma Road, has preserved ethnic pockets that have successfully resisted Han-Chinese influence. Many of Dali's cobbled streets and stone architecture within the old city walls have given way to tiled concrete high-rises that are the signature of rapid growth in China.
But further north in the mountain town of Lijiang, the ancient matriarchal culture, animistic Buddhism, and the ancient Taoist temple music of the Naxi tribe - one of the province's larger minority groups - still survive in this northern hinterland. In other enclaves, ethnic people still live the way they have done for hundreds of years.
But tourists, resorts, airplanes, and highways are changing that. In order to promote mass tourism in its minority enclaves, the provincial government is opening airports in Dali and Lijian this year. The former Burma Road will be rebuilt, starting next year.
In the past, mainly a mecca for foreign hippies seeking a ''new Katmandu'' or intrepid travelers ready to endure rigorous travel on the old Burma Road, Dali is going to change with the new tourist influx, residents say.
''They have told us the airport will be good for Dali and bring more business,'' says Tian Yu, a member of the Bai minority who lives in a nearby village and says their culture has weakened and young people no longer go to the Buddhist temple.
For all its promotion as a tourist haven, some foreign visitors also noted that tourism and government controls seem to be taking a toll on the spontaneity of the minority cultures.
Ron Humkiewicz, who works in theater and film in San Francisco, traveled to Dali after crossing the border into China from Vietnam. He says he prefers the minorities in Vietnam because he found them more at ease and had better interaction with them.
The Third Moon Street Fair, nevertheless, had been colorful, the clothes and headdresses of the minority women vibrant, and the festivities spirited.