In Mogok, Every One Has A Dream!

Washing the alluvial deposit by using powerful hose of water.

Abstract: In Mogok, the Valley of Rubies, every one has a dream. The dream of finding a big rough ruby. I too have a dream when I went to Mogok, but it was wishful thinking.

We stayed at the Mogok Hotel. This was probably the only decent hotel in town where accommodation was provided for important guests. Though November was the best time to be in Mogok as this was the cool month, there were few visitors.

On the way to Mogok from Mandalay

After our breakfast, we were raring to go to visit the mines. The two Military Intelligence (MI) minders were already waiting in the lobby for us.

Rubies in Mogok occurred in two forms, as primary deposits or secondary deposits.

Primary deposits were those gems formed and crystallized naturally millions of years ago. Crystalline in nature, rough rubies were embedded in its host rock (i.e. calcite marble) deep under the earth’s crust.

Panning for rubies in river streams by family members

Secondary deposits were those rubies which had been dislodged from the host rock through erosion, weather changes or some minor tectonic movement of the earth’s crust through millions of years. These rubies once freed from the mother rock were washed down to the hills and the valley floors, where they settled to the bottom of rivers or streams or on terra firma itself. The gemological term was alluvial deposits.

Most of the mining methods in Mogok were mechanized, and were somewhat primitive.

For primary deposits mining, miners would look for huge swathe of marble calcite, the mother rock that hosted rubies, beneath the earth’s surface. Once marble calcite was identified, they excavated deep into the earth. The depth of these tunnels could go down to more than a 1,000 feet below ground level.

A ruby in calcite matrix

Tunnels, like a rabbit’s warren, were built to extract the rocks by controlled blasting using dynamites. These boulders of marble calcite were then transported up by a series of pulley systems. In an open space in small huts above, workers would manually break up each boulder to look for embedded rubies.

A lucky mine owner may hit the mother load, when his workers found geologic dikes upon dikes of embedded rubies in it. When the dust had settled after blasting a section of it, it was the dream of these few workers to face a wall fully inlaid with tiny rubies.  Scattered randomly, these little red dots on the marble calcite wall may be densely packed, gleaming and reflecting its shine by the dim tungsten light.

Perhaps there may be a biggie within this wall. The workers would then hack the marble calcite rock using sledgehammer, mallet hammers, ripping bars, cat’s paw or the necessary workers’ hardware tools.

Mines’ owners were interested in biggies. A 10-carat rough stone would fetch an extraordinary amount of money in the market. Or a Thai ruby buyer would dish out top dollars for such a find.

At the entrance of an underground ruby mine.

Mining for primary deposits of rubies was high risk business. Apart from the high financing costs, there were a lot of red tape to navigate. Mining accidents were fairly common. Inside the tunnels as a worker descended lower to its depth, the air was thin below, stuffy and stifling as there were no ventilation fans or exhaust vents and cold and chilly during the winter months. Workers were known to fall from ladder inside the tunnels as disorientation of the senses within the narrow confine space happened to even the most seasoned of these workers.   

Cave-in or structural collapse of wooden pillars supporting these tunnels occurred from time to time, partly due to the underground blasting, wooden pillars became weakened through time, certain sections of the tunnels were of soft soil or the owner was a true-red businessman. He could save a lot of operational costs by cutting corners, conduct less periodic inspection checks or fail to carry out stringent safety maintenance.

Opencast mining in Mogok

For every lucky owner, there were perhaps many unlucky ones. An unlucky owner may blast deeper and deeper into the earth crust, only to find very small rubies or maybe none at all, except the near worthless marble calcite by the tons. He would soon go bust if operations were to continue.

This was the game for the big boys in town as huge finances were involved.

Opencast mining was also prevalent along the sketches of the Mogok Stone Tract. Mines’ workers would use high pressure water hoses to dislodge the top soil and the overburden sentiments on a small hillslope. The gravel was then sent to a washing area to separate out rubies from other lighter ores like shale, aggregates, sand and other small mineral crystals. Using gravity separation and a couple of jigs, the gravel would be washed through sluices of running water with close intervals of vibrating and grizzly screens.

Yours faithfully with one of the opencast miner

Ruby’s specific gravity was 4, i.e., 4 times heavier than water. Most aggregates had specific gravity of less than 2.5. So, rubies would settle at the bottom of these sluices.

Working in the pits was risky for the laborers. The top soil could suddenly collapse due to rapid erosion by the high impact of water from hoses. When that happened, miners and workers handling the pumps at the bottom of the pit would be buried alive under tons of water, mud and gravel.

A 5 ft x 5 ft deep shaft for excavation of alluvial deposits

Another common method of recovering rubies from alluvial deposit was to dig a rectangular shaft of about 5’ x 5’. This shaft could be as deep as 500 ft below ground level straight down. The shaft was lined with wire mess, bamboo poles and bamboo leaves to support the wall from collapsing. Often a worker had to descend to the bottom of the pit to align the hose or free the hose when it was jammed by some small boulders.

A worker going down a 5 by 5 ft shaft. It could straight down to a depth of 500ft.

As water and gravel were pumped out from the shaft, a worker would move deeper and deeper into the subsoil to construct new linings or to reinforce older ones. The gravel with alluvial deposits was sucked up by the pumps They were then sent for washing.

It was also another dangerous job for workers who clambered up and down the steps of these shafts.

Workers taking a break

Fatalities in mining accidents were quite high, according to our MI minders. It was said that yearly, 1 in 20 workers died in mining accidents in Mogok. But there was little accountability. People worked the mines at their own risks. No health plan, no insurance, no nothing that guaranteed their safety, except that when a miner died, the Lao Pan (an honorific title in Chinese used commonly to address the owner as boss) would compensate the family of the deceased fairly well.

To be a mining worker had its rewards too. He too dreamt of the day that he would make a big find of a biggie rough for his Lao Pan. This was the only way to free himself from the shackles of poverty.

Rubies were recovered from inside the calcite matrix

Lao Pans in Mogok were a superstitious lot. Most of them were generous when it came to rewarding their workers when they made a big find. The Lao Pans believed that the worker who discovered a big rough brought them extremely good joss. If he was to strike out on his own, as he had some reward money now, the Lao Pan would fully embrace his ambition. Perhaps the Lao Pan may chip in something to help the worker to a head start. Perhaps he was lucky the second time to strike another biggie ruby, whereby he would then give his Lao Pan the first choice of refusal to buy his rough. The Lao Pan could even make more money by trading the stone.  

Panning for rubies in river streams

By far the most common method of finding rubies were panning on small river streams. Everybody can pan. [ Smile!]. This was the safest method of finding alluvial rubies. This was more like a family venture. Even a 10-year old kid could do it. Investment cost would probably be US$1.00 for the pan.

It’s finder’s keeper. If you had the good fortune to find any rubies, it’s yours to keep.

Calvin & Ada

Earlier on, Ada, my Burmese lady staff told me, “Mr Lau, here everybody has a dream to strike it rich. They say, in Mogok, a man may be struggling to feed his family in the morning, by evening he may be a very rich man.”

Ada was a demure, loyal and honest little lady. She joined me as my personal secretary when I first arrived in Yangon a couple of years back. She was a lawyer before. She practically saw Calvin and William grew up. She just adored these two little kids. And Marilyna too, as Ada often came to Kuala Lumpur to stay with us. She has been with us for more than 27 years.

She is still our staff member in Yangon. Presently, the military junta has locked down the entire country as a sort of coup d’etat.

Washing the alluvial deposits

Now, that gave me some wishful thinking. I too had this dream of Mogok. Perhaps by Providence, I may stumble upon a biggie rough ruby while walking to the mines. That mother-of-all-rubies jutted out from the ground happened to catch my eyes. Just yesterday there was a heavy deluge of rain. When it rained in Mogok, there would be many lucky finds on the ground, the locals said.

And that mother-of-all-rubies would be mine to keep!

Lo and behold! when I sold it, there would be great profit for me. The cash would multiply and replenish my coffer. I was already mentally calculating on how should I spend the tons of cash I was going to receive. Or what should I buy first?

At the Mogok Hotel

Like the proverbial poor Indian woman with a big jar of milk balanced on her head, she was day dreaming while walking to the market. She would sell that jar of milk. Then she would buy a few chickens. The brood of chickens would eventually grow to be hens. She would breed more hens. These hens would produce more eggs. In time, she would be a very rich woman.

Then she tripped over a stone. The jar of milk shattered. So, was her dream.

Alas! Just that afternoon I slipped and fell over the slippery slope at one of the opencast mines. It was a minor fall. Nothing damage. So much for my dream ruby that slipped away.

Son bought an umbrella for me.

Later when we stopped over in the town center, Calvin said to Ada, “Auntie Ada, go and buy a big umbrella for my father. He should use it as a walking aid.”

How thoughtful, this son of mine!

Enough for today!

Next Post: My Most Frightening 2 1/2 Hours Of Eternity – Calvin Trapped Inside A Ruby Mine



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