In the geography of AIDS, a town called Ruili, In a line of indigo hills along China's border with Burma, features prominently on the world map. From all around Asia, men gravitate to Ruili for jade, rubies, heroin and sex. Then they move on. This has turned Ruili into a confluence of HIV, a main artery where various strains flow together and mutate in lethal ways before racing up into China's bloodstream.
To chronicle the advance of AIDS in the region, TIME reporters traveled to towns like Ruili on China's AIDS highway, retracing what researchers currently believe to be the most active transmission route for a viral strain unique to Asia. In 1989, AIDS made a new inroad into the mainland, penetrating China around the Burmese border. The virus has since hitchhiked along a transportation corridor through Sichuan and Gansu provinces northward to Urümqi, a city in the far western deserts of Xinjiang province. The disease's traveling companions are a familiar crew: drug users and traffickers, prostitutes and truckers, itinerant workers and salesmen. And wherever AIDS visits, it finds familiar accomplices to help it jump to the next town: official denial, public ignorance, discrimination, poverty.
In Ruili's main plaza, where two ancient banyan trees shade a statue of a princess stroking a peacock and where hookers, johns and junkies mingle, you can almost see AIDS spreading from one human to another as clearly as you could under a microscope. No one is a better witness to this death dance under the banyans than Dr. Mong, a Burmese physician whose clients are the invisible peoplethe underage prostitutes and illegal immigrants who don't officially exist in Ruili but who number in the thousands. Mong is an alias. The doctor prefers not to use his real name because investigating and treating AIDS in Ruili can be dangerous. Local Chinese authorities downplay the epidemicit's bad business for the gaudy karaoke clubs and the hundreds of beauty parlors where painted women stare at you blankly if you ask for a haircut.
Some evenings, Dr. Mong tightens the knot on his Burmese sarong and strolls up to the plaza. He's in his forties, broad-shouldered with close-cropped hair. The doctor is cheerful but wary of the secret police cruising the square. On the stoop beside a beauty shop, a few junkies are pooling their coins to share a hit of heroin and a single, bloody needle. Farther down, a covey of teenage Burmese prostitutes are negotiating prices with a trio of jade dealers from India. Under their black wigs and their rice-white face paint, the girls look young, spooked and desperate. They try selling themselves for 125 yuan (about $20) but will settle for half that. "Most men here don't like wearing condoms, and the girls can't afford to turn away customers," laments Mong.
Just that morning, a chubby Burmese hooker in her twenties had wandered into the doctor's one-room clinic. Mong had to evict a Burmese youth lying on a cot, wounded in a knife fight, so he could give the girl a private checkup. He found telltale signs of AIDS on her tongue and around her genitals. The doctor reached into his wallet and gave her bus fare back to Burma. "Run away!" he urged her. "Don't even go back for your clothes because the pimp will stop you." A pimp Mong knows, a sinewy man with yellow eyes and reptilian tattoos, forced one of his girls to keep working until the sores on her face were visible even under the greenish glow of Ruili's streetlights and the customers started fleeing from her in terror. If she leaves immediately, the doctor explains, "At least the girl can die at home."