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North East India

The continual softening of travel restrictions within Myanmar has reinvigorated ​overland travel not only within the country itself, but neighbouring countries too. India. A place where even the numbest, most-hardened travellers can conjure up vibrant, zealous emotions and memories merely from the mention of the word. Of all the countries on the Asian landmass, barring Pakistan, India was the country that most enchanted me. I was most looking forward to recognising the stories, smells, sights and feelings, with which so many other travellers had bestowed upon me; I wondered if my experiences would be the same?

I sat in the wild-west border town of Tamu, Myanmar for four mind-numbing days. The $75USD permit required for crossing the border had still not arrived, even though I had applied over twenty days earlier. A claustrophobic existence festered within, as my day revolved around waking up, reading, writing, eating, and of course drinking my cheap, beloved Myanmar Beer (perhaps the only true love I’ll find on this trip). With 700 kyat remaining in my wallet and a piece of paper granting my release from monotonous boredom, I bid the Immigration Officer goodbye and stepped into another world.

“Ahhhhhhhhh, Andrew! You are Simon’s brother!” Proclaimed the random stranger.

“Nah, mate. I think you’ve got the wrong guy. My brother’s names are Leigh and Scott,” I replied, waiting for the generic sales pitch or request for money.

“Hahaha! No my brother. I am making a reference to the Holy Bible. Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter in the New Testament. Please let me buy you lunch.”

Unsurprisingly, the promise of free food led me down a small alleyway and into a restaurant where the rapid dismantling of other travellers’ presumptions – my only real reference - about India began. Firstly, there were no curries on the menu. Secondly, my own personal missionary continued to talk about God and His ultimate salvation for the people of North East India. It turns out that the region has quite a chequered history. India’s 1947 partition from Great Britain allowed the country to develop its own national, economic and social policies without the force of an overruling party. The spread of this newfound nationalism reached most corners of the country with relative ease, until a 20km geographical bottleneck between Bangladesh and Bhutan presented a symbolic blockage. The division between ‘Mainland India’ and ‘North East India’ has widened due to a general feeling of neglect from the mainland, with the North East barely hanging on, both geographically and politically. I found this scenario quite bizarre, but I guess this juxtaposition is reminiscent of mainland Australia’s attitude to those weird, socially obstinate Tasmanian’s.

I conferred my plans of cycling to the regional capital Imphal the next day, and my missionary friend advised me that the road “shouldn’t be blocked,” whatever that meant. My fist day in India was much akin to starting a new job. You know absolutely nothing, you know absolutely no one and you just wing it with the nervous energy hoping to be enough to get you to knock-off time. I was welcomed with steady inclines and a beating sun; no amount of nervous energy could save me from pushing. I was off the bike again, taking another break when an armoured convoy of military personnel drove past - six trucks in total, equipped with every gun imaginable. I knew border areas were understandably protected areas with a strong military presence, but the second time a six truck convoy passed I started to ponder if this was normal. ​

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Again I was pushing my bike up another steep section when I heard, “very big hill, isn’t it sir?” What the fuck was that? I helplessly looked around whilst doubting my sanity, until I saw a beaming white smile and feverish head wiggle from an army solder, camouflaged by fauna and fatigues. It turns out that these guys are hidden all throughout the area, keeping an eye on smuggling and any potential rebel uprisings. Being completely ignorant for the previous 50Km, I pondered if some poor soldier had the unfortunate luck of seeing me pull out my own weapon of mass seduction when nature called? Poor guys, I’m sure it’s not what they signed up for.

The road to Imphal, India

I reached Imphal the next day and settled into the United Friends Organisation Guesthouse run by Sanji, who gave me an in-depth history of the unsettled times of the North East. It was refreshing to get a local’s perspective, as my pirated 2013 Edition of Lonely Planet’s India devoted 0.0004% of the book towards Manipur (less than half a page).

“Manipuris are famed for traditional dances, spicy multi- dish thalis and the sport of polo that they claim to have invented. Manipuris forested hills provide cover for rare birds, drug traffickers and dozens of guerrilla armies, making it by far the Northeast’s most dangerous state. Foreigners who miraculously manage to get a permit are required to fly in and out via the capital, Imphal. Even there safety can not be assured.”

The heightened military presence was a way to quell trouble, stop drug trafficking and suppress progress towards independence. As I walked around the city, a profound feeling of unease was felt on every corner. Not surprising for a city that chimes in at number 32 for a city most likely to suffer a terrorist attack. The constant sight of soldiers holding AK-47s would suck any charm out of the surrounding environment; not to mention the multitude of cows and rickshaws. It was a more profound feeling than when I was cycling along the Afghanistan border with tanks rolling down the street. On the day of my departure from Imphal, a local Maoist insurgency diligently issued notice in the local paper informing the residents to close their shops for 24 hours, siting ramifications for those who don’t. As I rode out, the streets were noticeably empty, and truth being told I was a little glad to be leaving.

I headed north and no further than sixteen kilometres and after stopping for biscuits, I was cordially invited to my first wedding. The five day long affair was winding down and the last day involved lots of eating and as I soon found out, lots of drinking. The hosts put my worrisome mind at ease about the threat of terrorism in Manipur and then began explaining more about Manipuri life. We sat in circles eating delicious food, and drinking cheap whiskey – quite a feat for a state that prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol. Perhaps Manipur’s evangelical religious ideology was starting to enthral me. As an Australian, drinking alcohol in a prohibited state, it felt like divine intervention had taken place and I really was drinking out of the proverbial ‘Holy Grail’. I couldn’t have thanked my hosts enough for their hospitality and I cycled out cementing my view that the nicest people are often found in the most hostile areas.

Wedding food, India
My wedding hosts, India

​The road I intended to follow took me through a deep valley that ran along the India-Myanmar border. By afternoon I was once again violently ill, putting the blame squarely on the homemade whiskey. I tried seeking shelter in an Indian military base and as I lay in the foetal position, my request made its way up the official line of command. By dusk my wish was granted and I was now recovering with the mainland Indian commander and his platoon of soldiers. After addressing the formalities of cricket, I questioned all I had learned about the North East yearning for the perspective of ‘a mainlander’.

Sanjeev proceeded to pull out his mobile phone and show me photos of vast opium and marijuana fields. Apparently they were grown on the other side of the valley. The narcotics are then smuggled through the border to Myanmar where they are then traded for weapons, which then help propagate the insurgent’s fight for independence. He then went on to explain that the Indian government would never give independence, as the entire area would fall into civil war, with so many tribes vying for control of the drug trade. With my condition failing to improve, I hitchhiked back to Imphal with an army cap as a souvenir.

​I recovered at the guesthouse for another three days before cycling out again. This time I had company. Martin and Susanne had been on the road for two years and were also heading towards Nepal. My navigational skills were on show as my quick ‘shortcut’ had us lost and pulling out the GPS 800 metres from the guesthouse. After finding our way again, we made a two-day ride to Kohima, Nagaland, where Yakuza and his mother hosted us.

It was quite fortunate staying with a local tribal guy who also had a history of cycle touring. I was able to learn quite a bit of the traditional way of life, whilst spending most of the day curled in my sleeping bag and eating cookies. The Naga’s received warranted notoriety many decades ago, with headhunting being an accepted diplomatic solution to intertribal warfare and outside invasions. The last reported case was in 1963. Nowadays, Christian missionaries have exerted their influence in the area, perhaps unknowingly diluting many other cultural behaviours. I’d originally planned on staying two nights with Yakuza, but such warmth and hospitality saw me become a part of the furniture for the next ten days. We visited some local villages, festivals and markets. I tried dog meat (quite tasty!) and had proper coffee for the first time in a long time. It was tough leaving, but the plains of Assam waited.

Tribal elder, India
Local Kohima girls, India
Kohima markets (selling dog), India
Kohima markets (selling fish), India

Assam served as a state that I had to cross to get to Arunachal Pradesh – nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps it was this unfair judgement that led to this state being my least favourite. Martin and Susanne had jokingly warned me about the obtrusive nature of the people, as well as their cameo on Assamese television. Even though Martin has a good ten years on me, a white face, a red beard and a bicycle is a rare combination and the people of Assam took no second looks.

Every time I stopped, pandemonium would ensue, with a crowd gathering at an intense pace trying to take a selfie with the cycling celebrity. People would often follow me out of town on their scooters, beckoning me to stop and take a photo and asking me where my wife was (i.e. Susanne). One man even proclaimed that after seeing me on television, actually meeting me was one of the best days of his life. He must have had a shit life. At first I played along with the identity fraud, but by the end of the day, anonymity was never more desired. I just wanted to hide in a darkened room and never emerge. In such a densely populated area, I’ve never felt so surrounded, yet so alone and devoid of human contact. This intrusion of personal space and lack of privacy continued for the next three days and I’ve never been so relieved to cross a state border. Martin…you owe me a beer!

Always a crowd in India

My last state in the North East was Arunachal Pradesh. Still claimed by China, the mountainous state has heavy tribal influences, deep valleys and a lack of tourism and infrastructure. I shelled out another $75USD for a 30-day permit and began cycling on broken roads that were surrounded by thick jungle. My wandering mind often drew conclusions that this is what Africa might be like – but Africa was still another year away. Each day passed, ascending and descending with no noticeable advance in elevation. Whilst no elevation gains were made, the everyday village life in Arunachal Pradesh left a humbling impression on my perspective on the world. I drank the same water as the villagers, not knowing if it had been purified. I ate the same food, not knowing the ingredients. I watched food being prepared in less than hygienic conditions. I slept on wooden beds with blankets riddled with insects. And whilst these actions might seem small, for me, it helped deepen the connection with the local villagers, and continue the breakdown of first world elitism, which casts its judgemental shadow every time I visit a poorer part of the world. When someone has so little yet offers you the basic elements of living (water, food, shelter), its pretty self-righteous to decline due to differences in living standards.

Tribal Elder, India

The bullish weather and the high mountain pass had served as a distraction to the abrupt cultural change. I was now in the Tawang Valley, where a heavy Tibetan Buddhist influence was constantly on show. The people started to look more Chinese, prayer flags fluttered in the breeze and yaks replaced cows. My sole intention in taking such a long detour down a one-way road was to see the Tawang Monastery. Founded in 1681, the complex is the second largest Buddhist Monastery in the world, with Lhasa being the largest. During China’s invasion of Tibet, the current Dali Lama sought refuge whilst on his way to Dharamasala. Nowadays, over 500 monks live on site, scattered around a labyrinth of paths. I even managed to play some backyard cricket with the younger monks, sending down some Brett Lee thunderbolts after one of the monks took advantage of my kind-hearted bowling. Tawang was worth every bead of sweat in getting there and it served as a fantastic conclusion to my time in a part of India I never thought I’d experience. Now it was just a matter of getting through Assam.

The North East has stood abreast mainland India enjoying cultural preservation at the cost of economic, political and infrastructural progress for many years. For me – the traveller – I’ve been quite lucky to see the area now, as I believe an irreversible transition is taking place. The cultural diversity and preservation, the main shining light in the area, has already been drastically eroded. It’s not the mainland Indian’s settling and starting businesses – often assumed by locals - but rather the religious blitzkrieg in which Christianity is reshaping the land. In every state, countless missionaries would apply their trade in astounding efficiency. One missionary I talked to converted an entire village to Christianity within 6sixmonths. I asked him what happened to their traditional way of life and he replied with a melancholy, “I’m not sure, I’m moving to another village in three months to spread His word.”

I was often left perplexed cycling through villages in which you couldn’t find functional plumbing or electricity, but find a newly built church. I try to not pass judgement, but the North East has left a lasting impression on me. I went into India fuelled with memories of other travellers that I was sure I’d experience. What I stumbled upon was completely different. Now, I think that if I passed on my memories to other people, by the time they get here things would have already drastically changed.

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