Roaming bullocks and goats, vehicles without head lights, blinding truck lights and potholes formed the tapestry of our welcome to India. There are no road divisions in India; no my side your side, no your turn-my turn. A space is for the taking and the one who hesitates is the one who loses. Such was the our welcome to India. Gun wielding military personnel were awaiting across the border at the many checkpoints, causing us to ride into the rain sodden darkness to Imphal, the capital of Manipur, one of the seven Sister States of North East India.
Following our guided tour of Myanmar, we were happy to be free once again to ride to our own rhythm and to seek out special places away from the main highways and tourist destinations. Historically, foreigners and Indian Nationals have required a permit to enter The Sister States of India. As a result, large tracts of these states are largely unexplored by tourists and boast of virgin rain forests and tribes people still living traditionally. It was our mission to seek them out.
Fortunately, we had family contacts who could advise us of interesting areas to visit and so after a day of research we had designed a loop into the West of Manipur. Blind faith in road conditions and our navigation was once again our leader as we ventured into areas which are not mapped and are really off the grid. Armed with an entourage of navigational devices; a school wall map of India, our OSM maps on a GPS, google maps and iPhone maps.me app, we headed towards a village called Tamenglong.
I find we often make assumptions which are turned upon their heads. You would think a road named NH29, aka, National Highway 37 would be of a ‘good’ standard. We should have learnt by now, not to make such assumptions such as this. On top of this, the monsoons had just arrived and they descend like a darkness which reigns over the land. Broken asphalt highways turn into rivers cascading beneath our tyres, dirt turns into slippery red mud holes and red puddles deeper than our axles. Another assumption we made is being able to estimate riding times to our destination. (The GPS showed no roads outside of Imphal at all, just blankness!) maps.me shows the roads as a senseless scribble on the page interspersed with straight zigzagging lines.
We soon found that sections of the roads which are straight on our mapping app. are not actually mapped. The roads do not zigzag at all, they wind across mountainous passes and around high ridge lines. And the roads are not what we call national highways, but in our minds 4WD only. They are broken asphalt and muddy holes. Memories of Sumatra!
Con has a maxim he often quotes,”I’m not seeing the rewards for our efforts.” It has been trotted out many times over the last week of our time in Nagaland and Manipur.
Reduced to an average pace of 20km/hr because of road conditions is frustrating and tiring, but once we learnt to ask the locals along the way how long travelling time was we came to terms, somewhat reluctantly, to the slow pace.
Arriving after dark in Tamenglong, it felt like the heart of darkness of India. No lights! Just a muddy road and one street of wooden houses. How would we find lodging here? Once again though, a kind young English speaking man led us through the rain up a very steep driveway to a large house on a hill, but it was in darkness as well. “Namaste”, I said in greeting. “We don’t do that stuff here. We are not Indian here. We are Christians.” Such was our introduction to the politics of the sister states. The candle-bearing owner of the guesthouse greeted us and showed us to a room. It was a sanctuary in remote Manipur. Before long we had a beautiful hot meal served to us by candlelight.
The next morning we awoke to a glimpse of the mountains amongst the clouds and the heart of darkness had transformed into a very large and bustling village! It was market day and it was bustling.
And by the afternoon we had power. It seems these remote areas all have intermittent power. Hemmed in by another day of torrential rain again, we decided to stay another day, hence we discovered the warm and caring hospitality of these people. If we asked directions to a Rice Hotel (restaurant) they would accompany us and stay with us until we had finished and then escort us home! The town/village was very expansive and a confusing network of mud roads perched on a steep mountainside. Without local help we wouldn’t have found anything. Rice Hotels are like little cubby holes beneath the street level; nestled on the hillside down narrow stairways. Find one Rice hotel and you will find them all in the one street.
Throughout the day our night time escort visited us to see if we needed anything. He took us to a bootmaker to fix the sole of my riding boot which had been re-glued with superglue on a daily basis through Myanmar. It was re-sewn for the equivalent of $1 AUS. Unfortunately, we did not get to say farewell to him as an accident involving a little girl had occurred in the morning and he had to attend the funeral in the afternoon. (Yes you did read that correctly)
That evening our entire host family knocked on our door to present us with a special gift each. Manipur, as do the other states, have many hill tribe people, practising their traditions to varying degrees. Many of the villages have a very strong Christian influence, so much culture has been lost. However, in Tamenglong some traditions remain and we were presented with a special ceremonial sash handwoven by the mother of the family. This was to be the first of many moving moments during our stay in this area of these special states.
Braving the roads and monsoonal downpours, we headed out towards Kohima and Nagaland, our next Sister State. Once again, a winding path that by all accounts was going to be extremely difficult. So we left at 5.30 am being waved off by our lovely family. The road out of town was the worst; foot deep, slippery muddy washouts- a new challenge for my riding. I was ready to turn around and ride out the same way we had come, except I couldn’t turn around! It was too hard and treacherous, so on we paddled the bikes along a precipitous road. At times like this, it is just dig deep and hope for the best. And then the roads miraculously improved and were relatively easy and mostly asphalt! The sun shone and we passed through some tiny villages which I am sure had not seen westerners before, well especially not on bikes.
Unlike in Laos though, the children did not run shyly away, the Manipuri children were smiley and waved and laughed at us. I couldn’t help but stop to take photos of a particularly neat village of small mud houses and a spotless street. Soon I had about 15 children appear to look at me. Once I produced my camera, an adult appeared and lined the children up in the middle of the road for a photo. Any school photographer would be happy with that enthusiasm. After each photo the children would all run towards me excited to see themselves and laughing out loud.
Riding out to the highway, I felt like I had ridden out of a sanctuary. There were no military check points, virtually no traffic; just quiet welcoming villages who were inquisitive to see us, extremely smiley and helpful. Also for the first time in our travels, people asked really probing questions about how we managed to do what we do. They often marvel at our trip, but several people asked how it is we can afford our trip, why would we spend our money and if we had any suggestions as to how they could do something similar. They are very aware of how little money they have and how restricted they are by their lack of facilities. It is also the first place we have found people who have no internet access at all; no email and they have no Facebook! In the modern world, internet is access to education and business opportunities which in turn empowers people to change their lives and exercise choices.
The efforts to reach the heart of Manipur were enormous, but the rewards were there.