Kathmandu to Silchar

2nd November – 19th November 2015

A small party gathers outside the Elbrus Home Hotel to wave us off. The owner, Khem is joined by a couple of the other staff who have looked after us so well during our stay. Fellow British cyclists, Graham, Frances and Sarah are also keen to see the tandem in operation. A swerve to the left to avoid one of the many potholes then a swerve to the right as a curious scooter comes a bit too close then we’re on the move at long last.

Back on the road at last

Petrol supplies have been trickling into the country with a large delivery from China helping to get a few more vehicles back on the road so the streets are getting busier again, but it’s still a long way from the gridlock that we were told was more usual.

Before leaving Kathmandu we wanted to pay a visit to a charity on the outskirts of town. I’d met Taranath a few nights before at a talk by Next Generation Nepal about the disturbing child trafficking problems still taking place in Nepal and he’d invited me to see his own work at a refuge on the outskirts of town.

Taranath

SADLE provides accommodation, medical treatment and teaches skills to people who’ve been cured of, but left disfigured by leprosy. The intricate handicraft items that they are taught how to make are exported and sold, predominantly in Germany but also several other countries in Europe including the UK. The residents seem happy to be in an understanding community and show fantastic dexterity while stitching, printing and weaving. The disease is a big problem in Nepal and this is one of many institutions making an impact working to help look after those who’ve been affected.

New SADLE Charity Refuge, Kathmandu

Tara is grateful for our interest and we hope that we can promote the cause in some way when we get home. In the meantime you can find out more here.

The campus for SADLE sits on a hill alongside several Buddhist monasteries including Kopan so we walk up to take a closer look.  We’re shown inside by a young Vietnamese monk who has already studied under the Dalai Lama (“He’s such a nice guy”) in Dharamsala and will now stay here for 6 more years. He’s amazed that we’ll be cycling all the way from Kathmandu to his home town of Hanoi.

Our Vietnamese guide (we didn’t catch his name unfortunately)
We made sure stuck to the rules
Kopan Monastery

The back streets of Kathmandu are the worst we’ve seen in any major city ranging from dry and dusty to wet and muddy, rarely with any kind of permanent surface and always with huge holes and rocks. It makes for slow progress all the way to Bhaktapur just 25km away where we stop for the day.

Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur has retained a lot more of its authenticity than its bigger neighbour. There are fewer modern buildings and the core of the town is a largely traffic free maze of cobbled streets and alleyways. Unfortunately the age of the buildings and the apparent lack of maintenance mean that it suffered badly during the earthquakes. The main Durbar Square is now missing some of its ancient temples and other buildings are lying half collapsed or propped up with bamboo scaffolding. Amazingly, Nyatapolo, the tallest temple in the country survived undamaged and retains its tiered, vegetated set of roofs.

Steps to nowhere: the Siddhi Laxmi Temple was destroyed
First the earthquakes then the fuel crisis. 2015 has been a terrible year for Nepal.
Doorway in the Durbar Square
Nyatapolo Pagoda, built in 1701

Hindus love ringing bells and make it their priority for first thing in the morning so we’re woken at 5am by the chimes from devotees in the temple adjacent to our window. Out of Bhaktapur we find ourselves on a road amongst rice paddy fields and it’s harvest time. The process is heavily labour intensive so whole villages get involved, first cutting the rice stalks with sickles and laying them in neat lines to dry. Then a group gathers in a circle to thrash off the rice grains by hitting clumps of stalks against an increasing pile on the ground. Finally the chaff is blown off by sifting the grains past an electric fan if they’re lucky otherwise a man wafting a large tray creates the breeze. Our perceived value of the endless servings of rice and dahl just went up a notch or two.

Threshing the rice
Sifting off the chaff

Around lunchtime we stop to investigate a dhaba where a small girl in a tiny wedding dress is celebrating her birthday. Two cyclists pull in next to us and surprise us by saying ‘Hello Kirsty!’. Kirsty had offered advice to Bjorn and Jens (http://www.velofilia.de/en/) in a Facebook group while we were in Kathmandu but we’d not made plans to meet up. By chance they’d caught us up and the tandem gave away our identity.

“Is that her husband?”
“No, it’s her brother”
Bjorn and Jens – http://www.velofilia.de/en/

We ride together for the afternoon with a stop for rice and dahl at the next village then pull up at another dhaba just before a series of hairpins ramps up in front of us. We’re forced to stop even though it’s only 4:30 as it’ll be dark by 5 so that’s a challenge that can wait until the morning.

Straw stacks

A large tree in front of the dhaba has a stone platform built around it and the owners are happy for us to set up camp on there before providing us with dinner. We tuck into generous servings of rice and dahl.

Al fresco bedroom

We get another early wake up call at 2am, this time a singer who blows a horn between verses and seems to be wondering around the village serenading each house. We snatch a bit more sleep before the sun comes up and then, while packing up we watch the day’s meat supply being prepared. A young buffalo is brutally attacked by a man with a huge knife then the dead animal is covered with straw and set on fire, presumably to remove the hair. It’s a sobering sight to start the day.

Today’s special: Roast buff

With refreshed legs the first climb doesn’t seem too bad. The road surface is lovely and smooth and the gradient is the right side of comfortable. We’re now on the BP Koirala Highway, otherwise known as the Japanese Road due to it’s generous benefactors. Japan funded most of the 20 billion rupees that it cost to build this important link from Kathmandu to the east of the country and also most of the machinery and manpower. It took 20 years to construct and the final stretch was opened in March this year so the tarmac is still fresh.

Smooth roads and soothing views on The BP Highway

The bulk of the climbing comes after we’ve been up and down another small hill. We have to winch up 21 hairpins gaining 900m in the process to get over the ridge that marks the edge of the mountainous northern regions of Nepal and the start of the flatter plains to the south.

Hairpins a-plenty on the BP Highway

The Germans are waiting for us at the top alongside several fruit sellers and sweet stalls. Some fresh oranges and a few sugary jalebis are just what we need. The Japanese have done a fantastic job with this road and the way down is a smooth squiggle of bends and curves off the hilltop. We race a tractor along the way and get a good lead until the road goes up again. The driver and his many passengers cheer us as they chug past.

What goes up, must come down

We finish the day in Bardibas and begin to consider accommodation options. Bjorn and Jens tell us they are adept ‘Temple Tourers’ having stayed in numerous religious buildings all across India and Nepal. We set them to task finding somewhere for us all to stay and a few km down the road they come up trumps after we’re directed to a nearby church. Alongside it are a group of buildings that happen to house another refuge for victims of leprosy and the caretaker lets us into the small church hall where he’s happy for us to stay the night. We’re later joined by a local doctor who tells us that the church, refuge and nearby hospital have all been provided by charities in the UK and Ireland. Reinforcing what Tara had told us about the extent of the leprosy problems in Nepal, he tells us that 2 in 10,000 people are affected in this region.

The church hall, outside Bardibas

During dinner we watch a chicken suffering a similar fate to the buffalo at the hands of a man with a large knife. We all decide to go for the veg option to accompany our rice and dahl.

Now back on the flat plains we all move quickly in a tight formation of three bikes, sharing the work at the front. It’s a very tricky way to ride on a tandem as there are constant and slight changes in power needed to stay within a few cm of the wheel in front. Kirsty has to be super sensitive of the pressure she can feel me putting through the pedals and ease off if necessary or add more when I call for ‘Power, power!’. We also have the stopping distance of an oil tanker compared to the nimble solo bikes so when we’re sat in second or third place on the line I have to look over the shoulders of the others to anticipate any potential emergency stop situations. In the end it’s actually Bjorn and Jens who need to pay more attention and there are a couple of touches of wheel to pannier after a lapse of concentration, but no harm done.

Anglo-German Peloton
Big queues for the scarce petrol supplies

The land we’re passing through is a huge flood plain for the Koshi River that we cross later in the day. Some French cyclists we’d met earlier had told us to look for freshwater dolphins and we manage to see several playing in the wake off the bridge struts.

Bumping into Michael and Nadhia who had ridden up from Sri Lanka
A lady carrying a heavy load over the Koshi River bridge

The end of the afternoon brings us into a village entirely occupied by Muslims in their characteristic scull caps and long kameez shirts. This is the first Muslim community we’d seen in Nepal and it means it may be hard to find a church here but maybe they’ll let us stay in the mosque? As usual, a knot of people soon forms around us who we greet with a cheerful ‘Assalamu alaikum‘ confusing them into thinking we’re muslim too. When we explain that we’re looking for somewhere to stay, eventually Sahib comes forward and offers his brother’s house. They allow Bjorn and Jens to set up their mats on the porch while Kirsty and I get an outbuilding with a bed. We shower under a cold hand pump with lots of curious faces watching and then with with typical Muslim generosity we’re given a hearty meal of rice and dahl. Meanwhile Sahib’s nephew, Nahan runs a mobile phone repair shop and offers his services to fix our broken camera battery charger.

Our hosts in Laukahi

All the houses in the village are made from straw but look quite new which we later learn is because in 2008 the whole area was swamped when the river burst its banks. Sahib is angry that they received very little support from the government, but the community was strong enough to rebuild everything themselves.

The guest suite in Laukahi

In the morning we’re a bit weary having racked up 150km the day before but it’s the last stretch before the border. The dynamics of the tandem are different to a solo bike so even a slight gradient requires an exponential increase in power meaning we have to stand hard on the pedals to stay with Bjorn and Jens whenever we cross one of the many small river bridges. However with a slight downhill gradient the roles are reversed so we take to the front and make them work hard to stay with us.

Tandem -power!

After refuelling on chow mein for a change we battle through the last 10km of hectic traffic to the border at Mechinagar. Vehicles are loaded up with containers ready to collect fuel from the Indian side. Some optimistic motorbike passengers have two 20 litre jerry cans in each hand, no doubt forgetting how heavy they will be once they’ve been filled up.

Approaching the border at Mechinagar

We get stamped out of Nepal then cross a bridge over the river that forms a physical border. On the other side a familiar cocktail of smells and sounds immediately waft over us, the road surface degrades, we’re swamped by people and join the back of a chaotic queue of traffic that appears to be going nowhere. Unmistakably India.

Into West Bengal

The road out of Panitanki is lined with trucks and fuel tankers, all waiting to deliver goods into Nepal as soon as the Indian government lets them. Some of the drivers have built beds under their trailers and groups gather round fires to cook their dinner.  Many of them will have been here since the crisis started over two months ago and they have no idea how much longer they’ll have to wait. Some of these containers may contain the vital materials that the NGOs and charities in Kathmandu desperately need to build shelters for the earthquake victims. A maddening situation for all concerned that we can only hope gets resolved soon.

The queue of stationary trucks stretching for 5km out of Panitanki

The keen eyes of Bjorn and Jens spot a small Hindu temple and after speaking to a few of the locals we’re told it’s Ok for us to stay in there. The temple ‘Grandmother’, responsible for keeping the temple in good order, looks after us by showing us the hand pump for washing and prepares a tasty meal of dahl and rice for us. In return we offer a donation and try to convey our gratitude despite the language barrier.

Jens and Bjorn had warned us that there are no lie-ins in a Hindu temple. At 5am a small group gathers and begin playing drums and cymbals and singing. As well as bells, Hindus love music in the morning. We’re soon up and out.

Nothing like a drum being played right next to your head to wake you up in the morning

The line of trucks stretches nose to tail for 5km along the road in the direction of Siliguri It’s a big busy town where we stop for breakfast and catch up on emails at a rare wifi hotspot before pushing on out the other side.

This was a decision point for us as our original plan had been to enter Bangladesh at the border just south of Siliguri. The embassy in Kathmandu had said we couldn’t get a visa at this border point but we’d considered trying anyway just in case as I’d read that Nepalese nationals could get through. However further research into the terrorist incidents that had taken place a few weeks earlier showed us that a Japanese man had been killed in a village in the region just past the border where we had planned to cross. The unlikely chance of getting across and the dangers on the other side seal the deal so reluctantly we decide to leave a visit to Bangladesh for another day.

Tucking into momos in Birpara

Instead a different country becomes a possibility. After a night in another temple in Birpara we ride out past the huge tea plantations that the province of Assam is renowned for. Up ahead we can see green hills rising up out of the plains. This is the edge of the small mountain kingdom of Bhutan.

One of the many Assamese Tea Gardens

It’s relatively straightforward to visit Bhutan, there are plenty of official tour agencies that will organise the visas, permits, itinerary and accommodation for you, all sanctioned by the Bhutanese government. The snag is that this is the only way you are allowed to visit unless you are from one of the few countries who are allowed to travel independently. The minimum cost is $250 per person per day which is out of reach for most cycle tourists. However we had heard of one plucky Spaniard who calls himself the Biciclown who had managed to persuade the Bhutanese Embassy in Dhaka to give him a visa without needing to join an organised tour. His mission is to spread happiness throughout the world by giving free clown shows wherever he goes which fits nicely with the King of Bhutan’s obsession with the well-being of his people. Their economy isn’t measured in monetary terms but instead they use a measure of GNP – Gross National Happiness. Biciclown wants to make people happy so he was let in.

The road to Bhutan

We had hoped to present a similar case to the embassy in Dhaka, without the clown shows but with an emphasis on the joy people feel when seeing such an unusual bike as ours. We had even asked a family friend of high standing in the UK government to write a letter supporting our cause. However as we were no longer going to Dhaka this scuppered our plan. Embassies never reply to emails and it’s hard to get through to the right person on the phone but we tried both anyway with no success.

In spite of this we approach the small, rural border at Gomttu at speed. There’s no barrier, just a wide, unguarded gateway and we zoom through and turn sharp left. We’re greeted by a picture of the King, the 4th Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck, on a billboard with the bright yellow and orange flag of Bhutan behind him, an ornate dragon striding across it. Someone shouts hello from the large building behind us and the shouts get increasingly urgent. Suddenly there’s a policeman on a bicycle chasing us so we pull over, smile and greet him with as innocent a look as we can muster. Back at the large building we’re asked to show our passports and visas. “We need a visa? Oh, we didn’t realise, sorry”. It’s all taken good naturedly, the immigration officer even calls his boss to see if a concession can be made after I explain how far we’ve come just to visit their country. But it’s just not possible unless we stump up the huge daily fee, so after a bit more of a chat and buying some Bhutanese currency as a souvenir we’re sent back into India.

Staying off the brakes as we head through the border gate
Just enough time for a photo with the King

Meanwhile Bjorn and Jens had gone on ahead to a different border crossing. Our American friend Chris who we’d met In Dushanbe had told us that he’d managed to get in at Jaigaon which is a much busier crossing used by hundreds of Indian vehicles each day. Indians don’t need visas to get into the border regions of Bhutan.

When we arrive in Jaigaon, we find Jens waiting for us. He and Bjorn have already been through without being challenged. The only issue was that Bjorn was told to wear his helmet by a policeman while they rode around Phuentsholing, the Bhutanese town immediately on the other side of the border.

Sure enough when we all ride back down through the Bhutan Gate no one seems to notice. We’re in!

The streets of Phuentsholing
Phuentsholing Students

We drop the bikes at a hotel who ask few questions and are happy to take our Indian Rupees, though 1 Rupee = 1 Bhutanese Ngultrum so the two currencies are interchangeable.

Prayer wheels, Phuentsholing

Despite effectively being one town with a fence down the middle, the difference between Jaigaon and Phuentsholing is remarkable. There’s peace and calm, no rattling auto riskshaws and beeping traffic. It’s also much cleaner and tidier with the roads and buildings all in good order and there’s a nice green park in the town centre where people are gathering to help prepare for the upcoming celebrations. It’s the King’s birthday in three days time so flags are being hung above every doorway and there are huge posters of his majesty with inspirational quotes and supportive messages written underneath them. A stage is being built in the park for the cultural events and speeches. It looks like it’s all set to be a great party.

Preparing for the royal birthday party

While taking a stroll we meet a group of scouts on their way back from their weekly meeting. “Where’s your tour guide?” asks Jimmy but we manage to skirt round the issue that we’re there illegally and he and his friends offer to show us to the nearby monastery. Bhutan is a Buddhist country so the young monks are all dressed in the familiar deep red robes with shaven heads that we’d seen in Ladakh and Himachal. We join in a football match and find that not only are the monks quicker and more skilful than us but they can also hide the ball by dropping their robes over it. We defend bravely but the final whistle ends the match with a score of 1-0 to the monks.

Whose robe is whose?
Posing with the scout group in front of the temple
Pass it!
Kick it!

Jimmy and the scouts show us to their friend’s shop where we’re given some local food. Then we have a more substantial meal back in the town centre including the Bhutanese speciality of Datsi, an interesting combination of cheese and chilies.

Trying on a Bhutanese Gho

Then our Bhutan adventure comes to an end. In the hotel we’re met by the staff who ask to see our visas. Of course we don’t have any so apologetically they tell us we have to leave. With the upcoming birthday celebrations security is being tightened with random police checks on hotels. They would be in trouble if they were found to have let several foreigners stay without visas so for everyone’s sake we reluctantly pack up and ride 500m back through the gateway to a hotel in Jaigaon.

Our snapshot of this little known country was fun while it lasted and I hope one day we can come back for a more legitimate and thorough visit.

School children in traditional dress in the central park

After Jaigaon our route takes us back onto the plains of Assam, past the Bhata Tiger Reserve where a wild elephant roams alongside the road. Then onto a partially built dual carriageway that helps us speed into Borobisha.

Spot the elephant

In India it’s hard to get through a single week without finding yourself in the middle of some kind of festival. The beginning of November is Dewali – the Festival of Light but more accurately it’s as much a festival of sound as well as light. The music being pumped out of a townwide speaker system is deafening and there are strings of firecrackers being let off like gunfire. We can hardly hear the policeman who is trying to direct us to the nearby church but we try to interpret his hand signals as best we can. All along the main streets are huge bamboo gantries with lighting boards that come alive with moving images after dark while dozens of firework displays explode overhead.

Dewali lighting displays

We find the church and it’s locked but we’re then led around the corner to a school who a passerby thinks may be able to help. The teacher who opens the gate of the 7th Day Adventist English School is more than happy to welcome us in and we’re quickly installed in the guest bedrooms of the principal’s apartment. Raju Jacob and Mary Josephine run the school for orphans from the region but have received some children from as far away as Kathmandu. All classes are taught in English and the children we meet speak confidently and are wonderfully polite. Very few of them have ever met a European before and it’s great to see how enthusiastic they are to shake our hands and ask us questions. We just feel like ordinary people on bikes but to them we’re celebrities.

In the scrum at the 7th Day Adventist School

In the morning, in return for our room and board, we agree to show the children some photos and talk a bit about our journeys. It’s a shame that my volunteer points to Ukraine when I ask him to show me where England is on a world map but the rest of the presentation seems to go down well. The highlight, however, is seeing their principal riding around the playground on the back of the tandem with a swarm of cheering children chasing after us. After an extensive photoshoot with the staff we’re presented with some polo shirts with the school logo on the front and “Teacher” written across the back. I hadn’t realised teacher training was so easy!

Taking assembly at the 7th Day Adventist School, Borobisha
The staff of the SDA School, Borobisha
Going for a ride with Raju Jacob, The Principal
Teachers on the move

The dual carriageway continues after Borobisha, slicing villages in two in many places. Sometimes a policeman helps people to cross from one side to the other but more often they have to just chance their luck and run for it. A move made more risky when you’ve got a couple of buffalo in tow. The road is only three years old, and there are still plenty of places where there’s work to be done to complete it but Raju Jacob told us it’s already had an impact on the region, allowing rapid expansion of the towns and a much faster supply route for the trucks.

The dusty road takes us over numerous small rivers, some dotted with wide flat bottomed fishing boats to cope with the shallow water. In other places the fishermen just stand up to their waists holding rods and with a clay pot strapped to their chests to put their catch in.

Fishing in the shallow water

Arriving in Bongaigaon, it’s the Catholic Church that comes to our aid for the evening. At the St Aloysius Seminary, a school for prospective priests, we meet Father Biju Joseph and Father Manu Augustine and after asking if we can pitch our tents outside the nearby cathedral they instead offer us rooms in the boarding house. Over dinner they explain that the training to become a priest is a lengthy process of around 10-15 years. The seminary houses 65 boys who are at college age and will progress from here to study theology at university before further training at a placement in a parish that could be anywhere in India.

Father Biju Joseph and Father Manu Augustine

In the morning we get to hear the boys singing hymns accompanied by the eclectic combination of an electronic church organ and Indian tabla drums.

After Bongaigaon we get to turn off the busy main road onto a much more pleasant route that brings us to the banks of the Brahmaputra River. One of the largest rivers in the world it takes a 2.5km long bridge to get us across it. Freshwater dolphins occasionally bob to the surface in the murky brown water while a long freight train rumbles along the deck below us.

The bridge over the Brahmaputra

We’re now venturing deep into the tribal territories of North East India. Tall forests of banana trees surround dusty towns where the sight of four westerners on bikes brings the bustling streets to a standstill. While we tuck into our lunch people jostle to get a better view of us eating, using their camera phones to capture what surely must be some of the dullest videos ever made. A large proportion of the staring crowds chew languidly on the popular betel nut. It seems to numb their senses, their eyes are glazed over and they slur their words. Like their teeth, the streets are stained from the excess of crimson saliva that they constantly have to spit out. It’s a horrible habit and we try to avoid anyone with the tell tale bright red grin.

The banana market at Daranggiri
A double cycle draws a big crowd in Assam

Our road is now a corridor through the humid jungle. We see a man riding an elephant but he is more amazed to see us than we are to see him. Father Biju Joseph had suggested we aim for Boko where we would find the Don Bosco School, also run by the Catholic Church to see if they can provide a room for the night, which they do. It’s the main night of Dewali and the battle ground of fireworks and bangers rages from early evening to late at night. We wanted to go out and take a closer look but find the gates of the school have been firmly locked. One of the priests explains that it’s too dangerous to go out at night due to the risk of muggers, drunks and stampeding wild elephants. Just last year someone was trampled by a startled animal while on their way home after dark.

Heavy traffic ahead
Spot the elephant

The road gets progressively busier as we approach Guwahati, the capital city of Assam Province. We avoid the centre by racing round the ring road, stopping only to visit a Decathlon store, a little slice of neat and ordered European familiarity amongst the Indian chaos.

The first Decathlon store to be opened in NE India

After Guwahati we leave Assam and enter Meghalaya. A relatively small province that encompasses the hills and high plateau above the Bangladeshi border. The road rises off the flat plains and we let Bjorn and Jens disappear up the hill while we get on with the task in hand at tandem speed. Although there were plenty of churches in Assam, Christianity was still the minority religion with Hindu and tribal beliefs being more common. However the missions had been more successful in the Meghalaya region so Catholicism is the dominant faith. Every village has a church tower peeking over the roof tops and in the town of Namphu we find the St Paul’s Catholic School. Two German students are on a year’s placement here so Bjorn and Jens enjoy a conversation in their native language over a cup of tea while we wait for the Padre.

Don Bosco School, Boko

Meghalaya has three main tribal groups: Kazi, Garo and Jantia, each with it’s own cultural traditions and language. There are also smaller tribes, again with their own language differences with at least 60 identifiable languages being spoken across the province. This is a Kazi area so we use “Khublei” for hello and our favourite phrase for thank you so far: “Khublei Shiboom”. If we were to move a few km along a different road we’d have to learn an entirely different greeting.

After breakfast with Father Jose, one of the nicest and friendliest people we’ve ever met, we’re back into the climb. The soundtrack to accompany our heavy breathing is a shrill, tinitus like tone emanating from the bushes. It sounds like an electrical alarm but is in fact one of the thousands of annoying jungle insects.

Father Jose at St Paul’s Catholic School, Namphu

The approach to Shillong is predictably busy. Like the heart of an ant hill, everyone seems to be crowding up towards the capital of Meghalaya. The final, steep climb eventually subsides and we get directions to the Don Bosco Technical College where Father Augustine is waiting for us. Father Jose had called to say we were on our way so a room has already been prepared for us to stay in. Just the easy and relaxing arrival we needed after the efforts of the morning.

Fish market in Shillong

At the risk of seeming ungrateful we don’t make use of their accommodation that night. Instead we leave the bikes and take a shared taxi down to Cherrapunji, 50km further south. This town claims to be the wettest place on earth with the highest annual rainfall ever recorded. In 1861 26,461mm fell on this plateau.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

We go in search of yet another Don Bosco Catholic School but when we find it Father Roy is a bit more suspicious of the four foreign visitors on his doorstep. Without our bikes our plight is much less obvious but after we explain that Fathers Jose and Augustine had sent us he soon welcomes us in and offers some floor space for us to sleep on.

We weren’t in Cherrapunji to enjoy the rainfall, we get enough of that back home, and besides it’s been warm and dry here for weeks. The reason for coming here was to see the famous living tree root bridges in the villages below. On our way to the village of Tyrna we get a view off the plateau to the Bangladeshi plains below. It’s more water than land, a country built around one of the the largest river deltas on the planet and collecting the runoff from the Himalayas, parts of China and most of Northern India. If we’d been down there trying to cross it as planned then a boat would have been more useful than a bicycle.

Looking down onto a soggy Bangladesh
Looking back up from Tyrna

From Tyrna we set off on foot down a never ending staircase that drops us steeply into the dense undergrowth. On either side of the path enormous spiders hang threateningly from their webs. The largest are about the size of my hand with yellow and black hazard stripes across their backs implying it’s probably best not to get too close.

Dropping down from Tyrna
Not a place for arachnophobes

The first of the root bridges spans a 20m wide, shallow gorge. The aerial roots of the banyan fig trees are initially trained along a bamboo pole and carefully looped and woven together until eventually they take hold on the other side and form a useable structure. It takes around 15 years to get to the stage where someone can walk across but after that the roots continue to grow into the walkway and hand rails, becoming a tangled mass across the gorge so it just gets stronger and stronger. This one is about 200 years old and is as sturdy as iron.

The longest living tree root bridge in the world
Bjorn inspects nature’s engineering

Some more modern steel bridges take us across a wider gorge to see a unique ‘double decker’ root bridge. Also nearly 200 years old these living structures will almost certainly outlast their artificial counterparts. However it’s not a building technique for the the impatient. We see a new bridge in the early stages of being grown but we’ll have to wait at least 10 years before we can come back and walk across it.

Kirsty found the man-made bridges far more terrifying to walk across
A unique’Double Decker’ living root bridge

While we admire the combined handiwork of man and nature, Jens is tipped off about a pool further up the path and an alternative route back up onto the plateau. 30 minutes later we’re splashing about in one of the most idyllic swim spots any of us has ever seen.

Paradise pool

A waterfall cascades down through a cleft in the rock into a crystal clear swimming pool lined with enormous boulders. Vividly colourful butterflies dance across the surface of the water and briefly rest at the edges. We swim round behind the waterfall for a powershower to remember.

This beautiful butterfly was about 7cm long

Refreshed and invigorated we climb back up to the path and continue on but the trail begins to deteriorate. After another 30 minutes we reach another, enormous waterfall that has come crashing down in stages from high up on the rim of the plateau, 1000m above us. It also marks the end of the path.

We backtrack all the way to the pool and find where we went wrong then climb stairs for another 2 hours. As it begins to get dark a mild sense of panic sets in as I realise there’s a chance we’ll be stuck in a spider infested jungle overnight with no shelter and no light. Just before I begin looking for wood to build a bivouac and light a fire we emerge into the gloom at the top of the plateau. Relief washes over us like the crystal clear waterfalls now far below us.

A pineapple taking shape in the undergrowth
Light fading fast on the endless climb back up to the plateau

We catch a lift back to Shillong and finally make use of the room that Father Augustine had prepared for us.

The next day is a much needed rest day. The hike had been more strenuous than we’d expected but there’s also a medical issue that needs addressing. For the past 4 days an uncomfortable sore patch has developed in the high friction area at the top of my left leg that spends its days in contact with the saddle. This got worse to become a welt and then three angry infected boils. The final two days into Shillong would have been more pleasant if I’d filled my shorts with hot coals. I’d had to adopt an awkward side saddle position on the bike which was neither comfortable nor effective for hill climbing but was the only way I could bear to sit on the bike. Common sense would say that I should have stopped and let it calm down a couple of days before Shillong but sense isn’t my strong point. Besides, we had to keep pace with the Germans!

So it’s a visit to the hospital to be swabbed and dressed and prescribed with more antibiotics and pain killers leaving with strict instructions not to ride for 5 days. It’s a shame they didn’t prescribe logic and patience too.

The rest of our Sunday is spent looking at closed up shops and watching parishioners visiting the local church in their finest suits and frocks with bibles tucked under their arms. Turn back the clock 50 years and most British towns would have looked the same in a time when Sunday really was observed as the Sabbath.

Believing that I know best, I ignore the doctor’s advice and decide we should continue when Monday morning arrives. The pills help a little but I still have to perch very awkwardly on the bike, right on the nose of the saddle to make it bearable. Large doses of Ibuprofen get me through the day as we traverse through what claims to be the Scotland of the East. Most likely this title is the result of the amount of rainfall that falls each year but looking at the pine trees, tussocked moorland of thick grasses across the rolling hills it’s easy to imagine we’re North of Hadrian’s Wall. Is that a bag piper we can hear up ahead? No, it’s the whining gearbox of another Tata truck straining up the hill with black smoke belching out of it to fill up our lungs.

Haggis pakora anyone?

After Jowai we take a left turn and the road improves both in the quality of the surface but also with a dramatic reduction in traffic. The sun begins to tuck itself behind the horizon so we ask about sleeping in the next available church. We find it’s not possible without permission from the local tribal chief who’s not there right now so we have to ride on. It may not have helped that we greeted them with the Kazi word ‘Khublei’ but they are actually Pnar and use ‘Hoi’ to say hello.

The smallest man in India

Our saviours are the police force in the next village of Raliang. Seeing four tired cyclists arrive at their outpost, one with a slight hobble, they offer some floor space in the police station while apologising for the lack of facilities on offer. We take it in turns to brave a cold water bucket shower in one of the policemen’s houses, it comprises just two tiny rooms with a washing area behind a curtain. We’re then driven back up to the dhaba in the main part of the village for dinner before an extensive photoshoot with each and every policeman and then finally being allowed to get some sleep. We’re not the first cyclists to pay them a visit though as a British rider on a fat tyre bike passed through at the beginning of the year. With these encounters as their only contact with Europeans they must think we all ride bikes around the world for a living.

The Raliang chief of police
Our cell for the night

My common sense finally kicks in once we leave Raliang and I vow to stop at the next decent sized town to rest properly and heal up. On the map there appears to be something useful in about 20km so I pray for an easy morning of riding and then being able to put my feet up (and slightly apart). Instead the settlements get more and more basic and the road gets progressively worse. The point on the map we thought was a town turns out to be a collection of huts made from woven sticks and straw with herds of animals and small children patrolling the mud tracks between them. An extraordinary looking place but not somewhere we’d find reliable medical care. The inhabitants stare open mouthed as we trundle past on a road that threatens to loosen every single bolt on the bike. I wince with every bump.

Meghalyan villagers with typical beetle nut stained lips

A bridge takes us across a river, past a large dam and back into Assam before we ride up and over a steep hill to arrive at a truck stop for breakfast where we tuck into chana and chipati and chai.

Dam on the Assam border

Bjorn and Jens have some distance to cover to be able to get up into the next state of Nagaland then back down to the Myanmar border in time to make their pre-arranged crossing date. There’s no point in us holding them back any longer today so it’s time to part company. It’s been great riding with them for the past 10 days and together we’d got to this point a lot quicker than if we were on our own. But more importantly, their no-budget accommodation approach has re-introduced some of the sense of the adventure that I felt we’d lost before Kathmandu where we were relying on hotels. Having no idea where we were going to stay each night was something that I’d been missing. It’s true that pushing hard for 120km+ each day in the hot, humid conditions had led to my current condition but it was my fault for not taking better care of myself.

Bjorn and Jens

With shouts of “auf Wiedersehen”, they speed off in a cloud of dust and we continue on for 15km into Umrongso. Perhaps we lacked the charm of the Germans because there’s no room at the inn when we enquire at the catholic school so instead have to check in to the Lily Inn. Loud music right outside our room is not the relaxing atmosphere we were after but then there’s a knock on the door and three teenagers invite us to join in the birthday party. We’re treated like guests of honour and dance the evening away, much to the amusement of the other adults who aren’t so willing to show us their moves. Outside, fireworks and music signal the start of another Hindu festival while around the corner we peek over a fence to watch the preparations for a wedding that’s due to take place tomorrow. This unassuming town seems to be surprisingly lively tonight and everyone we speak to is thrilled that we’re there to experience it all.

The party girls
pre-wedding celebrations in Umrongso

Much as we were warming to Umrongso, it’s still not quite suitable for the extended rest that I need, so very early the next morning the tandem is strapped to the roof of a Sumo 4×4 and we endure the 8 hour drive down to Silchar. We get to experience the awful roads from a bench seat over the stiff back axle and there’s a few times when we wish we had our helmets on after we’re launched into the ceiling.

Umrongso
This river stained blue by the limestone rocks on its bed

We knew that there was another Don Bosco School in Silchar and hoped that they could help us out. The mere thought of cycling was just too painful to even contemplate now so we had to walk 4km to get to the school gates, offers of help being handed out by several people along the way. It takes less than a minute for Father Raphael and Brother Reggie to welcome us in and find us a room to stay in. This wonderful institution has come to our rescue yet again which is a relief as looking at the state of my leg with a combination of revulsion and sympathy, Kirsty predicts we might be here for some time.

Don Bosco to the rescue once again

While riding with Bjorn and Jens it was appropriate that I’d been reading Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K Jerome’s amusing account of travelling through pre-war Germany on a tandem. His observations regarding the typical German characteristics made me smile as there were more than a few similarities in our riding buddies. The book closes with this paragraph which seems to sum up our journey nicely:

“‘A Bummel’,” I Explained, “I should describe as a a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”

Our Bummel is far from over but it’s time to rest awhile.

Get Lucky or be Dum
Ortlieb’s new panniers look a bit heavy

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