India had conspired with our bodies to make sure our stay was a lot longer than originally planned. But even after a total of nearly three months in the country we’d barely begun to explore it properly. It’s so huge and so diverse that we could have spent three years here and still not done it justice. Like a jar of yeast extract, It’s somewhere that seems to provoke either a love or hate reaction and we’ve swung from one emotion to the other so many times. But on balance our experience has been overwhelmingly good.
As with any of the countries we’ve travelled through, it’s the people that make it. Yes, the Himalayas were heart-stoppingly spectacular, the Taj Mahal and Golden Temple were exquisite and North East India has been full of surprises, but our memories will be just as full of the characters we’ve met as the sights we’ve seen.
We’ve loved the charming manners of the children, the clipped and precise ‘Hinglish’ spoken at 10 to the dozen and the ambiguous wobble of the head to answer a question. The industriousness and innovation that is applied to solving a problem, usually using bamboo and string. The devotion and enthusiasm thrown at whichever religious belief they have chosen to follow. But mostly what we’ve loved is the genuine concern for the wellbeing of the foreign traveller and their delight that we’re visiting their corner of the world.
With 1.2 billion of them, it’s almost impossible to get away from the staring crowds which is what puts off a lot of people from coming to India. But from our experience their curiosity is good natured and we never once felt threatened. A smile and a wave is usually returned and after a while they disperse with an endearing farewell cry of ‘Happy Journey!’.
On this trip we crossed 10 states leaving 19 others untouched. We will be back to see some more and hopefully very soon.
20th November – 6th December 2015
Our stay in Silchar extended to 12 nights, a result of three holes in my leg left from the exploding saddle sores and the time taken for them to heal up again. It was a chance for some more new experiences though including an introduction to the horrors of the Indian health service.
Lying face down on a stained bed in the College hospital, doctor Hailong was asking me ‘Is it paining?’ as he jabbed and snipped and squeezed the sores. I was too busy biting my fist to stop from shouting to be able to answer, the only distraction being the cow grazing on a rubbish pile just outside the rusty, glassless window. We later saw another cow ambling down a corridor on the way to the Emergency Department. My sister knows how hard it is to work for the National Health Service in the UK but here the pressure on the doctors, the lack of facilities and apparent disregard for hygiene is totally beyond our most basic level of expectation. After the last of the white gunge had been extracted we grabbed the prescription and retreat to somewhere more healthy.
At the Don Bosco School we wanted to earn our keep so for several days we toured the classrooms with a slide show and a brief overview of what we’re up to and some of the things we’d seen and done along the way. The children were enthusiastic to the point of being overwhelming at times particularly when it came to collecting our autographs at the end.
Alongside the main school there was also the Don Bosco Technical College, a facility set up to help older students with vocational courses. They have a great program that takes school drop-outs from rural villages and puts them through a three month course learning practical, business and language skills. Then at the end they are posted to a job with all transport and accommodation arranged. That could be to anywhere in India but it’s a chance to escape the otherwise inevitable move into selling crisps and fizzy drinks in a kiosk or working on the land.
At the college we took on the English speaking classes on the basis that we know a bit about speaking English. It took a day or so before we could be understood, given we have such strange accents compared to their normal teacher, Mr Sylvanas, but we were then able to have some great conversations about our cultural differences. Arranged marriages, the importance of their tribes, their plans and dreams after their studies all made for interesting topics. The best lesson, however, was on the subject of their local food which was superbly illustrated by the range of dishes brought in by the group of Manipuri girls we were teaching.
By coincidence our teaching turned global as our friend Mr Bisco from The Creative Arts school in Plymouth asked if we could have a Skype conversation with his students. They have been following our journey as part of a travel writing project and wanted to ask a few questions. It was an interesting encounter to compare to speaking with the Indian children but with similar curiosity about Why, Where, When, How Far? Knowing that I have such a critical audience assessing our blog puts the pressure on so I hope I’m doing OK.
I’m not quite convinced that teaching will be a new career move for us but having had a few days trying it out we have a fresh view on how rewarding (and challenging) standing at the front of a classroom can be.
It took longer than we would have liked but after nearly two weeks the healing process was at a stage where I could contemplate sitting on a saddle again. However Father Nelson, the Principal, had one last job for us before we could get back on the road.
I remember school sports day being an afternoon of sack racing, egg and spoon and perhaps a parents race but at Don Bosco they don’t do things by halves. A full week of games and sports had been planned to mark the end of the year taking the form of the inaugural Don Bosco Olympics. The local division of the Assam Rifles had prepared a stadium for it to take place in complete with grand stand for VIP guests, PA system, podium and catering tent. To kick things off there was to be a grand opening ceremony and Father Nelson wanted us to be part of it.
With a small boy perched on the cross bar in front of me and another on the rack on the back we led out the Olympic torch to much cheering and applause from the 1500 children surrounding the track. Before that there had been bagpipers, dancing, martial arts displays and a solemn oath declaring that fair play and good conduct would be observed during the games. All very impressive and comparable to our exploits in the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games in 2012.
We could have stayed longer. Our teaching skills could have been improved, I needed to learn all the rules of kabadi, rice and chapati for breakfast had become normal, but the road was calling again. With a goodbye to our new friends I tentatively lowered myself onto the saddle and we span out of Silchar. Just before leaving I told Father Raphael that I would love to show him our city one day but he just smiled and said that he thought that would be impossible. I hope that we can prove him wrong.
Onwards and eastwards Assam gives way to Manipur via a sandy, potholed road and we’re signed and stamped into this new state at a police checkpoint at Jiribam. Manipur has a heavy military presence due to unrest in the region caused by militant groups and tribal quarrelling as such they like to know who is coming in and out. Unlike some of the other North Eastern states there are now no permits required for us to enter with the controls being actually more difficult for Indian residents from other states.
The flat plains can’t last for ever and after lunch an ominous sign informs us we are climbing into the ‘Hill Zone’. It’s in this zone that we stay for the large part of the 250km into Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Along the way the road weaves up though dense vegetation with steep slopes on either side meaning the tent stays tightly packed into the rear pannier. A hammock would be more useful for this stretch but it’s not something we have. Instead we find ourselves in small villages at the end of each day and in those villages we find people who want to help us. One night in the home of Chief Lettingthang in Old Kaiphundai, another with three sisters and one brother in Lungba (which involved lots of singing and dancing) and a third night with a 7th Day Adventist Pastor in Charoi Tupul. Each of them looking after us with kindness and enthusiasm and enjoying hosting these strange foreigners on their double cycle. Luckily they all also knew to hold back on the king chillis when preparing the food as these little balls of fire seem to be added to just about everything they cook here at breakfast, lunch or dinner.
During the day food is available in ‘Rice Hotels’ and drinks can be found in ‘Tea hotels’. We don’t see anything that looks like a ‘Hotel hotel’ though.
It’s a challenging road, large parts are unpaved, slow going and with lungfuls of dust accompanying the passing trucks. It makes for hot and sweaty work with tiger stripes of grime collecting in the crooks of our elbows. Like Jammu and Kashmir there are soldiers everywhere, often marching down both sides of the road but they usually smile when we ride past and dip their rifles. One of the checkpoints was manned by Sikhs from Punjab and we get given tea and water while we stop and chat. Further on at yet another army base they up the ante by bringing out sweet jalebis and samosas too. We explain to the beaming officer the route for our trip and he responds by saying “This is very, very…very…MOST!”. Militant highwaymen have been known to operate in this area so the soldiers guard the roads but insist that foreign tourists are not at risk.
After the final 20km climb that is thankfully on smooth tarmac we drop down onto the floor of the Imphal valley and spin into the city. It’s the 4th December, the day before Kirsty’s birthday so we find a smart hotel, indulge ourselves with a proper shower and dine out.
I think we’re both at an age where just to be able to do what we’re doing is enough of a birthday gift, at least that’s what I tell Kirsty when there isn’t a mountain of presents to unwrap in the morning. But as a special treat we stop at the Manjor Mangang MMRC and Unity Park just after leaving Imphal. It’s a strange place with an exhibition on Manipuri life, some small churches and temples, a micro zoo and a dangerous looking playground. The governor comes out for a photo with us perhaps in the hope we’ll add a review of his park to Trip Advisor.
After the flat valley floor it’s back to the hills and we end the afternoon perched high in Bangyong at an Assam Rifles base. We find another touring bike parked up by the roadside and near it Arne is sat, a young Belgian on his way to Singapore. Arne has already been given the green light for us to stay at the base so we begin to settle in. However the commanding officer has a better plan and instructs us to follow one of his soldiers. We’re led a few hundred metres down the road to a large house where the family have agreed to put us up for the night, perhaps under orders from the officer? By chance it’s also the birthday of their son Brooklyn who’s just turned 13.
The birthday celebrations are conducted by the local Baptist Pastor and consist of a prayer meeting with a blessing for Brooklyn and Kirsty. Then fried chicken is handed round in place of the cake that they had forgotten to order. No cake means no singing apparently so we refrain from the usual chorus of Happy Birthday to You. During the prayers it’s interesting to hear the Lamkang language being spoken, native to this small tribe, with it’s high pitched inflections and changes of pace. The pastor, Jhangvei Khaldon Lamkang, explains to us that the families in the tribe are struggling as the land has been over worked so there is far less yield from their crops. Jobs are available in Moreh and Imphal but they are 60km in either direction and require skills that are hard to learn in a remote village. It means that these meetings are quite intense as everyone has a lot to pray for. It shows how important courses like those run at the Don Bosco Technical College really are too.
We have two more climbs before the next town of Moreh and Arne scampers on ahead. The first is long and steady and the second is a 5km steep grind. It’s a strenuous end to India. Moreh is the border town before Myanmar and its significance has increased rapidly amongst cyclists recently.
Until last year there was no open land border between India and Myanmar, this meant that a route like ours across the Indian subcontinent and into South East Asia would have to include a flight. But now, with a bit of effort and some paperwork it’s possible to buy a permit to cross at Moreh. In our case we used a travel agent called Seven Diamonds who charged a fee of $100 each and sent an email to say that it was Ok to cross on a certain date. Some cyclists have speculated that the permit system is an elaborate scam with border guards and agents all collaborating to fleece hapless cycle tourists but we weren’t about to take our chances and risk trying to cross without one. It took two weeks to process so it could be costly in terms of time if we were turned away. For travellers on motor bikes or with a car the costs are huge and have to include an accompanying tour guide for their entire stay in Myanmar so we’re thankful that they are a bit more lenient for humble cyclists.
In Moreh we are flagged down by the owner of the Sangai Lodge who excitedly told us about another cyclist staying in his guest house that we should meet (and of course we should stay there too). We expect to find Arne but instead here we meet Max, an Austrian with a longer bike than ours and a lengthy beard that makes mine look like a goatee (blog: https://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/?o=tS&doc_id=12372&v=3Dw) . He’s ridden a lap of Asia from Korea to Japan, across Siberia, Mongolia, parts of China, Kazachstan and Kyrgystan. Then like us he flew into Delhi rode up to Nepal, across NE India and is now heading through Myanmar to finish the trip in Bangkok.
His ‘rig’ consists of an unusual full suspension bike with a single wheel trailer following behind. He explains that he is now using his lightweight setup as he sent the canoe home after Russia. For the first half of the trip he hauled a folding canoe on the trailer with the intention of combining roads and rivers for variety. But after only using it a couple of times he decided that carrying the extra 30-40kg wasn’t really worth the effort!
Also in the guest house are Morgan and Poreh, two French backpackers and later Jens turns up, a German cyclist on his way to Bangkok from Kathmandu. We’re all set to cross the border into Myanmar in the morning and the excitement about exploring this new country is palpable. As if to signal that it’s the end of the road for us in India we hear that there has been some sort of protest and there is now a blockade on the road to Imphal so we couldn’t go back even if we wanted to. Thank you India, it’s been a Happy Journey.