Though sad to be leaving Nepal I did feel a little bit of excitement being back in the intensity of India. What was it about crossing that frontier? After passing through the border post at Kakarbitta there was no variation in my surrounds, the landscape hadn’t changed, the road was the same and there were no obvious differences in the faces around me – the truck drivers, labourers in the fields, or locals hanging out at roadside stalls chatting. But it felt different. More animated, more active, more colourful. Among the masses I was more anonymous. Half an hour after leaving the bustle and bureaucracy of the border I stopped at a roadside dhaba for a chapati and dal to welcome me back, and a chai. The young urbane owner sat at my table to chat. I was back in India. But this was a different India. The north east.
A few hours cycle away was Siliguri. The north-east of India is connected to the rest of the country by the ‘Siliguri corridor’. Just fifteen kilometres separate India’s neighbours Nepal and Bangladesh on each side of this ‘chicken’s neck’. Beyond the Siliguri corridor lie seven Indian states in the north-east of the country. On a map, ballooning out and quite separate from the rest of India, they look almost like another country. Much of the population of the ‘Seven Sisters’ as they’re called, don’t identify ethnically with the rest of India and over the last century the region has experienced much civil unrest. They share much more in common – in appearance, culture and customs – with Burmese and Himalayan peoples. India is determined to maintain jurisdiction over the Seven Sisters of the north-east as a buffer to any expansionist threat from China.
Further east again lie tiger and malaria infested jungles and Burma and South East Asia “and perhaps, some lost world still awaiting discovery. This is where the certainties of the civilised world crumble into uncharted waters, forests and hills of tribal territories. Where architecture becomes vernacular building. Where scrubbed and starched underwear is replaced with loincloths. Repeating rifles with bows and arrows. The honk of motorised traffic with the screech of hidden monkeys,” as Jonathan Glancey in ‘Nagaland. A Journey to India’s Forgotten Frontier’ imagines a colonial’s take on it.
Entering the large city of Siliguri I was scanning the jumble of buildings flanking the busy dual carriageway for an accommodation option. Just to get an idea of prices – sometimes you get lucky – I checked out one hotel but knew before entering it was beyond my budget. It had its own courtyard for parking. Past the rust streaked ‘Hotel’ signs hanging off grotty buildings lining the main road I was fortunate to find a small guesthouse, a villa from colonial days, set back off the road obscured behind its younger, taller neighbours. Having seen better days, it exuded an air of faded refinement and was a haven from the hectic traffic. The manager, who I discovered also owned the stationery shop round the corner when I asked about internet possibilities, welcomed me and wagging his head sideways while smiling said he had a room. “Why not. And good price”. From the bright reception room he led me into a windowless hallway of dark teak floorboards with a few doors off it, one of which he opened into a bedroom. The first impression was that it was spacious. The curtains were pulled across to keep the heat down, and in the gloom I could see it was sparsely but attractively furnished with a bamboo chair, chest of drawers, desk and firm double bed. It was quiet but for a rhythmic creaking from the ancient ceiling fan lazily swinging from its unsteady mooring. The en-suite bathroom, a more recent extension into the yard, had in the corner a squat toilet leaking a wet smear across the rough concrete floor to the drain. A suspended hose served as a cold shower.
It was early afternoon and the rest of the day opened ahead of me with nothing on my agenda. Perfect. It felt like a stolen half day. A cycle into the busy city centre to wander around then back to my comfortable quarters. The foothills of the Himalayas rose as a hazy backdrop in the distance. Up there was fabled Darjeeling.
The guesthouse agreed to store my bike and panniers while I took off for a few days up into the mountains. The steam ‘toy train’ on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a two foot wide, narrow-gauge rail, wound its way alongside the steep road climbing to the town. It was late November and at 2,000 metres in altitude there was a definite nip in the air. Darjeeling dates back to just the mid 1800s when the British, as a refuge from the fierce summer heat of the colonial capital Calcutta, founded the hill station. The strain of black tea that grew well up here was recognised as of particularly high quality and British planters developed extensive tea plantations across the hills.
Built up the side of a hill, the lower part of town was a mix of traditional houses and old colonial era mansions. On the crest, where the cheaper lodgings were located, some with views north across to the snowy tops of the Himalayas, the feel was quite different as I wandered up the narrow street to my guesthouse past stalls selling Tibetan and Nepali food. Most faces were not Indian in appearance. The majority of the population are Gorkas of ethnic Nepali background (Gurka) and the food on offer at the street stalls mostly reflected this. I tried momos, the steamed, sometimes fried, dumplings stuffed with meat, and thukpa, a noodle soup, both typical of the Tibetan plateau. Only relatively recently has the region stabilised after decades of armed insurgency in the fight for an independent state of Ghorkaland. Buddhist monasteries as well as European Christian churches dotted the hill town. Dilapidated colonial architecture mixed with the functional concrete buildings found in any Indian town.
The Darjeeling Planters Association was formed to consult about market prices and shared problems on the tea estates, including the restive natives. One of their blurbs I enjoyed modestly claims that “Darjeeling Tea is the World’s most expensive and exotically flavoured tea. Without Darjeeling, Tea would be like Wine without the prestige of Champagne”. Walking into the grounds of the Planters’ Club was like a step back in time. The attractive, two-story timber building is in the colonial style with balustraded porch and wicker chairs spaced around tables looking out onto the gardens. Inside I wandered through the rooms, the walls of each lined with old black and white portrait photographs of former members. In the billiards room an imagined click of ball on ball conjured a scene to me of a scattering of expats gathered in the club on a midweek evening after the day’s work. The general banter in the room is light, with attention on the table. A disparaging comment about a local land owner is heard from a few sharing a drink and cigar in the corner and prompts further comments of disapproval from some of the others about increasing stirrings for Indian independence. The individual, known to most, is considered uncooperative, even troublesome. What is clear is he is “not one of us”. Despite the variety of characters from different backgrounds in the club, each would share values of the Empire. A large board with names of past presidents, followed by the year, etched in rows, illustrated a move from Anglo to Indian influence as the twentieth century progressed. Now operated as a hotel, the bedrooms – and unfortunately the grand staircase leading upstairs – were closed due to the need for renovation. Only the restaurant was open for business.
On a three hour walk skirting the hilltop town, which included a visit to the Happy Valley Tea Estate – the bushes there are between eighty and a hundred and fifty years old – I passed a large, elegant lodge set in immaculately maintained gardens with views across to snow-topped peak of Kanchenjunga. Was this a hotel or a private house? Intrigued, I hesitantly opened the gate and adopting an air of confidence sauntered up the path, pebbles crunching underfoot, to a patio and double doors. Which led into a hallway. I’d entered by the back door. This is the Windamere, a smartly dressed attendant replied to my question. Ah yes sir, if your mother is considering staying here of course you’re welcome to look around.
What better place to take afternoon tea than in this evocative establishment from another age, originally a boarding house for bachelor planters and now an upmarket hotel. Which is where some of my ignorance of tea was dispelled. I learned there is not only black Darjeeling, but also green, and white. The white tea is a light golden colour (Darjeeling tea is always taken without milk!) with a more delicate, nearly sweet taste. There’s the first, second and autumnal flush signifying what time of the year it was picked and indicating the amount of body. The autumnal flush is harvested after the monsoons and is more full bodied, closer to what we know as breakfast tea. Then there’s oolong, Chinese in origin and light. The vocabulary used to describe the leaves – its bloom (silken sheen, lustre), brightness (lively, dull, lime green), colour, nose, point, style or whether it’s tippy – is a language of its own used by tea tasters. An arcane world, like that of wine connoisseurs. Of the few I tasted the finest was an Orange Pekoe.
My journey to Burma was taking a little longer than planned and so after just a couple of days – you think this is a holiday Hugh? – I was back down on the warmer plains, reunited with the black Cadillac continuing my cycle east towards the state of Assam. Traffic was constant – trucks, cars, bicycles and animal drawn carts. And people walking along the side of the road. Families laboured in fields stretching out each side of the road, squatting and cutting or gathering. With the greater population density, the pressure was off now with regards to finding accommodation. There were more towns and chances were there was a hotel. In the nondescript crossroads town of Dhupguri, a prominent sign “Hotel” on the front of a large, unfinished though run down four-story concrete building was notification of the only accommodation. I hauled the bike and gear upstairs to my decent-sized, bare and grubby room with three beds. The manager assured me it wasn’t busy so I wouldn’t be sharing. The window looked out to the side of a neighbouring building and not over the noisy main road. Bathrooms were shared, but relatively clean. (The cleanliness of hotel rooms, corridors, toilets and washrooms is always relative!).
I went for my dinner in the hotel canteen at the appointed hour. Eating in the hotel was a safe enough bet I reckoned. They had a reputation to uphold with passing business travellers and so presumably would pay some attention to hygiene in the kitchen. Unfortunately I had cause to review my presumption. After checking with the manager a little earlier I had bought a couple of beers in the only off-licence and asked him to keep them cool. Now thirsty I wandered into the kitchen in search of the fridge and my beer as there was no-one about. Food encrusted plates from lunch were stacked messily on the concrete floor for wash-up next to a drain and hosepipe. Probably awaiting the arrival of the evening shift. The walls – a faded lime green – were streaked with years of grime. A double bunsen burner affair was heating up two large pots of curry of sorts for the evening meal. These are the inconvenient sights you don’t need to come across before dinner. I reckoned the chapatis and dal, served steaming hot, were probably safe enough. Potatoes are the main crop in the area, which if I had been aware of, I would have ordered. According to Wikipedia, Dhupguri potatoes can now be found in the markets of Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
On the trip to date I had been so fortunate with my health. Apart from the very rare case of the runs – memories of an uncomfortable day with regular urgent dashes into the bushes my last day’s cycle in Uzbekistan – I don’t remember getting any illness on the road. I was largely eating what locals were eating, drinking local water but mostly bottled. Not blessed with an unusually robust constitution I put my lack of gastric discomforts down to my system acclimatising slowly to unfamiliar bacteria as I cycled east from Europe, as opposed to arriving directly by aeroplane where the gut has no time to get used to the different diet in another part of the world. Also, I thought hard about my good fortune concerning my general health and how come I’d avoided catching any of the diseases or illnesses I would have been exposed to. The only factor I could come up with was my constant intake of water, about which – being a gout sufferer – I’m fairly fastidious. As long as I keep water levels up Mr G doesn’t come calling. Truly, I believe keeping my system hydrated had the effect of not only flushing away a build up of toxins in the liver and kidneys, but it must also support the immune system.
I was also blessed with good fortune with regard to accidents. Though obviously taking care on the road and with my subconscious radar switched on to anticipate possible risky situations, not all eventualities are under my control. There is always the wrong place at the wrong time – an inattentive driver, the non use of rear view mirrors, mechanical fault in a dilapidated old bus leading to loss of control of the vehicle… I have no way of knowing what near misses I happened to luckily avoid as I sailed along oblivious. But there was one episode in Assam that certainly got my attention and had my heart beating with adrenalin. I had been pedalling steadily most of the day with big mileage to be made. Days were nearly at their shortest length. I could hear an old truck labouring under a heavy load approaching me at a slow speed and I couldn’t resist the temptation. I did the usual intense pedal as it began to overtake me and reaching out my right arm grabbed hold of the tailgate. Perfect. Quite naughty, but the road surface was good and the much needed extra mileage would be welcome. It was a little on the fast side for comfort so all my concentration was needed as we flew along. After about ten minutes of this, the kilometres slipping by under my wheels, a sudden explosion shook me and I reflexively let go as the truck veered to the left. It was so sudden I had no time to figure out what was happening, I just knew to get away from the truck and keep control of my bike. A bald outside tyre – the one nearest my front wheel – had a blow out, leaving the truck careen to the side. It was lucky the load of gravel in the back hadn’t tipped the truck over. Quickly a small crowd materialised – guaranteed anywhere in India when anything out of the blue happens, even in the middle of nowhere – to inspect the damage and speculate on what could have happened. One man pointed to me, then up to the sky, indicating divine intervention. I knew this was a freak accident and that I was a very lucky boy. I felt bad just leaving the Bhutanese driver who must have been pretty poor anyway to be driving that jalopy and slipped him a few bob to help towards a replacement tyre. My little offering for getting off without a scratch. Kids, definitely don’t try that at home.
The cycling over the following days was not particularly challenging although the route deteriorated into a cratered dirt road at one stage, which slowed progress and meant eating dust. Nearing the end of the next day I was told I’d find a hotel in Gossaigaon, a small, sleepy town a kilometre or two off the main road. Which indeed I did and it was very welcome. And ‘unpretentious’ to describe it generously. I got the distinct impression a European presence was rare, if ever, such was the obvious awkwardness at showing me the place. And the facilities. “Are you sure you want to stay here”, I could imagine from his manner my host thinking, surely rich Europeans would be used to more comfort. At least it was shelter for the night and besides I had my mat and sleeping bag liner. There was no electricity and the yellow glow of candles lit my way into the gloomy interior. The bathroom was basic, but fine – a bucket of water for a wash and a line of holes in the floor in the communal toilet. I flopped on to the cot alone in the dormitory – my regular practice once the night’s accommodation had been sorted – before the usual end-of-cycle drill of wash, rinse undies and t-shirt, prepare bedding then find a cold beer and dinner. But my rest was disturbed by a quite disorienting swaying of the walls and window frame. It felt gravity was slightly out of sorts, shifting sideways a bit. Hello. Yes, this was an earthquake. Time decelerated right down into slow motion as my mind considered the options. The shaking wasn’t severe so jumping out of the second floor window might be a bit extreme, and I reckoned the best thing to do was stand in the doorway. Which I did, uneasily, hoping the quake was a minor one. Not having had much experience before of earthquakes (once, when I awoke from a dream convinced an intruder was at the foot of the bedstead shaking it violently) I pinned my hopes on it not escalating. It was a rolling feeling, actually quite gentle, not violent at all. Although it kept going for what seemed like an age, but couldn’t have been more than a minute – they say time slowing down in emergencies is in fact adrenalin speeding up the the mind – it didn’t seem too serious. When the swaying subsided and the world returned to its established order, I skipped down the stairs to join the stirred up locals on the street and the post-mortem. There was great animation in the hotel canteen a bit later and I heard there were some buildings that would need to be buttressed but apparently no great damage was done. A friendly patron, seemingly as a gesture for the inconvenience of the quake, insisted on paying for my dinner.
Gateway to the north east, the largest and most accessible of the seven states is Assam, which only became part of British India after the Anglo-Burmese war in 1826. Assam produces more than half of India’s tea. The further east I cycled, the greener the landscape became with tea plantations and rice paddies replacing the fields of potatoes and various grains. I knew from the map way off to the north were the Himalayas and on my right, to the south, the densely forested Naga hills, the almost mythical remote region until recently a no-go area for foreigners and Indians alike. It was now possible to travel there – it was reported the practice of headhunting among the Naga tribes had ceased in the present generation, and tribal unrest had eased. I was this close to Nagaland and was intent on cycling through it on my journey to Burma.
Between these two ranges is the catchment area of the mighty Brahmaputra river.
I was curious at a few signs by the side of the road and graffiti calling for a ‘Free Bodoland’. That was a new one for me. Stopped at a busy roadside restaurant I couldn’t help noticing one of a table of women glancing across at me while I was eating. Not that unusual as there weren’t too many European cyclists in this part of the world I imagine, but this woman wasn’t being surreptitious. Our eyes met and she casually returned my smile. She was quite striking in appearance, more Asian looking than Indian. I approached the table and offered her a Coke which I poured. She spoke English comfortably and told me she was Bodo. We had a pleasant if brief conversation. I continued on my way reflecting on what a refreshing encounter it had been. She came across as self assured and chatted easily without the usual barriers of distance – sometimes nearly deference – I found in much of India. Before we parted she asked her sister to take a picture with her phone. Her hand was shaking a little as she leaned into to me for the photo.
I later learned Bodo people have been clashing with Muslim settlers in West Bengal. The previous year over 70 people were killed and 400,000 displaced in ethnic violence. There are different theories as to the origin of people in the Seven Sisters region. None of the groups are ethnically Indian. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation based in the Hague say some come originally from Mongolia. Another theory is they’re from the south-eastern corner of Tibet. But it’s more widely accepted that descendants of the various tribes more likely originally came from Yunnan province in China, “one of the world’s junction boxes”. Dr M. Horan, a Naga scholar, believes the Nagas have wandered throughout SE Asia, and claims a “dim relationship with the natives of Borneo in that the two have a common traditional way of headhunting” and weaving cloth.
That evening it took a while to reach the town of Barpeta Road where I was told would be my best bet for accommodation. It had been a long day, seven hours in the saddle and 125 kilometres clocked up. Passing an elderly man balancing two milk churns on a pole over his shoulder, my pannier touched one of the churns which slopped milk out the top onto the road. Dammit, that was my fault, I’d better turn back and apologise. Which I did. His off sider demanded I pay for the spilt milk which I reluctantly accepted was my responsibility. Fifty rupees, about sixty cents. But hold on – I was tired and in a tetchy mood – don’t try and rip me off here. Shamefully I disputed the fifty rupees before eventually giving in when he didn’t yield and it dawned on me they were genuine. Did I really behave like that? Not my finest moment.
At the state Tourist Lodge, used by travelling civil servants – often a good bet for cheap, clean rooms – the caretaker couldn’t accommodate me but recommended a hotel who could and insisted on bringing me over. Again my tired mind shifted into defence mode cynically suspecting a set up, a backhander for the expensive room for the European tourist. It was getting dark and I didn’t have time for this but walked with him the fifteen minutes across town. It was the only modern building in town and looked new. There were no single rooms left – here we go I thought to myself – but no problem they said, I could have a double at a single price. It was a lovely room and just €6. And what’s more, the paneer curry I ordered which was brought to my room was the tastiest I’d ever had. Well Hugh, did we learn anything today?
One of the great rivers of Asia, the Brahmaputra from its source ahead of me, runs for over 1,100 kilometres in an easterly direction between the Himalayas on my left and the mountains of Nagaland to my right emptying out into the Bay of Bengal. At Guwahati, the main city in north east India and furtherest navigable point of the river, it cuts through the rocky plateau and is at its narrowest at one kilometre bank to bank. It was a 135 kilometre cycle away and my target for the day. Another long one, but steady cycling got me there. What a magnificent bridge to cycle across at dusk. Finding a room downtown was a drag and it was an hour or two before I’d secured my bike, carried the panniers to the room and collapsed exhausted on the bed. Too tired even to go looking for a cold beer.
I was excited about the next part of the journey which would bring me to mythical Nagaland and on to Manipur state, with the border crossing to Burma.