One of the many things that drew me to Burma was its relative international isolation. What would it be like visiting a place screened from influences most of the rest of us take for granted – the material comforts of white goods, decent roads and cars, reliable public transport. And most particularly, freedom of expression, communications and access to information about the rest of the world. Since a military coup in 1962 the country has been under the control of a repressive government dominated by ‘the generals’, only quite recently showing signs of an easing of restrictions. One consequence was that the border between India and Burma has been closed for many years to all but local traffic. I knew this before leaving Ireland but reckoned on crossing that bridge – or border – when I came to it!
Part of the preparation for the journey was to discover from friends in Burma if there was any way around that. Saw Min, a Masters student I’d met in Dublin, was particularly interested and supportive of my plan to cycle from Ireland to his country (it was so reassuring for me at times of loneliness on the road to know there were people in Burma following my progress on Facebook and wishing me well.). Saw Min worked for a local NGO and with his contacts was optimistic about arranging a permit to cross the border from India. We had been in communication during my journey, but while crossing Nepal developments took an unfavourable turn, Saw Min dejectedly emailing me that the situation had changed and the picture wasn’t looking so good. The latest was that the Burmese authorities would only grant me entry if I paid $2,800 to a government travel agent who would meet me at the border post to escort me across the country. Trying to raise funds with my cycle trip for two well deserving causes, this obviously wasn’t on the cards. I felt bad for Saw Min, he believed he was letting me down. A lot of time and effort had been put into organising things, assembling a group of his cycling friends to accompany me through Burma and insisting all my food and lodging would be looked after (I wasn’t at that time aware of the cost of accommodation in Burma!)
Should I give up? No way. I had been cycling towards my destination for nearly eight months at this stage, and made the decision to continue as far as I could. Let the Burmese authorities deny me entry.
Google Maps tells me the trans-Asian Highway runs over 20,000 kilometres from Japan to Istanbul. With some amusement I realised I was on it. The road east from Guwahati, which I’d left a few days previously, on to Nagaland – the only sealed road in the state – and to the neighbouring state of Manipur, continues on to Moreh, the border crossing between India and Burma.
My short stay in Nagaland had made an impression, confined though it was to the capital Kohima. A few hours cycle east or north would have taken me away from the city’s Westernised influence in to the hinterlands and closer to the Naga traditional lifestyle. But being this close to my destination I was keen to carry on. Hopefully I’d have an opportunity to return. Besides, I didn’t want to abuse the hospitality extended to me by Pastor Samuel. After a brief pause at an Indian (as opposed to Naga) barber for a haircut and the best head massage I’d received in my travels, I cycled out of Kohima – direction Burma.
It was a steady toil up the winding road towards the frontier with the next state, Manipur. Everywhere were reminders of the prevailing Christian culture, more so this time of year with bunting wishing travellers Happy Christmas. I had to stop and admire the immaculate town of Khuzuma – it would have won the Tidy Towns competition at home hands down. I had never seen the like of it in my travels, let alone India. The town was strung along the main road – verges had been swept, any grass areas were tidily manicured, colourful flower baskets hung from roofs and flower boxes decorated sills. Good Baptist practices – cleanliness being next to Godliness. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a brightly whitewashed public urinal. That was a first.
A little further up the road a hand-painted sign informed me I was passing the site of one of the most significant battles of the Second World War (“Britain’s Greatest Battle” according to the the British National Army Museum). In 1944 with the war at a crucial point, the Japanese army had taken possession of Burma, defeating Allied forces at a disadvantage fighting in the tropical jungles. India was next. The situation was drastic, British and Indian troops besieged by Japanese forces intent on pushing through Nagaland to the railhead on the Indian plains at Dimapur. Once that was taken the subcontinent was defenceless. The Naga Hills were the front line.
The monsoon rains had arrived and everywhere was flowing with mud and rats. “The dead, Japanese and British alike, were piled up one on top of another. Corpses were bloated and stank. The place swarmed with flies.” Relief arrived for the British and Indians, now starving and desperate, and the Japanese advance was eventually turned back – they had run out of everything, and suffered a huge number of casualties.
“Nearly as many Japanese soldiers died through disease, starvation, snakebites, attacks by other wild animals and sheer exhaustion as were killed by bullets, bayonets and bombs. The conditions they operated in, especially at Kohima, had been vile. Rather than face capture, ordinary soldiers clustered in small gangs over hand grenades and blew themselves up. Officers disembowelled themselves. Other Japanese soldiers had their heads cut off by Nagas as they tried to escape from the hills.”
‘Nagaland. A Journey to India’s Forgotten Frontier’ by Jonathan Glancey
The following week, after my Facebook post referring to the battle, a friend Jane wrote to me that her father fought at the Battle of Kohima. He never spoke of his experience. If the British and Indian forces hadn’t succeeded in repelling the Japanese, India would have fallen and it’s reckoned the British empire itself. Known as the Stalingrad of the East, the battle was the turning point of the war in South-East Asia. And here I was cycling obliviously through what for me was an isolated, out of the way part of India seldom visited. Who outside of the region had even heard of Nagaland? My ignorance of the area, and its significance in global politics, was disconcerting.
Like Nagaland, its neighbour Manipur state has only recently been open to outsiders. A beautiful land surrounded by mountains, it too has its difficulties with Delhi. For centuries an independent kingdom, and a protectorate under the British Raj, most Manipuris want their sovereignty back. And like its neighbours too the people were distinctively un-Indian in appearance. Three tribal groups predominate: the Meiti – the majority ethnic group in Manipur; the Kuki – a Tibeto-Burman tribal people spread throughout the North East of India as well as Burma (where they’re known as the Chin); and the Nagas. As I was told later, “this is three states not one – the Meitei in the valley, the Naga hill areas, and the Kuki hill areas”. As in Nagaland, nearly all of the ethnic groups in Manipur state are Christian.
Of all the ‘Seven Sisters’ states in the north east of India, Manipur had been the most ‘troublesome’, with regular rioting and ethnic violence. I had read of bombs going off in Imphal, the capital, earlier in the year. (Just recently, in June 2015, an ambush killed twenty army personnel in the area between Imphal and the border town I was heading for, Moreh.) The outlawed People’s Liberation Army was growing in popularity all the time. The government in Delhi had declared Manipur a “disturbed area” in 1981 and imposed martial law. This has only recently been lifted.
So it was no great surprise when pausing for a bite to eat at the first village over the state line I was approached by a plain clothes policeman and asked me, politely, to follow him to the station. The police compound had a number of buildings within the sturdy, high walls and I was instructed to wait in one earth-walled hut, before being led to another to have my passport inspected, a few questions asked, and passport stamped. There was no real sense of there being an issue, that I would be denied entry, but at the same I was aware of the possibility.
The lovely cycle down the mountains from the rim of the Imphal valley, green with rice fields, towards the capital was just so enjoyable, as a long downhill can be! Eventually arriving in darkness and finding a room in a cheap hotel on the outskirts, with disappointment I learned after a long day, like Nagaland, Manipur is a dry state. But turned down the concierge’s offer of a couple of cans of warm beer at rip off prices.
The next morning I hit the road for Moreh, a hundred kilometres east over forested and uninhabited mountains that defined a natural geographic border between India and Burma. I usually tried to get thirty or forty kilometres behind me before stopping for a mid morning break, and this time pulled over at a tiny settlement for some breakfast. Predictably my arrival caused a bit of confusion as I became a centre of attention. It turned out to be a Muslim community, unusually for this part of the country, and I was met with tea, paratha with a fried egg, and… curiosity. Two young guys, fluent in English, were my principal interlocutors. Samir, sharply dressed in his early twenties with styled hair, very convincingly described his clever, risk-free business idea involving “just fifty dollars” upfront. Bappi, the younger, pudgier of the two, in his teens, was more interested in my bike asking me well informed questions about the tires, brakes and reliability. When he saw my phone (an old but reliable Nokia E52 with battery life of up to a week) he wasn’t so impressed. It wasn’t a new generation smartphone. But what he did manage to do was to sort out a local Sim card for just a couple of dollars. Which was a huge help. Previous attempts to buy one had been a real pain – proof of residency, poor coverage, message failures – ending in me using my Irish sim to text.
At the town of Pallel, half way to Moreh, the road leaves the plains climbing over the mountains towards the Burma border. For a couple of reasons I’d decided to put my bike on a bus at that stage – one, there were no villages the next fifty kilometres, the other for security. “Trouble on that road”, I had been told in Imphal. I was mindful of the terrorist incidents in the area.
Every fifteen or twenty minutes a minivan stuffed with passengers en route for Moreh would pull up for a chai break, none of them with room for my bike. After an hour or two hanging around drinking cups of chai, eventually a minivan with a roof rack pulled up. Following some bargaining the driver agreed a deal – basically the price for two passengers – for me to strap the bike on to his roof, and shove my panniers in the back. And squeeze myself into a backseat.
And we were off, hurtling up the winding roads through beautiful rainforest. As the minivan rounded bends, spectacular views across mountains and valleys were revealed – with no interruption to the green carpet of forest. After about an hour climbing through this wilderness we came around a curve to slow and pull up behind a queue of vehicles. It was a customs checkpoint. Trucks and minivans were pulled over and being turned inside out. All passenger luggage was unloaded on to the side of the road. One by one we were each asked to empty our bags to be inspected. Then the minivan was pored over and seats lifted out, before everything was repacked and on we continued. Our destination Moreh was notorious as a gateway for trafficking drugs onwards to the international market. A little further – base for a battalion of the Assam Rifles – the highest point of the road is the Kuki village of Tengnoupal, a small number of stone buildings huddled together against the bleakness of the weather. “Cold throughout the year” according to one website. In which the contributor goes on to grasp desperately for some appealing feature, “During monsoon the place is foggy and makes it the best place for romance”. Just before Tengnoupal again we were stopped, this time at a military checkpoint. Presumably they were aware of the previous check and, despite having to unload our bags from the van, we weren’t asked to empty them.
The road descending the mountains offered open vistas of the plains below and with a little thrill I realised that was Burma. My destination. All those miles of cycling from Ireland, across central Europe, months across the flat deserts of Central Asia to China, over the Himalayas and across India… and there it was. Was it possible to enter, or would the door be closed?
The remote border town is the end of the road and we pulled up on the main street where I unloaded my gear, untied my bike, and checked into one of the very basic timber structure hotels. It was hard to believe Moreh is on the route of the proposed Trans-Asia Highway. The town had a desperado feel to it. Perhaps my impression was influenced by what I had read about it, or its geographical isolation, but the place had a desperado feel to it. Timber fronts on the main street added an air of a cowboy frontier town.
Moreh is a trading point connecting South and South-East Asia. Most of the goods coming in across the border were Chinese. On the main street were shops selling clothes, white goods, shoes, cosmetics and mobile phones, punctuated with little grocery stores in which every bit of space was used to display daily necessities and handy little things such as batteries, shoe polish, hair brushes… guaranteed to stock any essential you may run out of. Off the main street, dirt lanes were crammed with even smaller shops and stalls. Though a predominantly Kuki town I learned many of the small shopkeepers were Nepali in origin, sharing the place with Tamils, Punjabis and Bengalis.
A ‘Hotel’ can be either for accommodation, or a restaurant. Or both. The boys parked in front are kept busy ferrying passengers and their packs of merchandise to and from the frontier post.
There had been a major push on my part to arrive at the border before the 12th of December. In the email correspondence trying to get authorisation to enter Burma, the agent had emphasised the importance of this date as there was a tourist vehicle he was facilitating on that day. Parked up beside the immigration office was indeed an overland camper van with Italian plates. I got chatting to the friendly couple who described to me their efforts to get an entry permit. It worked out at about $1,000 a day for five days transit across Burma to the border with Thailand, accompanied by an obligatory guide. Their destination was Australia and rather than take the long way around, via China, they had decided to try this. In fact they were delighted as it was generally understood to be impossible for foreigners to enter Burma from India. It was expensive, and they had reconciled themselves to the fact they’d only get a brief glimpse of the intriguing country. When they heard my situation they both reacted immediately. “But you must come in our van! No, no problem. We put your bicycle on the roof. In Burma, you get out where you like”. That was so generous. I was in that uneasy state of not knowing – what were my chances the next day?
In the morning I got to the Indian border post early and was sent up to a small building uphill from the road, to be interviewed by an officer and explain my predicament. No entry permit for Burma. The officer, Adi, wringing his hands in concern, said he didn’t think the Burmese would let me in – which indeed I understood. Which meant that he couldn’t stamp me out of India. Which was fair enough. Adi had an Irish nun as a teacher when growing up in Imphal and seemed very fond of Ireland, asking how different it was from here, was it really that green, are all Irish people very friendly. After a bit of a further chat, he paused, then obligingly offered to bring me across to the other side of the border and check the options. “No harm trying”, he smiled, although without much conviction.
I appreciated there was little hope but wanted to make every effort, so agreed readily and hopped on to the back of Adi’s Hero 100cc. We buzzed along the bumpy dirt road out of town, passing a line of local people carrying loads on their heads from the border. Some women walked with poles over their shoulders, packages tied on each end for balance. To complete the exotic picture, on their heads were the shallow, wide brimmed traditional hats woven from reeds. Yes, this was actually Burma we were approaching! We rode through two road checks with Adi giving a slight nod, before coming upon the river that marked the border between the two countries. Slowly we crossed the ancient iron bridge spanning the river. I was in Burma!
Adi parked his bike and we stepped into the cool of a basic concrete building. The sign was written in Burmese. He exchanged a few words with a counterpart and we were asked to wait. After ten minutes we were ushered into a large room, in the centre of which was a table around which sat about half a dozen men, most of them in uniform. Just one, the guy in plain clothes, spoke to me, I presume as the others didn’t have English. This man was the ‘agent’ who’d sorted a permit for the Italian van, and quoted me $2,800 for a permit. Despite me being the focus of attention for the uniformed men, it became obvious quite quickly the agent was the one I needed to get onside. I briefly explained my case – by bicycle from Ireland, for charity, excitement at visiting your beautiful country, etc – but the further I went on, the more I realised it was a waste of time. The attentive though inscrutable faces around the table gave away nothing. More significantly, this agent was not an ally. In a patient, faux-sympathetic voice, he said “it is impossible for the immigration officials here” – gesturing to the company – “without a permit granted by the authorities in Yangon. Now if you had the fee we had discussed…” None of the officers had spoken, it was apparent this agent held a certain authority. A couple of counter suggestions from me, allowing a possible way around the impasse, were dismissed. “No. That is not possible now,” he said emphatically when I brought up the option of travelling with the Italians.
It was clear there was no way they would let me through so I paused, then nodded courteously at the table of officers saying “Kyeizu tin ba de”, thank you – the nod was impassively returned by most – turned and left the room. There was no point in flogging a dead horse. Though this outcome was no surprise I was feeling angry, and let down by the agent. If he had been inclined to be helpful, why had he not put me in touch with the Italians and we could have pooled our application? And it was obvious he wasn’t prepared to advocate on my behalf to the uniformed men around the table. Of course, he knew which side his bread was buttered on. And he was a businessman.
That was that. So close yet so far. On to Plan B for Burma.