Faces Of The Seven Sisters

Swinging gently in a hammock watching the Mekong roll towards Cambodia as I write this the two weeks back in November riding through the north east states of India seems a far removed distant memory, not only by time but degrees of change. The ease of travelling and hordes of tourists that South East Asia brings is in stark contrast to the remoteness of these often forgotten states, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura the seven sisters. I’ll admit now the title is a little misleading having only visited four but it sounds better. Tucked in behind Bangladesh and Bhutan these states are like countries unto themselves, where the Indian sub-continent grades into South East Asia and where for a long time due to insurgency and inter-tribal warfare a mountain of permits was required to travel, fortunately in recent years this has somewhat stabilised and with the exception of Arunchal Pradesh travel is now unrestricted. Although the travelling experience may be poles apart the degrees of change aren’t a full 180, Nagaland was where the people and faces became distinctly South East Asian, albeit with an India twist. Like the Kyrgyz in the eastern Pamir, Tajikistan, people and cultures don’t always obey the lines drawn on a map.

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One of the many amazing places in this part of the world

Change didn’t happen as soon as anticipated, throughout India I’d been telling myself and others that past Siliguri and into Assam everything would be different, the crowds and the staring would be gone. Reaching Assam early in the morning a tail back of traffic marked the state border, the police had blocked the road ahead for a strike of some sorts and in 2 hours everyone would move on mass for safety, road blocks and rock throwing were expected. If there’s one thing Indians like to partake in almost as much as festivals, it’s a good strike. We, the UK German dream team, took breakfast and refuge in a road side food stall as the crowds gathered around the bikes, things hadn’t changed yet. More buses arrived and as the tailback grew so did the bike crowds to some of the largest I’d witnessed in India, once they became so large new additions could no longer see the bikes we became the centre of attention. Stood watching us eating roti and drinking coffee like animals at the zoo no one was courageous enough to breach the threshold of the cafe as if held back by some invisible fence. Only once a dapper old man with white goatee beard, Cobain esq sunglasses and trilby hat who later introduced himself as John F Kennedy entered and took a seat at our table did the fence fall and the crowd close in, a crowd so dense it blocked out the sun, if the place had had a light bulb I’d of switched it on. JFK was loveable if slightly eccentric but paled in comparison to another rather dishevelled looking chap who joined our merry bunch around the table, he wouldn’t stop talking and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, it certainly wasn’t English, didn’t sound anything like Hindi and the faces of the crowd suggested it wasn’t Assamese, between talking to JFK and watching the bewildered expressions it became clear it was a language of his own creation. The man was as mad as a bag of badgers and soon got ushered out, although no longer at the table his shouts of protest could still be heard from behind the crowd, I’m assuming he was protesting he might well have been ordering a cup of chai but only he will know. JFK regained the title of the maddest man in the room and not to be outdone stood up and did an empowered and slightly aggressive speech direct to camera, my camera that he’d insisted I film him with, then just about fell off his chair sitting down. Before the rest of the asylum could arrive the police said it was time to roll, it was without a doubt one of the most entertaining breakfasts I’ve ever had.

With a Whacky Racers like start, bikes, battered buses, groaning trucks and trashed cars fought for first place in our race to the road block and 2 miles in I reached pole position behind the police escort, I don’t know why but they waved me through and held the rest back. Frank and Petra were still caught up in the chaos behind so out in front there was nothing but me and miles of empty four lane highway and somewhere a road block. Initially a little apprehensive I’d misunderstood the hand gestures of the police and was riding in to trouble for the first time in India I was riding on a good road with no traffic and was going to enjoy it.  Reaching the mighty road block there were 10 guys on a bridge so busy blocking the left lanes with bamboo and a few rocks I passed on the right before they’d seen me. Quite the impenetrable fortress.

To cover the distances of this amazing place the days were long and dirty but we were rewarded with nature and landscapes as varied as the people and the cultures, from the tea estates, river islands and national parks of Assam where wild one horn rhinos roam free to the head hunters of Nagaland and the living bridges of Meghalaya in between it was like nowhere I’ve ever been.

Cherrapunji which holds the title of rainiest place on earth is the stopping off point for the living root bridges, sitting on a high moorland plateau overlooking the hot plains of Bangladesh it goes by the name Scotland of the East. From the plateau the road to the bridges descends into the rainforest fringe that separates the two. I’d first seen the bridges on a BBC documentary years ago and remember thinking them beautiful and almost otherworldly like something from the pages of Tolkien. They really are quite magical even if the concrete paths and steps spoil the illusion somewhat, suppose you don’t see that on the TV. But what really made the place special were the surroundings and the walk in, virgin rainforest with occasional thatched villages and crystal clear rivers and swimming holes spanned by vertigo inducing cable bridges. We spent the afternoon at one swimming hole which appeared to have dropped straight from the Garden of Eden, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect place. There was just the small task of 3000 steps back up through the humid air to the bikes. By the top I was wetter than under the waterfall.

Overlooking the edge of the Kaziranga national park from a roadside viewing platform we expecting to see nothing as is usually the case in Indian national parks, pointing and joking ‘look a rhino’ when from the long grass plodded a rhino and her cub, I couldn’t believe my eyes a wild Indian rhino right there, right in front of me. Kaziranga is the ultimate success story, from 366 rhinos in 1966 to 1855 today it’s now home to the world’s largest population of greater one-horned rhinos but it doesn’t stop there, it’s one of the few wild breeding areas outside of Africa for multiple large cats, has the highest density of tigers in the world and homes a multitude of other weird and wonderful mammals, reptiles and birds some with the most magnificent names, how can you not take enjoyment from saying Sloth Bear and Chinese Ferret Badger. Reminiscent of a Raj of the Empire what better way to enjoy this natural wonderland than an early misty morning elephant ride.

I won’t be swapping the bike for an elephant any time soon, fun it may be, comfy it is not so I was quite pleased to get back into my well-worn saddle when we set off for Majuli Island. Only a short days ride with a ferry crossing was another vast change. One of the world’s biggest river islands it’s a sleepy place of rice paddy, small thatched villages and Satras. Satras or monasteries act as home to the states culture, the island having been the cultural capital of the Assamese civilisation they house traditional skills, teachings and artefacts.  Visiting a few I didn’t find them to be particularly special places, most were in a state of disrepair and were housing more dust than culture with the exception of Shamaguri Satra. From the outside it didn’t look like much, in fact we rode past thinking it was a house but inside they were making  bamboo masks fit for an acid trip, the lad who showed me round put a few on and that’s when they really came to life, each with its own moves and body language. Gearing up for the biggest festival of the year, with displays of dance and music intertwined with the masks the Satra was a hive of activity and the island was waking from its yearlong slumber. Unfortunately with a deadline to make the Myanmar border and Nagaland still to visit there wasn’t time to stick around.

Nagaland was where it all changed; faces became more South East Asia, tribal culture dominated, each with its own distinct customs, language and dress, the religion Christian, women openly mixed with men in the streets and the roads turned to shit. Here was another of the many different faces of India. A face which looked directly out over Myanmar. A side trip from Mon took us to a Konyak tribal village famed for their face tattooed head hunters and who’s morong or longhouse straddles the border. To access the village required a local guide who led us along the twisty mountain road where men and boys were hunting with spears, bow and arrow, blow pipes and rusty riffles and women carted firewood in bamboo head baskets, this felt a long way from home, it felt a long way from anywhere really. Visiting the smoke filled morong, apart from the women outside selling beads to the occasional tourists there didn’t appear to be much going on, just a few sounds from the central room, poking my head round the door I found 4 guys in the midst of getting so wasted on opium they didn’t know who they were never mind me, they invited me in regardless, I watched for a while but turned down their offers on the bong, the roads were tricky enough.

Headhunting has long since been banned and only some of the older men now sport the tattoos, our guides grandfather was one of them and he took us to meet him, well photo him for a small fee. It was all a little awkward seeing this blind and deaf man who looked to be no younger than 150 and made of leather with cardboard through his ears pose for photos, but we were there and I’m sure the money helped, I took a photo.

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When I say the roads turned to shit that’s a little unfair, in places there were no roads. To get from Mon to Mokokchung, I’d been given a list of waypoint villages. Asking villagers for directions to Longleng they were surprised of our intended route but pointed through the thatched huts and into the forest along what appeared to be a 4×4 track, saying at a river we’d find a bridge and surfaced road. As the track continued to narrow to a goat path I found it harder and harder to believe it would lead to anything but a dead end, the ride was incredible and one of if not the best of the trip, hours of no real idea where we were, picking tracks that went in generally the right direction and cutting amongst forest, mountains and seemingly randomly placed morongs. And would you believe it the track did lead to a bridge and surfaced road, not sure who was more surprised as we emerged from a bush us or the guy dynamite fishing from the bridge. In Kohima we caught up with Kim and again were a couple of days early for another festival, the Hornbill festival, by all accounts a sight to see where all the tribes of Nagaland come together in one ground and under their morongs distinctive awnings perform dances, songs and music and serve their respective moonshine. We were in a hostel next to the ground and the owner, who almost unbelievably had just got back from a holiday in Whitby, managed to get us in for a look around a few days early. They were well set up for a tribal Oktoberfest.

From here it was relatively easy and beautiful riding through Manipur all the way to the Myanmar border, in Moreh on the eve of the last day in India Eric arrived and the Myanmar crew were assembled.

Well if you’ve made it this far hats off to you, you can probably tell from the amount of words and time invested writing this (3 days I’ve been in this god damn hammock, the locals thought I was stuck) I felt there was a lot to tell you. Going over it again in my head the diversity I witnessed in those two weeks still astounds me, with hindsight even more so. It really was one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been, having only really scratched the surface and 3 sisters and the Hornbill still to visit I’ll definitely be back. Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m going for a well-earned dip in the Mekong.

 

 

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