North East India & Company

High up above the town of Kiphire we were given an ominous warning; ‘you can’t go that way’ said the hulking mass of man in charge of the guest house, ‘it’s too dangerous, many rebels, insurgents, the road is blocked’. We thanked him for his concern and went to bed. We were committed to that route, since it was the only direct road to Mon and we’d crossed 134km of rutted dirt track to reach our present location- returning the same way was, in my mind, absolutely, completely out of the fucking question. 

Early next morning we started out towards our impending doom. Slowly, very slowly, we ground our way up the mountain along yet another appalling rocky path masqerading as a road. It was tough going. Food was scarce. If we were kidnapped I hoped they’d feed us well. Around noon the worst happened- we came upon the rebels. Heavily armed with at least two large flasks of tea, the students union of the Tikhir tribe meant business. They had also blockaded the road with some tree branches. We were in big trouble.

I kept calm and approached the leader of the gang ‘what’s all this about then, eh?!’ says I. ‘We demand that the government reinstate historic land rights and recognise our tribe as land owners’ the brute replied. ‘Right you are. Seems fair enough to me’ I conceded, ‘John and I really want to get to Jessami, which means going through your blockade’.

One of the less surly looking lads brought us a brew a piece. Things were looking up. The group conferred on our request to pass. ‘You can pass but you’ll have to go the secret way through the village and stop for lunch at the party head quarters’. We gladly accepted this suggestion and pootled off after the moto of dreams to feast at mess HQ.

An Ugly God Fearing Man

I was woken abruptly from a deep, comfortable sleep by a panic stricken John in a dark room that appeared to be shaking quite violently. We were in the wooden guest house of the Pastor of the village of Lunghar in Manipur, little over 100km from Imphal. The sudden commotion was an earthquake, epicentre- Imphal.

Earlier that night John and I had attended the first church service of the year at the Lunghar Baptist Church. Our hosts invited us to join them, so we did. John John (rough translation; God’s messenger), the daughter of the Pastor, Reverend Akhul, performed a poignant ballad, in English, solo with an acoustic guitar. The song talked of rebelliousness, leaving the family home and never coming back. I felt that this was for the benefit of John and I since much of the congregation couldn’t speak English- the only other person likely to even vaguely understand would be the Pastor.

After Mass we were treated to a huge, tasty meal back at the warm and cosy home of the Akhul family. A fire was lit, blankets handed out and beds made. We were set for the night. Shortly after our supper John John came to join us in the guest house. We spoke about many things, her imminent wedding being a hot topic, since in two days time, at the tender age of 19, John John would be married. I asked how she felt about it, if she was excited. ‘He’s not an adventuresome manly man. He is an ugly, God fearing man’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘I didn’t choose him, my father did. I had to leave my studies and come home. I will be married on Wednesday and then I go to Dehli to live with my new husband. Sometimes, I come in here to cry. He’s an accountant’ she added sadly.

The tribal territories of North East India were transformed during the eighteenth century by Christian missionaries, converting the native population from Animism to Baptist Christianity in vast numbers throughout this mountainous region. A gift for which many of the locals are immensely grateful. It was a blessing in disguise too for John and I, since the legacy of the missionaries was such that many locals spoke English and were incredibly kind, generous and forthcoming with food, shelter and tea- real good Samaritans.

A Week With The Headhunters Of The Konyak Hill Tribe In Longwa

The journey to reach Mon, a hill town in remote Nagaland, was incredibly hard, perhaps the toughest two weeks of this trip. I won’t bore you with details of how bad the roads were, I’ll say that they were in need of resurfacing and that they were very steep, and that will be a bit of an understatement. The scenery in this part of the world as you may imagine in the high mountains, just a few dozen kilometres from the Kachin state of Myanmar, was spectacular. Forested valleys plunged deep and wide for many a mile filled with the lush jungle foliage so obviously absent from much of north western Myanmar.

A mere 43km from Mon is the village of Longwa. Unique in the fact that the border cuts right through the middle of the place, consequently the King sleeps in Myanmar and shits in India. Our arrival in this increasingly popular destination coincided with the taking down of the Kings house, the traditional wooden long house to be replaced by a modern concrete thing. At the very moment we reached the summit of the climb, our host for the next week presented himself and offered his services to us. Longshah was the junior president of the village and owner of the only Homestay in Longwa. So it was that we spent a week with Longshah of Longwa. On the Tuesday of our stay, two days in, one of the old headhunters passed away. Next day we attended the funeral.

A single gunshot rang out echoing down the valley. The last remaining living headhunters, about a dozen men, bearing tattooed faces, Tigers teeth earrings and necklaces of tiny bronze heads to indicate the number of heads taken in battle, gathered round in a circle. The chanting began soon after, the improvised song to commemorate their friend, Nokowt, was revised and improved as they danced solemnly towards the house of the deceased. The men, tougher than old boots, were visibly moved by the loss of their comrade.

Sitting The Elephant; Assam News Live

Fresh out of the mountains we entered Assam with dark clouds at our backs. On our second day in the flatlands next the Bharmaputra river it began to rain. Johns children, Millie and Preston, were missing their dad. It was time to go. I was sad to see my friend leave but we both knew this day must come. After three fantastic months and some of the toughest cycling so far John would leave on a high.

On the main road from Sibsigar to Jorhat I was stopped by a film crew from News Live, the Assamese news channel. I’d just entered the Kaziranga National Park and the TV people spied their chance to capture a real live foreigner. I was asked a few questions by the reporter; ‘why are you doing this?’ caught me a little off guard. I mumbled something about wanting to see the world and meet the good people of India. It sounded vague, flaky.

I hadn’t actually answered that question so directly for anyone- no one had ever pointed a camera at my face and asked why. Eight months into this incredible journey I didn’t feel that I had to justify it. I underestimated how selfish it could sound to say ‘travel for its own sake’, in that moment I was reminded just how incredibly lucky I am to be able to travel so freely.

As I rolled away from the cameras, pondering the ‘why’ question, I thought wouldn’t it be amazing to see an elephant! I’d just read George Orwells ‘Shooting The Elephant’ a collection of essays about his time in Burma as a military policeman. The centrepiece details the episode where simply ‘to avoid looking a fool’ Orwell shot an escaped elephant dead. Such was the pressure of expectation for an officer in colonial days.

With these thoughts bubbling away in my subconscious the universe conspired to make it happen. Moments later a pair of elephants stepped out into the road. Captive but elephants nonetheless. I was at first awestruck; it was the first time I’d seen one in the flesh; then as the beast grew closer the blood stains on its forehead became visible- I was deeply saddened. The boys riding the poor creatures offered me have a go; I declined; I would not be sitting the elephant. I wasn’t about to encourage their awful treatment of these majestic animals whether I looked a fool or not.

The Scotland Of The East; The Wettest Place On The Planet

In Meghalaya, the fourth of the seven sisters that I visited, was Cherrapunji- officially the wettest place on the planet. Enticed by the living root bridges deep in the jungle I set out for the East Khasi Hills. A stones throw from the border, on a clear day you can see Bangladesh.

The road out of Shillong was a peach. The deep chasm of valley below the road parted like the heavy velvet curtains of a darkened drawing room to reveal a vast canyon leading seemingly all the way out to sea. A bizarre land where waterfalls spurt out from solid rock, fuzzy scrub bushes sit atop sparse, desolate headland, crowning the lush rainforest below like a stiff perm on a wet Autumn day.

The big draw here though was not just the root bridges and abundant waterfalls. It was the intensity of the natural beauty- ‘full power nature’ as my friend Jiles put it so simply. There are dozens of walks, plentiful clear blue or green pools to swim in, endless tree varieties, insects and wildlife. It was really awesome.

Out on the bike again heading towards the wonderfully named Williamsnagar I ran into some trouble. I knew there would be few places to stay in the West Khasi Hills, Heprit, the hostel owner at Cherrapunji had told me so. He suggested I ask a chai stall to sleep indoors since it was a particularly cold region, too cold to camp he said. I did just that and each evening I was taken in by a family.

Night by night I explained my journey and intention to travel to Williamsnagar. Every night I was told that it was too dangerous, that there’d been a bomb a few days ago and that rebels were hiding up that way. I took this all on board and during each day mulled over my options.

When the time came to make a decision I was resolute- I would continue on my chosen path. I’d heard all this stuff about insurgents before, they turned out to be tea-toting students. Admittedly I was now alone but the days had been so calm, people so friendly I found it hard to believe that there was real, imminent danger- especially for a traveler.

At 2.30pm I was about to leave the forecourt of the garage where I’d had lunch, bound for Shallang, against the advice of the giant petrol wallah. Just as I was leaving heavily armed police pulled over and stopped me. ‘Where you going?’ They asked. ‘Shallang’ I said hopefully. ‘No. No that way’ growled the driver ‘you go Boko’. And so it was that the cops escorted me over the hill away from the perfectly surfaced new road and the hospitality of kind families into dense jungle on a rocky track, just the sort of place you’d hide at night if you were one of the bad guys, towards certain darkness and unknown threats