* Our good friend Peter suggested that we call this blog ‘Punctures and Paneer’ – which we thought was great. However, having hardly eaten any paneer in this part of India it didn’t seem quite right. Definitely deserves a mention though!
We were a little anxious crossing the border back into India as we were not sure what to expect from our journey across the North East of the country. The idea of facing the trucks, horns and crazy traffic that we had left behind was not an appealing one. However, we need not have worried – it was a whole different kettle of fish on this side of the country! Returning to India felt a little like visiting some distant relatives you haven’t seen in a while – familiar, comforting, and not nearly as bad as you remembered! We were welcomed back into the country by some lovely immigration officers at the border who let us camp outside their office and use all their facilities!
This was great as we were tired, hungry and a giant storm had just started unleashing its fury on us as we arrived at the border. What a great way to become reacquainted with the country. Immediately we noticed some stark differences in this part of India. There were a lot less people, the roads were in great condition and everything was just calmer and cleaner than when we left. Our first stop was the town of Darjeeling, which was I was excited to visit. I was even willing to cycle up to the hill station after swearing I never wanted to cycle another hill in my life following our time in Nepal!
Nestled among the foothills of the Himalayas, the town was made famous primarily due to its tea plantations and the UNESCO Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and it’s Toy Train. The British liked the cooler climate of the town and the fact it was well suited for tea plantations. Subsequently in 1849 they annexed the area from Sikkim and made it part of British-India. In 1881 the railway was opened. The town’s bustling shops, colonial architecture and picturesque setting – being surrounded with snow-capped mountains and vibrant green tea plantations has resulted in Darjeeling becoming a major tourist destination.
The route up to the town was beautiful and the climb was gradual. We passed through forests, giant tea plantations and followed the Himalayan train line as it wound up and over the hills. We even got to glimpse the tiny diesel locomotive and its couple of carriages as it passed us.
Our time in Darjeeling was great even if the weather wasn’t on our side – it rained and was cloudy the entire time we were there. This meant we didn’t get to see the incredible mountain views that Darjeeling is famous for but we did get to ride the heritage steam train to the highest railway station in India (the world’s 14th highest), Ghoom. We also ate well and even got to meet up with our favourite touring couple, Tommy and Brian, reunited on the road again, we haven’t seen them since we bumped into them at Pammukale in Turkey (7 Months ago!) – so we had a lot to catch up on. The town felt relaxed and even though it clearly catered for the many tourists that visit; it didn’t feel like it had lost its charm, it was still a little rough around the edges in all the right ways.
Descending the hills from Darjeeling was a lot of fun and as you can imagine it was fast! When we reached the plains we set our tent up at a flourmill construction site and later that night we encountered our first tropical storm. We had to take the tent down before it broke as the wind was so strong and everything was soaked in seconds!
Cycling the plains of West Bengal and Assam we were treated to lots of hospitality by a mixture of warmshowers hosts and family of Jesim and Mandira (our friends from Delhi). During this time we had to endure pretty hot temperatures, strong headwinds and lots of mosquitos so all the warm welcomes we received were really appreciated. We also got to stay in some off-the-beaten-track places. One place which was particularly memorable was a large all boys boarding school on the edge of a jungle. We stayed with Mandira’s aunt and uncle and were greeted by about 150 very curious school boys! I also encountered the largest cockroaches I have ever seen and when I went to use the bathroom, I found it covered in three giant tarantulas – okay not sure if they were tarantulas but they were huge and very scary.
Our time spent in Guwahati with Mandira’s family was a nice rest. We spent most of the time sightseeing and shopping for new loose and conservative cycling clothes. One of the nicest sites we visited was a temple on a little island in the middle of the Brahmaputra river. Ruma (a friend of Mandira’s) accompanied us on a rickety old ferry and we spent some time wandering the island, it was calm, peaceful and we even got to see some rare Golden Languar monkeys.
During our stay in Assam we accumulated many, many scarves, nearly everyone we met and stayed with gave us a scarf , they are offered as a gift of love and presented to you around your neck as you are departing. We were mostly given the traditional Assami cotton red and white one but we were also given a few tribal ones of various colours and patterns – I will never need to buy another scarf again!
Cycling out of Guwahati, and saying farewell to the state of Assam for the plateau of Meghalya was a little hilly but we were happy to be away from the hot plains for a while. Things got a lot greener very quickly as we entered the state that the Brits nicknamed ‘The Scotland of India’ when they were here many years ago. I can see some similarities but it is far too hot to be like Scotland! The humidity combined with the hills made cycling tough but the scenery was beautiful; lots of jungle and green rolling hills with mangos and pineapples growing everywhere.
One strange phenomenon we noticed whilst cycling in Megahalya (and in some other states) is the way people use indicators, they basically have the opposite meaning here than what we are used to – which is incredibly confusing. For example when pulling over to the right they will indicate left and this means ‘go around me to the left’, they use their indicator not to indicate where they are going but to indicate where you should be going! It is crazy, and to add to the confusion this doesn’t seem to be universal as some people use them in the same way we do and some people don’t use them at all! Tricky cycling and you always have to be alert as it is completely unpredictable!
Another interesting aspect to cycling in this part of the world is the number of different languages being spoken, it seemed like we would cycle barely 100 kms and people would be speaking a whole new language. In Meghalaya there are four main tribes, Khasi, War, Garo, Pnar, who all speak different languages. However, there are many more smaller tribes and many more languages. According to a census in 1971 there are roughly 220 languages spoken in the seven states of North East India.
Shillong (the capital city of Meghalaya) was a restful and enjoyable stay largely because of Brother/Principle Albert and the lovely staff (and students) at St Anthony’s college. They kindly housed us on the campus and looked after us, we felt so at home we ended up staying much longer than planned. We got to explore the city and took at trip to see the fascinating living root bridges at Cherrapunji (once the wettest place on earth).
The Living Root Bridges
The living root bridges are an incredible feat of bioengineering. The local Khasi tribe have created a method of constructing bridges using rubber tree roots and betel nut trunks. The betel nut trunks are sliced down the middle and hollowed out in order to create a root-guidance system that enables the rubber tree’s roots to grow in the right direction. Roots are ‘encouraged’ to grow to span across rivers, when they reach the other side of the river the root will take to the soil and given enough time (usually around ten to fifteen years) create a sturdy, living bridge. Some of the root bridges are over a hundred feet long and they can support the weight of 50 or more people at once. No-one seems to know the exact age of some of these ancient bridges but many are considered to be well over 500 years old. These structures put man-made structures to shame as these bridges are living and still growing, gaining strength over time – amazing!
The ride down to the bridges was a 2-hour trip which wouldn’t have been so bad if we weren’t packed into a car like sardines, who would have thought you could fit 12 people into a 4 x 4! When we arrived in Cherrapunji we decided to try and hitch a lift to the living root bridges and were picked up by a lovely young couple from Delhi, who we ended up spending the day with. Hiking down into the valley was pretty tough on the calf muscles – you need to descend 2,400 ft down more than more than 3,000 incredibly steep steps to reach the double decker root bridge – but it is definitely worth it as it is the only one of its kind.
The trek was beautiful, twisted ancient trees and vines, rickety old bridges across the rivers, butterflies everywhere and exotic plant life – it was stunning. The root bridges, when we finally reached them were an awesome sight and it felt like we had been transported to the realm of Rivendell. Before making our way back up the steep steps we took a little detour to cool off in a clear, blue, rock pool complete with waterfall – the water felt pretty good after trekking in the heat. Several hours later and completely exhausted we made it back to the car, just as the heavens opened and Cherrapunji lived up to its title as the wettest place on earth!
As we cycled south- east out of Shillong, we became surrounded by jungle and the days were hot, humid and full of hills! Our reward for reaching the top of the hills was the breath-taking views over the plains of Bangladesh. Meghalya is more or less a plateau, and to its south are the plains of Bangladesh which stretch out from the sheer and abrupt end of the plateau. A few days after crossing into Manipur we encountered our second big tropical storm, we were almost at our destination when the rain started, it wasn’t so bad so we continued cycling. However, pretty quickly the wind became so strong that we were being blown off our bikes and couldn’t continue, we were on a stretch of road with no shelter, no trees, so we ducked behind the only thing in view bigger than us – some trucks. The wind was so strong it was rocking the trucks in a worryingly violent way. The storm passed and we continued on our way with the aftermath of the storm all too visible. Houses had lost their roofs, fences were blown all over the place and many of the electricity poles were down. In just a couple of minutes the storm had caused a whole lot of damage. Luckily we didn’t see any evidence of people being injured, and to our surprise people carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
All throughout the states of Meghalaya and Manipur we were taken in and looked after by the Catholic Church. After our meeting with Brother Albert in Shillong he arranged for lots of churches along the way to expect us and to shelter us. We got to meet so many lovely people from all over India (a lot of the Fathers and Brothers were from Kerala) and we also got to chat to lots of excitable kids! It was fantastic for us as it meant we often had a comfortable room, dinner awaiting us, and a hot shower! We were very grateful to all the Fathers that looked after us along the way.
Religion in India
During our time in India we have stayed in Sikh Gurudwaras, Catholic churches, been fed by the ISKCON Church and been hosted by many Muslims and Hindus. Which got us thinking about religion in India and how diverse it is. Our limited prior knowledge of religion in India was that most people were Hindus and there was a small Buddhist minority, and that was largely it. We were really surprised by the sheer number of people who belonged to other faiths. In 2001, out of the 1028 million population, 80.5 % stated they were Hindus, 13.4% as Muslims, 2.3% as Christians, 1.9% as Sikhs, 0.8% as Buddhists and 0.4% as Jain. On the surface most areas seem to be tolerant of each other and the different faiths seem to coexist peacefully, however we did not spend nearly enough time in India to be able to assess this in any depth or to really understand the underlying tensions which may and most likely do exist.
Manipur was a state which we were warned about from nearly every Indian we met on the road. It was supposed to be dangerous, we were told to avoid it as the hills were filled with extremist groups. In the past the state required special permission for foreigners to travel, and had a curfew for locals. We saw many signs of the tensions of the past as we traveled through. Starting with the state border, where for the first time there was mandatory registration for foreigners. The military presence in the state was also immense and overtly visible. Check points, motorcades, barracks far more regularly and soldiers on foot with anti explosive equipment. Despite all of this, we never felt unsafe our entire time in Manipur. The locals were extremely friendly, curious and helpful. We were welcomed into a few homes as the sun was setting in the mountains without a bat of an eye.
The hills of Manipur themselves were remarkably beautiful. Rolling, rugged and thick with jungle and occasional patches of farmed land. It was worth some of the toughest cycling, on some of the worst roads of the trip to experience the landscape of Manipur.
The city of Imphal was our last major stop in India before making our way to Burma. We were hosted by a lovely young couple, Rajiv and Sheila who couldn’t do enough to help us. We spent a few days exploring the city, visiting the ruins of the British-built Kangla fort and also a very large WW2 memorial. I hadn’t realised quite how many lives were lost is this forgotten corner of India during the many bloody battles with the Japanese. It felt very sad all these young men buried so far from home. Our favourite part of Manipur was the Ima market. The word Ima means mother and this bustling, giant sprawling market is run entirely by women. There are hundreds of stalls selling everything from delicious food to colourful clothing and hand-weaved rugs and mats. It was a great place to wander and absorb the sights, smells and sounds. We also got the opportunity to meet two amazing guys who are very skilled and full of ideas. They are using their talents with bamboo to build some enterprising community projects for Imphal. Such as, a bamboo bike hire scheme, floating youth centre and many other interesting ideas. The bamboo bicycle was beautiful and the intricate designs of the furniture they created was really impressive. It was great to see projects like this happening in a city where government funding and support is lacking or non-existent.
Once out of the city, Manipur felt remote and wild and we loved it, the scenery was spectacular. Our ride to the border with Burma, was tough but incredibly beautiful. The people we met along the way were so friendly and hospitable. The area felt very different from the rest of India, even the way people looked, there was a strong Mongolian influence. We were told many times along the way that when the Manipuris travel to ‘mainland India’ they never get welcomed as Indians and are often treated as foreigners, mistaken for Koreans, Chinese or Mongolians.
North East India was a big surprise in terms of what we were expecting from our return to India. It was diverse, beautiful and fantastic to cycle through. We loved it!
We say farewell to India, up next…. we enter the unknown, into military ruled Myanmar.
For more photos of our time in India click HERE
To read about our first foray into India click HERE