Published: August 8th 2007March 23rd 2007
I wake after a fitful sleep on the top bunk of our second class sleeper, still depressed at being on the train, still depressed with the way our trip has been going lately; all the illnesses, the hassles, broken bikes, arguments with each other, this just wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Is this what I gave up a decent job and life back home for, to travel around India getting pissed off with the place, the people, Erika and now even myself? I wonder about just going home, but to what? Sure it would be good to see family and friends again but it seems like a bad and sad way to end things - for so long this trip has been so amazing and I always imagined it ending on some kind of elated high, finally reaching a destination we had worked so long and hard to reach, maybe even making it all the way around the globe back to Banchory to some kind of hero’s welcome. I am also aware this is just a silly fantasy you dream up while cycling day after day through the heat and dust, to take your mind away from the
A rather unhappy looking Golden Langur on his island prison in the middle of the Brahmaputra, Guwahati.
real questions of “why I am doing this?” and “what is the bloody point of this?” and that eventually it will just end, quietly like it started. But I want to be happy about it ending, not feeling like I do right now.
Last night as the train rolled out of the slum suburbs of Kolkata and back into the lush green countryside of Bengal I wanted to be on my bike, not on the train. We rolled past banana and mango plantations surrounding fish ponds as a dark red sun slid below the horizon and it just pissed me off. Kolkata had been too hot and humid; we had spent too much time in our hotel room lying under the ceiling fan stewing in our own sweat and pissing each other off. Erika was still sick with dodgy guts, she got them tested but the results said there was nothing wrong with her. The frequent trips to the toilet suggested otherwise.
When not in the hotel we were mostly at a computer trying to write up the last 3 months of our trip and not make it sound like we had been having a shitty time in India
The Great Indian One-Horned version. Too stingy to pay to take our camera into Kaziranga this is the best we could manage.
or that we hated the place, as putting as positive spin on it for the world might convince us it had been good fun too. It didn’t. We saw few sights in Kolkata and the 6 hours we spent at the station trying to pre-book our bikes onto the same train that we had tickets for were a total waste of time, as when we turned up on the day with them there’s the usual bullshit of “not possible”. Erika starts to cry and they relent, the bikes can come on the train with us. In the end it is still highly stressful and they are thrown on top of a pile of heavy sacks in the luggage car. We have baksheeshed the porter in the hope they would be treated with care but as we are forced to run to the other end of the train we look back to see more of the same heavy sacks being thrown on top of our bikes, and I doubt they will still be rideable at the other end.
I sit in the hot, humid train staring at the floor in a foul mood. Our fellow passengers have forced us to
cram up as there are four of them when there should only be three on one bench, when I ask him to move up he just shrugs and says “there is another man here”. “Yes, another man without a bloody ticket!!” I almost yell in his face, instead I just glower at him. We get none of the usual questions about where we are from etc. I wonder what Indians think about all these bad tempered foreigners they must meet, and try not to think about my bike being mangled at the far end of the train.
My head is hurting as it so hot and I find myself ripping huge chunks of my dreadlocks out of my head, dreads I have spent the last 10 years growing. The man opposite me watches curiously and clearly wants to ask what I am doing and why, our eyes meet and he thinks better of it. Erika has also stopped speaking to me. A tray of overpriced slop arrives and I ponder the similarities between Indian and British railways, before climbing up to my bunk to try and sleep. It’s too hot but eventually I manage to switch on the fan, ten
minutes later the Indian below me switches it off, as it is making him cold.
I don’t feel any better in the morning. The scenery outside looks the same, someone tells us we are now in Assam but it looks the same as the rest of India; flat rice paddies stretch off to a hazy horizon on both sides of the train. I had expected to see mountains flanking either side of the valley of the mighty Brahmaputra, but we see neither. The train rolls into Guwahati through similar looking slums to the ones we left in Kolkata, though now there are at least some jungle covered hills visible to let us know the train didn’t just turn back in the middle of the night.
We get off the train and retrieve our bikes. Amazingly they look OK, and then I spot the enormous dent in my luggage rack. It’s still in one piece but doesn’t look like it will hold much weight anymore which means touring is over. I am mad. I want an apology and compensation, though I realise the chances of either are low. We find the parcel office and complain. “The damage claims procedure
is a lengthy one” we are told. No shit. I am determined to get something from them and an hour of arguing with numerous officials ensues, with me constantly demanding a damage claim form which they are equally determined not to give me. At one point I sense a glimmer of victory when I am told “it is not damaged actually, only bent, it can be repaired”. “Really”, I reply, “it can be repaired?” “So how do you repair something that is not broken?” this has them stumped for a while but then they pull a massive trump card on me when the most senior guy there suddenly claims he doesn’t even work for the railways!! I am forced to admit to myself they are much better at this than I am. Another guy then appears and says “actually we are not liable for any removable parts, only for the bicycle”!!! What?!!! I ask him if they are not liable for the wheels (which can be removed a lot more easily than the rack) but now he thinks I am the one being stupid. It is too hot, Erika is feeling ill and it is clearly going nowhere so I
Simple, clean technology to irrgate the paddies. Sadly mostly being replaced by deisel pumps.
quit and leave to find a hotel, but now there is a sudden rush of activity as we have not completed the luggage discharge form!! I tell them where they can stick their discharge form and cycle out of the station, vowing never again to even think about putting a bike on an Indian train.
Guwahati is almost as hot as Kolkata and 2 hours later we are still cycling around looking for a hotel. Everywhere is either full or wants stupid money for simple, dirty rooms. I can’t understand it. After initially bitching and taking out our frustrations on each other we are now so exhausted we don’t even have the energy for that. Our train arrived at 10.30. It is now 3pm. Eventually we find a simple, clean room with mozzy nets and the guy drops the price to 300 rupees. Anywhere else in India this would cost 100 or 150. We can’t be bothered to argue anymore. He protests at us putting the bikes in the room, catches my eye, wobbles his head and backs off. Good idea. I am ready to do somebody a serious injury, if only I could find the person responsible for
Assam's China Wall
thats what the sign says - the long mound is a defensive wall built to keepthe Burmese out of the Kingdom of Asom. It stretches right across the floodplains from the Brahmaputra to the hills.
everything in India being so bloody difficult when it could and should be simple, they would be so very, very sorry (of course, there is no such person, and collectively us Britishers must probably take a fair chunk of the blame for our colonial misrule - I guess that’s karma for you).
We get into the room, shut the door and collapse into each others arms before ranting at the walls. We both agree we hate India, wish we had never come, and if we could click our heels or get beamed up we would leave right now. At least we are laughing about it. A cold bucket wash helps put a brighter perspective on things as does the fish curry we get round the corner. In fact it is possibly the best food I have eaten in the whole of India and the staff are really friendly and smiley. We start to cheer up. We wander through the town as it cools in the late afternoon and find our way to the banks of the Brahmaputra. It doesn’t disappoint, it is enormous, the opposite bank far off in the haze and with numerous rocky islands and sandbars scattered
across it like discarded litter. We look for somewhere to sit on the bank and watch the sunset but like all rivers in India, sacred or otherwise, the banks are the local toilet. Even this doesn’t detract from the majesty of the river or the blood red sunset though, and our anger and frustrations are soon a thing of the past. India is weird like that, it has the power to drive you completely insane if you let it (of course this is all down to us and our attitude/expectations, rather than India or its people) and then the next minute you have forgotten what made you mad and have fallen in love with the place again. There is no mediocrity here, everything is full power.
We had planned to cycle straight out of Guwahati, up into the mountains of Meghalaya (the so-called “Scotland of the East”) to find some cooler air, but Erika’s continuing health problems, my bike problem, and the sense that we had not made the most of our day in Guwahati made us re-think. Walking back from the river we fall into chatting with a local Assamese woman - a strange experience as generally lone
Note the fenced garden.
Indian women don’t strike up conversations in the street, at least not in the rest of India - after the usual stuff about where we are from she asks if we are here for research or study? Confused we say we are simply tourists and she giggles. At the internet place we get asked the same thing. Then back at the hotel the receptionist and owner are chatting to us and learn I am a biologist, “ah, you here for research?”. It seems few foreigners come to Guwahati except for the occasional student doing research, certainly not tourists. This may explain the laid back vibes of the place and total lack of tourist touts and hassle we got walking around, even in the crowded bazaar.
After another amazing fish curry (Assamese and Bengali food is definitely some of the best in India) we are back in the hotel chatting to the reception guy about the cricket world cup which is just starting on the TV, and telling him about Scotland. The police arrive to check his register and we stay put in case they want to see our passports, which they do. They are friendly and tell us the
whole of Assam is safe and we don’t need to worry about insurgents as everywhere is peaceful now - back in January ULFA rebel separatists went on a bit of a killing and bombing spree in upper Assam. The cops then start to hassle the hotel guy as he has not made copies of our passports and Indian visas. I feel sorry for him and try to intervene, pointing out to the police that this is not necessary. They tell me it is, everywhere in India. This is bullshit and I try to politely point this out, they then back down and say it is only an Assam law, but I suspect he whole thing is bullshit. They are only here as word has got to them about where the foreigners are staying. The chief cop (there are three of them) says something in Assamese to the hotel guy and he then slides a 100 rupee note across the counter. The cop pushes it back and I think good, he’s not that greedy, but no - he wants more and the receptionist reaches into the draw and hopefully hands over another 100 rupees. The cop pockets it and they leave
all smiles, business as usual. I now understand why our 100-150 rupee room cost 300 and all the hotels were overpriced - not simply charging a rip-off foreigners rate but because they know they will have to bribe the police. The receptionist just shrugs and goes back to talking about cricket. I am glad we didn’t mention our decision to stay another day in front of the police, as at least now the hotel will make some money from our stay.
In the morning we go the Assam tourist office to check about visiting the numerous National Parks the state is famous for. It is 10am but nobody is there. We ask the gardener when the office opens and he says 10am, then “maybe 10.30”. Somebody else says maybe 11am but with a laugh I translate this as “they are government workers, whenever they can be arsed to turn up”. We wander off to find Wild Grass Tours, a private company, in the hope that the business ethic will have encouraged someone out of bed. Guwahati is a sleepy, green, leafy town, low rise wooden buildings with corrugated tin roofs set in gardens of palm trees, shady fruit trees,
and feels a world away from the rest of northern India. Assam and the other North Eastern states are almost physically severed from the rest of India by Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and if some of the population had their way it would be a separate independent state (Upper Assam is oil rich…). To us Guwahati felt a bit like a Fijian city, Fiji being the only other place I have been that looked and felt like this.
We found Wild Grass and they were happy to give us loads of free info about the National Parks, costs of visiting and how to cycle there even though it was obvious we were not going to take one of their top range tours or stay at their resort. They also gave us free tea as soon as we arrived - the first and only time this has happened in India. In fact they were just really friendly and told us loads about Assam - few tourists come because of the bad press and the insurgency, those who do are usually on package tours arranged from Europe or the US and they are flown into Guwahati and then whisked off to
This is right next to (or perhaps inside?) the Panbari Forest Reserve.
the resorts inside the Parks to see some big game, then flown straight out again. This explains the way nobody assumed we were tourists. In the end they sell us on visiting Kaziranga National Park, a world famous UNESCO site for the rhino and elephant populations. Maybe we can camp cheaply at the Wild Grass resort.
We spend the rest of the day wandering though Guwahati, back to the river and manage to take a ferry to Peacock Island, home not to any peacocks but to a Shiva temple and some endangered Golden Langur monkeys. The monkeys turn out to be half tame and obviously bored with their small island prison, but the island is beautiful - steep, rocky and jungle clad in the middle of the Brahmaputra. There is a steady stream of pilgrims to the temple and lots of young couples visiting the island to canoodle on the beaches and rocky shores. This was a bit of a surprise in India where public displays of affection are rare, but the island seemed to have different rules. The couples were mostly Indian men with stunningly beautiful Assamese or hill-tribe girls who looked more South East Asian than Indian.
Golden Langur Monkey
We found a quiet spot amongst the rocks away from all the other couples and watched the river flowing past and had our picnic, then Erika leaped up pointing “I just saw a dolphin”. True enough there were several Gangetic river dolphins surfacing nearby and we counted ourselves amazingly lucky to see these endangered animals so easily. They used to be common in the Ganga, even in Varanasi, but it is now so polluted and filthy few survive, and their Chinese cousins in the Yangtze were recently declared extinct. In comparison to the Ganga the Brahmaputra looked and felt like a truly sacred and majestic river (and it’s a lot cleaner) and before leaving the island I took a dip in the cool waters.
Next morning we packed and rode out of town early, heading up the valley towards Kaziranga. The road quickly began to climb steeply up into jungle clad hills but was busy with trucks and buses and it was dusty and hard work. Sweating and choking in a dust cloud thrown up by a bus that almost collided with me I was beginning to think “what’s the point” again when a jeep passed by blasting
the horn. I looked up about to curse but instead was forced to smile as 3 beautiful hill-tribe girls leaned out the window waving, smiling and shouting encouragements. I laughed at myself for being so easily annoyed and then cheered, and wondered why the rest of India wasn’t like this, remembering the aggression of people back in Rajasthan and UP.
We soon reached the top of the hills and the turn off up into Meghalaya, but we kept straight on, descending down a winding road through more jungle and past houses made from bamboo, rattan and often on stilts. The jungle was a bit depleted but at least there lots of trees and greenery unlike other parts of India. In fact the countryside felt totally different, the houses were different, the peoples faces were different, was this really still India? Erika catches me up in a jubilant mood, “this is just like Thailand” she beams. Houses have neat gardens surrounded by bamboo fences and filled with flowers and there is no sign of the piles of litter that fill the rest of India. The people have sense of civic pride and personal space that we find comforting and familiar
as Europeans, whereas in central India these things don’t seem to exist. When we stop near a school it takes while to realise it is a school - instead of being mobbed by excited children they are standing obediently and quietly (in fact in total silence) watching us from behind the fence around the playing field. We tell ourselves we must be in another country - this is not the India we know and sometimes hate, this is a beautiful place full of beautiful people.
The jungle fades and we are back on the flat valley plains, filled with dry rice paddies, tidy villages, vegetable gardens, betel palms and ganja plots. Every garden has some betel palms; the nuts are narcotic and chewed all over India in paan, often with tobacco, but in the north east betel chewing is a major pastime. Each garden also has a corner full of ganja bushes. Maybe this explains the peaceful, smiley, placid nature of the people. Our road alternates between rice paddies, villages, forest patches and tea plantations but everywhere we are welcomed by warm smiles. We wish we had crossed the rest of India superfast to get to the northeast.
By evening we reach the town of Nagaon and find many hotels full. We eventually find cheap lodgings and the staff and their friends are very keen to speak to us - they once had a Russian stay but other than that we are the only foreign guests they have had. They are all very excited but sweet and funny and we are reminded of our times back in Iran, Syria, Pakistan and Turkey where being a hospitable host came before all other things. One of their friends arrives with a camera to photo us all together - he has been dragged here especially to meet us and take our pictures! Erika is pretty worn out from the days ride combined with her dodgy guts and it turns out she was finding it so hard she did not even notice the completely naked Jain holy man marching down the middle of the highway carrying only a peacock feather duster and with an entourage of others carrying banners and flags. She must have cycled within a metre or two of this bizarre sight and totally missed it.
I have to spend an hour once again re-building my rear hub but
by now I am well practiced. There is no damage but it is wobbly - I didn’t tighten it up enough in Kolkata scared of breaking things - so I strip it , clean the parts, re-grease everything and put it back together more tightly. The hotel guys watch and declare me a master mechanic and I laugh remembering how unconfident I was of even changing the chain when I started this trip. I guess whatever else happens I can always get a job fixing bikes after this.
We fall into bed exhausted but have no problems sleeping despite the crowd immediately outside our room yelling at the TV as India play Bangladesh in the cricket world cup - India are not doing too well but I am too tied to stay watching.
In the morning all is quiet as we cook our breakfast of poha/chora (beaten rice) porridge. The staff are gloomy - we are leaving (they keep trying to encourage us to stay another day!) and India lost to Bangladesh which is a huge upset and humiliation for this cricket mad country. The morning is much the same as the previous day, wide open agricultural fields of
rice, tea plantations and the odd patch of jungle. There is lots of water around and lots of birds in the rice paddies and mashes. We stop for lunch as the road enters thick rainforested hills - the start of Kaziranga National Park.
We eat an overpriced but well needed thali at the “eco-resort” which is an ugly concrete monstrosity blasting out hindi bollywood tunes into the jungle, very ecological. From here we climb steeply up into the jungle, stopping to look at amazingly colourful birds, iridescent greens and reds flashing through the canopy far above our heads, and some amazingly large and colourful butterflies. We round a bend and stop at a viewpoint overlooking a huge expanse of open grassland and swamp below us - part of Kaziranga National Park. Some Bengali tourists already there are more interested in us than the view until I point to the 2 huge grey boulders on the plains below, one of which has just moved. The moving boulders are our fist glimpse of the Indian One-Horned Rhino, the largest rhino in the world. They are at least a kilometre away but still look massive.
We cycle on and down to the plains again but the road to one side is the thick forest of the Park. Frequent signs warn of elephants, rhino and other wildlife crossing the road, and then at a more open patch we screech to a halt. Only 200 metres or so from the road is an enormous rhino busy munching down the trees and bushes and there are we sitting on our bikes watching it. We stare in amazement; it hasn’t even noticed us, though I doubt we could outrun it if it charged. In the next 20km or so we see loads of hog deer, a herd of wild water buffalo (lager and with even bigger horns than their domesticated cousins) and another rhino, this time with a tiny, cute baby. We can’t believe our luck - we have seen half of the famous species of the Park just cycling along next to it, for free.
All the stops to see the wildlife mean we arrive at Kohora, the village by the park gate, at dusk. We can’t find any chora for breakfast the next day and my mad dash to the park gate to find out the prices of the government jeep tours only wastes more time and energy as the ticket office is of course nowhere near the entrance gate (this is still India after all!). We hedge our bets on being allowed to camp cheaply at the upmarket Wild Grass resort and cycle there in the dark, hoping to blag our way in. This turns out to be far easier than expected - they had expected us here yesterday after a phone call from Kameyni - the guy we met in Guwahati. The place looks really posh and we are ushered into the fancy dining room and given a huge pot of black tea, wondering if we can afford it. Erika looks and feels awful after 2 days riding with her still dodgy guts and we hope they will take pity. They have to speak to the managing director and this drains all hope from me, I am already envisaging trying to find a cheap lodge in the dark. The manager has a huge beard and an even bigger smile and “yes of course you can camp, but you can have a cottage tonight if you prefer, after that we are fully booked”.
We decline the cottage as we will be unable to afford to eat or visit the park if we stay in it , and are shown where to pitch our tent in the lush tropical garden. We have our own private bathroom nearby - from the size of the building I had assumed it was a complete cottage unit but it is in fact the plushest bathroom I have seen in a very, very long time. We can’t quite believe our luck and after a steaming hot shower we venture back to the office to ask how much camping will cost us. “There is no charge as it is your own tent”!!
The next day we take jeep tours into the Park with a guide from Wild Grass, it is a little bit more expensive than the standard park jeep safari but as our accommodation is free we can afford it and it is nice to have a guide. We get close up views of rhino and they are surreal, huge amour plated beasts. In the afternoon our jeep turns a sharp corner and we are face to face with a mother and calf crossing the road only a few metres away. The mother is not happy with our intrusion and dummy charges the jeep which at first was really cool and exciting but then a little scary, especially when the armed guard aims his gun at her. Fortunately the diver quickly backs up, and all is well. We have seen dozens of rhino, swamp deer, hog deer, wild buffalo, fish eagles, giant hornbill and the day ends with a lone elephant going for a swim as the sun sets over the river, and then a pair of Kalij pheasants in the jungle on the way out of the park.
After a long day on safari and 2 days on the bikes we are exhausted and rest the next day in the shady gardens at Wild Grass, amusing ourselves listening to a group of Canadians on a package tour of India’s National Parks. They boast that they are in India for 5 weeks and then look miffed when we mention we have been here 5 months. It is also obvious they have missed so much of normal everyday Indian life and culture and really didn’t understand much about the country at all. One of the things that had annoyed me about my time here was that despite spending more time in India than any other country on this trip I didn’t feel like I understood the place at all in comparison to other countries we had passed through. Listening to these guys though I realised how much of an understanding I actually did have, at least in comparison to them. However I couldn’t be bothered to enlighten them and I don’t think they would have thanked me for it anyway. They preferred to speculate about the things they saw and didn’t understand, rather then ask locals or even their Indian guide for an explanation, I just found this bizarre. It is arrogant to think of ourselves as “travellers” as opposed to tourists but when you meet people like this it is hard not to.
We explore the tea gardens and forests behind the resort looking for birds and follow elephant tracks high up into the bamboo forest, but perhaps fortunately don’t find the elephants that made them. It is nice just to wander around by ourselves though without a guide. We meet Jeremy, an expat British diplomat on holiday from Delhi, and have good company at dinnertimes. He invites us to join him in his jeep for free for another day of safari’s in the park and we can’t believe our luck at blagging freebies in Assam. His guide is able to show us loads of cool forest bids we missed the fist time, and we see more elephants and a huge python- and I mean huge, we couldn’t believe it when more and more snake just kept coming though the grass.
The staff at the resort are all really friendly and the food is excellent and reasonably priced, given the fact the place is super-posh by our standards. They soon get used to writing “tent” on our tab instead of asking for our room number. They are all very happy when India win their second World Cup match against Barbados and ecstatic when Pakistan get beaten by Ireland and make an early exit, though strangely not so keen to talk cricket when India follow them home a few days later. Scotland of course do us proud by losing all three matches in customary style, even getting a thrashing from cricketing giants Holland.
Kameyni arrives from Guwahati with a another tour group and is pleased to see us, that night he appears excitedly by our tent asking if we want to see a banded krait. I say yes before I remember that this is the second deadliest snake in India. “I was frogging with some tourists by the pond and snake is also there looking for frogs” he explains. What? Turns out some other guests are very keen on frogs and got more than they bargained for. We follow Kameyni to the pond but he storms ahead with his big spotlight, I have no torch, Erika has only a small headlamp behind me. We walk almost all around the pond and Kameyni announces it has gone, I am looking a the ground as I can’t even see my own feet or where I am putting them and have a sudden apprehension that this is not a good thing when you are trying to find a dangerous snake. I peer down into the darkness and suddenly see movement right by my foot - something black and white is moving quickly by my feet but I can’t tell if it moving away or towards me, “er, can someone shine a light by my feet, I think I’ve found the snake” I announce, but Erika just starts yelping hysterically which is no use at all, except maybe to scare the thing away into he pond. In the big spotlight we watch the beautiful but deadly creature glide effortlessly across the water. “That was close” I murmur, “Yes”, says Kameyni “frogging is a risky business”!
The highlight of our stay at Kaziranga was probably the early morning visit to the nearby Panbari rainforest. Soon after pushing into the lush tropical jungle we hear an eerie, loud, piecing screaming coming from the treetops. We are soon standing right beneath the tree while high above us a Hoolock Gibbon rocks around in the branches hooting and screaming across the valley. We crane our necks up for ten minutes or more at our distant ape cousin, and occasionally he stares down at us equally inquisitively. Then a huge whooshing noise announces the arrival of an enormous giant hornbill which swoops into a low branch just above our heads, and we don’t know where to look. The hornbill looks like some prehistoric creature and it is easy to believe birds evolved from dinosaurs as we look at the huge bird and its massive, multicoloured beak delicately plucking tiny fruits from the tree. Before we leave the forest we also see Capped Langur and many birds, but sadly also see that this forest reserve is being cut into on all sides and find a huge burned area.
In fact the whole time in Assam we have seen huge forest fires in the distance and cleared areas of rainforest, often on stupidly steep slopes that will be hopeless for cultivation. It is a depressing sight, with the bare red soil waiting for the first downpour of the monsoon to wash it into the Brahmaputra and downstream to the Bay of Bengal. I had hoped to visit more forest parks in Assam but in the end we push on instead, vowing to return one day to see the rest and maybe Arunachal Pradesh too. I just hope there is still some forest left in the future. Assam is rich in wildlife and forests but these are being visibly destroyed by the day. Assam is the only part of India where local people have expressed concern about pollution and environmental destruction to us, despite the fact that in comparison to the northern plains Assam is a clean, green paradise. Hopefully this concern will halt the current trend to cut and burn forests for quick profit and “industrialisation”, something the state governments of the northeast seem very keen on.
We take a bus back towards Guwahati thoroughly relaxed after our week of luxury in the beauty of Assam, with the stresses and strains of the previous few months a distant memory. Erika's guts have even got better after seeing a doctor and having a week of good, clean food at Wild Grass, and we are now looking forward to the monster climb up into Meghalaya.