To Nagaland and beyond...

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February 13th 2013
Published: February 13th 2013
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To the west of Rajasthan, near the border with Pakistan, lies the Great Thar Desert; but, in the east, it is cloaked in a different, vibrant, swaying yellow, that of mustard fields. The Rajput – historically warrior clans - are not retiring violets and this is reflected in their dress: the mustachioed and turbaned men with gold studs in their ears; their headwear bearing little resemblance to sleek, sculpted, Sikh turbans, being great globular, Ali Baba mounds in vivid colours. The women’s saris and ghungta shawls are un-patterned in block colours of shocking red, pink, yellow or sky-blue; their left nostril possibly adorned with a gold ring of bracelet dimensions. Eyes may be unnervingly beautiful pale shades of brown or feline green.

Without doubt – and not without good cause – Rajasthan is the most touristic Indian State. A sad consequence of this is that the most popular destinations (the majestic cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer ) are hardened towards visitors and money is often at the forefront of people’s minds: the touts are numerous, persistent and even, sometimes, downright devious. Such receptions have been known to irreparably cloud travellers’ perceptions of India.

Pushkar was and is main-stream, but the welcome is – typically - more than just financial. And then we chanced upon Bundi. Compared to the rest of Rajasthan, Bundi was a surprise - a very pleasant one; it isn’t totally off the beaten track (more popular with overnighting tour groups than backpackers), but it retains a certain touristic naïvety and has atmosphere in spades. The approach road hugs a hillside that looks down into the basin cradling Bundi’s old town: a patchwork of low story, flat-topped biblical dwellings in Brahmin blue, natural stone and shades of terracotta. Behind town, snaking along and down the parched hillside, are fort walls and plastered to its side is a great citadel in bleached stone. The fort walls descend to enclose the old city that is accessed through the ornate and imposing Meera, Chogan or West gates: Chogan choked with people milling around its magnificent bazaar of bangle makers, fruit and cane sugar sellers, cloth vendors, and knife grinders. Most guesthouses (the family-run ones caring and indulgent) are ancient old havelis with treacherous peg-like stairs leading to the upper floors and roof terraces - from which the city can be viewed as it burnishes in the late afternoon sun. Its maze of lanes hide (open-) secret drinking dens, step-wells and the father of all chai-wallahs: Krishna, whose masala teas, coffees and other happy concoctions are considered (read the gushing references in his notebooks) – and we’d concur – probably the best you’ll ever sample. Meanwhile, it is kite season after-all, the men folk find it hard to leave the roof tops. Rajasthan doesn’t get much better. The only negative is the number of motorbikes that now plague its unsuited streets. I can forgive those modified bikes that brandish four great brass milk urns and trawl the streets making deliveries, but the rest need a Yangon-esque ban.

A short three hour train journey took us to Chittaurgarh for what was a brief overnight visit prior to catching the subsequent overnights (yes, plural) train all the way across to Kolkata. As soon as we’d found a room we set off across town to the foot of Chittaurgarh’s great flat-topped hill, surmounted by its immense fort: the largest in India. It’s a lengthy stroll across the fortress’s expanse and this would have been extremely pleasant in the balmy late afternoon sun except for the fact that my 90rp flip-flops had suddenly worn through (Ali did say I should have gone for a $2 pair), leaving now excruciatingly prominent thong studs that necessitated a barefoot return and immediate introduction of the Aussie-donation cut-downs. Nursing my sore feet and enjoying a road-side chai, I was befriended by a friendly old cow (I named her June) who took such a shine to me as I gave her an affectionate stroke that she starting nuzzling her head against my body like a one ton dog.

Before departure the next day we killed a few hours by frequenting a wine shop (with backroom drinking den). This establishment was, admittedly, a tad unsavoury and nearly resulted in our first Indian unpleasantness at the hands of a particularly obnoxious local drunk; still, local goodness saw a happy resolution and we were soon Bengal-bound.

You often meet some seriously nice people on Indian trains, but on this Ajmer-Kolkata Express we met businessmen Ashok and Dilip who remade the mould: at every stop they’d disappear and return with some station-side fare; Ashok plied us with his wife’s delicious home-made delicacies (gondladoo: butter, nuts, milk and sugar confections to die for) and the most we could ever reciprocate was the odd chai and cigarette (the latter only for Dilip – in case Mrs. Jangid were ever to read this). On reaching Kolkata we arranged to meet again in a couple of days – something that both sides are usually happy to let slide. We didn’t, are delighted we didn’t, but have a huge debt of hospitality hanging over us: they treated us to a wonderful lunch at the renowned Royal India Hotel (where we feasted on the special of royal mutton chaap, chicken livers in a divine oily sauce and perfect rubbery chapattis), insisted on paying rapid visits to two famous sweet shops to experience Kolkata specialties including rasgulla (sweet fluffy balls of curd) and even more delicious, but unnamed, perfections. We discussed the possibility of starting a business venture together in the UK and will certainly research its validity on our return.

If Ali were to be a contestant on the quiz show Mastermind her specialist subject might well be public toilets on bus routes in Asia. For me a latrine is a latrine. It may sting your eyes, but I don’t have to get down and personal with the environment (fortunately my bowels know better than to bother me for the duration of a journey – however long). Ali reports – as only a nurse can do – with great graphic detail, that standards are slipping the further north we advance here in India. Blocked fly-blown toilets have been replaced with wall-to-wall excrement, to the extent that the local ladies simply hitch up their saris and squat outside the stalls. To add insult to injury, many of these middens demand payment.

It was not always the case that I could chose not to have to enter a public stall, but three months in and still India has yet to dish up a dose of the trots; my god, never before have we risked so many salads, meats, offal and ice. Indeed the bacteria, flagellates and amoebae that gave rise to the Delhi-belly and Pushkar-poos appear to have been completely replaced with viruses (spread with generous unfettered abandon on buses and trains) resulting in the now ubiquitous Kolkata-coughs and Shimla-sniffles. Of these I’ve had three and counting….

On the virus theme: West Bengal is one of several States impressively providing free polio vaccine at mainline rail stations.

Completely unrelated, but a revelation to me, is the number of concrete manufacturing companies here in India – really, on the street (bill boards and painted onto walls) there is no more widely advertised product; there again, it gets used for every building project imaginable. Whilst, on the television – total avoidance is nigh impossible and we’re ashamed to say that we actually look forward to those rare occasions when we run into the Aussie “Packed to the rafters” and recently HBO’s “Homeland”, indeed we are rather concerned as to what became of “Grey’s Anatomy’s” O’Malley – advertisements are dominated by health and beauty products. Here, disturbingly, almost every product - be it a moisturiser, face cream, facial wash or even a sun screen - includes a “whitening” agent. Indian authors such as Zadie Smith and Vickram Seth have always astounded me with their accounts of the apparent importance (to would be mothers-in-law) of “fairness”, this probably ranking about fourth in their order of priorities after caste, education and family background. But to find that it is now so actively pursued is worrying. Meanwhile, the skin disease vitaligo is rife.

Kolkata (Calcutta) has always been our favourite of the big-four cities, and I’m delighted to report that it remains minimally changed. The backpacker grotto of Sudder Street is less grungy than in days gone by and now even boasts some fancy boutique hotels. Fortunately, the presence of the flashpackers frequenting these establishments hasn’t sent prices soaring and there are still eatery gems at knockdown prices (Khalsa Restaurant on Madge Lane, fronted by the giant Sikh gentleman, where the cooking is all performed on a bed of wood embers, is amazing value and even offers a fish curry at 22rps ). What has changed is the availability of alcohol and what pleases even more is its bargain price - an afternoon Kingfisher in the Raj-era courtyard of the Fairlawn Hotel is not even of prohibitive cost.

Of course Kolkata has its wonderful old colonial architecture, including the stunning white marble Victoria Memorial (150rp to go in as a foreigner, but only 4rp to enjoy its façade from the gardens with their reflective pools). There are hidden, tranquil, walled cemeteries packed with obelisks marking the passing of the East India Company’s finest, Eden Gardens and its colossal cricket ground, the chaotic alleys of Barabazar with their sari emporia, fruit markets and cake shops. On the bustling streets of BBD Bagh carpenters and stone masons spill from tiny workshops onto the pavements and India’s only trams run amidst the mayhem. Streams of yellow Ambassador taxis dominate the roads and, I’m assured, on both counts, suddenly refuse custom at the approach of transition time when certain one-way streets reverse direction. Kolkata also hosts the last of India’s hand-drawn (and often barefoot) tana rickshaw wallahs and is home to the immense, sleepless, Howrah Bridge that strides the Hooghly River downstream of the bathing ghats. Just as Glasgow gets my vote over Edinburgh, somehow Kolkata edges its flashier counterparts by simply having more soul (plus it hasn’t totally abandoned bhar – unfired earthenware cups – for serving chai and that counts for a lot).

Obtaining Bangladeshi visas was simplicity itself: fill-in the minimal paperwork on the street and hand in (with the usual photocopies, including Indian visa) through the queue-less window; immediately be given an appointment to see the Consular General where he merely asks how you would like to enter/depart Bangladesh, recommends some places to visit, extracts the 3250rp charge; and then pick the visa up the following day at 5pm. Total time expended: 40 minutes. However, make sure you are there before 11 as last application forms are accepted at 11.15.

Chuffed at our productive morning we decided to book some train tickets to Guwahati in Assam. Several chats with Eastern States old-hands had convinced us that we can amble pretty much anywhere in the Tribal States except for Arunachal Pradesh (sadly the mountainous and most scenic): special permits/tour groups/guides are no longer required for any of the other seven-sisters and even Manipur is apparently now safe (well, they’re letting you in). We got lost on the way to the booking office but, hey-ho, ended up at the correct station itself and so queued with the masses: all trains were full for the next few days… However, on the other-side of town is the tourist quota office. Traipsed there and queued: lots of Bangladeshis were also reserving tickets. Yes, there were tickets still available in the quota, but could we show our passports…? Errr, no (shit, we forgot that part), they’re at the Bangla embassy. We have photocopies… Sorry sir, cross your fingers and come back when you have them.

It has always been the case that the prudent (but rigid) book their train tickets well in advance and now more so than ever – the population isn’t getting any smaller and the number able to afford reserve tickets is (much) greater than ever before; plus they simply can’t cram anymore trains on the lines, any more cars on the trains or any more bodies in the cars (at least for reserved cars). What is interesting though is monitoring the flashing boards at certain booking offices that indicate availabilities and waiting lists for the different classes on trains. If it’s a short journey never fear – unreserved second class never sell out. Really, there is no absolute capacity and it is always possible to squeeze on – literally – just one or two dozen/hundred more (although roof-top riding is much less frequent these days), but this often means standing cheek-to-jowl for the entirety of the trip: not something you want to do for a 20 hour overnighter if at all possible. Anyway, the first reserved tickets to sell out these days are 1AC (essentially private carriages), then the 2AC and downwards to basic sleepers (which at least gives us more chance than those who insist on AC) – of course, years ago, it was the polar opposite. Nevertheless, the network is more packed than ever. I guess you could replace space-greedy AC with standard sleepers, thereby doubling each train’s reserve capacity, but I can’t see that happening. Two (naughty) tips here: if you could only get an unreserved second class ticket and the platform is seriously mobbed, panic not – jump onto a sleeper carriage and sit on your packs in the entrance by the doors (as a stupid foreigner you won’t get moved on or charged an upgrade as you don’t have a bunk, but it is much better than standing; there again, more and more locals are adopting the same strategy, even though they may well get ousted). The second approach works like a dream but you need to be agile and it can backfire if the train breaks late (is going too fast) or arrives already packed: stand near the beginning of the platform and from a jogging start catch hold of the railings at your doorway of choice as the train passes, then swing yourself up onto the stairs – you are now in the prime position for boarding when the train comes to a halt. A word of warning: the latter approach is extremely hazardous with a heavy and/or cumbersome pack, both for yourself and, as you pass by, those human skittles perched on the very edge of the platform; if burdened with a big pack and a day pack: forget it.

Two days later, miraculously, our target tickets were still available and after enduring an atypically unpleasant 22 hour journey (fellow passengers who played music throughout the night and then rose at 4 a.m. to, noisily, resume their card session – maybe we are getting old) we drew into the outskirts of Guwahati, through a sprawl of rail-side slums: temporary, flimsy and filthy, yet a hive of productive activity with huge sacks of plastic bottles and stacks of bundled cardboard being readied for collection and recycling.

Guwahati, the unremarkable gateway to the Eastern States, is a transitory city with the populace a mix of racial backgrounds: there are many with broader, flatter faces and high prominent cheekbones, reflecting Assam’s proximities with Tibet to the north and Myanmar to the east. There are very few restaurants serving actual meals, most establishments being of the stand-up, fast food variety, offering a quick bowl of noodles or Tibetan momo. If at your wits end with India’s incessant interest in you, the hand-shaking, question-asking and need to be perpetually polite, then you might find Guwahati’s indifference a welcome relief; we actually found it a little cold.

As you head further into Assam, tea plantations aside, the environment increasingly resembles tropical Myanmar and S.E. Asian-style fish ponds become common.

These seven tribal States (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura) are India’s last frontier: being spatially separated from the main body of India, historically unsafe for visitors (the site of political unrest, bandits, guerilla activity and traffickers), whilst entry required often difficult-to-acquire permits.

We headed towards Mon in Nagaland, having been informed that permit restrictions had been dropped in late 2011. Assam, as we were about to discover first hand, is famous for its hartals (strikes); it is also the only State of the Seven Sisters with a rail system. Accurate information on available travel options further afield is scant and local knowledge is also often hit-and-miss. A 25 hour rail journey (the train actually proceeded further than expected which was a boon) placed us in Simaluguri, according to our map as close as the railway could get us to the Nagaland border. From here there were several theoretical bus routes in, but finding these buses proved problematic: we caught one to Sonari where we were assured a direct bus headed to Mon, one didn’t. A minibus got us as far as the border town of Namtola where the only onward option was a sumo (converted 4WD). Here the army is out in force with checkpoints and bus boardings commonplace. Some soldiers are as well-equipped as any Western force whilst others brandish AK47s or Uzis and yet others are disquietingly not acquitted in camouflage fatigues but in all black Ninja garb complete with matching bandanas. Regardless, we were of little interest to them.

Climbing, the landscape became more impressive with deep, inter-spliced, forested valleys below us and then, with a last cloud of dust, we entered the impoverished hill station of Mon. It really does have a frontier feel and far more than the guide books would have you believe, it is.

On arrival at 3 p.m. the ramshackle shops were already closing. We asked directions to a guesthouse, but no one seemed to know of one. The people gawped, but were simply useless when it came to offering practical help. Finally we traced two guesthouses that were both empty and locked; the only bus out of town had already left and it looked as though we’d be sleeping on the street unless someone offered us a place in their home. Then an old man asked if he could help, recruited another who knew the owner of one of the guesthouses, rang them, and finally a potential bed was found. The guesthouse – obviously – was empty, the running water was turned off (there was a tauntingly beautiful water heater) and the caretaker informed us that it would be 1500rp per night to stay. Ali laughed in her face; a deserted, waterless, guesthouse wanted to charge three times the price of a decent hotel in Chennai or Kolkata? The kind man who had helped us explained that no one comes here. And you wonder why… We beat the owner, over the caretaker’s phone, down to a still exorbitant 800rp for the night (but I think my describing her unwillingness to turn the water on as “peevishly shoddy” fell on uncomprehending ears), registered at the police station (still a requirement in Nagaland – they were amazed that we were guideless; although it isn’t true that no one comes here: when the drunk duty officer’s back was turned we scanned the register to find that, on average, at least one person a week passes through – they don’t stay long) and resigned ourselves to a foodless day. Mon’s food situation is limited to several shacks serving puri (simple breads) and chana (chickpea dal), and a restaurant (with a sweet young owner) that cooks simply abysmal noodles (by taste, not name). As previously stated, these delights can only be purchased before 3 p.m. There are some ladies at the sparse market selling such novelties as blackened rodents (and some far worse tasting fermented beans), but town holds little charm. Five, ten and fifteen kilometres away are tribal villages with tattooed women (the Apatani started defacing their women, renowned for their beauty and prone to being stolen by their nemesis tribe the Nishi, by tattooing their faces and implanting large objects through their nostrils to discourage this practice). We intended to go visit but the indifferent, unwelcoming, Mon simply pushed us onto the next bus out of town.

Hard travelling is character building, but at the end of it you expect something in terms of a sight, amiable people, great food, or an experience (other than starving or being ripped-off). Some places are off the beaten track for a reason (why go?). I know we didn’t give Mon a decent shot, but we really didn’t care and were grateful of making the following day’s bus.

So we missed out on a north east experience… But the bus journey south to Dimapur more than compensated. It seemed strange that we appeared to be moving over the rugged terrain in some great convoy of buses and trucks, but paid little attention to the fact. Every couple of hours we would all huddle up at some roadhouse and then lamely advance for another few hours. At 2a.m. we stopped – period. The great line, maybe a mile in length, all decamped and people started building roadside fires. No one was very forthcoming as to why, but it eventually materialized that there was a ban on transport – some sort of hartal; maybe there was a roadblock – which everyone was too scared to break, during the hours of darkness at least. Here scabs don’t merely get spat on. We hunkered down around our fires and waited for dawn. With first light the soldiers began to emerge from the woods and finally it was deemed safe enough to proceed. Predictably the hold-up had had a significant effect on the testosterone-driven drivers who now felt the need to make up time. Bear in mind that nothing had moved in either direction on a narrow two-lane road for five hours, so what does everyone do but try to overtake slower vehicles. Within ten minutes there was a standoff of two packed lanes facing each other. Still, we eventually made it to Dimapur (back inside Assam) where protestors were finally leaving the train lines, having successfully disrupted the network the previous day – this was a good thing, as we could catch the very delayed train heading to Guwahati (no buses or trains were heading to our intended destination of Shillong in Meghalaya State). In four days we had spent almost three in transit: welcome to the north east.

Myanmar’s greatest influence in the area appears to be in the pan department because here almost everyone imbibes, even older children.

From Shillong our intention had been to visit Imphal near the Myanmar border in recently hazardous Manipur for its mélange of people and spicy food, then onto Aizwal (another hill station) in Mizoram before Agartala in Tripura and across the border into Bangladesh. Once again we were thwarted: the next day was Republic day and no buses were going to Shillong; there was, however, one going to Agartala. In a fit of pique we took it. In all honesty we weren’t that interested in Imphal or Aizwal and were only really going to stamp collect / for the kudos of having been.

Around midnight I happened to jack-knife up in my seat (its broken back placed it typically at an unsteady 120 degrees, although the slightest bump – of which there were many - initiated violent oscillating between 90 and 150) and through our missing window was revealed a shabby sprawl high up in the hills: Shillong… The bloody bus went right through it. We briefly debated disembarking, but the chill/dark/hour/lack of a map/wasted fare soon convinced us otherwise. What was due to be a 24 hour journey was extended by several more due to a breakdown that was resolved just as darkness was falling once again and I was about to light my lovingly constructed fire – was rather disappointed really.

Tripura sees the fewest visitors of all the Eastern States (i.e. almost none) which surprised us as Agartala is such a convenient way of entering Bangladesh (admittedly not the most popular of destinations either). The city of Agartala is again uninspiring. Many of the people are of Bangladeshi origin and indeed Bangla/Bengali (alongside Tripura’s unique local language) is the most widely spoken. The centerpiece palace is under reconstruction as is the floating palace some 10km away (this is also sitting high-and-dry due to drought and the lake’s neglect). All that negativity aside the people are wonderful. Once again (like rural Gujarat) the locals take it personally that you have deemed to visit and “you are my guest” is a common statement, typically followed by some generous act (after chatting briefly with one young lad on a street he rematerialized a few minutes later with a gift of biscuits). We were actually hesitant of frequenting the only locals’ drinking hole as it was so hard to dodge the free beers, snacks and cigarettes. Town also has excellent Bangladeshi food including mouchar ganta (made from our old friend, banana flower), hilsha (a local fish) and rich and spicy chicken or khasir (mutton) curries: bodes very well for Bangladesh.

Travelling these States is seriously time-consuming, frustrating and fatiguing; there are no must-see sights (but we have been spoilt with hill tribe experiences in Sulawesi, Laos, Myanmar and the south of China); the people may be shy/reticent/cold/delightful and either money-grabbing or embarrassingly kind. Whilst militancy is evident everywhere our safety never felt threatened. Yes, we only passed through four States and stayed in three; we were only here for ten days and have only dipped our toes. You are without doubt seriously off the beaten track – we saw our last Westerners back in Kolkata. But, would I recommend the extreme effort? I’d have to say, on balance, no.

So, tomorrow we cross into the peace and tranquility of Bangladesh…. Yeah, right. We’ve been told that there really are no crazier bus drivers in the world; if they can beat the Vietnamese I’ll be impressed indeed.

Additional photos below
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14th February 2013

A pity you didn't like the north-east.
I guess it happens, and everybody experiences are different. I had a great time in the northeast myself, and that was when permits were still in full force! At least it is good news to hear that most of the permits have been abandoned by the Indian government, it means I can finally go to Manipur the only state I missed last time.

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