I wanted to get into the heart of Nagaland and really experience places away from where any foreigner would ever go, so I looked at my map and found the craziest looking out-of-the-way route. Steve and I had actually laughed about what part of it looked like. I’ve never seen a road on a map like it before. Sort of like they had given a one year old a crayon and had them draw a diagram. My goal point was Mon, in the very north of the state. When you zoom in on the route you can see that its non-stop twisting and hair-pin turns through the mountains. I chose this route to get there:A lot of it travels near the Myanmar border and through the most mountainous areas. In the end, it turned out to be just what I was after, but wasn’t easy. From Imphal the road gradually leaves the valley floor and starts climbing into the hills of northern Manipur. The scenery changes quickly and becomes mountainous.
From hot and sticky, the temperature drops as elevation is gained. Down in the valley is mostly Hindu, but as you get into the hills the faces change, and it feels like you’ve traveled back to an Asian country. These areas are one of the issues that some Naga people have. They feel like it should be part of Nagaland and others want it united to form a Naga nation. There are still Hindus and some muslims in the villages, but only a minority. Most of the Indians you see are at the checkpoints and military compounds. The first day on the way to Ukhrul, there were only one or two. The Assam Rifles is the branch of the military controlling the area. They’re usually a nice bunch of guys, and were just surprised to see me there. At each one, they put my information in the log book, checked out my passport, and asked me the usual questions, like “where are you from” “what is your purpose” “where is your family” “how can you do this alone”? Sometimes I just make up goofy answers to entertain myself. I told one of them that I used to be an astronaut before starting my trip and now I’m studying the stars of India.
We usually have a short tea time, and then I’m on my way. The road was nice and smooth until the last section before town. Gentle curves turned into hairpin turns. Ukhrul, like most towns and villages in Nagaland, sits up high on a ridge with views out over the surrounding area. Sunrise was fast approaching, which signaled it was time to find camp. I pulled into a big complex that looked like the police station to ask if I could pitch my tent. The locals english is a bit patchy in the hills, and they aren’t too familiar with camping. This complex turned out to be a government office and police station combined. At one point I thought I was going to meet someone whom I could ask about camping, but ended up in some strange dark alleyway with everybody confused. Somehow they thought I wanted to meet the student leaders.
They were convinced I was either a missionary or journalist. It made no sense to them that a foreigner would want to visit Ukhrul and do it alone. We sorted out that I needed to talk with the deputy commissioner and ask permission for setting up my tent. I was led into a large office that was very nice, but couldn’t hide the fact that it was in an old crummy concrete box. He was a small young Indian man who was getting a lot of respect from anybody in his presence. I put on my nice respectful face and sat across the desk from him. I was expecting an introduction or some kind of intro, but was caught off-guard by “go ahead”. I presented my case to him and we had a nice chat about my trip. For them, they would never want to see a guest sleep outside. He brought in an old man and a young policeman and explained that he would be putting me in the guesthouse for a night. The armed policeman showed me the way over to the guesthouse, and as soon as we got away from his superiors he brightened up and was laughing. An empty belly sent me wandering the dark smokey street in search of some food. I stumbled upon lots of raw smelly fish and vegetable stands, and when I was feeling hopeless a guy came up and started talking to me. After all the usual questions to get a feel for who the hell I was, he offered to take me to a restaurant. He took me on his bike to a colorful room in a basement and hooked me up with a big spread. He didn’t want anything but to help me out. He said he’d be by in the morning and took off. When I came out in the morning there was a friendly looking fellow checking out my bike. He took us down the street and bought me a big breakfast of chapatis and curry. A lot of times it’s difficult to find a good conversation of substance with a local because of the language barrier. Their little bit of english leads to the same boring talks over and over. It’s nice to meet a smart local who can speak good english.
He had crashed his motorcycle about a year ago and had to have a hip replacement. You would never think it though, he walked perfectly. The x-rays were pretty gnarly. As well as breakfast, he bought me a bag of ten samosas for the road. When we came out to my bike in front of the guesthouse, the guy from the previous night was eagerly looking for me. He was in a hurry to get me away. I guess the previous evening I’d mentioned that I liked the scarf he was wearing, so he took me to a shop to pick one up.
After this he took me to the head office of the Tangkhul tribe. Pretty much the organization that mediates everything involving the Tangkhul Naga tribe. The president’s office was waiting for me, and in came people to find out what this strange guy was up to. I remember one was the Secretary General, but no idea who anybody else was. Especially the names, which I always pretend to understand. All of them kept insinuating that my trip into Nagaland actually had more meaning than I knew, and would lead me on some new path. They definitely wanted to give me some history of their people and what they’re striving for, and probably hoping that I spread their message and struggles to the outside world. They don’t hide their feelings of wanting a unified country of all the Naga people.
It would be called Nagalim and encompass the current Nagaland state, the northern hills of Manipur, and a small part of Arunachal Pradesh state. I would hear a lot about Nagalim from villagers all along the way. One of the first questions I would get from the Naga people was “what religion are you”? They’re all about the christianity. It never goes over very well in super religious places to say you don’t have a religion. This makes no sense to them and pretty much says you’re a devil worshiping mongrel. It’s pointless to try and explain you’re spiritual in your own ways and you think organized religion is nothing you want to be a part of. Before leaving he gave me the speech. I guess when I first met the guy I told him I was Catholic and he thought that it was time for me to become a christian and asked if I was ready. His argument was “we all know that god put us here and don’t you want to give him thanks”, but I had to kindly turn down the offer. I wanted to ask him how everybody was so certain. It’s always fun when things turn into the awkward god talk.
I have nothing against what anybody wants to do in their life, but don’t like it being pushed on me. They were still a nice bunch, and I rode out-of-town with some funny memories. I would find out in the coming days that a long day of riding through these areas doesn’t lead to a lot of distance covered. I only managed to get to Jessami, which is the last town in Manipur before getting into Nagaland, but feels like you’re well into it. The landscape was awesome and probably the best day I would have in the region.
Because of this I didn’t mind the long day. The day became a lot longer because of constant stops. The mountains, valleys, and cliff edge roads filled me with energy and excitement. I was almost alone on the road except for the random jeep or scooter.
I did pass many farmers and people working their crops and carrying insane loads down the road barefoot. The women are amazing. You see little old hunchbacked ladies, who have to be over seventy, carrying massive bundles of firewood. They use a big basket with a strap that goes around the forehead.
All the weight is carried in the neck, and they do it all with a big smile. The skies were still blue and not choked full of smoke. In the dry brown and green landscape there would randomly be beautiful blooming trees full of color.
Only a couple Assam Rifles military checkpoints were on this section. At one of them only 20 km from Jessami, a guy told me it was less than 40 km to the Myanmar border and it was no problem to go in. He knew just how to get me excited and start an adventure brewing in my skull. Apparently his dad lived in the village by the border, and he would phone ahead for him to help me out. The idea grabbed me and I decided to give it a shot, but when the soldiers saw my plan they stopped me and said the road was closed to foreigners. I spent an hour at the checkpoint goofing around with the kids.
We added mustaches to everybody on my tablet and I looked like a giant oaf trying to play their game with stick and wheel. Up in Jessami I decided to give the police station a try for a place to camp. It’s a cute little town and possibly the cleanest I’ve ever seen in India. If you’v ever been to India you know the level of filth, but this tiny place had their shit together. Homemade bamboo garbage cans are along the road and everything is tidy. The officer in charge was very proud of it. At the station they were very confused as to why I was in their town and my purpose as well.
It was common to be like this when first meeting people in these areas, but as soon as they actually understood I was just exploring the world on my bike it was like we were old friends. They wrote down all my information, and I’m guessing added it to one of the thousand piles of paperwork in the room. Like everywhere else, the last thing they would allow was me sleeping outside. The boss said I could either sleep at the station in the room with the officers or stay at one of the guys houses. The guy he was talking about was the coolest one there and was full of laughs. It was an easy choice and I went to his house.
He had just built a new house on a big piece of land looking over the valley below. Before going over, we had dinner at the station in an old shack, which consisted of a massive bowl of rice and dal or “soldier food” as they called it. The shack was kind of homey, but was lacking one thing. A chimney. All the cooking is done by fire, and obviously fire creates smoke and without a way out fills up the room. My eyes were crying all over my food from the burning, and my nose was like a faucet dumping out. Those guys weren’t bothered in the least or at least they’re good at putting on a brave face. Back at the house I had my Macbook out and the entire family swarmed like mosquitos. I think they even called some friends over. I ended up showing them videos and pictures from my travels for over an hour. They were blown away by a lot of it and couldn’t believe what they were seeing. His old mom was there and the looks on her face were priceless. It felt like I was showing her magic. I opened up Photo Booth on the computer, and it brought them to their knees with laughter. There’s all kinds of effects to add like bug out, chipmunk, and frog.
We went through just about every one with all of us huddled in front of the camera. His young son didn’t speak any english, but was on top of the world after meeting me and having some fun. He brought some of his friends over to show me off. He asked his dad if they could sleep in the same room with me, so they shared the other bed.
They have such strong families, and their lives revolve around each other. It’s really nice and something we’ve lost a bit of in the west. I prayed that I wouldn’t sleep walk or talk, as I love to do, and scar the kid for life. In the morning the chief from the previous day took me out to breakfast and paid for everything.
I never have to worry about food because they love filling me up. Before leaving town I stopped at the bazaar and had a common scene. In many of the towns or villages in Nagaland, as soon as I parked the crowd would slowly convene. It always starts with one or two brave souls to test the water, but as soon as all the others see I’m harmless, the floodgates open.
The few confident english speakers come and ask questions. Mostly everybody just analyzes it and talk with each other. The thing they always want to know about is my Myanmar gun. The kids point at it and want to touch. When I turn the trigger and make it sound like a machine gun it’s an icebreaker and the kids aren’t scared of me anymore, or at least not as much.