Nagaland: Taken in like family, hills on fire, and tribal violence

The adventure really began once I was in Nagaland, and it felt like an entirely different country. It turned out to be some of the rawest travel I’ve done. The area is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, and it’s probably the farthest removed from the world I’ve ever felt. It was an amazing, interesting, heartwarming, eye-opening, and grueling time. Nagaland is a state in the far NE corner bordering Myanmar.

There’s sixteen major tribes, but many sub-tribes with their own culture and dress. Each tribe has it’s own spoken dialect, which even nearby villages won’t be able to understand. The landscape is very mountainous and full of deep valleys and gorges.

Agriculture is at the center of their lives, and almost every man is a farmer. The strange thing about Nagaland is that over 90% is Christian and 75% of the state are Baptist Christians. It’s the only predominantly Baptist state in the world. Even Mississippi is only 55%. This is the result of American missionaries that came in the 19th century. Previously, the people practiced animist and folk religion, and were easily converted. Until christianity came, head hunting was widely practiced and finally disappeared in the early part of the 1900’s. Men went on expeditions to neighboring kingdoms and tribes to hunt and bring back human heads. They’ve had a history of insurgency since becoming an Indian state. Many underground groups have had and still have desires for a Naga nation. Besides fighting with the government, it’s not uncommon to have conflicts between tribes. The hills are still filled with people living a very simple way of life. During my time riding through, I met many Nagas, from poor to well-off, educated and uneducated, farmers and pastors, and all of them were some of the kindest people I’ve met. In five days I hardly had to spend a cent. I was given warm beds, piles of food, gas for the bike, many gifts, and even money. Most of this kindness came from the Baptist churches. Since the state is predominantly Baptist Christian, I thought the best way to experience it was to go straight to the source of what their lives are all about, the church and it’s people. Almost always one of the first questions I was asked would be, “what religion are you”? or “I assume you’re a good Christian”? They’re passionate about it and their lives revolve around their faith. I skirted around most the questions or just went along with saying I was a Christian. The wild twisty unpredictable roads led me up and down over peaks and then into valleys over and over again. One of the valleys I slid down into had a beautiful river flowing through it. After many days without a shower, this was the perfect place for a bath. Groups of young girls out gathering in the hills passed staring at me with silent giggles.

The spot reminded me exactly of a river I took a bath in when I was riding my bicycle through Montenegro. It felt exactly the same. It’s funny how old memories show up out of nowhere. I’m pretty sure there were some locals watching the strange gangly white guy flopping around naked in their river. It was something like the scene in the movie Dances With Wolves where the indians are watching Kevin Costner flopping around the field with the wolf. I didn’t get any cool indian name though.

Getting up into Nagaland, the smoke really started to get bad. It was the one bad part about being there in March. During this time of year, they basically burn everything.

It’s called jhum cultivation and has been practiced by the people throughout their history. They burn the jungles to where all that’s left are some random large trees, and sometimes nothing at all. The burning takes out everything on the lower level and all the wood that’s left growing is chopped down for firewood. All cooking is still done with wood and it’s the gathering time of year. Everywhere are groups of people chopping, stacking, loading, and carrying firewood. The landscape is severely scarred, and there are massive areas where absolutely everything has been cleared. Entire hill sides are barren and brown, and the only thing standing are small farming huts and tiny people walking around on the incredibly steep slopes.

The land is cultivated with a wide range of things. The main thought process behind the jhum cultivation is that after burning the land, the grasses all come back strong and thick, which feeds their livestock. The Nagas way has been to clear the land and use it until it stops being fertile, and then move on.

Obviously the result of destroying all the plants and roots on steep slopes is that when the rains come much of the soil is washed away. After awhile, whats left is rocky un-farmable land. A lot of the terrible roads that I have driven were a result of this. Dirt and rock are everywhere across the roads. When the populations were low in the hills, it was probably an ok way to live, but with the population so much bigger they’re using up all the resources. I don’t see anywhere they can move to next.


The smoke from the fires is brutal and sometimes gets so thick it burns the eyes and throat. Most of the driving is through beautiful areas along the mountains separating Myanmar, but a lot of the time the smoke is so thick you don’t have much of a view. I don’t know how good this practice is doing since everything around it is destroyed. I pulled into the small town of Kiphire about an hour before sunset and rode up to the Baptist church.

They all assumed I was a missionary. I asked a few people about camping at the church, but it was Wednesday and church was about to start. They brought me in for the service, and it was forty minutes of daydreaming since everything was in their language. At one point when we were standing and everyone was singing, an old lady came over and gave me the book so I could sing along. She obviously thought I could read their language.


Just when I thought it would never end, everybody stood up and walked out of the church. We got out just in time for a nice sunset and the salvation of my sanity. I have nothing against churches, but it’s just not for me. The vibe is strange. The assistant pastor, Alison, was definitely the nicest guy there and spoke great english. We chatted for a bit and then he invited me to stay at his home. I followed him, and before we went to his house, we stopped by a “hostel” that he founded and where he sponsors some children. It’s not the type of hostel you would think of, and is more like a place where kids that need help live, go to school, and study Christianity. We went in their classroom, and he introduced me as uncle Ryan.


Then they all sang a song for me, with one of them playing the guitar. Afterwards I introduced myself, and told them my story. I really hate public speaking, even if it’s in front of kids. Then Alison gave them a speech about their studies and living a good Christian life, and then they all prayed for me. Everyone’s eyes were supposed to be closed, and I caught a little girl peeking at me, and her reaction was so cute. Every time I do something like that it makes me want to get involved with teaching english somewhere, but that requires putting roots down. As we drove off they all yelled, “bye uncle Ryan”,“we miss you uncle Ryan”. Alison had a nice cozy home full of his family, which was composed of his petite cute wife, two sons, a new daughter, and some others helping out. They were all so nice and treated me like a special guest.

I’d come to find that Americans are highly regarded because they’re considered the fathers of bringing Christianity to the Naga people and civilizing them. They warmed up two big buckets for a much needed bath and put me in a nice bedroom. Alison and I were served a feast, and we talked into the night with his two boys bouncing off the walls around us. He was such a good guy, one of those big-hearted people you meet. The kids were climbing all over him and getting into everything, and a lot of guys would get angry, but he calmly dealt with them. We ended up watching a movie about the history of Naga people and the violence that the government has used on them. They don’t really eat breakfast. It’s usually just some black tea and biscuits, but then around nine they eat “lunch”.

We were served another meal by his wife. The boys loved my machine gun and even made it better with a rubber band for louder shooting. I hooked them up with a couple of golf balls, and I think the younger one thought there was candy or a surprise inside.

He couldn’t keep it out of his mouth. The youngest one didn’t really talk, but was always staring wide eyed at me with a strange look on his face. Before I left, they gave me some really nice gifts. A traditional black and red woven scarf from their tribe, a pair of earrings that his wife made for me to give to a special girl, and a bag of fruit.


The two of them sat down with me before I left and prayed for me. He in english and she in their language. Afterwards, they told me they wanted to help me along my way with a tiny donation and handed me a thousand rupiah (about$16). It meant a lot to them, and I humbly excepted. It meant way more than money to me, and was such a kind act by someone with less than I have. I left his home with a lot more love in my heart.

Before leaving town he took me by the headman house, who is like the chief. The guy was over a hundred years old and had old tribal tattoos on his arms. Surrounding him were huge buffalo skulls. In the old days, he would have also had human skulls around. We had to have a translator for our short talk. You could see in his eyes and body that he had lived quite a life and is guaranteed to be full of amazing stories.

Alison had a pastor friend in Tuensang, a town a days drive away along my route. He was worried because of some tribal conflicts in the area so he phoned ahead and the pastor assured him I’d be alright to get there, but to make it before dark, and that I had a place to stay with him. The road was ok for most of the day as long as you didn’t mind riding along cliff edges dropping hundreds of feet into abyss.

My bald tires held up well, but were always a worry in the back of my mind. It would be no fun to get a flat-out in the middle of nowhere since I’m an idiot and don’t carry a tire iron. I tried to rack up some good karma by stopping and helping some guys with a busted chain. I could tell they were going to try and stop me, but thought twice about it since I was a foreigner, so I just stopped.


I had some tools they needed, but a rock was used for a hammering the links and bashing the axle into place. I enjoy the tough roads, but the last forty or so km were beyond terrible. The closer I got to Tuensang, the more it disintegrated into a rocky mess. It was like riding a bull in the rodeo. Also, it was a really long day because of all the checkpoints. More than anywhere else I went in Nagaland, this stretch had many Nagaland police checkpoints where I had to put my information in their logbook. Unlike the Indian military, they rarely cared about seeing my passport, and just had me write in my info. At one of them, I put I was George Bush from Iceland. I came to a Nagaland police checkpoint at a junction and ended up stopping for half an hour drinking black tea out of bamboo mugs. I got an up close encounter with the conflict that is going on as I left. As I came around the corner leaving the junction, there were burnt down houses everywhere. Probably over twenty. Just as I started going through this, there was another checkpoint, but this time posted by the Indian army. The problems are between two tribes and have been going on for years, but recently violence broke out over a land dispute. One of the tribes attacked the other, burning down their houses and filling the ones left standing with bullet holes. In retaliation, the other tribe burned down some houses in town and stabbed a young girl to death in a school. During this time there was also a lot of tension going on in other parts of Nagaland. In Dimapur, the capital, there was ongoing unrest, and in response the government had suspended all internet. A muslim man was in jail accused of rape and an angry mob or Nagas broke into the jail and took him. The man was basically beaten to death and drug for miles behind a car. Street justice had been used. The muslim community was unhappy and the two sides were fighting. Because of the slow going, I got into Tuensang at dark. The pastor was expecting me, but much earlier. At night it was practically a ghost town except for all the police everywhere. Sort of an eerie feeling. I didn’t have a phone number and was at an intersection asking for the pastor by name when some police came by and told me I needed to go to the station and check in. I followed them there, and we went through all the usual questions and paperwork and eventually they managed to get ahold of the pastor. He and his son came and picked me up. He had been waiting for me with a nice dinner cooked by his wife, but thought I wasn’t showing up. They fed me like a king, hooked me up with a hot bucket bath, and a bed in the guest house of the church.

He was an older, soft-spoken man with an infectious laugh and proved to be very smart. I woke up to the sound of loud morning prayer echoing through the church. His wife had the sweetest face and took good care of us. She fed the pastor and I a big lunch before I left. Just like pretty much every meal I was given in Nagaland, it involved chunks of cube shaped pig fat with the skin still on it. They really love the pork in the hills. I’m not a big fan of it, but I’m always polite and have at least a piece. I always figure who knows when my next meal will be so get some energy into the body. The curry sauces they use for it are amazing. He insisted on taking me to the gas station and filling up my tank for me, which was pretty empty. It blew my mind the way these people treated me like family.

Before leaving, his son gave me a hat and they wrote a nice message on my bike. He even led me ten minutes out-of-town so I wouldn’t get lost. To be continued……………………………………..

About Trueworldtravels

Following my heart around the planet. Bringing to life the unique world around us through writing and photography.
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