“Hey dudes! Bart Simpson here and the lines I’m chalking on the board at the start of this weeks episode are; ‘Thou shalt not mock the Hindu deities…’ ” A few posts ago I made light of the fact that some kids had vandalised our bikes, stealing the little rubber trip reset buttons and suggesting, light-heartedly, that maybe it was a visitation by one of the millions of Hindu deities, Staedtler, the god of small rubbery things. For this attempt at humour, I would receive a karmic boot up the posterior in the most unlikely way imaginable…
The ride to Darjeeling was only 40-miles but took over four hours as we climbed lofty heights for the first time in months taking us from sea level to 2500 metres in this short distance. A spectacle of panoramas unfolded, with stupendous peaks and valleys all taken in from our vantage point in the saddle up on the swooping and swerving twisty mountain road. Tiny brightly coloured Lego blocks marked a sparrow flock of distant houses and villages splattered across the landscape. Then, crawling through some slow traffic in one of the little mountain villages, there was a pop from the left had side of my bike as my radiator overflow burp-tank exploded. I pulled over in a cloud of steam with green coolant dripping all over the side of the bike. A bemused spectator from the house across the road brought me some water and I refilled the radiator allowing us to limp on to our destination. Before this could be reached, we rode around the narrow Darjeeling one-way system a total of four frustrating times in an attempt to find our hotel and experienced another coolant blowout due to overheating in traffic. Finally we located the correct uphill climb to our eagle-nest of a hotel via a street that was clearly marked with a ‘No-Entry’ sign that we later noticed everyone ignored but hey, remember, this is India where traffic rules seem to apply only if you feel like it. We traced the problem with the radiator to a dozed seal on the rad cap itself and fixed this with some RTV sealant until we can get a replacement from the UK.
Darjeeling was a tonic town if ever we needed one with lots of little tastes of home. Surrounded by tea plantations, complete with planter cottages and views off into the distant Himalayas, it is a most glorious location. We supped afternoon tea with apple tart in Glenary’s that made it feel more like were holidaying in the English Lake District. Cold temperatures (only reaching 15°C during the day) meant we needed a quilt to snuggle up in at night for the first time in months. And all around in every direction those high mountains, the Himalayas themselves, host to the mightiest summits on the planet. For the most part the furthest peaks would remain shrouded in weather yet one fine morning we walked to a viewpoint in town and for a moment the cloud lifted to reveal the spectacular peak of Kanchenjunga, 3rd highest mountain in the world, coming up for air from the blanket of cloud. We took a seat and sat silently, drinking in this marvelous sight, a view so spectacularly beautiful it had the hairs on the back of our necks standing on end.
We signed up for a one day guided hike up on the Nepal border in Singalila National Park (the guide is mandatory) on a trail promised further views of Kanchenjunga and ‘weather permitting’ we might even see Everest. A jeep took us to the trailhead at the tiny village of Dhotrey and after a warming cup of heavily spiced chai we set off for a day in the mountains. On the day the weather was ‘not permitting’, in fact it was pretty foul; dismal low cloud and mist that obscured everything and had us donning Goretex to keep out the damp. We would not see any mountains yet it was a memorable days hiking, 14 km in the Himalayas up to a ridgeline village of Tonglu (3000m) and then down along the ridge to a pick-up point on the road where our driver would be waiting for us. Magnificent Magnolia trees and blushes of firebrand Rhododendrons flashed like beacons out of the murk and just being in high places in fresh air was a spring-clean for the mind and soul. At one point some marker posts appeared out of the gloom over to the east; they marked the India–Nepal border and we had clearly laid our footprints on the wrong side of it.
On the ride out of Darjeeling Maggie’s bike joined in the fun and also started to spew radiator fluid. Given that both bikes are fourteen years old I guess it was no surprise that both radiator seals should age identically and fail around the same time. I applied the same repair and we ordered two new caps for collection in Bangkok. We left Darjeeling pleased that we had decided to continue with our travels. The land was changing and the people were changing too, assuming a more oriental / less Indian aspect (indeed the area around Darjeeling is known as Ghorkaland and they were pushing for separate statehood in the coming elections). Traffic concentrations had eased and the driving was no longer just so manic, although we still saw accident aftermaths along the mountain roads.
From here we were but a week away from the Myanmar border but to get there we had to travel through the more lawless territories of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. These states remain tribal lands that were lumped in with ‘India’ during independence in 1948 as Britain pulled out of her far eastern colonies. Since then they have been prone to flare up in protest, riot and general disorder and until recently permits were required for all foreigners passing through. Fortunately the only riot we saw was that of amazing colour during the Holi festival, an excuse for the whole country to go buck-mad and throw coloured powders over each other. We celebrated accordingly with the lovely folk in the little city of Tezpur. Special thanks to the guys at the KTM dealer in town who kindly guided us to the door of our hotel through a maze of little streets when we arrived late, just after dark.
These states contain some incredible country, from Kaziranga National Park where we stopped off to watch Wild Elephants and Indian Rhinos and on into jungly foothills that lead into Myanmar. It was here in 1944 that the Japanese attempted to end the war by invading India from Burma. The plan was to annihilate the British and Indian Armies blocking the way around the hill-towns of Kohima and Imphal. There was confidence that such a colossal defeat would surely initiate a general uprising amongst the population in India, resulting in the total collapse of British India. While the Japanese had an advantage in numbers they were poorly provisioned relying on tortuous supply lines through Burma / Malaysia stretching back across submarine infested oceans to Japan. Their plan therefore demanded that Kohima and Imphal be knocked out quickly to open the way to the allied supply depots on the plains beyond. Confidence in success of the plan was reinforced by the earlier poor performance of the badly led British troops in the war when we lost Singapore / Malaysia and indeed Burma itself, so a walkover was eagerly anticipated.
This was a plan based on too many assumptions and anticipations. While the Japanese managed to surround both Kohima and Imphal the allies were able to rely on total air superiority to resupply the beleaguered garrisons, troops containing a leavening of veterans who had fought through nearly three years of war including victorious campaigns in North Africa and this time would offer no easy pushover. Yet the fighting would prove bloody and gruesome. At Kohima in particular, the defenders faced odds of ten to one when troops mostly from the Royal West Kents and Assam Rifles, defended a shrinking perimeter of trenches and bunkers that at one point had both sides lobbing grenades at each other across a battlefield shrunk to the size of the District Commissioners tennis court. In 2013, the ‘National Army Museum’ in London voted the Imphal-Kohima campaign as “Britain’s Greatest Battle”. Considered as a single victory, the battle was on a shortlist of five from British history, compiled from a public poll, with each contender’s claim staked by a presentation made by a dedicated historian before the winner was finally announced (D-Day and Waterloo came 2nd and 3rd).
Now we were following the road into Kohima, a bumpy, pot-holed road that the British relief force fought their way through in 1944. The road led us through some fine mountain country that must have been terrifying if you had to consider it as a battleground. It twisted and turned with high rock-faces to one side and precipitous drop-offs to the other yet in 1944 tanks and artillery with air support, blasted their way along to finally break the Japanese stranglehold and push them back into Burma in disastrous retreat. This retreat would forever be known in Japanese history as ‘The Road of Bones’ due to the shocking condition of the troops who, having failed to resupply from the foreseen conquest of the British depots, died in their droves from malnutrition and disease.
On our own final approach to Kohima, that karmic boot upon my posterior arrived… We had just stopped on the precipitous approaches to the town to look for a hotel. Having dismounted I was horrified to see a stream of coolant spewing out the front of Maggie’s bike! It wasn’t the rad caps: I’d fixed those yet the bike was bleeding profusely, alien blood of garish green coolant running down the road. Kohima lies within the state of Nagaland, which is one of India’s dry states so no alcohol and up until as recently as the early 1960’s these people were headhunters. Now we were joined by several of their descendants, young men, all a bit glazed in the eye on this Sunday afternoon on drugs or hooch? Take your pick…
We started dismantling Maggie’s bike to get at the radiator to try and identify the problem and I quickly found it. It was a trip meter reset button, one of those prised off in Pushkar by that Hindu deity’s little helpers! The little bugger had obviously fumbled it such that it had fallen down into the headstock of the bike and from there worked its way between the radiator and the protective guard into such a position that the guard, on the bumpy road, had hammered it into the radiator creating the puncture that was spewing the bike’s life blood all over the road! You couldn’t make this stuff up, I tell you! And now it seemed that the only help on hand was these drug/alcohol-crazed zombies!!! Amazingly that’s just what they did! Within a few minutes, one guy turned up with some adhesive to fix the leak and another had a bottle of coolant and another a bottle of drinking water. In a period of less than fifteen-minutes the bike was fixed, we were on our way and they even told us where to find a hotel in town!
So we will forever remember Kohima for all the right reasons and once again we have been stunned at the unlikely sources from which help may arrive. We paid a visit to the Commonwealth War Graves Kohima Cemetery, which fittingly is sited around the tennis court where the high point of the battle took place. The cemetery has preserved the tennis court chalk-lines and it is frightening to contemplate how young men from Britain, India and Japan had killed each other across such a scant width.
Kohima on to Imphal and finally the little border town of Moreh, last stop before Myanmar (Burma). Time to contemplate just over four months and six thousand miles through India. ‘Incredible India’ it says on the advertising blurb from the tourist commission. It had been that for sure; incredible palaces, forts and temples, incredible history and incredibly friendly people with incredible food at any time of the day, but mixed in with that a sometimes horrific leavening of incredible filth and incredibly dangerous roads made so by incredibly moronic driving. Yet our final impression of India came from our last night stop, which said it all; the Hotel Sangai Lodge in Moreh. It cost £2 a night each for a basic room with a cold-water bathroom and a squat toilet. The town itself held few basic eateries yet we dined with a couple of Spanish cyclists we met on the road today on the finest potato Samosas topped with a delicious melt in your mouth dhal, all washed down with a chilled bottle of Kingfisher beer.
In the morning we rose early to get to the Myanmar border. There was no breakfast with the booking, yet the little man who owned the Sangai asked if we could wait for ten minutes before leaving. We loaded the bikes out front and waited his return, starting to cook with heat and impatience / eagerness to get away. He eventually turned up carefully balancing two cups of sweet chai and two omelet sandwiches and a big smile. We rode to the border carrying that smile and a taste of kindness that will linger for years to come…
The Photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Out of India