The Riders of Manipur

 

Moreh, India. Wednesday 20th November 2019
Indian immigration and customs were straightforward; polite and helpful people. They recommended a hotel to us, apparently the only decent one in the border town of Moreh. It was nice, but not cheap. We had no rupees but fortunately they took credit cards. Once settled in I took my two batteries for a walk around town, looking for somewhere to get them charged. There wasn’t anywhere, at least, not open. Shops close here as darkness arrives, about 5pm. It was now 5.30. I tried the ATM but couldn’t get my card to work. Stymied.
We ate in the hotel restaurant then we went out again for another try at getting some cash. I succeeded this time, having learned that the machines would only give out Rs10,000 at a time. Steve couldn’t get his card to work, something he’d had problems with before. I’d been given a SIM card by the Dutch couple we’d met at the hotel so I got that topped up. I now had cash and phone, all I needed was some electricity. I’d have to leave it until the morning.
Moreh is a typical border town. One main street, filled with small lock up shops. It’s dingy, dirty and rough at the edges, with a few ‘characters’ around. Plus rifle toting police. Gulp! But Soe had warned us to expect military checkpoints as we travelled, so it wasn’t such a surprise.
Next morning I headed out once more, looking for some volts. Noting doing. The only place that had a charger reckoned it would blow my battery up as he normally used it for big truck batteries. Back at the hotel I spoke to security, a very smart man in military attire, who looked after the gate. He spoke to one of his underlings, who took the battery somewhere where they thought it could get charged up. I was able to leave it with them for a couple of hours. When I got it back he reckoned it was 80% charged up. The news was four fifths good then. I fitted it on the bike, loaded up and left. Steve and Amelia had work to do so they stayed behind.

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A nice roadside shrine. I should have stopped to pray.

The road wound up into the hills. I had to stop at two police checkpoints and at the second one the bike wouldn’t start. I managed to get a jump off a van that was parked there but the question now was how far would I get? My target was Imphal, a large town about 130kms away, from where I planned to order a new regulator from the UK. You won’t be surprised to hear I didn’t get there.
The road was now nothing but rough, muddy, rutted roadworks and progress was slow, with frequent hold ups and diversions. Inevitably the bike stopped, the battery totally flat. A couple of workers pushed me off the road and in among the piles of roadwork rubble. I rang up Steve and Amelia, who fortunately hadn’t yet left Moreh. I asked them to buy me a new battery to bring to me on their way past. By the time they arrived about two hours later I’d had to move the bike to avoid the earth movers and had become very familiar with the view. With new battery fitted, and darkness descending, I set off, full of confidence that I’d make it to Imphal.

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There was at least 30kms of this stuff to get through.

Misplaced! I managed 30kms before the bike stalled again, still in the roadworks and in the middle of the road, half way round a bend. With only the stars to illuminate the scene. Fortunately other vehicles were moving very slowly. A couple of guys in a van stopped to help me push the bike to one side, then let me take some charge from their battery for a while. Refreshed, I carried on, hoping that the next town would have a hotel where I could end this dismal day.

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I’m very glad I packed those jump leads!

But no sign of anything resembling a bed for hire and nothing showing on Google maps either. I pulled off the main road and then the bike died once more, right outside a rice hotel. Salvation? No. In this part of India the word hotel is used as a substitute for café. This one sold rice dishes but also delivered kindness and generosity. The owner called a mechanic friend, who brought a battery charger. I was told I’d be able to stay for the night so the battery was hooked up to the charger and the bike was put safely inside. Some young guys came to visit and we sat and chatted while we shared food, and the beer they’d brought with them. The owner’s cheeky, bright and English speaking twelve year old daughter joined in as well, all of them helping to turn a bad day good. Two of the guys were local policemen and the third, of a more serious demeanour, was in the air force special forces. We talked politics and current affairs, the other two just wanted a laugh. They called me either Father or Grandfather. They were pleased when I told them that they looked the same as the Burmese and I began to gain some understanding of how things are in this part of India. They don’t speak Hindi in Manipur State. These North Eastern states all have their own languages and culture and are largely Christian rather than Hindu. The kids had been shuffled around so as to give me a bed and I slept well, tired out by the day’s events.

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Delightfully cheeky, and in English too.

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Drinking buddies.

In the morning I realised how relatively poor these families are. The floors were of packed earth, the tap was outside and the toilet was across the street and shared by many others. You even had to take your own bucket of water with you for cleaning and flushing purposes. What of the battery? Just as flat as it was the previous night, unfortunately. The charger hadn’t worked so the owner took me along to the next town where I bought a new one, the fourth one since Thailand. With bike now starting I was good to go. Needless to say the owner refused any payment but I persuaded him to accept some money to buy presents for his three kids. I also left behind the battery that had come from Moreh. I think it had probably sat on the shelf for too long before being sold and just needed charging up.
My plan for when I got to Imphal was to find a hotel and get my batteries charged. I got to the outskirts of the city before the battery died again – a whole 86kms this time. While I was standing at the side of the road I saw tuk tuks going past me and noticed that their batteries were located by the side of the driver’s seat. So I flagged down an empty one and hooked up for about fifteen minutes. He was happy with the fifty rupees I gave him and I carried on into the city. I rode around but didn’t find a hotel. Eventually the battery gave out, this time outside a bakery. Not bad. But before buying a bun I walked down the road, looking for somewhere to get a charge. I came across a bike shop and one of the guys there, who was having his bike serviced, volunteered to help me and took me to a battery shop. It was closed but he roused up the owner and my battery went on charge. Then we had some food and a chat.

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Alternative use for a tuk tuk.

KK is the leader of a biker group called the Manipur Riders Club (MRC). They’re a terrific bunch of mostly young lads, who go out for rides, have fun together around the city and generally enjoy motorbiking life. They all took me under their wings, which was very fortunate because I ended up being in the city over two weeks. The first thing they did was to find me a hotel, which proved not to be easy because there was a festival going on in the city. The place they would normally use was full. The place they eventually found was expensive. But it didn’t matter. At least I had a base to operate from. KK knew the owner, which helped with the price. The city was busy so I took a room while there was one to take.
If it had been any other day than Friday I would have looked around the city hoping to find a regulator from another bike that I could use to replace mine. But if I’d done that, and failed, I would have delayed the ordering of parts from CCM by two days. So I got on the internet and placed an order for the regulator and a couple of other parts too. How long to arrive? Unknown at that time, so I settled down to wait.

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Things you see when you’re walking around. (Yes, they are what they look like, unfortunately.)

The main jobs for the next day were to organise an oil change on the bike and to get some new tyres. KK came round in the afternoon and took me to “Bike Spares Street”. We bought some oil and went to a tyre shop where they had tyres in my size. The rear didn’t quite match what I needed so I didn’t rush into buying it. Instead I sought advice from the CCM Facebook forum. The general opinion was that it would do the job. KK said there wasn’t any other shop that would have my size anyway, so I bought the pair. At £60 for the pair they were even cheaper than those I got in Vietnam. KK took me to a fitting centre, who got them sorted. We went to the repair shop where I’d first met KK to do the oil change. No charge for using their facilities and two jobs knocked off the list.

It took almost two weeks for my parts to arrive, mostly due to customs delays, although two days of that was my fault because I misunderstood an email. There were forms attached that I needed to complete and send back and I didn’t realise this at first. Once this task was done I then had to find a way of paying the courier company the customs duty they’d paid on my behalf. I couldn’t use a local bank because I didn’t have an account. KK stepped into the breach here. His mother works at a bank so she passed on the money for me. Then I just had to keep chasing the couriers until, finally, they delivered the package.
What was I doing in the meantime? Mostly being well looked after by KK and his “brothers”, AKA the other members of the MRC. I won’t bore you with everything we did so here’s the highlights.

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Meet the MRC crew.

Kangla Fort is the site of an ancient fort and palace, first occupied in the 1st century. The fort was built during the 17th century. It was damaged during the British takeover of the area and a subsequent earthquake finished the job. The Assam Rifles took it over post independence until 2004, when it was returned to the state government. Its historical importance led them to rebuild the fort, but the palace was destroyed beyond rebuilding. I paid the entry fee for everyone then KK and I jumped in an electric cart and were shown around by a guide. As well as the fort, there’s a temple dedicated to ancestor worship, a big thing in this part of the world. There was also a pavilion, with boats inside, once used on the nearby Imphal river. More info here.

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The temple dedicated to ancestor worship. Nice design I thought.

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Guarding the steps.

We took a ride out of the city to visit Loktak Lake, in the Kebul Lamjao National Park. The plan was to see some of the Sangai deer, the national animal of Manipur, and which are only found in the state. They are renowned for their odd shaped antlers and are the namesake of the Sangai festival, held throughout the state, and the reason why Imphal was so short of hotel rooms when I arrived. On the way there we stopped at a small museum dedicated to an Indian freedom fighter called Subhash Chanda Bose. He was the leader of the Indian National Congress pre WW2, and during the war he aligned himself with the Axis powers and formed an army made up of Indian captives of the Japanese, and volunteers. He and the Japanese attacked British forces in India, marching in from Burma to the Imphal area. The attack was short lived and he was chased back into Burma, with many of the troops being killed. He subsequently died in a plane crash in Taiwan. He is held in high regard in Imphal. The museum had loads of photos and old military equipment and was interesting to see. I hadn’t realised there had been any armed resistance against the British at that time. More info here.

We stopped off for some food and I had the chance to sample various local dishes, all of them very nice, although sometimes more spicy than I’d like. Then we went for a boat ride on the lake. There wasn’t really much to see if I’m honest, but it was nice.

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Somewhere down there, on that green section, is a Sangai Deer.

Finally we got to the park. We were all asked to get out of the vehicle and were searched by the security guards before being allowed in. We drove around the park until we came to a viewpoint. Below us was a brush filled area with a wide path down the middle. Browsing the grass on the path stood a Sangai deer. What a thrill – except that it was a female so didn’t have the odd shaped antlers. And it was so far away that we needed binoculars to see it. Therefore no photographs. A bit of a let down in some ways but there was a good chance we wouldn’t have seen anything at all.

Sangai Deer

This is what they look like. (Photo not mine.)

While I was in Imphal a plea came up on one of the Facebook forums from a young Italian guy named Stefano. He needed an address in Imphal where he could get some parts for his bike sent. I put him in touch with KK, who was happy to help. The parts were already in India so the scenario was quite simple. Stefano had been in Bangladesh and was now heading to Myanmar. He needed new clutch plates and fork seals. We knew he was in India, somewhere relatively nearby. KK arranged to meet him at a café outside of the city and to this end we all headed out of town to the rendezvous. Normally I’d be on the back of KK’s Enfield Bullet but this time I was in the car of Albert’s, another club member. He’s a very interesting man who runs a business supplying renewable energy systems, mostly solar. He also makes electric scooters and is developing an electric tuk tuk and car. This field is one of my interests so we had a good chat while we drove.
We hung around by some shops, waiting. I bought the coffee and cakes. Eventually a message came through from Stefano saying that he wouldn’t be coming after all. He’d been invited to stay at an army base about 150kms away. We were glad because it now being dusk, none of us liked the idea of him riding in the dark. He’s using a Peugot trail bike with a Yamaha 125cc engine in it. It won’t have very good lights, that’s for sure. We subsequently discovered that he had no SIM card and no money either because his debit card wouldn’t work in the ATMs. He’d been relying on wi-fi hotspots for communication and had, at one point, been given R400 by the police for some petrol. This young man seemed to be a bit of a mobile disaster area!
Next day we headed out of town once more, this time up into the hills. We parked up and waited. Some of the other guys passed the time doing sprints and mini races on the mostly quiet road. Stefano had reckoned to arrive at midday, KK knew the state of the roads and very much doubted that. In the end it was 4pm before he arrived. I was seriously bored by then and for that reason, if no other, was very glad to see him.

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Stefano finally arrives and we get stuck into discussing.what to do with his bike.

We went to Albert’s office, where Stefano was going to sleep that night, then went for a nice meal, courtesy of Albert. Stefano had been in Bangladesh, where I was headed and I’d been in Myanmar, where Stefano was headed. We had lots of information to exchange. The parts for his bike had arrived and I told him I’d do the work for him rather than him have to pay a mechanic.
Next morning we got to work. I’d never worked on this particular engine before but all these small Japanese engines are almost the same so there was no drama in removing the clutch. Once it was out – oh dear! The new clutch was clearly from a different engine as all the plates were the wrong size. KK and Stefano went off on a clutch plate hunt and managed to find some that matched, somewhat to my surprise. They could only get the friction plates but the original steel plates were in good condition so everything went back in OK. Once it was adjusted up Stefano took it for a spin and declared himself delighted. Job number one done. It was now too late in the day to do the fork seals so we planned it for the next day.
I’d only done that job once before so I watched a couple of videos, just to refresh my memory. When we met back at the bike shop I got stuck in and everything went smoothly, more or less. Stefano was delighted as he had a deadline to meet. He’d booked a crossing of Myanmar and had to be in Moreh in time for it.
We all met at a petrol station at lunchtime next day. Stefano and KK had tried to find an ATM that would accept his card but with no joy. I was able to loan him Rs2,000, which he paid me back via Paypal – a very handy facility. I also adjusted his chain for him and showed him how to do it for next time. He finally left at 2.30pm, with 150kms of bad road to cover. We were very pleased to hear from him later that he got there OK.

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The gang’s all here. KK is front left, Stefano is between he and me. Then he left for Moreh.

KK noticed the disgusting state my panniers were in. He offered to help me clean them so we took them round to his parent’s house. His Dad was also keen to muck in, so between the three of us, his jetwash, detergent and a scrubbing brush, we managed to do quite a good job. Some might say that it’s a pointless exercise, because they’d quickly become filthy again. But it is nice to set off with everything clean once in a while. We took the bike around to a cleaning place and they did an excellent job on it. All I needed now was my spares. I’d been hassling the courier company daily and kept being assured that they wouldn’t be long. How long is long? The answer to that turned out to be Friday at 12pm, exactly two weeks after I’d arrived in Imphal and ordered them.
We went to KK’s once more where I fitted all the new parts, including the new rear brake cylinder. I had a battery that charged up once more so would soon be able to leave this fair and dusty city. We got the brakes bled out next day and I bought a bigger capacity battery, the fifth since Thailand and, I hoped, the last. I also managed to get my battery jumper pack repaired. So here we were. Electrics sorted out – check. Brakes sorted out – check. Bike and equipment shiny clean – check.

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At the restaurant the bikes have simply GOT to be lined up neatly. It’s a club rule.

With my departure now imminent there was one last thing to do. KK and his brothers said we were going out for a meal. We headed to an out of town restaurant, which was pretty much closed up for the off season. But Albert knew the owner and we were able to use the facilities. It was a nice place, but everything was outside. There was a rectangular lake which had alcoves all around it with tables and chairs in. We set up in a kind of open shed and started cooking, using the hotel utensils. We’d stopped to buy food en route and one of the guys lit a fire and got things cooking. Fish and pork, all cooked in a tasty, but spicy sauce. Albert turned up with the drinks I’m pleased to say. Not just for the sake of the drinks but because I knew I’d be able to go home in his car rather than on the back of KK’s bike. It was freezing cold! We had an excellent evening. All of the Indians were drinking rum, I was happy with beer. The food was good and the conversion was flowing. A terrific last night. The friendliness and generosity of these guys knew no bounds. The biker family is a great entity of which I am pleased to be a part and clearly Imphal is a wonderful example of that. I decided I like India very much.

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As have the crash helmets.

While I’d been in the city I’d been for some walks, mostly down to the central area. I was usually looking for things I needed and managed to find some new sandals, a very cheap, new Nokia phone to use as a spare and one or two bits for the bike. The city has an Ima Market, a place where anyone can shop but only women can sell. Its aim is to support poorer women economically. It mostly seemed to sell fruit, veg, clothing and trinkets. There are normal buses in Imphal, but most of the ad hoc transport was tuk tuks running along regular routes, which were written on the front. You just flagged them down and jumped on. The fare was Rs10 and they were all pretty busy.

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At one end of the scale, a shop selling all the cooking utensils you might ever need.

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At the other end, trying to make a living selling the food to go in them.

What was very noticeable was the number of police and military patrolling around and standing at busy junctions, all armed. KK explained that there’d been some grenade explosions in the city, reckoned to be the work of separatists from Nagaland, the neighbouring state. Why they were doing it in Imphal was a mystery except that the Saigar Festival was on so there were plenty of people around to annoy. Nobody had been injured and it seemed the aim was to cause a nuisance more than anything else. The government had promised them autonomy by October 2019 and but hadn’t yet delivered it, hence the anger. It’s the case that most of the states in NE India have had separatist movements at one time or another, some of them still active. There are mostly tribal people in these states, with their own language and customs, and they don’t always want to be ‘Indian’.

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The Ima market, where only women are allowed to sell, although they’re happy for we menfolk to buy.

The road past the hotel was a busy through route and therefore had plenty of shops. There was a coffee stall between the hotel and a handy, biscuit selling, convenience store. It was common to meet the guys outside it and enjoy a coffee free from sugar. Along the road a short way was a bakery which also sold simple meals and good coffee, similarly sugar free. There were small shops with coffee machines all over the place, and we often met at some favourites. But all of them automatically added sugar to the drinks, making them taste pretty disgusting. If the machine supplied water, I’m pretty sure it would add sugar to that too, such is India’s, and Asia’s, addiction to the white poison. KK’s English was very good, some of the others less so. But we still had plenty of banter and laughs, enough to make the waiting enjoyable.

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The gate of Kangla Fort, home of Polo.

Fascinating fact. The game of polo, which originated in Persia as a way of training members of the cavalry, was first played in India at Imphal. The palace had a polo field. This is where the British discovered it and then spread it round the empire.
With the bike all fixed, the time came to saddle up and hit the trail. Some of the guys came to the hotel and we rode out of town before stopping for breakfast and a final goodbye. I had made some great friends there and was very sorry to be leaving. Getting my bike sorted out would have been very difficult without them. KK is the “leader of the gang”, and seemed to always know where to go for parts and services. He’s involved in a construction business but somehow managed to have time to help me whenever I needed it. My grateful thanks go to him and all his brothers.

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My escort out of town, to see me safely on my way.

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KK and crew, at the national park.

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The new Royal Enfield 650cc (I’m not sure which of the two versions this is.) It looks much like those I used to hanker after as a teenager.

3 thoughts on “The Riders of Manipur

  1. A great read again Geoff. With plenty of personalities thrown in which I always like. And ironic don’t you think, that your interest lies with the continued development of electricky driven transport after all the battery related dramas you’ve had to contend with lol.
    Anyway, stay safe. Glad to know that, at this stage anyway, you are still having a brilliant time. God knows how this current worrying but insanity inducing virus and cross-border mobility lock-downs is/will affect you. (I’m currently in 14 days of voluntary isolation after flying back into Oz, but at least I have a cook)!!

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    • Ha Ha ha Phil. Excellent point about the batteries. The people I meet always amaze me with their generosity of time and spirit. I think it may be partly because I’m an old fella now. 🙂
      Back in the real world, I’m currently in Lucknow having had real problems getting accommodation. Once again the local bikers came to the rescue. I shall wait things out here, for the time being.

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