Silchar, India. Sunday 8th December 2019
The state of Assam borders the state of Manipur and one of its main cities is Silchar. That was my intended destination when I left Imphal. The road rose up into the hills, in good condition at first. But as it got to around 1200 metres it soon deteriorated into the potholes, stones, mud and slow moving trucks that I’d become used to. This has clearly been the forgotten part of India with regard to roads, even though improvements are on the way. I must say that I admire these truck drivers enormously. They have a very tough job but are an essential service. There aren’t many other ways of moving goods in this part of India.
An example of the problems they face came along when I reached a bridge over one of the mountain rivers. There were two Bailey bridges, one for cars and one for trucks. Each of them were single lane. Not a problem for me but very different for the trucks. On the other side I began to pass a long queue of trucks, tucked in to the side of the road and waiting to cross the bridge. I was curious to know how long it was, although I nearly didn’t find out when a car driver coming towards me on my side of the road nearly wiped me out as he drove past the trucks. What he was doing was normal enough for India but he was going much faster than he should have been. I didn’t yell at him, just told him to slow down. The truck queue? About 4-5kms. I reckoned that it would take those at the back about two days to get across that bridge.
It was late afternoon when I arrived at Jiribam, the town that straddles the border between the two states. I’d been put in touch with a guy named Bishel, from the Sichar riders group and he’d said he’d try to find a hotel for me. Once at Jiribam I had to faff about registering with the police at the same time as trying to drink some tea and eat some biscuits. India has a reputation for liking bureaucracy and I’m here to tell you it’s well deserved.
By the time I’d done this a couple of local riders had turned up. It was now almost 4pm and I was feeling tired, so I suggested to these guys that I’d prefer to stay where I was for the night. They told me that Bishel had booked me into a hotel so I felt obliged to carry on. That was a decision I came to regret.
They led me out of town for about 20kms and put me on the right road. It was now fully dark but the road was good so I was able to maintain a decent pace while still being careful. Or so I thought. Suddenly I saw a small herd of cattle being driven across the road in front of me. Black haired cattle, on a black asphalt road in the pitch black night. I didn’t stand a chance. I slammed the brakes on but still collided with a large calf as it crossed in front of me. I fell over to my left, wrenching my shoulder and bruising my wrist. Fortunately I didn’t hit my damaged elbow. I picked myself up while some people who’d come out picked up the bike. I was feeling a bit woozy so I sat down again. It was then that Bishel and his friend Asosh arrived from Silchar, having come out to meet me. I stood up again and Asosh got into a discussion with the owner who, now he could see I was alright, was looking to make some money. He claimed that the calf was bleeding from its nose, effectively suggesting it might die. I knew this was ridiculous because I hit it on its hip. Asosh told him he shouldn’t have been driving his cattle across a busy road in that way but he suggested I pay him Rs1,000 anyway. A large crowd was starting to gather and in these circumstances things can turn nasty. The rich foreigner is always in the wrong. I parted with the money and we got out of there. He was very annoyed with the guys from Jiribam because the arrangement was that they’d meet him on the road to hand me over. I was annoyed with them too. Had they done so the crash wouldn’t have happened. There was some minor damage to the bike but I was able to carry on.
They led me to the hotel where they settled me down in my room. I casually mentioned that I’d like a beer, planning to find one later, but these guys are so keen to help that one appeared very quickly, along with some pain relieving spray. I asked them to join me for something to eat but they’d already eaten. Room service brought me some food, I had a much needed shower, then went to bed.
I slept well, then spent the day walking around the town and doing some minor repairs on the bike. My shoulder was sore, of course, but OK for riding, as was my wrist. Bishel came round for a chat and there were plans to meet up later with a few of the other local riders. That didn’t happen because they had other commitments so I ate alone once more. He’d said he’d come round next morning but that didn’t happen either as he was busy with work. He called me to wish me well and I thanked him for his help when I crashed. Then I set off for my next destination, feeling a little put out because we didn’t get to socialise, unjustifiably so really, considering the help they’d given me. People have to prioritise after all. Maybe I’d been a bit spoilt back in Imphal.
My next destination was Shillong, the main city of Megahayla state. KK had put me in touch with a guy named Brian, an Indian despite that name. I was to contact him when I got close. The road was quite rough as per usual, as it climbed into the hills. It became a toll road but when I came to the toll booth it was unmanned. Instead, the areas either side had been adopted as truck parking areas. That struck me as being very Indian. The next Indian event I came across was a protest in the middle of a town and blocking the road. One of the guys there directed me down a side road, which took me around it.
The road improved so the riding got better until I came to another town and another protest. This time there was no way around it. I was told they wouldn’t let me through in case protesters further along got angry with me. This was at about 12.30 and the road wouldn’t open until about 4pm. I waited around for a bit and then rode back the way I’d come, looking for a place to eat. There were plenty of shacks along the side of the road but they were all closed. There was a real sense of desertion and neglect about this area. Even the truck parking area I stopped at didn’t have anyone selling food. It seemed very strange. Ironically, it was a good road for a change. Eventually I found a place that sold some meat with dahl and rice. No coffee or tea, so it was a fairly limited meal. Even so, at Rs150, I was definitely charged the tourist rate. I killed time fiddling about with the bike before riding back to the protest. Soon after, the barriers were lifted and I was rolling again.
4pm, as you may have noted from previous incidents, is not the time to begin a 120km ride. The next town along yielded a hotel so I stopped. Dearer than I would have liked, and I said so. There was no hot water to the shower nor any heater for this cold night. They delivered some hot water to my room, and then some food. Next morning I went to breakfast. It was like something out of a movie where aliens have occupied the human bodies but can’t quite get the hang of what they should be doing. There was no staff in the dining room until eventually someone wandered in, carrying something. I’d already found some cornflakes and a tureen with some warm milk in it, presumably for the cornflakes. There was also one with some slightly warm boiled eggs in it. Bread, but no sign of a toaster. No sign of any hot drinks either. I come prepared for that eventuality so I handed him my cup, with teabag inside, and he sent a lad off to put hot water in it. The alien brought it back filled with warm water, just about OK to brew the tea. I put in some milk from the tureen, with the waiter looking at me as if I was the alien, not him. But he did know how to make toast, so breakfast wasn’t too bad. The saving grace was that reception reduced the room rate by Rs300, down from 1500 to 1200, so I left in a good mood.
I left at 10.30, having given Brian an ETA of 12.30. Ha! That was rather optimistic. I arrived at 14.30, having had to deal with some mega traffic jams, mostly caused by trucks. Getting through the towns was difficult for them because of all the roadside activity that narrowed the road. Add to that the idiots in cars that tried to squeeze down the middle of the road, but just ended up jamming everything even more, and you had complete chaos. In most western countries that kind of behaviour would have caused fist fights. Here, everyone just accepts it and somehow manages to get through. The other cause of jams was on the hills as trucks had to wait their turn to get round the bends, often too steep and narrow to allow two trucks to pass. Add in the broken down trucks that had to be negotiated and you can see why I said I admire these guys. I was very glad to be on a bike though.
The road went up to 1800 metres as it climbed the mountains and came down to ‘only’ 1500 metres as it entered Shillong. Brian had messaged me earlier to ask where I planned to stay. I said I had a few places lined up and when I arrived at one of them I foolishly booked in for three nights. There was a car park close by, where I thought the bike would be safe, which is why I stayed. When Brian arrived he was a bit miffed. He’d wanted to meet me then help me find a suitable hotel. He said this area, close to a wholesale vegetable market, was not a very safe. There had also been protests nearby too. I left the bike in the car park, covered up, but while I was sleeping the hotel staff removed my panniers from the bike and brought them into reception.
In the evening Brian came to collect me and we headed to a nicer part of town where we were to eat at a café owned by one of his friends. While we were waiting outside a young woman known as RTW Roxy arrived, someone I’d noticed on the Facebook forums. She’s Polish but lives in Glasgow, and had set off on her world tour riding a Honda Fireblade. Very much a sports bike and not at all suited to the rough roads she’d encountered. But it’s a bike she loves and that’s a good enough reason to ride it. She went round to her hotel to refresh, then she came back over and joined in the festivities. Festivities? Well yes, it was my birthday. Brian had latched on to this fact and had arranged this little soireée in my honour. In OUR honour, in the end. We were treated like royalty, weren’t allowed to pay for anything and were fed copious amounts of alcohol too. There were about ten people there and they even managed to rustle up a cake for me. It was a wonderful evening. The best birthday I’d had in a long time. It was typical of the generosity that Indian bikers show to foreign travellers, whoever they are. Stefano had experienced it too.
At one point KK rang Brian up and I heard them conversing in English. This puzzled me so I asked why. That’s when I learned about how these north eastern states see themselves as somewhat separate from the rest of India. The six states that lie to the east of Bangladesh all have different languages. If you thought therefore, that their common language would be India’s national language of Hindi, you’d be logical but wrong. Hindi is their third language and English is their second. Not many people in this area speak Hindi, which is a nuisance for other Indians but great for foreign travellers.
Perhaps now is the time to break away from the narrative and try to explain what the protests are all about. It’s complex so listen up!
The key factor is the introduction of a new law called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Its aim is to regularise the status of the millions of people who live in India with no legal status. It’s proposed that anyone who came to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh, and arrived before December 2014, can apply for citizenship. They have to be able to prove they’ve lived in India for six years. Sounds good? Not according to the protests taking place across India. The problem is that it applies to all religions except Muslims. They reckon it’s unconstitutional because there should not be any discrimination against any person on the basis of religion, especially in a secular country such as India. There are some complexities within the whole issue, but that’s the basis of the protests. There are now many petitions before India’s supreme court seeking to overturn the act for this reason.
With regard to the six north eastern states, the issue relates, additionally, to their fear about a loss of culture, including language. Many Bangladeshi’s fled that country during their war of independence and the fear is that if they are legitimised then the local culture will be diluted into non-existence simply by numbers. In Assam, an accord was reached with the federal government in 1985 following the war, which said that only immigrants who arrived in the state prior to the start of the war (March 1971) could become citizens. Others would have to be moved elsewhere. The process was started but soon fizzled out. Now the big fear among the Assamese is that the CAA will remove even the theoretical protection they gained at that time. A National Register of Citizens (NRC) was introduced in Assam and was used to move non-Assamese out of the state. The federal government is now proposing to make this a nationwide exercise. Non Muslims who fled the three previously mentioned countries claiming religious persecution won’t be affected. But Muslims would be because they won’t be protected by the CAA. So, once again, discrimination would be the end result if an act was passed. There were protests in Assam’s main city of Guwahati during which ten unarmed protesters were killed by the police. This is serious stuff!
There are many nuances and side issues within all of this. Here’s a good place to read up on it if you want to.
Right, back to the story.
Once I’d managed to surface after the birthday bash I rang Brian who, eventually, came over and we made plans to move out of the hotel. I managed to get a refund for the third night, which was a reasonable compromise with the manager, considering the room fee was supposed to be non refundable. We loaded all my gear back on the bike and headed down into town to a local bike shop. My rear brake still needed bleeding so the mechanic had a go at that. Meanwhile we went a bit further down the road to drink coffee and chat to some of the local riders. One thing I noticed here is that many of Brian’s friends, and Brian himself, had big bikes. Kawasaki Z900s, Suzuki GSX750s and big KTMs too. This was in complete contrast to the guys in Imphal, who mostly rode 250cc pocket versions of these bikes. I imagine there’s simply more money in Shillong. The import duty on bikes like these is massive.
Once the bike was finished (but not really any better than it was before) we took a ride out of town to try some Khassi food. The Khassi is one of the local tribes and live in the area south of Shillong, further up in the hills. It was still cold but the ride was nice anyway. We arrived at a café and met more of Brian’s friends, then sat down to try some dishes. There was a strange kind of dark pork sausage, which wasn’t bad. Then some smoked pork, which was really just bits of crackling with a small amount of meat attached. By the time I’d finished it I was very fed up with the taste of pork fat. The two cups of red tea I had were nice though. I’d said to Brian that it was to be my treat but he out manoeuvred me and beat me to it.
We went back to Brian’s house and I ended up staying at his cousin’s house across the road. It was very cold at night, especially now we were a bit higher up, but Chris and Suzan made sure I was snug. The authorities in Shillong had imposed a 7pm curfew following the previous day’s protests and disturbances. They’d also shut down the mobile phone data service. People aren’t supposed to gather in groups of more than four, which I can’t see lasting. It takes four people just to buy something from a shop! Chris showed me his collection of pewter and Wedgewood plates. He’s got them all over the house. He was a DJ in Kolkata for sixteen years but ear damage, and meeting Suzan, drove him away from it. He now buys land for development, generally designing the buildings himself, as he did with his impressive house. A clever guy.
I moved across the road into Brian’s house as Chris had guests arriving. I met his mother who runs a school. Brian helps her and also looks after his Dad, who isn’t well. I did some research on where to go next and about crossing into Bangladesh. The phone data was still shut down but fortunately they had broadband. There was no way of knowing how long the shutdown would last. It was a real inconvenience. I’d been considering going north and touring around Assam state but Brian said there were disturbances in many of the towns so I put that plan on hold. Heading south was the only option then. Mainly I just wanted to escape these freezing cold hills. In the evening a couple of Brian’s friends came round. They brought some beer so we sat chatting and telling stories.
Next day we went out for another ride, a bit further afield this time. We went up to Shillong Peak, which actually lies inside an air force base. Because of the disturbances we weren’t allowed in so we had to admire the view from a bit lower down. Brian had brought his girlfriend with him. I’d seen her around the house and assumed she was his younger sister. She was very thin and looked about twelve years old, She’s actually twenty one. We rode out to some nice places, including a park which overlooks Elephant Falls, and a nice viewpoint that overlooks a ravine. There was a food shack there too, so we took the opportunity to eat some Maggie noodles. I was determined to pay this time but I only had a Rs500 note, far too big for a small business like this one. So Brian paid – again!
Once back home I did a few jobs on the bike. Brian gave his Mum a lift to somewhere. I was quite impressed to see her perched on the back of his sports bike. They’re not renowned for passenger comfort. We had some Indian takeaway for tea and finished the day by swapping stories. Brian had been a real boon to me. He’s a generous guy and had made me feel very welcome. But I needed to move on, even if only to find some warmth! So next morning I hit the road once more.
The town of Dawki lies south of Shillong, and much lower down. I decided to head down there, seeking that elusive higher temperature. The ride there was fabulous. Up through the hills, overlooking gorges and deep valleys. But it was rather spoiled by the massive amount of quarrying going on. Cement seems to be the main product. Many of the shops I passed were plastered with cement company logos. Not because they sold it, just paid advertising. It was awful sometimes, to come round a bend and see the hillside ahead of me torn away on one side. As I came down into a town I looked out for ATMs. I only had enough money for one night’s accommodation. I found two, both of them shut. I gazed at the sign above one of them, saying 24/7, and wondered if there was a local interpretation of that claim that I didn’t quite understand. I mentioned it to the guy in a café I stopped at and he said they’re closed because it’s Sunday. Daft!
Dawki itself is next to both a river and the Bangladesh border. As I came down the hill towards it I could see a river coming down from the hills, which joined another one, and they both spread their waters out over the plain, forming very large pools. There were lots of people on the beaches there, sitting under sun umbrellas and having a good time. Touts selling adventure activities kept trying to stop me but I ignored them. The town had an ATM. Saved, I thought. It was open but had no cash. I couldn’t find any guest houses there so I rode back up into the hills and stayed at one I’d enquired at on the way down.
After a chilly night I headed back to the town with the ATMs and managed to get some money. I felt more secure now. There was still no phone data, which makes researching options a little tricky. In the end I decided to head to Guwahati, the main city of Assam state. I wanted to explore Assam anyway, so it seemed a good move. The road there was great. I had to go back through Shillong and the traffic going down the hill into the town was solid. So I tackled it Indian style. That means just riding down the outside, forcing the other vehicles to give you space, until you meet a bus or truck. At that point you squeeze back in until it’s gone past. Rinse and repeat. Once I’d cleared the town the ride became glorious. It wound through more hills, past a huge dam, and then the road became a duel carriageway. This wound its way back down the hill, giving me lots of road space to enjoy the bends. I was really pushing the bike through, as fast as I dared. Occasionally I came up to a car driver that thought he knew what it was all about, but I soon roasted them, safe in the knowledge there was nothing in my way. Great fun.
Once in the city the problem was to find a hotel. I drove around a bit, and eventually got talking to a young guy on a bike. He took me to a hotel he knew but they wanted mega amounts, way beyond my budget. On the way I’d spotted a hotel next to a Dominos pizza shop, so I went back there and talked their high price down to a more reasonable level. Still more than I wanted to pay, but I didn’t really have an option. This city was under lockdown too, following the recent public order problems. There was a 10pm curfew but I found the gates to the hotel locked when I came back from eating at 9pm. I had to rattle them very hard before somebody came to unlock them. I’d passed a beer shop on the way back. That was closed, which made sense really. And still no data. I read up about the issues in the local English language newspaper, the Assam Tribune. It’s a complex and layered problem, with Assam state having a particular grievance with the CAA relating to their previous, and unfulfilled, agreements with the federal government. But the good news was that they expected the curfew and data block to be lifted very soon, possibly the next day.
I was quite busy over the next couple of days. But although the broadband system was restarted my hotel still didn’t have any. There was a fault on it. Time to move then. I needed internet as there was still no phone data.. I rang Brian from Shillong, who knew someone in Guwahati, who knew someone with knowledge of hotels, who found me another place to stay. A bit cheaper and with wi-fi. Sorted!
I went for a long walk down to a market area. I got some odd looks because I was wearing a mask over my nose and mouth. Not a medical mask, just a cloth one aimed at keeping out the dust and pollution with which these busy cities are plagued. I’d started doing this in Imphal, where the smog of dust and exhaust fumes was easy to see and necessary to avoid. I noticed that the population here is very mixed, as denoted by shade of skin. There were Hindus, people who looked like Tamils, and those with lighter skin who I assumed to be Assamese. There were plenty of obviously poor people, who tended to be rather small in stature. I noticed women walking around carrying large sacks with which to collect recyclables. The streets were crowded, with shops using the pavement as retail space to my left, and stallholders using road space to my right.
I needed to replace a switch on my bike. I stopped at a likely shop and, having had no luck at other places, was pleased when the guy dove under the counter and brought out a box of odd switches. This looked hopeful. But he couldn’t match it up. He rang somebody up, then told me to wait five minutes while he shot off on his scooter. When he came back he had a switch that would do the job. Now, you don’t get that kind of service at your local spares shop.
The next task was to get my visa for Bangladesh. I needed to leave the country in order to renew my Indian visa in early January. My first plan had been to go to Nepal and do it there. But it was likely to be cold there so Bangladesh seemed a better option. I filled in the online form, got it printed off, then rode round to the visa centre. After a short wait somebody spoke to me and checked my passport, in order to find out how much I needed to pay. “You have an Irish passport? Nothing to pay.” Well that was painless. A young German lad had to pay $60, and had to go to a local bank in order to do it. I was feeling very pleased with myself for having changed from my UK passport. He took all the forms from me and sent me off, with instructions to come back at 2pm (now 12.30) Finding some coffee and food took up an hour or so, and soon after I got back a guy came out of the office with a fistful of passports, including mine. Now that was pretty painless. The only flaw was that I’d wanted a double entry visa which, it transpired, can only be obtained in your home country. I then noticed that it started immediately, whereas many visas don’t start until you cross the border. My elation was deflating somewhat.
I was, at this point in time, very much in a quandary as to my neat move. My Indian visa ran out in early January. Should I go to Bangladesh now? If I went there, which border should I cross at. I had two nearby options. Should I explore the area I was in? There’s a river that runs east/west through Assam so I considered following it east, then crossing over and coming back west again. I also fancied a visit to Thailand to visit some friends. When could I fit that in? I just couldn’t decide what to do. So I decided to stay where I was until after Christmas, only a few days away, then move on.
Talking of moving on, with phone data now restored I decided to find a cheaper place to stay. The internet revealed a homestay, not too far away and less than half the price. The good thing about homestays is that there’s usually somebody around to talk to, which is much better than a hotel room. This one was run by a very nice woman, who spoke good English, helped by her English speaking son. She served simple meals for the evening. I felt immediately at home. Even so, I had a pretty miserable Christmas. There wasn’t much by way of organised celebrations in the city so I was just sitting around, doing some writing an planning, trying to lift my spirits and make some decisions. My hostess gave me my Christmas meal for free, which was very kind of her. But it was the first Christmas I’d spent alone while travelling and I didn’t much like it. I spoke to my family on Christmas day, really missing them and my friends. I decided I wouldn’t be doing that again!
As travellers often do, I’d decided I had various things that I didn’t need any more. I managed to lay my hands on a box and had a really good sort out. Then I labelled the box and took it down to the local post office. They couldn’t deal with it there and sent me to the main post office. It was a fair way away so a tuk tuk was called for here. Once I’d got the driver to understand where I wanted to go, we weaved, wangled and generally fought our way through the traffic. It was a new experience for me and I was impressed by his skill and determination. We didn’t come very close to death at all. Not even once.
At the post office I got a ticket from the machine but while I was sitting waiting, a guy came up to me and asked if I was sending a parcel and to follow him. He led me back outside and to his stall in the street. I don’t know how he knew I was there. Perhaps he has scouts in his employ. He covered the parcel in white, muslin cloth. Then he sewed all the edges together. Finally, he sealed them all with wax before reattaching the label I’d had on it before. Only Rs200 for this service and it was clear that it had to be done.
He directed me to the correct office. Fortunately I’d brought my passport but the clerk wanted a copy of it. It was nearly 13.30 and I was worried they’d close for lunch, so I rushed across the road to the courthouse, where there are lots of little businesses that do copying. It was only Rs2 but I had no change, so he let me off. The clerk hadn’t gone to lunch after all, so it was soon on its way. I was a bit annoyed that she sent it airmail. It wasn’t urgent in any way and I’d wanted to save money by sending it surface mail, but I later discovered they don’t offer that service anyway. My final act there was to go back to the copying place and buy a coffee from him, and to pay the Rs2 as well.
I’d now done all the little jobs that needed to be done. I’d dragged myself out of my despondent mood and had decided to drive east along the Brahmaputra river through Assam, cross over it further along, and then come back westwards on the other side. After that it would be Bangladesh, with me only needing to decide at which border to cross.