Cycling through north east India was a very different experience to that of central India. The region was connected to the mainland by a slither of land between Nepal and Bangladesh just fourteen miles wide. Separated into nine different states, each one with it’s own government and unique personality, many of which shared a common quest for independence from the presiding rule of the central Indian government. The conflicting political views had been a long standing source of social agitation dating back centuries. The history gleaned from conversations with locals along the way painted a sketchy picture, but somewhere along the line the source of the problems seemed to stem from when India claimed the region as it’s own.
Protests over local issues being controlled by central government are regular and ongoing. On reaching Kohima, Nagaland, I read in the local Nagaland newspaper of multiple deaths sustained at a recent protest when the Indian authorities opened fire to maintain control. Which goes someway to explaining why a police escort was deemed necessary for my safe passage.
I later found out that the city of Kohima was indeed the battleground for an almighty face off where the combined forces of Britain and India eventually defeated the Japanese during the second world war. Along the road read signs of the number of fallen soldiers and memorial sites.
The rain persisted for most of the next day between Kohima and Senapati, where I was picked up by the Manipur CID (Central Intelligence Department?). There was an ongoing road ban preventing vehicles from entering the state of Manipur, however, I had somehow managed to slip through the state border uninhibited. Then began a farcical conversation intimating I would not be able to continue without a stamp in my passport from the border Police, and suggestions I would need to return (up a twenty mile descent) to receive it. Their argument that the stamp was required ‘for my safety’ was hilarious. I imagined being accosted by conscientious extremists, first checking my passport for a stamp from the border Police, before kidnapping me! In the end it was agreed I would visit the CID office in Imphal instead.
Imphal is the capital of Manipur state and to my surprise was deserted on arrival, save for the hoards of police and army personnel stationed at every junction, it was like cycling into a ghost town. A one day trade ban was in place, the purpose of which was to control, prevent, or stop the issuing of Inner Line Permits (ILPs), which allow people from outside of the state to enter from central India, and the surrounding countries. The manipuri people were concerned that their demographic was being diluted in a detrimental way by people migrating from outside of the state.
When I woke the next morning the contrast in atmosphere could not have been greater, it was like waking up in a different city. The noise, the traffic, the people, the businesses oozed out of every nook and cranny like ants evacuating a nest. Foot space was now at a premium as I was swept up like a tasty morsel on a conveyor belt of people. My destination was unknown, but I did rather hope to pass a bike shop.
I had been warned, by a couple of fellow cyclist I had met along the way, of a formidable clan of tattooed cyclists going by the name of ‘Pedal Attack‘, residing in the city. Formidable in a good way I was assured, their passion for cycling and helping touring cyclists was notorious. When I asked one cyclist, Sam Griffith, where to find them, he said, ‘Oh don’t worry, they’ll FIND YOU!’ So it was without surprise that when I did find a bike shop I also stumbled upon ‘Pedal Attack’, in the form of Rajiv and Citesh. After that my stay in Imphal took on a whole new dimension which I can sum up as – Going loco.
I was taken to local villages where they produced wine known locally as ‘yoo.’ Made by fermenting rice with water it was distilled in a way similar to that of hard spirits like vodka, and tasted a bit like Saki – with similar alcohol content too! Every producing family has it’s own unique process and the result is differing strengths and flavours. I learnt of a particularly strong variety which included sugary tree bark that makes you ‘crazy in the head.’ The normal fermentation process produces alcohol, by adding sugar, in the form of tree bark, the alcohol content escalates to ‘crazy in the head’ levels. After drink ‘yoo’ I had great trouble concentrating, seeing and standing up straight. (Manipur is a dry state I might add, but the wettest dry state I have ever visited.)
I attended the weekly Pedal Attack meeting to learn about how they were working to encourage cycling in the city, to share my own journey, and thoughts about how they could develop as a club. I was also invited into the home of Citesh to eat beautiful food prepared by his wife. I later attended a religious ceremony to remember the dead held at Rajiv’s home where I stayed the last night. It was a truly memorable few days which really drilled home to me the importance of meeting local people along the way. It did make me wonder how my experience of the rest of India may have been different had this been my first. Fortunately, the rest of the world beckons where the lesson learnt meeting the formidable people of Pedal Attack can be enjoyed.
Citesh, Rajiv, Raggie, Nelson, Reagan, Rocky, Sandip, Syles, Gomi, Rakesh, Nutan, Kunan and everyone else at Pedal Attack I salute you! Keep doing what you’re doing and the change you want to see will happen.
Leaving Rajiv’s home, where I had experienced such wonderful hospitality and curiosity, I cycled up through the heat and humidity into multiple Police and Army checks, never before had it been so difficult to leave a country. The closer to the border with Myanmar I cycled the greater the number of checks.
Until the border….
That pretty much sums India up, there was so much to learn and love, yet so much to frustrate and hate. Of the countries visited so far India has been the most challenging mentally and physically. Until I reached Myanmar, more on that next time…..
Hi, liking the videos. Seems like logic is not high on anyone’s to do list!! Look forward to the next post.
Safe cycling onwards
No, definitely no logical thought going on. The best part was, which I forgot to include, when I eventually found the Police station I walked into about eight ‘Policemen’ lying around watching a 52″ flatscreen TV!!!
Quite an experience for you especially from those of the government. Indian bureaucracy is a gift bestowed on the nation by the British raj which you have enjoyed to the full. It is nice that your experience of the locals has changed you view of what India can be like. Love M&D xxx
Very love hate, but certainly saved the best till last.
Excellent blogs Fraser..look forward to next ones..hope all is going well.
Cheers Doug, next one up later today.
There’s something about the Freedom of a Fool. I have to go to Imphal but I am courting a political prisoner. I’ll get treated differently. One or two comments which probably won’t interest you. The locals in Imphal were not trying to stop Inner Line Permits. They want it introduced as you say because they complain about illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. I won’t go into greater detail. It’s just one of those things that people complain about. But there aren’t only 800,000 manipuris. There are 800,000 Meitei and a similar number of what they call Hill Tribals which the British divided into two groups Nagas and everybody else. Everybody else got called Kuki-Chin. And not everyone they called Nagas think of themselves as Nagas. You could have left without having your passport stamped but you would never have been allowed back into India so good on you for persisting. By the way the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 means that no action undertaken by any soldier above the rank of Havildar which would be equivalent to Lance Corporal in the British Army can be investigated by the police or tried in an Indian Court. They have absolute immunity to do whatever they please. It kicks in in disturbed areas of India. So Imphal East & West it doesn’t apply. Everywhere else in Manipur it does. Now they aren’t going to sodomize and shoot a White Man. They aren’t going to know the difference between Scotsman & American. But that’s what kept you safe. Burma in the old days would have given you a lot more hassle. But they say it has eased up now. And if you are a foreign spy you are in deep deep cover. They don’t really kidnap white people either I think around 4 have been kidnapped over 60 years but nothing recent. Your knowledge of the history of the area could probably be enhanced by checking with wiki but it doesn’t interest you. The great battle where the Japanese were pushed back is known as the Battle of Imphal & Kohima so there’s another war memorial in Imphal which you didn’t have time for. Plus a few months back the 70th anniversary of the Battle was celebrated formally the Dy British High Commissioner came to Imphal for the first time along with the Japanese Ambassador and an American Diplomat. Why they are making such irritating checks is that they assume you are in the pay of someone. They don’t really get the whole Briitish eccentric come to find himself by riding a bicycle. So Pakistani ISI invest in agents according to Berhold Linter who is a Scandinavian Writer known for his work on Myanmar. The Chinese Government also invests in destablizing the area for reasons more complicated. And recently the Dutch Government was caught paying off Manipuri NGOs to campaign for tribal rights ie attack one mutli-national mineral and oil exploration site to support a rival. And from time to time given the AFSPA the army do shoot into crowds. No way you are going to read this far. But the law which you may feel is a bit rough on civilians was also introduced by the British in 1942 then called the AFSOA the only difference was it required the written request signed by an Officer of Captain and above for the immunity to kick in. It was part of the process of beating back the Japanese Army ensuring that the Quit India movement didn’t start a war on two fronts. My fiancee’s name is Irom Sharmila Chanu. And I am sure it doesn’t trouble you. But you would have had an opportunity to meet with a modern mahatma a fairly straightforward and simple woman too but I think you’d be ok with that. From 2004-2013 Xmas she had been placed under quite severe arbitrary isolation orders these were illegal rather than just unjust and protected by law. She is a satyagraha and has been kept alive by naso-gastric intubation which is why she has been imprisoned albeit without trial and for periods also illegally. But that’s not what your trip was about and if you for example try to meet with Suu Kyi in Myanmar then no you won’t be treated so well. You should be ok in Myanmar also once they figure out you have absolutely no interest in politics you just want to find yourself and prefer the healthy option to a motorbyke. All the best now. You would be a very brave man if you actually knew how dangerous things can get. Since there’s little you can do to protect yourself there’s a lot to be said for not knowing till your return home. All the best and everything. I certainly wouldn’t try to do what you are trying. But at least you are following a dream and few do.
Thanks for the corrections Desmond, ignorance is bliss!!