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…..