The Manipur experience.
Moreh to the mountains.
The India admin machine gave an early display of its true colours with a 3 hour wait for immigration to open at 11 am.
We were finally allowed in with a look suggesting we were the last people on earth this man wanted to share the following minutes of his life with.
This border has not been open to tourists for long, thus the process is lacking the usual Indian administrational flair, so it only took an hour.
After watching the officers try to fix a broken passport reader machine they finally gave up, instead entering our details into a huge dusty book which may never be opened again.
We were in.
Entering India at midday was not the best result as between us and Imphal were two mountain passes, it would be a long afternoon.
Leaving the Moreh border the road immediately went into steep incline. In the lowest gears we struggled up the first pass for a few hours before a swift descent. The second pass was steeper, when standing up and forcing all bodyweight through the pedal was just enough to get the wheels moving as I snaked across the road. At times it was too much and i stopped to rest, even tried pushing but that was just as futile.
A bit of screaming and shouting ensued, but a moment of delight came as i thought the top was insight, i’d made it. One and a half hours after this moment, i am still climbing. At long last the air got thinner and steepness less brutal until we reached the military checkpoint that marked the top.
A total of 4,500 metres of climbing in an afternoon.
With the bored checkpoint guards wanting to see passports and ask fairly pointless questions, it was now getting late. We sailed down the mountain pass as darkness began to throw its blanket over eastern India. The steepness of the descent and wet roads made this quite a battle and a few lapses in concentration almost had me in some trouble.
Under darkness we sprinted the final flat 50kms in the dark, with traffic screaming passed in the way only Indian traffic can.
Imphal and the Manipur region are considered dangerous places for tourists, with the insurgent separatist problems and inter-ethnic violence that have spanned many decades since the Raj. There is a great deal of arms moving around the region, so a huge military presence and continuous checkpoints will now be the norm. On the day we arrived in Imphal a roadside arms bust occurred and several people killed.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to this region, so our insurance would now be void. It was somewhere we were determined to cross, but must do sensibly.
Arriving at nightfall on a bike was not a good start to this strategy.
The next morning we rode to the start of a 260 km journey that would take us through mountainous jungle towards Assam region and the border with Bangladesh. Unsure of road quality, elevation or military rulings we were ignorant to what the next days held.
Soon enough we were passing streams of military posts, vehicles and troops on patrol. Up we climbed Into the ranges, much steadier than the day before but hours went by before we there was any sign of a descent. When it came the descent was often breathtaking with nothing but misty, rich, thick green jungle stretching into eternity.
Later that afternoon we were again climbing back up, when hope of reaching a decent distance today were dashed by the road surfaces falling to pieces, a once black surface became mud and rocks. The pace dropped to walking as we tried to clamber up the steep roads.
We passed teams of men erecting power lines and towers by hand, back breaking work, but positive infrastructure and employment for the region.
Infrequent vans and trucks would slowly pass as a railway route was being tunnelled through the region in pursuit of creating more infrastructure and stability. To my cynical eye It seemed a classic sign of India prioritisation, attempting to build a new railway in a region where the roads weren’t good enough for trucks to deliver the tracks.
Struggling up this long climb alone in the late afternoon, pushing along at a snails pace I suddenly saw Scotty walking towards me on foot. Immediately I thought the worst.
Turns out he had been accused of being a terrorist and attacked by armed men. Managing to flag down government railway workers who helped control the situation we were told this area was too dangerous so jumped in their van and drove to their camp a few kilometres up the road.
Sitting in the van next to a man who continued to tell me he was a policeman as his whiskey fuelled breath melted my face, it was clear no-one in this region really had any control.
We cycled on a few kilometres from the railway camp and requested to sleep in the barracks of the federal military police. The officer in charge agreed and we climbed the hill and entering the barracks. It was a brilliant decision.
We were treated to interesting conversation, tea, food and a good nights sleep in armed safety. As we sat on our camp beds throwing chapati down our necks at a ruthless pace the elder recruits sat around us watching the only television, and they remained as we finished up and fell asleep.
For the following days we would get off the road early and seek refuge in military barracks. The officers in charge would speak english, and we would be treated to a fine Indian meal, and even army issue whisky.
The local people would look at us with a glum shock, I certainly never feel welcome. They do not see tourists or foreigners here, as for so long it has just been too dangerous. Also there is no infrastructure, no tourist set up, no reason to visit, just jungle and mud. These people are very poor, uneducated, have very little, and have been treated poorly and are under day to day close military rule.
The dirt roads turn to mud as rain starts to fall and a clay base awaits us as we reach the valley floor once again. The clay is so slippery that the wheels will not grab and we are forced to push. Shortly after Pete has a fall and cuts his knee on the rock hard ground.
As darkness started to fall we were on the look out for a military base to request a roof and safety for the night. We reached an Assam rifles base (Indian army) and asked to see the company commander.
He had been out on exercise, but when we were finally introduced he was delighted to help us out. In 2.5 years stationed here he had never seen or heard of a tourist coming through. Especially not on bikes.
We had a great evening. After delicious food and a refreshing wash in cold water buckets, we sat up chatting about indian developments, life in the army, the differences in our cultures, his approaching arranged marriage, and of course cricket.
It was interesting to hear the increasing successes in the fight against insurgents, but in plain terms he was honest that this was still an uncomfortable matter of seeking and killing his own countrymen for the greater good. Nonetheless the stability of the region was undoubtably improving each year.
These past nights we have been hugely grateful to the help and hospitality of the security forces. A difficult situation for us became a delight, we’ve been treated so well and kept safe whilst meeting some excellent characters, people who truly care about this region and their roles in its improvement.
Indian immigration office.
Military checkpoint #1 of many.
Only way is up.
Evening descent to Imphal.
Military police camp.
The Assam Rifles camp.