Our three-month road trip through the Seven-sister states of India started in Assam. After our journey through Meghalaya and Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur we arrived in Nagaland, the infamous state ‘without roads‘.
“The roads in Nagaland in terrible.”
“There are no roads in Nagaland.”
They are among the common remarks we frequently heard before we arrived in Nagaland. However, to our surprise we come across hundreds of kilometers of perfect asphalt. How is this possible? We revel at the luxury of cruising through the forested mountains for a couple of days.
From Zunheboto, however, the party is over. We enter a different Nagaland, the one of the infamous roads. Soon we will know what people mean with Nagaland having only bad roads, or no roads at all.
The road initially runs along the northern side of the mountains, where the sun can’t penetrate enough for the wet road surface to dry. The Enfield’s rear tire regularly skids sideways in slippery mud and we raise our legs when traversing long mud baths to keep our feet as dry as possible. In between are bits and pieces of asfalt.
What happened with the maintenance of these stretches?
We stop in a hamlet for tea, it is served by a very shy girl but the word is spreading – foreigners! Soon a young woman shows up who speaks English. She is attending the nearby Anderson College, the first Baptist college in Nagaland, she proudly tells me. In Nagaland most people are Christian and the Baptist church is by far the biggest in this state.
She is studying theology but she would like to travel, however there is no money because her parents have to pay for her studies as well as that of her two brothers. We are talking about international student exchanges and sponsorship, which is a direction she’s looking into as we speak. Who knows where we’ll meet her again, one day.
Meanwhile, pick-ups are passing by. They are packed with youngsters standing in the tray, holding on to the sides and each other. Behind the pick up drives a 4WD with loads of bagage in the back and on the roof. They are on their way to a regional, multi-day student conference, she explains.
“You know, to convey message that Jesus lives.”
We will continue to see these cars full of happy youngsters all day.
Live along the Road
“From here there is a direct road to Tuelsang, which is much better than the detour via Mokukchung,” she says. “It’s brand new.”
On the map it appears to be a short cut. Because there is no specific reason to visit Mokokchung we take the short cut. That good road takes a few kilometers to arrive, but after a potholed stretch we hit fifteen kilometers of good asphalt. It descends into a valley with rice fields and meanders back into the mountains. Driving in the sun it’s pleasantly warm for a change and we are enjoying the drive.
We pass a man who is felling the last trees on an almost bare slope. His wife is cooking lunch along the side of the road. Down the road we pass yet another woman who is cooking on woodfire on the side of the road, a toddler on her hip and probably waiting for her husband to return from the upper slope. Another man has cut the inner trunk of a banana tree and is, I assume, on his way home. When we pass he greets us enthusiastically.
These provide short moments of insight in how people depend on what they cultivate on these slopes. The once extensive forest has been cut to create livelihoods for local people. It’s a fair question what the consequences for these regions will be of all those new asphalted highways that are being built, which inevitably will lead to people moving here from overcrowded Assam and elsewhere.
After Suruhoto, drama starts. Fifteen kilometers of the worst trail we have had in all these weeks on the Royal Enfield. Images of driving the Ho Chi Minh Route in Laos come to mind, where we got lost for five days in the wilderness before we stumbled upon an exit.
We bounce through a succession of short, deep pits that are impossible to drive in a relaxed manner. Coen’s hand is hurting from keeping the throttle at its minimal speed. This trail is utterly and completely destroyed. It shows us what locals have had to deal with before the government, at last, started investing in the infrastructure of India’s Northeastern states.
The trail is deeply eroded, filled with powdery sand which hides deep holes and sharp stones. Dust is getting through all our layers of clothing and clogs our eyes. It’s hard to breath. The kilometers pass at a snail’s pace. When driving in the sun it is pleasantly warm, but as soon as it hits behind a cloud, or the trail is in the shade, we shiver from the cold.
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Asphalt! – Well, Sometimes
It takes ‘forever’, but everything ends in life, and that includes atrocious trails. We’re back on the main road. In this case that means stretches of good asphalt alternating with broken asphalt, stretches of unpaved road surface that are easy to drive, and more dust. The road climbs over 2100 meters and in the clouds we are once more shivering from the cold.
We stop at a roadside restaurant and devour an excellent chow (Coen) and veg rice (KM). The enthusiastic owner goes out of his way to make his customers happy. Besides selling food he is selling liquor. Nagaland is a dry state but once you know the business exists, you see it everywhere.
A customer is trying to hide his big bottle in a bag that is too small, he catches my eye and when he sees me smile, relaxes. In one corner group of men are enjoying whatever is in their cups, but it’s not tea.
Obey the Traffic Rules – Yes, you too, Coen!
By two thirty we arrive in Tuelsang, dog tired. I check Google maps on my phone and at a Y-junction I instruct Coen to take the right road. As is often the case, the junction is a sort of mini roundabout, which means that there is a round platform with a roof in its center for a police officer to direct traffic from. In this part of the world they prefer jobs instead of traffic lights.
However, the roundabout is not always honored, even less so when you are on a bike and there is no traffic. Why bother driving around the platform when you can short cut it on the right side? And so Coen shoots right past it.
“Whoa whoa!” The cop calls out, and whistles.
“Around the roundabout!” he instructs.
I burst out laughing. Coen, man of the rules, forever pointing at those who don’t follow those rules, is being set straight by a police officer. And I point to the banner above the platform:
‘Obey the traffic rules’, it says in huge letters, and I laugh even louder.
It’s a good way to end this trip. Well, the trials aren’t exactly over but that’s for another story.
The Royal Enfield across Northeast India
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