The Tigers are on a voyage to the international borders of North East India. Last month we brought you Bhutan and Bangladesh. This month we head to China and Myanmar…
I half expected John Rambo to amble out of the thick forest and walk towards Anuj and I in that typical swagger of his. I guess he would have drawled “….and why are you walking when you’re dressed in motorcycling gear?” Well, he didn’t appear, and I guess it’s a good thing. It is 2015 after all, and I didn’t want to see an ageing Rambo!
The second part of our tour on this duo of Tigers through the North East is taking us to the borders of Myanmar and China. The ride is expectantly amazing – better than the first leg even, and I wished for the tour to continue far longer than it did. We had gotten so used to our two Tigers that we suffered from severe depression when the tour ended.
The rain had put paid to our attempt to ride to the Chinese border at Nathu La, in Sikkim, and so we decided to ride to Bumla in Arunachal Pradesh instead. Bumla borders China, but isn’t a border trading post like Nathu La. Nevertheless, it is a border all the same.
The ride to Bumla is a rough one, via Sela Pass and Tawang – but I wasn’t complaining. We started out from Guwahati and rode on extremely good tarmac till Bhalukpong, which is the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The road was so good, in fact, that it tempted me to open the throttle wide – and that’s exactly what I did! The Tiger XCX just loves to be revved. Open the throttle a wee bit, and the Tiger takes wings – but it stays as steady as a rock.
As soon as we crossed the police check post where we had to produce our Inner Line Permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh, the topography changed drastically. The road narrowed as it snaked its way through the mountain. Alpine forest covers the mountains on one side, while the other side overlooks the roaring river below.
Usually, I take two days to ride from Tawang from Bhalukpong, and I stop either at Bomdila or Dirang. The road is being re-laid along the entire 300-kilometre stretch, so the dust and the under-construction road take their toll on the rider – and the bike. But, then, we were on the Tigers – and the long suspension travel made the road seem much better than it really is. The XCX is better suited for this kind of road surface, and I could see Anuj turn green with envy as I stood on the foot-pegs and glided past him on the really bad sections.
The sun was already behind the mountains when we crossed Dirang, which meant that we had to ride the last 145 kilometres in darkness. And crossing the 14,000-foot Sela Pass at night was certainly not a good idea. It was bitterly cold and completely fogged out. As we descended from the top, we found a shop near the Sela Lake that sells tea, thukpa and petrol in mineral water bottles. We looked pathetic, as we tried to control the involuntary shivers that jerked our bodies every few seconds. There was a fire going inside the cabin, but I resisted the strong temptation to sit by it. Getting away from the life-giving warmth of the fire would have been impossible, and so we stood under a shed, cupped the hot steel tea mugs in our hands and put on a brave face. We reached Tawang at about 9.30 at night. Foolish thing to do!
Riding through to Tawang was Anuj’s idea, and had I been riding any other bike I wouldn’t even have considered the idea. The power and the suspension of the Tiger made life much easier for us. On the really bad roads, however, the Traction Control kicks in frequently and this irritated me initially. When I wanted to speed up an incline, the traction control slowed me down. But when I turned TC off, the corners with loose gravel suddenly became at me a lot faster and I had a tougher time controlling the bike. So I turned the TC right back on, and realized that it’s a life-saver that really does ensure you don’t skid out.
Eventually we made it to Tawang without incident. It’s said that the 400-year-old Tawang Monastery is the second largest monastery after the Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet. A senior monk informed us that the Potala Palace and the Tawang Monastery were built at the same time. The initial structure was the main temple, and they kept on adding rooms over the years. And, from a distance, the bright yellow roofs of the monastery certainly look striking.
When the present Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, after the Chinese invasion, he came to the Tawang monastery along with his followers before moving on to Dharamshala.
To go to Bumla, we needed a permit from the DC’s office – a process that takes a day. The road to Bumla is so bad that SUV’s are the only types of vehicle that ply this stretch. The distance is only 45 kilometres, but the taxis charge 6,000 Rupees for a round trip.
Although the views were fantastic all along the route, the border was a disappointment. We could see the Chinese outposts only through a pair of binoculars, and I certainly didn’t like that. I like to meet people, shake hands, and say hello – and, well, I couldn’t do any of that through a pair of binoculars.
Coming down from Bumla was tough. The loose rocks made the front wheel wobbly even low speeds, and the bike’s weight became apparent. But the long suspension travel, 11-inches or so, meant that even if I hit a big rock the bike would still hold its line.
The high altitude lakes beyond Tawang are fantastic. The reflection of the clear blue sky on the crystal clean water is awe-inspiring. We stopped at the Penga Teng Tso lake on our way back from Bumla. They’ve built a footpath across the lake, and this has made things easier for people who circle the lake for religious reasons. I find these lakes, with very few souls around, extremely peaceful.
As in all other Buddhist places, there are colourful prayer flags all over. But I wonder how they tie these flags to the tall branchless trees.
Three days at Tawang, and it was time to go. I called the shots this time and we did the return trip in two days – which is the civilised thing to do! On the second day, we rode from Bomdila to Kaziranga.
The last border on our list was the Myanmar border. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur all share borders with Myanmar. The border at Manipur is the most important and busiest with a proper Immigration check post at Moreh. All overland travellers from Myanmar enter India through this border.
Moreh is about 180 kilometres from Kohima, in Nagaland, but we planned to halt at Imphal and do a day-tour of the Moreh border.
As we started from Kohima, the first town we hit in Manipur was Mao. As luck would have it, the student body at Mao was staging a protest. I didn’t want to get caught in the middle of it, and so took the advice of a man who said that we could bypass the student agitation. But that would mean that we would have to pretty much ride through a mountain river. Well, it sounded interesting – so we decided that it was worth a try.
We entered Nagaland again, and, a few kilometres later, we entered the river. Fortunately, the water wasn’t too high – although it was flowing pretty swiftly. The rocks weren’t too big though, and the shallow water allowed us to travel at a decent clip. A group of villagers were collecting water for cooking, and they said that the road wasn’t far – but they didn’t let me leave without letting me know that they would now have to wait for clean water since our motorcycles had dirtied the stream. I apologised, and rode on. But there was some kind of a divine punishment waiting for me further ahead! As I rode further upstream on a seemingly flat riverbed, it just gave way.
I went hip-deep into the river, but tilted the bike on the left side to prevent the water from getting into the exhaust. Anuj helped me steady the bike, and I slowly rode out of the hole. For a moment I thought that it may be time to call the Triumph service guys. But I guess the XCX is made for this type of terrain. It’ll get unstuck from most places, as long as you know your limits. The side opening panniers aren’t waterproof though, so the water destroyed a precious book. Top opening panniers would have been better.
Luck didn’t favour us in Manipur either. After we hit the highway again, we learned that there was a 48-hour strike at Moreh. So we did a U-turn and fell back on plan B.
Arunachal Pradesh has an interesting border with Myanmar on the Pangsu Pass, with access to the Stillwell Road. This historic, war-era road was built by General Stillwell so that the Allied army could better fight the Japanese army in Burma and China. The road starts at Ledo, in Assam, passes through Jairampur, in Arunachal Pradesh, crosses the Pangsu Pass into Myanmar, and ends at Kuming in western China.
We rode for two days from Kohima to get into Ledo, and onto the Stillwell Road. It’s a very well laid out road right up to Pangsu Pass, but I wish the administration would put up some signboards along the way – something that tells the traveller that he’s travelling on a historical road.
Jairampur is a small border town between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. There are very few places to stay, and we were lucky that we could find a room at a Government Inspection Bungalow.
As we sat on the courtyard at night, a man joined us and got talking. He turned out to be the caretaker of the War Cemetery that holds the remains of about 2,000 Chinese army personal. These Chinese soldiers were part of the workforce that built the Stillwell Road. A large number of these soldiers died due to exhaustion, malaria, and other sicknesses they picked up in the inhospitable jungles and hills in the area. Until recently, the cemetery had been badly neglected. The jungle had ravaged the graves, and the place had become a hangout for the drunks and other antisocial elements. Many of the graves even had the inverted rifle and helmet homage, but all that’s missing now. The caretaker, Mr Deora, who is employed with the Forest Department, is doing a great job of restoring the graves – and the cemetery has started attracting visitors as a result. Workers were still clearing the jungles as Deora showed us around.
We needed a special permit from the SDO of Nampong to visit Pangsu Pass and the Lake of No Return. From Nampong to Pangsu Pass is hardly 10 kilometres, but we were stopped and asked questions by the Assam Rifles – India’s oldest paramilitary force – at least five times. The usual entry dates for traders into Myanmar are the 10th, 20th and 30th of every month, and we weren’t on the road on any of those dates. And we certainly didn’t look like traders!
The Assam Rifle men finally let us proceed, but they asked us to park our bikes where the tarmac ends. That’s where Myanmar starts!
We walked for a few kilometres inside Myanmar, and didn’t meet a soul. Suddenly, a man appeared out of the jungle with some wood in his hands – and he stopped dead in his tracks on seeing us – language was a problem, and we didn’t understand anything. He must have realised that it was useless trying to talk to us, and so he just handed me a local cigarette and disappeared down the hill.
There are no roads to speak of, and the path we were walking on was muddy and slippery. Moreover, walking in motocross boots isn’t the easiest thing to do – but we had no choice. The jungle cleared a bit, and there was a check-post. A young soldier adjusted his cap as he saw us approach. Of course, the language problem reared its head again – and so he took us to his officer. One soldier spoke a smattering of Assamese, and I communicated with him.
They let us go till the Lake of No Return, but we had to get out of the country before sundown.
The Lake of No Return has some fascinating stories. They say that, when the allied aircrafts took belly fire from the Japanese, many of them dived into the lake in the hope that the lake offered a better chance of survival than crashing into the thick jungle.
I wish I could have communicated with the locals. The lake is sure to have remains of some planes, and it would have been great if we were allowed to search for them.
The thought of walking back 5 kilometres in the dark, on a muddy broken road, through the jungle and without a soul in sight didn’t seem very appealing. So, somehow, I managed to make two young guys understand that we wanted to be dropped at the Indian border. They had 125cc Chinese bikes and rode like mad men. I almost jumped off the bike when my rider headed straight for an old 10-wheeled Russian logging truck. But then I realised that, in Myanmar, cars drive on the right side of the road.
I desperately want to ride the entire Stillwell Road and visit the Lake of No Return again. Well, I suppose if you want something badly enough you’ll find a way to Triumph one way of the other… sooner rather than later I hope!