India’s a lot of things but high on the list of legend is how difficult riding here can be. Animals, people, parked trucks, suicidal drivers, no rules, and constant obstacles in the road made riding here a challenge but it was not as bad as we had feared. It helped that we were skirting the heartland of the sub-continent and our transit kept us mostly on roads that were no better or worse than what we had found in Nepal. We crossed northeast India and found many roads to be relatively tame and not unusually dangerous. Of course anytime we came to a town, village, or crossroads total concentration was required.
We were not traveling in a part of India that foreign tourists frequent and we quickly grew used to being stared at everywhere we went. Hotels were sometimes hard to find and we stuck to a diet of whatever the locals were eating, mostly vegetarian. Neither of us got sick. Once their curiosity subsides we found most Indians to be very friendly and generous. This doesn’t count the gas station attendant that hosed gasoline all over Shannon just to round out the pump register or the hotel manager that agreed to a price when we checked in only to try and raise the rate while we slept. But, of the hundreds of people we came in contact with these are the only two negative instances I can think of.
Our arrival in India came at a tough time. The government had just taken all 500 and 1,000 Rupee notes out of circulation and no one could get their hands on enough cash to live. Long lines at most ATMs and a daily withdraw limit of US$40 made things painful indeed. We changed money only twice and never tried the ATMs. Instead we dipped into our emergency stash of US currency and did black market exchanges at a bad rate. At least we didn’t have to line up for two hours every day at an ATM. The Indians we met were all having a hard time getting on with daily affairs. On Facebook we read of other overlanders unable to buy fuel, food, or pay their hotel bills because they couldn’t pull enough money from their bank accounts each day to cover costs.
Our first stop in India was West Bengal and the town of Kalimpong (very close to Darjeeling). We were still in the Himalayas, most people spoke Nepalese, and Buddhism was the dominant religion. It was not the India you imagine but an exciting and different version all together. Local biker Rishi and his wife Himali, took us in and we stayed for a few days with them on a sprawling property covered in forest and terraced fields. Rishi took us to explore Kalimpong and we ended our day petting dogs at a local animal sanctuary. Lovely people and lovely town.
Leaving West Bengal we crossed the state of Assam and eventually entered into Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh is high mountain country, sparsely populated, and requires special permission from the Indian government to visit. We secured our permits then rode into an unexpected wilderness that for all intents and purposes was Bhutan. The nights were bitter cold and we saw little traffic on the twisty, mountain roads. At times we went over snow-covered passes, the road frozen solid in the shadows. This region is contested territory with China so military checkpoints were common. Most of the traffic we did encounter was military vehicles of one type or another. Arunachal Pradesh was the most intimate and adventurous riding we have had in the Himalayan Mountains and should not be missed if you are ever visiting this part of the world.
The time came that we had to get to the Myanmar border to meet our group. We were putting along one morning and came to a crossroads where we needed to turn right. Halfway through the turn Shannon’s bike stopped running for no reason, it refused to start. Within ten minutes a crowed had gathered, pressing in closer and closer, it was no place to troubleshoot a broken bike. I set out on foot and found a forest service compound that let us wheel the bikes into the yard. We ended up sleeping at a nearby hotel, as Shannon’s bike still wouldn’t start after an afternoon of fruitless effort. The following morning at the hotel I began my day by swapping batteries between the bikes, suddenly both bikes were running fine. I hadn’t fixed anything so I had a bad feeling about setting out again. Whatever problem Zippy had was now only hiding, not gone. But, we had no choice, we had to make our rendezvous at the Myanmar border or the group would leave without us and we would be stranded in India having to start the Myanmar/Thai permit process all over again. This could have easily taken a few weeks or more to sort out.
Zippy ran flawlessly for our remaining time in India. We had to push to make up lost time so we arrived at the frontier well after dark and exhausted. Our last day in India we were rode through the state of Manipur. At the state line we encountered mile after mile of cargo trucks lined up on the road going nowhere. Little did we know Manipur has an insurgent problem and is at war with the Indian government. Currently there is an embargo so no goods or fuel can get in and commerce has slowed. We were forced to buy black market gasoline out of plastic bottles along the roadside. Dubious quality and overpriced, the fuel was essential to make the border. Our final forty miles was in the dark on a twisty mountain road. We passed about a hundred armed soldiers walking the road in complete darkness with guns at the ready. They only turned on flashlights to illuminate our faces and check out our license plates. We later discovered insurgents in this district had killed four government officials earlier in the day and the whole area was on a high alert. We were lucky the frontier wasn’t closed entirely. Although, come to think of it, maybe it was. We came to a barrier across the road about five miles from our destination. It was at a military installation but no one was around. After waiting for a few minutes with engines running still no one appeared. In desperation I started honking my horn. Eventually an off-duty soldier came with a puzzled look on his face and I pointed at the barrier and gestured that we must pass. I have no idea if he was authorized to do so but the soldier lifted the barrier just enough to let us slide through and we sped off into the night before he had second thoughts.
We made it to the border and connected with the other motorcyclists we would be traveling through Myanmar with. We were tired but relieved we made it and were not going to be stuck in India with a broken bike and a mountain of hassle.