Freedom by foot

On the 9th of September 2011 we set out from England to the continent by ferry to begin our adventure in earnest. By foot we will make our way to the first destination, which is Milan, from there we will be flying over to Bangalore for an archaeological conference (as you do) and an escape from the harsh European winter.

At any and all points in our little wander we will be on the look out for interesting and exciting places and people to learn from. Our journey begins with a zeal for experiencing ancient and traditional life & new innovative ways of living for the future.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Shudders & Shits

Seems we have both
seen better days

It has not happened often, but on this occasion neither of us have much else to write about, except to unravel the last few days' events, which mainly concern Amiee's bodily functions. Sorry.

Arriving in Kolkata early morn, we bumped into a fellow traveller, Tim, who we had shared breakfast with in Yuksom a week or so previous. Happy to see a friendly face and to share the taxi ride, we headed to the main tourist hub of 'Kal'. This was a strange and bewildering thing for us, having spent the last few months feeling almost completely unaware of tourists. Anyhow arriving we said goodbye to Tim and almost instantly set eyes upon Stuart lane, we headed down and found 'Modern Lodge'. Thanks Rob for the recommendation, full of a rustic urban character, the guest house offers small colourful rooms (ours was a newly bright gloss pink - actually fairly intoxicating) which we heard are often packed full of overseas volunteers. Feeling bad for having woke up the staff, we sneaked out to seek breakfast. We turned onto Sudder street, known to any tourist or backpacker who sets foot in the city. The place has character, some charm, a lot of Indian spirit and we did find a fantastic little place to eat Muesli and real Coffee (bonus of backpacker hot spot) however much of it was pretty grim. There are many families living, washing, breathing, eating and shitting on the streets, most of whom believe that any non-Indian has 'The State Bank of India' tattooed on their forehead, wandering around as a mobile ATM. I think Shudder Street is the more appropriate name (again Rob, credit where its due).

Setting forth, with an aim to see as much of Kolkata as is humanly possible in a single day, we took advice from the guy who made us the coffee and headed straight to the Kalighat temple. After being swindled by a priest, Amiee having a anti-religious rant and learning that they sacrificed two goats a-day, we headed to our next destination.... Ummmm... Uhhh.... To the....

Unsure of what to do next, we did what we always do in time of need; wander towards the biggest grandest building in view. Refusing to pay a trivial amount of ruppees to go into Queen Vicky's Memorial, we decided to head to another bastion of colonialism- Fort William. Hidden from view and apparently now occupied by the India Army, we were turned away and left at a loss. Checking our faithful guidebook, we discovered an arty-farty (perfect for both parties) area of Kolkata- so off we trundled again.

Unsucessful once more, we ended up lost in a myriad of Islamic Bazaars during a religious/politic/health-awareness/education rally. Blow up palm trees and loud speakers blaring out Arabic distracted us for some time, but eventually we were gravitationally pulled toward yet more hints of our nation's past-presence, the 18th century Park Street Cemetery. This was a place of peace among the hectic noise, chaos and confusion of the streets surrounding it, an island of green in the tarmac, concrete seas of the city. We settled ourselves by the grand tombs, aptly audio-ed by the cities crows and decided our next plan of action. Luncheon, a visit to New Market, then an evening at Kolkata's fine Planetarium.

This time round, everything went according to our scheme. New Market was a hustling, multi-layered labyrinth of backpacker bullshit clothing (Amiee's terminology), dodgy jewllery, pestering hustlers and more sari shops than I think is really necessary.

After a bewildering few hours lost within the multitudes of merchants, the moon began to rise and it was time for us to become lost within the limitlessness of the stars. For just under 50pence a pop, I believe Kolkata's Planetarium to be the finest, best-valued and most worthwhile experience in the whole city. It was a jolly good affair, led by an exceptionally fierce elderly female astronomer who appeared in the pitch-dark auditorium and demanded that everyone turn off their mobile phones (the most blessed moment in modern Indian academia)! The following hour within the huge domed hall was informative, inspiring and refreshingly retro (with the talk being accompanied by exceptionally grainy images from a slide projector). Two-thirds through the presentation some fool from the audience made the mistake of turning on his phone (as if to test her initial warning)- we were pretty sure he was close to following the same fate as a temple goat.

After this, feeling in a pleasant wonder of our universe, we strolled hotel-wards and spent the remaining part of the evening traversing the alleys, backalleys, lanes and little roads around Shudder Street followed by a splendid meal in a nearby restaurant, owned by an exceptionally charming and well turbaned Sikh gentleman. We then descended on the hotel and crashed out, content with our visit to this metropolitan mayhem of modern India.

An almost entire good nights sleep flew by until Amiee ran out, battling with the stiff door and returned some 30 minutes later exhausted and distraught. Sometime big cities do no good at all for the body, though it turns out we did have a fair bit to say in the end beyond the fate of poor Lawn's bottom.

I'll take over here thanks Cox:

My night, dawn and early morn continued with regular and unpleasant visits to the loo. Whilst in a hotel I can just about manage this, just let it pass. However we had a train to catch, bugga! Thankfully I happened to have the right man on board. Marc packed the bags, went and fetched loo roll, baby wipes and got me dressed and dragged me out into the hot streets where we fell into a taxi. Kalcutta, Hoara station was probably the last place on earth I would have wanted anyone to be whilst feeling what I felt at present. My head was spinning, sight was bleering and stomach cramping. Of course our train was on platform 21, the furthest away any train could possibly be from me at that point! Marc pulled me through crowds and assuringly marched us up the long train until we reached our carridge. We boarded, I flopped and though I had some pretty sorry experiences whilst on board, I was also relieved. Everyone who shared our section of the train was great, they noted my sickness and even made me bottles of Saline, which I do believe saved me.

Now, after 29 hours and 2,175km we are sat in NIAS, Bangalore, where yes, we first began this whole Indian venture. I am feeling much recovered, surprisingly and we are both fed and watered. Only now we wait for Smriti & Subo to arrive from Chennai before we go and crash at theirs for a day or so. Then heading yet further south/west to Managlore where we hope to meet our dearest of friends, Genevieve. - On board the Duronto Express

Friday, 3 February 2012

Chang & Cheese

We drove (uneventfully) through the clouds, ever upward to the urban sprawl, clinging 2000m above sea level to the mountainside. After some disorientation we located a pleasant (and blooming cheap - 24 hours of hot water!) hotel in the centre of the action, dumped our bags and went for an explore. Gangtok is not India. It is clean and organised, there are whole pedestrian areas, litter bins that are used, foot bridges over busy roads and tons of benches for people to just sit down. Trivial as these things may seem from a western perspective, in India it is a lung full of peaceful fresh air.

The next couple of days were spent lost in the bustling bazaars and tidy streets, munching marvelous momos and rummaging through the shops for warm woolly things in preparation for the week ahead. We experienced Gangtok's technological wonder, the rope-way and its cultural heart, the Institute of Tibetology. Mainly though, we were happy chomping delicious cuisine (including Dachi - yak cheese stew! wahhh!) and gazing at the plethora of prayer flags fluttering in the gentle winter breeze. We also had the incredibly amusing activity of sterilising Amiee's Mooncup in the communal hotel kitchen! The puzzled males faces will never leave us! one even asking "is it a nipple?".

With tickets in hand we hopped aboard a shared jeep to Pelling, the centre of West Sikkim. Our company on the road included a lovely couple (Juan-Chilean and Fanny-French) whom we had bumped into previously. Upon reaching our destination (no mountains in view yet! blooming clouds!) the four of us teamed up and piled into the nearest hotel. Ditching our baggage we strolled away the afternoon by visiting the peaceful Pemayangtse monastery and the highly uninspiring 'archaeological ruins' (though the woodland walk was pleasant enough). As darkness descended, we crowded round the open-fire, chatted and gobbled fried cheese momos (a crackin' discovery!) to our hearts' content. Cheesed up, we hit the town in search of the legendary Chang. We bounced around, until we stumbled into a sweet little guesthouse and led to the lower-levelled kitchen. Here, a spunky Sikkimese lady set four large metal tumblers full of the magical fermented millet-grain upon the low table. She filled our cups with hot water and jabbed straws into the concoctions. We supped the night away, until we felt sufficiently chang-ged.

Map in hand, the four of us headed north to the holy Buddhist, Kechopari Lake/ Pond (which is apparently shaped like His Holliness' foot). It was mildly interesting, but the show was stolen by the incredible mountainous surroundings and the gorgeous wooden guest house we discovered- the tall white prayer flags merely added to the majesty and tranquility of the place. Settled for the next few days, we explored the deep river valleys and learnt Chillean cards. Trekking on up (4hrs), we moved base to Yuksom. This frontier town is the final stopping point for budding mountaineers before heading into the wilds and the true heights of the Himalayas. We spent one night here, eager to carry on walking, though sadly due to the harshes of winter, walking north up to the trekking trails wasn't an option. Our splendid company parted ways, and the following morning we explored Dubdi monastery and later set off for Tsong, in the new company of Rob (a lone travelling Englishman).
He joined us to the village, but set off back to Yuksom, leaving us for our first night in Tara's Homestay. The said Tara, is a warm, spirited Nepali with a fiery inner strength. We shared her home, food and family for a total of four days. She taught us the art of momo manufacture and the joys of rural life, perched upon the side of a mountain. During the time here, the clouds lifted to unveil the glorious fresh winter sun and snow covered mountain peaks of the Kanchenjunga Range some forty kilometers to the north (Kachenjunga itself measures up at 8,586m- the worlds third highest). Keen to stay, but aware of more sights to see, we wandered onwards to Tashiding, the last stop on our West Sikkim jolly. The walk was wonderful, but knackering. We stopped halfway at Hongri Monastery (the most dilapidated, but most beautiful yet) to catch our breath, reaching Tashiding at lunchtime. A peaceful small town, with astonishing panoramic views.

We are now back in Gangtok, enjoying the newly revealed mountain views and glorious blue skies. Our time is being spent exploring the surrounding area, including Rumtek Monastery to the west. Our journey down the winding steep road from the monastery was wonderfully joyous. We shared a taxi with 3 monks, a family of three and an elderly lady. Marc squashed somewhere below me and a monk on top. We laughed as Shaggy's greatest hits boomed out of the sound system of the tiny Suzuki Maruti. For anyone familiar with Shaggys lyrics, you may imagine how amusing they are when one is in the compact company of group of Buddhist monks. Visiting Enchy Monastery offered a more peaceful experience and at a walkable distance, laying to the north of the city.

Our last night in Gangtok offered us another cup of Chang hidden in the back alleys of Lal Bazaar with Buddha our hotel manager and Mike, a unforgettable character from Oregon, Us.  

Now we prepare for our epic 3 day descent back into Southern India.

Our next Journey to come - - Our journey in Sikkim

Terracotta & Genuine Terror!

More of the magic of Manju (Wild Grass) leads us into the hands of Deepak. Kind, friendly and full of information, Deepak made our short time in Guwahati much more relaxing than the previous. We stayed in the 'transit flat' Manju uses for his Wild Grass clients and luckily caught his son Man just as he was leaving fo the airport for the grueling journey to Oxford (where we promised to meet up in the coming May). What a jolly splendid chap he is.
The next day, with the help of our Guwahati-ian guide, we set off early to visit our last destination in Assam and the Seven Sister States of the North East; a village of potters near the town of Dhubri on the Assamese-West Bengal border.
After a long bus ride (but with a smashing puri and sabji breakfast stop) we were collected at a stop just before Dhubri, by Krishna; a potter who had previously worked with Manju at Kaziranga. We dived into an auto and headed across a dubious bridge towards the village. Krishna dutifully showed us his ID card, as he didn't speak much English, it was kind of him to reassure us we were taken off the bus by the right bloke. Asharikandi, the Terracotta Village, came quickly into view. We were welcomed into Mr Krishna's home for some chai and snacks (including a whole pack of butter for Marc- what a champ!), then whisked off for a tour of the village. Mr Paul, his son and uncle were awaiting our arrival at one of the government funded show rooms / stock rooms. Having not embarked on one of our research ventures for a while, we had forgotten how generous and accommodating people are when you wish to learn about their culture, craft and way of life. This hamlet was a hub of terracotta activity, with somewhere in the region of one hundred and thirty seven families and well over five hundred artisans. Our enthusiastic entourage took us for a spontaneous tour of the place, which is where we really grasped the scale of the industry. Every other house had a vast array of pots drying in the Assamese sun; some made flower pots, huge rice containers (Amiee's favourite), mold-cast/hand built statues and others made huge ceramic rings used for either wells or bogs. The kilns were beyond our expectations, almost every family had erected a tall structure sheltering a hollow-centred construction. In design, these were not unlike the kilns on Majuli island some 600km to the east (confirming some previous hypothesis concerning trade along the mighty Brahmaputra).
We saw a multitude of kilns in various phases of their firing. Including big piles of pots covered in straw and mud, ready for the main pyrotechnical event. We finished our wander as dusk was falling on the dusty streets of Ashrikandi.
We were set to catch the 10pm bus (overnight) towards Sikkim, however, the bus was full and the next day turned out to be a government bund (strike). We felt this was in our favour. We stayed with the Paul family, were given our own room and fed some wonderful home-cooked cuisine (You star Mrs Paul!). Of course, we slept deeply on our full tummies and awoke about 5am the next morning to the sound of small children and families starting their day. We had a slow, but peaceful morning with breakfast at a neighbour's home and the 'expected' tour around the village school. In the afternoon we whizzed off on the back of a pair of motorbikes to local temples (where we had a mixture of experiences).
The first temple was spread out over the top of a hill, looking over the gentle, forested valleys below. The main deity was Kali- to Marc's horror the sacrifice of goats occurred every Thursday and Saturday, without fail, upon a wooden sacrificial altar whilst an enormous goat-skin drum was beaten to honor the occasion. Luckily it was a Tuesday. We received puja from a couple of the priests and walked down the path leading out of the complex, laden with temple-tack. We turned our heads in amusements as some young boys threw fruits into the trees for the monkeys to catch.
Zooming off again, Marc on the back of Krishna's brother's bike and Amiee with Debdas we arrived at our next temple; a theme park for Hindus. Each shrine was a molded cement creature, some reaching 30m high. These modern, yet colourful monstrosities housed a delightful surprise to visiting worshipers. Temples, tunnels and incense-filled caverns lay within the internal voids of this maze. Cement monkeys, doves and a menagerie of beasts stood sentinel beside their living counterparts trying to steal their next meal. It was all a bit surreal.
On our return to the terracotta town, Debdas had one more local sight for us to behold. The en-caged 20m statue of Kali stood watchfully over the main road in the company of a herd of red collared temple goats (blissfully unaware of the fate to come- ignorance is bliss!). The statue itself had several swarms of wild honey-bees colonising the dark shadows, lending a splendid buzzing beard, breast and bicep.
On our return, we took a final walk through the village and observed the busy pot makers hard at work, even as darkness fell. We sat quietly around the fire within the courtyard and enjoyed our last evening in Assam.

If we had known the journey that lay ahead of us the following day, we may of just stayed tucked up in bed. As any early start, it began with good intent. We waited around the village for an auto-rickshaw, which seemed unnecessarily confusing. One, conveniently, appeared and took us to the bus stop out on the main road. After lots more confusing discussions between groups of men (all with alarmingly strange features) we were finally told there was another bund (strike) that day. Bugger. Our only option was to persuade the auto driver that brought us from the village, to take us and a few other stragglers to the border of West Bengal where we could carry on our journey. The next 35km in a doorless rickshaw was painfully cold, numbing and cramped. An hour later, agitated and stiff, we got in a shared jeep with a record breaking 24 people and 2 vomiting children. Another less than satisfying journey. We were both thrilled to reach the town where we could catch the bus to Siliguri, boarding it with ease we sat back and relaxed for the last leg. How wrong we were. Seven more hours of bus-terror unfolded. The driver certainly seemed like he wanted us all dead, as he pursued to overtake everything on the road regardless of the oncoming vehicles. The absolute gem of the journey (after Marc nearly being left behind while taking a whizz) occurred whilst stuck in traffic, due to a lorry blocking a small bridge- undeterred, the driver swung off the road and plummeted into the river and chugged up the bank on the other side. Hurrah for his initiative, but never should a bus be at that angle.
Our white-knuckle ride finally ended in Siliguri, were we struck luck. We quickly found a cheap, suitable hotel and hot food to fill our empty tumtums. We got our permits for Sikkim and set off for Gangtok at 0730 the next day.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Jungle Japes & Mountain Musings

Having just arrived in Guwahati, I have to say my thoughts are currently set on our last few days in the jungle valleys of southern Meghalaya. I should however momentarily resist and talk about our more lively experiences of  the states capital, Shillong. With expectations of a beautiful clean and quiet town, surrounded by tea estates and gentle hills, Shillong certainly came at us from a different angle.

The city surprised us, but even with a 20hour bus ride and a petty theft behind us that morning, we embraced the life of the streets that filled our lungs with excitement. For the first time in yonks we were able to have a hot shower, relax and change into clean clothes in the peace and quiet of a hotel room. We feasted on breakfast in our room, but quickly withheld all temptations to sleep, preferring to head out to explore the bustling markets and hidden back alleys.

Over a period of two days we walked and talked ourselves through the city until it felt like home. We reclined with real coffee, gorged on tasty street foods (momos, puri, stews, curries...), got lost amongst Burmese exports, took a early morning wander through the frosty golf course, gambled on the archery stakes (a mad event where a large group of Khasi men fire thousands of arrows at a tiny bamboo target), drank beer in the darkest tavern (where Amiee caught the eye of the local mute), perused the fascinating butterfly museum (which filled the basement of a local lady's home) and plotted the week ahead with gallons of tea and iced buns.

We followed our guide book's instructions and tentatively booked ourselves on the Government of Meghalaya Tourism Department's organised bus tour. A first for us both. The next morning, we rose early, grabbed some puri, sabji and tea, then clambered aboard the little bus out of the city. From dawn till dusk this  journey took us to some of the prettiest and amusing sights of the area, but for a mere 2 quid we both felt we had got ourselves a bargain. It gave us a taste of the Khasi hills, urging us to get out and explore on our own.
Sights included:
Numerous 'seasonal' (dry) waterfalls.
The World's 4th highest (foggiest) waterfall.
Ecopark (an enclosed portion of the beautiful plateau-edge, strewn with 'eco' concrete paths, bridges and pagodas...)
A cave (great for Indian Health & Safety and for watching women in sarees crawling through dark holes).
A picnic spot (with awesome onsite party-bus, more concrete and not much else).
A gurt breast shaped rock.
A tiny, cold anthropological museum (in a vast Hindu Mission centre).
An intimate experience of Shillong's congestion problems.

With no sarcasm what-so-ever, we thoroughly enjoyed this little excursion!

The following day, eager for adventure, we jumped in a shared Sumo Jeep to Cherrapunjee (or Sohra, if you're local), then onto Laitkkensew and rented ourselves a bed-filled tent in Cherra Resort. That afternoon we strolled down the few thousand steps to gaze upon our first, fabled Meghalayan root bridge. These bioengineering wonders spew out of the foliage, with one rubber tree on either side of the expanse; their roots trained over generations to form extremely strong, stable and uniquely beautiful bridges, allowing the locals to cross the monsoon-induced torrents. It was definitely worth the trek (especially after discovering a slag heap right next door too!).
As we sat basking in the jungle atmosphere we heard a 'wahhhoooop' come from the bushes somewhere close by. Thinking it was a monkey, Amiee replied. Moments later a small, friendly faced man appeared, and explained these were the calls of the local people, so they can communicate through the thicket of the jungle.  Happy however that we were on the other end of his call, he sat with us by the bridge and we chatted for a while. He then pointed us in the direction of a natural geological phenomena, intrigued, we followed the path and the clever stilted bamboo irrigation systems and found it. A neatly formed arch way that came conveniently out of the hillside. Rewarding our find with a piece of dark chocolate, we decided to call it a day.
Well almost, we did have the few thousand steps to retrace first! At the top we bumped into a tall friendly Dutchman named Rick, who became our jolly companion for the next day's adventure.

The three of us headed out the next morn and descended into the humid depths of the forested valley, aided by a convenient and exhilarating ride atop a passing taxi, which kindly took us the first 5km to the start of the path (a pretty interesting video was made of this event...i'm sure it will find its way here someday...).
The path meandered past a packed church (the last vestige of 'civilisation' for the day) then down, down, down. Beautiful butterflies, gorgeous greenery and all manner of scrumptious sights, smells and sounds cascaded into our senses as we traversed dodgy wire-rope bridges, scrambled over behemoth-boulders and became entranced by the stunning root bridges nestled in the lush valleys.
It was almost too Peter Pan-esque to believe.

The climax to the day was the unique 'double-decker', situated adjacent to the forest-village of Nongriat. An incredible testament to these people's natural-mechanics.
We left Rick at this point (after gulping down some tasty noodles), he had to return to the resort before sunset- poor bugger!! I hope you made it!!
We trundled off to the 'swimming pools'- which on reflection turned out to be the real gem of the day. It involved tackling some incredibly sketchy wire bridges, a couple of the rooty variety and even bigger rocks!
We settled by the side of a pool, the colour of which easily rivaled a bounty advert, and naturally, stripped off and dived in. It was bloody cold. But unbelievable.
We spent the night in the local rest house and dined on yummy local cuisine (including banana flowers!). Unable to drag ourselves away- we stayed an extra day. This time, we followed some local advice and found some new pools to swim in. These were even more mind blowing.
The day was spent adventuring amongst the rocks- in caves and waterfalls, wallowing in the water, bathing in the sun and reading Roald Dahl's sinister short stories to one another. One more night was spent by the fire before we packed up and faced the four hour vertical ascent back to Cherrapunjee, the perfect time to reminisce on our past wanderings back in Europe (and a reminder to our bodies how fecking difficult it is!). As we neared the top, we were rewarded with a magnificent view of that alleged fourth highest waterfall (denied previously). We grabbed a shared taxi back to the bright lights.
One more night in Shillong was spent, before cracking on to our old haunt: Assam.


Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Explorin' the Eastern Edge

A birds eye view

We jumped on board the train back across the border at the beginning of the new year and re-entered Nagaland. We landed in Dimapur our first port of call, being met on the station by Amir and his fine lady- our guardians whilst here in town. A quick police check and we left in Amir's car to his home in downtown Dimapur.
The residential compound was inhabited by three sisters and their extended families (particularly now, so close to Christmas)- our host was the middle one, Oreno (Amir's Auntie). We got in contact with her through a friend we met at Kaziranga some weeks earlier, her husband John Edwards. She was a small, feisty and utterly delightful lady. We instantly fell in love with her humour and honesty.

The atmosphere in the house was bustling with family festive fun and we were integrated warmly- the evenings were spent, en-masse, round the bonfire in the garden munchin' veggie burgers (well, only us), chips and guzzlin' fosters beer. Amir showed us the town, particularly the dingy nightclubs and second world war relics.
It was a strange, but welcomed experience being surrounded by Western dressed young-adults, speaking fluent English with an international array of workplaces and homes (ranging from Malaysia, Singapore, Delhi...)... oh and the presence of a whole block of English Cheddar.

Whilst residing in the commerce hub of Nagaland, we attempted to arrange an excursion to a town some 60km away called Wokha. Earlier in the trip (in Guwahati) we stumbled across some interesting turned wooden bowls made by a self-help group based in the said town and we were invited by the chair-woman to visit her artisans. This turned out to be a mighty red herring- days of waiting resulted in nothing but a free Naga-style tie and some naff mock Naga jewelery. The NGO we were trying to 'infiltrate' were actually heavily involved in local politics and were far to busy raking in 'donations' to deal with us scruffy young uns.

We said our sad goodbyes to the Lotha clan, promising to keep in touch then jumped in a little van to Kohima- the capital.

The ride took us back into the familiar Naga hills, winding roads and lush green slopes. The air began to chill and we snuggled into our new woolies that we had gratefully picked up the day before. Kohima, didn't exactly feel like the capital of the state, but it instantly charmed us. The views were magical, and it had just the right amount of hustle and bustle a town should. We arrived around 3pm, found a room in a small dingy hotel with good views over the valley. We took a walk to explore our surroundings but before dusk had fallen the entire city had gone to sleep. Looks like the cities life has short opening hours~! We managed to find a small rice hotel for some incredibly grimey food and headed back for a night reading stories by torch light. The next morning greeted us with more promise and we took a fantastic long walk through the city. Our first stop was the state museum, initially dubious we were pleasantly surprised by what we found inside. The curator welcomed us and even walked with us through some of the exhibits. Each tribe in Nagaland was represented through their traditional artifacts, clothing and jewelery. Some wooden bowls caught our eyes and the failed trip to Wokha no longer mattered. These bowls were incredible, hand carved, on tall stands, made all from one piece of wood, a great example of the fine skills of the hill people. Happy with a morning well spent, but a whole day yet ahead of us, the cities winding streets beckoned us to explore. The original settlement area named Kohima Village offered us a vast area of attractive, colourful houses and magical terraced gardens nestled in between. We walked until our bellies rumbled.

Though we liked this city, we decided to avoid trying to travel on a Sunday and managed to wing ourselves free tea and some tickets on the Saturday morning packed bus to Imphal, Manipur. Through rumours and research, we heard tales of a magical pottery made only in the northern mountains of Manipur- a unique black pottery infused with serpentine stone and polished to a mirror finish. This we had to see.

Our luck struck true whilst travelling the mountain route, he came in the form of Asong. Whilst our bus was being jacked up and a tyre replaced, this fine chap, his lovely wife and tiny freedom fighting toddler (always off adventuring on his new pegs!) invited us into their home within the Manipurian capital and miraculously had a work colleague directly involved with the fabled black pottery.
The weekend was spent touring Asia's largest women's market (incredible) and museums (best avoided!) of this dirty, dusty, rainy city. Thank you Asong and Family for the warm welcome, terrific company and delicious food! Monday, we hit the road with Kingson (the village king's son...obviously) and meandered into the clouds. Enthused by our guide, we spent the four hour drive learning about the ceramics, discussing Manipur's drug problems and hearing all about the AIDS epidemic in the region. He spewed his humble wisdom with humility and truth- all spoken through the mouth of one with genuine care. This wasn't just a job to him.

Longpi (or Nungbi if you're a British cartographer), is the only place where this combination of geology and clay coincides, thus the only place where this black pottery is traditionally manufactured. We'll go into specifics at a later date... another one of our annoying cliff hangers.

After our ten hour drive on Monday (cheers Kingson!), Tuesday morning rolled round for our 10am bus to Guwahati! On the bloody road again... 18 hours.
After getting my wallet pinched at 4am in the Assamese capital, we sleepily journeyed south to Shillong and the abode of clouds, Meghalaya.        


Thursday, 29 December 2011

Mapping it out

Our adventures continue
but with the company of a powerful little cat

Whilst acting out the famous 5 (which of course includes Mieko the cat) here in Jorhat for the last week. We have enjoyed a relaxed festive season, and managed to do things that sometimes traveling makes it hard to allow time for. For instance catching up with our blog entries, diaries and notes, making sure we get down everything we’ve seen and also writing Marc’s MA funding application, for without this wonderful setting this would have proved to be much more of a challenge to complete. We took a trip to Sonipur for a couple of days to stay again at DASK in the small village Dharikathi, on the north bank. I collected the Gal (pronounced Galay) I had ordered on our last trip, which one of the ladies in the village wove on her waist loom. This is the traditional tribal skirt here, hand woven with a complex pattern all the way down the back, a real treasure to take home. Now we are back at our home from home in Jorhat and preparing for our next adventure. On the 1st January 2012 (already?????), we leave for Dimapur, to explore the other end of Nagaland. From here we are sure there will be many more adventures to tell. Until then we hope that you can bring yourselves to read all of the blogs we have just posted. A jolly good lesson to us both to try and keep it up to date. Here is a map of our travels over the last month or so. Enjoy.

Bible Bashers & Head Hunters

Praise the Lord

After a slightly more comfortable (and cheaper) ride back to Jorhat from the ghats, this time by bus, we set about exploring the city. It was, and still is, a major centre for exporting chai around India and beyond with the land surrounding the urban sprawl consisting entirely of flat expanses of paddy and immaculately manicured tea gardens.
With the finding of an STD (an abbreviation of ‘standard calls’ I’ll have you know) we manage to get hold of our acquaintances we met at Wild Grass, Puja and Dhruv. We emailed them the week before and told them we would love to take them up on their offer of a base in Jorhat to stay and relax, but were completely unsure what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised. In fact, we were more than that… We had hit the jackpot.
Dhruv came and grabbed us in his big old 4x4 and drove us to their pad on the outskirts of town- a beautiful little house. We were welcomed by a beaming Puja who showed us to our en-suite (we had a water heater and shower!!!) room (we had a double bed!!) and then shepherded us to the table for lunch.
We discussed our plans about going to Nagaland and were told theirs. Puja and Dhruv described their work with human-elephant conflict and told us they had a meeting with some affected tribal weavers near Nimiri National Park on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, would we like to come? We couldn’t say no.

After leaving relatively early, with various stops en-route (including a hilarious blagged cup of tea at a safari resort gagging for white tourists), we crossed the vast river around lunchtime and hurtled through Tezpur. The military presence grew steadily the closer we got to Arunachal Pradesh, an independently minded Indian trophy-state with a lot of international borders, which lay only 20 or so kilometers from our destination. Arriving later than anticipated, we headed straight to the meeting. In keeping with most of northeastern India the new faces we met were a real blend of Indian, South-East Asian, oriental and Mongloid. They represented a number of tribal communities living on the periphery of the National Park, including Mising, Assamese, Bodo and Gura
Our friends’ work here revolved around supporting traditional skills and marketing it to a modern audience in order to encourage alternative income aside from agriculture. This all boiled down to the people and their hungry neighbours- Nelly.

Our residence for the next few days was at a low-key, family run community centre called Dask (I never quite found out what it stood for), our room was in a modernised-take on a traditional Mising home. Bliss.
Over an extremely late lunch we discussed the elephant issue in more depth and learnt about Dhruv’s career as a tracker and elephant conservationist; specializing in this human conflict. The stories we heard were shocking and the negative impact on these poor, rural communities were multi-faceted. The elephants would come out of the park and gorge on the highly evolved, highly nutritious food source they found all around them- rice. Anything or anyone unfortunate to spook one of these goliaths during their nightly raids would feel their wrath. People were regularly killed.
As their forest home decreased, the elephants’ natural food also decreased- increasing the tendency for these giants to cross the small river to venture out and feed on the paddy fields surrounding the village. Where we were staying was right on the front lines. As night fell Dhruv said we may be (un)lucky to experience a raid, the paddy fields were metres away; we laughed nervously, half hoping, half terrified.

A gunshot echoed through the darkness. Some shouting. Then another. It all sounded uncomfortably close. Dhruv jumped up and ran to the car- we were told to stay where we were. He started the engine and began rapidly reversing out of the drive. We held our breath, peering into the empty blackness.
Some raised voices broke the silence and a figure came shambling towards us.
The ‘elephant’ didn’t look sober. The drunk bloke stumbled towards us and slurred an introduction. We all breathed out and relaxed. This was going to be an interesting night.

An hour or so passed before a new disturbance caught our attention. There was a light 100m away… and some singing! Me and Amiee jumped at the chance to experience an impromptu Mising musical session. We arrived at the edge of the small farmstead where the large group of men, women and children were gathered and a pang of recognition hit us. This tune definitely sounded familiar. They finished and started a new song. The men were playing drums and a guitar, the women singing and the children dancing- all in distinct Mising tradition. But the words betrayed their real purpose “We wish you a mewwee ch-wismas, we wish you a mewwee ch-wismas, we wish you a mewwee ch-wismas and a happy noooow yar!”
After a group prayer, the pastor introduced himself and explained they were going between the 18 christian families in the village… caroling. They excitedly offered to come to Dask and we accepted, slightly bemused.
They played a few carols translated into the local language and a few good ol’ traditional numbers. It all culminated in another group prayer and then a handshake and personal message of festive greetings by each of the thirty strong group. They disappeared into the night, their sounds drifting through the air long after we had disappeared to our rooms and collapsed. Exhausted.   

The next morning we awoke early and headed into the park for our ‘on-foot safari’, we met our guard/guide and headed down a peaceful tree lined track just as the sun was rising. We crossed the small river by canoe and headed into the park-proper. The guard instantly became alert once we entered the dense forest, his ancient bolt action rifle always at the ready. At every vegetational rustle he would swing it off his shoulder and assume position. We spooked a group of deer, watched a small group of Asian short-clawed otters playfully bounce around a stream and then bimbled back out.
We spent the evening sat around a fire listening to an elderly villager teach us the ways of building a Mising house. His voice was a subtle mix between gravel and satin, his wrinkles etched his face like glacial crevasses, in the glow of the fire, under the painted night sky- his stories were mesmerizing.

We left the north bank, relaxed for a day in Jorhat, then took our bus to Nagaland.
After two local buses and another change on the border, we started bumping, bouncing and climbing into the Naga Hills. Some four hours later, as night was descending, we arrived in the hilltop town of Mon; the capital of this district of Nagaland.
We scurried around and eventually found a guesthouse through the assistance of some friendly local teens. We settled into our room, had some dinner then stood on our balcony and drank in the scene. This was like no town we had ever experienced before. The best description would not give justice to the precariously perched collection of traditional thatched, bamboo Naga long-houses, set beside the occasional concrete church, hospital or school. The roads wound up and down the hill slopes in a dizzying maze, many leading to the ‘Mother’ church on the central, highest peak.
We woke early the following morning and met the DC (district commissioner); a fiery middle aged woman who we instantly liked. She plied us with gifts, whilst simultaneously dressing Amiee in the traditional metkla (skirt) and shawl. She informed us it was Sunday, so we should accompany her to church. We obliged.

The cold, draughty concrete building stood like a monument to Westernization. We joined them for their service, followed by tea then headed to Miss Angua’s administrator’s house, who would apparently serve as our guide.
Sinwang is the son of one of the founders of Mon- the man who put an end to head hunting in the district. A likeable guy, with a calm manner. We told him our plans and he made the arrangements.
The following day, we headed to Lungwa, a village made infamous by it’s opium addicted king and its position right on the Burmese border. The drive was incredible, through timeless villages and along precariously positioned roads.
We were summoned to the top of the hill and registered our presence, then made our way next door to visit the Angh’s residence. The gloomy halls were lined with mithen (feral buffalo) skulls and unfathomable wood carvings. We entered a small room (situated across the border in Myanmar apparently) and met the king. He greeted us, in his leopard-print hat and waistcoat, and offered us a seat. We watched as his aid got out his spoon and started preparing the opium.

After twenty uncomfortable minutes watching this collection of old bloke get wasted, we slipped the king the obligatory 200rps (for his next fix) and left, a bit bewildered. We shuffled past the lines of traders flogging their Naga ancestry, knickknacks and tourist tack situated outside the longhall and made our way down into the village. The pastor showed us around, but he wasn’t that keen to go into much depth.
As our spirits dropped we noticed a commotion up ahead and went to investigate. It was Sinwang’s cousin, an artist from London, setting up quite a strange scene. He was positioning an ancient tattooed Naga man into a chair with a head clamp. Timsu greeted us and explained his project. He was making an exhibition where he would film a bunch of Naga elders telling stories, singing or saying poetry, then make plaster moulds of their torso and heads to project the image of them speaking onto the bust.
We watched, spellbound as this frail gentleman started his tale. The passion and conviction in his voice snared us completely. It was an incredible sight.

We left Lungwa as the sun was setting over the Naga Hills, spewing pinks, purples and oranges across the endless forests.
We traveled with Timsu the following day to another village and helped him repeat the procedure. This time, his subject was the last tattooed Angh of Mon district- our host for the next couple of days.
He completed his filming and casting, to much amusement of the gathered crowds and left. We were alone.

Well that’s, not quite true, we were the only foreigners for miles, but we were surrounded by amazingly kind, hospitable people. We all sat round the fire and drank rum with the collection of elderly chaps long into the night, breaking the flimsy barrier of language easily. After a late night visit to the local blacksmith, we hit the hay.
The following day, we visited the blacksmith again. After seeing the objects he makes (including the famed muzzle loaded rifles), we asked him to make us a knife. He skillfully obliged. 

We left Hangpoi, then left Nagaland for Christmas- returning to Jorhat to reflect on our short but enticing taste of the wild eastern edge of India.