In the bazaar pink and purple and shiny gold dominate my vision among steam from cooking samosas, dried fish, fruit, and all the things we don’t recognise. We get fried bread and bananas and walk amongst the market dizzy, it’s hard to believe we’re here. It’s been five and a half months since we waved goodbye to JP and started riding out of Tokyo and so many nights laying in the tent at night imagining India: the colours and crowds and noise, and the possibility that we could make it this far. When we were approaching the Myanmar-India border town, Tamu, I was trying to force the significance into my exhausted brain, ‘We’ve made it to India!’, I kept thinking, trying to feel excitement that refused to arrive. We sat in a little restaurant having beer and it still wouldn’t come. I think it was just unbelievable that we’d finally made it here.
Myanmar will stand out in my memory years from now among the blur of campsites and rural roads from one country to the next. The monastery our first night, being bumped clear of our seats on the old railway while looking out at fisherman casting nets into the brown river, the most beautiful faces and all the waves and hellos from the roadside. I remember cycling past a small village with a family standing out front, typical in most ways of the hundreds of other families we passed, but with a woman standing in the doorway so beautiful she looked holy. I’ve thought of her for weeks since and bring back the image of her standing in the doorway of the small house with leaves for a roof and woven walls. I marked where I think she was on the map without having any practical reason for doing it. There are dozens of those images that circulate through my mind that I won’t ever forget. Another one is of a line of fire crawling up a hillside at night. We had a policeman following behind us on a motorbike making sure we didn’t camp but stayed in the nearest guesthouse for foreigners, so we’d been cycling for hours in darkness when we saw the orange line on the hill way ahead of us, it looked like a section of the Great Wall of China with a string of orange lights along it. It would disappear from sight and come back into view closer, again and again, until we were beside it and could see detail and hear the roar. We stood there in the dark watching as the fire progressed and caught the leaves first and then the branches and then an entire tree would go up and the flames would search ahead. Two teams of oxen with carts and drivers went past us as we stood in awe, their clopping hooves melding with the sound of crackling raging flames with the smoke stinging our eyes. There are dozens of images like that one, that I won’t forget, that fill our month from the Thai border to the Indian one.
As great as Myanmar was, it was impossible to consistently camp and keep cheap. The forced guesthouses took away a sense of adventure, negotiating prices for a room instead of finding a campsite with a great view sucked the pride of being adventurous out of us. We blamed ourselves for not finding a way to camp or for taking a train instead of riding a long stretch because we were running out of days before our visas expired. It wasn’t until we started talking about it in Tamu that we figured out that the missed camping and cooking of food and having a fire had made us feel like part of the standard herd of travellers. We’d been losing our sense of accomplishment from having gotten ourselves this far on our own steam. In hindsight, organising the border crossing from Myanmar to India was a breeze: get an Indian visa, get the border crossing permit and print it, and rock up to the border. But months ago it was clouded with misinformation online, outdated warnings and stories of tourists being refused entry from people we met on the way up to the country. We spent 10 minutes on the Tamu side getting our paperwork looked at and details copied down and were free to cross the bridge and take a photo in front of the Welcome To India sign.
Warnings of, ‘you’ll be in for a shock, garbage burning along the streets in towns, desperate poverty’ and descriptions of roads lined through the mountains with bazooka-carrying troops had us braced for big changes. None of them materialised. Moreh wasn’t so different from Tamu, just with the odd darker skinned person, and other small changes. Manipur is technically part of the Indian state, but it’s racially and culturally a much different place. Faces look closer to those of Laotians or people of Yunnan. The biggest difference to those places are all the Assam Rifles checkpoints we’ve gone through, with their watchtowers with machine guns sticking out and smiling soldiers with AK-47s waving to us as we pass. One day we were on the side of the road taking a break from climbing when a white SUV came to a quick stop and guys with guns starting piling out and walking quickly towards us. It was like something from a film before the white people are taken hostage. They just wanted to take selfies with Jorja. One of the guys smitten by her fair skin and green-blue eyes let her hold his gun. Here’s a photo of Drew looking a little nervous about Jorja’s gun safety. Guns and hills and not quite India. The hills started right away, before the ‘Thanks For Visiting’ sign out of Moreh we were going up and kept going up for 3 days.
Drew, the one with the gun pointed at his face, is the American guy riding with us now. Last night sitting at the campfire his voice boomed out across the mountains, talking about Physics and grief and his childhood lawn-mowing business. I imagined the old lady we met walking up the path we camped on in the morning, hearing his voice when she was laying on her straw bed in her little hut wondering why whoever the hell was yelling wouldn’t shut up. To be fair I was just as loud but his voice and accent in our usual mix stands out strongly to us. Cycling with Drew didn’t begin smoothly. The bike we found in Yangon turned out to have problems. We tried to leave Bagan twice but had to turn back each time with a new mechanical issue, and then 8km out of Mandalay Drew went back alone with another bike problem and we carried on without him. Finally in the dark before sunrise, on our fourth attempt of trying, we rode out of Kalay together with 130km to cover for his first ever day of bike touring. He kept up just fine all day, hit a wall once at 2:30 with an hour left but downed a warm Sprite and powered on. We were both proud of him, especially his attitude, our big voiced new friend was a total success. He was brave to join up and throw his body against something so much harder than sitting on buses and trains and flights but seeing how happy he’s been, hearing him yell out when we catch a view of the mountain tops below us or the dozens of times he says, “This is so great guys!” has proven it was the right choice for him to make.
He took to the hills just like he did distance: with positivity and keen effort. When the bike he got in Yangon started playing up with one problem after another I worried this could wind up being a waste of money for him. He was mentally and financially committed but what if he was just too slow to practically ride together or found it boring cycling so much each day or any number of good reasons why riding a bike through India wasn’t such a good way to spend time and money? It’s working out brilliantly for all of us so far. Having someone else to speak with, hear stories from and everything else another brain can provide has given us a lift. His bike has a new chain, cassette, and back tire and is ready for the long haul. He bungees up his kit like a pro now and talks about the few days we’ve had together as some of the best of his life.
Yesterday his knee played up, hopefully it’s just the shock of so much cycling uphill on his joints, it makes sense for his body to react to such a massive change in activity but it’s still worrying for him wondering how long it will take to improve or if the damage could have lasting affects. A decade ago my chain broke without the tools or knowledge to fix it when touring in France with my two best friends. They hooked a bungee each up to my bike and towed me along a bike path for hours. Yesterday I did the same for Drew on the road to Imphal. I remembered how tricky it was to be pulled along even on a quiet bike path but with pot-holed Indian roads and rowdy traffic he was a faultless towee. I had to stop on one hill when the bungees sagged and then regained tension but otherwise we flew along fine, him weaving around oncoming scooters, bikes, and cows smoothly behind me. There was one hairy moment changing across 3 lanes of dense tuk-tuks when I looked back to see him still in the lane to my left and we were quickly running out of bungee cord but otherwise we covered the 30km like pros.
It’s been all mountains since Myanmar. When we cycle up a long climb and make it to a village they welcome us and offer us food. It’s as if because we’ve tried so hard to get there we’re more a part of the place then if we’d taken a bus or motorcycle. After one of the climbs I had just gotten off my bike when there was a young guy shaking my hand speaking perfect english, asking about where I’d come from and welcoming me to his childhood village. He was home visiting his mother who was dependent on him financially. He works in Bombay and sends money back home to her. Like many people have, he told me that I was very lucky to be travelling and wished he could do the same. He said with conviction that if I lived to old age I would look back on this time as more significant than it seems now and also that it must feel like a dream. Mountain roads and villages seem more like home than anywhere else we travel through. From the first mountains in Japan, all through Yunnan to Laos they provide the interactions with locals and scenery and peace that make the effort worth it. Because of our mountain love we’ll be in the north east for a while, Kohima, Nagaland and whatever else we fancy or hear is worth visiting. We’re also spending more time up here because we’re wary of what’s ahead, what kind of days we’ll be enduring as we get closer to Kolkata and the enormous population centres, if cycling through them will be too dangerous or just awful. We have more than 4 months on our visas before we have to think about visas and currencies again, we’re going to settle into India slowly. The more we learn about it the more diverse we realise it is, a country full of countries, different languages and foods from state to state, thousands of years of history, over a billion people, and it’s all here waiting for us.