Agartala to Ambassa. Saturday 13 April. 86 hot, sweaty and bloody hard kilometres!
While the Brexit shenanigans rage on in the U.K., the political focus in India is their parliamentary election, which is by far the world’s biggest democratic election. With 900 million eligible voters, it’s 4 times the size of the US election and will take place in multiple stages. We delayed our entry into Agartala, the capital city of Tripura state, by a day in order to avoid their Election Day on 11th April – and we are glad we did. 82% of eligible voters turned out that day – the biggest percentage in all the Indian states – so we are sure it was mayhem!
We always knew that this area of India was going to be a difficult part of our journey as it’s really hilly – and if I’m honest, it is the part of the trip I have been dreading in a physical way because of the terrain between here and the border to Myanmar. And it’s likely to be over a 2 week stretch…….but it couldn’t be avoided, so we set off on a Saturday morning with no real idea of what lay ahead….! We had a great breakfast at the hotel thanks to the chef who had come into work especially early to prepare it for us at Abhijit’s request. We have NEVER managed to get an early breakfast in a hotel in India before, so this VIP treatment was a real novelty. And we were on our way, fully-fed just after 7am.
Getting out of Agartala was surprisingly hassle-free and it wasn’t long before we were on rural roads. Although the first hour or so was nice enough cycling, it was already really humid – and by 8.30 I was sweating buckets, despite the fact that the road was flat. After that we got into undulating hills which made it tougher again. Nigel obviously knows me better than I know myself because at this stage he asked if I was OK because I seemed quite slow. I actually felt fine and reckoned it was because I was mentally preserving my energy for the upcoming hills, so didn’t think twice about it and pushed on. The quality of the roads was OK although the sides were washed away with rain, which we had been warned about by Abhijit. It did mean that unfortunately trucks tended to drive in the middle of the road to avoid getting stuck like this one did….
We then hit the first big climb of the day – a long one that to me seemed to go on forever, and even though it was only 9.30 it was baking hot, with very little shade, so I found it tough going. There was about 10km of down and a relatively flat stretch after that, so I thought I had survived the worst. No such luck. We had an even steeper and longer ridge to get over, and this is when I nearly fell apart. It wasn’t that I didn’t have power in my legs, it was the heat and humidity that made it so difficult to keep going. Every time we turned a corner and I saw a truck coming downhill towards us, my heart sank as it meant I had to pedal up a road where he needed brakes to come down. And even before turning the corner, hearing a car or truck crawling up in front of me was equally as devastating. And our drinking water was warm, so it didn’t offer much refreshment! Despite his saddle sores Nigel felt fine but was brilliant at stopping when we got to a shaded area and holding my bike so I could sit down to recover – even if it did mean sitting on an ant’s nest at one stage!
But when he said we needed to be careful not to overheat, it freaked me out and I then started to imagine I was developing heat stroke until I had a word with myself to stop being so ridiculous. One of the worst feelings was getting back on my bike after a recovery break to get my heart rate back to semi-normal…I turned an uphill corner to be met by the driver of a car who had got himself into a position with his camera on a tripod to take a photo of us. I didn’t even have the energy to tell him onto “F**k off!” and I just plodded on miserably. He caught up with us and starting talking to Nigel telling him that he would publish our photos as he was a journalist…..and was almost incredulous that we didn’t want the potential “fame” that he was offering!
After 7 hours in the saddle, 5 of which were tough and miserable, we finally made it to Ambassa. Nigel had starting to struggle at this stage, so we were definitely at our limit. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we stopped at the first place we could find that served food. It seemed to just have one option on the menu – a huge place of vegetarian food that they kept refilling until we said stop…just what we needed! We then called one of Abhijit’s colleagues who was to arrange accommodation for us…who then arrived in a police car with 2 accompanying policemen on scooters. Much to our amusement and the surprise of the restaurant staff we then had a police escort take us to a government resthouse on the outskirts of town. An obligatory selfie with the police ….
…before retiring to our room where I just flopped on the bed and conked out for an hour. But that did the trick and I felt so much better afterwards. We managed to find a beer shop nearby and Nigel indulged in 2 well-earned cold beers before dinner, which was a delivery to our room by the caretaker…albeit 1 hour later than we had asked for it, which meant our plans for an early night were scuppered! Not my best day on a bike but all part of the character-building process I guess.
Ambassa to Kumarghat. Sunday 14 April. 52km.
Having suffered yesterday, our plan for today and going forward in this heat is to stick to 50-60km a day and to start earlier. This meant we were on the road by 6am. Unfortunately Nigel hadn’t had a great night’s sleep and had been awake since 2.30, so we had that worry to add into the mix!
We were into undulating hills from the start but it was cool and not too humid so they were pretty manageable. We were even joined by a border police officer who jogged along beside us for about 1.5 km and insisted we stop to have some fresh coconut water with him before continuing on our way. Indian men do not smile in photos by the way …
…. he was definitely much friendlier and nicer than he looks in this photo! He even gave us his mobile number and told us to contact him if we encountered any problems anywhere in India!
Shortly after this we hit a bit of a climb but it wasn’t half as long as yesterday’s and we both felt fine so I started to relax into our cycling again as the biggest challenge of the day had already been conquered. And the fact that a lot of the truck drivers were cheering us on as they drove past and cute kids like these were out waving at us, spurred us on.
Nigel mentioned in his last post that there is a different feeling to the people in this part of India – and we definitely experienced that on more than one occasion today. If you look at the map below you can see how isolated the 7 Eastern states of India (in colour) are from the rest of the country with only the little gap between Bhutan and Bangladesh connecting them with the “mainland” (states of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal etc). So it is effectively like being in a different country – the only similarity being that the currency is still rupees. It’s also obviously quite an impoverished area as there were lots of signs highlighting World Bank funding for the region as well as a lots of Indo-German project funding.
Our first lovely experience with the locals was when we stopped in a small village for a chai. There were lots of villagers sitting around and one guy directed us to the local chai stall where we ordered 2 teas and some cold mineral water. A crowd gathered and they started to chat and ask us questions (the guy who directed us here had decent English). One older guy asked if we had any English money they could see. Gosh, the excitement to see a 20p piece and some pennies….they took photos galore and when we offered them the money to keep they point-blank refused as it was ours – they only wanted a look! But then they wouldn’t let us pay for the tea or water …but we did let them take lots of photos and selfies as payment!
One noticeable thing about them is their physical look…they have a much more oriental look than in the other parts of India, which you can see from the photo – mainly because of their proximity to the South-East Asian region. That and cycling through the tropical hills really didn’t feel like we were in India at all!
Our second lovely encounter of the day was with 2 young guys on a scooter. First they drove alongside me to chat and then when they had had enough of me, caught up with Nigel to chat to him before driving off. A few minutes later they were standing at the side of the road offering us cold drinks, which they had bought from a roadside shop – so we stopped, had a drink, paid with a few selfies and we were all happy!
Back on the bikes again and before long we were at destination. As it was only 11.30 we had time and energy to research accommodation in a relaxed way so we decided to try a government resthouse as our first option. The only person we could find there was the caretaker who had no English but shook his head when we made signs for sleeping and bed. Undeterred we decided to look for someone else in another building and as we were doing that (unsuccessfully I would add!) the caretaker came to us while chatting on his phone and gestured for us to stay. Before long a friendly English-speaking chap appeared, understood what we wanted, made a phone call and we had a room! And he was very apologetic that we had to pay for it because we didn’t have a letter that would give us a concession….but for £8 for a big, clean, air-conditioned room we were more than happy to pay!
Once all the check-in was done and bikes safely locked away, the caretaker even brought us tea and snacks and completely refused the tip that we offered him. I have said this many times on our journey and it’s still true – the difference that 24 hours can make. And what truly lovely people we met over the course of the day – so far removed from previous Indian experiences of being ripped off because we are western tourists!
Kumarghat to Zawlnaum. Monday 15 April. 62km.
Another 5am start to get on the road early to beat the heat, and within minutes we were into our first climb of the day, which thankfully didn’t feel like too much of a slog.
About 3 hours into our journey it clouded over and the wind picked up, so a storm was on its way. Fortunately we were just coming into the little town of Jalabasa, so we stopped and took a break to let it pass, which was lucky we did as it created a mini sandstorm before the rain came on.
After that we were into another climb which was tougher than the first, but still fairly manageable…maybe we are getting used to the hills again!
We stopped for lunch in the small town Dhamchara, which is the last town on our route in the state of Tripura and when we crossed the bridge here, which was patrolled by border police, we were into the state of Mizoram. If we thought Tripura didn’t feel like India, this was even more different and we immediately felt like we had completely left the sub-continent behind. Whereas the people in the state of Tripura were a mix of Hindu/Bengali Indians (more than 60%) and tribal Mongal descendants, in Mizoram there are very few Indian-looking people – and with the tropical forested landscape it felt more like Thailand than India. It is also a predominately Christian part of India, so we passed a few churches on the last 17km of our journey to Zawlnaum. The history behind Christianity here is that it is a large tribal area, and over the years missionaries have visited the region to covert the locals to Christianity.
We had one faff coming into town when the road seemed to just stop, but with the help of an English-speaking local we were soon on our way and directed towards the local resthouse. Not exactly sure of where we were going, we stopped at the Pastors Quarters, which on Google appeared to offer lodging. The very helpful Reverend there took us in so we could relax and then called the lady who looks after the resthouse. She came to collect us and guide us to the resthouse on her scooter, but not before we accepted an invitation to dinner with the pastor and wife for later in the evening.
The accommodation was very basic, which meant no air conditioning, but as they had mosquito nets on both beds (Mizoram is a malaria hotspot) we decided we should treat it like camping – with the added bonus of interactions with the locals over dinner.
Dinner with the Rev and his wife was a spread of local Mizo food, which is so different to anything we have had in India before – sticky rice being the staple ingredient. (And yes we ate most of the food in the pic!!).
In our conversations over dinner we learned quite a bit about the local culture and how different Mizoram is to “mainland” India in so many ways, including:
– They don’t really consider themselves as Indian. The state is mostly tribal and instead of surnames, second names tend to be clan names. A woman can even choose to use her clan name or not…she can just go by her first name. Women have the power to make decisions about themselves here!
– They dress in much a more western way than anywhere else in India and we saw this today en route with girls wearing trousers or leggings and tee shirts. Hardly a sari in sight!
– The state is mostly Christian with Presbyterian and Baptist being the most common forms. And there are lots of lots of churches.
– The houses look so different – very colonial!
– They eat evening meals at 5/6pm, which was music to our ears as the rest of India and Bangladesh generally eat after 9pm, by which time we want to be in bed!
– Their food is very non-Indian and non-spicy, which is disappointing for us as we were looking forward to a final 2 weeks of Indian curries. They use a lot of oil, but it’s tasty and unusual so we can’t say we didn’t like it…!
Shortly after we returned to our accommodation we heard a few youths outside our accommodation …with the words “foreigners” and “cycles” mentioned. But we were safely locked in and didn’t feel worried or unsafe and after a few hours they left – but which time we were fast asleep!
Zwalnaum to Aizawl. Tues 16th April. 45km cycling and 110km in a maxi taxi.
Despite our early start, the Rev and caretaker came to see us off and lock up the resthouse, so it’s a good job we stuck to our plan to be on the road for 6am! We were straight into a hill climb, which was 2 hours of sweaty uphill slog. Beautiful tropical forests but a slog nonetheless. We stopped for a tea and some cold water at a hillside shop where we got our breath back and cooled down, and the next part of the journey was on nice road along the top of the ridge we had just climbed – some small climbs, but definitely easier than before. We had a second snack break at the top of the ridge to keep our energy up ….
….and we had just commented on the fact that despite such an obviously poor area, the state of the roads seemed remarkably good when things took a turn for the worse. We should know better than to tempt fate like that!
As we were starting on our downhill stretch the roads got more lumpy in patches and then just turned into stony, dusty tracks that were very hard to pedal. They went from this……
…in a matter of metres, and going downhill on bad roads is as hard as going up, so it was very slow progress. One good thing that we noticed was that there were lots of 4X4 taxis on the road so we were reassured that should anything go wrong, despite being so remote, we would be able to get help. A few drivers called out to us (mostly when I was pushing) asking where we were going and why…(I was asking myself the same question!!) and this is when Elvis came into our lives! He was one such driver and stopped to ask if we had eaten and that 10km down the road there would be a place for food In the village of Darlak.
We did have one heart-stopping moment before that when we realised one of my food bags was open and we thought we had lost our cooler bag that contained all our eating utensils, knife, vitamins and malaria tablets. We cycled back uphill to where we’d snacked to realise we still had it all along but it was was in the OTHER bag! DOH!! Disaster averted although it added about 5km of extra bad-road mileage in the baking heat to our journey.
We got to Darlak where we found a lunch venue. Elvis was still there, so helped with translations for food….which transpired into egg-fried noodles. We didn’t care – it was food! We were hungry, tired and starting to worry that we wouldn’t make it to the nearest accommodation for the night because of the heat and the state of the roads. We had done 45km at this point but had another 18km to go, so whilst in conversation with Elvis we asked him if he had space for 2 people and 2 bikes, and how far he was going. He was on his way to Aizawl, (pronounced Eyesall), which was 110km away and although he had passengers already on board he had space for 2 more. Aiwzal was our destination for Thursday but with today’s experience of the state of the roads we thought that if we were going to take transport we may as well aim for there as there was no point just going to the next accommodation. We negotiated a price of 1000 rupees (£10) and our bikes were soon strapped to the roof of the taxi…
…with us in the front seat. And the other passengers were very patient in accepting the delay to their journey while all this as going on. As you see from the grins on our faces we were more than happy to be on our way to a city with guaranteed accommodation for the night. In these parts apparently Jesus saves….but for us it was Elvis! He even called ahead to a resthouse to organise accommodation for us…and yes, his real name is Elvis!
How glad we were that we did took the transport option ….as well as being really hilly, about 50% of the road to Aizawl was in horrendous condition, so it would have been a few hellish days ahead to get there! It was still pretty hard going in the truck …
…but at least we could enjoy the scenery – and we did have multiple breaks to get out and stretch our legs.
Aizawl is at the top of a hill so it was pretty spectacular coming into the city. And Elvis, being the knight-in-shining-armour that he was, drove right through town and dropped us at our accommodation – a government rest house for retired servicemen. Bags and bikes unloaded. we were in our room just after 6pm. A long tiring day, but grateful to have a bed at the end of it. We had to force ourselves to go out to dinner as we were exhausted, but there were a few places nearby so we ventured out and had a very bland dinner….food is the one thing that we are finding disappointing here. We returned to our digs to find the gates locked….and it was only 7.30pm. What to do?? We tried calling, but there was no answer. Nigel’s phone was starting to run out of battery and mine was locked inside charging so we were trying not to panic. We tried rattling the gates but the guard inside had loud music on so couldn’t hear us – and he hadn’t seen us leaving so had no idea we were outside! 2 young guys passing stopped to help us and although they made a few phone calls it still ended up with Nigel jumping over the gate and banging on the windows and doors to get the guard’s attention. Finally he heard us and we were back in – definitely enough adventure for one day. Nigel thinks his character is built now and doesn’t need any more building, thanks very much!