Saturday 27 April 2019 – Champhai to Zokhawthar – 26km
Last night we thought it would be a good idea to stock up with bottled water so that we would have a full load when we left in the morning. At about 7pm, after a really nice (final) Indian meal in the hotel, we ventured out to find a shop. In any other part of India there would be no end of small shops we could have bought from… but not in Champhai unfortunately! At the stroke of 5pm the shops, almost as one, closed, everyone went home and the place resembled a ghost town. Luckily we did find one open shop and bought our water – but it is just another example of how different this part of India is to the ‘mainland’.
Champhai turned out to be a lovely little town with some very friendly folk living there, but it was only an overnight stay as we had decided to get right next to the Myanmar border for our crossing tomorrow.
The road out of town was stony and very dusty, but in general manageable.
For a blissful 8km it turned into a brand new smooth, tarmac beauty but that abruptly ended in the wilderness. Although we only cycled 26km, the last 15km was probably on the worst road we been on yet. Very similar to the road coming into Aizawl, but even worse! Both us and the bikes took a right battering on the boulder-strewn, sand-covered nightmare.
At times it was also on a very steep downhill slope with numerous trucks, pick-ups, cars and motorcycles all trying to negotiate it alongside us. It was slow progress and very VERY hot – into the 30s by mid-morning.
Anyway, we made it to the Indian border town of Zokhawthar where David from Champhai had booked us into the tourist lodge for the night. Zokhawthar is a name I have been looking at for about 18 months now as it is one of the crossings I was researching even before we left London. It now seems rather strange to be sitting in the town itself after all this time and it feels like a very big milestone! Border crossings in this region can open and close at very short notice. When we were still in London this crossing was closed and the one further north at Moreh was opening and closing on a regular basis. We’d also been told by the Myanmar embassy that we could only enter and leave via the same land crossing point, which was no use as we wanted to enter in the West and leave in the East. At one point our Plan A for this region had been to fly from Dhaka to Mandalay and then continue from there to the border with Thailand. The rules have recently been relaxed and both borders are open, so we should be good to go tomorrow.
In addition to my own research we had been following a fellow cyclist online, Kiwi Karen (as she is known to us!), as she took the route we are currently on. She crossed here hassle-free at the end of a January and was the first cyclist to do since the border reopened – so we are hoping for the same. Unfortunately Karen had a non-cycling-related accident whilst in Myanmar and had to fly home to get well, but hopes to be back on the road again soon. Thank you Karen for all your invaluable information. Get well soon and hopefully we’ll meet sometime in the near future!
The tourist lodge in Zokhawthar was great and Remi, the manager, greeted us and immediately made us feel at home. After unloading I checked the bikes over, did a bit of TLC cleaning and noticed Martina’s back brake pads needed changing. I’m obviously getting the hang of these at last as it only took 15 minutes. I also think I averted a potential problem further down the line as I discovered a bolt on the hub gears that had worked itself loose. This was a good reminder that the bikes need constant checking and bolts tightening, etc on a regular basis. On Karen’s experience/advice we are taking a 4×4 taxi tomorrow for the first 120km as the road is like the one we came in on today! Remi helped us to booking the taxi and will accompany us to the border. As a local she can cross without a passport or visa as she is known to the border guards.
We were chilling out whilst waiting for our dinner when Remi popped in to say that we needed to register our arrival in Zokhawthar with the local police. She took us to meet Robert, chief of Zokhawthar police, who looked through our passports and India visas and then had a chat with us about our journey. It was at about this point that he asked if we wanted a drink. As Mizoram is a dry state we automatically though he meant a soft drink or tea, though I did have suspicions that he’d been drinking alcohol prior to our arrival. He then asked if we wanted a beer… and of course we said yes! So, here we were, our last night on the sub-continent drinking very strong contraband Burmese beer with the chief of police – we thought it didn’t get any more bizarre then that… until he took out some rice-based home brew from his fridge. As you might expect, it tasted a bit like Sake and certainly oiled the wheels of conversation!
So, not only does the chief of police have contraband alcohol from across the border, but he also brews his own hooch – in our book that makes him a top bloke!
Remi, Robert and the lifecyclers…
Robert also gave us a ‘take out’ beer each before we left and off we tootled our way back to the tourist lodge, to a fine dinner prepared by Remi with a beer to wash it down! A great evening all round! This was Martina’s first beers since her birthday on March 5th….you can tell, can’t you?
Sunday 28 April 2019 – Zokhawthar (India) to Kale (Myanmar) 120km in a minivan
To be honest I wasn’t on best form this morning – the headache from three strong beers and some dodgy sake didn’t help, but we were still up and out by 7:15am. We walked down to the border with Remi. Emigrating out of India (for the second time) took 5 minutes, we walked across the bridge which separates the two countries and then immigrated into Myanmar, which took 10 minutes. I was a bit nervous about this crossing, but thanks to Remi it was the quickest and smoothest yet!
Our bikes and bags were packed into the minivan taxi and after hugs to say goodbye to Remi we were off. We really hadn’t expected anything from our stay in Zokhawthar but Remi was an absolute star – and the evening with Robert topped it off – for the first time in what seems ages we actually had some fun! This made us think about our journey – though it is definitely an experience and and we are learning loads on the way, it has also been challenging and not necessarily enjoyable all the time. Perhaps we can squeeze in a bit more fun into it in the future?!
One other thing – when we crossed the bridge we also had to cross over to the other side of the road as they drive on the right in Myanmar!
It was obvious right from the start of the minivan journey that the decision to take the transport rather than cycle the first day in Myanmar was the right one. We want to cycle as much as possible and we don’t take other options lightly, but 2 minutes into today’s journey it was absolutely obvious that it was the right thing to do. The road was a very steep sandy, stony, potholed touring-bike-nightmare. The minivan crawled up the first monster hill of the day in first gear, and we both agreed that we probably wouldn’t have been able to cycle quite a bit of it. Over the next 8 hours we were bounced around like peas on a drum as the van negotiated this horrendous road. Considering it was only 120km our average speed was about 20kph. We stopped for a lunch break and also had an unplanned break for about a 40 minute-stint while we waited for some diggers to clear a landslide which had blocked the road.
The terrain was very steep and the road zig-zagged all over the place …..
….and at times the minivan struggled to get traction on the sandy, stony ground. We thought that it was un-cycleable (certainly on a loaded touring bike) until we stopped for a few minutes in a very small place between Laaitui and Lamzang and saw our first other long-distance cyclist since north of Goa back in January. Unfortunately we only had about 3 minutes to chat to this guy through the windows of the minivan but we think he was English. He was heading in the opposite direction to us and had come from Kale (pronounced Kalay and also known as Tahan, depending on who you talk to), but was having issues with his bike. He’d had 8 punctures (‘pinch punctures’ which are from where the inner tube gets pinched against the wheel rim when the bike is bounced around on sharp stones. I’m actually quite surprised we haven’t had any yet!) during the day and no matter what he did his tyre kept blowing, so he was waiting for transport to take him to the border. It’s a shame we didn’t have a bit more time to talk and we could even have even given him one of our spare inner tubes, but before we knew it we were off again and we didn’t even get his name! We continued our journey and to be honest I was impressed that he’d made it to where he had. Apart from the very poor road surface it was incredibly steep, both up and down and I’m surprised it was only his tyres he was having problems with – surely his brakes had melted?! Hats off to him and we hope he has a safe onward journey – he certainly seemed very chilled about his predicament. Seeing the issues he was having with his bike, however, really helped us justify our decision to take the transport option,
We made it into Kale much later than we expected and after a bit of pleading we got the driver to drop us off at our hotel rather than at the main taxi office. We were tired and though we’d been in the back of the van for nearly the whole trip, by the time we had got to our destination we were completely covered in fine road dust!
In Myanmar foreign tourists have to stay in government approved hotels – we had no idea what the standard of accommodation would be like here and our first impressions are that it’s pretty good for the price. The hotel we’re in seems like luxury in comparison to the cheap government-run lodges we’ve been used to over the past 6 days, though it is quite a bit more expensive. But we have no choice but to use approved accommodation…if we ask to camp in someone’s field/garden WE will be okay, but the owner is likely to suffer ‘consequences’, which of course we don’t want. If we try to wild camp we risk having our camping gear confiscated, so we will be trying to stick to the rules.
Though we had a couple of beers last night we decided that we ‘let our hair down’ to celebrate this milestone and have some beer with our evening meal in the hotel restaurant- maybe we’re starting to have a bit of fun now that we have left the subcontinent? Also our first impression of Myanmar is that beer (and alcohol in general) is sold literally everywhere….even in tiny little roadside shacks. Really not something we had expected to see here….but after a bit of a drought recently we’re not complaining!
A few initial Myanmar observations…
If we thought that Mizoram was reasonably undeveloped, we thought Myanmar would be even less so. We also thought that there would be some signs of the oppressive nature of the authorities that we hear about in the news. To be honest, from what we have seen so far, the leap in development is in the other direction – Myanmar is much more developed than Mizoram and many of the other parts of India we went through. We can’t really comment on the nature of the government here yet – though to be honest I don’t know if we knew what to expect on that either! We are, of course, restricted to using certian hotels so that in itself says something. Maybe we’ll be in a better position to comment as time goes on?
The level of technology is very good. We had anticipated problems getting a SIM card for our phones and had put aside a day to get them sorted and to get some local money (the Kyat, pronounced “chat”). There are a huge number of mobile phone shops to choose from and getting SIM cards took all of about 10 minutes to get sorted – and they have good 4G coverage. The availability of ATMs that take international cards rivals any U.K. high street. So what we though would take the best part of a day took 20 minutes!
We didn’t, however, waste our new found ‘spare time’ in Kalay – we visited a cafe to have proper coffee and people watch, had a couple of cheeky beers with our lunch (Are we having fun yet? Yes!), had our usual afternoon siesta and ate enough food to keep us going for the next day or so! It nearly feels like we are on holiday….