Oh … the details?
I got up early in the strange blue-themed Seema Plaza hotel in Silapathar to try to avoid the crazy throngs. Everything about the hotel was blue – the entire outside façade, the lighting, the interior decoration, the doors and walls were all blue – very strange. Missing the throngs didn’t work. In most parts of India when a big European bloke turns up on a big European bike it causes somewhat of a sensation and, as usual I was surrounded by several dozen boys and men who had nothing better to do with their Wednesday morning than watch me pack my bike, check my bike and don on my bike gear. The hoard grin collectively through Betel nut stained toothless gums, commenting excitedly on me; it’s a little unnerving and quite tiresome. Their inquisitive nature is superseded by only two characteristics; their patience to watch a large inanimate motorbike until someone turns up to do something with it, and their lack of awareness of personal space. You can’t open your pannier box in India without twenty noses and fiddling fingers following your every move.
Silapathar is a small town in the Northern corner of Assam just under the Arunachal Pradesh border. As I had previously guessed, the small mountain road leading from Assam into the forbidden territory had no police / border control and in less than 30 minutes I was climbing up from the Brahmaputra valley into Himalayan hills. So the first part of my hopes and dreams were easy to realise here. The road was only part-made, in places it was still being built by hand by men, women and children who all waved and smiled as I rolled past their barrels of black tar which they heated on open wood fires to spoon over the gravel road. The scenery continued to draw gasps from inside my helmet as I crossed streams, got sprayed by waterfalls and climbed through the greenest greenery and towards the bluest sky. Maybe the Silapathar hotel had been inspired by these roads, the blue sky contrasts against the rainforest greenery with vivid colours which you’d think had been Photoshop-ed if you weren’t actually seeing it for real. Overnight there was a huge thunderstorm with raindrops the size of pebbles hammering on the blue roof of the blue hotel so the whole area was still soaking wet and misty steam drifted across the treetops as the sun burnt off the moisture.
I spent the morning being distracted by the romantic utopia of Arunachal Pradesh hills before resigning myself to the need to head back down and set course for Imphal in Manipur, the last major town before the Myanmar border. I had decided to aim for an overnight stop on Majuli Island where the guide books say there are some authentic bamboo stilt guest houses, and all the Sat-nav apps are saying that the 240km is going to take 8 hours. An average of 30kph? Surely the roads can’t be that bad? I’d better get some miles knocked off while I can; back in Assam the main thoroughfare running South along the side of the river is almost like being back in Europe. The bike feels great running fast and smooth on a tarmac surface, the road is clear of traffic and mostly un-pot-holey. It was easy to become a little distracted by the leisurely ease of making quick progress along the Brahmaputra until India bit me on the arse again, or to be specific India bit the front wheel. Admiring the scenery, pushing the speed a bit to make the desired guest house before nightfall whilst humming Beatles lyrics and taking your mind off the job of staying alive and rubber-side down all lead to salutary tale No 5 … Never take your eyes or mind off Indian roads. I don’t know how big the pot-hole was, but at 100kph it was big enough to make my 21” front wheel smash against the facing edge with sickening force. The hole was hidden under the shade of a tree but appeared to have the contour of a sand bunker on a PGA golf course. I didn’t stop, no need, we’re still upright and moving, I just scrolled the bike’s computer display to the screen showing tyre pressures and watched with that sickening sinking feeling of inevitability as the pressure on the front wheel dropped within a minute from 34 to 30 to 26 to critical. Only one thing for it, accelerate. I do not want to be stuck dealing with a bust bike in the middle of no-where and there’s a small town about 10km away. At least if I have to find help / accommodation I’ll be near some civilisation if I make it to the next townlet. As luck would have it, one of the first little wooden shacks on the outskirts of the little dust-bowl was a so-called mechanic, insomuch as he had a couple of dismembered scooters and tuk-tuks littering the dirt verge, that’s really all that gave away any details as to his daily trade.
I stopped and inspected the front wheel, expecting to find a split in the rubber or something similarly catastrophic (it’s not at all easy to get big-bike-sized tyres out here), but instead found a totally different and more alarming issue. If it’s hard to get big-bike tyres here, it’s pretty much impossible to get KTM 1190 spoked wheels unless you have it shipped from Europe, which can take up to 6 weeks. And here I am, somewhere in Northern Assam several thousand km from anything even approaching an airport or a DHL office, with a bend in my front wheel which has distorted the shape to such an extent the tyre is no longer air-tight on the rim. Oh shit. It’s amazing I haven’t snapped a spoke or completely buckled the shape and I thank Shiva the Destroyer of Evil that a few days ago I checked and tightened the spoke tension to strengthen the wheels. But nevertheless I still have a bent rim which will not hold tyre pressure, which is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. There’s only one solution and that’s to bend the wheel back into a true circle to get the tyre bead to seal against the rim. Outside the “mechanic’s” filthy shack I unload my tools and remove the front wheel, several dozen local men arrive from no-where to observe, poke and prod. The main problem with leaving the front wheel off a motorbike surrounded by inquisitive Indian men is that if one of them even touches the front brake lever, the caliper will squeeze shut and you’ll never get the front wheel discs back in without releasing the brake fluid pressure, which then means bleeding the brake system, which needs spare brake fluid, which I don’t have with me, which means I have no brakes if anyone touches that lever. This just serves to exacerbate the stress of having a buggered front wheel. I create a cordon around the bike using my security cable and luggage but even my best Indi-lish explanation and mime act of “don’t come near the bloody bike – please” lasts less than a minute before inquisitiveness overcomes the hoard and they encroach again to pull, poke and prod my disjointed bike. I’m left with two options; set about the wheel myself with a rubber mallet to try to correct the bend and leave the bike to the mercy of throng, or leave the bewildered Betel-nut chewing bush mechanic to bash my irreplaceable wheel with my rubber mallet (serendipity alone means that the crash in Hyderabad caused me to buy a rubber mallet). Betel-nut bush-mechanic wants to lay the wheel in the dirt on its brake disc and hit it with an iron lump hammer … no, dear God, please no. I find a wooden milking stool (it’s got 3 legs) and a broken wooden crate to balance the wheel on and mark the bent bit with a tippex pen so old Betel-nutter has got something to aim at before running back to save the bike and tools from the fingers of over ten dozen inquisitive locals. Without any exaggeration (I took a rough head-count) there are now about 140 men straining, pushing, peering, jeering and jostling to get a better view of the hapless big British bloke trying to protect his bike in bits whilst the semi-stoned Betel-nutter whacks his wheel back into shape. You couldn’t make it up!
After an hour of running in and out of the shack in the sweating mid-afternoon sun to check Betel-nutter’s progress I try to re-inflate the tyre; it’s up, will it stay up? No idea until it’s back under load on the bike. With sweat pouring off me and hundreds of men crowding around me I replace the wheel, axle shaft, brake calipers, ABS sensor and all the other bits (including the axle spacer which had fallen off the wheel into the broken crate – stresssss!). Get the tools packed. Pay Betel-nutter bush mechanic the 100Rs (£1) which he demands for his time and ride off to check his hammering handiwork. It works. That escapade exceeded my wildest dreams of overcoming some adversity. Now all I need to complete the dream in one day is to find a remote lodging. How remote can it really be? Well judging by the extremes of the last 6 hours, it’s going to be about as far-flung as it gets, and it is.
The Ygdrasill guest house on Majuli Island is itself on an island. In fact, the whole of Majuli Island is a constantly shifting archipelago of tiny sandy bits of land. To get across Majuli from the North side of the Brahmaputra you have to negotiate the narrowest sand tracks which weave across flood plains. The sand tracks sit precariously on thin peaks of dry land a few metres above the swampy grassland and streams below. It’s probably the most technically challenging bit of riding I’ve ever encountered trying to keep my two slivers of rubber on a wiggly sliver of sandy land which collapses under the weight of the back wheel. The Island is dotted with delightfully simple villages all made of bamboo, all sitting a couple of metres above the ground on bamboo stilts. It’s the dry season here now, but during the wet season the flood plains obviously flood! I’m amazed the Sat-nav even knows where any of these sand tracks are, and, at times it doesn’t, so I’m riding across fields and marsh land in the general directions of the GPS location. The sun drops as evening sets in, then dusk, then nightfall and I’m still 50% lost as the sand tracks don’t go in the direction I need to be going. Two helpful teenagers find me riding around a field surrounded by water and guide me by running in front and next to me through a copse of trees, through the middle of their bamboo stilt village (much to the disgust of the chickens who scatter like, well, like frightened chickens) and back onto the sand paths. But finally, 14 hours after leaving the blue hotel in Silapathar, the Ygdrasill lives up to its billing. To reach it I have negotiate a seriously precarious looking bamboo bridge spanning 20m across a lot of deep-looking water. Now is not the time to be taking the bike for a bath from 3 metres up! The Ygrdrasill is clearly doing well from its Lonely Planet listing, there’s only one bed free in the 4-bed bamboo dorm and all the chalets are taken. By the light of a small bonfire I meet half a dozen hilarious Indian guys, all about my age on a boys’ week away from Bangalore. They are definitely the “upper-middle-class” caste of Indian society (there is a very distinct class / caste system here). I end the day eating lightly spiced fresh grilled fish and tomatoes straight from the market, drinking French wine (brought up from Bangalore by Subri, Mohan and the other crazy guys) and chatting about life, love, world politics, the universe and everything in between with people as diverse as the Government minister for Bangalore, a trial lawyer, some self-starting Indian entrepreneurs, a Brazilian backpacker, and an Indian Ski Instructor (as if anyone knew such a thing existed) on an end of season break. And so endeth the longest, most diverse day of fun, fear, fatigue and remarkable people and places. Transcontinental motorbike travel encapsulated in a day.