The next morning, nursing a wine hangover for the first time in a couple of months, the crazy gang of hedonistic Bangalorians escort me in their expensive 4x4s across a small desert to the Majuli “ferry” where cars, bikes and vans are loaded precariously off the edge of an ancient barge and floated an hour upstream to find the mainland of South Assam. From there I set course for Mokokchung in Nagaland then Imphal in Manipur where the rest of the Burmese tour party are assembling. For me, India continues to save the extremes of best and worst until last. En route to Mokokchung across spectacular Nagaland mountains with beautiful, friendly local people I meet a German couple on bicycles who have just crossed Myanmar heading back West towards Europe and they give me a tip on a brilliant, cheap hotel. £5 for a reasonably clean room in a hotel at the top of a hill with the friendliest, most attractive staff in all India, and free breakfast and WiFi is indeed a brilliant tip! I return the tip by telling them to find the bamboo stilt guest house on Majuli Island. The downside to life, literally, is that I’ve picked up another shard of steel in my back tyre which is pancake-flat the following day, and it’s raining. And it’s still over 400km to the Myanmar border, and I’ve only got two days to do it. And apparently the roads for the next 150km from Mokokchung are lacking anything resembling tarmac. The beautiful staff at the brilliant hotel in Mokokchung know exactly where to get another bung put in my tyre and look horrified at the concept of riding to Imphal in the rain. They’re right, the bike takes a battering for hours over rocks, down huge pot-holes, through sand, gravel and thick red slimy mud which slides down the mountain and covers me in red gooey stuff so I look like a lost Martian. I’m very concerned for my wheels and tyres, the front has been bent back into shape by a stoned man wielding my mallet (think of Captain Caveman on cannabis) and the rear tyre now has two rubber bungs and several splits and cracks and they’re being smashed around over huge rocks and stones. Everything survives except my nerves which are shredded, and two screws holding the front fairing to the chassis which got shaken out by the constant pummelling of India’s best worst road yet. The state of the road (a lose term here for places where vehicles dare to drive) is described best by the carnage and debris. In just 8 hours and 300km I saw four trucks and two cars with snapped axles or collapsed suspension, one petrol tanker lying in a ditch, one van that had crashed off the road into a tree, and one truck that had fallen over and was lying on its side, oh and two scooters with no tread on their tyres that couldn’t get through the mud. They were like a comedy cartoon duo sliding backwards down a hill with the back wheel throwing up a plume of red mud! This road should be called Demolition Drive or the Steel-Snapping Highway or Bike-Breaker, or something similar. Anyway it’s an indescribable relief to arrive in Imphal and meet up with Aussie Brett, OCD Lawrence, Big Phil, Critical Dave and The Fratellis (Luca & Andrea, the Italians, in the 52yr old Fiat 500) who have all had similar experiences of crossing Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. David’s moniker has changed to Critical on account of him taking the somewhat crazy decision to ride an extra 2000km into Nepal with a bald back tyre and no way to replace it before reaching Thailand, which is still over 2000km away, and he’s still riding the bike like he stole it, spinning up the back wheel on every possible corner and gravel track, he’ll be out of rubber and riding on the steel belt soon so his new moniker “Critical” is pretty apt we feel!
After some basic bike maintenance and a night in a decent hotel we convoy to Moreh, the final border town between India and Myanmar. Moreh turns out to be a one-horse dusty outpost with nothing resembling a hotel other than some rickety sheds in which you wouldn’t stable your donkey. Truly, there was nothing there, and no room with the donkeys. I was starting to feel a bit biblical with no room at the inn until one happy hotelier who owned a shack with collapsing stairs, and broken landings got excited about the prospect of 5 bikers and 2 crazy Italians in a Fiat staying with them and gave us pity, green tea and insects for free, the straws-mattress beds and health-hazard bog-holes were chargeable though. I shared a room with Brett whose snoring could disturb the profoundly deaf, but not me, not with earplugs and a sleeping pill. I slept like a baby in my straw manger surrounded by some unsavoury wildlife. I am feeling ready to leave India. It’s been great but the crazy, intense, yet laissez-faire approach to everything is tiring, and I don’t want curry for breakfast anymore!
Border crossings with vehicles are never a foregone event, despite being assured by the friendly customs official that if we turn up at 7am it will be easy and quick. He was nearly right but OCD Lawrence and Big Phil had stayed in India for too long. Whilst they had extended their passport visa they hadn’t extended their permission to keep their bikes in the country. So they technically should have left 2 weeks ago. And now the customs official got petulant and refused to process their paperwork. Maybe Lawrence isn’t all that OCD if he let his Carnet expire, or maybe India has rubbed off on him. Whatever, it took another 3 hours of arguing, cajoling, explaining, pleading and persuading to get their Carnets released. Ridiculous, but hey.
So after over 14,000km on roads that are rarely anything resembling a road, hundreds of selfie demands from excited locals, dozens of dubious curries, three crashes, two punctures and a bust front wheel, I get from Mumbai to Moreh taking the scenic route. Touring India on two wheels is an unforgettable experience; extremes of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, fun and fear. It’s where I have met some amazing people, both home-grown and transient travellers; it’s a shame that it has to be a transient experience. I wonder how many of them I will manage to see again, it’s always a bit strange saying farewell forever, although I’m quite sure I’ll come back to India, just not sure when or how. But now the rather odd alliance of three Swiss, two Italians, an Aussie and I, who all started their travels from different places at different times with different intentions, timescales, end-games, budgets and beliefs are going to be guided across Myanmar (I’m sorry, but I still think Burma sounds better) by government officials. None of our unholy alliance are particularly good at doing what we’re told so this is going to be interesting …