We had a hell of a night in the Sangai Guest House in Moreh ….our very budget room at only 500INR spoke for itself… air conditioning, no hot water, squat toilet, bed that had no real mattress to speak of so we were really just laying on wood, no fly screens and only a mozi net for protection! The other residents could only be described as feral animals and after the 9.30pm curfew the military roamed the streets! We were kept up all night by our neighbours so when the alarm went at 5.15am we were already awake.

Our merry band was soon on its way towards the boarder at 6.00am. However, we soon found ourselves being redirected back into Moreh to get our passports stamped at the police outpost and then onto Customs for our Carnet stamps. It was all done quite promptly and was actually one of the more relaxed border experiences we have had. Back at the border, this time with the correctly stamped documents, the police officers processed us in their register…..thankfully they just checked over our luggage ….without us having to empty everything out or even open things up! Around 7.30am we were met by Win and Nyi from Burma Senses (our tour guides) but two of the 4×4 vehicles that were due to join us had not yet arrived. Claire made us some porridge to share (Vince and I had bought a large container and donated it for group use) while we waited. Eventually they arrived but it had put us around an hour behind schedule.

Through the border we entered Myanmar on the other side…..leaving India behind. It took some time with 10 people and 6 vehicles to be processed at the Myanmar Passports building and then a little further on we needed to have the vehicles checked by customs…..Win assured us we don’t need the carnet stamped in Myanmar….I hope he’s right! (NB He was!) It was well after 11.00am by the time we finally got on the road…and then there seemed to be a bit of back and forward as the support vehicle dropped people off and picked people up. We stopped at the local bazar and a man siting on a chair with a small table in the middle of the street was exchanging Indian Rupees for Myanmar currency (Kyet) I changed 5500INR and got 101,750 Kyet in return.

Finally on the road, we travelled around 280km from Tamu to Gangaw at around 7.00pm… we had been travelling basically for almost 13 hours! We did stop for lunch, which costs us 3000 Kyet per person….there were lots of little bowls with lots of different things……most of which was unrecognisable….Vince and I had steamed rice with goat …which was delicious…..but I was not so keen on the other offerings….one that tasted like old socks and another that was very fishy! The riding was great…and the countryside was beautiful. People were friendly and waving and smiling as we passed. It rained at one point…and although we got wet….we saw a beautiful rainbow which made up for it.

Unfortunately, due to the late start we ended up having to ride at night……I was not happy about it… when I raised concerns around 11.00am (when we were still at the border), Win, our guide , had assured us this would not happen and we would be at the hotel around 4.00pm …..well before dark at 5.30pm. It is very dangerous for everyone, especially the motorbike riders with the unfamiliarity and poor quality of the roads, animals, traffic etc….and driver/rider fatigue. Vince was very careful but it was still a nerve racking experience for us both….Aad (Art) and Mike were furious about it. Some of us spoke directly to Win and he apologised and assured us this will not happen again. It has caused some disharmony within the overall group….. but I hope this can be resolved and everyone can just have a good time….that’s what we are here for after all!

Tomorrow is another day!

We were up early and pretty much ready to go…..the girls had had a wonderful time at the concert and they gave me their SD card so we could exchange photos we had taken over the past few days via my Macbook Pro….we were interrupted by the owner’s husband insisting that we come for breakfast….they had arranged it early for us. We had breakfast with Mario as he was also heading off early. Once we were back downstairs we packed the bike and there was the usual barrage of people wanting photographs… the paparazzi really! Some of the girls from dinner last night also came out to see us off……it is probably the most auspicious send off Vince and I have had. Lots of hugs and kisses from everyone….even strangers we just met…..surreal. When it came to say good bye to our adopted Indian family Juri was the first and we hugged each other hard for a long time before we both burst into tears…..that was the flood gate really as each in succession said their good byes and we shared our hugs and thoughts…..Roshni told me she will come to Australia soon…..Vince and Babu just hugged each other without a word…..a very emotional farewell.

Back on the road we got a little lost in the narrow one way streets….and at one point the GPS tried to take us down a steep flight of stairs? But eventually we were out of Shillong and back on the road towards Guwahati (although we would turn right about 16km before reaching the city, to head towards Dimapur). The road down was scenic and winding ….so Vince really enjoyed riding it. At the turning we met Papu who was waiting for us in Jurabat on his Royal Enfield 350 Bullet, to catch up for a coffee before we left. He took us to the Dichang Resort and we sat and chatted for a while. In the carpark the ANIMAL was in full flight doing her thing posing for the many photos her admirers just had to take from every angle… man and his four friends approached me and asked where we were from and he was profuse in his “Welcome to India….I wish you safe journey….if you have any difficulties just ask people will help you”. Papu used his phone for me to chat with Babu and let him know we were safe (I had promised to do this before we left at the family’s insistance) and I again thanked him for everything they have done for us and making India so special. He put me on to Roshni and I said hello and asked her how she was….to which she replied NOT GOOD…..I got a little alarmed and asked what the matter was……she said “you are not here…..we are all here remembering the moments with you and missing you so much”…… brought a tear to my eye. Papu had a gift for us…..a Rhino Rider’s hat and badge which he presented to me…..but I told Vince I will share……we will put in on our display cabinet when we get home….where we keep all our special keepsakes.

Back on the road it took us around 6 hours to travel the 450km from Shillong to Dimapur, and for the most part the roads were pretty good……at one point the ANIMAL was able to find her head and hit the 100km mark…..something we haven’t been able to do for months due to the poor state of most roads and heavy traffic. We were both eager to go past Kaziranga National Park (it doesn’t officially open until Nov), where Babu assured us we would see Rhino, Elephant and Deer from the roadside…..if we were very lucky maybe even Bengal Tiger. Unfortunately, something went wrong with the route that Vince had imported into the GPS and it took us on a 70km shorter route into Dimapur but not via the Park. We had also hoped to stop in the tea gardens along the way….and Babu had given us instructions on how to talk with the Manager and maybe get to stay there…..but none of it was possible as we had taken the wrong road….disappointing but I guess some things are just not meant to be.

Along the way we saw a fleet of buses called KARENG……maybe I am related to the famous “Ghandi G” and I just don’t know it….haha! The area towards Nagaland is more rural and covered in very lush green jungle as well as having some cultivated areas…..rice mostly. In one section, near the Nagaon district, there were many many people on bikes and roadside stands selling coconuts and we also noticed a more marked military presence as we approached Nagaland. We have heard varying stories on troubles due to political issues between tribes people and that in some places there are curfews…..we will of course be careful. Babu had instructed us that if we have any difficulties we must call him immediately…. as he is connected to the Chief of Police in Guwahati who can assist us anywhere we are. Throughout India there are always police checkposts….but no one stops us….they just wave us through. We passed a few toll gates today….all abandoned.

As we rode along enjoying the ideal riding weather, we began to feel like we were back in Pakistan….with children along the roadside calling out and waving madly at us…..people smiling and waving as they passed us on the road etc…..people are much more friendly here in the North East. The ride was great in the countryside….no heavy traffic….just the usual animals (goats, cows, dogs and the occasional pig) and people (walking – usually carrying loads, on bikes, pushing carts etc) to dodge as they mill without a care on the roads… one gets upset…they just flow around things. We stopped briefly at a river just before Dimapur to release the wreath that Vince had been given at the Kamrup Kamakhya Temple, I think he was supposed to do it…but he didn’t want to leave the bike…so he asked me to do it….hopefully that’s okay. About 6km out of Dimapur we saw the sign showing our two next destinations….Imphal 219 and Moreh 329…..Myanmar here we come….not long now!

We rode into Dimapur with no real hotel destination in mind… Guwahati (the last time we had wifi) I had sent and email to a place called Hotel Lake Shilloi asking about secure parking but had not had a response. The address was in the laptop, which was in the top box, under our tyres….so we just rode into town bold as brass looking for a hotel……what did we see….the Hotel Lake Shilloi….and who’s 4×4 Landcrusier was in the garage….yep Claire and Emiel were here. I caught the eye of the security guard who came out and stopped the traffic so we could enter and when we got inside the garage….guess who else was already there….Mike with he and his father’s bikes! Aad (Art) had gone to get a replacement sprocket for Mike’s bike which had become damaged….so yahoo the gang are all together again without even trying! Now I know why the GPS took us away from Kazirenga and the Tea Gardens….this is where we were meant to stay tonight!

Soon after arriving Vince became very unwell with his own diagnosis of “Gut Rot”! He spent a very uncomfortable night up and down to the toilet and feeling very ill and weak…. so in the morning (25th Oct) we decide to stay another day so he could rest. It had been on the cards to stay a second night as Claire and Emiel had to go to a hospital to deal with the ongoing problem they have with some “bites” that won’t heal….three months now….and they are all getting much worse. Aad (Art) and Mike have had to do some work on Mike’s bike….and wanted haircuts (which I ended up giving them because Mike didn’t trust Indian hairdressers)… it worked out for all of us. Since we are so close to Myanmar, just days away, we have decided to travel together from this point on. Given the higher military build up we have seen, the obvious curfews in place with everything closing early….there is safety in numbers!

We woke up a bit late on the morning of the 22nd Oct, around 9.00am, due to having a late night the prior evening. Vince was very surprised when he routinely checked our email to see that Roshni had sent us a message that we could join them in Shillong after all…..a room with them had become available. So we quickly replied and got ourselves organised to have breakfast and pack up the bike….we would be meeting up with them at 10.00am. At around 10.20am we received a phone call to say they were running late and we were to meet them at a designated point (near a college and BOI ATM) so we set off and all met up…..very happy to see each other with lots of hugs and greetings all round and got to meet a close family friend, and local Rhino Rider, Saranjit Singh Bedi (Papu), who was also joining us. A small crowd had gathered around the ANIMAL with the usual rounds of photographs being taken.

We followed the two small vehicles that held the family and Yashraj Dutta, a male friend of Dickley’s (Rodali) down towards Shillong. Along the way we stopped at a Dharba (Sweet Day Restaurant) for some food and tea…..delicious. The ANIMAL as usual caused interest with the locals and again lots of photos being taken. Back on the road the 100km trip took about two hours to arrive in Shillong. It was much cooler and greener in Shillong (Meghalaya) compared with Guwahati (Assam) but the festivities for the Durga Puja were evident here too….despite it being a mostly Christian area. There was also a Mega Death concert going on over the next two days….the girls had extra tickets and had invited us if we wanted to attend but we politely declined the offer.

It took us a little time to finally locate our accommodation at the Aesthetics Home Stay…..the family were all in one room in one big bed and vince and I had a small room with two single beds… was very quaint. Once we settled in we all went for a walk to get some lunch at the Local Police Bazar….looking at the local sites along the way….lots of old Churches and crucifixes….a noticeable change from the temples and mosques we had now become accustomed to seeing. We had a Chinese Lunch at a well know local restaurant, Kim Poo. Babu and Papu are both Chefs and Babu has two restaurants of his own, so they were very deserning  about the food….and unfortunately not overly impressed on this occasion. After lunch we walked through the Police Bazzar and it was very interesting seeing all the local sites…..women preparing PAN (beetle nut) which is big in India, and particularly with the Khasi people here. I got to see the simple way the local Khasi women dress (usually 9 pieces of cloth but Roshni says many just use 5 now) in sharp contrast to the highly decorative, intricate and beautiful Sari’s the women from elsewhere were wearing (I fell in love with a red one with beautiful waterlily brocade trim that I had seen a woman wearing in Guwahati…..our Western clothes are so boring!).

Papu is a real character…..smokes, drinks and uses Beetlenut! Juri says he is such fun and very spontaneous. He is a long term family friend and was instrumental in convincing the parents of the couple to let them marry despite their differing religions. Even though the community is currently dry due to the Durga Puja and Concert he somehow managed to get Whiskey and a Beef kebab for us to all share back at our hotel…..he is a naughty one!

At our hotel, around 8.00pm, we had a lovely dinner….the owner (Aunty) is also a Chef… the food we have been having over the last few days has been simply out of this world! At dinner we met a German traveller, Mario, who works in IT so Vince and he had much in common to chat about. It also turned out that he had met our host family whilst travelling back on the train from Darjeelling….small world indeed!

On the morning of the 23rd we headed off to Cheerapunjee, just for a day trip. The 60km took us a about an hour and a half. The girls and their mother stayed behind, but with Papu at the wheel, Babu, Vince, Baba and I head off on our intrepid adventure. Baba had taken a real shine to Vince….who had been teaching him some Karate moves and Kata’s…so he stuck to him like glue. Along the road we saw our friends 4×4 (Claire and Emiel) coming from the other direction…..Vince shot his arm and head out the window waving at them….but they carried on so we didn’t stop. Just a few km further on we saw Mike and Aad (Art’s) bikes by a small roadside store…they had stopped for a drink. So we pulled over and introduced everyone. I took Baba by the hand and showed him the bikes…..his eyes were are big as dinner plates. We explained that Mike would be famous as the youngest to circumnavigate the globe by motorbike….I think this was bit of a thrill for the little boy and he stood close to Mike. We took a few photos and each went our separate ways…..we anticipate catching up with our riding friends in a few days time as we all head for Myanmar.

They call Cheerapunjee the Scotland of the East, it is claimed to be the “Rainiest Place on Planet Earth”. We passed a lookout area across the valley where they were doing Zip Lining. Vince and I had tried this when we were in South Africa early in 2014 and it was great fun. We watched a few dare devils giving it a go and it was quite entertaining. We drove past Elephant Falls, Wah Kaba Falls and Nohkalikai Falls on our way to the Mawsmai Nongthymmai Eco Park. Unfortunately, the mist had rolled in and we could not actually see any of these spectacular sites….in one instance I could hear the falls….but see nothing. Vince had also been overtaken by travel sickness so spent the majority of the time in the car with his head on my lap in the back seat…..not much fun. We stopped at a pharmacy and got him some tablets but they were only of marginal assistance. However, he was able to enjoy our traditional Khasi lunch which was delicious. I managed to visit the toilet at this stop…..always a challenge for us girls on the road……and it cost me 5IRN to walk along a dirt track to a tin hut and a squat toilet….thankfully there was some running water from a hose and bucket……I have seen worse! Vince and Baba went off exploring and were gone so long that when it was time to go I had to go search by calling like a fish wife for them….without luck. Papu and Babu teased me that “our children” were out of control! He explained that Baba being the youngest, and only boy, gets spoiled with all the love from the other 4 family members.

On the road back we stopped at a roadside stall where local organic vegetables were being sold by the Khasi women…..there mouths and teeth were all stained with red……Papu explained this is due to the Beetle nut (Pan – but it is called something else in these parts). Some of the women were shy and did not want pictures taken….but others were happy for me to take some snaps….especially as we were buying from them. A bit further on we stopped again and I bought a hand of small banana’s ….they were absolutely delicious…..I have been hankering so much for fresh fruit!

Back at the hotel we spent a long time talking with Babu and he shared some of his recipes with us…..I should have written them down….but I was just so enthralled with the animation and passion with which he described the preparation of each dish….obviously a great love! He said several times that when we get back to Australia we must being planning to come back to India….he gave us lots of suggestions of good times of year and things we can see with him when we return. We said that it will all depend on time and money….but we are open to one day coming back to India and Assam in particular. We would also like to see more of Rajasthan and the South of India, like Kerala… day. We also encouraged him to think of coming to Australia for a visit.

We had a lovely dinner at the hotel and it was a guest’s (Joanne) 29th birthday….so Aunty had made a beautiful cake and we all sang Happy Birthday. We met a group of mostly younger women (who had come for the Megadeath concert) at dinner who were keen to find out about our travels (Aunty had told them) and it was interesting to hear about their lives and careers……a retired school teacher told us about the Rhino Riders here in India… we were pretty chuffed that we already had a sticker!

Papu had decided to head back to Guwahati for a Puja party, on impulse, so we said our farewells and he gave us a Rhino Riders sticker…which he had carefully removed from his own car….to put on the ANIMAL. Back at our room, Mario came to visit the family to exchange contact details…. as he may end up in Guwahati at some point….and I gave him a kiss and a hug good bye…..he then told me wasn’t going until after breakfast tomorrow….so Vince and Babu laughed and teased me that I just wanted to get in an extra kiss (haha).

Vince and I packed ready for our morning departure tomorrow, after breakfast, and had a fairly early night….he was still not feeling the best after his motion sickness. Hopefully he will feel better in the morning.

Due to the difficulties in finding accommodation in Shillong online last night….our decision was to have another day in Guwahati and to try to catch up with our new friends we met at the zoo in Darjeeling, Rupam Saikai (nickname Babu) and his 23 year old daughter Roshni (nickname Ko). We had sent an email last night telling them of our change of plans but had not heard back so thought we may end up with a very quite day…..but we were pleasantly surprised around 9.30am when we received word they would come to meet us at 10.00am at our hotel. We had no idea what was in store…..but what an adventure we had!

It was so lovely to see them again and they greeted us so warmly….like we had known each other for years…it felt just like being in Pakistan again. They pointed out the local sites as we passed in their car…such as the Assam Legend’s monument, the Gate where the British first arrived and the various Puja’s set up for the celebrations from 20th -24th October for Durga Puja. Roshni explained that this is when the Goddess Parvati/Sati (wife of Shiva and mother of Ganesh) comes to earth each year in the form of Durga (with 10 heads and 10 arms) and she is very powerful and even killed the devil. The temple they were taking us to, Kamrup Kamakhya (named for the presiding deity, Goddess Kamakhya), is the most sacred shrine for Parvati/Sati, as it is where her reproductive parts fell when Lord Shiva carried her body over India in his grief after she died and it fell in 21 parts. The temple is closed for a month each year when the sacred water turns red ….this has been investigated as a miracle as no one can explain it.

We stopped at some lookout points on the way up the hill (Nilachala) to the temple and we saw the small island sitting in the Brahmaputra River, where the Goddess Sati and Lord Shiva first met and came together….it was very romantic. There were many other temples along the way….some with strange entrances such as a crocodile mouth.

The Durga Puja festival is huge in India and we were very fortunate to be at this particular temple on the special day that they honour small girls (pre pubescent) as they believe that the goddess resides in them….so they are pampered and treated like goddesses for the day. The place was so crowded, and a feast of colour and spectacle as far as the eye could see. The atmosphere was highly charged with excitement and yet at the same time strangely tranquil.

There were people everywhere….it was so interesting….beggars, holy men, widows and pilgrims from all over india in a kaleidoscope of colour and form in their magnificent traditional clothing….. usually specially purchased new for the Puja. Roshni explained the significance of the red, yellow and white themes as this is what the Goddess would wear.

The walkway towards the temple had many colourful stalls selling offerings and our host, Rupam, had surreptitiously already organised what we needed….females have to give the offerings for their families to receive blessings…. so Roshni and I had important work to do and I was to just follow her lead. There was a red scarf which would need to be tied around an idol of the goddess inside the temple …she needs to wear it….and there is incense to burn and sweets and food to offer. A little further along we had to take off our shoes and someone took them to store for us before we entered the temple complex…..this proved most exciting when we tried to retrieve them later….as I could have chosen from a series of beautiful and intricate shoes offered to me….none of which were mine!

Inside the complex, it was very crowded….the line for the entrance was massive….some people had been waiting since very early morning to get in. We saw some people placing coins on a statue of Ganesh, others were breaking coconuts in a special place….this is also a type of offering. There were animals being sacrificed…..Vince watched this but I soon scurried away when I realised what was happening….thankfully I was spared from seeing the actual events due to the crowds and my short height (there had to be a benefit to being short eventually)….but the sounds of goats bleating, smell of fresh blood, and seeing entrails being hung above the crowd’s heads on hooks on the wall was quite sufficient for me to understand. Vince told me they say a mantra and then the head is severed in one blow from a very sharp cycle shaped blade. Today it was goats, but they also had an area for buffalo that happens on other days! The head and some blood is taken into the temple and offered to the Goddess and placed at the shrine we would later circle. There were many goats of all kinds, as well as sheep and birds throughout the temple grounds…..some of these were gifts and would live at the temple and some would be sacrificed after being washed in the sacred pool.

Roshni took us down to a sacred pool where Vince and I followed her lead in washing our feet and hands before offering a prayer. We then were blessed and had a small red dot put on our foreheads by a priest. Next we proceeded to walk around the temple in a clockwise direction. Along the way we met some of Rupam’s friends, a high court judge, his wife and mother so we chatted a while. As we proceed further we saw an area where people were making offerings and ringing bells. Back at the entrance we met a Brahman priest who would guide us through the temple and instruct us along the way on what to do. He would recite the mantras and prayers in Ancient Sandscript for us to repeat. On our VIP tickets, our hosts had organised, we had special privileges including a fast track entrance into the temple.

It was very hot inside…even with fans on….and very crowded…we slowly weaved our way around a shrine to the Goddess (showing 10 Heads and 10 Arms) and into a little alcove to turn around. Our Brahman gave us flowers which we had to throw into the shrine after repeating the mantras and prayers he was saying….I did my best but the words were very difficult for me as I had never heard this language before. Next we were led down into the actual place were the body parts fell… was very very dark and the staircase hewn into the rock going steeply down was narrow and difficult to negotiate…at one point I became wedged as the space for the two lines going down and up narrowed and a lady with large hips came past….but a quick sideways manoeuvre managed to free me….she was unperturbed by the whole thing….personal boundary space is a none issue in India due to the density of population. At the bottom a priest instructed me to kneel down and take some of the sacred water and wash my face and then put a little in my mouth…I did this trying hard to dismiss any thoughts of potential health risks. He asked my name and then gave me a blessing. I made my way back up the staircase and at the top our Brahman presented me with a red and gold shawl and a pomegranate. Vince got a larger shawl and a special ivy type wreath placed around his neck….this had to be released at a later time into a body of water (NB we did this on 24.10.2015 at the river just before Dimapur). We found it a magical experience and very unique….we felt very privileged to have been allowed to participate in this very holy and sacred ritual….even though we are obviously not Hindu.

Outside we again had to circle the temple in a clockwise direction and then we had some photos taken….during which time a very large black goat took a shine to me and wanted to photobomb! He was friendly enough ….no horns involved this time thankfully….unlike my earlier Varanasi encounter with a bull. We met a local family whose children were quite fascinated with us (I’m fairly certain we were the only Westerners there) so we took some pictures together and they allowed me to photograph their daughter’s hands which had been highly decorated in henna.

After we left the temple we headed for the new home that the Saikia family are building. Rupam has designed and planned it all….and it has been a long journey punctuated with difficulties, including some very serious health issues he has overcome…..such a strong and determined man. You can see the love in the home already in the customisation and design for each of his family members. It will be a “palace” when it is complete, hopefully before the end of the year. He explained the third floor will be a fully self contained apartment….. so we can stay there not “IF” but “WHEN” we “come back to India (Assam)” …..he is so sweet.

Next we were taken to their current house and meet the rest of the family….who had been busy calling frequently….. enquiring when we were coming, as they were all so excited to meet us… made us feel so special and wanted. Rupam’s wife (Juri), middle daughter (Rodali 16yrs – nickname Dickley) and young son (Randip 9yrs – nickname Baba) were just as loving and welcoming as the rest of this beautiful Indian family. We all enjoyed a delicious home cooked lunch around 3.00pm and chatted long into the evening…when I admired some photos displayed around the room, we suddenly found ourselves sharing stories and family photograph albums. The family is very unique as Rupam is Hindu and his wife is Muslim….so they had quite an exciting love story to share. Juri and I sat and talked for ages about all kinds of things…..and I felt that we really connected with each other. The two girls even straightened my hair for me when I complained about my “side show Bob” look……we all had such fun! Although Vince and I love our travel and feel so fortunate to be able to see the world, the cost is being away from our family….but most of the time we try to push that aside and live in the moment to make the most of our adventure and avoid getting too homesick…..however, our evening surrounded in the bossom of this lovely family left us both quite homesick for our own blended family (5 children and 5 grandchildren (and one on the way)).

The family also presented us with special hand embroidered towel which is a traditional custom to welcome new guests. They are going to Shillong tomorrow and wanted us to come too….phone calls to contacts were made but even they could not pass the accommodation hurdle for us….everything was just booked out…..we were all a bit disappointed but I was quite philosophical about it ….if it was meant to be it would have happened.

Quite late….around 10.30pm we all went out for dinner after taking a drive past the many colourfully lit up Puja’s. Back at our hotel the children wanted to see the ANIMAL so we went and uncovered her….and they even got to sit on her….just this once we have broken our rule not to let anyone other that Vince and myself sit on the bike….but it felt so right and natural in that moment….a small but special treat we could give to them after their enormous generosity and hospitality all day. We had tried to pay our way several times and each time we were firmly rejected and told we would cause offence……we have heard this before…….India and Pakistan may not be as different as some people think. Incredibly welcoming, generous and hospitable!

It has been the most Incredible day……but again it is the people who have made all the difference and this wonderful family have made India very special for us….we are so lucky to have met them.

Tuesday 20th Oct. 460km or so.

Up at 04:15am, departing the Hotel Rajdarbar in Siliguri for the last time, bound for Guwahati, 460km to the east. Guwahati is roughly halfway between Siliguri and Moreh, the Indian border town we need to be at in seven days time so we can cross into Tamu, Myanmar the following day, and whilst we had looked for an interim destination halfway or so between Siliguri and Guwahati to shorten the ride distance we couldn’t find any accommodation online, so the only real choice was to suck things up and go for the big day.

Our route took us north initially, retracing the start of our ride to Sikkim and passing through the military base on the outskirts of Siliguri before entering the forest. Rain started to fall at the edge of the town and the road surface glistened with wet oil – not an inviting look but at least the traffic was light in the early morning. We entered the forest section with Aad in the lead and Mike in front of us, and it was a surreal view to watch their bikes riding through the mist and drizzle as the sun rose up with an orange glow.

We picked up Highway 31 heading east, a roller coaster ride that bounced up and down and swerved around the river it followed, with monkeys sitting on the rock wall at the edge of the road. The road eventually straightened up and the trees gave way to tea plantations, blanketed in shrouds of morning mist. Tea pickers were walking along the road side on their way to work.

We pushed on for a hundred kilometres then stopped at a little village to have a drink and a bite. Karen and I had some bottled water with us and some biscuits wed bought a few days earlier so we munched on some of those, Aad and Mike bought some potato crisps and mango juice from a little shop. A recording of a girl singing or chanting was being broadcast over speakers attached to power poles along the main street we’d stopped on. It had taken us about two hours to get this far. Karen was cold in the early morning chill so she dug out her removable jacket panels and reattached those, and borrowed my old gloves to keep her hands warm as she still hasn’t been able to buy a new pair of gloves after losing a glove in Pakistan.

There was little traffic on the road as we continued east. We passed by one nature reserve that had a big statue of a rhino out the front, and a short while later entered a tiger reserve, but other than lazy cows munching on grass by the side of the road and goats wandering around we didn’t see any animals.

At some point the road doubled in lanes, from two to four, with a wide median strip running down the middle and used by the locals to graze their calves on, and it’s at this point the riding became quite nuts – or possibly just normal by Indian standards. The concrete road surface was broken up in many places, and often traffic was directed across a little track and onto the opposite side of the road, bypassing the more serious bits of broken road. Diverted traffic didn’t always return to its correct side after a detour was discontinued however, and often we had oncoming traffic on our side of the road, which was quite unnerving at times. Easily – about 10% of the oncoming traffic that passed us today was our side of the road, often in our lane, and you needed to be constantly on the lookout for these vehicles.

In some places no diversion had been created and we then had to start off-roading across the rocky and dusty remains of the old road. Potholes and water and mud all added to the excitement but at the same time these obstacles also kept our average speed down as we couldn’t settle into a steady pace for long without having to brake for another section of crappy road.

Around lunchtime we pulled alongside Mike and gestured to him that we needed a drink break, and he radioed to Aad ahead, who quickly pulled off the road and stopped at a little dharba he’d just spotted. We looked in the simple kitchen in the back and there was a small, old lady there cooking some vegetable dishes – potatoes and dahl- and roti, so we ordered four serves, and sat on the wooden-planked table-cum-daybed and eagerly ate our simple but tasty and filling lunch. As we mopped up the last of our dahl we saw Emiel and Claire drive by in their Landcruiser, but they didn’t stop. Our lunch stop was about 140km out of Guwahati, and was the last stop of our ride in.

We passed the turnoff to Manas National Park. Roshni, the young lady we had met at the Darjeerling Zoo a couple of days earlier had suggested that we visit this World Heritage-listed park if we had the time, but last night when we googled accommodation and entrance/activity fees at the park we were put off by the approx AU$450 it would have cost us for two nights accommodation plus a safari in a jeep, so we scrubbed this from our wish-list.

Turning south towards Guwahati the roadside started to show more signs of urban build-up, and then we were on a very long bridge crossing the Brahmaputra before entering the traffic chaos of our destination. I hadn’t put the coordinates of our hotel into the GPS so I was sticking to Mike like a magnet, and whilst that worked out well we managed to lose Aad at one stage as he’d got ahead of us, but then rode out of intercom-range with Mike and took a wrong turn. Mike and I returned to where we had last seen Aad, and about ten minutes later Aad showed up, which was great as he didn’t have the address of the hotel on him.

Arriving at the Hotel Prince B a few minutes later we found the staff there reneging on their permission to have us park our motorcycles inside the hotel lobby, and with a small crowd milling around the bikes where they were parked just off the street we remounted and headed to another hotel that offered proper secure parking. For an additional 1,000 INR a night ($20) it’s cheap insurance, and the rooms here at the Hotel Green Valley are nicer than Prince B, according to Aad.

After a long but successful day we were glad to shower, and then go down stairs for an early dinner of vegetable pakora and egg chow mien. Tomorrow the plan is to ride the 100km or so south to Shillong, and then spend a couple of evenings there before heading out to the border.

We’ve been in India for five weeks now and have seen some amazing things. With just one week left we’ll fit in some more sightseeing, and also about 500km – 1,000km more riding. Chatting with Aad, Mike and Emiel last night I think everyone is in the same frame of mind – we’re all ready to leave India, and the challenge is to finish what remains of our time in this country without any accidents. The driving here is absolutely manic. Either there are no road rules here, or no one gives a f@ck about them as they all drive like madmen, ignorant of the risks they present to themselves and others. Fingers crossed hey!!!

Monday 19th October. 80km.

The plan today was to take the scenic road – SH12 through Mirik – back to Siliguri. This is the road that Aad & Mike and Emiel & Claire had taken up to Darjeeling a couple of days earlier, whilst Karen and I had taken the main road – NH110 – up from Siliguri.

Our alarm was set for 06:30am, but we were awoken at 05:30am by the sound of singing and music outside. I went out onto the balcony and saw a street march below – maybe a hundred ladies walking up the road, accompanied by some men playing tambourines. The informal marching group came up the road, turned around almost directly beneath us and then walked down the road again, continuing their sing-song chant.

Looking up I could see the snow-capped peaks of the mountains in the distance, blazing orange in the first rays of the rising sun. The view was magical.

With our bike parked next door at the Phay Soul Hotel, Karen and I packed our gear and then went downstairs to a lacklustre breakfast of salad sandwiches and instant coffee before we went to fetch the bike. The track from the Phay Soul down to the main road below – Hill Cart Road – was very steep and slippery in the muddy section just before it crossed the narrow gauge railway, and a monk walking down the track behind me grabbed the top box rail and helped steady the bike as I negotiated the slippery railway tracks.

Loading the bike out the front of the Hotel Bloomfield proved to be another challenge, as the bike was almost vertical, threatening to topple over as the hotel staff raced each other to help load the soft bags and other gear. It took longer to load with their help then it usually takes Karen and myself alone, but they were pleased with their contribution, and they gave us a big wave as we rode away into the early morning traffic.

A few km south we turned off the main road and started our descent towards Mirik. There was some light traffic in the urbanised area, but when the houses fell away and we entered the forest we had the twisty road to ourselves. Aad and Mike had picked us up just before we peeled off towards Mirik, and we followed them along the misty mountain ridge.

The road was a riders delight, passing through forested areas, tea plantations and quaint little villages festooned with colourfully-painted houses. The road itself was sealed, and full of twists and turns and enough hairpin bends to keep us on our toes. The early morning mist had cleared and we were treated to some beautiful views of the valleys below and the distant mountains.

Mid-morning Karen and I stopped at a little tea shop to sample some local tea, but a jeep full of 8 or 10 guys pulled up as well just a minute or so later and they all started jostling around the bike with their selfie-snapping cameras, and as we just wanted some peace and quiet we just climbed back on the bike and rode away.

We rode through Mirik and continued the scenic descent down the mountain. We passed by some tea pickers hard at work and I stopped the bike so Karen could get some photos.

We arrived back in Siliguri, back at the Hotel Rajdarbar, about midday, ahead of Aad and Mike – which surprised both us and them as they were ahead of us on the road and we hadn’t passed them, but when we saw them almost an hour later we figured out that in Mirik we’d taken a different turn through the town, and so had managed to slip ahead of them.

We unloaded the bike and as we sat with Aad & Mike in the restaurant discussing the ride down the hill Emiel and Claire arrived in their Landcruiser. Emiel was almost boiling – pushed to the edge by the stupid drivers he’d encountered on the road – whilst it’s probably more dangerous riding a motorcycle than driving a big 4×4 here in India at least on the bike we are more nimble and can squeeze through gaps to get ahead in heavy traffic.

It has taken us about three hours to ride 80km, but today has been the most scenic and enjoyable riding in India I’ve experienced on this ride. Thumbs up for the scenic road from Darjeeling to Siliguri!

18th October. Zero km.

I woke up feeling a bit second-hand this morning, so Karen slipped next door and told our travelling companions that we wouldn’t be joining them on their early morning visit to the Happy Valley Tea Estate for a tour, whilst I had a sleep-in til about midday.

With the help of a local guy we rustled up a taxi jeep from out the front of the new restaurant just a bit down the hill from our hotel, and went on a crazy but fun drive along the ridge right through the centre of Darjeeling until we popped out on the northern side, where our driver dropped us out the front of the Darjeeling Zoo.

We spent a fascinating three hours or so wandering through the zoo, which included a walk through the museum of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) which was established by Prime Minister Nehru in 1954 to facilitate the development of mountaineering as a sport in India, following the first ascent of Mount Everest a year earlier.

The first animal we saw at the zoo was a big Asiatic black bear, sprawled out on a wooden deck in his enclosure and casually licking his lips with his big tongue. We walked up the hill, passing by various deers, two huge yaks (males can grow to weigh up to 1,000kg), and a jackal. We also passed by the lower sections of the leopard enclosures but couldn’t see these animals – fortunately we got to see them later through the day when we walked back along the top sections and saw these graceful animals from that side.

Just short of the entrance to the HMI we stopped at a little zoo cafe for an ice cream, and started chatting with an Indian gentleman – Rupam – and his daughter Roshni. Roshni is completing two masters at a local university, and Rupam had travelled from his home town of Guwahati to visit Roshni during the university holidays. We had a lovely chat with these friendly people, and were invited to catch up with them in Guwahati, as when we explained that we are travelling towards Myanmar Rupam pointed out that we would be passing through his town.

We had a great time looking through the HMI museum – completely unrelated to the zoo other than sharing the grounds – but a hidden treasure and full of I testing exhibits and information, much relating to the 1953 ascent of Mount Everest, including newspaper articles that covered the achievement in glowing terms, and climbing equipment used by Tenzing Norgay. We kept on bumping into Rupim and Roshni as we wandered through the museum – quite funny little coincidences that made us laugh every time.

Back out into the fresh air and down the hill a bit into the zoo grounds, we saw the leopards that had previously evaded us – a common leopard, a clouded leopard, a snow leopard and a sleek black leopard, like Bagheera out of Kipling’s “Jungle Book”.

We also saw a massive Bengal tiger strolling around his enclosure, pacing up and down, his muscles rippling under his shiny coat. He certainly looked like he was fit to be the king of any jungle.

In the bird sanctuary the most impressive bird I saw was the Golden Pheasant – ten male of the species sporting a head of golden feathers that made him look like he was wearing a gold crown.

We walked down the hill and came across the red panda enclosures. Karen explained that the Darjeeling Zoo was the first zoo to successfully breed red panda babies in captivity and then release them into the wild. There were three enclosures for the red pandas, and we were fortunate enough to see the pandas – and quite active they were too – stripping bamboo leaves from the branches laid out on wooden decks in their enclosures, or scurrying along the wooden poles and up and down the trees.

After seeing the last of the animals, including some snakes in the snake house, some monkeys, and a lazy oris rolled up into a furry ball, we left the zoo just on closing time, and caught a small taxi back to our hotel, scooping up Aad & Mike and Emiel & Claire as we saw them trudging along the road after a long day of walking. We all managed to squeeze into the minibus but Karen was wedged into the floor of the back seat. Claire explained to Karen that here in Darjeeling you cannot buy Darjeeling tea as 100% of it is exported overseas.

We had a nice relaxing afternoon on the simple deck of the hotel, overlooking Darjeeling as it clung to the mountainside, and we could look straight down on the train tracks. The steam train passed by as we had our Coke and potato chips, blowing ash and soot over us as it climbed up the hill.

We had all had a great day out, but Darjeeling hadn’t quite what we had expected – certainly not as far as accommodation had been concerned – so instead of staying here for four nights as originally planned, tonight will be our second and last night here and tomorrow we will return to Siliguri.

17th October. 60km.

Short ride today for us – 60km via the main road from Siliguri to Darjeeling, with the aim of spending four nights in Darjeeling chilling out. The rest of our motley crew – Aad & Mike on their bikes and Emiel & Claire in their old Landcruiser had opted to take the longer, scenic road up to Darjeeling, but Karen and I were still tired from our long ride to Sikkim and back, and we were happy to aim for a short ride today.

After battling our way through the morning traffic in Siliguri we passed through a few villages on the outskirts of the city, before entering a tea plantation that ran right up to the foothills to the north of us. We paid our ten rupee fee (return trip) to go up the mountain, and then started the steep and twisty climb, complete with lots of hairpin bends and crazy oncoming drivers. Earlier in Siliguri we had seen a lot of Matahandra jeeps parked on the roadside looking for customers – this morning I think all of these jeeps were now either climbing up or down the mountain.

Near the crest of the mountain we picked up the narrow gauge railway of the Darjeeling train, the tracks criss-crossing the road repeatedly. The road narrowed down to only one lane in many spots, and policemen with whistles controlled the flow of traffic in many of these bottlenecks.

We reached the position given on the GPS of our intended destination – the Hotel Bloomfield – but it wasn’t there so we continued north along the main road – the quaintly named ‘Hill Cart Road’ for a few km before we spotted the hotel. Our alarm bells started ringing immediately as we could see no secure parking for the bikes as had been advertised, and when Karen spoke to the hotel staff our concerns were confirmed, as they tried to suggest we could just park on the street out the front of the hotel.

Karen railed at this suggestion, and the hotel staff went into a huddle for ten minutes before they came back with their next suggestion – leave the bikes out the front during daytime, and then move them into the mechanics workshop adjacent to the hotel at night. We weren’t too thrilled at this suggestion but was better than nothing so we unpacked the bike and checked into the hotel before going across the road to a brand-new restaurant that had just opened up two days earlier.

Just as I was finishing my chicken curry and roti lunch we saw Emiel & Claire pull up outside, with Aad just behind them. They had already been to the Hotel Bloomfield, heard about the poor parking arrangement and rejected that out-of-hand, in favour of cheaper rooms at the hotel next door (but higher up the hillside, up from the main road and railway track below) that offered very secure parking.

We moved our bike from the street front up to the hotel where the other guys were staying – already Karen had to chase away some guys who had parked their car right up close to the bike and had started to remove the cover we’d placed over it.

For dinner the six of us returned to the new restaurant across the road and had a simple chow mien dish each. After dinner we said goodnight to our travelling companions and returned to our Hotel Bloomfield. It was a very cold night – Karen pulled on her thermals and climbed under three blankets to keep warm in bed – a far cry from the hot and humid plains of India far below us.

16th October. Zero km.

This is just a short and quick recollection of the day. If I get a chance I’ll add more detail later.

Main plan today was for our merry band of travellers to take two tuk-tuks out to the ‘City Centre Mall’ to catch the 12:50pm screening of ‘The Martian’ as this was showing in English. We arrived at the top-level cinema but were then instructed to go downstairs to the box office to buy our tickets, and when we got there we were told that the movie had stopped screening yesterday. What a fail.

With no movie to go see, Karen & Claire went off to do some window shopping whilst Aad, Mike, Emiel and myself went to a bar that Emiel had spotted the day earlier. Emiel and I enjoyed a refreshing beer each, whilst Aad and Mike had their cokes. Karen and Claire joined us and we all ordered a late lunch. My pepperoni pizza was very tasty. When the food and drink bill came out we were all a bit surprised as the alcoholic drinks had attracted a 27% tax on top of the usual taxes – VAT tax and a service tax, so that was a bit steep.

After leaving the bar the rest of the gang made their way back to the hotel, whilst Karen and I stayed back so she could go to a hair salon for some pampering. Two hours later we also caught a tuk-tuk back to the Hotel Rajdarbar, enjoying the crazy night ride through the dense Siliguri traffic.

I wasn’t sure if our tuk-tuk driver was a bit stoned, and he was spitting continually outside the tuk-tuk. Spitting is a big thing here in India – it’s such a common practice I don’t think any of the locals either notice it occurring or are bothered, but it’s not a pleasant sight. When we’re riding we often see passengers spitting great globs out the window of their buses or jeep taxis. So far however we’ve been fortunate enough to have dodged being spat on ….

Siliguri Rest Day

15th October. Zero km.

This is just a short and quick recollection of the day. If I get a chance I’ll add more detail later.

Went to the ‘City Centre Mall’ with Aad & Mike – all four of us squeezed into one tuk-tuk. Arriving at the mall we ventured into KFC and grabbed some lunch, then had a wander around the shopping centre. Karen and I spent some time looking in the Canon shop as she’s not that happy with the Nikon camera she bought recently – the shutter speed is too slow at 1/1600 to get decent photos as we’re riding along.