Heart to Beat #22 Assam

Published at December 22, 2018 at 12:00 PM

The second state we visit is Assam, the largest and most populous state in northeastern India. The state is largely occupied by the valley of the miles wide Brahmaputra river. We cross numerous rivers that flow from the Himalayas in the north to the mighty Brahmaputra in the south. The foothills of the Himalayas remain in sight for a long time. We cycle near the southern border of the mountain kingdom of Bhutan.
What cycle through rice fields, where the harvest has taken place and now the cows are chewing on the remaining stubble; and immeasurable tea gardens, Assam is known for producing high quality tea.

So the tea gardens continue to accompany us, but we also notice quite a few differences with West Bengal when we cycle into Assam. The most eye-catching: the quality of the roads. It is considerably worse in Assam than in West Bengal. Even an “interstate” road running through several states is apparently not maintained by the central government, but by the states themselves. So we cycle on a boring four-lane road of wonderfully smooth asphalt all of a sudden on the same road, but then full of potholes or parts without asphalt. What is remarkable is that wrong-way driving is apparently the most normal thing in the world, or at least generally accepted. We are regularly driven on “our” half of the dual carriageway by a truck or car. No exits, no viaducts here, so if you want to go to the other side you just drive on the wrong side of the road. To make things even more confusing, the “bigger” ghost drivers (trucks and cars) drive on the right and the “smaller ones” (tuktuks, motorbikes and cyclists) on the left.

What we observe in a few hours of cycling is that a lot more people wave. And apparently even more selfies can be made in a day. That making a selfie almost always goes according to the following ‘procedure’:

  1. a motor brakes and drives next to us
  2. the motorcyclist makes a choice for himself after a while:
    1. he asks the 3 standard questions: where do you come from, where are you going, where are you sleeping tonight, or
    2. he pulls up and continues to drive in front of us at the same pace
  3. in case of 2a. after a while the question is asked Selfie? This question is usually accompanied by a “!” Not that it is authoritative, but you can not call it a modest question either
  4. in case of 2b. the motorcyclist briefly picks up a bit more distance from us and stops, takes off his helmet and models his hair, get his smartphone out of the jacket and gives a stop sign.

 

It is quite entertaining and we like to give them the satisfaction to catch those weird foreign guys in their bike gear on a selfie, but in the long run and especially when the afternoon progresses, it can be somewhat annoying. Because when one selfie is given, more follow. Often other motorcyclists also stop to take a selfie  and before you know it you are standing smiling at the side of the road for minutes to quiet modern smartphones. And then we have not mentioned the moments when we voluntarily stop for lunch or buy a bottle of water. A steadily growing group show up around you and many selfies are made. The selfies in Assam slow us down daily as the tea in Turkey did.

Camping or wild camping is therefore not an option in this densely populated part of India. Campsites are not there and it is just too busy to find “as a place of interest” to set up a tent undisturbed and to cook. We are not from the so-called “stealth camping”, where you set up your tent in the dark and out of sight as much as possible and are gone before sunrise, but even then it seems almost impossible for us to stay unnoticed. In the jungle, there might be less people, but there are wild and venomous animals living there, and it’s not safe to camp.

We are therefore depending on lodges, guesthouses and hotels. The good news is that most hotels cost between € 10 and € 20. The bad news is that they are hard to find. For example, the name hotel is often given to restaurants. Searching the internet on hotel makes little sense: many hits, but almost all are only restaurants; searching on lodge often produces more and more reliable results. But still it remains a little thin in Assam and it is therefore difficult to plan a route. We doubt whether we go cycling on the north or south side of the Brahmaputra and head to Guwahati or respectively Shillong. On the route to Shillong accommodations are missing and since Harry’s Achilles tendon remains an uncertain factor, we opt for the north side where the choice is limited, but at least there is something.

The lodge in Bijni has changed or disappeared. The fact is that the only place to stay in the town turns out to be a dirty cell, without windows and a toilet that probably has not had a brush in ages. Yak! When the owner dares to ask a high price for it, it’s clear to us: we cycle to the next town Barpeta Road, about 33 kilometers further. It is almost 3 PM and already before 5 PM it gets dark. What keeps the spirits high is that Harry has found two good hotels, next to each other and for a reasonable price. On our way up we try to dismiss the “selfie-makers” by saying that they need to try to make one while driving. When we reach the edge of Barpeta Road at dusk we stop to find the route to the intended good hotels on Google Maps. The disappointment increases: the hotels turn out to be another 38 kilometers away. What appeared to Harry on Google Maps as two blocks away actually means two hours of cycling away.

It is now completely dark and we decide to cycle to Barpeta Road to find a hotel or lodge. There should be as a backup a guesthouse seven kilometers to the south. We are overjoyed when we see an illuminated sign with ‘Royal Palace Hotel’ on entering Barpeta Road and something with ‘for a comfortable stay’ underneath it. The hotel turns out to be brand new, lets out rooms and isn’t officially opened yet. The hosts really do everything to serve us (one goes shopping with us). The room and bathroom is spacious, new and clean (except for a mini cockroach) and cheap. Super!

What makes it even more perfect is that in the plinth of the hotel a patisserie / restaurant (called ‘Kamrup Bhandar’) is located. The menu deviates: not the usual gravy’s. We order as a starter a Samosa, a crispy fried dough layer around a spicy chickpea filling, then comes the taste explosion Papri chat, which tastes sweet, sour and tangy and is both crunchy and creamy, a Paneer masala dosa, a wafer-thin bread topped with cheese flakes with dips and a lentil soup. The main course is a fried rice that is unfortunately less. For dessert we share a scoop of exotic vanilla ice cream, a brownie and a Jelebi, a braided biscuit, drowned in sugar syrup, yellow of the saffron. Oh yes, if we want to pay the amount of less than € 5 at the end for all of this, including soft drinks? Okay no problem!

Since Georgia, we no longer eat meat (except for the salami on the pizza in Kathmandu’s famous Italian restaurant Fire and Ice). Not because we have become vegetarian, but because it’s risky to eat meat here as Westerner. In addition, it is difficult to cycle with a diarrhea. An additional advantage: it is a lot cheaper and to be honest, the eggs and paneer (a milk product) are an excellent substitutes / source of protein. We do not miss meat at all. Meat is freshly slaughtered here. By example along the road there a cage full of live white feathered chickens with next to it a wooden plank with chopping knife and in addition there are unrefrigerated the plucked or slaughtered version, often full of flies. We guess that the chickens in the cage know what awaits them.

Thanks to the wrong route and thanks to the dirty room in Bijni we cycled 103 km instead of the intended short stage of 60. It’s another 105 kilometers to Guwahati, the capital of Assam. Harry’s ankle has not really got much worse after the 103 km and we decide to cycle to Guwahati in one day and then take a rest day. Whether that is smart? Ultimately not, because after the 105 will show that the ankle has grown into an elephant leg again.

When we leave in the morning we are glad we did some shopping with the manager the night before. The restaurant below the hotel would open at 7.30 am, but that is not the case. When we check out we get a souvenir and a typical Assam shawl is hung.

It will also be the day of the Samosa. Around 10 am we stop in a village near a bakery and buy delicious crispy stuffed balls. At the beginning of the afternoon we are invited by Ahmed to drink tea with him. He is a teacher, as is his wife and he proudly tells about their four children. We not only get tea, but a table is filled with delicious snacks, including samosa’s. The tea is very spicy with lots of milk and sugar. So we often see them being made along the way.

We do not stay a long time with Ahmed because we still have 50 kilometers ahead of us. If there are only 15km left, we stop at a restaurant to drink a coke. We can not resist the temptation and order two samosa’s at the counter. They are so good that we order two more …

And then we finally arrive at the famous river: the Brahmaputra. There is a motorcyclist with super white teeth waiting for us. He has been talking to Harry on the road for a while before. Arjul is a dentist in Guwahati and invites us to drink coffee with him in the evening or to have something to eat. We exchange telephone numbers and agree to have contact again at 7 pm.

We cycle further and cross the wide river by ferry. That delivers us half an hour later in the dark in the busy center of the city. The intended hotel is not far away and after 105 kilometers we are happy with a small but rather modern room of OYO Hotel Barney Grand.

At 8 pm we have no response from the dentist and we decide that the hunger must be satisfied. An hour later the dentist comes to our hotel and brings a bag full of fruit juices and cookies. He invites us to the next day with a Uber taxi to his house in a village 40 kilometers away. Very nice, but we especially want to give the ankle a rest and turn the offer down to its great disappointment.

To our surprise, we see on Christoph’s blog that he has already arrived in Guwahati. He has cycled no less than 160 kilometers today. We agree to see each other somewhere the next day. That will eventually be a drink time with a beer and then we will eat in a restaurant around the corner. We are talking again. He does not want to talk about those 160 kilometers. Hahaha, that’s a very nice and nice guy, Christoph.

The ankle is unfortunately still quite swollen the next day. Perhaps we have given the ankle too little rest in Siliguri. We stick to it again rest days and then also real days of rest: paw up, not walking too much, doing exercises and smearing cream. Fortunately, we are in a nice hotel. This time no Harry Potter, but Titanic, The Matrix and The Bodyguard and the World Championship hockey men that is held in India and where the Netherlands first defeats host country India and reigning world champion Australia but loses in the final of our southern neighbors.

After four days of rest, a quiet, varied but unfortunately very dusty road leads us to Morigaon. On the way we stop for water once and we are surrounded again. Harry gets a big microphone in his hands and rattles in front of a camera a whole story for a local TV channel or so … Then we are dragged to the other side of the road to see the performance of a magician. Proudly the magician shows us an official certificate. And he is actually just very good and leaves coins and stones disappear. After the show he refused our tip: ‘we are guests’.

Today we cycle through some hills, rice and mustard seed fields. A beautiful route of 75 kilometers. On the advice of the young, funny but unfortunately not English speaking manager of the basic guesthouse in Morigaon, we go to a restaurant in the evening and order the almost standard menu: plain rice, a vegetarian curry and a sauce with paneer (butter masala or do pyoso). The manager was right: it is a good restaurant. We remember that we have always been a big fan of Indian cuisine and that we have to realize that we are currently still in the “Walhalla”. So no choice from the SE Asian or Chinese cuisine yet, but Indian. The bill for the top dinner that follows is less than € 5.

Paradise collapses the next day like a house of cards because it rains that it poures and the road soon turns out to be impassable. We leave in full uniform in terms of rain gear. It is 85 kilometers to Hojai, it rains hard and the wind blows a lot in our faces. However, the road is under construction and on many parts impassable because the asphalt and the underlying foundation is missing. We have to push our bikes while the cars, mini buses and tuktuks get stuck around us.

After six kilometers of splattering we ask the question whether it is not better to turn around. But we do not like the same drama again. We continue but not to Hojai; we calculate that with the current “speed” we will reach that city only after nine o’clock. There is a small town on the left: Nagaon. The day stage counts only 40 kilometers but it turns out 40 ridiculously rotten and heavy mileage. The “road” is getting worse. The tires do not just slip but become muddy because a thick extra layer sticks to it that does not fit under the mudguards. The disc brakes are no longer visible under thick lumps of mud. We have to get off the bike regularly and push. That drama can also get worse if the wheels do not want to spin anymore …

In Nagaon we stop at a gas station and ask if there is an option to rinse the bikes. There is a garden hose for us and we are at least an hour of rinsing the worst mud. In between, the pump manager treats us to a cup of sweet milk tea. Afterwards he invites us to come into the office. He is going to call the hotel for us down the street to announce our arrival. A colleague is sitting in the office and a moment later his brother comes in. We are treated to another tea, a biscuit and a Samosa. The brother is a doctor and says that as a 65-year-old he would like to learn how to cycle. He proudly shows a picture of his brand new Trek MTB which he bought 5 days ago.

The men advise us not to continue to the southeast, but to cycle northeast to the Kaziranga National Park. It attracts visitors from all over the world and now that we are so close to it, we should not miss a visit. Along that route there are several accommodations in all price categories and it is safer. This is not the first time that we receive advice on the safety of our intended route. The last time was in Guwahati: “stay on the main road”. We become curious and ask something: do you mean road safety? No, but we do not get any more explanation. Later we hear that there have been occasional disturbances in two villages on that route.

According to the gentlemen, the advised route is only 30 kilometers longer than what we had planned. Those 30 turn out to be 70 after further study and thus an extra day in India. Meanwhile we have rinsed the mud from ourselves with a cold shower and we are dry in the shabby hotel of Nagaon. We see a nice resort on Google maps along the advised route. We open the website or we can find a price and get a new message: ‘British royals stay at Diphlu Lodge’. Aha, this resort is clearly above our budget 😉

But we take over the advice from the gas station men and head for Kaziranga National Park on a cloudy but dry day. We discuss on the way whether or not we will book a safari tour. It will not be cheap. Moreover, we really want to see wild animals and wild animals that are not driven together so that tourists can take a picture. Harry tends to don’t go, Roelie tends to go.

We do not have to make a choice in the end. On the way we see two wild rhinos and a wild elephant from the road. All at a safe distance and too far to take a good picture with an iPhone, but impressive and really wild!

We spend the night in a resort opposite the ‘royal’ Diphlu River Lodge. When we do some shopping, we see working elephants with men and branches on their backs. The tusks are removed and there are chains around the legs. The elephants make an intoxicating impression on us. We have seen so many donkeys, horses and oxen at work on our trip, but the working elephant grabs us. Certainly if you know that elephants in captivity hardly breed or not; most are caught in the wild and then domesticated …

The resort is too expensive for us, we want to drop out with the message that it unfortunately does not fit in our daily budget. The manager promptly offers us a discount of 25% and draws us across the line. It is probably also more expensive because it has a swimming pool. Unfortunately, besides the rainy day of yesterday, it is the coldest day in India and we do not go cold. We dive into bed early and turn on the TV. Our neighbors also have the TV on and sit outside drinking diluted whiskey. Their TV is pretty hard and that’s why we put the TV hard and are looking for an exciting movie. Unfortunately, the current often falls out, just before the end, so we miss the denouement. Our eyelids, however, tell us that we did not make it to the end of the film anyway.

The next day we cycle through the National Park, but unfortunately we do not see any big four-legged friends anymore. We do, however, see domesticated elephants again, all with a young boy but otherwise without load on their backs. They are expected to be on their way back after a safari tour that you can book anywhere.

We are on our way to Golaghat and have found a nice hotel outside the city on the internet. The people on the road seem to be more used to foreigners. We are stared at and so, but hardly asked for a selfie. There is also less waving, we have the impression. What is still common is the “catch up procedure” that we experience on a daily basis in India and always brings a smile to us. It goes like this:

  1. we overtake a (young) man on a bicycle
  2. he looks surprised, especially at Roelie, who catches up with a packed bicycle
  3. in our mirror we see that he is trying hard to keep up with us
  4. in a not too long time he will accelerate and overtakes us
  5. to arrive at his destination 50 meters away (and can rest).

 

We love the nice hotel, the Kingfisher resort, on the exact spot promised by Google Maps. We cycled about 85 kilometers and still we arrive before 14 PM. We are warmly received by George: the most amiable, friendly and caring man. He is ex-military, ex-boxer and visible fit. He tells a lot about India and Assam. We are offered an on-Indian room: spacious, clean, tastefully decorated and a flat screen TV with HD movie channels! George serves a lovely lunch and later dinner with dishes from Assam, which really differs (and is almost as delicious) from the typical Indian cuisine. In the evening George comes in our room. His sister runs a hotel in Golaghat (8 kilometers away), and has two bikers from Austria under her roof. George arranges a telephone contact between us and the Austrian couple. The Austrians are planning to cycle to Dimapur the next day. We are also. Big chance we will meet somewhere along the way. The next morning we say goodbye to our new friend George and cycle into the fog.

There is a 20-kilometer stretch through the forest and at least 100 elephants. However, we do not see one of them, because the road is so bad that the eyes are constantly focused on bumps, potholes and slippery mud parts. And if there sporadically is a good bit of asphalt, they often make terribly annoying speed bumps in it.

There are no normal cars on the road: only trucks and jeeps and two Austrians: Tanja and Jakob. We meet at 10 AM in a village where they just had breakfast. We would like to stay in the same accommodation in Dimapur. They already made a reservation for the the Longchen Homestay. We will ask on arrival if we can stay there as well. They jump back on the bike. We first get to a copy shop. George told us we need copies of our passport to register in the next state of Nagaland. today is our last day in Assam. Just before the state border we see Jakob and Tanja. They tell us they bought a bottle of wine because Nagaland is a so-called ‘dry state’. We noticed a higher liquor shop density the last part before the state border. We also go to a liquor shop. A glass of wine for Christmas would be nice. However, the wine is expensive and of questionable quality. Another customer tells us that hotels in Nagaland often arrange wine or beer for the guests. The wine stays in Assam and cycle through the Nagaland gate.

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