Heart to Beat #23 Christmas in Nagaland & Manipur

Published at December 30, 2018 at 1:30 AM

The seven states in north-east India are called the Seven Sisters. We have now crossed state of Assam and left the valley of the Brahmaputra behind. We will visit two of the six remaining sisters: Nagaland and Manipur. Until recently there have been violent incidents in both states (and also in parts of Assam). The central government of India in Delhi has long neglected this corner of India. In addition, this area stands also culturally, ethnically and geographically furthest away of the rest of India. All this has led to separatist groups. The Indian army is still strongly present. Our Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises to visit these federal states only if it is necessary and otherwise avoid them. We hear and read also many good things about these states: the beautiful ‘hills’ of Nagaland with 16 unique Naga tribes and the former kingdom of Manipur, which was the crossroads of Asia for more than 2,500 years in the religious, cultural and economic area. Anyway, the border crossing to Myanmar is in Manipur and the road to Manipur runs through Nagaland. We have to visit the sisters to be able to cycle into Myanmar.

A large gate announces that we are cycling the state of Nagaland. We see the bicycles of the Austrian Jakob and Tanja parked directly behind the gate. They are registering themselves. Registration is required to travel through Nagaland. Jakob walks out of a small building and says that we can go inside. We step past a curtain and enter a bedroom. There is nobody in. We walk past a curtain and end up in another bedroom. A small young man in a hoodie is sitting with his hood on on a bed near the window next to a cupboard. His pants show that he has something to do with the army. He invites us to sit down. Harry sits down on the only chair and Roelie stays standing first, but then takes place next to the little man on the bed. We give him copies of our passport and visa. The little man looks more often at the copies of Jakob and Tanja than at ours. He asks us if we are Austrian and if the passports come from Berlin. He probably no longer knows which copy belongs to whom. Well, we Western people look very similar in their eyes, especially on a copied passport photo. After a minute or ten the little man scribbles a few words in a school notebook and we can go.

Jakob and Tanja waited for us and the four of us cycle through the streets of the city of Dimapur, the largest city in Nagaland. The state of the streets here is really bad. We are shaken back and forth and up and down and “fight” us through the hectic traffic. We cycle to the southeast side of the city near the airport. We immediately experience an oasis of peace when we arrive at the Longchen Homestay. Our Austrian cycling friends have made reservations. We didn’t and according to booking.com there are no more rooms. Our first question to the host, also Colonel on Kerstreces in the Indian army, is whether we can stay or whether we should cycle back into chaos of the city in search of a place to sleep. His wife Anna is going to check. The homestay is her business. We are happy that we can stay. Other reservations were canceled. The spacious rooms are tastefully decorated with bamboo, are clean and have a beautiful veranda. A TV is missing and in this setting is also superfluous and even misplaced.

The colonel is sitting in a delightful way on “a chat chair” and tells a lot about himself, his family, his army unit, his tribe and Nagaland. He tells us that 99.9% of the population, the Naga’s, is Christian. According to the internet, it is 90%, but okay; compared to the rest of India, a state where the vast majority is Christian is quite special. There is also a real Christmas spirit here. This means (also here) that everyone visits their family and eats together a lot. The Nagas eat everything, “except airplanes”. That phrase dates from the time of the first planes. The Naga’s shot with bow and arrow on everything that moved because then to eat. They also tried to shoot the first planes out of the air. That did not work and now it is said everywhere that the Nagas eat everything except planes.

The colonel says that he will go to his uncle tomorrow morning to be present at the slaughter of a 100-pound pig. The pig will be the main part of the Christmas dinner for a number of families within his family. Jakob and Harry ask if they can join and if so, we decide to stay an extra day and go with the colonel all together.

By 8 o’clock in the morning the colonel drives us to his uncle. We meet the family: the uncles, aunts, cousins ​​and nephews. The uncle, dressed in a training jacket from the French national badminton team, is clearly the head of the family. The colonel says we will have breakfast on the spot. We are curious what we are going to get. The uncle hints that it will be a piece of pig.

Before you continue reading: the pig has had a nice life with plenty of space to move in the garden of this family, has received good and varied food and is respectfully killed, slaughtered and eaten by the same family. Put here the bio-industry (in our own province in the Netherlands) and the western meat consumption opposite …

The pig killed earlier in the morning with a spear (through the heart) is on the back of the terrace. With a gas burner, the skin of the pig is burned and then scrubbed clean. Then they lay the pig on banana leaves and cut the pig into pieces with respect. Everything will be eaten, except the nails, the nose and the bladder (“we make a football out of that”, according to the uncle). The organs go into a large scale that goes directly to the kitchen. The blood that has accumulated in the chest is scooped in a pan. The pig is divided into four meat packages for four families. So each one gets one leg, half a shoulder, half a buttock, half a diaphragm, half a cheek, etc. Even the ears are divided into four.

The uncle invites us to look at the cooking. Outside on the forecourt is a large pan on a wood fire. In fat from the pig the organ-pieces (kidneys, liver, heart) are baked. In the meantime, the uncle is talking about everything to know about Nagaland. He is already in his sixties but looks very fit and happy. He used to be a top badminton player (aha hence the training jacket), had a good job as a director of the education department within Nagaland and was able to guide all his children to the university.

Salt and pepper is added to the stew. The uncle says that the peppers from Nagaland are the hottest peppers in the world. Every year there is a competition about who can eat the most peppers: the record is in the name of an Australian who has managed to work 6 inside. When the fat and the organs are cooked sufficiently, fermented bamboo shoots and the porridge of pork are added.

And then our breakfast is ready … Omg, our breakfast is the pigs organs with steamed rice, dal (lentil soup), boiled cauliflower leaves and a spicy salad of onion and cabbage. The uncle says a prayer and thanks God for the food and asks His blessing for his family and his cycling guests. Well, let’s keep it that big disappointment of the uncle Roelie didn’t pass for her ‘Nagaland exam’ by fishing a tiny, small piece of meat from the pan. None of us follows the advice of the aunt to take some of the delicious ‘gravy’: the sauce of blood. Harry secretly targets the pieces that resemble liver, something he used to eat beforehand liked. Jakob eats relatively much and later tells that not everything was equally tasty. When everyone has had enough, the pans and bowls go inside and the workers can eat the leftovers.

In the afternoon, once back at the homestay, we discuss the options for the following days with hostess Anna. Jakob and Tanja have heard that the road to the capital Kohima is impassable. Both the colonel and Anna confirm that the road is very bad and that a jeep takes 6 to 8 hours to get up; the road can not be cycled, they say. But well: we know from our own experience that you can not rely on a “bicycle advice” from a “non-cyclist”. The facts on the internet tell us that Kohima is 70 kilometers and 1770 ascenters ahead. The rain from several days ago caused various landslides. We decide to cycle up, Tanja and Jakob decide to take a taxi and offer to take our luggage with them. Nice!

German Christoph arrives at sunset. We met him twice before in India and kept in touch. He in turn met Tanja and Jakob just below Kathmandu. Christoph will also try to cycle to Kohima and gratefully accept the offer of Jakob and Tanja to take the luggage. The colonel joins us and we drink a Bhutanese beer from the colonel’s stock, just like yesterday (despite the Nagaland status of dry state). There is a delicacy in a small dish: pig’s brains and tongue.

The next morning a whole series of panniers are ready for transport and we jump on super light bikes. We soon reach the foot of the mountains. We pass a big gate when there is shouting. It happens more often and we pay little attention to it. It takes a meter or 50 before we understand that the military calls us and it takes another 50 meters before we understand that we need to return. Next to the gate appears to be a checkpoint, as there are many throughout the seven sisters. This one is manned by military personnel. For the first time we are actually stopped and are asked to hand over our passports. We ask why we are checked. The soldiers mutter something about terrorists. Christoph spontaneously asks if we look like terrorists. It takes quite a while and use that to pick up caked mud under the mudguards. Then we finally get the passports back and the climb can begin!

The road and the percentage of the climb turn out to be okay. Halfway a minibus stops with two known Austrian bikes on the roof and many well-known bags inside. Tanja treats us to snickers and Jakob looks somewhat disturbed: he noticed from the taxi that the road is to be cycled, also with luggage. After a break they take place again in the taxi and we on the saddles.

Of course there are really bad pieces of road, but we are now quite accustomed to that. The mud has fortunately dried up in most places. The last few kilometers are pretty steep and unfortunately of poor “Dimapur quality”. It continues to amaze us that a main road to the capital of Nagaland can have this quality.

Kohima is located at at least 5 hilltops and is quite cozy for Indian standards. We meat  Jakob and Tanja if we entre the city. They give us the luggage so that we can search for a hotel. That turns out to be the Eastgate Hotel. It offers a nice room with a double discount: one because we explain that we have a limited daily budget and one because we do not need a bill. We book two nights: tomorrow is December 24 and we can celebrate Christmas Eve together with our cycling friends from Germany and Austria. A British 18-year-old Leo is cycling the same route and has told Christoph that he wants to celebrate Christmas in Kohima.

On our day off we visit the mainly covered and multi-storey Mao market where everything is for sale. The aisles between the hundreds of stalls are so narrow that there is almost no getting through. On the way to the market we see people walking with a still living Christmas chicken, duck or goose. When we get to the market, a rooster manages to escape ad runs around when his salesman tries to catch him. As said before, the Nagas eat everything, so we meet other animals that will end up at the Christmas table. After the birds we come across cages full of white mice and hundreds of plastic bags filled with small green frogs. They do not only eat the frogs’ legs, but just the whole frog. There must also be silkworms for sale to bake or cook, but we do not see them. Tanja has seen them and shows us a picture later. The dogs, that they are also meant for consumption, make the most impression on us.

On Christmas Eve the restaurant of our hotel, as one of the few in the city, is opened. Leo arrived in Kohima and stays in the same homestay as Tanja and Jakob and as Simon, a 57-year-old retired British teacher who hikes the Himalayas and seems to have strayed. The British have bought food because they can cook in their homestay. They actually want to make a Christmas lunch for us the next day. We decline the offer, because we want to continue cycling. We decide to eat again in our hotel restaurant on this Christmas eve. We are with seven this time. Simon had a drink before and is unfortunately too emphatically present. It is nice to meet Leo though. He experienced some beautiful adventures on his journey. The evening ends less pleasant when there is some confusion about the order and the bill, in which Simon, who is meanwhile drunk, is quite annoying. The previous evening with only the five of us was a lot nicer.

On Christmas Day we cycle out Kohima. There is almost no traffic. There are many people on foot in the street and they are dressed in their Christmas-best: boys and men in suits, girls and ladies with lipstick in festive dresses and on high heels. We wish everyone a ‘Merry Christmas’ and get a ‘Happy Christmas’ in return. We are also Christoph, Tanja & Jakob in this case. Leo stays in Kohima.

It is a very clear day and the route is beautiful. The most beautiful since we cycled out of the mountains of Nepal. The villages are like a kind of decoration on the hilltops; like in Tuscany. After about 30 kilometers we leave Nagaland and cycle into the state of Manipur. A moment later we get a stop sign: here too we need to register as we did at Nagaland. This time we are in a real office and a form for foreigners has to be filled out. The procedure is ended with a stamp in our passport.

Today we stop in the village of Senapati. This part of Manipur is almost completely Christian and everyone celebrates Christmas. There are several hotels, but there seems to be only one open: Susan’s Residencia Lodge. At least, when we called yesterday, they said they would be open. When we arrive there is a lady present, but she seems to be rather apathetic. Initially she says that the lodge is full. Christoph insists that she calls the manager and then it appears that all rooms are available.

However, the lodge is at the second floor and can only be reached via a narrow staircase. We can not leave the bikes at street level. Some curious villagers advise us to go to another hotel, which is better, cheaper, nicer and also open at Christmas. We try two of them but they are both really closed. We return to Susan’s and then bump the bikes up the stairs. Jakob and Tanja take the cheaper, not cleaned room. We pay a bit more for a room that also does not appear to be cleaned. Susan’s can provide food, but they do not. The hot shower becomes a bucket of lukewarm water later in the evening. What a sof this place!

At half past five it is pitch dark and we walk through the village, still in our cycling clothes, looking for food. Athisii Osanah, a very nice man, has just finished his cleaned restaurant and offers help. He takes us to another small restaurant and discusses the possibilities in the kitchen. While they prepare omelet, rice, dal and a salad for us, we walk back to his kitchen with Athisii and secretly drink a beer behind closed curtains. Yes, also Manipur is a dry state. After the beer we fall hungry for the food.

At half past six we walk through an extinct village back to the ‘hotel’ and we get the lukewarm bucket of water. We go directly to bed after a mini wash. The TV does not work and that’s why we read. The hotel has no guests other than our tired bicycle group. And yet, in the hallway in front of our door, there are constantly people talking and shouting and cars horns downstairs for the people who are shouting in front of our door at two highs. It turns out to be the staff…  At 11 o’clock we ask if it could be a bit quieter. We want to sleep because we leave early the next morning to cycle to a campsite near a lake south of the capital Imphal. It is about 105 kilometers and the quality of the road will not be very well. Susan’s can arrange breakfast, but they do not. Did we mention what a bad place this is?

In the morning at half past six we finally use our stove to boil water for a cup of coffee. A few chocolate cookies and we can it the road. Our plan has now been slightly modified. Harry slept very badly. He feels flu-like and prefers to stay in bed all day, but not here in Senapati and certainly not with Susan’s. Instead of cycling all the way to the campsite on the lake, we decide to try to reach Imphal. It then remains to be seen how the starting flu develops. In case we are going to fall behind in the coming days, we say goodbye to Jakob, Tanja and Christoph in Senepati. They are leaving early and we are going to take it easy today. Imphal is not that far: about 60 kilometers of cycling. We download the NPO radio 2 app and turn on the top2000. We sing along and play our own top2000 game: who first calls the name of artist, until around Imphal the traffic gets too busy and the music can not be heard anymore. The last 10 kilometers have asked a lot of the sick Harry and when we get to a hotel early in the afternoon he crawls straight into the bed. At night all comes out and he can be found more in the bathroom as in bed. We stay an extra day in our hotel. Harry happily recovers during this day. Maybe it was just something he ate and fortunately no flu!

During breakfast we are approached by Sourev, a sports journalist at the Times Group, who publishes among other “The Times of India”. He traveled all the way from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Manipur to report an important football match. In contrast to the rest of India (where cricket is the most important sport), in Nagaland and Manipur football is national sport number 1. Many good footballers also come from these states. Sourev is very interested in our story and would like to interview us. Okay, let’s do it tomorrow morning, during breakfast.

Two more days of cycling to the border of Myanmar. At this border there is Moreh, the last village we will visit in India. Moreh is located more than 100 km from the capital Imphal. Partly because of the mountains that we have to cross in the second half, that is too far in one day. The problem is that we can not really find reliable accommodation options between Imphal and Moreh. Reliable in the sense that they actually exist. Google Maps shows lodges, homestays and hotels 50 kilometers from Imphal at the foot of the mountains towards Myanmar. Our preference is given to the town of Pallel. But yes, we have explained before that a hotel in India is very often a restaurant and lodges may be on the Google map, but not in the real world. Often, reviews, photos and contact information are missing. We will see!

With a short stage to Pallel ahead, we take it easy in the morning. We have our interview with Sourev at  9:30 am. It will be a nice conversation; he is not only interested in the sporting aspect of our trip, but also asks a lot of questions about the purpose, the why and the background of our story. An hour later, photos are taken and we agree that he will mail the final story to us. We are curious!

It is then 10 o’clock when we cycle away at the hotel. We cycle through the busy Imphal and stop several times to do a few shopping so that we reach a supermarket of approximately 200 m2. That is the largest we have ever seen in India. On the way we receive a text message from Christoph; he and Jakob and Tanja have cycled away and also have their eyes on village Pallel. We’ll meet again, nice! Eventually we arrive half an hour earlier than our cycling friends. Usually, as soon as we hit the brakes in a village, we are questioned by a lot of people. In Pallel, however, nobody comes to us, so we walk to a few shops and ask the locals about the accommodation options (lodges, hotels, cottages, inns). The answer is consistent and short: they are not there … They advise us to inquire at the police station. There they tell us that we can best cycle up to 25 kilometers into the mountains because there will be many accommodations. However, it is already too late to start the climb.

The agent calls the phone number of a homestay. A young boy comes o the scooter to the desk. He seems to have registered his home on the internet as a homestay but does not rent rooms. His neighbor, however, has a large beautiful house and a little later he comes to tell us proudly to go with him. It will be an unforgettable evening, night and morning with this extremely hospitable family and neighbors.

Then the last day breaks into India. It is still 60 kilometers to Moreh where we want to stay the last night in India. Tanja and Jakob leave early because it is quite a tough stage. The family and neighbor accompany them and later us to a local restaurant for breakfast and then it is time for us to start the stage. Today we cycle with Christoph who has about the same pace. Apart from a few houses and small villages, the road today is the only thing that interrupts the beauty of untouched nature. All around, the hills are shrouded in green blankets of jungle-like vegetation. Today’s route is breathtakingly beautiful, but it is also quite challenging: climbing and descending, hot and cold and almost entirely on an on-Indian good road.

In Moreh we check lodge after lodge and although they exude to be completely deserted someone comes to tell us every time they are full. After about 15 lodges we stop and cycle back to the beginning of the village where a large and expensive hotel is located. Tanja and Jakob arrived earlier and were also not lucky at the other accommodations and booked a room here. There is still space and our last night is our most expensive overnight stay in India: for 3600 rupees (converted € 40) we enjoy a room with plastic tulips on the sideboard. Tomorrow morning we cycle the last 600 meters and then we arrive in Myanmar. Curious about what this mysterious country will bring us. Our visa gives us up to 28 days to discover that.