Monthly Archives: July 2013

What’s Going On In The Desh?

The India-Bangladesh border at Akhaura, is definitely the most unorganised crossings I’ve ever had the displeasure of going over. It resembles a building site that has no concept of health and safety, the computerised system didn’t work and our Indian visas were barely checked by the aging customs officer. A good hour was spent hopping from building to building before we could finally cross the rubicon, and into Bangladesh. Some time was spent waiting for the Chittagong train at Akhaura station feeling like a caged animal in an extremely twisted zoo, but that’s another story. In the meantime a hungry beggar woman came over on her honkers with the usual trouser pulling whilst giving it the ‘feed me’ gestures. I normally deal with beggars in Asia the same way I deal with beggars at home, by completely blanking them. However, on this occasion I offered her a banana, only to have it rejected in preference of money, so the first thing I’ve learned about Bangladesh is that beggars can be choosers…

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Chittagong takes its name from an ancient phrase ‘tse tse gong’ which means ‘war should never be fought’, but to put it simply, Chittagong is not worth fighting over. The sprawling, chaotic mess which makes Middlesbrough look like the green capital of Europe, is an interesting but not too pleasant place to spend a few days settling into Bangladeshi life. We took a local row boat over the Khanaphuli river from the oldest part of the city, Sadarghat. Apart from being followed and gawped at over on the other side, there was a stomach churning meat market which was enough to make any man turn veggie…

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Sadarghat ferryman

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Stop and stare

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”Butcher, you got a cow’s head?”

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What’s everyone looking at? Ah yeah, me

Rangamati is only a few hours away in the area known as the Chittagong hill tracts. The hill tracts is the stronghold of the Adivasi (ethnic groups). It has a troubled history, most notably an extended period of guerrilla warfare that was brought on after the government attempted a genocide to rid the area of all Adivasi. Kaptai lake was constructed in the 1960’s as a source of hydroelectricity, in the process 40% of the Adivasi cultivation land was submerged underwater.

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Accommodation in Bangladesh had so far seemed pretty good value for money. That was until we returned home one night to find our room infested with singing, dancing, rock ‘n’ rolling cockroaches. It was reminiscent of the scenes from MTV’s obscure 90’s movie Joe’s apartment…

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In this first week or so our travel plans have been severely disrupted due to some political tension taking place, that I was completely unaware of. Since early this year Bangladesh’s governing party, the Awami league, has been bringing to trial war criminals from the Bangladeshi liberation war of 1971. Ghulam Azam, former leader of the opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami, at 90 years old was sentenced to 90 years imprisonment, a number of other Jamaat members have been sent to the gallows. Even though Jamaat-e-Islami only possess 5 seats of a possible 300 in the Bangladeshi parliament, they still have the power to call nationwide hartal (shutdowns) in protest to the tribunal’s decisions.

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Always habidah habidah balclatnatabip poona…

During these hartals, public transport doesn’t operate which led to us being stuck in Rangamati and Chittagong for longer than planned. Some of the clashes have turned violent, busses have been petrol bombed throughout the country, all this and the fact that now it is Ramadan, so day time food is hard to come by, I’ll admit this isn’t exactly the perfect time to visit Bangladesh. So far it has been very frustrating, but if it means living on the edge whilst eating nothing but salted crackers during daylight, so be it, I’m determined not to let it spoil my summer ‘holiday’ in the Desh. The question on my mind, what will happen in 90 years when the 180 year old Ghulam Azam has served his time?

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The Mood Of Masood

After returning from Nagaland, it was time to make our way down to Tripura, but not before stopping off for a few days in the most boring hill station in all of India, Haflong. To get there we had to spend a night in Lumding town, rather than go looking for a lodge we opted to try out the railway station’s retiring rooms, and for less than one pound we got a triple room, which was ironically the nicest room we tenanted in months…

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Lumding train station platform

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Scenic train to Haflong

The state of Tripura was to be the last stop on this epic journey through the North East. Agartala the state capital, has few sights, the main attraction being the Ujjayanta palace, which was the former royal headquarters of the Kingdom of Tripura, until it merged with India in 1949. The palace is so white it almost blends in with the raindrop hoarding clouds that linger above, a true painter and decorator’s nightmare. After you get bored of photographing skinny Indian rickshaw drivers bathing in the palace’s lakes, there’s not an awful lot to do in Agartala city, but after the food disaster of the tribal states, it was nice to simply be in a town with some facilities and decent eateries.

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After walking the globe in my three year old Birkenstocks, they were on their last legs and time to be fed to Oscar the grouch. But a true budget traveller never throws anything away, it’s amazing what a street side cobbler can do with a piece of rubber and some industrial glue!

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Sandal repairs aside, the real reason we were in Agartala was to arrange our Bangladeshi visas. I could find no up to date info online about the procedure of getting a visa in Tripura, the guide books are also pretty vague. Here at likethewheels, we care about informing wandering vagrants on the problems they may face when applying for visas and such in foreign countries, so here is my version of what went down at the visa office. Was it to be another bureaucratic nightmare?

Getting a Bangladeshi visa in Agartala, Tripura

First of all the visa office has moved, it is now situated in a small ally with a State Bank Of India ATM on the corner, just off VIP road. Ask the rickshaw wallah for circuit house. Their new number which I also had a quest to obtain is 0381-2324807

I had heard reports that this visa office only handed out short stay 15 day visas, a pittance compared to the two month one you automatically receive if you fly into Dhaka, so I was slightly worried about what would happen here. We were asked to sit down and wait for the visa officer, Masood. I couldn’t help but associate the name with Eastenders’ own loveable postman, Masood Ahmed. Masood entered the room with his pile of undelivered letters and explained the procedure –
deposit $65 into their bank account, return with the bank stub and completed application with three photos, wait one hour and that’s it, done. Surely that can’t be it? I asked Masood if he would issue a 60 day visa, this would be ample time to do everything we wanted without having to go through the hassle of extending the visa, he said he would ‘try’. After about ten minutes he came back with the two month visas and it was only then after he had returned the passports that he began to grill us on certain things, ”What’s your job? How do you have all these stamps in the passport? Are you a journalist? Who is funding this trip? Are you a spy?” Whatever you do, don’t let these people believe you’re visiting Bangladesh for any type of media related purposes, they don’t seem to like that. I guess what I’ve written in the content of this blog about Masood is media related, but anyway we left with the two month visas we requested in hand.

The overall procedure was a lot easier than expected, and to be fair, Masood seemed like a friendly enough guy. But I honestly believe that the duration of the visa you want comes down to one thing, the mood of Masood, thankfully we caught him on a good day…

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If you catch Masood in a good mood, you’ll get whatever visa you ask for, hassle free

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If he’s in a bad mood, you’ll have to fight for a 15 day visa

And so that almost drew an end to what has been an unbelievable but trying trip in North East India, Bangladesh is only 3km away and what awaits over that border, Allah only knows…

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Which mood will you catch him in?

Categories: India, Useful Information | Tags: | 2 Comments

Off Their Heads

Nagaland, by most Indian’s standards, is considered the most backward part of the country. The Mon valley, by most Naga standards, is considered the most backward part of the state. For me, coming from a rather backward part of the North East of England, it would probably seem quite normal. Headhunting only ceased here less than 20 years ago, the people eat anything they can get their hands on and it’s in the back arse of nowhere near the Indo-Burnese border. Backward it may be, I was going there…

We spent one night in Mon town, which is the jump off point for the surrounding Konyak tribal villages. The word Konyak derives from Koanyak, which means ‘blackhead’ or ‘human’. The next morning we headed up to the village of Longwa, which is curiously situated on a ridge, half in India and half in Burma…

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When we arrived in Longwa, I was pleasantly surprised to see the house we would be staying in, had its own giant log drum and some pretty creepy wood carvings in the entrance way. What I wasn’t surprised at is that it was also an opium den. The opium seeds were brought here by the British during the Raj to subdue the Konyaks and prevent them from hunting heads, particularly British ones, now a lot of the young lads are addicted to the stuff. Watching people smoke opium is like going to see a 3D movie, fascinating a first, but soon becomes very repetitive…

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Opium session – in 4D

Howay Mon, is also known as ‘The Land of the Anghs’. Angh translates as king and 9 of these regal figures are still in place throughout the valley’s villages. We went along to visit the king of Longwa at his palace, known as a longhouse. The current king is young and modern, not exactly how I’d imaged. His father, the old king, was in the middle of a full blown opium session out the back with the village elders. The former king has some 18 wives and around 50 children, no wonder he has a र500 a day opium habit. His Royal Highness was for some reason, sporting a bizarre leopard print cowboy hat, that I assume he’d been given by another traveller, or was a massive Boy George fan. This was the perfect opportunity to pull out my plastic thumb and perform the illusion of the ‘disappearing’ hanky. I felt like the royal court jester and the look on the the stoned Konyak’s faces was truly priceless…

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The Longhouse

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The current king – Absolute British

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King George

Back in the UK we were given a ‘love lock’ courtesy of Daniel Clark. We could have locked it onto a lovers bridge while we were in Vilnius or Saint Petersburg, but instead decided to give it to the old angh to attach onto his smoking box, and then threw the key into Burma. So every time he goes into his opium stash, he’ll think of the strange white man who performed a cheap magic trick…

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Don’t look too enthusiastic

Headhunting is the practice of removing an enemy’s head, which some believe carries magical powers in its skull. To come back from battle with a head was a sign of pride and courage, a warrior would certainly receive a hero’s welcoming back in his village. The Nagas were know for being fearless and ferocious soldiers, and because of this some were even recruited to fight alongside the British. In Nagaland headhunting was rife, even though it was outlawed in 1935, it still continued for years and I was told the last recorded occurrence happened as recently as 1999. A headhunter can be distinguished from his tattoos…

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If a man participated in headhunting but failed to return with one, then they received chest tattoos, like this gentleman

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If you successfully returned with a head, you were granted a full facial tattoo, some are more prominent that others, this man had hunted two heads

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You become an experienced hunter by slaying six or more heads and you have your facial tattoo extended to the neck. This fine chap, Ahon, was one off with five

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A Konyak man in his traditional clothes. When I shook his hand he grumbled ‘Wohka’. Yep that’s me, Gary Wokha…

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Bone earpiece

 

It was strange coming face to face with someone who had murdered and decapitated another human being, but intriguing. With the help of our guide/translator, Longsha, I was able to step into the house of an old headhunter called Penche, to ask a few questions. Walking into the dark, typical Konyak house, we awoke Panche from his sleep, surrounded by buffalo and monkey skulls with old school spears and swords hanging up near his bonfire, it felt like we were venturing into an ancient warriors cave…

How many heads have you hunted? (this was the first question to ask any hunter we met, an icebreaker if you will)

Three.

How did people react, knowing you were a headhunter?

They treated me well, the young boys looked up to you with respect, not like now, all they’re interested in is smoking opium. I was incredibly popular with the ladies as well.

It was the British who brought opium into Nagaland, how were they perceived back then?

The first time I saw a white man I was a young boy, then there was a 20 year gap till I saw another. I heard from my older relatives that the presence of a white man was not good, some were killed, but eventually we accepted them. If you had stepped into a Konyak house back then like you have today, you would have your head cut off.

How does it feel to kill another man? Do you feel bad in hindsight?

It felt good, I enjoyed it, It made people respect me and I have no regrets.

Ok…Do you know where the United Kingdom is? Say, in comparison to Longwa, if I showed you a world map?

As far as I’m concerned, it could be at the end of the Earth, I’ve never left the Mon valley and the rest of the world doesn’t exist. (Interesting answer, could it be that he believes the Earth is flat?)

I’ve heard that Monkey is a delicacy in Mon, I would like to try Barbecued primate, do you know where I can get some?

(laugh) If you had of came here a few years back, I would have given you some, I used to eat Monkey everyday, now it is the rainy season so they’re difficult to catch.

Are there any questions you’d like to ask us?

Does headhunting take place in your village?

Defiantly not (I proceeded to tell him a little about how it was once used as a form of punishment and guy Fawkes’ beheading). Anything else?

Are you all men or all women?

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Inside Panche’s house

So there you have it, an interview with Panche, we left his domain amazed by what we’d heard. The youngest headhunter in the valley is around the age of 65, these men won’t be around forever, and soon they’ll just be another piece of cultural history, dead and buried like their enemy’s skulls. I was honoured to meet the last of the headhunters, even if one of them couldn’t tell if I was Gary or Gabby…

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