India

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?

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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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Krishna And The Knicker Snatcher

The Brahmaputra river that runs through Assam, is one of the largest rivers in India, and one of the mightiest in the world during monsoon season. If you’re travelling from Arunachal Pradesh and you need to cross, it’s a right bitch. To travel by road it is a 500km trip to the nearest bridge, the Indian government began building another one over the widest point some years ago, but like a lot of things in this country, the project was simply half baked then left to go stale. Thankfully there are a few wooden ferries than one can embark on from the muddy banks of Sonarighat, an old army bus will take you the rest of the way to Dibrugarh. The whole operation seemed a little under the table to me, but it was by far the quickest way…

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The muddy banks of the Brahmaputra, with the half completed bridge

Majuli Island in the middle of the Brahmaputra, is the largest river island in India. The island is low key, here you can enjoy the laid back vibe and eat parathas for breakfast, lunch and dinner as that’s all any of the restaurants sell. If you want to get sweaty you can rent a bicycle and go for a ride along the island’s lush water meadows and rice fields, watch out for the goats…

Majuli (like that Ali G song, ma Julie) is the abode of neo-Vishnuism, a form of Hinduism that was created in the 15th century by Sankardev, an Assamese philosopher. Unlike everyday Hinduism which worships 330,000,000 deities, Vishnuism focuses only on Vishnu mainly in his Krishna carnation. 22 sutras (vaishnavite monasteries) can be found on Majuli Island.

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Vaishnavite monks

For many Hindus, Krishna is incarnate, he walks the earth just like you and me, but still can defy the odds of space and time. There’s a tale which claims that Krishna had 16,108 wives, and that he manipulated himself 16,108 times so that he could be with all of the woman at once on his island-city of Dwarka. That many woman at one time? No wonder he’s worshiped, every man in the world would love to be like Krishna!

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Garuda, the mount and protector of Lord Vishnu

On our final morning, I woke up to find that all of our underwear had been stolen from the washing line. After a little sleuthing about, the locals seemed to think the culprit was the village madman. Crime is non existent on Majuli except when it comes to garment grabbing, this happened once before, five years ago. I was recommended not to bother reporting the incedent, as the police would most likely be busy playing cards and bribing rickshaw drivers. So I managed to put my disturbing thoughts of a dribbling lunatic wearing one of the compadre’s size 32F’s aside, when the man who owned the lodge said we didn’t have to pay for the room to make up for the inconvenience. I gladly accepted and we left the island having broken the record for the cheapest paid accomodation yet, at a remarkably low price of a pair of kegs, 6 pairs of knickers and a bra!

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Ziro Tolerance

Getting from Tawang to Ziro took two days with various stop offs, one leg of the journey involved an overnight sleeper bus. Sleeper buses in Arunachal Pradesh are like the Rat Ride at Light Water Valley, except there’s no photo at the end, just a stinking headache and a sore neck…

Ziro Valley’s landscape is very different to that of Tawang, tracts of lush paddy fields stretch for miles, the sun shines, the sky is clear azure and the birds constantly sing happy songs for happy people. Descending into Ziro is like stepping into God’s back garden…

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Hapoli is the main settlement in the valley, but this is little more than a jump off point for the tribal villages. It’s worth calling into the market and seeing if there’s any weird food stuff that tribal people are well known for…

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Bananas, chillies, eggplant, jungle rat…

Ziro Valley is where you will find the Apatani tribe. Most well known for the facial tattooing and nose plugging of the women. Apparently Apatani women were considered the most beautiful of all tribeswomen in Ziro Valley, making them prone to kidnappings by horny tribesman from the rival communities, such as the Nishis. The girls were therefore defaced by their own men to discourage them from being snatched up and taken away. You will see women over forty with facial tattoos and the women over sixty with nose plugs or yaping hurlo as well. Surprisingly the average life expectancy is over 80 for a woman, and it’s not uncommon for some to live to 100+

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When we walked into the largest Apatani village, Hong, we happened to stumble across all the women crowded around one of the village lapangs, a large wooden structure used for public meetings. The women were waiting to collect their annual pension, one by one they queued up until it was their turn to stamp their thumbprint (most are illiterate) and collect their 2400 rupees, approximately £25 for one year, they don’t get a bus pass either so think twice before complaining about the U.K state pension.

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Hong village street

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A babo, large wooden staff. One of these is erected outside every house indicating the clan or family

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The women waiting for their pension

The Apatani women aren’t that keen on having their photos taken, it wasn’t their choice to get the facial tattoos, they think it makes them ugly and some have even been to Harley Street to get them removed. I just showed them a photo of some Pennywell girls and they felt a lot better about themselves…

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The Apatani religion is Donyi-Polo, which focuses on the worship of the Sun and the Moon. Whenever anything bad happens, the Apatanis believe it is caused by evil spirits that have spat their dummies out. The sacrifice of animals is practiced to keep the huffy spirits on side. Mithun, a type of cow unique to Arunachal, is normally sacrificed on big occasions. If you visit during festival times you will see every animal under the sun being put to the sword, you will also hear ‘Sacrifice’ by Elton John being played on repeat, I’ve heard it’s a hit with the Apatanis…

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We saw this man walking around with a freshly sacrificed mithun leg, so something extremely bad had happened, such as a death. Or maybe they’d heard I was in town…

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Apatani grave (biyu) with the skull of a sacrificed animal

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Apatani bloke flexing

We were invited along to the victory bash of Shri Tillong Sambyo, the Hong village congress party minister. Let me tell you one thing about Indian politics, it is as corrupt as Lance Armstong’s drugs tests. This guy only won the election as he showered the public with ‘motivational’ gifts of fresh meat just before voting. The victory party was just another sweetener for the masses, free drink and as much mithun as you can eat. Being the only white people in the vicinity we were treated like royalty, and were practically force fed cup after cup of home brewed rice beer. Home brewed rice beer tastes like a mixture of dry cider and cheap boxed wine, pretty lifting, but does the trick. All day we stayed and watched traditional Apatani dances and numerous very long speeches by the minister, no one listened, just waited for the buffet to open.

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We left Ziro all rice beered up and extremely happy to have come face to face with these unique people, it’s also worth noting that this is the first place I’ve visited beginning with a Z, house!

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Our Apatani Aunty and Uncle

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The End Of The Road

Arunachal Pradesh sits in the far North East corner of India and shares a large land border with China. The Chinese have on a few occasions tried to claim AP as their own, so the already fragile Indo-Tibetan border is heavily guarded, there is a strong military presence throughout the state but the peaceful atmosphere remains. This is probably one of the least explored parts of the country and is often dubbed ‘the final frontier’ of India, certain places in the state are still to be named and mapped so the idea of delving into the wild is appealing to me. Let’s hope that the 50 quid I’ve shelled out for the inner line permit to come to ‘The Land of the Dawn Lit Mountains’ will be worth it…

Dirang was a long drive from the Assam border, and we really only stopped here to break up the journey to Tawang. Dirang has only a handful of fly ridden eateries selling nothing but fried rice, but on the other hand almost half the shops in town are hole in the wall alcohol joints, so even though you will go hungry in Dirang, you will never be without a bottle of Bagpiper whisky. Old Dirang is a long walk from the new town, or in my case a 5 minute drive if you can hitch a ride from someone who assumes you’ve met David Beckham, just because you’re English. Old Dirang’s tiny stone Monpa houses reminded me of the village scenes from ‘Cadfael’ the 16th century crime solving monk, and there were more goats than people. Back in new Dirang we checked out the Yak Research Centre, the chief professor kindly showed us around the labs where they are attempting to create a genetically modified super yak that can live in warmer climes. I didn’t mention that I’d eaten yak meat only a couple of weeks ago…

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In Hinduism, a deity may be a rock in a cave, a tree growing in an orchard, a cow wandering the streets…or even a banana…

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or a goat…

Arunachal’s roads are in a word, appalling. Bus travel here is rare so everybody uses shared Tata sumo jeeps to get around. The roads, if you can call them that, are very muddy, so combine this with the mountain terrain and it’s understandable how it takes an eternity to get anywhere. You can forget about sleeping, reading or doing anything else to pass the time as the journey will be extremely rough, so all you can do is sit and wait, whilst being stuck in the same position with the eleven other passengers. The distance from Dirang to Tawang is a mere 170km, it takes 8 hours. The road twists and turns up and over the 4176m Sela pass and down into the valley. The ‘highway’ continues for some time, the smell of the cannabis plants that line both sides of the road being the only comfort. A final ascent is made to Tawang where you reach the end of the road, literally. It’s just as well this town doesn’t have a football team as a trip to Tawang F.C would be a nightmare away day…

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One of the better roads

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Normal sight on an AP highway

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The trucks have eyes in Arunachal

Tawang was founded in the 17th century and is the last major settlement on the ancient trade route to Tibet, I’m guessing there were a lot of banjo strings sold here and that’s where the town generated its name from. The monastery here is reportedly the second largest in the world after Potala Palace in Lhasa and is a must visit pilgrimage site for any Indian Buddhist. Monasteries can act like schools for young monks who wish to dedicate their lives to finding spiritual enlightenment. The young boys eat, sleep and live here whilst doing all their lessons including Maths and English, just like any other school, bullying is not unheard of as I found out when I witnessed one monk receiving a ‘chalky’ on his robes by the rest of his cohort. Inside the prayer hall is a giant statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, maybe this is where Black Grape got their inspiration for the song ‘Shake Your Money Maker’…

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Afternoon prayers

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8m high statue of Buddha Shakyamuni

Urgelling gompa, a nice walk further into the valley, is the exact spot where the 6th Dalai Lama was born. The small, colourful monestry has a rather eerie set of hand prints that are worshiped by devotees, I just thought it was pretty cool having a cuppa in a former Dalai Lama’s bedroom…

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The Tawang valley is predominantly inhabited by the local Monpa tribe. Some of the older traditional woman can be found hanging around the bazaar selling cow’s blood and sporting yak felt headgear, which looks a little like those cheap Rastafari wigs you can buy at Camden market…

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Tawang is Dalai Lama mad

Come to Tawang if you ever want a truly ‘off the map’ experience, no internet, no telephone and most of the time, no electricity. A little further afield from banjo sound, is what they call ‘the lake district’ a series of high altitude lakes near the Tibet border. Unfortunatly foreigners are not allowed any further, as it is too close to China and anything the Chinese are involved in is never simple. So, having reached the end of the long road that started in Madurai, it was time to turn around.

(Up to date info on how to get a permit for AP. It is possible to do it yourself and pay only $50, but this is a lot of hassle and means spending time in either Delhi or Kolkata to make numerous, time consuming trips to their respective AP houses. Whatever anyone says, it is impossible for a foreigner to get it on your own in Guwahati. I strongly suggest just biting the bullet and paying an agent to do it, the extra fee is worth it to eliminate the stress. Shop around for different prices, I was quoted between $80 and $130 dollar per permit. I ended up settling with Rhino travels in Guwahati although it’s possible to find cheaper agents in Arunachal itself but this means possibley having to do bank transfers to pay the fees.)

Arup Barua – Rhino Travels
+91 9864021303
Rhinotravels@gmail.com

Christopher Michi – Apatani Cultural Preservation Society
08014012558/09402048466
christophermichi@hotmail.com

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Khasis Remembered

North East India is only connected to the rest of the huge landmass via a tiny slither of land known as ‘The Silguri Corridor’ which has an average width of just 30km. The Seven Sister states were carved out of the Bengal province and sandwiched in between Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China. It is because of the geographically odd placement of the states, that it is the home to over 220 ethnic groups with an equal amount of languages. The North East is one of the most diverse places on earth, each state is unique in many ways and all totally different to ‘mainland’ India. Ancient tribal practices and traditions still take place today, I was looking forward to learning more about the North East, and discovering how the lives of the people are changing in the 21st century.

The Khasi people are the indigenous folk who form best part of the Eastern part of Meghalaya. The main religion in the state is Christianity, this is largely down to the work of a man named Thomas Jones, a Welsh missionary who set out to convert the state to Christ in the 1840’s. The Khasi language had no written system until Jonesy turned up and mastered the local tongue, whereafter he figured out a way of writing the language in Roman script and contrived the first Khasi dictionary. So Tom Jones has been considered the founding father of Khasi literature long before he was dropping sex bombs on the UK charts! Unlike Welsh, Khasi is pleasing to the ear and doesn’t sound like a language that started as a joke and got seriously out of hand…

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Meghalayan Fruit Sohphie, the bitterest fruit I’ve tasted

Khasis have had their fair share of problems with the British colonists over the years. Tirot Sing was an 18th century Khasi chief, who went to war with general David Scott’s men during an attempted invasion of the Khasi Hills during the early 18th century. Sing’s army resorted in Rambo-style guerrilla warfare, using only swords and bow and arrows against the English’s arsenal. The Anglo-Khasi war lasted for four years until Sing was captured and left to rot in a Dhaka jail. Tirot Sing’s death anniversary is celebrated as a public holiday in Meghalaya and if it’s anything like a British bank holiday, an excuse to get drunk…
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Tirot Sing

On the subject of old school weapons, we were lucky enough to visit the small village of Nongkynrih, which is well known for producing traditional bow and arrows. A project is taking place to teach the local Khasi woman how to make other handicrafts as a way of bringing money and a better quality of life into the smaller rural communities. The chewing of paan is common throughout India, but here in rural Meghalaya it seems to be the local pass time. The betel nut paired with lime acts as a mild stimulant and causes teeth and gums to turn red after prolonged use, most of the woman chew on 50-60 of these per day, so seem to be constantly spitting out a jet of red liquid like vipers shooting their deadly poison…

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One of the most interesting things in Khasi culture is the matrilineal system of inheritance, where the children take the mother’s family name. Also, the youngest daughter of any family always inherits the parent’s estate, in return for providing and looking after them once they retire.

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Three generations of Khasi woman, spot the odd one out?

In the Meghalayan countryside, apart from looking a bit like the opening scene of Emmerdale, you will find spooky looking monoliths gracing the grassy moors. One of these large stone objects was supposedly erected each time a Khasi passed away as a memoir. If you look really carefully around these moors, you may also spot Eric Pollard walking his dogs and practicing his extremely bad acting…

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Having spent only a short time in Meghalaya, I have been thoroughly intrigued by the different aspects of tribal life, it’s mind boggling to think that only a few hours drive away there are more tribes with different practices, cultures, eating habits and languages. I forgot to mention that even though the English won the Anglo-Khasi war and killed their William Wallace, there is no animosity driven towards us, unlike the old and deep seated resentment shown by our Scottish friends North of the border!

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The Dkhars, our Khasi hosts, kind thanks!

Kamai Iaka Hok – Earn your bread by the sweat of your brow (Khasi Proverb).

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Hoose Of Cloods

For some reason all the guesthouses in Guwahati, the gateway to the North East, wouldn’t accept foreigners. After spending 30 hours on the move from Sikkim, which included a delayed train and sleeping on the dirty floor in New Jaipalguri station, this wasn’t the time to be trawling the streets looking for somewhere to stay. This gave me a bad first impression, and we happily left the next day with the opinion that Guwahati is nothing more than a busy and dusty shit hole. A word of advice if you ever find yourself with 12 hours to kill at New Jaipalguri and can’t decide which restaurant to eat in, just choose the one with the least flys inside, simple.

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The small state of Meghalaya takes its name from the Sanskrit words that literally mean’Abode of Clouds’ because of its extreme rains and rarity of a clear day. The state capital of Shillong served as the base of British founded Assam until 1972 and small traces of British colonialism can still be recognised in Ward’s lake and the Shillong golf club…

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In Shillong, when it rains

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Shillong Golf Club

The game of Siat Khnam is unique to Meghalaya and tiny betting booths can be found dotted all over the city. The way it works is this – dozens of Khasi men spend three minutes shooting traditional arrows into a stack of hay, a cover is then brought up and the arrows are counted, the winning number is the second two digits of the actual number of arrows that hit the hay eg 267 becomes 67. So basically you pick a number between 1 and 100 then place your bet, the odds are 80/1. So it’s basically just a one number lottery and there is even a Khasi Dale Winton, who also looks like he has been dipped in Ronsill, that sounds a horn to get the archers started. It would have been a whole lot easier drawing a number out of a hat but then again, this is India.

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Meghalaya is also known as ‘the Scotland of the East’, I was expecting the streets to be filled with shell suit wearing families, struggling to speak English, but it’s actually because the moors have a striking resemblance to the Scottish highlands. If you’re lucky you will even see a wild haggis…

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The East Khasi Hills and the area around Cherrapunjee is surrounded by many lush waterfalls at this time of year, and has a resemblance to Jurassic Park as you drive through the valley, this is the official wettest place on earth with an average 12000mm annual rainfall. The village of Nongriat is a steep climb down 2000 steps into the valley and it’s where you will find the living root bridges. The roots of fig trees have been spliced, diced and left to grow together over many years by the Khasi villagers to make the impressive natural pathways.

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These guys walk the steps without breaking a sweat, rock

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The Long Bridge

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The Double Decker

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We decided to spend a night in the valley where I came face to face with Godzilla’s arch enemy, Mothra. Ok, this moth may not have been big enough to destroy Tokyo, but it was at least the size of a small bird. It was here that I was just starting to complain that it hadn’t rained during our visit to the area, when from nowhere came an electric thunderstorm that wouldn’t be out of place on Jupiter. Just as well I’d been watching Bear Gryills lessons on how to handle flash floods…

India is well known for producing fake clothes, I found this out when I bought a pair of underwear in Mumbai only to have a closer look later and see the word ‘Jockiy’ printed on the waistband. Meghalaya is no exeception…

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Can anyone remember this Newcastle away shirt? I sure as hell can’t

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They Sikkim Here, They Sikkim There

Sikkim pokes out of the North Eastern corner of India like a tumor. Wedged between Nepal, China and Bhutan in the Eastern Himalayas, the tiny mountainous state is only 100km long and 80km wide. The Kingdom of Sikkim was an independent nation until 1975 when it became the 22nd state of India. In its short history prior to this, the tiny slice of Himalayan pie was in the hands of the Lepchas tribe, followed by a monarchy of Tibetan decent.

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Pelling, not to be confused with Felling in Gateshead, was our first stop in Sikkim. The centre piece and main attraction in Felling is the job centre, Pelling boasts one of Sikkim’s oldest monasteries, the Pemayangtse Gompa. Here there were children as young as 6 or 7 living in the gompa preparing themselves for a life of divine dedication. When I was that age, I played with turtle figures and collected football stickers…

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Tibetan Script

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Prayer flags

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Lake Khecheodpalri, is surrounded by local myths and legends. It is said the land was once just a field until a conch shell fell from the sky and entered the ground, afterward the earth shook and erupted with water turning the crater into a huge lake. Buddhist religious scriptures recognise the lake as the abode of the chief protective Nymph of Dharma on earth. In other news, the Terminator has landed on Earth in his capsule, and is looking for Sarah Connor…

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Prayer wheels line the lake’s boardwalk

Whilst at the lake, we crashed at a home stay with an 85 year old lama named Pala. This guy gets up at 3am every day to practice yoga, tai chi and meditation. One thing he didn’t practice was how to tell the time, as our meals kept arriving 45 – 90 minutes earlier than he said they would, unless the mountain air had broken his watch. While at Pala’s place I was able to try a new type of food, yak meat. What does yak meat taste like? Think very, very chewy kebab.

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A 9km cross country trek through the ravine took me to the next town, Yuksom, and was obviously no problem for action man, the compadre got the bus. Yuksom literally means ‘meeting of the three great lamas’ and it was here that the trio of Tibetan monks met Phutsog Namgyal to crown him the first Chogyal of Sikkim, thus heralding the beginning of the Namgyal dynasty. The original throne can be seen at Norbugang park and the supposed foot print of one of the crowning lamas is embedded in the ground just in front, I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that situation as the clumsy monk stood in a pool of wet concrete during the coronation ceremony…

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The coronation throne

Yuksom is a good place to organise treks to Mount Khangchendzonga, the world’s third tallest peak, or just a nice one yak town and relax if you’ve had enough of walking, like me. As I was passing the time mastering suduko, I received a phone call from Vodaphone on my Indian number, it was a call centre in England trying to sell me new products. Those bloody British call centres!

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Khangchendzonga at dawn

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The remains of Tashi Tenka

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The Curse Of The Hill Station

For all I enjoyed Calcutta, I needed get out before I melted away and the sound of horns drove me beeping mad. We made the overnight train journey to New Jaipalguri, where we caught a jeep up to Darjeeling, the queen of the hill stations.

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Darjeeling train station

The history of Darjeeling was a bastardisation of Sikkimese, Nepali and Bengali cultures, until the British Raj rocked up and bribed the Chogyal of Silkkim to hand it over. The town’s cool climate led to its metamorphosis into a hill station, the development of the famous Himalayan Railway, and of course, the production of tea. At 2000 metres above sea level Darjeeling sits perfectly in the clouds, I felt like I had entered the sky level on SuperMario as on a misty day, you can’t see very far ahead. The people here look totally different to your typical Indian and are a little smaller, unless I had just captured a giant red and white mushroom and doubled in size…

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Token tea plantation shot

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Misty morning

Darjeeling Zoo is considered to be one of India’s best, which is true if you enjoy watching a few thoroughly depressed big cats walk around in circles, or consider a few dirty tanks of goldfish an aquarium. Thankfully the Himalyan Black Bear made an appearance at the end making it worthwhile…

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Himalayan Black Bear

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The ‘aquarium’

On our way here we met a friendly local named Lama, whom we bumped into again loitering around the main Chowrasta Mall. It seems that the people here love to eat, and love even more to see others eat. Lama invited us for an eating challenge – if we try local food and eat constantly for one hour he would pay. I’d been starving myself for the last 36 hours for the sake of my budget, so the offer couldn’t come soon enough…

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Darjeeling Market

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Woman making Tibetan food during the eating challenge

Most Westerners contract traveller’s diarrhoea within a fortnight of landing in India. Almost at the three week mark without any sign and things were looking good. Then it struck without a minutes notice and was shortly followed by the other nasty symptoms, clouding some of my time in Darjeeling. I realised that I’d now made it a hat-trick of illnesses in Indian hill stations, after my ear infection of Rishikesh 2009 and the projectile vomiting in Simla 2011…

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The Hindu God Shiva, is often referred to as ‘the Destroyer’. It seemed fitting that the incense bought to put in the toilet was named after him…

At least every cloud has a silver lining and the illness didn’t last long, so I was able to enjoy the rest of my time in Darjeeling knowing that NUFC had secured Premier League safely for another year, and possibly lifting my curse of the hill stations.

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On The Pull In Calcutta

Indian trains can be enjoyable, in small portions. 33 hours non ac from Mumbai to Calcutta was anything but. As the chariot passed through the middle of the country, temperatures were souring into the high 40s and at times could be unbearable. You find yourself lying in a pool of sweat, half asleep and half hallucinating because of the sweltering heat whilst trying to ignore the constant barrage of chai men, beggers and hermaphrodites that come along the carriage. It’s times like these that I need reminding that I’m actually doing this for fun! Calcutta is not that much cooler, and it’s understandable how almost 150 Commonwealth soldiers died overnight in the Black Hole incident. Kolkata, as it’s now known, is boiling.

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This is what I felt like on the train

The city is famous for being the old capital of the British Indian empire, it is also well known for having some of the worst traffic in the world. They say if you can drive in Calcutta, you can drive anywhere, a fair point as the traffic here is quite frankly, ridiculous. This is not helped by the fact that at 1pm all the one way streets change direction (bright idea) so commuting at this time can be even more of a headache, if not dangerous. I recommend wearing some kind of ear protection when walking the streets, as the constant sound of horns will almost certainly make your head spin…

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Calcutta ambassador cabs

Eden Gardens is one of the largest cricket stadiums in the world and seats 90 thousand fans. Eden Gardens is to Calcutta, what the Coliseum is to Rome…

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The Victoria memorial hall was built for the most miserable Empress of India. I couldn’t decide whether or not to waste 100 rupees to look inside the museum, until I had a half decent conversation in Hindi with a woman sitting on the steps. This made my mind up and saved me the money, some of the best experiences come for free!

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My new mate

Mother House, is where Mother Teresa lived and spread her message amongst the dying and destitute of Calcutta. Inside can be found her tomb and the story of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu’s life.

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We done a lot of walking in Calcutta, as it was a lot quicker than getting the bus, and in this clammy weather it brings a whole new meaning to the word chafing, ouch! We stumbled across Collage street, where you will find dozens of tiny stalls packed to the rafters with nothing but books…

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Park street cemetery

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It’s hard work selling books all day

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Calcutta is one of the last places on earth where you will still find a traditional hand pulled rickshaw. I couldn’t come here without giving it a go, and I don’t mean being a passenger…

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Most tourists who come here don’t like to ride on this ancient mode of transport as they feel it is inhumane, so why not give pulling a go to see what all the fuss is about? This particular puller spoke no English, but I managed to explain to him that all he had to do was sit in the rickshaw while I pulled HIM down the street. Obviously he’d never been asked this before and he couldn’t understand why I would want to, but nevertheless he agreed…

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He sat aboard and I proceeded to pull him down the street, to the amazement of some of the locals who couldn’t believe their eyes. After ten minutes I put him down without breaking a sweat and let him return to work. I can’t help but think that as long as this puller lives he will never make an easier 30 rupees…

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My conclusion, is rickshaw pulling inhumane? Is it back breaking labour? From my short spell on the pull, I would say I could easily do this for a living, but then again, I am absolutely brick, nut!

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