You’ll be surprised. Pleasantly,” texted my friend who reviews motorcycles for a living. “Really?” I asked. “It’s meant to go over bad stuff easily, not shake the earth,” he replied. I was staring at the prospect of my first trip to the Northeast becoming a tepid affair because of an underpowered motorcycle called Impulse, Hero Motocorp’s 150CC answer to the lack of off-road motorcycles in the Indian market.
Is the destination more important than the means of transport, I wondered, waiting along the baggage conveyor belt at Guwahati airport. I leant forward to lift the saddlebags, but they weren’t mine. I watched them go down the belt, and get picked up by two stockily-built men with tattooed arms. I met Manish and Nishant, who had also signed up for the 12-day motorcycle ride guided by Shahwar Hussain of Chain Reaction India.
Shahwar was waiting at the guest house — with bad news. It had been snowing in Arunachal Pradesh over the past two days; the Tawang route gets treacherous for motorcycles after snowfall. All three of us were new to this area, and did not want to risk bad weather on motorcycles. Shahwar worked the phones, cancelled reservations and made new ones, and we decided to go east, to Nagaland, straightaway.
We tested our motorcycles. The Impulse may have failed miserably in the market, but it is some serious kit: nippy, agile, light. Mine was orange, and looked jumpy. So I named it Bhekuli — frog in Assamese.
I had come without any preparations. I had no bungee cords to tie the saddlebags and tents to the motorcycle, and I had not brought my helmet and riding clothes like the others. Manish lent me some of his bungee cords, Shahwar gave me a spare helmet, and we left for Kaziranga. The road was smooth, and we stopped on the way to catch glimpses of wild elephants and a distant rhino that only Shahwar could see. We ate a hearty lunch at a dhaba, where Nishant was mocked for using a spoon to eat rice and made to eat with his hands, a first. Despite his fear of chillies, we got him to taste the famously hot bhoot jolokia.
A jungle lodge on the fringe of Kaziranga was our camp. A campfire was lit and a bottle opened; this was to become a nightly ritual. At dinner, Nishant ate with his hands and took generous helpings of a really hot pickle of jolokia chilli and bamboo shoots. We were getting to know each other. Manish and Nishant were colleagues who wanted out of the BPO life. Manish had launched a company that offers motorcycle tours in the Himalaya; he wanted to recce the Northeast to offer new itineraries to his clients. Nishant had diversified into baking, and had recently bought a motorcycle. His total riding experience: 800 kilometres.
I woke up before dawn to rooster calls and went for a walk around the lodge. As the sun rose, I found myself in the middle of a tea garden. A Kaziranga safari was scheduled, but when the guide got late, we gave it a miss; we were more eager to get back on the road. As we tied our bags on our bikes and got ready to leave, there was a rumbling sound and the earth shook. Minor earthquakes are an everyday affair in this seismically active zone. We left soon to do some earthshaking of our own.
Three of the bikes needed mechanical attention; Shahwar’s bike is a custom-built Honda that sounds like a monstrous Yezdi with flatulence. His chain drive was misbehaving (leading to several embarrassing Chain Reaction jokes). The repairs delayed us and we could not get to Mon in Nagaland as planned. We checked into a hotel in Sibsagar town instead.
The next morning, as we approached Nagaland, the roads began to change. There were more potholes than asphalt. Near the Nagaland border, the roads turned into obstacle courses designed by a motocross expert.
At the Namsa checkpost, an Assam Rifles soldier asked us for our “visa”, the Inner Line Permit. He also insisted on giving me a helpline number to call in case of trouble ‘inside’, “because there is always trouble here”. Shahwar got through the border rituals quickly, and we began climbing the Naga Hills on our way to Mon, 45 kilometres away, from where we needed to get to Lungwa, a further 41 kilometres.
The road was bumpy for the most part. Devoid of riding experience, Nishant was struggling. Unsure of control over the motorcycle, he was abusing the clutch. When the incline got steep, he flatlined his engine repeatedly. He was going very slow, and would come close to a stop on each corner. He also felt guilty of slowing us down.
Running late, we did not stop for lunch, and by 4pm, it was pitch dark and getting quite cold. This is when the road got really tricky: very vertical, the surface was a moonscape with gravel and rocks small and large. Water from forest streams had made several corners slippery. Twice, my rear wheel spun out of traction in a corner, but I recovered balance by hanging on to the handle for dear life, keeping the front wheel in control. With the bike jumping around non-stop, my back had begun to hurt; the arms and hands were cramping due to relentless clenching and the tension of knowing that the slightest error could damage body and motorcycle. We stopped every 10-15 minutes for cigarette breaks, and admired the fingernail moon and the spectacular sky and the Milky Way to take our minds off the hardship.
The pressure was driving Nishant nuts; he was on the verge of giving up several times. Manish, a veteran of many long rides, kept talking to him, though he was in no better shape. What kept us going, though, was Shahwar. He was at home on this terrain. Just watching him negotiate the roads with assured skill built our confidence. We had submitted ourselves to the road so completely that we were taken by surprise when Shahwar stopped in front of a large traditional house at Lungwa at 7.30pm. It had taken us more than 10 hours to cover 90 kilometres that day.
It took us 15 minutes to get over the ordeal. The Naga house was beautifully carved and maintained. Our hosts offered smiles, warmth, food and rest. The repast was the simplest fare: dal, rice, egg and boiled squash. And there was raja mircha. (The chilli may have originated in Mexico, but it takes Nagaland to make it so incendiary.) We ate greedily, acknowledging that it was perhaps the best dal-chawal we had ever had. We had tears streaming down our cheeks, and the more our tongues burned, the more raja mircha we had. A taste for pain had been acquired, at meals and on the motorcycle.
Nishant was a man transformed. He said he had never concentrated so hard in his life, and couldn’t have imagined he was capable of riding on such non-roads. He had resorted to the most powerful weapon of the underdog: humour. He was cracking jokes, bubbling around. I went for a walk in the dark. The stiff, cold wind carried away my weariness. A couple practised music softly in the room next to mine. The guitar was sweet.
When I stepped out the next morning (roosters!), I couldn’t believe the beautiful surroundings. We rode up to the heart of the village, met the chief, smoked some opium with him and two foreign tourists, and Nishant attemped a border skirmish by firing a muzzle-loading rifle towards Myanmar. It was a clear, sunny day and we rode up to a border pillar that afforded some fantastic views. On the way down, Nishant and I practised some slow-speed, clutch-free riding on steep inclines. He knew the theory, but he needed practice along with someone. By the time we set off on our way back to Mon, Nishant was more sure of himself, less abusive of the clutch.
At Mon, we stayed at the Helsa Resort and were served an elaborate Naga meal. We had been eating way above our usual appetites all through; this evening, we really tucked in. By now, our quartet had camaraderie, banter and embarrassing nicknames for each other, based on personal ticks. In the morning, we left for Mokokchung, but we were going to go back through Assam. Nishant skidded on a rock surface made slippery by water and mud. He was slightly shocked but not hurt. The motorcycle had two minor problems that Shahwar fixed with his expertise. Now that Nishant had experienced a tumble and emerged unhurt, he lost his fear.
We came back to Assam and took the Amguri Road through breathtaking tea garden country — on roads so smooth they looked polished. But riding on bad roads had already given me a terrible pain in the back, the result of what riders call the backslap: the seat hitting you from beneath. Avoiding this requires one to stand up while riding, but that slows one down, and I was in the mood for speed.
After crossing the border back into Nagaland at Tuli, we began the steep climb to Wokha. The mountain road was quite good with lots of cornering, and spectacular views. With adrenaline making me forget the fatigue, I started riding as hard as Bhekuli and I could. Shahwar had warned me against leaning too much, because saddlebags can make it difficult to lean out of corner exits. But here I was, leaning hard, and Bhekuli was matching me corner for corner with no fuss. On a few occasions, the rear wheel skidded out, but I never lost control — being underpowered, it is a forgiving motorcycle that leaves room for skill.
I hit a perfect moment on this stretch. It was a left corner going up, followed by a tight right going down and then a left again — a perfect chicane. I attacked each corner, inch for gripping inch. Emerging on the far side, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful sunset. Just that moment, I fell in love with the Hero Impulse. Bhekuli was now like a childhood buddy.
Despite several halts along the way, I reached Mokokchung half an hour ahead of the others. On the edge of the town was a church, and a band was practicing inside. I stood listening to their tunes, waiting.
About 12 hours of riding had brought us 240 kilometres. At the hotel, I lay down to rest my back before dinner. I fell asleep instantly. The others tried to wake me up for dinner, but to no avail. I slept for 10 hours. The next day, we left for Wokha, 74 kilometres away. The road was mostly good and, being a weekend, there was no traffic, and lots of people dressed in their Sunday best.
In Wokha, we stayed at Shahwar’s friends Rembi and Liremi’s house. Rembi, an accomplished outdoorsman, accompanied us to the reservoir on the Doyang river the next day. Leaving our motorcycles on the bank, we got into two rickety boats and reached an island in the middle of the reservoir, where we camped. We had fresh fish and slept in a fishermen’s machaan.
We got back to Wokha, left for Kohima the next day and spent the night there. Each place we stayed, we were joined by Shahwar’s friends, who showed up with food and drink and friendliness. The roads were mostly good now, and we had settled into a pattern of riding. On the tenth day we left towards Guwahati, where we were to stay at a resort before leaving for Dawki in Meghalaya. Shahwar’s bike broke down 20 kilometres before our night halt. He loaded it on a carrier vehicle, and by the time we reached the resort, it was very late at night.
We climbed into our treehouses and slept like the weary travellers we were. The resort, at a place called Pathalipani, was a revelation, with treehouses inside a forested patch, a pond nearby, and a museum of vintage cars and motorcycles called Treasured Wheels. Shahwar’s motorcycle was not going to get fixed in a hurry, so we spent the day relaxing at the resort, and returned to Guwahati the following day.
After returning to Delhi, I caught up with Nishant. He says the trip has changed his outlook to life — it has definitely changed his attitude to riding. Manish stayed back and rode around for another couple of weeks with Shahwar. Me? I could not have asked for a better way to spend 12 days. And I could not have imagined a better introduction to the Northeast than what Shahwar, his friends and Bhekuli offered.
How to do it
Choose between two standard tours of 17 days and 21 days. Itineraries depend on the size of the group and the kind of experience the riders seek. The adventure-minded have limestone caves, snorkelling, river rafting, cliff-diving and ziplining in Meghalaya. There is the Brahmaputra cruise and camping in Doyang. Wildlife enthusiasts can combine their motorcycling with Kaziranga and the Doyang reservoir, one of the world’s largest sites for the migratory Amur falcon. The Northeast is generally a biodiversity hotspot of international significance. Arunachal offers the Sela Pass, which takes you to Tawang, steeped in the history of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet. The historically-minded can ride on the Stillwell Road and visit the war memorial at Kohima.
Indian nationals need the Inner Line Permit for Arunachal, Nagaland and Mizoram. Foreign nationals need Restricted Area Permits for all states except Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. For more information, visit tourismnagaland.com, mdoner.gov.in.
A good helmet and lots of bungee cords. A torch and a multiple utility kit like a Swiss Army knife. The weather is variable. Wear layers that can be removed or added quickly. A well-padded jacket, a rain suit and riding gloves are a must. Riding boots are preferable. Check out Cramster (cramster.in) or DSG (planetdsg.com) for gear.
Formerly motorcycle racer and now an automotive journalist, Shahwar Hussain is from Guwahati. He knows seven languages and has friends in most towns and cities of the Northeast; they share his passion for automobiles and travelling. Chain Reaction India (98103 20041, chainreactionindia.com) is his way to make a living out of what is second nature to him: automobiles, travelling, the outdoors. All tours cost Rs 4,000 per rider per day. This includes rent of Hero Karizma 225CC or Impulse 150CC bikes, fuel, all meals and lodging on a twin-sharing basis. Excludes park and guide fees, alcohol and activities like trekking, rafting etc.