In the previous issue, we were having a gala time with the members of the MIMSA (Mizoram Motorsports Association), and all was well until one of them asked us where were we heading next. When I told them Imphal, the capital of Manipur, their faces turned to one of concern. ‚ÄúThe roads are very bad, and since the Tucson does not have 4×4, you could get stuck.‚ÄĚ
The next day, before we set off from Aizawl, we spoke to our friend Bobby in Imphal, who too was worried and urged us to cover the bad stretch in daylight since help is not always at hand in the region. Hoping to make it past the obstacles, we set course to Imphal. This time, we chose to stick to the route suggested by Google Maps and were glad to see the roads were in pretty good shape. An early start also saw us make quick progress to the border town of Verengte after which we crossed into Assam for a brief period. The turn-off for Manipur comes about 40km before Silchar after which we crossed into Manipur via Jirighat and the village of Jiribam. Since time was of the essence, we stopped in the village to stock up on snacks and water and continued to Imphal.
The roads were broken in most places, and we thought that this was the worst it could be. Then, all of a sudden, there was no tarmac. Only slush for kilometres, and the heavy trucks that were plying on the route had created deep grooves, which meant the bottom of the Tucson would scrape the rocks underneath the slush. While Ishaan, Binil and Rohan got off to assess the depth of the slush and guide me through, I quickly took a look at the underside of the Tucson. The presence of a strong, metal sump guard alleviated my fears to quite an extent. After saying a small prayer, I used whatever little knowledge I had about driving off-road to drive across without getting stuck. The rear end of the Tucson was sliding a bit in all that muck, and the bottom did scrape a few rocks but besides this, the Tucson managed to make it through, unscathed.
The road was pretty much in this condition for the next 20km after which was tarmac, albeit strewn with crater-sized potholes. If that was not enough, we noticed heavy military presence on the road. We grew a bit concerned as we were well into the night and after crossing the fifth Army checkpost, we questioned one jawan about any problem. ‚ÄúMilitancy still exists in this region, so precautions have to be taken. Don‚Äôt worry, you civilians are safe,‚ÄĚ he replied. We were a bit weary but had no option except to carry on. Thankfully, we made it to Imphal half an hour past midnight and retired to our rooms after dinner.
The next day‚Äôs agenda was to visit the Ima Bazaar, located in the heart of the city. Ima in Manipuri translates to mother, and the market is named so because it‚Äôs run solely by women and is the largest of its kind in the world. Sadly, the main market bore the brunt of a devastating earthquake that struck Imphal a few years ago and is currently under redevelopment. The market is still under operation in a makeshift building, close to the real one. After visiting a few shops we caught up with Bobby, who took us to his home where he is in the process of building a World War II museum. In a large room, above his house, are remnants of the 1944 war between the allied forces (British and Indian) and Japanese army. The Japanese were trying to invade India from Burma but could not succeed owing to a valiant effort by the allies forces.
The museum houses grenade and mortar shells, ammunition, manuscripts and letters that were exchanged during the war. There‚Äôre also an old Norton motorcycle and a seat from a Japanese bomber. Another shelf showcased the uniforms worn by personnel in the allied forces. One of the tailors who stitched uniforms, evident from the address on the bill, was based in Jamshedpur, the city where Binil hails from. ‚ÄúWhat are they odds, eh? I didn‚Äôt know the tailor I used to visit supplied to the allied forces at one time,‚ÄĚ he exclaimed with joy. After a quick round of photographs we headed to the Loktak Lake, a few kilometres away from Imphal.
It spans 980sq.km and is the largest freshwater lake in the North East. Its vast expanse is truly breathtaking; however, the other interesting bit is the large number of phumdis that float around the lake. To get to one, we hopped into a villager‚Äôs boat, carved out of a tree trunk. It was wide enough to only seat two-three people and Binil, since he can‚Äôt swim, had his heart in his mouth every time boat rocked. All that effort, however, was rewarded when we finally made it to the phumdis which, surprisingly, were strong enough for people to walk or lie down on. The phrase chilling on the lake took a whole new meaning as we gazed at another beautiful sunset.
Since our next destination Kohima was about a 5-hour drive from Imphal, we decided to cover the distance in the night. The roads too were in pretty decent shape and with Ishaan‚Äôs playlist belting out the latest trance chartbusters, we eased off into a smooth cruise. By midnight we reached Kohima where we met Amen, our host at the lovely Morung Lodge. Run by Nino, the quaint lodge has a very homely feel. Amen and her colleague were kind enough to prepare dinner for us at that hour, and we relished the unique flavour of Naga cuisine.
The next day we set off for the village of Kohnoma about 25km from Kohima. The village has earned the distinction of Asia‚Äôs first green village because inhabitants here do not indulge in hunting or fell trees for wood. We were also quite astonished to see how clean the village was and the people were very polite and friendly. What also caught our attention was the sustainable means of living that the villagers adopted. Every house harvested water and there was a network of pipes that carried the excess water to houses below as well as to the fields nearby.
Many of the houses also had solar panels, which made us wonder why we city slickers haven‚Äôt adopted sustainable living on a large scale. Pondering about the same, I also noticed the Nagas‚Äô love for flowers. Each and every house, be it in the village or the city of Kohima, had flowerpots by their windows. Morung, in fact, had a mini garden of flowers on its terrace. It surely was a sight for our travel-tired eyes.
By evening it was time to leave Kohima, but not before paying our respects to the martyrs at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Kohima. During the battle of Imphal, another battle was waged parallelly in Kohima. The cemetery is located on the very place where the allied forces fought a bitter war with the Japanese.
Standing there, we could only imagine what it must have been like to fight in those days, where sheer human spirit and willpower fuelled the soldiers‚Äô desire to win on the battlefield. A time when technology was not advanced and the rifle was the only line of defence for the soldiers.
Our hearts were heavy with the thought, and then we began our drive towards the plains, and one of the biggest forest reserves in the world, striving to conserve the great one-horned Rhino, the Kaziranga National Park.
The drive to Kaziranga was great, and the final 70-odd-kilometres were some of the best roads we experienced. With proper signage and markers, it was safe to continue at a quick pace, even in the dark. We checked into one of the many guest houses that are situated around the periphery of the park and retired for the night.
There are a number of safaris organised throughout the day, and the vehicles will pick you up from your guest house, if required. We decided to start at 7am and after making the required payment, we entered the park.
Now, all of us had seen wild animals, caged in a zoo, but my word it is a sight to see animals roam freely in the wild. And the golden rule to adhere to while doing so is to respect the jungle. We were told to speak in a hushed tone and pay close attention to the sights and sounds of the calls given out by various birds and animals.
To say that the experience was surreal would be a gross understatement. We saw the rhinoceros for the first time, and it is such sight to behold. Big and tough, yet so graceful in its gait, we literally stopped in our tracks for a good 15 minutes.
We also spotted a variety of birds, turtles and deer but the tiger remained elusive. Towards the end of our time, we stopped by a small lake to witness a herd of elephants relaxing by their watering hole. To see them in all their glory and hear them trumpeting was quite an experience.
After a quick brunch we headed to the final state on our list, Arunachal Pradesh. The largest state in the North East, Arunachal Pradesh shares its border with China which explained the heavy military presence and huge Army camps on the way to Dirang. What that also translates to is superb road conditions as the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is required to maintain it in top condition at all times. Close to 80 per cent of the road up to Dirang is complete, and I was having a ball in the Tucson. The transmission was slotted in semi-automatic, and I was enjoying working the gearbox and the brakes around the hills that lead to Dirang.
The sight out of our hotel balcony, the next day, revealed the stunning beauty of the Dirang Valley. ‚ÄúQuite a sight to wake up to, no?‚ÄĚ said Rohan, sipping on his cuppa tea. On our itinerary was the stunning Thupsung Dhargye Ling Monastery in Dirang. Located on top of a hill overlooking the Dirang village, the monastery was breathtaking beyond words. I‚Äôve always wondered how monasteries turn out to be so beautiful, and the intricate artwork just leaves one totally spellbound.
The tranquillity of the monastery was so soothing that we didn‚Äôt even realise that we had spent over an hour sitting there, mostly reminiscing the journey so far. The people, places, sights, sounds and the sheer beauty of the North East left us with memories that are formed with indelible ink.
The next day, we made a straight dash to Siliguri from Dirang. It was the longest leg of the journey but we knew the Tucson wouldn‚Äôt break a sweat. We sat there, cosseted in its comfort, albeit with heavy hearts as the Great India Drive was nearing its end. I have to admit we were a bit emotional when it was time to bid adieu to our faithful Tucson. It served us well ‚ÄĒ no mechanical glitches, no punctures, nothing. This after putting it through some of the worst roads.
As far as experiences are concerned, the drive has opened our eyes to a region we barely knew anything about. But beyond that, it gave us a chance to peek within us. Experience, as I‚Äôve said before, is what makes us who we are, after all. And we most certainly are egging people to experience and explore the North East for themselves.
Photography: Ishaan Bhataiya & Rohansingh Suryawanshi
For more Hyundai travelogue stories from OVERDRIVE, click here