I would have liked to see Jéan again. He’d evidently tapped the barrel of boundless energy and used it to wash down some crazy pills, but his confident eccentricity made him an enjoyable partner in crime at the Nagaland Hornbill festival – shooting handmade catapults at road signs, grilling tribal leaders about how to build pork smokers and drinking rice beers in the bleachers while watching dancers. After dark we’d stalk the night markets and stunted carnival; half the rides only half constructed, the others exhilaratingly ‘Indian’ (every Ferris wheel in India throws it’s passengers into Zero-G at its apex).
I would liked to have seen Jéan again – but when I accidentally rode past Dzuku valley, the next step in our now-shared itinerary, I got the feeling our paths wouldn’t cross again. We’d been out at a secret rave the night before, the undeserving object of Nagamese affection in a white cotton tent, stretched taut over a bamboo frame with hallucinogenic purples and blues wafting over some empty grass that wasn’t being used as a dance floor. It was a great greasy slide into blind drunkenness and there wasn’t enough coffee or water in the morning to fully sober up by check out time. I dragged myself through the pressure cooker streets with my clammy hangover and elated in the comfortable woodland breeze, like a pig rolling in the mud. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, in the depths of the North East, Jéan would be the last backpacker I’d see in over a month. I was in explorer territory from here on in.
Some fairly horrendous roads, more pockmarked and gravelly than anything in Ladakh had scored some new war wounds into the bike and I spent two days at a Homestay in Imphal in order to fix the aromatic dribble of fuel that was following the bike like a lost puppy after the tank split around it’s mounting bolts. It gave me time to wander the sprawling Ima (“Mother”) Markets, women selling everything from live fish to pawned jewellery, and visiting the traditional seat of Manipuri Kings at Kangla Palace.
The first of my bi-weekly welding sessions began en route to Loktak lake, the world’s only floating national park, always reattaching my fractured luggage racks back to their fixings. The lovely mechanic, using sunglasses to protect his probably already withered retinas, refused to accept any payment and I rode on happily, eyesight and racks intact, to another homestay on the lake shore.
With a storm forecast, I took a rest day to float around on the lake, the boatman pushing the grassy flotilla around with his oar, occasionally jumping onto the turf to release rope that held pieces together like a gate. Small, smoke stained bamboo huts on wooden stalks housed families that smoked their own dry fish for the market – a staple of Manipuri diet, alongside fermented fish, stinky beans and ‘king chilli’ which, back at the homestay, I somehow managed to drag across my eye and nose seconds after I told the young Indians sharing a meal with me how it’s “not that hot”. They were bursting into laughter as I was bursting into tears.
My alarm shook a sulky corner of my room awake at four the next morning. With daylight in short supply I was becoming accustomed to early starts and by the time my feet slipped past the mosquito net and onto the cool red tiles I was completely cognisant. I pit-pattered to the glow and, instead of switching the alarm off, set it for three hours later. Heavy rain thrummed on the roof, putting an end to my aspirations of riding the fourteen hours to Aizawl before I had even started. The storm had definitely arrived, and it made no sense to start an epic ride in the rain and the dark, on what would almost certainly be terrible roads.
After an indulgent little lie in I dressed for the storm and pulled out of the compound gates into the spatter gun of ball bearing raindrops, clacking heavily as they ricocheted of the visor; which for the first time I’d swapped to the untinted, clear plastic. I’d ride to Khawdungsei, the first major town in Mizoram, in an easy six hour stint, if you’d believe the Google maps estimate.
And it might have been believable, if the road hadn’t resembled the site of a recent artillery strike.
So started my descent into the wild.
Where deltas of small bamboo huts had previously branched from the road, wide eyed children waiting under umbrellas to go to school, there was now only dense jungle, breathing clouds into life, suckling in the canopy. Even the do anything, go anywhere bullet struggled in the deep, creamy red jungle mud and, despite the brand new tyre (to be fair it was only meant to be a ’road’ tyre, and this road laughably pushed the definition) I spent an hour descending a five degree decline in basically one continuous skid, punctuated by frequent drops, foot dabs and swear words that echoed off the drizzly green wall that rose up on all sides. An hour into my riding and I’d definitely already re-broken my left big toe amidst all the action.
I was isolated and absorbed by the riding. Almost like being plugged into the mains, I’d jolt awake every fifteen minutes or so, seeing my formidable surroundings as it it were the first time. This was about as far away from my little desk in Wolverhampton as I could get, and I’d smirk as excitement tracked down my arms and electrified my fingertips. But I was grounded by the implications of a bad injury or helpless mechanical issue here. It would be pretty desperate. I was a ping pong ball in a face-off between exhilaration and apprehension. A ping pong ball that was getting wetter, colder and more exhausted as the fine mist and heavy marble drop rain worked its way through my knock off North Face.
More mud. Deeper puddles. Less visibility. I lost control and careered from the road, through a curtain of vines and into a deep trough. Coursing on adrenaline, I began to drag the 400kgs of motorbike back onto the road by the luggage rack, and was half way through when two ‘Sumos’ (there are no buses here, only shared 4x4s), the first vehicles I’d seen for hours arrived and helped with the haul.
The sky, absent of any defining features under the veil of mist, had started to darken. I was in a small town around fourteen kilometers from the Mizoram border, maybe double that to Khawdungsei. It was only half four, with probably just enough daylight to push on, but everything inside me urged me to stop for the night, a feeling so strong that when I reached the only two hotels in town, all antiquated wood and with the faint air of American Westerns about them, I pulled up the bike, kicked the side stand out into a puddle and drew up a chair alongside a tiny coal fire brazier and the owners, huddled out of the rain. A dismal steam clawed from my soaking clothes.
They weren’t expecting guests or something hadn’t been communicated properly across the language barrier, because I spent more than two hours waiting for a bed upstairs in one long dorm room, huddled around the brazier. People came and went. The sky darkened to black. And finally I had hot water prepared for a bucket shower, long slow pours melting away the cold. It felt like heaven after ten hours spent as a drowned rat.
I shoveled the simple food hungrily into my mouth with my hand and scoffed my way through seconds. I visited the outhouse, down muddy stairs and past a noisy pig sty, conscious that any midnight urges would result in me venturing into the thunder and rain which lashed out and dripped through the wooden slats of the dorm windows. I drifted off to sleep, my firm bed in the corner in a cosy shadow of the one cheap LED hand lantern suspended in the center, left on by one of the rabble of late arriving military personnel and their families, heading through to Aizawl for a vacation.
My wet clothes clung to and smeared across my skin as I tugged them on in the morning and took a small breakfast, leaving maybe ten minutes ahead of these families. That’s because, the road taking a turn for the more ‘adventurous’, it was only ten minutes before the men in these Sumos were helping me to dig out the bike, beached by the luggage racks in a deep, watery clay-red trough.
The men were quick to tell me how much worse this road gets, and I replied I’d lose a full day going back and there was no guarantee those roads would be any better. They laughed at the crazy foreign biker who was blissfully unaware of what “bad” constituted for in this part of the world (apparently only one other guy had gone down this route in the same conditions), and volunteered to drive behind me in case I needed another dig-out.
It was slow, hard going. The road was so churned up, it was more like pushing a motorcycle than riding a motorcycle. And it got worse and worse and worse. Buoyed up by the cheering from the sumo behind, and the desire not to hold them up too long, I was exhausting and overheating myself – digging my boots into the clay and fighting against the terrain. Where possible, it was easier to Jungle bash through the thick vegetation on the side of the road than tackle the unpredictable road, but this was a risky maneuver – the jungle dropped away steeply into a black tangled mess. If there were no other option than to tackle a flood head on, I’d wade stomp into it first, feeling the water pass my knees and rush into my boots, trying to find the most amenable line. Typically this would be a chewed up, mangled strip of clay between two troughs that were deep enough to swallow the entire bike. I’d been relying on skating my feet and riding the clutch, but with nothing to either side it was all about commitment and momentum. As bow waves crashed over the 4×4’s bonnets, it was immediately apparent my little cruiser would be entirely drowned if I couldn’t hold the line.
The system worked… until it didn’t.
Parked on a soggy grass verge, the military guys talked amongst themselves, making impressed grunts as I looked at my bike. However, just because I knew the procedure for recovering a flooded engine didn’t mean I had any conviction that it would actually work. As I kicked the water from the cylinder I was already resigned to abandoning the bike. Thumbing the starter would be the death toll for my steed and an excuse to jump in a 4×4. But as she coughed into lumpy, protesting life I managed to swing the throttle slowly open and begin to evaporate the remaining water, steam billowing out of the exhaust. It had only fucking worked. I was beside myself but tried to look cool as the men nodded their approval.
I picked up speed, either the road or my confidence to ride it improving, as the jungle formed a loose and playful tunnel – fronds of bamboo tickling my armour and wet leaves flicking wet affection across the bridge of my nose, the visor being far to misted up to use. Every now and again, I’d not spot a thicker branch and take a baseball bat hit to the chest and nearly get pushed off the back. Just as I felt like the jungle would never relent, the rainforest opened up and the old metal bridge that acted as the border to Mizoram spanned the canyon to my right.
The fight was over, me and my broken toe could rest.
I had been riding this section, alongside the three sumos, for the last four hours. In that time we had covered only fourteen kilometers, still with another half an hour’s ride to reach Khawdungsei. Thank fuck (bold, underlined) I hadn’t tried to push on the night before – it would have been an immeasurable disaster without the help of my new friends, alone in the dark, with a bike that would cut out, overheat and need draining.
I pulled up before crossing the bridge and waited for them. For once it was me requesting the selfies.
Purified by the drizzling rain, the last signs of my muddy adventure were slipping from my bike and my boots. The roads certainly were much better on this side of the border and three hours of hurrying, leaving astonished locals mopping up after me in tea houses along the way and even getting grilled by the local militia (‘Zion Salvation Free Army’ didn’t sound like the actual army, but they still had guns and plenty of questions…) brought me to a small idyllic village alone amidst the green rippling valleys, Saichal.
It wasn’t meant to be on my route at all, but a helpful (unhelpful) bystander had told me it was the way to Aizawl. And it was – but only a shortcut for good weather. When the locals hurried to greet me in their village, they told me just how bad the road was and I’d had too much experience with “bad roads” to ignore the warning again. I was also a little beaten up, having taken one high speed slide as my bike washed out on the wet tarmac. I’d been lucky to come away with only a couple of bruises and no breaks, just a bent gear selector and lost crash bar mounts – now fixed to the bike with a bungee wrapped around the frame. Jugaad eat your heart out.
There were no hotels here, only the option to stay with local families, of which there were offers extending from all directions. After being paraded down the street, an ecstatic potential host wrapping his elbow with mine and huddling me in close, I took another hot bath, inspected my new bruises and went for a tour of the village with Partie – a lovely restaurant owner who’d also offered to host me that night.
The village was a paradise, a land away from time as we know it. Gentle, peaceful days and serene evenings and the first clear skies for days. I couldn’t figure out whether everyone was beautiful or just happy, but there was a contentedness I’d not seen in people often, here amongst the valleys.
I sat with the men, half of which were drunk already, chewed beetle-nut pan, played cards and arm wrestled. Despite being Partie’s home, people wandered happily in, long into the night, eager to see, talk with and get a photo with the foreigner. I was an ambassador even in fatigue but as I finally curled up to sleep on a bed rolled out the living room floor, turquoise walls glowing cooly, it was with an audience who wanted to watch me sleep.
It was weird. But it was wonderful.
I was only halfway to Aizawl – the city I’d aspired to reach in one long fourteen hour ride – and I was about to spend my second night on the road.
For my sake, and that of the slowly deteriorating bike, I hoped Hell Road had played all of its ace cards..