As I slowed slightly to marvel at a cow eating a cardboard box in the middle of the road, I couldn’t help but notice two youths, resplendent in baseball caps and flip-flops overtake me while simultaneously swapping positions on their Hero Honda 125. They had not noticed the bovine barricade that nearly upended them as they were so focused on completing their well rehearsed manoeuvre, with the passenger climbing over the rider as he slid back on to the pillion seat. Perhaps this was the Assam Tourist Board saluting its newest client?
Or perhaps not, but what a welcome to India! But this is not the India that you are familiar with. This is the land that time and tourism forgot. Seven states annexed from ‘mainland’ India in a north eastern pocket surrounded by Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma and Tibet with access to the gateway of Assam via a 15 mile wide passageway between Nepal and Bangladesh, known as the Siliguri Corridor. In short, head north from Calcutta and take the first right after Bangladesh.
With the exception of Assam and its world famous plantations, few of us would have heard of many, if any of the other states, despite their combined population of almost 50 million inhabitants and their 200 ancient tribal cultures and languages. Hotly disputed borders, inter-tribal squabbling and the occasional terrorist atrocity tend to go unnoticed outside of India but have collectively ensured that the region has been labelled ‘sensitive’ and largely inaccessible to foreigners until recently, resulting in an unborn tourism industry struggling to end its lingering gestation.
But, therein lays the attraction for budding wannabe explorers such as myself. I don’t have the time or inclination to plan my own adventures but am happy to let the experts do the leg work so that I can breeze in and hopefully have the time of my life with not much more to organise than my kit bag and some currency. On this occasion I was looking for an experience that would provide more of a challenge than the well trodden coastal routes of the south but less of a pounding than the relentless Himalayas. The Nomadic Knights website caught my eye with its exotic imagery of jungles, rivers, tea plantations and wildlife but when the narrative suggested ‘unexplored, unforgiving and headhunters’ I was compelled to book a place.
An evening of introductions and beers followed the tedious Air India flight. It was a relief to find that I would be riding with a sensibly sized group of a dozen like minded individuals from England and Australia with a mixture of experience and ability.
Some were nervous but all up for a challenge and reassured by the company of professional guides, drivers, fixers and even a doctor taking time out from a busy Indian A&E department. Our seemingly identical 2006 Bullets are all 500cc and matt green but a mix of left and right handed gear-change. I missed the early morning rush as helmets had been dangled from wing mirrors like towels on beach resort sun loungers but I was pleased to find that the only bike remaining was a ‘Righty’. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the few occasions that I’ve ridden bikes with shifters on the right as I found that they forced me to concentrate more on my riding which ultimately resulted in a highly rewarding experience, though not without the odd mis-shift under pressure that a one-up three-down gearbox will encourage.
As our group departed into the unknown, I wondered if this really would be very different from the other parts of India I had ridden through. Day one was thankfully straightforward without any particularly challenging moments; most of the journey was two and four lane Assam highway which helped ease into the familiarisation process, but with no shortage of hazards to keep us alert. Comatose goats, wayward tractors and even school kids cycling towards us head on kept the mind focused and set the precedent for the days ahead. Assume nothing and keep your thumb on the horn at all times.
Heading north towards the disputed border with Arunachal Pradesh, complete with army check point, the scenery and people begin to transform as we approach the foothills of the Eastern Himalaya. There are already moments where I could have believed that we are in Vietnam or Peru such is the diversity in landscape and people. We are often stared at in friendly amazement and for the best part of every day I feel like the first westerner to have set foot here.
Our visibility deteriorates the closer we get to the mountains, along with the road beneath us. Pot holes and diesel spills demand full concentration and a steady right hand on throttle and front brake. The low powered Enfield’s have low tech tyres that struggle to cope with the super slippery conditions but at least there is no sudden rush of torque to unsettle the rear end.
I look down onto the jungle below us in the mist filled ravines. It is eerie and alarming to think how many vehicles may have piled up at the bottom over the years. The Bullet is plodding along quite happily as we approach Nagaland, the state famous for its chillies, beauty queens and head-hunter tribes that were eradicated in the 1960’s by persistent Christian missionaries. Day six was the first short session, but welcome as it allowed us time to visit the state capital and site of the epic WW2 Battle of Kohima.
The days are long and tiring, despite regular tea stops. It can easily take eight hours to cover our daily average distance of 160 miles over here. A glorious five mile stretch of smooth sweeping tarmac can end as suddenly as it began – with monstrous potholes and off-road sections that are fairly challenging for the less experienced riders. Everyone has stepped up to the plate though and the dusty smiling faces as we arrive at our hotel each night show how much we are putting in and getting out of each day.
As we sink a few cold beers and swap stories the mechanics continue late into the night, checking and overhauling the bikes in time for the next departure. They get to sleep in the support truck the following day. The schedule is punishing for the bikes, especially suspension and gearbox but Alex Pirie, founder and owner of Nomadic Knights, tells me that they have never had an engine fail during his many years leading tours in India. The support vehicle is equipped with spare pistons and heads, suspension and wheels as well as all the usual consumables and the technicians are clearly capable of dealing with any roadside repairs.
The only other foreigners I have noticed here are missionaries and they have been few and far between. The states all have different looks and feels, depending on whether they are predominantly Christian, Hindi or Muslim. Whether fighting our way through the chaotic city streets or soaking up the stunning remote countryside, I still haven’t seen any road rage here which I find remarkable given the madness.
Riding a motorcycle in India is never uneventful for long; the unexpected always seems to be lurking around the next corner just waiting to catch you out, and that is one of the reasons why riding here is so much fun. As we are enjoying our rhythm on the eleventh riding day from Tripura back into Assam, our grit and perseverance is tested to the extreme. At 140 miles, we knew it was going to be a long day but thanks to a collapsed bridge we were diverted via a route that had been made virtually impassable by giant logging trucks leaving ever deepening muddy ruts in their wake. The mechanics were flat out fixing crash repairs and punctures as we dragged our bikes and each other out of the mud. This team building extravaganza added five hours on to an eight hour day and meant that we then had to negotiate rural India well after dark which sapped all the remaining energy from us and the poor bikes which had been beasted beyond belief.
This beauty of the Bullet is that it can cope with far more than its looks suggest. If I had spent as many hours in the saddle of a dirt bike or sports bike I would have been suicidal but the Enfield is comfortable and forgiving. To say they are bullet proof would be an exaggeration though and I don’t want to think how miserable that epic day would have been without our mobile technicians only ever minutes behind us. I wonder if there are any other current production bikes that could possibly feel and behave differently from day to day like my Bullet does.
The diversity of the terrain here never fails to impress. We have seen dusty plains, lush meadows, surreal mining towns, dense jungle and stunning mountains with temperatures varying from around 20 to 40 degrees. Through tribal villages and chaotic cities, the Bullet propels us both forward with the most frugal fuel consumption - even for a plodder from yesteryear. It has plenty of character and is very rewarding to ride although occasionally tricky to start when hot. If I rode this bike in Europe it would turn very few heads but not so in India. Here, the Enfield remains symbolic of status and aspiration, of patriotism and pride and despite the recent influx of garishly futuristic KTMs, the place to be seen, for now at least, is still on top of a Bullet.
The crew at Nomadic Knights are highly experienced and manage the right balance between professional and fun. There is no pressure to ride at any particular pace and you can stop to explore when it suits. They were duly tested when one of the riders had a nasty accident while trying to avoid a pedestrian. He remained behind in hospital with a broken leg but was fortunate to have had our first rate team medic on hand to assist at the scene. The success of these adventures is always down to the people you are with and I was lucky to be surrounded by a great bunch. My 54-year-old roommate was fresh from taking his bike test and made it through unharmed but with a few battle trophies for his cabinet. Proof that attitude is more important as experience.
India’s Lost World was a real eye opener and you are guaranteed to feel more explorer rather than tourist. I was surprised to see only one beggar despite the levels of poverty here, and having seen so much begging across the rest of India. Here you will see billboard signs warning of leprosy and earthquake procedure notices in hotel lobbies. Some kids are in immaculate school uniforms and others with no clothes at all but the people here seem as happy as, and much friendlier, than the folks I see at home. Some of the hotels were very basic and some very luxurious. Some of the roads are truly epic, even the terrible ones, but I’m pleasantly surprised to have found the best stretches of tarmac I have ever seen in this country alongside some of the worst and enjoyed them in equal measure.
When? April 2017
How much? $3,980 USD plus flight
Difficulty Rating 70%
Pictures by Iain Crockart and Jim Bowen