The Narrow Road into India’s Deep North

Philip Game sets forth on a tortuous road into India’s remote north east, from the banks of the Brahmaputra up into the Himalayan foothills and the very edge of Tibet.

My opportunity to venture into north eastern India, once largely off limits, came at short notice. An invitation to explore Meghalaya, Manipur or Mizoram, Nagaland or Tripura; or even Arunachal Pradesh, said to be India’s wildest and least explored state? Yes, who could resist? But which way?

India’s Seven Sisters, the seven states of the north east, group themselves around the enclave that is independent Bangladesh. Assam, the most populous and the most prosperous state, cradles the sprawling floodplains of the Brahmaputra, with some tracts of verdant hill country that include the great tea plantations. The other six states rub their mountainous spines against the borders of Bhutan, Chinese-occupied Tibet and Myanmar (Burma).

This is not the India of great cities, of regal hotels and sumptuous shopping. Think vibrant tribal cultures and abundant wildlife, including those elusive big cats: tiger and leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard. Smaller cats, simian species and other mammals roam these highlands and forests. Endemic bird species number in the hundreds. After Assam, Nagaland, which shares a border with Myanmar, is perhaps the best-known of the Seven, thanks to its annual Hornbill Festival. The others are simply names to conjure with.

Arunachal Pradesh is one such. The ‘Land of Dawn-Lit Mountains’ rises abruptly beyond the Brahmaputra as a mass of hills clothed with subtropical forests. These hills eventually top off as snow-capped Himalayan peaks . Twenty-six major tribes share the former North East Frontier Agency, speaking more different languages than in any other Indian state. Some still practise animist beliefs whilst others follow the major religions.

C’mon, they need your answer… I opted for the epic road trip to Tawang in the Himalayan foothills, best known for its eminent three-hundred-year-old monastery.

To be continued…

In the beginning… were travellers

From the late Sixties onward the great Asian overland road became a groove in the map, a well-worn route east from Istanbul into the wilds of Anatolia, on across the Shah’s Iran and anarchic Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and then India before reaching journey’s end at Kathmandu, where peace, love and hashish beckoned.

It didn’t just begin with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Right back in the post-war years, the early 1950s, a few intrepid would-be overlanders made tracks towards the Khyber Pass: Australia’s own Peter Pinney, a life-long wanderer – and larrikin – was one such.

Another, Eric Newby, famously tossed in his job in London’s rag trade to attempt a ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, and thereby made his name as a travel writer.

Two whose travels have remained virtually unknown in the English-speaking world were a pair of Swiss adventurers from Geneva who in 1953 struck out across the Balkans in a rattletrap two-seater Fiat car. Recently I stumbled across Nicolas Bouvier’s memoir The Way of the World, masterfully translated from the original French.

Thierry Vernet, on the road in Turkey
Thierry Vernet, on the road in Turkey

It’s a story told with consistent good humour and cultural understanding, a window into a vanished epoch; a time when two penniless travellers could settle into a remote but diverse community for months at a time, eking out a living by giving language lessons, by freelance writing or selling paintings.  Islamic fanaticism was not yet centre stage, if perhaps already waiting in the wings.

The 24-year-old Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet lived by their wits in an artists’ squat in Belgrade, then in provincial Macedonia. After hauling their little car across Turkey, the pair crossed into Iran, where heavy winter snowfalls forced a six-month layover in the ancient city of Tabriz.

Bakery in Herat, Afghanistan (1974)
Bakery in Herat, Afghanistan (1974)

An epic crossing of the deserts of eastern Iran at last brought the pair and their disintegrating chariot to the Pakistani garrison town of Quetta, gateway to fabled Afghanistan.

Their encounters here include such gems as Terence, the limp-wristed former British colonel now running a seedy bar.

The 1992 English-language edition of The Way of the World comes with an enthusiastic forward by the great (and now late) traveller and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. That enough is recommendation enough to look out for a copy.

Postscript: In 1957 six British students in two Land Rovers set forth on the grandly-titled Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition.  Buoyed by generous corporate sponsorship, this became the first – and for many years the last – expedition to succeed in crossing Burma and continuing down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore.  Their story is told in Tim Slessor’s First Overland.

This post was contributed by Philip Game.