GUWAHATI, INDIA – Known as both the “Seven Sisters” and “Paradise Unexplored,” the states of India’s Northeast are a collection of former kingdoms, dynasties and tribal communities that have all been absorbed by the country over time. Separated from the “mainland” by the narrowest of gaps, the territory is wildly different than anywhere else in the sub-continent. Enveloped on all sides by Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and geographically wedged between the Greater Himalayan Mountains and the Garo-Khasi Hills, it is no wonder that it is a place where landscapes and cultures collide. From the tea estates of Assam, up to the snow dusted mountains of Arunachal Pradesh and down to the deep, wet forests of Meghalaya, the entire Northeast is an explorer’s dream.
TO THE LAND OF RHINOS
With a mere week on the calendar before Kaziranga National Park‘s closing date we swiftly made our way across the West Bengali land bridge connecting “mainland” India to Assam, our entryway to the Northeast. Riding alongside the mighty Brahmaputra River, through rolling tea estates and passing for only a short yet pleasant stay in Guwahati, we reached Kaziranga, home to the world’s largest population of Great one-horned rhinoceros. After a night spent just outside the national park’s gates we embarked on our search for rhinos bright and early the following morning.
Totaling one single rhinoceros sighting far in the distance along a foggy tree line, our first safari into the wet grasslands was near failure. Not easily discouraged by dreary weather we again headed out in the afternoon and were finally blessed by clear skies and a triumphant second hunt. Rhino after rhino graced us with their presence, grazing sleepily on tall grasses, aimlessly trodding through the fields and crossing the park’s dirt roads within feet of our Jeep.
Our luck continued through the entire second ride as we spotted wild water buffalo basking in the mud, incredible bird species, a variety of deer, and even one rare sighting of a male Asian elephant in musth. We had ridden for weeks atop our Bullet during what were at times long, hard and scorchingly hot days, albeit through some beautiful terrain and remarkable locations. Though we surely could have traveled the distance between Delhi and Kaziranga in double the time, our haste payed off tenfold with such great wildlife sightings in the park.
The morning we departured from the national park a friend back in Austin shared an article on Facebook about an Assamese man, Jadav Payeng, who single-handedly planted a 550-hectare forest transforming a barren sandbar into a green, leafy refuge for many species of animals. It just so happened that we were planning on driving through the exact same town, Jorhat, that afternoon and thought we’d swing by for a walk. Now dubbed “The Forest Man of India” or simply “Mulai,” Jadav started planting trees and seeds over thirty years ago on a barren island where he was born and raised. He was inspired to plant the forest when he noticed native animals losing their habitat and suffering death because of it.
The forest, called Mulai Kathoni, is now thriving and Jadav is in talks to turn the lush piece of land over to the Indian Parks Department so that others can more easily enjoy and appreciate what he has accomplished. Jadav has received both national and international press and now, at 52 years old he is beginning a second forestry project on another nearby sandbar. He is a true inspiration for how we should be caring for our precious earth and all of its inhabitants.
THE POSTMASTER AT CHUCHU TOWN
After a hike with Mulai and a restful, albeit stormy, night in Jorhat, we found ourselves entering the mountainous tribal state of Nagaland, just in time for the Ao tribe’s Moatsü Mong spring harvest festival. As we rode into Chuchuyimlang we were greeted by the postmaster, P. Temjen, who instructed us that finding lodging in the village might not be a problem but that “fooding” would indeed be. So, in order to take both issues off our hands Temjen graciously invited us to stay in his home, dine with him and enjoy the festivities of Moatsü as a local. We were more than delighted to accept such a generous offer.
The Aos, one of 17 tribal groups of Nagaland, after finishing laborious spring jobs such as the sewing of seeds, clearing of fields, cleaning of wells, and repairing of houses, celebrate Moatsü Mong the first week of May with tribal performances consisting of dances, songs and chants. We felt incredibly privileged to take part in the festival, being amongst just four foreigners present in observing their traditions.
Notorious for their violent headhunting ways of times long since passed, the Aos are a wonderfully welcoming and happy people with an unparalleled story and culture. Their cuisine is especially unique; the Ao people are voracious meat-eaters who consume just about anything that moves. This includes beef and pork, meat products not consumed by the majority of Indians, but also every type of bird, frog, eel, as well as various larvae and bugs. We partook in the eating of many of the exotic dishes and delicacies which, we have to add, were surprisingly tasty.
We next passed through the Ao tribal stronghold of Mokokchung followed by two days in the capital city of Kohima. There we reunited with Temjen to meet his family as well as visit a few local sights: the Kohima War Cemetery, the impressive State Museum beautifully showcasing the various Naga tribes’ artifacts and cultures, and the small yet wildly fascinating central market where tribal women sell every local delicacy from live larvae and frogs to smoked fish and yes, even dog meat – a special delicacy to the tribal people, and completely unthinkable for us.
WELCOME TO KARBI TOWN
On our way out of Naga Country we stopped in the bustling border town of Dimapur to have a bit of work done on Vajra, including a much needed upgrade to what the local Bullet riders endearingly call a “sofa seat.” At the same shop we fortuitously met a young Enfield rider named Moses, a resident of nearby Diphu and a member of the Karbi tribe. Though the locals seem more apt to identify with their tribe than their country, they still share the “Guest is God” mentality. So, in true Indian style Moses invited us to his hometown to meet his family and even attend his birthday party. Expressing our gratitude for being so welcomed into the homes of locals like Moses is not an easily accomplished task. Having the opportunity to see the insides of each families’ and tribes’ homes and lives has become an integral and very endearing part of our time in India.
ABODE OF CLOUDS AND WATERFALLS
After we’d had our fill we spotted on our map a meandering road alongside the India/Bangladesh border; we just had to take the short detour from our route to explore the road. Though we couldn’t step foot on it’s soil on this trip, we wanted to try to catch a glimpse of the Bangladeshi prairies we knew laid just beyond the tropical forest. We’re so glad we did, as the ride was incredible, laden with waterfalls perfect for an afternoon swim, picturesque villages, locals foraging beetle nuts from the high palms, and yes, views of neighboring Bangladesh. The afternoon was pure perfection and only available to us thanks to our trusty motorcycle, Vajra.