Flatland: in which we catch a ferry to Majuli Island

5 11 2015


We drove through thunder, rain, and lightning to Jorhat, where we stopped at The Manor, a ’boutique’ hotel for lunch. It looked terribly pretentious, but the food was unexpectedly delicious. There was a TV playing in the restaurant, which lead to #1 guide discovering that we have an interest in Indian films. A conversation about Bollywood movies and stars ensued. It was a faintly bizarre experience to have #1 guide singing songs from adverts, and even at the time not being sure how we got there.

The restaurant prevailed upon one of our group to complete a questionnaire about her experience. She admitted afterwards that she’d made up all of the personal information requested. This was terribly amusing because she did it with such sincerity and aplomb.

It was just a 30 minute drive from there to the ferry at Neematighat, down small village roads.


The landscape was flat, there were lots of palm trees, very reminiscent of Bangladesh.

We were early for the ferry – very early – but this is essential if you want to get a good seat.

Travel gossip

It was fascinating watching the arriving ferry unload. Cars were driving across our ferry and then up a very steep, muddy bank in a dramatic fashion that seems typically Indian. There were about ten motorbikes on the roof of the ferry that had to be bumped onto a plank and wheeled down to deck level. No-one seemed able to figure it out, as though none of this had ever happened before.

Transporting transport

There was a chap with dyed black hair and black fluffy ear-muffs who got on the ferry and seated himself near us. There wasn’t actually space for him to sit just there, but he sat anyway, forcing people to make room for him. His beautifully dressed wife trailed behind him, carrying all of the luggage, but he made no attempt to find a seat for her. Other than yelling at her for a bit, he ignored her for the duration.


The crossing was smooth and uneventful, though it took a little longer than predicted. The river changes all the time, depending on weather and water levels, so everything is rather fluid. (Pun completely intentional.)


At the other end, everyone looked surprised, like they’d never seen a boat before and didn’t know what to do. Nevertheless, someone eventually threw a rope and someone, looking like a random bystander, caught it and tied up, and after a bit more standing-around-looking-puzzled all the ferry passengers and cargo were disembarked.

Leaving the Island

— words by Elizabeth & Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth
— more pictures in Assam & Nagaland album and Majuli Island album.

Framing is everything: in which we are not the ones stopped for smuggling

3 11 2015

framing is everything

Another long drive. There may be a pattern here.

The scenery was beautiful. Crumpled/rumpled peaks, mostly covered in vegetation – trees and bamboo. So many mountains. Villages on the peaks with a church at the highest point. It was Easter Sunday so there were lots of people coming and going to church in their finery. Later in the day they were using lovely umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. Their clothes were either stylish and black or shiny-shiny and brightly coloured.

A sign in one of the villages warned us “don’t blame Jesus if you go to hell”.

fluffy green mountains

We stopped the bus at some random point just to stretch our legs and get some air. That was particularly welcome as one of us had made themselves travel sick by scrolling through photos on the phone. Note to self: do not make this mistake again. Our 10-minute walk yielded baby fruit to photograph.

baby pineapple

baby pineapple

baby jack fruit

baby jackfruit

At the border, crossing back into Assam from Nagaland, only our driver got off the bus and everything happened very quickly and smoothly.

One state to another

We observed a carful of locals going the opposite way who had been stopped and discovered to be smuggling alcohol into Nagaland. We had done the very same thing on our way in but were not searched, presumably protected by our white privilege.

— words by Elizabeth & Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth
— more pictures in Assam & Nagaland album and Majuli Island album.

Unreal trumpets: in which we stay at an odd hotel

1 11 2015

unreal trumpets

After the roof rack had been repaired at the workshop in the middle of nowhere, we continued our long drive to Mokokchung, arriving after dark.

We stayed at the Hotel Metsuben, which is the only hotel in the area, and gets used by tourists like us as an unavoidable stop en route to our next destination. It was staffed by a swarm of of very young men, all dressed very fashionably, one of them painfully so. And whilst the outside had some merit we were soon to find that the inside had nothing to recommend it.

Windows. Shadows.

We had to walk a way, past lots of rooms marked as standard, to find our own deluxe rooms. Very glad we weren’t in standard, because these were the scruffiest and most insalubrious rooms of the whole trip (the only ones, really). We don’t mind basic, but we do need clean. These rooms had mouldy curtains and you didn’t want to touch things. That’s the one thing that is difficult to deal with well with when travelling. Cold showers, no running water, no electricity, are all things that can be handled with equanimity, but grime is just depressing and prevents us from relaxing. Need to work on that.

Dinner, however, was surprisingly good, though we were the only people in the restaurant.

But the beds were very hard. That’s very hard even when compared to the normal hard Indian beds.

We were the only people in the restaurant for breakfast too, though we did see other guests wandering in and out of the standard rooms. Everything at breakfast was brought to us in tupperware that had seen better days, but again the food itself was good.

As the bus was loaded, #1 Guide walked us round the hotel garden, identifying the plants that produce the sour fruit and the mulberry-like fruit tasted earlier on the trip.

Really weren’t sorry to leave Mokokchung.

morning flowers

— words by Elizabeth & Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth
— more pictures in Assam & Nagaland album and Majuli Island album.

Caged oranges: in which the bus needs repairing

30 10 2015

caged oranges

After visiting Lotha villages we dined at the ‘Hotel Lotha Dish’.

Lunch inside

In the parts of India more familiar to us this would have been called a dhaba, in Nagaland the term seems to be ‘rice hotel’. The people running it were lovely, and whilst puzzled about why these foreigners had visited did try to make us welcome.

The menu was predominantly meat dishes – the region is furiously non-veg – so our choices were very limited. We refused the salad, our conditioning being too strong to accept, though I don’t think the risk was high. The dal and rice was acceptable, once we’d added the chilli condiment provided. The green leafy vegetable was…odd. In general we like green leafy, but this had an musty taste and was sufficiently stiff that it could cut your tongue (which it duly did).

All the cooking

The rest of the day was taken up with the long, long drive to Mokokchung. The scenery was fantastic: mountains, blossom, jungle, sun, mountains. There’s an art to looking out of the bus windows on these drives. If done with intent and too much consciousness, it’s exhausting. The trick is to gaze mindlessly, and let in the sights unfiltered. Slowly, and possibly more effectively, a strong picture of the region accumulates – the shape of the roofs, the style of stacking wood at the side of the road, the arrangement of flowerpots outside the houses, the many portable solar panels. Without realising, you find you have learned what is normal for this place or that, figured out how things work without having to batter the guide with questions.

We encountered a bunch of young men/older boys who had been hunting. They had a mongoose that had been caught in a trap, as well as rats and birds; all had been caught for food. The mongoose was beautiful, quite a lot like a tabby cat in its markings.

Just needs a little TLC

As we progressed, the roofrack developed an alarming rattle and eventually the driver stopped the bus to unload all our luggage into the bus. It being a small group there wasn’t a problem fitting everything in, and we weren’t too cramped. Eventually, the driver spotted a truck repair shop located rather randomly in the middle of nowhere, literally in the middle of nowhere. It was on a spot of cleared ground at the side of the road, contained what looked like a truck graveyard, and had a small corrugated shack. It also had a beautiful view.

view from the workshop

workshop with a view

A little guy hopped up on the roof, a whole crowd of other guys gathered around to offer opinions, and after 20 or 30 minutes our roofrack was fixed.

Fixing the bus

fix that bus

We wandered around looking for photo opportunities as the work happened and the sun set.

PC mark


not moving

The mechanic didn’t ask for payment, and #2 guide had some difficulty persuading him to accept a modest token of our appreciation.

Working all hours

— words by Elizabeth & Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth
— more pictures in Assam & Nagaland album and Kohima album.

Never mind: in which we find an open bookshop

28 10 2015

never mind

At 4:50am I woke and went outside to check for the beautiful sunrise #1 guide had promised, but there was none to be seen. I suspect that the sun is out of view at that time of year, though it was a beautiful, slightly cloudy morning. I went back to bed but we’d set an early alarm, so we could have a nice hot shower before departing. Unfortunately, by the time we woke again the rain was bucketing down accompanied by thunder and lightning, and (probably because of the weather) there wasn’t any electricity so we opted to travel unwashed.

We did our packing in slow motion, then wrote up our journals, but still we were hanging around waiting for breakfast to happen. These are not the kind of hotels where breakfast is there waiting and guests just turn up; these were the sort of hotels where breakfast only happened at the pre-arranged time, made specially for us, and we rarely saw any other guests.

Our driver had been out shopping in the market and bought some sweet/salty rice crackers, made in Burma. They got shared around the group and were a great hit, so the driver went back and bought a whole packet, nearly as big as I am, before we departed. Despite this, we still managed to set off ahead of time, so given we were driving past a bookshop that had been closed the night before, we requested an unscheduled stop to search for a book on WW2 in Kohima for T. There wasn’t anything in stock on that particular topic, but she did manage to buy a memoir about the childhood experience of WW2 in the neighbouring state of Manipur. We bought a book of information – very random information – about Northeast India, complete with quizzes. We also bought the previous day’s Nagaland Post. I had terrible trouble getting the shopkeeper to keep the Rs1 change. That’s the equivalent of 1p.

A flower?

After a 90 minute drive we arrived in a Rengma tribe village. It was much more prosperous than the villages we’d seen previously. There were wide (relatively speaking) tarmac streets, small walls and privet hedges round the properties, and, as ever, a big church.

Children on a Sunday

Rice was kept in granaries-on-stilts. Pigs, piglets and chickens were kept in pens-on-stilts. There were lots of gorgeous dogs. Everything seemed much cleaner.

Which way?

#1 guide told us that there is a lot of government money available for education. Some communities distribute and use it, in other places it gets pocketed. The Rengma village is prosperous because the money has been used and the people are educated.

There was also a bridge left by the British in WW2, made out of two I-beams stamped with “Frodingham Iron & Steel, London”.

War bridge

An hour away we stopped to visit a Lotha tribe village. It was different again, less dirty and muddy than the Angami villages, but less…solid than the Rengma village. We encountered an odd fellow who insisted that J take his photo. While she did so, the man’s wife admired the generous proportions of J’s hips and bosom.

The gang is here

I knew it would be normal to see people – women – working on looms in places like this and had intended all along to invest in some textiles. (When don’t I plan to invest in textiles!) Frustratingly, and probably because of it being Easter Holiday time, no-one was actually doing any work. #2 guide, however, did find someone who had work to sell. She had some narrow red scarves that were impressive to look at, but stiff and not very pleasing to the touch. She also had a softer piece of predominantly black cloth that would be a skirt if used locally; I bought it as a shawl. She was delighted that I bought it and exclaimed ‘God bless you’. #2 guide assured me that I’d paid less than market price, but I assume the woman would normally have sold to a middleman and received less than I paid. Everyone a winner.

I’m actually planning to make a really big pillow with the fabric, instead, now that I’ve got it home.

— words by Elizabeth & Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth
— more pictures in Assam & Nagaland album and Kohima album.

Songs of salvation: in which we get excited about a triple over-bridge

26 10 2015

Roofs, many roofs

Before dinner the Christian rock band were rehearsing again, with a lot of one-way Jesus, but also another song about salvation. We took a stroll around town, but most of it was closed, it being Good Friday.

Structure of grey

We were heading to a local night market but found it closed, which we should have predicted.

There were still a few people about, with some setting up stalls on rugs on the pavement, selling mostly vegetables and fried snacks. One gentleman asked us the normal questions about where we had come from, but then finished with a very jolly ” Welcome to Nagaland!”.

Local food here

The importance of architects

Earthquakes don't kill...

Wonderland: found

Here be Wonderland!

In the dying light

One of the highlights of the walk were the over-bridges: first a normal double span and then a spectacular triple. Constructed from steel and concrete they looked like a someone had just forced them into the existing buildings, thinking only of function but accidentally creating elegant structures. It being Good Friday, these normally essential structures were not needed, given the complete lack of evening traffic.

Double over!

Start of the triple


One of the few open shops

At the shop

As dusk fell we stopped at small tea shop for excellent chai and k-pop from a transistor radio.

End of a long day

On the way back #1 guide observed that some clients would have blamed him for the market being closed. This just baffled us as it was hardly within his control, and anyway isn’t the point of travelling to make something of whatever comes your way? Just think: if we had gone to the market we might have missed those marvellous over-bridges.

— words by Paul
— pictures by Paul
— more pictures in Assam & Nagaland album and Kohima album.

Battle of the tennis court: in which gates are opened for us

24 10 2015

battle of the tennis court

Having seen two different morungs in the villages we headed off to the Hornbill Festival site, which also functions as a folk museum, with a very traditional morung for each tribe. It’s a big site, to house a pretty large number of attendees at the annual, 5-day festival and it had an oddly forlorn air with just a handful of tourists rattling around. The tribal pavilions felt – though they are clearly not – artificial and lifeless.

Bird and man


Lunch was Paradise Restaurant, a local diner, where the food was absolutely delicious, except for the bland, gloopy soup served as a starter. We were given bland, gloopy soup for pretty much every meal except breakfast and were already sick of it by this stage. The other dishes were really tasty, the egg curry and the mushroom curry – with very similar gravies – made a big impact. I read about Naga food before we went and was expecting tasty things full of fiery chillies, but I seem to have misunderstood. What we experienced, what #1 guide told us, and what I’ve read since we got back, is that traditional Naga food is rather bland with lots of plain, boiled veg, with the option to eat fiery chillies alongside it. We did eat some not-at-all fiery chillies when they were offered. It’s possible the food would have been tastier had we not all been vegetarian (or choosing to be so for the duration).

Entry to Paradise

On the way back to the hotel we stopped to view an American tank which had slid down the hillside during battle. The occupants jammed the machine gun triggers, set the turret to rotate, and escaped. The tank has been left where it stood. The incident happened during the Battle of Kohima (which happened in several stages April to May 1944), in which the Japanese tried to capture Kohima Ridge and block the Kohima-Imphal road which was critical for the supply of British and Indian troops.

The tank now is both memorial and climbing-frame.

Climb and remember

One of our group had wanted to do some military history tourism. Only after booking the trip and then the death of a family member had she learned that her step-father had been present during the battle of Kohima, and she was eager to learn as much as possible while she was there. Sadly, the WW2 museum at the Hornbill Festival site was closed for Easter, and when we got back to the hotel we were told that the war cemetery was also closed. We’d only been back in our rooms a few minutes, however, when #2 guide came to tell us that special arrangements had been made (palms greased, we assume) for a private visit to the cemetery. We walked the few hundred metres from the hotel, slipped in through the back gates, leaving a local to stand guard, and walked up Garrison Hill to the site of the Battle of the Tennis Court.

Marking the spot

To be honest, visiting war graves, visiting any graves, is not an activity that makes great sense to us, either logically or emotionally. The necropolis in Glasgow is spectacular and I enjoy spectacle, and the camp edifices at Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg were certainly worth the visit. Last year, in Thailand though, after the moving experience of walking through Hell Fire Pass, we visited Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where victims of the Burma railway construction are buried and found it a soulless place, swarmed by tourists local and international. The cemetery on Garrison Hill was not like that at all. Maybe it was just because we were the only people there, maybe because the setting is spectacular, maybe because I had no expectations, but I found the place beautiful and moving.

Sadly many layers

It is laid out around what was once the tennis court in the grounds of the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow, and the site of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting of the Battle of Kohima, itself some of the bitterest fighting of the Burma campaign. The tennis court is permanently marked out with metal lines, but the cemetery and its monument are not aligned with the tennis court, so that it looks, as it is, like the echo of a different time and purpose. The graves are arranged on terraces up and down the steep hillside. Everything is neatly maintained, but not fiercely so.

Tennis court lines

cemetery with a view

It’s impossible to look at the cemetery without also looking beyond at the city. Somehow, in a way I don’t at all understand, that context makes it seem more real and more sad.

We walked around the graves for quite a while, reading names, reading regiments, reading ages. The dead were British and Indian, the youngest we saw was only 17, the only woman we noticed was Ethel Carter of the nursing services.

To be remembered

In memorial: Mir Khan

— words by Elizabeth & Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth
— more pictures in Assam & Nagaland album and Kohima album.


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