Friends with Ben­e­fits

We take the new Duster on an ad­ven­ture to the Indo-Myan­mar bor­der

Evo India - - GREAT OVERLAND ADVENTURE - WORDS by RYAN LEE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by VARUN KULKA­RNI

WHAT IS IT WITH ME and bor­der challenges! Ei­ther I’m star­ing down the bar­rel of a gun or I get caught in the mid­dle of an am­bush! Right now there are jawans pa­trolling the area and even some crouched be­hind bushes with their weapons pointed at some in­vis­i­ble ad­ver­sary. Some­thing didn’t feel right and I voiced my con­cerns to my photographer Varun. He gen­er­ally doesn’t agree with me on any­thing and was nod­ding his head in dis­agree­ment. We rounded the next cor­ner and came upon a road block with an army jawan ask­ing me to pull over. As I was about to jump out and make in­quiries that un­mis­tak­able crackling of au­to­matic gun­fire echoed through the moun­tains.

I’m go­ing to rewind a bit and tell you how we al­most got pep­pered with bul­lets. See, up un­til now, bor­der challenges in­volved dif­fi­cult roads, lonely

places and ex­treme weather. Get­ting to Moreh – on the Indo-Myan­mar bor­der – is none of that. The roads are rel­a­tively easy and the weather is mod­er­ate if you com­pare it to the last few places we’ve taken the Duster to. No, the chal­lenge with get­ting to this bor­der is more psy­cho­log­i­cal than phys­i­cal. I’ve heard so much about the North East, about kid­nap­pings, about strife, about a whole bunch of ac­tive militant groups that I had to talk to my­self all the way there to stop my brain from con­jur­ing up im­ages of red flags and road blocks. And pos­si­ble kid­nap­pings. Ouseph who’s been up in the North East tells me that this is all hog­wash, that it is safe as long as I don’t drive around at night. Right.

We be­gin our jour­ney from Dima­pur in Na­ga­land, and em­bark on a 600km roller­coaster drive through the moun­tains that would fi­nally get us to Im­phal, where we planned to stop for the night. The roads in the hills are nar­row and there is a fair amount of traf­fic plying be­tween Dima­pur and Ko­hima – cap­i­tal of Na­ga­land. Slowly weav­ing through traf­fic, driv­ing lit­er­ally on crawler mode, we get out of Ko­hima.

Fi­nally the traf­fic thinned and it was the per­fect time to step on the pedal and get go­ing. Packed with 108 horses and 248Nm of torque, the 1.5-litre diesel mill re­sponded with ur­gency and took to the twisty and open moun­tain road with ease. The Duster AWD has short gear­ing to help it when it goes off-road and this gear­ing helps im­mensely when you’re driv­ing on steep and windy roads. Stick it in sec­ond gear and you can get up most in­clines and de­clines with­out re­ally hav­ing to down­shift to first, as you would in most SUVs. Af­ter driv­ing for about an hour and a half we stopped at a small cot­tage by the road­side for a quick bite of eggs, bis­cuits and chai.

The Duster isn’t as top heavy as other SUVs and so, on these moun­tain roads, you can drive much faster than you think you can, all in ab­so­lute safety. Af­ter driv­ing for about three hours through the moun­tains we fi­nally got to Im­phal and it is quite an im­pres­sive city, wellplanned, clean and wel­com­ing. Any­way, af­ter hav­ing tea, we fu­elled up for the next day and were search­ing for a ho­tel to park our­selves for the night, when Varun got a brain­wave: “Let’s con­tinue on to Moreh.” What! Are you se­ri­ous?

It was around three in the af­ter­noon and Moreh was 110km from Im­phal, so it did make sense to carry on, as it would save us time in the morn­ing. I also know that 110km in the moun­tains take much longer than 110km in the plains and I was try­ing to explain this to Varun when he pulled that an­noy­ing photographer trump card. “Don’t blame me if the pic­tures are not nice.” I give in and we start to climb yet an­other moun­tain to get to Moreh.

The North East is so far east that day­light be­gins to fade as we re­sume our jour­ney. I thank God for the Duster’s bright head­lights and fog lamps as we make our way through these lonely moun­tains. There are very few cars on the road and my mind starts act­ing up again. If some­thing should hap­pen up here, there’s lit­tle chance that we would be found. But, brave jour­nal­ists that we are, we mo­tor on, plac­ing com­plete trust in the Duster’s re­li­a­bil­ity.

AN ARMY OF­FI­CER TOLD US NOT TO VEN­TURE OUT AF­TER DARK, BE­CAUSE IT IS NOT SAFE

It does not let us down. The road to Moreh is not very good, it is rid­dled with pot­holes (as is the case with most roads across the coun­try) and at places there is no road, just a wet, slushy trail. The sus­pen­sion on the AWD Duster bat­tled every bump and ditch with ease with­out me hav­ing to slow down all that much. But what did slow us down were the nu­mer­ous army check­posts along the way. At each check­post, they went through our pa­pers fol­lowed by a lengthy ex­pla­na­tion as to why we wanted to get to Moreh. This was then fol­lowed by the dis­tri­bu­tion of a few copies of the mag­a­zine, a flash of my press card and only then were we waved past. This would be­come the stan­dard modus operandi at every check­post.

At the check­posts we were as­sured that there would be enough ho­tels to stay at Moreh and this was con­tra­dic­tory to what our go-to guy in the North East, Ravi Agrawal, had told us. I re­mem­ber him men­tion­ing there were no ho­tels in Moreh and I hadn’t been able to find one on the in­ter­net ei­ther.

By now, Varun had found a jawan from Ma­ha­rash­tra and was hap­pily chat­ting away with the chap in Marathi when the gun­shots rang out. We’re both shaken up but drew some com­fort from the fact that we had the In­dian army around us.

We fi­nally got to Moreh around 7pm. The name loosely trans­lates to ‘I’m tired’ in Burmese and that’s ex­actly what the both of us were – dog tired. The small town is punc­tu­ated by bars and small restau­rants on both sides of the street but there were no ho­tels in sight, only lodges. We parked the car and searched for a room and even­tu­ally man­aged to get a tiny room with two rick­ety beds, no fan, and a dim light (no, it was not Ho­tel De­cent) and that was the best we could find. I wanted to punch Varun! It is prop­erly dark now and I re­mem­ber an army of­fi­cer telling us not to wan­der about at night, that it isn’t par­tic­u­larly safe to do so. Ap­par­ently a lot of drugs pass through the bor­der (es­pe­cially opium and as­so­ci­ated prod­ucts). The govern­ment has tried to curb this and is still in the process of fig­ur­ing out a way to com­pletely shut op­er­a­tions off, though when that will hap­pen is any­body’s guess.

The next morn­ing we find out that some peo­ple had been killed in an am­bush. I was stunned. We were right there – it hap­pened a few me­tres away from the main high­way and then ev­ery­thing was back to nor­mal. I won­dered how any­one can get used to this and re­main un­moved by it all. Seems like all of this is a way of life here, but for us city folks it’s enough to get our pants browned.

To walk you down mem­ory lane, the road we took from Im­phal to Moreh was also where one of the fiercest World War II bat­tles be­tween the Bri­tish and Ja­panese were fought. His­tor­i­cally known as Shenam Sad­dle, this was per­haps the only war where In­di­ans were pitched against each other.

Any­way, the bor­der is ac­tu­ally about two kilo­me­tres af­ter Moreh town and as we made our way to the Indo-Myan­mar bor­der, I was once again blown away (and this time no guns were in­volved). Un­like the other land bor­ders around the coun­try, this one has no barbed wire fences and army of­fi­cers. This one has the nicely named ‘Friend­ship Bridge’ that con­nects the two coun­tries. You can drive across the bridge, show your pass­port at the check­post on the Myan­mar side and get a one-day per­mit to roam about up to Tamu, which is about 3km in­side Myan­mar. You have to be back in In­dia be­fore 5pm though.

As soon as we crossed over the Friend­ship Bridge, the first thing we did was set our watches, as Myan­mar is one hour ahead of the In­dian Stan­dard Time. What threw me off bal­ance was driv­ing on the other side of the road. It felt a lit­tle weird and took a lit­tle time to get used to. Myan­mar is beau­ti­ful, the roads are clean, peo­ple are a lot friend­lier and strike up a con­ver­sa­tion at the drop of a hat.

Tamu is more like a trans­port hub for cross­bor­der traf­fic to In­dia. It is also a hub for smug­gled goods from Thai­land and China

which even­tu­ally make their way in to In­dia. The town is mainly pop­u­lated by the Burmese, but there seems to be a strong In­dian in­flu­ence as well. Burma has a long his­tory with peo­ple from In­dia, spe­cially from Tamil Nadu, who mi­grated in the 19th cen­tury to Myan­mar to set up busi­nesses and join the civil and ad­min­is­tra­tive ser­vices. Tamu mar­ket seemed no dif­fer­ent than ‘chor bazaar’ in Bom­bay. As we walked through the lanes in the mar­ket, we re­alised that every brand right from tooth­paste to clothes was dif­fer­ent; things we had never heard off. It seemed to be lo­cal or maybe im­ported from Thai­land. The glitzy brand­ing of the West is yet to make an in­road to this part of the world.

As we made our way back from Tamu through the friend­ship gate into Moreh, things seemed so dif­fer­ent. I could hear a spat­ter­ing of al­most every In­dian lan­guage in the street as sarong-clad women sipped on fil­ter cof­fee and the smell of samb­har was not far be­hind. Af­ter the 1962 war, there was com­plete dis­in­te­gra­tion of civil so­ci­ety and the busi­nesses owned by In­di­ans in Myan­mar were na­tion­alised turn­ing them into refugees overnight. They came to In­dia and most of them set­tled in the bor­der town of Moreh. How­ever, the younger gen­er­a­tion are mi­grat­ing to other parts of In­dia in search of bet­ter prospects rather than live in the fra­grance of Burmese prox­im­ity. This trip has made me re­alise two things. The first is that the Trans-Asian high­way will pass through Moreh so the next time (I will be back!) I’ll be able to drive all the way to Thai­land with­out any trou­ble. The sec­ond? The Duster seems ab­so­lutely fine for these ad­ven­tures but not me. I need to get my­self a bul­let­proof vest. ⌧

Above: We kept our fin­gers crossed but did

not spot a tiger. Left bot­tom: A quick pic­ture be­fore the ele­phant lost its cool. Right: Mut­ton

ke­babs, a spe­cial­ity in Na­ga­land; duck cooked with bam­boo shoot is spicy enough to get all

your cylin­ders fir­ing

Main: The grey­bel­lied Tragopan is the na­tional bird of Na­ga­land and is on the verge of

Left: Our lunch stop in the mid­dle of nowhere. Mid­dle: Hitch­hik­ers hitch a ride with us till Im­phal. Be­low: We are fi­nally back on flat ground, head­ing home

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