Friends with Benefits
We take the new Duster on an adventure to the Indo-Myanmar border
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. ⌧
Main: The greybellied Tragopan is the national bird of Nagaland and is on the verge of
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
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