Gulag Trail - the Road of BonesExplore Siberia’s wild side on this fascinating journey across Russia’s stunning trans-Baikal.
Early on Friday evening we pulled into the Bhramaputra hotel in Sivisgar, Assam after a long day on the road. It was a pleasant and seemingly unpretentious hotel in a region without any competitors for the foreign tourist trade. That should have got my radar turning but after a few days in the ‘dry’ state of Nagaland my attention was distracted by the presence of a near by liquor store, the Black Dog, purveyors of fine wine and cold beer. After a long day dodging vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists on narrow overcrowded roads a cold beer seemed the perfect nerve tonic. Dinner at the Bhramaputra was a convivial affair just perfect to celebrate with a few wines. The price on the drinks menue seemed reasonable too but our bonhome crashed and burned when we discovered that IRP600 was the per glass price not the per bottle price! Should have paid more attention to that blip on my radar. The lovely gentleman at the Bhramaputra was heavily into blatant profiteering. Well at least he did it with a smile and surely we could afford it.
Our journey to Sivisgar got underway with a game of dodgems on the Dimapur Road. We dodged the traffic coming up the hill and they dodged us going down. The road condition was exceptionally good compared with the Mao road about which we had been forewarned and would encouter on Saturday. Tea plantations rushed past. Tea shop stops were made to sample the ‘local leaf’ and as dusk fell it was back to dodgems with the local traffic amongst which were a disconcerting number of cylists riding unlit bikes. I offer this as the reason that I failed to see the smiling Mr Bhramaputra Hotel rubbing his hands in anticipation when he passed over the wine list.
Yesterday we encountered the much talked about and greatly feared Mao Road. I now have a new yardstick for which to separate a good road from a very bad road. There is no doubt that this 4 hours of spine jolting, torso wrenching road would put bum knots in the bottom of even the most hardened traveller. Quite why it is in this parlous state seems to elude the 200,000 Naga’s who live at the top of it. No one has any expectation that it could be different. Well, the great concern is that it could be worse. Heaven forbid. And on that subject the Naga’s arent getting too much help from that quarter considering that they are mostly Baptists who have invested labour, love and resources into whacking great concrete churches when some might properly have gone into the road.
Enough about the Mao Road. It is not why our small band of increasingly intrepid travellers is here at 900m in the misty heights of Nagaland. We have come to see the headhunter culture of the Konyak people. They don’t hang out in Mao but a further 40km beyond in the sticks near the India-Myanmar border and in remote villages where foreign travellers might still meet a sticky end had not the Baptist doctrine taken hold 50 years ago. Our excursion to Longwa on the India-Myamnar border was surprising and not just a little disconcerting. Surprising because the road was a veritable speedway by comparison to ‘that which shall not be mentioned’. Disconcerting because the remaining link with the headhunter days are elderly gentlemen who are all well into their 80’s. The Konyak villages are all interesting places with plenty of unrealised potential for ethno-cultural tourism but it seems that few other than us are much interested in the wider picture. The old guys are the main attraction and well they should be but it seemed intrusive to bowl into the Chief’s house armed with camera and morbid curiosity about how many heads he had taken in the bad old head taking days. There is definitely more to the Konyak culture than heads but it might take more time to uncover than we had available.
Tomorrow we are off down ‘that’ road to the Brahmaputra plain and onwards to Dibrugar. It will be a day of dodgems and bum knots but our spirits are lifted by the evening song from the Church across the valley from our quaint little resort. Sweet sounding voices have been raised to Hark the Herald Angels and Auld Lang Syne. Presumably in preparation for the the Christmas festivities for which the locals have been gaily decorating the towns and villages with elaborate Christmas trees and jolly Santa’s.