3/1/2011 to 3/8/2011 | India , Manipur

Back to Asia: A long way to Imphal

I retraced the route along the 405 Freeway to LAX International Airport I had taken nearly 4 months prior, this time with a bit more weight (a result of home cooked food, good wine, and good beer), and a bit less hair.  After about three years of letting it grow I cut off 14 inches and donated to the charity Locks of Love, a new beginning for my return to the road.  My flight went via Munich, giving me a few hours to partake in the last good beer I would get for a long while.  I obviously enjoy many things about Asia but the watery sour tasting beer is not one of them.

As I rode the bus along the familiar route from Indra Gandhi International Airport towards Delhi’s city center, I couldn’t help but crack a nostalgic smile being back in the chaotic traffic and dusty streets of Delhi.  In Delhi I met up with my friends Sarah, and Robin.  I knew Sarah from my grad school days at UCSB, now living in Washington D.C. she was back in India after traveling with me for a month in India and Nepal nearly a year earlier.  Robin was a chronic wanderer who I had first met in Ladakh in 2008, and trekked with to the Spiti Valley.  Our paths had then crossed a number of times since from the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar to the beaches of Gokarna.  Together we would head for one of the least touristed states in India, Manipur.  Initially I had planned to head south to Sri Lanka upon returning to India; however, as of January 1, 2011 India lifted travel restrictions on the Northeast states of Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland.  Previously these states required a permit that was only issued to groups of 4 and valid for a mere 10 days.  While the permit to Nagaland was relatively easy to get the permits to Manipur and Mizoram were notoriously more difficult.  With the doors now open I was anxious to be among the first independent tourists to explore these states.  Of course it was not only the permits that kept tourists away from these destinations, they are both a long way from anywhere, not places you’re going to pop into as an after thought on your tour of Aga, Jaipur, and Delhi.

The first leg in the epically long journey to Imphal was a two day train to Guwahati which in typical Indian fashion took 8 hours longer than scheduled, forcing an unwanted overnight stop in Guwahati.  Guwahati is the worst city in India, with the possible exception of Merut, for foreign budget travelers.  The powers that be have inexplicably rendered the vast majority of the cities lower priced hotels off limits to foreigners, ensuring that foreigners looking for a budget room will experience the following scenario on several occasions.  A portly Indian sitting at the reception of an empty hotel, with a wall of keys hanging up behind him, will say with a straight face, “All full,” and subsequently recommend a hotel that charges more than $50 a night.

The bus from Guwahati to Imphal was supposed to take about 18 to 20 hours arriving in Imphal around 10:00 am.  It actually arrived 6 hours later at about 4:00 pm, after spending most of the night stopped in the jungle near the Nagaland-Assam border due to some disturbance or bandh (strike).  I was never clear what exactly was going on, but travel in the Northeast is always subject to the whims of any given local interest group who relish there ability to inconvenience everyone else to promote their cause.  We were still unclear whether the opening of Manipur to foreigners had filtered down to the people who actually enforced the rules.  At the check point between Nagaland and Manipur a guard asked Robin for his permit.  Robin retorted that we don’t need permits any more.  Curiously, the guard seemed to perfectly fine with being informed about the rules of his own country (which he was supposed to be enforcing) by a foreigner just asked us to write our names and passport numbers in a book and sent us on our way.  Maybe he knew and was hoping we didn’t in hopes of extracting a “fine.”

It wasn’t the best time to arrive in Imphal, the President of India was slated to arrive for a visit to the troubled state in a few days.  Hotels were booked up by media covering the event, and the streets were blanketed in Army and police.  We managed to get a room in the Hotel White Palace with the help of local, Deepak, who fortuitously found us wandering the streets of Imphal. Deepak a friend of a friend of Sarah’s who would be of immense help, and a gracious host, during our stay in Imphal.  Hotel White Palace despite the name is neither white nor a palace.  Its grey walls may have been white once but I am quite certain it was never a palace.  Our first room was infested with bed bugs, pretty much the only thing (outside of price) that makes a room unacceptable to me.  Fortunately we moved to a different room the next night where the only extra guests were a couple of mice and a few large cockroaches, quite acceptable to both Robin and I, maybe less so for Sarah, but with no other rooms in town she made do for the time being.

Imphal, the capital of Manipur, is a large sprawl of a city in the center of the Imphal valley, inhabited primarily by Hindu Meiteis.  At this time of year it’s a hot, dry, dusty, and frankly quite a dirty place.  Manipur has historically been one of India’s most troubled states, the mix of ethnic groups all of whom seem to distrust each other as well as the governing Indian authorities, has lead to countless rebel insurgent groups.  These groups have found extortion, as well as the occasional kidnapping, to be a particularly lucrative fund raising technique.  The Indian military far from being seen as a solution to the lawless mess is viewed with distrust and distain by most of the local population.  Heavy handed techniques by the Indian Army and abuses by its soldiers who are essentially granted immunity in cases of rape and unjustified killings by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which essentially enforces marshal law over the state.  A Manipur civil rights activist, Irom Sharmila, has unfortunate distinction of holding the world longest hunger strike in an attempt to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act repealed.  She has refused food for 10 years during which time she has been imprisoned by the Indian Government and force fed by her captors to keeping her alive.  The only place where I’ve seen a comparable military presence in India and a similar local attitude towards the Indian Military was Kashmir, which coincidentally is quite similar to Manipur geographically.  Both areas have wide flat fertile valleys surrounded on all sides by mountains which isolate the regions from the rest of India.

Robin’s Grandfather had fought out of Imphal in the jungles of Burma against the Japanese during World War II so he was anxious to see the cemetery where men who may have met and fought with is grandfather were buried.  The well kept cemetery (upkeep funded by the British) was an island of serenity in the dirt and chaos of Imphal, which makes it a popular place for locals to escape too as well.  But I found the most interesting place in Imphal to be its sprawling Ima (mother’s) market, a market where all the vendors are women.  The vast market spills out from the three large concrete structures built to contain it, lining the approaching streets in every direction.

Our second day in Imphal we visited the Kangla, with Deepak.  The Kangla is the ruins of the old palace where the Meitei Kings once ruled, it sits at the center of Imphal and remains an important place for all Meiteis.  There is not a whole lot left of the old palace buildings, having been occupied as an Indian Army camp since independence.  Of the several sites on the grounds that have special religious meaning to the Meiteis, in many cases all that remains is a few bricks.  With the army now mostly moved out from the historical site, the few buildings that have remained are being restored in an attempt to revive some of its former glory.

2 comments to Back to Asia: A long way to Imphal

  • Aqua

    It’s awesome that you came to these states independently. The incident with the border guard is hilarious. But that’s how the northeast is. No one really cares until they need to. 🙂 Will surely be reading more of this journey.

  • Thanks glad you are enjoying it.

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