‘Vinegar Joe’ may have made enemies as far and wide as China and United Kingdom. But he had also left something behind for me to explore in Upper Assam. And the Indian government had made it possible to visit this place only on 3 days of the month.
In my case, it was on December 30th 2017. What a way to end the year!
The infamous history of the Stilwell Road
After kicking off my K2K2K ride from Kibithoo, I tried to stay focused on my route and not make much too much deviations. But that resolution was broken within a few days. All thanks to an American who will be remembered in history for his eccentricity and caustic – often racist – nature. Joseph Warren Stilwell was selected by Franklin Roosevelt to be the US commander in the China Burma India Theatre of World War II. While the operational command for this theatre was under Chiang Kai Shek (China) and Lord Mountbatton (British), Stilwell was to play a supporting role under these people.
But ambitious as he was, he stirred up the hornet’s nest by causing conflicts with both the British and Chiang Kai Shek. Being the ground commander, he also disagreed with General Chennault, who was the commander of the ‘Flying tigers’ and later air force commander. After the Japanese cut off the Burma Road, there was a question of how the western allies could continue to send supplies to China. Chennault vouched for airlifting the supplies from the Himalayan region called ‘the hump’ starting from Upper Assam, into Kunming, China. Sure, this method had its flaws, as evidenced by the number of aircrafts that were crashing in this vicinity; but it was the best bet that the allies had.
But Stilwell had other plans. He proposed to build a 1,726 km road from Ledo in Assam, to Kunming in Yunnan province of China. Through some treacherous mountain terrains of Burma (former Myanmar) and the Hukawng valley. He had his way, and the road was built at heavy costs. Called the ‘man-a-mile’ road because of the number of casualties, nearly 1100 American soldiers died during the construction of this road – not to mention thousands of Indian, Burmese and Chinese workers. Almost all of the American soldiers were from African American units – including the famous case of Herman Perry, who went on desert the army and live with the Nagas for a while.
By January 1945, 3 years after Joseph Stilwell started this arduous task, the Ledo Road was built. Later it was renamed as Stilwell road based on a recommendation by Chiang Kai-Shek. As Chennault had predicted, the supplies sent through the Stilwell road never reached the amount that was airlifted over the hump. And just a few months after the road was built US dropped the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war and making the road utterly useless.
Over time, the road fell into misuse. While India and China have developed their sections of the Stilwell road, the majority of it falls in Myanmar (1033 KM) and is mostly usurped by jungles. While there have been talks of reopening this road to facilitate trade, the talks have not progressed much due to the fact that there are a good number of insurgent groups from India, who could use these roads for their advantage.
Forgotten by history, the Stilwell road lay mostly abandoned. But I was determined to see atleast the beginning of it.
Further Reading: From riding a motorbike on the Myanmar border, to riding a bicycle inside Bagan, Myanmar.
Margherita’s secret – all the way to Pangsau Pass
I was an unlikely tourist in Margherita.
This quaint little town in upper Assam got its name because of the Italian railway engineer, who named it after Queen Margherita of Italy. Margherita had about 3 hotels in the entire town – all of them used by coal businessmen or executives of coal-mining companies. It is not for nothing that Margherita is called ‘the coal queen of India’; Coal India ltd had operations here.
But Margharita also was the beginning of the Stilwell road. And I had to take up a modest room at 500 rupees in the only budget hotel of the town, to start riding up this historic road.
I started the day early. Like, really early. Like 6-freaking-AM early. And that was quite a feat, given that the early morning temperatures in Margherita are usually in the single digits during the month of December. When I woke up at 5.30, all I wanted to do was crawl back into the bed and push the ledo road for the next day. But I couldn’t. And you will know why in a little while.
And at 6.30 AM, after a quick cup of morning chai from the aptly named ‘Hotel Stilwell’, I started riding towards Pangsau pass on the India-Myanmar border.
The road from Ledo starts out as the National Highway 315. And I knew that Stilwell road had begun, because of the zero point park announcing it, just opposite to an military area. Out of the 1726 kms of the Stilwell road, there was less than 70 kms inside Indian borders. The stretch starting from the Zero point park in Ledo, going through the historic train station of Lekhapani, making a right at Jagun, entering the state of Arunachal Pradesh at Jairampur and finishing in Nampong and finally the border point of Pangsau pass.
Further Reading: That time, when I visited the Easternmost tip of Sri Lanka.
The permits and paperwork for the Pangsau Pass
There were 2 parts to the paperwork required for this ride, and I had already taken care of one half of it. The other half would have to be done along the way.
To cross into Arunachal Pradesh, every Indian needs an Inner Line Permit. It was easy to get this online but I happened to pass through Dibrugarh a few days ago, where it was possible to get the ILP from the Deputy resident commissioner in the Arunachal house in Mohanbari. The cost was just 25 Rupees if done in person – and not through an agent. For more details, refer the section on practical information at the end of this post.
I also needed a permit from the Nampong Sub-divisional officer, allowing me to cross Nampong towards Pangsau Pass. This permit is given only for 3 days of the month – the 10th, 20th and 30th. On these days, there is a small market set up in the Myanmar village of Pangsau, just 2 KMs from the Pangsau pass border. I had to reach the SDO office as early as I could – now you see why I woke up and started riding in the freezing cold? – to get the permit. Again, refer the practical information at the end of this post for more details.
Simple, right? Now, lets see how I could screw this up.
I continued on the Stilwell road, reaching Jayrampore to cross into Arunachal Pradesh. At Jayrampore, the ILP is required for crossing the border. I had to stop the bike on the side, and visit the guard’s station to show my ILP. The Arunachal police officer looked at the ILP for a long time (because I had also listed Kibithoo in my ILP). And then he asked me for the SDO permit.
“I will get it at Nampong, from the SDO office”, I replied. I must have looked bloody confident at that point.
The officer shot back a long stare at me, and then asked. “You do know it’s a Saturday today, right?”
December 30th was a Saturday!
I had lost all track of dates and days on this riding trip, and I had forgotten the simple fact that government offices do not function on Saturdays. All that bravado and false confidence was drained from my face in a matter of seconds. But I wondered – how do people cross on the 10th/20th/30th of the month, if it falls on a Saturday?
“If the 30th falls on a weekend, then you have to come the previous working day and get the SDO permit from Nampong”, he continued, almost sensing my upcoming question.
Inside my head, I slapped myself. Not once, but a few times. I was in Margherita for the last couple of days, and I could have made a trip to Nampong to make the permit. But I didn’t as I spent my time lazing away and exploring other parts of Margherita. And if I didn’t get this permit today, I would have to wait another 10 days – until January 10th – to make the trip to Pangsau pass!
“Can I get a permit from the Assam rifles?”, I asked back. Assam rifles was in charge of the borders in these regions. Maybe there was some high-ranking official there who could sign me a permit, and let me cross?
“No. You already have an ILP, so you can go up to Nampong without any issues. But Assam rifles will not even let you cross from Nampong if you don’t have a permit from the SDO.”
I was crestfallen. I had been waiting for this ride for nearly 2 weeeks now, and it was almost looking like all I would see of the Stilwell road was the stretch until Nampong. Well, something was better than nothing, right?
So, I thanked the policeman, and continued riding towards Nampong.
When lady luck came calling in Nampong
The roads were gorgeous in Arunachal Pradesh, and definitely new. I found myself cruising most of the time, and around 9 AM, I reached Nampong. At this time, I had planned on queuing at the SDO office waiting for my permit. But the SDO office was closed, as the border police official had predicted. I gave up. I went to a nearby shack that served some breakfast, and helped myself to a sad man’s portion of rice and fish. And some commiserative puffs of a local cigarette.
And then I saw a man walking up to the SDO office. He had a key for the gate, and went inside for a few minutes before coming out again. He wore flip-flops and I was pretty sure this was not an official. But he came to sit right where I was having my Poori. He probably saw my bike with the KL registration, as he started wandering.
“Are you visiting the Pangsau pass today?”, he asked.
“I wish. But I forgot today was a Saturday. I don’t have a permit from the SDO”, I replied with the most earnest, gloomy face that I ever made in life.
He admonished me for a couple of minutes about how travellers like me had to be careful, check about the rules and regulations of a place before I visit, etc. He was an elder man, so I listened in utter silence. Maybe, that’s why he relented soon.
“I can prepare the permit for you if you want. But you still have to get the signature from the SDO from his home”
A sign of life! The man was a clerk at the the SDO office, and of course he could prepare the permit! I just had to get it signed from the SDO, whose house was 12 KM away in a little village called Riwai.
“That would be great!”, I was back in the game now!
Over the next 20 minutes, the elder man took me into the SDO office, switched on the computer, and started entering my details into a type-written permit. I needed 2 photographs (I always have spare photographs in my wallet) and had to pay him a small amount (100 rupees) for his troubles. Voila! 3 copies of the permit were all typed and printed. 1 for the SDO office, 1 for the Indian border post and the 3rd one for the Myanmar border post.
Now I needed only to find the SDO. And from Nampong, I took a side-trip to a little village called Riwai.
Remember how I said that the roads in Arunachal were great? Well, I take that partially back. The Stilwell road was in great shape, but the roads running inland to the villages were not. There was obviously road construction going on, and I am sure this will be done in a couple of years. But for now, I had the pleasure of riding 12 kms on some really dusty offroads.
After what must have been 40 minutes, I finally found out the house of the SDO. It wasn’t that difficult to spot, as it was easily the largest house since I had left Nampong. Outside the home, a man was squatting on the front porch, doing some painting work. Turns out, this was the SDO himself! The poor man was doing some household chores on a Saturday with his family, and I was hell-bent on spoiling his domestic peace.
He was astonished as I told him that I had come all the way from Kerala, and begged him to sign the permit for me. Actually, I didn’t have to beg. The SDO turned out to be a really light-hearted fellow – after that initial shock – and almost giggled at my situation. He signed the 3 copies for me.
And I was off to Pangsau Pass.
Further Reading: I have a history of amazing border crossing stories. Click here for the time that I had to cross the border into Nepal, from Sunauli.
The Road to Pangsau pass
The first stop after the SDO’s house was back at the SDO office in Nampong, where I had to give a copy of the signed permit to the clerk – for official book-keeping. I thanked him for his efforts, and continued riding towards Pangsau pass.
The next stop was at the Nampong Assam rifles camp, which was where I would have been sent back if I did not have that precious document which the SDO just signed a while ago. They checked the permit, but did not collect it. They were more curious to know about my biking trip, and how I liked the Northeast. I engaged in a little small talk, but tried to rush it. I had to be back in India before 3.30 PM after visiting the Pangsau pass and the last thing that I wanted to do at this point was give a break-up of how my money has been spent on this trip.
The next stop was the most tense of all, just a couple of kilometres before the Pangsau pass border. The roads were smooth like a baby’s bottom, so I was going a little too fast. Not cool, I know. After one of the corner, there was an unexpected army check post. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was going a little too fast, or the fact that my bike was bulky with my backpack. But the army guy asked me to stop – while half-pointing a pistol at me! I don’t think I have ever braked so hard in my entire life.
Turns out, it was just a natural instinct for him. This stretch of Arunachal Pradesh has seen some violent insurgency in the past. Just the beginning of this year, there was an ambush on the Assam rifles right at this point, during the Pangsau Pass winter festival. So, their jitters were definitely understandable.
At this checkpoint, the army officer took my photo and checked my bag. I had to make an entry in a logbook and fingerprint myself. I had to submit a copy of the SDO permit here, and was given a token (I was Number 69– lucky me!) and told to return the token when I make my way back. There was no further checks after this on the India side.
I continued riding and reached a final checkpoint, where I was expected to do nothing. No checking, no entry. I just had to leave my bike behind. This was the farthest that I could go with my motorbike. I left the bike next to an entire army of cars (there definitely were a lot of Indian shoppers in Pangsau pass today!) and cross the India-Myanmar border. On foot.
On the other side of the border, enthusiastic kids waited for the crossing travellers. From this point to the village of Pangsau, was a distance of 3 KM. But there was no road. The beautiful Stilwell road had ceased to exist the moment that I crossed from India to Myanmar. I could either walk this 3 KM, or take a pillion ride on a motor-taxi, which had off-road wheels that could handle these roads. I negotiated with a rather young Burmese dude (they all look young, anyway) to pillion me to and back from Pangsau pass to Pangsau village. For a cost of 200 rupees.
I may have rode thousands of Kilometres around many countries in the South Asia region, but I still shit bricks when sitting behind somebody. It was the same today. This dude had no fear. On a descending off-road path that was paved with huge rocks, he just kept zipping away without a care in the world. Every once in a while, he would slow down. But that was only to say hi to a rider coming from the other side.
I suddenly wished there was more traffic.
He only stopped once – at the Myanmar border post where I had to submit the last remaining copy of the SDO permit. The Myanmar border security was super fun and relaxed. They cracked a couple of jokes as I made the entry – none of which I understood – and told me in their most cheerful mannerism. “Happy shopping”. I tried to use the light-heartedness as a reason to take some pictures here, but was obviously refused in a light-hearted manner (just as I couldn’t take pictures near the India border post).
I had just crossed an international border without even having to show my passport. And now I had about 4 hours to return back.
The Pangsau Pass market and the Golden Pagoda
In just about a total of 10 minutes, my need-for-speed driver had safely brought me to what I came to see. The Pangsau pass market.
I had been to Myanmar before, and I have even crossed an India-Myanmar border before at Moreh. (Technically, I also did the same in Longwa, although most of the things that I did there are not completely legal!). But the Pangsau village was a completely different world. Rows of vendors sat on 2 sides of the dusty road, as motorists made their way through the chaos. They sold everything from clothes and toys to the Kratingdaeng, the original Thai version of the Austrian Red Bull. A few restaurants added to the milieu, selling noodles and the local beers. Plenty of local beers, as brands like Yangon, Myanmar, etc. were decked up on the main street. And a lot of vegetables, although that made me wonder. Are there really Indians crossing the border to buy vegetables? Naah, probably those were for the local Burmese.
I hung around the market for a while. Drank a Kratingdaeng, and had some noodle-sy soup that compensated for lunch. I tried some small talk with the locals, but language was a definite hurdle here. Some of the Burmese here understood a little Nagamese (a hybrid language formed between Naga and Assamese languages), but I didn’t speak it. I tried English and Hindi. Not much luck, although broken English was reasonable currency for the shopping. I tried to break some ice with the few Thai phrases I knew. “Khap khun kha”, “Sawadee Kha”. Ugh, wrong fucking country! No luck again. I watched helplessly as the villagers walked between the market and their houses, a short walk away on beautiful roads.
My driver checked back on me every 10 minutes to see if I was ready to go back to the border. I had already paid him the 200 bucks and he really didn’t need to keeping looking out for me, but I thought that was sweet of him. He didn’t speak much English, but told me that I should check out the Golden Pagoda, which was a short climb up from the Pangsau village.
With nothing else to do, I did that too. The short walk led me to a beautiful stand-alone pagoda, overlooking both India and Myanmar at the same time. There was a small monastery next to it, but looks like the monks weren’t at home today. The entire Pagoda surroundings looked empty, as all the people were flocked at the market. Who wants a pagoda, when there is cheap shopping at stake, right?
Further Reading: Did you know there is a Burmese Pagoda right in the heart of Mumbai?
Lake of No Returns? Not today.
The time was almost 2.30 PM now. All Indian visitors had to return back to the border by 3.30 PM, and it would take me 20 to 30 minutes to get back. I had not shopped anything, but I decided it was enough. Stilwell road was conquered, and it was time to head back. I took one last look at the Pangsau market.
And of course, at the glorious ‘lake of no returns’ to the right of it.
This lake came with a lot of legends, all of which had given it a eerie description in history. The name most likely originated from the fact that many American planes crash-landed here during world war II, when it was difficult to fly over ‘the hump’ (which was also one of the reasons why Joseph Stilwell was convinced to build the Stilwell road). But there are also tales about how the lake is surrounded by quicksand, and how retreating British soldiers got lost here during world war II. But all these legends meant that no one would take me to get closer to the lake. All I could do was enjoy the beauty of this legendary lake from the village – and the golden pagoda– and then make my way back.
Today, it was not going to be the lake of no returns. Because I did return back to India without any concerns.
Access to Pangsau pass
Pangsau pass is strictly sealed off for foreigners. Indians can cross only on the 10th, 20th and 30th of the month and return back before 3.30 PM the same day. Vehicles are only allowed till the Indian border, and after that one has to walk or take a local motor-taxi.
Documents required for crossing to Pangsau pass
The cost of the permit is Rs. 25. Required documents:
a) filled up application form,
b) original and photocopy of ID and address proof (Passport, license, or aadhar card), and
c) 2 passport size photos.
As long as you make the application before noon, the permits are issued the same day. Specify in the permit that you will be visiting Pangsau pass, since the Arunachal ILPs are issued based on circuits, and not for the entire state.
2) SDO permit is issued by the SDO office in Nampong, which opens during Monday to Friday, 9 AM onwards. 2 photographs are required, and it takes just about 20 to 30 minutes for processing. Ensure you have 2 copies of the permit (one for India and one for Myanmar) before you leave the SDO office.
Tips for Riding
The roads are in great shape until the Pangsau pass border. Try not to overspeed, as there could be any army checkpost on the way, and you may be mistaken. No riding after Pangsau pass.
Other things to note
Indian currency is accepted in Pangsau village, but you can consider getting some kyat notes as a souvenir. Try the local beers or food.
And happy shopping!
This post is part of my Motorcycle diaries around India. Click here to check out other amazing stories from the Motorcycle.
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