Words and Photography: Jared Solomon
The Mojo Tribe takes Jared along for the adventure of a lifetime on the toughest motorcycle expedition in the country – the North East Trail.
“ARE YOU OK?”, I yelled out in horror. I couldn’t quite make out what was going on because it was nearly nightfall and the fog was too thick. I brushed myself off knowing that I wasn’t seriously injured and I ran to pick up my bike, but the road was slippery and I fell again as I frantically tried to set it up right. Still, with no sound or sight of my fallen comrades I ran down the hill to make sure they weren’t hurt. Luckily they were both fine – we weren’t going fast enough to cause any serious damage, but over here, in the middle of the jungle, on a steep muddy road hovering over the edge of a mountain cliff, anything is possible.
This was just one of many incidents that happened on the Mahindra expedition to the North East of India. A group of hardcore adventure junkies including myself were about to find out that you need some serious ‘cojones’ and a whole lot of patience if you want to explore this frontier. The Mojo Tribe now does a number of trail expeditions around India, but this was the first time they ventured into the North East. To call it challenging does not do the trail justice, because it is one of the toughest and most unforgiving trails you can find anywhere in the world, let alone India. I have heard many stories about North East India, and have been itching for an opportunity to explore the area, so when Mahindra called me all I did was ask them, “When the hell do we start?”
The incident that I described earlier happened on the very first day of our 12 day adventure. We left Guwahati a little later than expected and couldn’t reach the hill station of Bomdila before sunset – which happens much earlier here than the rest of the country. I was way ahead of the group and as it got darker and harder to see I realized my headlights weren’t working – rookie mistake by me for not checking. I had no choice but to stop riding and wait for someone to follow. Shankar and Kartik were the first to arrive. It was soo foggy that I had to scream out to them because even though I was standing in the middle of the road and waving my hands in the air, they could barely see me. I told them about my plight and asked them if they would ride slow enough for me to follow them. They of course were happy to oblige and so we set out down the mountain as cautiously as we could – but even that wasn’t enough to prevent all of us from taking a fall. Shankar was leading and as we approached a steep decline the road made a sharp right turn. Shankar saw it late and tried to slow down, but his rear tyre slipped out beneath him sending him straight into a ditch. Kartik reacted just as he saw Shankar’s wheel loose grip and he did the same and lost control and fell to the right. I was a little luckier because I had more reaction time, but the road was just too slippery and as I tried to put my foot down for added grip it slipped and I lost control.
We made it safely to Bomdila around 8pm – four hours behind schedule – and waited for the others to arrive. One by one everyone reached the hotel and shared their experience of the first day and the difficult environment we were now riding in. We went from a four lane highway to roads – if you can even call them that – which we weren’t really ready for. The North East, especially Arunachal Pradesh has little to no infrastructure, which is one of the reasons tourists hardly ever make it out here. The North East is also funneled away from the rest of India as Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh act as a barrier between the two. If you think Leh or Spiti were an adventure, well, the North East makes those feel like a walk in the park. There are no road side dhabas, there are no fully functioning hotels, there is absolutely no road side assistance, there are no road signs, and there is absolutely no traffic. When you ride here you are pretty much on your own all of the time. The next day we were setting out for Tawang. Our leader and chief, Sharath, briefed us about the roads and asked us all to stick together for our own safety. Unfortunately, the difficult terrain made this nearly impossible because not everyone would be able to handle what we were about to experience. The roads initially were just bumpy and broken tarmac, which later turned into proper dirt trails, and then into pretty much just rocks and boulders. We did get a good section of some sweet twisty smooth roads at one point, but that was just for a few kilometres and then the climb to Sela Pass began. The road turned into a mix of dirt and stone with potholes riddled all around and impossible to escape. I was actually very impressed with the Mojo because it did take the beating of its life like a champ. Once again I pulled away from the group, because I just couldn’t stand the bumpy ride and wanted out of it as soon as possible. I reached the top of Sela Pass, which sits high at 4,170 metres (13,680 feet) and had a quick snack at the army canteen. It was a furiously windy day and it was too cold for me to wait up there so I decided to move on.
If the roads are bad up to Sela, the roads coming down on the other side heading towards Tawang are a surrealistic nightmare. Slush and mud, and in some places a clay like substance made it nearly impossible to create any kind of traction. The views are stunning, but I missed the sights because I was too busy trying to keep my bike moving and not falling over a cliff. I pushed as hard as I could and made it down to the valley and followed the broken road along the river to Tawang. One thing I must say is that I was surprised to find out that nearly everyone spoke Hindi and English, so there was never a communication problem. Tawang is also a bit touristy so there were people to help guide me whenever I was unsure of my way. As I rode into town it was a huge contrast from what I experienced the first two days. There were decent roads and plenty of hotels. It was a proper hill station, just like any other in India. But where there is a hill station there is also a lot of development and therefore it’s an environmental disaster. It doesn’t matter where you are in India, it’s such a shame that there are no real waste management solutions. There was garbage everywhere, even in the clear streams that ran through the city. The next day our bodies were so broken that we all decided to cancel the day ride up to Zemithang. There was however one lone rider who was brave enough – or just crazy – to head out. His name was Deepak and I would find out in the later days just how adventurous this young lad was. He left early and returned late at night telling us that it was indeed a beautiful area scattered with glacial lakes, but also how the roads were even worse. This made me feel reassured of my decision not to go, because this was just day three of our trip, and I knew we had a long way to go, so any break from riding was welcoming. We left Tawang early morning the next day and headed back to Bombila for a night hault and then on day five we began the ride to Seppa. If the roads were bad to Tawang, they became worse yet again. There is currently a highway being built to Seppa but it’s nowhere near completion so we were pretty much riding through mountains that had just been blown up with dynamite. After we made the descent through these blown up mountain sides, we entered heavily forested roads. These roads were actually just slushy paths than seemed endless. One of the many lessons I learnt about the North East is that there is no concept of space and time, and what seems like a 150km trip seems more like a 400km trip. When you stop to ask someone about directions, or distance or time, they will simply point you in the right direction and say “aacha se jao” (go well). It seems like a courteous blessing of course and rightly so because when riding on these roads you rely heavily on your endurance, and more importantly, your patience. If you like to ride fast like I do, you will be tested to your limits. You need to be focused 100 percent and by the end of the day you will be physically and mentally drained. When I arrived in Seppa, once again it was like any other hill station and there was nothing appealing about it at all. I had earlier decided to not drink any alcohol on this trip, but I was just soo exhausted and my back was in soo much pain that it was impossible to lie down on my bed without any discomfort. Another lesson I learned about the North East is that there is no shortage of wine shops. If you want booze, you will surely get it.
I woke up with a slight headache and prepared to gear up for the ride to North Lakhimpur, which is in Assam. By now it was expected by us that the roads would get worse with every passing day, and day seven was no exception. It started out with some nice roads in the plains but soon we were back to slushy, muddy, wet roads. This time the mud was knee deep and almost everyone took a fall off their bike that day. I very rarely boast, but that day I was the only one, apart from Sharath, who did not fall off their bike. In fact, as the days progressed I felt as if my riding skills were actually improving. I have never ridden on such slippery and muddy trails before, so I guess this was sort of like training. We reached North Lakhimpur after a long day battling some of the worst terrain I have ever encountered – I decided to hit the wine shop again.
By now nothing was really going to plan and we were continuously reaching our destination late by a couple of hours, but what was about to happen on day eight was something I never ever thought would happen to me. We had a late start because the mechanics needed to service all the bikes. Luckily, my bike – Maverick – was working just fine and I set out before everyone else again. I was accompanied by five other riders. We hit the highway, which was a huge welcome, but once we entered into Arunachal again, the roads were a disaster. We were stopped twice by landslides that were being cleared away but soon we continued the climb. The views were breathtaking and it seemed like an endless sea of green forest mountains. There is hardly any development at all here besides the construction of roads, and we were riding through the thick jungle for hours. At one point we got separated again, but Shankar was still with me. Even though the roads were bad we were still able to enjoy the stunning views. We had a quick lunch and took off because it was getting dark soon and we still had about 100km left until we reached Aalo. I am highly against riding at night especially when it’s a jungle with terrible roads, and in a futile effort to race against the sun I was riding as fast as I could towards Aalo. At some point Shankar and I got separated and I reached a couple of places where the road split into two. On the first couple of occasions I managed to ask for directions but on the last one there was nobody around. I had been riding on what was supposedly a highway and was pretty much covered in slush and mud, so I decided to take the road that looked most like the one I was riding on before – the muddy one. It was only about 10km later that I found out this was a terrible idea. It was now dark and I tried to wait for Shankar but he just didn’t show up. I had no idea where I was or how far I was from Aalo. I managed to stop a farmer who appeared out of nowhere on a tractor and asked him for directions. He said that I had taken the wrong road and that this was the longer route. I asked him if I should turn back and take the shorter road but he insisted that since I was now on this road to continue onwards. I took his word for it. I guess my patience had worn out and I was hell bent on avoiding riding at night that I ended up screwing myself. I was now lost in a thick jungle in the night with no idea of how much further I had to go, and to make matters worse I was riding on what can only be described as the worst road on the planet. I moved on with caution, and once again my lights weren’t working properly, only my high beams were fully functional so I couldn’t see the road properly. At every turn I was staring into darkness and at one point two bright red eyes came on the road and I shook in complete fear as a massive black animal stepped right in front of my path. It also had two massive horns protruding out of its skull. I slammed on the brakes with my whole body tensed up, but when the beast finally came into the light I had a huge sigh of relief – it was just a bull. I moved around him slowly and continued down the road. Fear kicked in again and my senses were heightened tenfold. I have never been so focused and scared in my life. The worst possible outcomes started to play out in my mind. Suddenly I saw another light, but this was from a torch. I stopped to talk to the person holding the light but instead I found a group of young kids walking down the road. “What were these little kids doing way out in the jungle and walking around without a care in the world? It doesn’t matter, just ask them where the hell is Aalo”, by this time I was talking to myself to keep the fear out of me and to stay focused. They told me I was just 20km away. Those 20km seemed like the longest and most agonizing of my life. When I finally saw the bright lights of the city emerge out of the valley I was so angry and started cursing as loud as I could at the town and the road and pretty much everything. It was just my way of letting go of all the stress that had built up. I was shocked to see that Shankar had arrived 20 minutes before me. “Where the hell were you man? That was a bloody scary road bro”, he said with a lot of concern. He then asked where the others were to which I angrily replied, “They’re screwed somewhere that’s for sure.” Just at that moment a torrential rain storm occurred and I really hoped that everyone was alright. It turned out that three other riders finally made it to Aalo after us. I got a phone call from Dr. Hussain informing me that the rest of the group had stopped in Barsa, about 40km before Aalo.
Dr. Mohammed Hussain Shariff, or Doc, was a friendly young chap who was also serving as the Mojo Tribe doctor, and he gave me the nickname ‘Stone’ because he thought I looked like Stone Cold Steve Austin. “Hey Stone, should we continue on to Aalo now? How are the roads?” He asked. “Sure Doc, if you are suicidal,” I replied. I advised them to just stay there for the night because of the rain and the terrible roads. They agreed with me but then we found out that Deepak – the crazy rider – was missing. An hour had now passed and we were really worried. The weather was horrible and there was nothing but thick jungle between Barsa and Aalo. Finally we heard the distinct sound of a Mojo approach our hotel and we were relieved to see Deepak. We cheered and screamed with joy to welcome him safely to Aalo. The next day there was some tension in the group because we had not stuck together. But nonetheless we all made our way towards Mechuka, which is a small hill town next to the Indo-China border. The roads were bad yet again, but not as bad as the ones we had already ridden on. These consisted of mainly broken tarmac sections and some dirt trails. The views were once again breathtaking and we passed a number of beautiful waterfalls. Deepak and I stopped at the first one we saw and decided to cool off underneath it. The fresh mountain water was cold and rejuvenating, and it certainly lifted our spirits. We continued on towards Mechuka and as we made the climb up the views got better and better. When we entered the Mechuka Valley it felt as if we had just entered a secret paradise hidden somewhere in the mountains. The meandering river was crystal clear and the town was surrounded by snowcapped mountains and hills of pine. It was without a doubt one of the most scenic places we visited on the entire trip. We were lucky that our next rest day was here because we got to lounge by the river and swim in its icy healing waters. It was like being baptized – truly magical and holy. The day went well and our home stay host gave us some scrumptious local food including butter tea, noodles, steamed buns and of course some nice pork roast. We gathered around the bonfire and had an impromptu barbeque.
Mechuka is unlike anything I have ever seen in India. There are absolutely no tourists, it’s clean, and it’s not noisy. There is no traffic at all and it’s just so beautiful. Tourists don’t come up here because it takes a lot of nerves to come here. Only the most die-hard adventure junkies venture this far out. It is definitely India’s final frontier for adventure and untouched beauty. After a wonderful stay at Mechuka we headed back to Aalo. This time everyone made it together but now we had to figure out how to get back to Guwahati. We had heard that there was some tension between tribes on our chosen path back and that certain roads might be blocked. So we had to decide on a safe and fast way back. We decided to change our route and head back to North Lakhimpur, but this time we would take a route that was longer, but supposedly had better roads. It turned out the roads were just as bad, but when we got out of the mountains and hit the highway we were greeted once again by smooth tarmac – I have never been so happy to see a straight road as much as I did on day 11. That night we all reached together again and Dr. Hussain and I headed to the local masjid to sample some of the local food – we were tired of eating daal and maggi almost every day. Day 12 was a pretty easy day as we took the highway to Tezpur and then the four lane highway to Guwahati.
The first edition of the Mojo Tribe North East Trail ended successfully. Not everyone was able to ride their bikes for the entire duration, because it’s really tough, but everyone made it back safe. The Mahindra Mojo really proved its mettle as a proper adventure tourer. With the on/off road tyres it did an impeccable job. The engine is really fantastic and gives you plenty of power whenever you need it, and the suspension took a massive beating but still held the bike together. Even though I had a stock bike I covered 3,000km on the toughest terrain imaginable and not a single mechanical problem occurred throughout the entire trip. To all the naysayers out there I think its best you reconsider your position about the Mojo. In fact Mahindra plans to come out with a proper adventure version of the Mojo sometime this year. I can’t wait to see how that’s going to be. The North East is truly India’s final frontier. If you are looking for the adventure of a lifetime and if you want to get away from the hordes of ruthless tourists, commercial hill stations, and countless number of tours and other rider groups that infest roads, then the North East is where you should head to. It is currently undergoing a vast transformation because it’s slowly gaining popularity, but I can bet you that sooner than later the commercialization of this wonderful place will be the end of it, just like it has been for most other parts of India. Ladakh and Spiti is now child’s play, so if you want a real challenge then saddle up on your bike or contact the Mojo Tribe and sign up for next year’s adventure. Do it before it’s too late.