No, not Japan, but we rode the Honda H’ness CB350 in Arunachal Pradesh where the sun first hits our country every morning
Have you heard of the Stilwell road? It is a 1,600km stretch connecting India, Burma and China. Built in 1942 retracing the old silk route, the road is infamous for taking one life per mile during construction. This earned it the infamous title of ‘one man per mile' road. Arunachal Pradesh may be remote for most of us but is full of such hidden gems. Honda invited us to explore the region on the H’ness CB350 as part of its first-ever ‘Honda Sunchasers’ expedition, which is a collaborative effort between Honda and Arunachal Pradesh. The state is pushing to promote motorcycle tourism in the state – something we’re only excited about! Our journey started in Dibrugarh, Assam and what followed was a roller coaster of a ride through the vast and picturesque North-Eastern state.
“Beware of mini goats”
That was one of the first pieces of advice from ace motorcyclist Vijay Parmar who was to lead the ride. The mini goats of Arunachal Pradesh are not ferocious but are prized possessions of the locals and quite expensive. So if we were to hit one, it could cost us in the region of Rs 50,000 to a lakh to compensate! With that advice in mind we had our eyes peeled to look for errant goats as we set off towards Bomjir, around 160km away. Arunachal Pradesh has some fantastic roads and the one leading to Bomjir was arrow straight, allowing the CB350 to stretch its legs. The dash helped me acquaint myself with the H’ness once and also re-establish the fact that it is a comfortable touring machine. The smooth motor and tall gearing allow it to sit at 80kmph to 100kmph all day long. Then there is the comfortable seat and upright rider triangle that keeps aches and fatigue at bay.
Bomjir is a quaint place with traditional wooden houses on stilts and is popular for camping. It is a great place to experience the old Arunachali way of living. That said the houses are comfortable inside and are equipped with modern amenities too. And the one we stayed in was an interesting one. The main hall is next to the dry riverbed and has three huge water buffalo heads mounted atop the entrance, the largest of which is known as Jakhtum Natko. According to local folklore the large beast killed 20 people before being hunted down. The camp is a place to sample the Arunachali lifestyle and its delicious local cuisine. I especially liked the sticky rice cooked in bamboo shoots. All that, besides the peace and tranquillity offered by the place.
Arunachal is full of natural wonders. An example being the Namdapha national park that holds the distinction of being one of the few protected forest reserves in the world that house four big cats – the Bengal Tiger, leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard. The route consists of good roads up to Miao and thereafter it’s 20km of riding over broken B-roads and slushy jungle paths that are only wide enough for a Mahindra Thar to get through. This proved to be a good off-roading test for the CB350 and despite its road-biased tyres, the bike performed very well. It was easy to manage through the slush and even stand up and rip through bad roads at speeds. The government-run forest resort inside the jungle is a quaint place next to the river with a mix of old and new cottages. Riding through the jungle, we had company in the form of deer besides baboons whose cries signalled the arrival of a big cat nearby. By nightfall, temperatures plummeted to below 10 degrees Celsius with strong winds adding to the cold, forcing us to retreat indoors to the comfort of warm blankets.
Visiting the neighbours
The next rendezvous took us to the India-Burma border at Pangsau pass. It is open to native villages and people across the borders flock the monthly market that sits next to the barbed fence line. The ongoing pandemic meant the friendly activities had been put on hold and the market wore a deserted look. The market is traditional in the sense that it is laid out using Burmese teak wood and bears a weathered look, a testament to the time passed by. There was no one at the border except for a posse of Indian soldiers and a young army Major who escorted us to the stone marker at the border. Beyond the barbed wire and market lies a vast lake which according to the Major is filled with wreckages of fighter planes from World War II. It is said that jungles in the North East are home to many such plane wrecks and even today locals stumble across fallen aircrafts and unexploded bombs
Vestiges of the past
Arunachal isn’t as much about the destination as the journey itself. Take the example of the road to reach the Burmese border. It is a smooth and flowing piece of tarmac, perfect for a sportscar. There are a few markers across the way that point to its dark history though. Like a signboard that says ‘Mile Post 34.5 Hell Gate’. Or a decrepit war cemetery that was only recently discovered, holding mortal remains of over 1,000 soldiers from across the world. These were the same soldiers who died building the Stillwell road. This road was built under the leadership of US General Joseph W Stilwell. It aimed to create a land supply chain between India and its World War II ally China, through Myanmar. Building the road was a gruesome effort as it cut through the dense Patkai range. It is said more soldiers died due to the jungle than bullets here. The dangers of wild animals, snakes, malaria, diarrhoea and landslides were far too real back then. This is a sombre reminder of the triumph of man over nature as soldiers cut through the mountains often with nothing more than hand tools. While the road was closed in 1945, parts of it are still in use by the locals.
Land of the Buddha
On the last day of the ride we headed to Namsai, the place of the Golden Pagoda and home to the world’s largest bamboo Buddha statue. It is where we witnessed the true culture of Arunachal Pradesh. The local artist community consisting mainly of youngsters dedicate their skills to preserve the waning culture of the land. The North East is home to hundreds of tribes, each having a unique native way of living. It was a treat to have a glimpse into their culture in the form of folk dance.
Something for everyone
Arunachal Pradesh is one of those rare places in India that has something for everyone. This includes nature lovers, adventure seekers, history buffs, conservationists and even road trippers. The Honda H’ness CB350 proved to be quite capable in helping us explore the remote corners of this beautiful state. Its torquey motor, capable chassis and comfortable seat make it a good motorcycle for touring. If I were to explore newer regions of this world, I would certainly have the H’ness CB350 on my list of motorcycles to choose from!