Tim Warrington joins seven other adventure seekers on Intrepid Travel's new Expedition to the far north-east of India: Tea and Tribes.
Intrepid Travel's all new 'Tea and Tribes' Expedition Tour to the subcontinent's most remote corner.
I stabbed myself in the face with masala corn chips a dozen times before I caved into hunger.
The road to Kohima is a bumpy one.
And the 'container of nuts' – lost in translation - turned out to be MSG powder, so I resigned myself to gazing out of the bus window.
Kohima is the hilly capital of Nagaland, one of India's less populous states - only about two million inhabitants - of the more than a billion who call this vast country home. It was our home, too, for two nights at the midpoint of Intrepid Travel's all new 'Tea and Tribes' Expedition Tour to the subcontinent's most remote corner.
There were eight travellers in total - mainly baby boomers and a Gen Y - plus two guides and a driver – all together for 16 days on the road less travelled.
We made our way north-east by air and road from the muggy embrace of Kolkata's forty degree-plus city-sauna, and aimed ourselves squarely at the cooling hill stations of Darjeeling and the ancient former kingdom of Sikkim.
Back on the bus, as I was tossed like salad on the back seat, I glimpsed a graffitied wall philosophising, "be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."
Fable or message of atonement?
Kohima saw one of India's bloodiest conflicts of World War II. The city is famous for being the turning point of the Japanese offensive into India and infamous for the proximity of the hand-to-hand fighting, where it was bayonets not rifles and hand grenades tossed back and forth and back again ... before the bang.
At Kohima War Cemetery I unravelled emotionally for just a moment; it was hard not to when the names of the men who fought and died there were carved into headstones surrounding us on the manicured lawns. At my feet, the grave of Captain J. Forrest of the Royal Scots - Dalkeith, Midlothian. He was 24.
As the moment passed, I became aware of the charged atmosphere in the air. In this part of India there is a strong military presence, but despite the abundance of army fatigues, the throng was fighting men of a different kind. Apparently the 26th Naga Wrestling Meet 2018 was in full swing and the city had ground to a halt as thousands poured in to see the finals.
By popular vote our tour group ditched the afternoon's clerical itinerary and grabbed a more secular sporting treat that serendipity had thrown our way. Minister Neiba Kronu was guest of honour and in his address to the 25,000-plus crowd said, "sportspersons are the most respected people in this present world!" And who were we to argue? Off we trotted to the central sports ground.
Nagaland is one of India's dry states but as we pressed flesh with the locals on entering the city's wrestling arena, the waft of booze and hullabaloo of beer-fuelled revelry was everywhere.
We lingered a while and mingled with the locals.
In this far corner of the world, visitors are rare and our group patiently endured selfie after selfie with the enthusiastic and friendly Naga tribespeople.
After enjoying several rounds of the local wrestling – like Sumo on a smaller scale (without the giant nappies) – we left their revelry, and our short-lived celebrity, behind and returned to the hotel.
... like Sumo on a smaller scale (without the giant nappies)
Intrepid Travel's Tea and Tribes tour literature politely suggests coming to India armed with patience and a sense of humour. So, it wasn't long before another laugh out loud moment at the corner store. The shopkeeper ran out of smaller denomination rupees – it happens a lot - so she chucked a handful of boiled sweets at me by way of change – and smiled a toothless grin to seal the deal. Outside a youth sprouting chin peach fuzz played an unfamiliar instrument with a bow. The melody, somewhat strange to my ears, was a hit with the locals who had filled his busking hat with rupees, so I deposited some more coinage … and the boiled sweets.
Later in the day we stopped at Kigwema Village where Nga people reside.
India is the sort of place clichés converge, and here they came thick and fast.
As we sauntered through the tiny village perched atop a mountain, it was near impossible not to descend into descriptors of 'a road less travelled' or 'off the beaten track' - or perhaps that most about-India of sayings 'a land of contrast'. But with a mobile phone transponder towering high above the medieval village, where ancient hill tribe warriors once rode, the contrast was blinding.
As we left the village, a resident lady of advanced years brandished her walking sticking at me – a farewell the guide assured me – but I gave her a wide birth as the cane buzzed my ear and we headed back to the bus.
Back on the road we swerved for cows and the shrill toot of a Piaggio alerted me to the game I play whenever I travel to India: how many people can you fit on a moped.
Mum, dad, two kids, gran on the back and woven cage of chickens – not even close - nine is my record.
As chatter ebbed and the cocktail of accents drifted away to travel slumber on the bus, I soaked up the Nagaland mountainscape in thoughtful silence. I was not surprised the British endured an uneasy truce with these people during the Raj. The tribes here are proud and strong and fiercely independent, holding out for their own state, which finally came in 1960.
According to a well-thumbed guidebook, "historically, Naga tribes celebrated two main rituals: head hunting and feasting", with the corn chip incident still fresh, I waited patiently for the latter.
For more information about this trip go to Intrepid Travel's Tea and Tribes.