The Last Trees Standing / by David Johnstone

Southern Nagaland

SATURDAY 21ST TO APRIL WEDNESDAY 2ND MAY 2018

It was time to move on from Mon and Teipha Cottage. The power kept cutting out, it was cold, damp and, without a signal, it was pointless being there. I’d visited the villages I’d intended. The aim was to head south to Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, where hopefully it’d be warmer and greener.

It would involve another long and arduous overnight journey, some 18 hours by local bus, going back whence I’d came, heading down through the neighbouring state of Assam (the roads are that bad in Nagaland) towards Dimapur then onto the capital. Long bus journeys really fuck you over and can leave you drained for at least a couple of days and this one was to be no different.

”Let’s talk about your spiritual side now, Mr David” the avuncular Bangalore pastor opined over the breakfast table. He’d arrived here overnight with his posse of evangelicals.

Let’s not. I hate being preached to at the best of times but to actually be preached at was a new experience. I held my atheist breath and bite the side of my agnostic mouth.

”You see, a seed is dead and only by the power of Jesus Christ does it grow once again. And as we die our souls are brought to life to live for eternity in Heaven.” 

”With the greatest respect, you’re wrong” I corrected, “a seed’s dormant, not dead. You’re preaching to the inconvertible. Sorry.”

”We’ll pray for you then.”  

Fine, do that and, whilst you’re at it, pray I get to Kohima in one piece. 

Views of Kohima 

 

Eternity is exactly what the bus journey felt like. Or rather a living hell. I’ve no documentary evidence of the grinding monotony, the hellish roads, the ‘wine bar’ (where I bought my rum and promptly spilled all over my lap - again - on the bus), the dead end stops, horrendous toilets and the lousy food. At one point we had to change buses at 3am in the middle of an elephant sanctuary - I was half-hoping I’d get flattened by a passing pachyderm to put me out of my misery. The next five hours dragged inexorably, squeezed onto the back seat of the ‘new’ bus and being flung in the air on a regular basis. Arse-achingly, ball-crushingly tired I arrived in Kohima at 8am having had no sleep and with rotten guts, said my goodbyes to Vee, a Belgian girl I met, and headed by cab towards the early morning sanctity of the Razhu Pru guesthouse. I can’t quite explain how good it was to be there. The bed felt like it was the best I’d had my entire trip, the linen fresh and soft, the room cast in a womb-like cadmium glow. I slept for a while before forcing some food down me and watching back-to-back Premiership football. Heaven.

I would roost here for four days - it took 48 hours to return to some semblance of normality - and did my usual routine. The guesthouse was lovely, if a little pricey, and the staff, Sushma and Sunel, helpful and friendly. The garden was beautifully tended, full of flowers and it was quiet and relaxed. Kohima, like Mon and, indeed, most Naga towns and villages, was perched on several hill tops surrounded by the most glorious mountains stretching into the distance.

Sushma & Ribbon

Besides my domestics, I ventured to the local ‘salon’ to have a much-needed haircut. The barber, a Biharian, was sound asleep when I arrived but, after some cajoling, was awake enough to do a decent job on my barnet - at 40rp (45p) it made the cut in Bangladesh seem exorbitant. I gave him a ton out of embarrassment. I purchased a Bluetooth speaker, took in the state musuem and visited a couple of nice coffee shops offering sandwiches and momo (pork dumplings) which was a welcome break from the ubiquitous rice and dhal. Little wonder I’ve lost weight, I’m sick to death of lentils.

The Barber of Bihar

The Barber of Bihar

I’d hooked up with my Belgian friend again and we both headed by taxi down to Khonoma, the ‘greenest village in Asia’ for a couple of days. I took a room in the only guesthouse in town, the Dovipie, whilst Vee went for a more downmarket homestay with rock-hard mattresses. I might be backpacking but I need a little luxury at my age.

PROTECT AND CONSERVE

As I’ve alluded to before, Nagaland - once considered a biological hotspot - has lost most of it’s rich flora and fauna over the last 30 years, hacked down and sold off. It was a pleasant surprise to see that Khonoma and the surrounding villages have taken the decision to stop logging and hunting on their land.

As all of Nagaland is privately owned - the villages control the land surrounding them through an agreement in the late 1950s with India allowing a large degree of autonomy - and the Indian state has no control over any part of it including the ability to raise tax (appreciated when the hotel bill arrives), there is little that can be done if a community wants to log or hunt even if, like Mon, there is nothing left to cut or eat. So it’s remarkable that the villages south of Kohima came to the conclusion some 25 years ago that, in order to protect the survival of the forests and the wildlife within them for future generations, there would be zero tolerance to any form of further degradation.

Noble indeed.

As such, villages like Khonoma and Dzuleke (where I’d head to next) have a burgeoning eco-tourism product. They don’t practise shifting agriculture (slash-and-burn or jhumming) and have established raised paddy fields for the production of rice along with the growing of fruit and vegetables - and all organic too. Another fascinating means of cultivation is the pollarding of native Alder trees. They survives intact and only their branches are harvested for house building. They’re then left to regrow for ten years as is the land surrounding them.

There’s abundant wildlife here with a recent camera-trap census identifying, amongst many other species, Clouded Leopard roaming the surrounding hills and valleys. Tigers have been sadly hunted out decades ago. After Mon, it was refreshing to hear and see so many birds.

Two rain-soaked days in Khonoma completed, it was time to venture further south to Dzuleke, a small Angami village of some 150 souls set within a spectacularly steep forested valley. The village offers five homestays which accommodate travellers on a rota basis and I was lucky to stay with a beautiful family of three - the super-friendly Vizo, his wife Anise and their young son Dietho - with their pets, Fluffy (the dog) and Pussy (the cat). 

The homestay (700rp) was clean though basic, cold at night and generally wet and misty during the two days I stayed. The food was fresh and tasty and I was able to get my hands on some local rice wine, invited in to sit around the atmospheric kitchen fire with the family in the evening. It was nice to know that the villager’s foresight meant they can now make some income from foreign travellers and live a good quality life too.

It was one of the most heartening stories I’ve come across since I’ve been travelling. 

It was time to move my lazy arse, taking a steep hike in the pissing rain with my guide Pele - an ex-hunter (cum retired international soccer star) - on the Sunday to the outskirts of Poilwa Village right on the Manipur border. A beautiful forest despite the downpours it’s a sad reminder of what’s lost when they’re cut down. Besides a solitary Barking Deer, most of the wildlife had sensibly stayed indoors though not the leeches. There were millions of these vampirical fuckers everywhere. Thankfully I’d packed a good pair of boots, gaiters and my poncho - essential travel kit.

The villagers of Poilwa are regarded with disdain. They’re serial deforesters and, whilst other communities have taken onboard their environmental responsibilities, they continue cutting and hunting including neighbouring villager’s land much to their chagrin. They’re also in land disputes with Dzuleke as well as Benreu Village who recently came armed with shotguns threatening to blow their bridge up. They soon backed down. As you cross over the demarcation line into Poilwa from Dzuleke you see the stark contrast in how two communities treat their natural environment. 

It can be done. It takes resolve, courage and long-term thinking. Other districts are involved too, protecting and conserving what’s left. There remains hope.

 

DZUKO VALLEY

Back, once again, at the Rizhu Pru in Kohima, it was time to organise an exit strategy out of Nagaland and the North East. The weather’s been turning recently with many locals attributing the early rains to climate change - Monsoon season generally begins towards the end of May so downpours in April aren’t expected to be so heavy.  

I had one more trip to complete, a visit to the beautiful Dzükou Valley in Nagaland’s southern border with Manipur state. Trips to both Mount Saramati and Ntanki National Park were now out of the question as was the trip further south to Laktok Lake, the aforementioned weather the reason. The valley is known for it’s wild flowers and temperate climate, neither of which were applicable. It rained, often heavily, and a hailstorm a few days earlier had butchered much of the flowers including the beautiful red and white ones of the Rhododendrons tree.

There were two routes to take, Viswema and Jakhama, opting for the former’s less strenuous hour’s climb then two hours flat through stunted bamboo fields. Taking a jeep at 7am to the starting point with our guide, Lumli, an enthusiastic 24 years old Naga, we (I was with Vee again) ascended the makeshift steps for around an hour. The trail was littered with rubbish, the worst I’d seen in any beauty spot throughout my trip. What goes through people’s minds, what possesses them to look over a stunning vista and drop their shit everywhere leaves me utterly perplexed.

The forest, a community reserve, was beautiful with the freshest clean air. The abundant moss and fern at this altitude - around 2,600m - only grow if there’s zero pollution. So despite the trash on the man made trail, the rest of it was pristine. The valley landscape consisted of small bamboo-ed hillocks surrounded by forested mountains. Aside from the weather it was a beautiful place.

Wet weather gear required

Wet weather gear required

The hike back down took around 3 hours and, once again, the rain came down heavily. Even with good boots, gaiters (there were no leeches this time) and a decent poncho, I received a soaking. I was glad to get back to the guesthouse to dry out.

Lumli the Naga Ninja

Lumli the Naga Ninja

NOWHERE TO RUN, NOWHERE TO HIDE

The rains are coming and with it a deluge of biblical proportions. It’s time to move to higher ground. Being a little travel-weary after months on the road, options such as Nothern India or Pakistan where the weather is much better feels a little like hard work, probably best undertaken at the start of a trip of this size. Couple this with the money running low it’s best to stick it out and go with my initial planning.

So it’s next stop Nepal.

I fly out from Dimapur in southern Nagaland north to Kolkata in West Bengal, overnighting there before catching a flight to Kathmandu. I’ll spend most of my time in Pokhara, a chilled out traveller’s town, perhaps renting a flat, surrounded by lakes and fringed by the Annapurna mountains. There’ll be bars serving cold beer, lots of international cuisine and places to hike, raft, kayak or paraglide from. Who knows, but it’s time to bookend the trip with a bit of relaxation, put my feet up, catch some rays and reflect on the last few months. Of course, the Monsoon will be in full swing there too so plans might change. Either way, it’s the last leg of the journey before I head back to the UK from Nepal.

 

A FOOTNOTE

I’ve often written about the rampant deforestation that’s occurred in every country and state I’ve visited on this particular journey. Most of the damage was started some 30-40 years ago - though the British colonialists carried off vast amounts of teak and other hardwoods some time before - and is sadly ongoing, sometimes on an industrial scale, as in northern Myanmar.

One important observation remains though.

Whenever the local people have asked me about the forests and wildlife in Scotland, England or indeed Europe, I point them towards Google Maps and show them what we’ve done to our country. They are, rightly, horrified believing that we still had untouched wilderness left. I tell them the last bear in Scotland was killed in the 11th century, the last wolf in the 12th.

It’s worth bearing in mind that I’ve traversed through areas that are mundane and everyday, just ordinary village views that one barely gives a second glance to, there are so many. If they were back home, they’d be lauded as outstanding areas of natural beauty, given national park status, feted as the best our country can offer. So, whilst I may lament the destruction, everywhere I’ve travelled through has considerably more authenticity than we have back home.