We found it strange, leaving Imphal. We had been in the state capital and we were on the main road heading to the neighbouring state’s capital. This was the biggest road in these parts, the Asia Highway 1 no less, yet it was shit. It wasn’t exactly tarmac and certainly wasn’t smooth. Trucks threw up so much dust you couldn’t see what was coming at you, and you couldn’t really breathe. It was going to be a long day. But at least it wasn’t raining.
After passing through the 1500m pass at the state border, we made sure we stopped for the military checkpoint. Predictably, we were told to go away. Then, within spitting distance of Kohima, the monsoon cracked open the sky. The pot holes became lakes, the dust became slime, the drivers became more dangerous. I delicately slid the bike under someone’s verandah into the dry. Within 5 seconds a bearded man appeared from nowhere and dragged us upstairs into his home. Highly suspicious, I was not sure what was going on and waited for the punchline. But this was the east, and this man was a fellow motorcyclist. His Enfield was downstairs, he wanted to give fellow bikers shelter, tea and help finding a good hotel in Kohima.
His recommended hotel was a lot better than the one we were going to try, it had great views, good parking and really good food. But it took us a while to find it in this mountainous little city. Performing u-turns on steep wet slopes was not my favourite manouevre, but I had to pull quite a few out of the bag before we could park up for a few days at the hotel.
As usual, I knew nothing about our destination. I awoke from a handlebar coma in each new location wondering how we had survived the journey to where we were. Kohima was another little surprise. It was in a stunning hilltop location, with the town spidering through the valleys all around. Its history was also surprising. Just as we thought we were getting away from the second world war, here it was again. Once more it was the Japanese making their way steadily westward across asia. This time they were stopped in their tracks.
To try to cut a long story short, the Burma-based Japanese in 1944 were preying on the route we had just travelled from the Myanmar border. They could not enter the city we had just left, as this was heavily occupied by British and Indian troops. These troops were kept supplied via the horrible road we had arrived on today. The road certainly didn’t appear to have had any maintenance done on it since 1944. So the Japanese came through the jungle and took control of the road. They wanted to completely cut off all supplies so decided to go one step up the chain, and take Kohima ridge. The main road to the nearest railhead came straight through Kohima town, which was centred on the summit of the ridge at 1500m, and then went down into Imphal. We would be following this road out of town towards the railhead when we left. All we were worried about was that the road ahead was better, and tarmac.
The Japanese had other problems and the fiercest fighting occurred where the main road snapped round the end of the ridge. This was where the Deputy Commissioner had his house, and on a terrace above, a club house and above that, a tennis court. I wandered around the Kohima war cemetery and thought to myself “why is there a tennis court here with a corner missing?”. In the battle of Kohima ridge in 1944, the tennis court became no man’s land. Japanese and Allied forces were entrenched either side of the court throwing grenades into each other’s trenches. Eventually the conclusive strike came from the British who bulldozed a route to the top of the terraces and then ran a tank down over all the Japanese trenches. To quote Wikipedia “The terrain had been reduced to a fly and rat-infested wilderness, with half-buried human remains everywhere. The conditions under which the Japanese troops had lived and fought were described by several British sources as “unspeakable”.”
Whilst we were looking at the 1,420 Allied graves, we got our first taste of ‘sightseeing selfies’. Such a novelty were we, on the memorial terraces, that Indian families lined up to have their photos taken with us. Bizarre within the bizarre!