Assam: Digboi and Ledo and Mother Nature’s womb

Lush paddy fields and jungle in Assam, India © Craig Fast

Lush paddy fields and jungle in Assam, India © Craig Fast

I think I have found Mother Nature’s womb. It is in Assam. Today we drove to Digboi to see the Oil Museum and Allied WWII cemetery, and then on to Ledo to see the start of the WWII-built Stilwell Road that leads to Kunming, China. The scenery we passed through was so verdant and fertile I swear I could see the earth heaving in great lungfuls of carbon dioxide.

The banyans, telephone poles and road signs are draped with vines, trees grow on trees, paddy fields, tea plantations and jungle stretched out in every direction and vans loaded with green bananas and plucked tea leaves trundle along the roads. It’s not only the surface that’s seething with life; oil is so abundant here it literally bubbles to the surface in places. Digboi is home to Asia’s first successfully drilled oil well and, contrasting with the greenery, a massive oil refinery.

A little further along the road is an Allied World War II cemetery. This oasis of cultivated lawn and well-tended flower beds holds the remains of British and Indian soldiers, plus an Italian, Belgian and American: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists are all remembered together. Two hundred brave men who lost their lives during the Second World War are buried here, and the plaques bear messages such as “He lies here far from home, dear England, but will always be with us. Mother.” Visiting was a moving experience – not many people reach this out of the way cemetery and it felt important to take the time to notice it, despite the 38C heat drawing sweat from my eyeballs.

Next stop was the start of the Stilwell Road – the easternmost point of India you can visit without a permit. We had a picnic lunch (they’re feeding us extremely well) about 50km from the Burmese border, with army guys cycling by, eyeing us with incomprehension. The Stillwell Road was built under the determined instruction of American General Joe Stilwell. The Japanese army had cut off the Burma Road, a vital army supply route into China. The Allied response was to build another one, through mountainous, be-jungled territory controlled by the enemy. Incredibly they succeeded but the road has now fallen into disrepair.

The day was topped off with a Bihu dance performance at Mancotta Chang Bungalow. Usually I find these sorts of things incredibly cringeworthy but this was beautiful – an elegant dance, almost Balinese in its style, done to an exuberant beat that is comparable only to Bhangra. Knackered now, and being attacked by tiny ants, so off to bed.

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