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Day 93: Digboi, Assam

Michael Palin - HimalayaOn top of the map, an unequivocally modern message is delivered. 'Rejuvenate our Life Line, Revitalize our Relationship, Reach out Beyond the Borders,' it reads. A reminder that if you look at the geography of Assam you will see that its border with the rest of India is only a few miles wide, but her borders with China, Tibet, Burma, Bangladesh and Thailand run for 3700 miles (5900 km), and Beijing is as close to Assam as Delhi. But nothing much seems to be happening out to the east today. For now, it looks pretty much as if everything stops here.

An hour's drive from the oil town of Digboi there is a coal mine. This isn't itself surprising, given this fossil-rich little corner of India, but Tipong Mine is a singular place indeed. A red-brick Nottinghamshire pit village in the middle of a jungle.

It's a still morning and shreds of mist have not yet dispersed. A smell of sulphur hangs in the air and the jungle gently steams. Miners are arriving on Hercules and Hero bicycles for the first shift of the day. I join a group of them on a narrow, cable bridge, which bounces like a trampoline as we cross. Below is a 40-foot drop into a sluggish river, transformed from a mountain stream into an industrial sump, stained with oil streaks and oxides.

The men have lamps and hard hats but the rest of their clothes and equipment are flimsy. Sandals, flip-flops, old gym shoes, vests and torn trousers are the order of the day. Before going underground they gather round a brazier made from pipes and old railway parts. There seems no sense of urgency.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 93: Digboi, Assam
  • Country/sea: India
  • Place: Digboi
  • Book page no: 217

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