Going to the land of Teesta..

May 16, 2008 at 10:40 am (Travelogue)

Kaziranga National Park (This should be included in Part 2 but that would affect the chronological order of the story)

After the highs of Bomdila, I was hoping that the trip to Kaziranga would not turn out to be disappointing. We had been warned by the major at Nameri of course that we would be better off raveling to Tawang than Kaziranga. Since we had come this far, we decided that skipping Kaziranga did not really make sense and drove directly to Kaziranga from Bhalukpong. We hired the same driver Raju who drove us around in Arunachal Pradesh till Kaziranga. He was quite a bundle of energy and seemed completely fascinated by the camera. In fact, Iyer even transferred some of his pics on to a CD in a shop at Balipara for Raju’s benefit.

We passed through the long bridge over the Brahmaputra neat Tezpur and about 7 hours after leaving Bomdila, we finally reached Kaziranga around 8 PM in the evening. Having used the ATM (a special mention must be made of Vicca’s umpteenth unsuccessful attempt at withdrawing money there!), we settled into a very cheap dormitory at Kohora. Having made the arrangements for the safari early next morning, we went out to a nearby hotel for a customary round of drinks. Right from Shillong onwards, we had not left a single place dry for our part! Viggy and I stayed up a little late to settle the accounts. Viggy did the reconciliation while I gave him company finishing what was left of the drinks and of course, chipping in with some figures here and there. This was the only one occasion when Viggy had to resort to double entry book-keeping to make sure the numbers were in order.

The first person to wake up the next morning was (surprise, surprise) – Vicca! This incredible event happened courtesy a bet he had with me challenging him to wake up by 4 AM. However, while going to sleep, Vicca chickened out and withdrew from the bet. Just as well for me, because our man actually woke up at 4.01 AM and duly informed me that he was up. However, as the bet was off, it did not really matter any more! All of us were ready by 5 AM for the elephant ride. Putta, Manas and I climbed on one of the elephants and we slowly made our way through the jungle. The MDI chaps we met at Nag Mandir had told us that rhinos are present like street-dogs in Kaziranga. While that is a bit of an exaggeration, one does get to see many rhinos during the elephant ride. We even saw a baby rhino hardly 10 metres from us. We also managed to catch a glimpse of a wild buffalo and saw quite a few swamp deers and wild boars running around. We came back to Kohora for breakfast and headed back into the jungle by 8 AM for the jeep safari. The jeep trail was of course much longer but does not necessarily result in too many encounters with animals. One does get a good feel of the jungle though. The highlight of our jeep ride was when we suddenly spotted an elephant close to the road a few metres ahead. The driver panicked a little and reversed the jeep. He explained that the trail curves in the direction that the elephant seemed to be heading and he did not wish to risk crossing its path. We waited for about 10 minutes with uncertainty and finally our driver decided to go past quickly. Once we crossed that elephant, the only other animal we saw from a distance was a sambhar deer.

Rhino in Kaziranga

When we were neared the trail followed during the elephant ride, we managed to spot a few rhinos in a small clearing between the tall grasses. The grass was in fact so tall in places that even spotting huge elephants was difficult. We did manage to see one of them for the briefest moment. The only animal we did not see at Kaziranga was the tiger. However, it seemed as if even the locals there had not seen a tiger for quite some time.

After coming back to dorm, we had about an hour to kill before heading back for Guwahati. In one of the nearby tea-shops, I managed to get a good look at the map of Assam with detailed listing of the national parks, rivers, roads, etc and was able to trace out the path we had followed so far. From Kohora, we got a cheap ride on a Tata cruiser to Nagaon and were on our way in a bus to Guwahati from there. At Guwahati, we bid farewell to Vicca, Putta and Iyer and boarded the A/C compartment of Kanchenjunga Express (Thanks to Lalu Yadav) to begin the last part of our trip – the journey to Gangtok.

Gangtok

Sikkim was one place in the north-east I wanted to visit right from the first day itself. In fact, if the plan for Arunachal had not worked out, I wanted to spend that extra day in Sikkim. Having experienced some amazing places during the trip already, I did not really know how much we’d be able to appreciate Gangtok. As we got off at New Jalpaiguri at 8 AM on 13th Morning, we had a hoard of taxi-waalahs pouncing on us for “sawaari”. The route took us through Siliguri (we saw one of the largest and foulest smelling dumps I have come across in my life) and from there on, the road was pretty much along the river Teesta. We were again travelling through a hilly terrain in the northern region of West Bengal and got a good feel of the vegetation in the Darjeeling district. The road was however quite busy with lots of vehicles plying through the route and a lot of construction work happening on the riverside. Viggy was having a field day taking shots of every single thing he could click. We also got to see a huge political rally at a distance in the town of Melli.

River Teesta

After a two hour drive, we reached a huge gate greeting us – “Welcome to Sikkim”. All the vehicles entering Sikkim were being sprayed with some pesticide (presumably for the Bird Flu). Rangpo is the place which welcomes you in Sikkim with hundreds of boards giving you an idea of this and that in Gangtok. There was an international Flower Show happening about 20 km before Gangtok which seemed to have captured maximum attention everywhere. One of the places I remember on the way is the Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology which is located with a nice view in the background. Incidentally, right next to the institute, we saw 2-3 rehabilitation centres for alcoholics including one exclusively for women. Booze is supposed to be very cheap in Sikkim and we had decided to try it out when we got the chance of course.

Sikkim Entrance

We reached Gangtok around noon and the first thing which struck me was the number of boards (sponsored by some bank or corporate) welcoming tourists to Gangtok. Within a two minute drive in Gangtok, we could make out that the place was quite trendy and the women were quite cute. At the bus stand, we were quite lucky to get hold of a very friendly driver – Arjun Sharma – who agreed to drive us around to the Rumtek monastery & Ban Jhakri falls that afternoon. So off we went to Rumtek carrying all our bags in the Omni along with us. The Rumtek monastery is about 25 kms from Gangtok and is one of the most important places for Tibetan Buddhism in that region. One of the monks there explained some of the Buddhist beliefs and we even got to see an entire lot of monks praying and chanting hymns inside the monastery. The hymns had a very deep and soothing tone to them and while the leading monks seemed completely immersed in the prayers, there were little kids sitting on the back rows who were more interested in what we were upto inside. The atmosphere inside was extremely calm and the place was well decorated with dim lighting. We also saw a Golden Stupa at the monastery where Viggy got his engineering brain to work to figure out the mechanics of one of rotating gadgets.

Rumtek also hosts the Karma Nalanda Institute alongside the monastery which houses kids from the age of 12-13 right through to college. The focus is on courses in Tibetan and the Buddhist scripture along with basic lessons in English and Sanskrit. The kids are roped in around 8th Standard and developed to become monks with continuous classes from 5 AM to 10 PM daily and the odd break here and there. We had a cup of Tibetan tea each at the canteen maintained by the institute’s Student’s Welfare Committee. We also bought a couple of souvenirs from the Tibetan cue shop on the way back from the monastery.

Rumtek Monastery

From Rumtek, we visited the Banjhakri falls – which is a fairly recently developed tourist spot. There are some interesting local stories about the “Ban-Jhakri” (something similar to Tantriks in north India) and we saw some innovative energy-conserving devices at the small playground for children there. We also saw a group of young boys trying to emulate Baichung Bhutia and playing a game of football near the entrance to the falls. On the way back to Gangtok, we gave a ride to the cute lady who was the gatekeeper at the Ban-Jhakri falls. We eventually settled into an extremely cheap lodge thanks to our driver. He also agreed to take us to Tsongo Lake the next day.

In the evening, we went to MG Marg which is the buzzing place in Gangtok, somewhat similar to Brigade Road in Bangalore. A nice and simple dinner consisting of Thak-Chuk and similar Tibetan sounding dishes along with really cheap drinks rounded off that day in Gangtok for us. We slept peacefully that night looking forward to the last and what would turn out to be one of the best drives.

Tsango Lake

The morning of 14th March in Gangtok was extremely foggy and the visibility levels were low. Our driver, Arjun Sharma arrived by 7 AM with some forms we needed to fill to get the permit for Baba Mandir. It took us about half an hour to get the paperwork done and we were then on our way to Tsango (also written as Tsomgo) Lake. The driver kept telling us that we would get to see snow at the lake and even more so at Baba Mandir. As we went higher and higher up the Himalayas, we could see snow on top of the mountains at a distance and could not wait to get there. it was increasingly getting colder and we stopped at one of the shops for refreshments as well as to buy some warm clothing. I got myself a cap, a pair of gloves and a face-cover. Viggy bought almost half the shop stating that it is better to get warm clothing for the whole family from Sikkim than Bangalore. I was sitting in front with the driver and got a good first hand experience of driving uphill maneuvering an Omni with very low Horsepower. The slopes were quite steep and we felt almost on top of the world when we hit 12000 Ft.

About a kilometer before Tsango Lake, there was snow on the sides of the road. It was an amazing experience to see snow for the first time. Viggy kept mentioning Iyer and how we shall make him regret his decision not to come to Gangtok. Iyer was the keenest amongst us all to see snow and here we were without him with snow all around us! The lake itself is at a height of 12,400 Ft and is quite something to see first hand. It was covered with snow and we could see some people riding yaks in the distance on the other side of the lake. On our way up, we drove past the lake to make our way to Baba Mandir first. The driver told us that the route to Baba Mandir would get trickier later in the day as more of the snow melts. So we went on through the extremely damp road passing through an area where silk trading happens once every week with traders coming over from the Chinese side of the border. The way to Baba Mandir has a stretch which is observed by Chinese security officials from a watchtower at a distance. We were told that Nathula Pass is 6 km from the road forking out just before we reached Baba Mandir.

Baba Mandir

Baba Mandir has been built in the memory of a soldier of the Indian Army – Harbhajan Singh – who apparently slipped and fell over those mountains during snowfall some 30 years back. One of the jawans in that area had a dream in which the late Harbhajan asked him for some sort of a memorial. Thus came about this Mandir in memory of the soldier. It is completely maintained by the Indian Army. A good indicator of the cold weather was that the water had frozen into a block of hard, solid ice in one of the tanks kept near the mandir. After a brief stay at the mandir, we made our way back to Tsango lake. When our car stopped, we were surrounded by a host of yak owners who were looking to convince us for a yak ride. After about 10 minutes of haggling over the price, we finally agreed to the ride. Changing into snow-boots, all three of us did the yak ride half way around the lake and played for some time in the snow there. Not having expected to see any snow, we had an awesome time fooling around, slipping and sliding in the snow. We let the moment sink in for some time before starting for lunch.

Tsango Lake

On the way back to Gangtok from Tsango lake, the visibility really came down thanks to some clouds hovering around the mountains. The driver once again expertly maneuvered the vehicle downhill saving as much fuel as I thought was possible. We were left with Hanuman Tok, Ganesh Tok and Tashi Viewpoint to visit in Gangtok. The Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court seemed to have passed some time before us and we were told that no visitors would be allowed to visit Hanuman Tok for atleast 2 hours. We went straight to Ganesh Tok from there which is basically a small temple with a lovely view of Gangtok from the top. By now, there was a strong wind blowing across the city and it was extremely foggy. Near Ganesh Tok, there is a zoological park which of course we did not have time to visit.

The last stop near Gangtok was Tashi Viewpoint. On a clear and sunny day, Mount Kanchenjunga can be seen from Tashi viewpoint. With visibility limited to hardly a couple of kilometers aerially, we did not really stand any chance of spotting it whole afternoon from Tashi viewpoint. We spent some time at the art shop nearby waiting for Viggy to heed to nature’s call and finally set off to Gangtok Taxi Stand hoping to get the cheapest possible ride to Siliguri. Though we wanted to see the International Flower Show as well, it was already 4 PM by the time we reached the Taxi Stand and would have run the risk of not finding a cab in time to reach Siliguri that night. We managed to get a good deal with the Indica to drive us to New Jalpaiguri railway station and reached there around 8 PM. Needless to say, we were exhausted after the non-stop travel over the past 10 days and all we could think of was settling in for the night.

The next morning when we were just leaving the room, Viggy showed his tense self by suddenly rushing in and shouting that the train has already reached the station. We dashed our way through the small walkway to the station and on the overbridge only to find out that the train will be arriving in another 10 minutes slightly before its actual arrival time. The journey to Sealdah from New Jalpaiguri was not totally without excitement either. The plains in northern Bengal and small parts of Bihar (upto Malda Town) that we passed through were really green and a very different view from the hills and mountains we had got used to seeing in the past week or so. I had a nice long sleep that afternoon and woke up in the evening to find out that the train was an hour late and was expected to reach Sealdah somewhere between 8.30 and 9 PM. This made our situation slightly tricky since we had to board the train for Khandwa from Howrah at 10 PM. Both Viggy and Manas had worried and helpless looks on their faces. Thankfully, Viggy had a list of stations on both the routes and I could see that Barddhaman Junction seemed common to both the routes. After confirming from some co-passengers, we decided to get off the train at Barddhaman Jn. The first thing I did after getting off was to check the timings of Mumbai Mail from Howrah and was relieved only after confirming that Barddhaman was the first stop from Howrah and that the TTE would wait till Barddhaman before allocation our berths to anyone else. The rest of the train journey as well as the drive from Khandwa to Indore were quite peaceful and we finally reached our hillock home on 17th morning around 5 AM – the fourteenth day since setting off on a memorable trip to one of the most beautiful parts of our country.

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Ola Sho Sho

May 15, 2008 at 9:25 am (Travelogue)

This phase of our trip can be described in three parts – the sudden planning, the journey to Arunachal and the brief stay at Bomdila. It is slightly hard for me to capture the entire experience in words. Nevertheless, let me attempt my best by starting at the beginning. (For pictures of Arunachal Pradesh, click here)

The plan

As already mentioned at the eco camp in Nameri, we met a Major who almost convinced my friends to go to Tawang come what may. Later that evening, as we considered our plans after the eco camp, we had the option of either enjoying the entire rafting experience the next day and then spending the next one day in and around Tezpur before heading to Kaziranga or cut short the rafting time and try to work out the inner line permit (ILP) for Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong, which represents the border of Assam and Arunachal. We decided to atleast give the ILP a shot at Bhalukpong on 10th March since the point from where we begin the rafting is right at the border. I must say that the people at the camp were extremely cooperative and the gypsy driver who took us to Bhalukpong made our job easier because of his local knowledge. When we reached the border, a huge arc with a Yak sign on top greeted us. The guards at the security check-post allowed only one of us to go in to get the permits made. Iyer was the one who went in while the rest of us just stood at the border loitering around on the Assam side. It took almost an hour and a half for Iyer to get the work done and book the cab for that afternoon. The cab was the only one leaving for Bomdila that afternoon from Tezpur. The next one would leave only at 5.30 AM the next morning. While we were already late, since we were paying for the rafting, we decided to atleast experience it and the helpers promised to take us through a shorter route and reduce the amount of time. It was almost 12 Noon when we left Bhalukpong to start rafting. We went back some bit of the way in the gypsy and instead of rafting from the 18th Mile, we started from the 13th Mile. Through all this confusion, we were hoping that it will all be eventually worth it. As we stood at the check-post, we read a board which said “Introduce yourself to this unique destination and you will be destined to come back again”. It only made us keener to see the place once and in hindsight, its one of the best decisions I have made in recent times!

The journey

After packing up from the camp, we boarded the cab from ‘Hathi Gate’ around 3 PM and reached Bhalukpong just after 4 PM. Being one of the eastern most regions of our country, it was already getting darker by the minute. All of us were quite excited at the thought of entering a new state, that too one which we never realistically expected to see. After a quick round of tea and snacks, we set forward for one of the most memorable journeys for more reasons than one. When we stood at Bhalukpong, we could hardly have guessed how close we were close to some of nature’s beautiful gifts. Most people we had spoken to told us that there isn’t much up to Bomdila to see. Dirang onwards were supposed to be the real attractions of Arunachal. Due to our time constraints, we could only manage Bomdila this time around.

Thus, with a lot of excitement combined with mixed expectations, we left Bhalukpong. Within a matter of 15 minutes, the road started winding around the hills and we could see thick vegetation whichever side we turned. The river Bhorelli was giving us company on one side (It’s the same river where we started the rafting further down from Bhalukpong to the camp). As the road suddenly sloped upwards, we were left speechless by the height we reached almost in no time. We were covered by mountains on all sides, each of which was lush green with vegetation. As the road twisted and turned around the mountains, we lost track of how many mountains we’d have gone around. The trail of mountains continues this way all the way to Bomdila with hardly few stretches in the middle where we got a clear run on the road. About an hour after leaving Bhalukpong, we were at Nachefu Pass – height of 5694 Ft – which was the highest point in this trail through the mountains.

 En route to Bomdila

Throughout the journey to Bomdila, we were all travelling with a really fast heartbeat, partly due to the incredible heights we seemed to be travelling and more so because the driver Raju was driving at what seemed to us like breakneck speed through these hill roads. He was no doubt maneuvering the vehicle expertly following strict lane discipline but sitting in front with the driver, I and Viggy were constantly seeing the height of the mountains as the Sumo seemed to go right around the edge of the road at each blind curve. Apart from probably one instance during the onward journey, we were not really close to any accidents though that fear remained with us almost the entire distance. The 101 km journey took nearly five hours through Sessa, Nachefu, Nag Mandir and Tenga including passing many army settlements like the Jat Regiment, Fikar Not 14, etc. The roads actually seemed to be a lot smoother around each of these army areas. Our driver Raju also seemed to know every single person on the way and kept chatting with people wherever he stopped. In fact one of the things that strike you about Arunachal is the general friendliness and helpfulness of the people.

Bomdila

We reached Bomdila at around 8.30 PM and immediately settled into a very cheap lodge called Himland Lodge. The weather was biting cold and the owner of the lodge (Suresh is his name if I remember right) informed us that the summer had almost kicked off there now. In January and February, apparently one can find snow till ankle height at Bomdila itself. Though all the shops close in Bomdila by 6 PM itself, this chap Suresh got one of his friends to open his restaurant for us. So there we were at a remote corner (Mind you, Bomdila is the headquarters of West Kameng District!) in our country, with dinner being served by two sweet ladies and a smooth round of drinks. One of the women chatted with a couple of us which of course prompted the others to make fun of us. But I thought it was really sweet of them to make an exception for us on the request of the lodge owner.

After a peaceful sleep at night under two thick blankets, I called home the next morning from a local STD booth as none of our cell phone networks work in Arunachal. Only BSNL (local) lines work there. After a quick breakfast, we were on our way to the Bomdila monastery with the same driver who brought us from Tezpur. The Bomdila monastery was the first Buddhist monument I was seeing. It was quite big, nicely decorated with a very peaceful look and feel about it. The main hall at the monastery seemed like a perfect place for recital of hymns as well as meditation. Every single idol seemed to have seven bowls of water and rice in front which are apparently the offerings made to them, to be changed every day. There were 2 drums hanging in the middle of the hall, with “Om Mani Padme Hum” inscribed on them in Tibetan language. If the drums are rotated in the clockwise direction, it is equivalent to reciting the verse and is supposed to give power to the devotee. After hanging around the monastery for a bit, we went further up the hill to RR Tower, the highest point at Bomdila. We could see the chain of mountains all around and learnt the general direction of the road leading to Tawang as well as the Bhutan border.

From RR Tower, we went to another hill-top which is apparently used as a helipad sometimes. We got to see the place from a different viewpoint, no less beautiful than the previous one. The air had a really fresh feel to it without the pollution associated with any place with huge human settlement. It was quite foggy that day which affected the visibility to some extent. As we travelled all around Bomdila, I was really in love with the place and told myself that I have to plan an extended trip to Arunachal next time covering Dirang and Tawang as well. We also heard some local music and decided to get a couple of CDs. One of the songs – Ola Sho Sho – was particularly nice with a nice hymn-like feeling to it, perfectly in line with the atmosphere. I also walked around the streets of Bomdila to get a feel of the place and spoke to some of the local people. The women in Bomdila were really cute and simple, unlike some of the more ‘hep’ places in the north-east where you would get to see really trendy people. Even though we spent hardly 16 hours in Bomdila, the journey, the place and the people really captured all our imagination and made the entire trip to the north-east worthwhile.

Bomdila

On the way back, we went to Rupa – about 10 km from Bomdila and visited the monastery there. The people there were quite friendly and told us some of the Buddhist traditions to us. There were two small kids (one named Arjun) who had been left at the monastery by their parents to groom them as monks. After some pictures there, we headed back to Assam with a brief halt at Nag Mandir for lunch. We met some chaps from MDI who were heading to Tawang there. It was quite a smooth drive almost all the way to Bhalukpong. About 20 km before Bhalukpong, we stopped for some pictures and would you believe it, the nearest shop was a Malayali tea kadai! Our driver managed to get himself into a driving competition with one of the trucks and after about 10-15 kilometres of a proper driving lesson to our driver, the truck driver finally let our man have his way.

It was about 4 PM on 11th March when we reached Bhalukpong. The last 24 hours had left all of us in a trance and the weather, the mountains, the dense forests and vegetation, the clouds, the people and the natural beauty made us endorse the tourism department’s claim about this unique destination. I for one am definitely hoping that I am destined to go back to that place atleast once in my life.

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Brahmaputra Calling..

May 13, 2008 at 5:22 pm (Travelogue)

Guwahati – The temples of Kamakhya as well as Umananda are considered as major attractions in the city of Guwahati. While Umananda temple is in the middle of the river Brahmaputra, Kamakhya temple is to Assam what Tirupati Venkateswara temple is to Andhra Pradesh. The queue for a darshan of the main deity – Goddess Kamakhya – is really long at all times. Thanks to the father of one of our friends from IIM Indore, we were able to get VIP status and jump the queue. The temple is supposed to depict the fertility of the goddess Kamakhya and the central shrine basically consists of water supposedly originating from the goddess’ womb (garbh). Any person getting a darshan of the holy water gets her blessings and can wash away their sins at the sacred place. It is of course a special place for people seeking fertility.

The reality of the darshan at the temple is of course no different from most temples all across the country. All that the pundits are interested in is a “Bhent” or an offering made in monetary terms. Every deity is of course sacred and every charan-sparsh comes at a cost in the form of a “donation” by the devotee. The pujaris almost compete with each other to “sell” the respective deity and get more people to have a charan-sparsh. One good thing I found about the Kamakhya temple was the unique central shrine and the concept of fertility seemed quite novel to me. I find it a little ironical that people in our country associate so much power and worship goddesses like Kamakhya and yet refuse to give women their due in terms of rights. Incidentally, we ended up visiting Kamakhya temple on 8th of March, which happens to be Women’s day.

Needless to say, I left the temple more disgruntled and disappointed with the idea of worshipping in such places. We must have spent a needless few hundred bucks to get the darshan and prasad that none of us were seriously bothered about. I also felt really sorry for all the people eagerly awaiting their chance to get into the temple standing in those suffocating conditions only to whisked away in no time once they get in.

umananda temple

From Kamakhya, we went along the bank of the Brahmaputra to a place where there was ferry service to the Umananda temple. After haggling for price, we went on a 5 minute ride to the middle of the river for one of the briefest visits to any temple I have ever made. The temple itself was quite small with just a simple entrance straight to the central shrine. If anything, that small island seemed to be a hang-out for couples more than anything else. I hardly remember the temple now besides the shivling inside and a large picture of Umananda at the entrance as well as some langurs on the way to the temple. We were back ashore within half an hour and returned to Paltan Bazaar for a quick nap before leaving for the most exciting part of our trip.

Tezpur

The ASTC bus from Guwahati to Tezpur reminded Viggy of the buses shuttling between Pollachi and Coimbatore. I must admit the buses had a feel similar to the “Cheran” buses in Coimbatore. The bus ride was a typical one in India with more people than number of seats. We were kept entertained by old hindi songs featuring Madhuri Dixit, Chunkey Pandey and the likes from those times. I had never heard most of the songs before and found them distinctly funny. Finally the operator settled on some Bobby Deol/Preity Zinta movie (Soldier??) which was more tolerable than the rest of the crap.

The bridge on the River Brahmaputra as one is getting out of Guwahati is quite unique as it almost has two storeys – the lower one for the railway track and the upper one for road traffic. We got to know IIT Guwahati was slightly further down from the bridge to the right and we could see the buildings in the distance. The road from Guwahati to Tezpur was decent except for the occasional bump here and there. Most of the journey was through the plains of Assam with greenery everywhere. There were patches of water visible almost throughout the journey. The general feel both in terms of view as well as weather seemed similar to any village in Tamil Nadu. We finally reached Tezpur around 7.30 PM in the evening. After contemplating our plans for the next two days which included figuring out the distance and time to travel to Tawang as well as other tourist spots in Arunachal, we decided to settle for the night at Hotel Aditya, which had rooms to home the 6 of us at dirt cheap rates. It definitely was not a place where I would recommend my family to stay – nevertheless it was a place to camp for the night. After spending an hour or so at the local pub, we settled for the night with Vicca taking control of the remote control as usual. We were to find out later that this obsession with TV was because he doesn’t have cable TV at home! We had a nice long sleep which was good for us – given the excitement and fun that lay ahead.

Nameri – Eco Camp (for pictures of the camp, click here)

As we lazily woke up on the morning of 9th March, we hardly had a fixed plan of doing anything worthwhile that day. We just knew we had to make our way to the eco-camp. We used a cycle-rickshaw to move our luggage to the ASTC bus stop nearby. From Tezpur, we got a ride for Rs. 10/- per head upto Balipara where the road forks in two directions – one leading towards Tawang through Bhalukpong, Bomdila and Dirang, and the other to Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh. We got a bus towards “Hathi-gate” from Balipara, where the person in charge of the eco-camp was supposed to pick us up. The bus ride towards Elephant gate was through many small villages as well as a military area. The final stretch seemed like a proper forest. After stumbling our way out of the bus, we had a nice gypsy ride to the camp.

The ABACA (Assam Bhorelli Angling and Conservation Association) has set up a nice camp for nature lovers with facilities for angling, trekking, rafting in the Nameri tiger reserve. The eco camp provides the tourists with accommodation in a tent with excellent facilities and service, the likes of which many hotels can learn from. The concept of the camp with natural surroundings and all the furniture made out of simple wooden logs captured out imagination. We could not help but appreciate the thought and effort that would have gone into the preparation of each item at the camp and the results show for themselves.

After an excellent lunch made of home-like food with three different varieties of vegetarian side-dishes and one made of fish, we set out to explore the Nameri forest. We were asked not to cross the river as the wild animals roam around freely on the other side. We walked up to the river bank and were enthralled by the peace and calm in the surroundings as well as the beautiful view in front of us. The landscape was picture-perfect just like a postcard with a river, a boat, trees in the background, one hut in the far corner and finally the hills completing the picture. The only thing missing was the sun which was setting in the opposite direction. It’s an image I am still carrying with me as it just underlined the simple beauty of nature.

Eco camp

What followed was a scene none of us could have ever imagined. As we settled down at the bank of the river enjoying the view, a major in the army came along with some friends and went boating in the river. Viggy, true to his nature, took a picture of them in the boat as it left the shore. The major saw that and started shouting and threatening that he will snatch the camera. Viggy got a first hand experience of why not to take a picture of military people! When he finally came back ashore, we were waiting for him to kick up a scene again. Contrary to expectations, once Viggy deleted the photo, he started chit-chatting with the others and I walked off exploring the forest once I knew that there was no ‘trouble’. This particular chat with my friends proved to be quite important in hindsight as all of them were suddenly much more enthusiastic about a trip to Arunachal after speaking to him. According to the major, Arunachal Pradesh is the most beautiful place on earth. While all of us thought that may be a bit of a stretch, we were still curious to explore the possibility of making a trip there having come so close to the border. The major in fact suggested that we skip Kaziranga and visit Tawang. When I spoke to the others later, they told me that the IIM tag definitely helped in the major suddenly relaxing and having a peaceful chat with them.

While this chat was on, I went exploring along the river bank and climbed up a small slope leading into a clear area in the forest with active deforestation. It was really sad to see all the trees cut and fresh ash from recent fires. I just followed a clear trail leading to some tree-houses, which I later found out are where the locals stay at night to hide from the wild elephants. They use primitive techniques like hooting and throwing small crackers to scare away the mammoths. I also watched three hornbills as they made their way back to their nests at the end of the day. When the others joined me, we went on a long and tiring walk along the bank up to the nearest rapid. We finally returned to the camp just as it got dark for a refreshing cup of tea and relaxed for a couple of hours before dinner. The dinner matched the lunch in the quality of food served with mixed vegetables and parathas and good dessert to round it off.

As we were planning to settle down for a round of drinks, we decided to venture back to the river bank in the dark just for the heck of it. The kilometer and a half trek from the camp to the river was pitch-dark and the path was a winding one with tall grass on both sides. Pradeep, the guy handling the office affairs at the camp, warned us against it saying that there was a chance of elephants walking around. He added that he himself would not trek up to the river but there were a couple of students who had done it once. We could do it at our own risk of course. After some speculation, I, Manas and Putta decided to go for it. Viggy came with us till the camp gate, walked a few paces and then turned back seeing the dark way lying ahead. We kept walking till the point where we could see our shadows and our pace slowed automatically once the camp lights almost disappeared in the background. We inched forward from there experiencing a fear as well as thrill arising from the fear. We kept walking till the point where the trail forward itself became almost invisible. With the thought of snakes also lurking in the forest, we decided that it was not worth going further. Without even saying a word to each other, all three of us turned back at the same time and walked back with much quicker steps. With a sense of accomplishment, we made our way back to the tents to be greeted by Iyer, who suddenly seemed very keen to go all the way to the river. So we headed back the same way again with only Viggy opting out this time around. After covering about 100 metres from the camp gate in the dark trail, Vicca got scared of the dark and urged all of us f***ers to turn back. After an exchange of not-so-pleasant words between Vicca and Iyer, Vicca rushed back in double quick time to the camp. Having come this far before, the other three of us were more confident this time around and walked quite easily into the dark. Drawing strength from each other’s company, we reached the turn about half a km from the camp gate from where we could not see the camp lights even in the distance. As we started moving further forward, we suddenly heard some crackers being burst in the wild. I thought they came from the left side where we had seen the tree-houses that evening. As I recollected the story of the local people shooing away the elephants, we all decided to head back as we were not even carrying a stick with us to defend ourselves. The small adventure in the wild was over. The “signature” drink that followed this was really satisfying as we recounted our dare and kept laughing at Vicca all the while.

Even though we had a fairly long session that night, the morning of 10th March started early and we were all ready for the trek into the forest by 6 AM. After Viggy did the job of obtaining the permit, we were joined by the forest office guard and started on the boat across the river. We reached the other side with mixed expectations about the trail. We were warned that birds are better spotted in the forest than animals. I did not really expect to see any animals but thought that the peace and serenity of the jungle should make it worth the experience. With the sound of birds chirping, the jungle presented a very good taste of what it’d be like to live in the wild. Personally I found it a little irritating when some of the others wanted to keep talking about this and that. I even thought that we may be spoiling whatever chance we’d have of spotting any animal if we kept talking to each other. As it so happened, we did manage to see a wild elephant at a distance of about 200 metres from us. We realized how tall the grass in the forest actually is when comparing it to the height of the wild elephant. The elephant was thankfully on a clear stretch in the forest otherwise even it might have been hidden by the grass. We got to see quite a few birds like the hornbill, kingfisher, brahminy duck and many others whose names none of us seemed to know. We were definitely missing a pair of binoculars especially when we reached an observation post. We of course got many pictures inside the forest of trees and the general landscape. We managed to spot a few pug-marks left by a leopard. The guard claimed that the marks would have been made the previous night when the leopard came to drink water at the river. We could also see a few marks left by bisons. We were all left with the feeling that a place like this actually deserves quite a few days of patient stay to truly appreciate the flora and fauna.

Forest Trek

As we headed back to the camp, we were all mentally preparing for the next leg of the camp, which was the rafting. The rafting itself was quite a nice experience with a nice and smooth flow along the current till we hit the first of many rapids. While none of the rapids were the kinds which would turn a raft upside down, it was exciting enough for beginners like us. We were all wet by the time we waded through the last of the rapids completing the journey along the river to the 13th mile from the base camp. We actually cut short the entire rafting experience as we decided to utilize some of that time to prepare for the most exciting and totally unplanned bit of our entire trip – the journey to Bomdila!

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The abode of clouds..

May 13, 2008 at 10:24 am (Travelogue)

As we left Indore at noon on the 4th of March, all of us were quite excited at the thought of seeing a new place in our country. We didn’t really know what to expect in terms of the security situation having heard conflicting reports from people who had been there before. Nevertheless, the spirits were high and following a boring train journey (which allowed all of us to catch up on sleep more than anything else), we got off at Nizamuddin station on 5th morning. After a quick breakfast, we started for the airport in a private cab which had a “press” sign at the back. It turns out that the Sardar who drive us to the airport was a driver for one of the local media persons and he threaded the car through some restricted areas claiming he was driving a vehicle for the press. It was funny to see him convince guards at 2-3 places that “yeh Press ki gaddi hai!” After the first round of acting as media people, we landed at the Delhi Airport for the flight to Guwahati. Being a Deccan flight, no surprises that the flight was delayed by about 2 hours and we landed at the Gopinath Bordoloi Airport at Guwahati around 3.30 PM. As we stepped out of the airport, we were surrounded by a group of cab-drivers for the first out of many rounds of haggling for prices from then on. After weighing the options, we sat on the ASTC (Assam State Transport Corporation) bus leading to Paltan Bazaar which was supposed to be the central market of Guwahati. As soon as the bus left the airport, we encountered lots of greenery with hills in the background giving a feeling of being in Kerala with the coconut and palm trees as well as the water streams flowing all around. Needless to add, Viggy was extremely excited until the bus entered the city of Guwahati.

The one thing that struck me about Guwahati was how dirty the place is. I don’t know if it was just me who felt this but the entire place seemed to be strewn with litter. When we reached Paltan Bazaar, the first thing Viggy noticed was a board “Kerala Bhavan” written in Malayalam and Tamil. We managed to somehow convince him to try something a little more local than Kerala Bhavan and after a heavy meal mainly consisting of rice, fish and dal, we were on our way to Shillong in an ASTC cab. Even though it was dark by the time we left Guwahati, we were all excited about the drive to Shillong looking forward to the the first of our destinations.

Meghalaya

The road from Guwahati to Shillong was initially very crowded with traffic jams for most part. As we entered Meghalaya, the climate seemed a lot cooler than before. With plenty of blind curves, the road as well as the constant traffic kept me awake. The most exciting part of the journey was when one of us suddenly decided that we needed a bottle of water. We noticed a small shop open and stopped the cab abruptly near it. This prompted two young security personnel to walk up to our cab and interrogate us. A thorough ID check of every single one of us along with checking of the driver’s license and vehicle papers happened. While this was on, we happened to notice that the place we had stopped was called Nongpoh. The entire place seemed really quiet for 7 in the evening and we learnt from the driver that security in this area was tight because this was the election season in Meghalaya. After being questioned for 10 minutes regarding our purpose of visit by the guards, we were finally on our way. The rest of the way was pretty much through hills and the weather was increasingly colder. The entrance into Shillong is through a bridge called Barapani. Because it was almost 8.30 by the time we reached Barapani, we could not see the spectacle on our way into Shillong.

It was almost 9 PM when we got off the cab at Police Bazaar. Viggy wanted to check out a hotel called Pine Borough which was in one of the side roads. As the others checked the rooms, I waited outside in the cold seeing over the luggage. There appeared to be a brawl brewing outside the restaurant as the lady managing it was driving out the last of the customers, all of whom did not exactly seem very stable. Our driver started telling me that it was not a good idea for us to keep our luggage outside like this. He seemed more scared than I was about the chances of a scuffle. At that time, a group of policemen came down the road and surrounded the area where the trouble was starting. One of them stopped next to me and started asking routine questions about where I was from and what I was doing there. On hearing that I was a visitor from Indore, he appeared to relax a bit and chatted with me for a while about our trip plans. He informed me that 9 PM was the closing time for all the shops and restaurants in Shillong. Apparently the place was known for drinking problems and the police had to make the rounds at night to ensure that there is no trouble. He also suggested to me that one of his friends had some cheap rooms available in case we were having trouble locating a hotel that late. In the meantime, the others decided on a hotel called Magnum with decent rooms. We moved in and settled down comfortably for the night.

To see some of the pictures of the places mentioned below, click here

Cherrapunji

As we got ready to leave on the morning of 6th March, we were still undecided on whether to cover Cherrapunji (its called Sohra now) or Mawsynram on the first day. We eventually decided on Cherrapunji for that day knowing that we would end up skipping Mawsynram in the process. The way out of Shillong towards Sohra was through the Army cantonment as well as the Air force centre. As our man Viggy kept clicking away photographs, the cab driver asked him to stop clicking any pics of the army area. Viggy started off in typical fashion wanting to know why it was such a big issue and we asked him to restrain himself just to be on the cautious side.

The drive to Cherrapunji was really nice with scenic views on both sides of the road. We kept crossing a number of small villages. A characteristic feature in most of them was the ubiquitous presence of small kids carrying schoolbags as well as women walking with either a kid or basket tied to their backs. The distant valleys and hill-tops coupled with some unique huts along the way made the ride through the Khasi hills worth it. Every village we passed looked similar to the previous one with some unique constructions.

One thing that struck me about the area was the amount of quarrying and physical construction work happening along the roads. In fact most of the men seemed to be involved only in physical labour whereas the women took care of the shops. We learnt along the way that Meghalaya is a matriarchal society and women generally enjoy the status that men seem to in most other communities in our country.

On the way to Sohra

The ‘Abode of Clouds’ has a very misty look to it all around and the view was not very clear over a distance. On the way to Sohra, we stopped at a bridge called ‘Nong Sai Siem’, where we got the first uninhibited view of the depth of valleys along the Khasi Hills. Viggy, Vicca and Manas also bought a ‘head-massage’ at the shop selling local things. Although it looked quite innocuous, they claim it is effective! After a quick stop at the Seven sister falls (we had a hard time locating the 7 falls there!) and an amusement park called ‘Sai-Mika’, we reached the eco-park at Cherrapunji with viewpoints overlooking the plains of Bangladesh at a distance. The border is apparently about 12 kms from the village we could see at a distance. While the plains themselves were not visible to us from such a distance, we could see patches of water beyond the hills which supposedly precede the plains.

Next stop – Mawsmoi Caves. They have been indigenously built with lighting inside. As we walked in, we were told to just stay where we were in case the power goes out as there were no generators. It does get really dark inside and unless one knew the way, it was very easy to get hurt. The narrow entrances and rocky pathways make it a place to visit for the young and the fit. As we approached the other end of the caves, yours truly and Viggy decided to explore more and managed to figure out another small entrance. The cave inside had absolutely no lighting. As neither of us had a cell-phone with torch, we used our cell to get the reflection from sunlight and with some strategic positioning, we were able to throw further light in and I went in as far as I could see. By this time, Putta also located the entrance and the others joined us. Iyer’s mobile had a torch and the two of us walked in to the dark cave which kept forking into branches inside. After sliding and slipping our way in for about 25-30 metres, we reached a very narrow gap leading further in and decided not to take the risk of hurting ourselves in the dark. I and Viggy left our signatures at the entrance of the cave as we left the place. After the exploration, we ate a well-earned local lunch at a nearby hut. We got a taste of Khasi food and got to see a typical khasi home. Again, it is worth mentioning that it was women who were running the place – an old woman and presumably her daughter – while the man who walked in later stayed at the back of the house not venturing to speak to us even once. We also realized with the rates the woman quoted for lunch how the visitors are always fleeced if possible.

Mawsmoi was followed by Nohkalikai falls, which is a nice viewpoint atop a hill overlooking the waterfall at a distance. This waterfall is one of the biggest in terms of height in the north-east. It is of course a lot more scenic during rains. Nevertheless, we got some good shots of the landscape there even though we didn’t have a camera good enough to capture the ridges between the hills. We were accompanied by a group of four mallus, true to the saying that wherever you go, you will always find a malayali! Iyer and Manas decided to do some exploring and walked down the hill following two of the locals. It took all of 10 seconds for the locals to walk down the distance whereas our men kept feeling their way through for 5 minutes and finally gave up.

Nohkalikai Falls

The final destination at Cherrapunji was the Ramakrishna Mission school and museum which gave us a gist of the history of Cherrapunji with nice pictures of all the nearby attractions. Sohra was earlier very important as it used to be the connecting point from Kolkata through Dhaka. From a spot at RKM, we could see the Lawkyntang forest as well as Mawsynram at an aerial distance of 6 km. We also saw pictures of the Shivling (hill-top) from where the Bangladesh border is clearly visible. As we left RKM, we left with a slight regret that we were unable to make a trip to Shella, which is the last village in India before hitting the hills preceding the Bangladesh border.

Shillong

After the day-long trip to Sohra, we spent the evening in Police Bazaar, the central market area in Shillong, looking at the various local articles. Giving in to Vicca’s constant pestering, all of us tasted momos during dinner, which seemed like vegetable stuffing in what are called as “kolakattai” in south india.

The next day was entirely dedicated to places in and around Shillong. This included Elephant falls or the Three step falls which also had a park adjoining it. We also visited Shillong peak, located within the Air force command area. We got a nice view of the entire city of Shillong along with the forests and landscape surrounding the place. We also saw a fairly detailed map of Meghalaya giving us a good idea of the general direction of each of the tourist spots. The last two spots we saw were Lady Hydari Park and St. Mary’s cathedral in Shillong. The park gave us a flavor of the local flora and fauna.

Shillong Peak

Our drive around Shillong coincided with the day the assembly election results in Meghalaya were being announced. It was amazing to see the number of vehicles carrying hoards of people into the city of Shillong right through the day. They were all bundled into the cars and jeeps moving in shouting slogans for their respective parties throughout the day. There were major traffic jams all across the city with a lot of roads blocked for processions. We finally managed to wriggle our way out of the traffic, finish lunch and leave from the hotel. On the way out of Shillong, we stopped at Barapani – which is a very scenic bridge with a good view of the river and a beautiful entrance to the city. The driver told us that the water levels during the rains rise alarmingly and the dam has been constructed to utilize the water effectively. We were not allowed to take pics of the dam as this was again controlled by the Army.

On the way back to Guwahati, our driver – Munna Singh – kept giving us lots of “info” about the place. One could see he was majorly fond of Shillong and kept rattling on about what all we could have done had we stayed longer in Shillong. We had a brief halt at Nongpoh – which looked very different at 5 PM from what we saw on our way into Meghalaya. At Byrnihat, we reached the border of Meghalaya & Assam and interestingly, for the next 10 km, we had Meghalaya to our left and Assam to our right. All the wine shops, petrol bunks were predominantly on the left side in Meghalaya due to the cheaper rates with lesser tax. Khanpara is the place where we finally moved fully into Assam. We reached Guwahati by about 7.30 PM and finally parked in at Hotel Geetanjali at Paltan Bazaar having completed the first among the unique destinations we were visiting on this trip.

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