North East Diary
NORTH EAST DIARY
When Awadh Assam express departs 1.5 hours late from Samastipur and reaches 0.5 hours early at Guwahati, you should be jumping with joy. Except that at 0330 hrs, jumping is not really high on priority. And when Abbas, your friend, philosopher and car driver for the next 8 days, who was to turn up at 0500 hrs turns up at 0630 hrs, the jumpiness reduces by An order of magnitude.
First introductions done, we decide to leave for Nameri, ditching the tried and tested East bound Assam Trunk Road and opting instead to go North, crossing the Brahmaputra, IIT Guwahati, Mangaldoi and Tezpur to reach Nameri.
Rail cum road bridge in Guwahati
Tezpur is a railhead which was inactive when we visited because of conversion to broad gauge. Bypassing Tezpur town, you cross the railway line to Bhalukpong, which has also stopped functioning for the last year, and move north towards Arunachal.
Defunct train line from Tezpur to Bhalukpong
20 km after Tezpur, the Border Roads Organisation of the army has started wholesale work on road widening, ambitiously redoing the road all the way to Tawang, all at one time. Talk of doing things on a war footing. Looks like this war is going to last for 5 years or so. You can imagine the general happiness levels in China – as they can rest assured that the only way the troops can get across tanks from Tezpur to Tawang is to drive them over these roads!
Typical stretch on NH from Tezpur to Tawang via Bhalukpong and Bomdilla
We managed to arrive at Nameri Eco camp for a late lunch, thanks to a fortuituous left turn which made us leave the National Highway and traverse village roads. Sundown is early, so we made do catching up on Nameri local news.
NH Exit to Nameri Eco Camp
Huts in Gaul Village like setting at Nameri Eco Camp
The headlines: one day before we reached, there had been 2 daylight murders in the village. There was one drowning the day we reached. In both cases the culprits were – elephants. The first evening of our trek, we met two armed guards hunting for the drunk mahout who got pushed off his elephant while crossing the Bhoroli river. There were two more guards and two elephants posted on the site where the elephant trampled a lady and her kid. Post lunch siesta was interrupted by strong winds, which managed to make two of the trees lose their branches, damaging two huts inside the camp. Welcome to Nameri.
Giant Willow Tree near Camp. Hornbills love to nest in such trees.
When you hear a helicopter in the middle of the Nameri jungle, it is actually a hornbill flying low altitude between trees. A beautiful bird with a yellow crown, it eluded capture on our primitive camera. For a few months a year, the hornbill stays inside its nest locked in to bring up its brood. Am not sure whether it is the mom or the dad which is locked up. The spouse in the meantime is the one that is plucking nice red fruit out of trees for home delivery.
White water rafting is not adventurous as a spectator sport. We decided to find out how it is when you are not a spectator. We jeeped upstream of the Bhoroli with rubber raft in tow. The Bhoroli is a fast flowing river – with water speed of about 8 km/h. So our return journey via water was almost as fast as the upstream jeep journey through bad roads. Donning our life-jackets we stepped into the boat – to find that – it was going to be mostly a spectator sport, as we had two village boatmen who were actually going to do the steering. Confidence levels in their ability increased after seeing that they disdainfully ignored wearing life jackets. The boatmen condescended to give us the oars once and decided that more than that would mean risking the use of our life jackets. Fishing is allowed on the Bhoroli only when you pay for the permits. With not too many anglers around, though the Nameri camp is run by the Assam Angling society, the kingfishers (the non UB variety) were having a great time.
Jiya Bhoroli river on one of its more peaceful stretches
What followed was real adventure. The drive into Arunachal. The roads presented more danger than the Jiya Bhoroli in full spate. Though you need a permit to enter Arunachal, you can get past the border by surrendering the RC book of your car, err actually Abbas’ car.
Entry gate to Arunachal Pradesh
With some gentle persuasion Abbas surrendered the RC book – and we were ready to do some orchid-watching. The road petered out onto a rally mud-track, and with only 9000 km on his brand new Indica Vista, Abbas threw up his hands and refused to venture further inland. Our new found love for orchids made us complete the last mile on foot.
Our next love turned out to be birds. We accompanied co-residents of the camp from Bangalore into the reserve forest area across the river. You need four things to be a birder: leech guards over your trousers, a cell phone with recorded sounds of birds that you hope to capture on your camera, a 2 lakh Nikon camera which can click fotos with machine gun speed and an enormous amount of patience.
Dhanesh, our birder friend from Bangalore shooting birds.
Having suffered leech bite in trying to capture giant squirrels and ruddy kingfishers on the very ordinary Sony camera, we gave up after 2 hours. We decided then to go and watch the terristerial animals.
Note the leech – the brown guy at the center – perched on the brown leaf, waiting for his next drink.
Elephant apple, loved by elephants. The Assamese use it in dal – tastes a little bit like raw mango.
If you want to find out how it is to be a minor VIP, then the Nameri jungle is a good place. We had a solitary unenthusiastic guard with us, with an antiquated rifle. Hearing a jungle is as good an experience as seeing it. Amongst the more interesting sounds is the jungle fowl – which sounds very much like the domesticated one. On the way back we managed to see catch a deer trail leading to the river.
Deer trail near Bhoroli river
Stones that lined the Bhoroli river bank.
The Rongila Bihu, like other Bihu’s of Assam is celebrated with a lot of gaiety, and in Tezpur mostly on the roads. Villagers had a thriving industry, stopping vehicles on the roads to ask for donations for their spiritual celebrations.
Rongila Bihu being celebrated by local villagers at Nameri camp
We were on our way to Kaziranga – and decided to stop at Da Parbatia at Tezpur to check out a 1400 year old door frame. The girls decided that it was too heavy to lug back to Pune, so we let it be.
The doorway circa 400 CE
10 km from Tezpur is the third of the three bridges across the Brahmaputra. We got down from the car in order to cross over the Kolia bridge on foot. We met with armed resistance as the policemen posted on the bridge refused to let us exercise our right to exercise.
Brahmaputra as seen from the Kolia bridge near Tezpur
25 years ago it was a Herculean task to spot a rhino in Assam. Today Kaziranga is infested with rhinos. A Brit lady, who we met in the overpriced Hathikuli tea estate retail outlet, claimed she had seen all the 2200 rhinos housed in the park. We managed 22, and have kept the rest in reserve for future trips.
The thing about elephant safaris is that you will not see any elephants except your own.
For seeing elephants you need to get into a jeep safari, where the roads are so infested with elephants, that you actually get caught in jams when elephants refuse to give you right of way. Even on jungle roads your size determines who rules, so our puny Gypsy would lose out every time.
Big Boss Road Block
Waiting for Missus and family to pass
Oh deer, where did all the grass go?
Bison herd grazing
Letting sleeping dogs lie
The least VFM dinner of the trip was in Kaziranga – in a resort called ‘Wildgrass’. The snob value and LP ratings (Lonely Planet for the uninitiated tourist) being so high that they do not have a single signboard giving directions to the resort. Fortunately the dinner tab was picked up by Harpreet, our friend from Nameri Eco resort, who was the rare non-gora in the resort.
Harpreet at elephant hole in Nameri reserve forest
The most VFM lunch was in the small town of Bokakhat, on the eastern fringes of the Kaziranga park. A typical bus-stand adjoining, bench seating hotel, with 4 varieties of vegetables and two types of dal, topped up with the famous ‘Bokakhat pezzas’ (pedhas in Hindi). All that for a bill which was less than 40 bucks a person. Definitely a place you can consider for life post-retirement. For the artistically inclined, all the non-living rhinos of Kaziranga are manufactured in artisan shops of Bokakhat. To add to the glamour, the place also had the highest per capita jewellery shops in Assam.
We had uninvited guests half-way through the trip with Manu (Manmohan Singh as he is known to friends) deciding to visit his residence in Guwahati. Our ULFA friends decided to declare an enforced public holiday in honor of his arrival. So we trekked the backyards of our hotel – which we discovered was the stronghold of the Karbi Anglong wing of ULFA.
Chhavi’s Karbi grandfather
It was a good trek – where we looked up a very interesting cable winch operated bamboo crane being used to build a culvert over the rivulet Kohora.
Kaziranga to Cherapunjee is an interesting 400 km drive which takes you back to Guwahati and then on to Shillong. We discovered Tuk Tuk tourism enroute. 50 km short of Shillong, we met a Kerala registered auto rickshaw, with ‘Tuk tuk’ emblazoned on its back, with 3 white tourists ensconced inside, one driving with the other 2 relaxing. The autorickshaw is an ideal vehicle for tourirsts from the Left hand drive countries. You continue sitting in the center no matter what.
The bright green Bara Pani of Shillong
You can read Khasi, the lingo of Meghalaya, but can’t understand it. Khasi uses the Roman script – but apart from Khublei (Thank you) we did not pick up too much of the language. The universal car of Meghalaya is the Maruti 800. How to fit in 10 people into the Maruti 800 and negotiate steep roads still remains a mystery but the Khasis managed to do it all the time. The Maruti 800 nowadays has started to see competition from the Tata Nano amongst taxi owners.
Tata Nano taxi in Shillong
One interesting thing about trucks in Meghalaya is the owners are ferociously proud of them – and they like their privacy on their drives. The front wind shield of your typical Meghalya truck is all covered with dark sun film with a small 1 foot band left for the driver to be able to admire the scenery as he drives past. Apart from his vehicles, the Khasi loves his pork and beef. In fact there seemed to be more meat shops than vegetable shops on the roads in Meghalaya.
Handsome Truck thundering down the Shillong Dawki highway
Shillong is the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command with a cute little museum tucked in. A must on the tourist circuit – so we admired the vintage planes and history associated with them.
Chhavi waiting for the pilot to eject so that she can get his seat.
Unmanned plane used to drag targets for bombing practice of fighter pilots
Under wing well for retracting wheel, pictured on top
The Elephant Falls are an over-hyped over-priced part of Shillong, but then there is not too much to see in Shillong. The high point was the fact that it rained while we were visiting the falls. Wet welcome to Cherapunjee we hoped.
Elephant Falls: There was a rock here which looked like an elephant, but it fell off in an earthquake.
Sohra is the official name of Cherapunjee. It has recently lost out its rainiest place on earth crown to a Mawsymram, a location 8 km away. The terrain is denuded, with all top soil washed off because of the rain, making it easier for the miners to dig out the exposed limestone to feed to the local cement factory. We arrived in time to take in the Cherapunjee Indigneous People festival. The high points of the festival being a fashion show and a rock band competition. Well the models were good, even if the songs were in Khasi. Bows and arrows were being sold in stalls, but at 80 bucks for a metal tipped bamboo arrow I realized that hitting the Bulls Eye is expensive.
Gave the Megahalya CM company at the Cherrapunjee Festival
Late at night when the world is asleep, we experienced what we had all been anticipating all along. Rain. Strange but it rained only at night even on the second day of our stay. A walk along the roads early morning after an all night downpour is a great experience: Streams everywhere, earthworms on the roads, clouds floating by, Paisa wasool.
Sohra after a rain storm
A must-do in Sohra is a visit to Tyrna village and a trek down the valley. The trek was an antithesis of the religious treks you are accustomed to. One – the direction is reversed – you normally trek up to meet the Gods – and having done that, the blessings are that the return journey downhill is quite light. No God and no blessings awaited us in the valley at Tyrna. Instead we saw a bio-engineering marvel – the root bridges. They are built over a span of 15-50 years, by stretching the roots of rubber trees on the edges of streams, till they join up. There are usually 2 bottom spans and two railings to hold on to as you walk along. Pieces of wood are used as supports along the roots. Here is a structure which strengthens with time, as the roots grow.
Road to Tyrna village
Living Root Bridge
The bridge can support heavyweights.
Insect eating flower (plant) enroute to the Tyrna valley
Lunch was at the LP rated Cherra resort. Great infra, but 15 km away and 300 m lower from Cherapunjee town. Great jungles surround the resort – but it misses the world-famous rain. Dennis, the owner of the resort was as informative as his website, www.cherapunjee.com, and recommended that we go back to Sohra on the circular road via Mawlong. Good advice. Mawlong is only 20 km from Shella, which lies on the Indo-Bangladesh border. In fact you can admire the flood plains of Bangladesh as you motor down from Mawlong to Sohra.
Bangladesh flood plains viewed from near Mawlong
3 step awesome waterfall; it plunges about 500 m in these three steps.
Topping up the Sohra experience was the Mawskma caves, only 3 km from Sohra town. The 150 m walk inside the cave was fun, would have been more interesting if the lights has been switched off inside. There are sacred forests of the Khasis on the periphery of the cave, and I wondered how they managed to retain the topsoil that was absent all through Sohra! VFM farewell dinner to Sohra was at Hilara restaurant – don’t miss the lissome lasses who serve you and the veg soup priced at 10 bucks.
Entrance to the Mawsma cave
And there is light at the end of the tunnel
Returned back to Guwahati for the 60 hour train journey back home. Met up with Samar, friend from Bangalore doing his Ph.D from IIT Guwahati, over dinner at JB’s – hep veg restaurant overlooking the Brahmaputra on AT Road. Chose to stay the night at Hornbill hotel in Paltan Bazar, bringing back fond memories of the winged friends seen at Nameri. Took a ferry across the Brahmaputra to say hi to the singing toli in the Dol Govind temple. Cycle rickshaw ride to the station to realize that the only way to get to platform no. 4 from Paltan bazaar is to climb up and down the Foot Overbridge to Pan Bazar and again climb up and down the same Foot overbridge to reach the platform. All that practice in Tyrna valley trek helped…
Sunset on the Brahmaputra
North East Trivia Quiz
Question 1: First impression is that the egg on the right is a ‘desi murgi’ egg. It is not. It was boiled with tea leaves added to the water, to give it a brownish tinge. Question: What is achieved by doing that?
Question 2: In this picture clicked on the Sohra Shillong road you see these cables crossing the road overhead. What could they be for? Hint, They are not electrical cables. They are not even satellite feed from cable operators.
Question 3: How do you get water from a tender coconut with the minimum number of blade slashes?
Question 4: How do you connect two water pipes without using pipe joints?
For answers scroll down.
Answers to North East Trivia Quiz:
1. To distinguish the boiled eggs from the ones that are not.
2. Water – it is funelled from streams at a higher elevation to houses over distances in pipes and cables.
3. By using a Bisleri bottle.
4. 2 slices is all that is required.