Sunday, December 30, 2012

Darjeeling - resplendent Ghorkha heritage

On The Go Tours

AAPSU elections caused a shutdown in Arunachal. For a peaceful Christmas heading back to Cherrapunjee was a better option. Thanks to Sathyan, tickets to Shillong on an APST overnight bus was a big favour during the high holiday season. Frost bitten roads saw carols and we spent two days organising games and movie show for kids at Mawmluh village. Getting back to Guwahati to go to Darjeeling was as impromptu as the last minute ticket. Contact Mukesh at 98460 54505 -3G Tours &Travels, Didar Market, Opp ASTC, Paltan Bazar for your last minute train tickets. They get the tickets somehow circumventing the IRCTC servers. While staying at next door Daffodil Lodge (Tel 9864851737, dbl Rs 600) with shoebox rooms, relishing a variety of foods in and around the market area is a guilty pleasure.

GHY-NJP Northeast train (7hrs, Rs 300 including commission for sleeper class) was pleasant, sans the eunuchs. Classic Lodge run by Debashish is 10min from NJP station ( Tel 0353-2691673, Mob: 98323-15933, dbl Rs 600) is good enough for a night. Take a share auto to Siliguri Town station to find numerous sumos to Darjeeling. Avoid the agents surrounding you, get a seat at the hidden counter next to Siliguri bus stand gate for Rs 120, 2hr 30min ride. Kuttan at Madras Hotel was very glad to meet us, he hails from Cherthala.

Toy Train
Siliguri-Darjeeling train is cancelled currently due to landslides en route, the diesel train runs upto Kurseong from Darjeeling. The steam powered Toy Train has two joy rides in a day upto Ghoom on its 2ft wide track. You can book 120days in advance, Rs 270, 2hrs. The morning 8am joy ride was powered by diesel engine at the time of this blog, check in advance if you insist on steam. A cheaper option is to take the diesel version from Darjeeling to Kurseong for Rs 27, 3hrs and you may take the return train.
Wikipedia


Every other building in Darjeeling is a hotel or restaurant. Tea and Tourism Festival brought huge crowds during the holidays to this choking city. The best value accommodation at Youth Hostel (www.yhaindia.org ) franchisee Hotel Broadway Annexe, Dr. Zakir Husain Rd (Tel 09733022208, 0354 2253248, dbl Rs 440) was a steal. Mystic Mountain restaurant on the same road dishes up delicious home cooked meals -order in advance. They are planning to start a homestay in a tea plantation including a pony ride.
Though the local to tourist ratio is very low, we were lucky to meet a few during our stay. Most memorable was meeting P. Golay and his wife at Hotel ShangriLa while sipping beer at the counter. He talked at length about his treks to GocheLa and RocheLa while he was in college. He even gave us a treat at the end of two hour conversation, which was a shocker!

Tiger Hills
Tiger Hills, 15km away is much hyped sunrise viewpoint with 1000s of tourists and 100s of vehicles. Herds of tourists flock this location from 4am in the biting cold, vendors and taxi drivers making it more chaotic. If you have agoraphobia, get down from the shared sumo (Rs 150) before the entry gate and on your left side there is a peaceful viewpoint. Otherwise the heated lounge on top might be worth Rs 20. We were not lucky to see the '250km range of Himalayas' but the moon setting down was dazzling sight.


Wikipedia

Jalapahar
Yiga Choling gompa is a left turn after Ghoom station, known as the highest altitude station in India. Taking a steep concrete path towards right, we strolled up to Jalapahar cantonment- the first British settlement in Darjeeling. Golay advised us on this 2hr lesuire walk through army habitats at 8265ft gives, impressive Himalaya views. Road descends to Jalapahar cantonment cutting through a pine forest, reaching Dr. Zakir Husain Rd, close to Doordarshan building.

Darjeeling Zoo: Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park
The zoo is 15min pleasant walk from Chowrasta, located in a forest, housing rare Himalayan wildlife- snow leopard, red panda, Tibetan wolf etc. Himalayan Mountaineering Institute boasts a museum showcasing Everest expeditions. Mountaineering courses are offered, get ready in advance by running 1hr everyday for a month to pass the physical test of trekking 25km with 15kg backpack within stipulated time. Course fee is subsidised, starting at Rs 4000.

Tea and Tourism Festival
Parikrama band from Delhi enthralled the rock aficionados at the festival on Dec 29th. Bands from Darjeeling and Nepal did well keeping a high tempo. Unlike Hornbill, this is a festival for the masses with the absence of VIP pavillions. We relished the local selroti and aloo dum at the food stalls, sipping various flavour and flush of red, black, white tea in the price range of Rs 10 to 120.


mungpoonews

To view the majestic Kanchenjunga and neighbouring peaks without leaving the hotel room, Darjeeling is ideal. Those who can trek for a closer view, go to Mane Bhanjhang, 26km from Darjeeling, get a guide at the National Park border for a multi day trek to Phalut- there are lodges and food available. Tour companies offer 'deluxe' trek with all the creature comforts at Rs 2000/day per person. Even better, for motorheads, there is a Land Rover ride to Sandakphu! For a hasty one day trek, the best option is to stay at Rimbik and trek to Sandakphu and return, provided you are really fit like Golay.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ziro valley - headquarters of Apatani tribe

Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar


Accommodation in Aalo was scanty due to a conference when we returned from Menchukha. Following the intuition we got tickets in a Sumo which leaves at 5pm from Aalo to Itanagar (Rs.600, 10hrs) via Basar, Lilabari, Silapathar. The road from Aalo to Silapathar is winding with heavy traffic during night, frequented by trucks and buses. Ghostly fog reflected the headlights but the expert driver tackled the mountain roads and the police check posts with ease. Fortunately Biju at Hotel Kerala Bhawan was kind enough to open the doors, though we reached at the wee hours shivering in the unprecedentedly chilly Itanagar. Planned 48hrs bandh was cancelled and we were plodding through the worst roads in Arunachal to Apatani tribes' Ziro valley via Potin, Yazali (Rs.300, 5hrs).

Hotel Valley View near DC office (9402031058/9856210112, dbl Rs.500-800) with scuffed paint and faulty plumbing is not the best option, but it is centrally located. There is a bukhari in the restaurant, but mostly surrounded by drinking men in the evenings. Locals advise not to roam around in the town after dark, we didn't bother to check if it is safe in person. Christian missionaries have been active in Ziro valley, still many continue to practise Donyi Polo (sun and moon) worship. The whole point of coming to Ziro valley is to see old Apatani (Abotani) women with facial tattoos and peculiar nose plugs - imposed to make them look ugly to avoid kidnapping by Nishi tribesmen. Watch carefully, you may see them in the market at Hapoli itself. They may NOT be keen to be photographed, be very sensitive. If you want some pictures of Ziro, check the link below.

http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/ground-ziro/article3994529.ece?ref=slideshow



Vikraman, who works with APST in Old Ziro gave us a ride to APST bus station adjacent to a  WWII airport and a former army camp, at Suliya. There are frequent Tata magic to Old Ziro, Dutta and Hong villages are at walkable distance. Later we tagged along with Kaushik (HV Kumar's reference) to visit Hong Apatani village where terraced paddy fields bordering pine forest. In front of the traditional houses tall babo poles with crosspieces are raised during Nyakom festival which is celebrated in a three year cycle in each village, Hong will be the host in 2013 March. Locals are proud of Lapang platforms, made from ancient timber and used for community gatherings.  Stroll around the village and the fields where a unique system of poly culture and water management of the Apatanis is practised enjoying the fall colours of fertile Ziro valley.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Menchukha - the heavenly snowland

Jobin George

 Close to Tibetan border, surrounded by the pointy peaks of snow clad Himalaya, this little town had no roads until 2005, an army airport with its runway at center of the village - doubles as a playground when it snows. Villagers used to trek up to Tato, 50km away where the road connects to Aalo. There are no fuel stations but fuel is sold by sub dealers at a hefty price. Boasts solar powered BSNL station and SBI branch, no ATM. This sub divisional headquarters has major army presence at the village and along the road to the border. Aalo - Menchukha road is better than most of the roads in Arunachal. Menchukha (2000m above MSL) popularly known as Mechuka with few letters missing in the spelling. Men - medicine, Chu - water, Kha - snow, literally means medicinal water of snow. Buddhist Memba people live here in harmony with Hindu, Donyi Polo and Christian minorities.

APST bus runs to Menchukha on alternate days (10hrs, Rs.230) is not preferred by the locals, so we booked Sumo (8hrs, Rs.450). Passing through Kabang, Kaying, the road ascends to Tato from where a diversion leads to Pidi and Monigong. We met Varghese, a school teacher who hails from Wayand, Kerala. He took a voluntary transfer to Menchukha during winter to enjoy the snow. There are four residential schools including a higher secondary, exemplary of the Buddhists' keenness in education. Tourist facilities are coming up in Menchukha, a large tourist complex is under construction. Hotel Naksang adjacent to the runway, with three rooms (263245, dbl Rs.500) is very basic with shared toilet. Best in town is the homestay (9402423444, dbl Rs.600) adjacent to the ground next to Kasturaba school run by the lovely couple Gebu and Nana. Gebu owns a grocery store and a restaurant and sub dealer of petrol, diesel and kerosene. Ask anyone for Gebu's house to find this Tibetan style timber house with six rooms and a kitchen- if you like cooking your own dishes. Nana and her sister Omu satiated our gastronomic desires with authentic Tibetan dishes. Nana's mother brought a special Tibetan soup with corn, radish and Mithun cartilage - Oshum Thuppa and Gebu brought the local beer Chang - unforgettable delicacies. The bukhari in the living room warms you up from the bitter cold after sunset, though the day is sunny and pleasant.

We spent most of the evenings inside Nana's kitchen sitting around the bukhari, chatting with the locals. The kids Zomba, Ohjo and Sonam are more than adorable and we gelled with them in no time. We spent time teaching them English and helping them with their homework. These kids are smarter than the city kids of their age. Nana was too keen to learn English conversing with us overcoming her inhibitions. Most of the heavy task are done by women including concrete mixing, possess diverse skills. Nana has seven sisters, each of them manage different businesses in the village.

Samden Choling Gompa aka Naya (new) Gompa is ten minutes stroll from the village. Long horns, drums and clarinets created a special ambience at the monastery. Relishing butter tea offered by the Lama, we spent one hour attending the puja. A steep climb from the monastery takes you to the army bunkers providing a closer view of the snow capped mountains. The incessant drizzle brought down the mercury close to zero and eventually a big snowfall. While we were teaching Nana to make wheat dosa, a motorcycle rider just arrived all drenched in rain - Jobin from Kerala.
Jobin George



According to locals snowfall is least expected in the month of December, it was my intense desire to see snowfall what made it snow on this day of 12-12-12. Nana all of a sudden saw it snowing and shouted from outside, I was wearing only a tshirt and cargos as I was sitting by the fire, while Romin was gaily talking in his mother tongue with Jobin, in simple words MMTP. The excitement of snowfall didn't give me time to think and pack myself before getting in the freezing cold and playing in snow. Sonam and I made a small snowman and keeping our mouth open to eat the snow. Romin was watching me be a kid with kids, or more kiddish than the kids. In the night when we slept after snowfall adventure I could feel each part of my body frozen.

Next morning, we saw Varghese was smashed by snow at the school grounds. It was a holiday, thanks to the first snowfall of the season. Jobin, Varghese and we trudged along the river Siang to the 400year old Samdem Yongcha Gompa of Mahayana sect at 150m higher than the airstrip. Varghese was leading us through some unused trails, tackling streams and swampy terrains covered in snow. Crossing the hanging bridge with a few planks missing was adventurous, snow made it like skating on the ice. Though the gomba was locked, we enjoyed the 9km trek watching Menchukha valley covered in white - looked like a magical land from a fairytale.
Jobin George



On our way back we wanted to hitch a ride in an army truck. When we reached the road we saw a truck coming, not an army one but GREF truck loaded with concrete mix. The friendly driver offered a seat in the front for me, seldom did he know that I was more keen than men to stand in the back of the truck. With the help of workers already on top of the truck, we climbed up and one lady warned us it would jerk and we would lose balance once the vehicle starts to move. Before we could react, the truck moved, Romin and I fell on the concrete mix. For the next half an hour we tried all possible positions but could neither stand nor sit and palms frozen holding the iron door. The drizzle made it more cold and we could feel the chill on our face as the drizzle sprayed on our face. The humble co-passengers offered to hold the umbrella for us. Rest of the day was spent near the fireplace.

After spending six days at Menchukha, it was not so easy to bid Adieu to our new friends. But we have miles to go before we sleep. When we return to Northeast, it is a must to visit Menchukha.
Jobin George

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Aalo (Along) - a picturesque Adi valley

Along (Aalo) -the headquarter of West Siang district is located at 300m elevation. This educational hub is at the confluence of Sipu and Siyon rivers, with photogenic Adi (Abor) villages. The road to Aalo from Pasighat is excellent until you take a left diversion before a bridge. Some parts of the roads caved in during the heavy rains. 8hrs of bone tattling ride from Pasighat will take you to Aalo going through lush green forest with river in the valley on your side. The waterfalls on your right side is a relief from the muddy and slushy roads.




Hotel Aagam (Nehru Chowk, Yubo complex, 9436645055, 03783 223640, dm/s/d/dlx/st Rs.200/500/600/1000/1200) is the best value option with water heater and newly painted rooms with small balconies entering through the toilet. The next door Hotel Yomgo offers cheaper rooms (dbl Rs.350 with shared bathroom and cold showers).

CARRY CASH!!! ATMs at Aalo may not be working and if working, there will be a queue of 50 people. Megha was impressed with the preferential treatment for women in ATMs with separate queue for women. The men/women closer to the machine will have more than 2 cards with ATM pin written on a piece of paper, of the others in the queue behind them. The machine spits out only 1000 currency notes.


foto_morgana


River Trek through Adi villages:
To visit the photogenic Adi villages, we marched on foot to Kabu village, one hour walk from Aalo town on the road to Tato. Don't be frightened by the machetes and guns carried by the villagers. Ask the friendly people for the school building once you reach village on your right side. Cross the football ground to reach the iron bridge built in Dec 2009 -  a good spot to watch the Mithuns, coming to drink water at dawn and dusk. The old bamboo bridge got washed away in the heavy monsoons of june 2012. Fishermen from Assam win bids in the range of 1lakh in the auction for fishing by casting nets in Yomgo river. Kabu village river boundary reaches to 7km on both sides from this bridge.

From the bridge, get down to the left side of the river bank and walk along the river on the round rocks. If you go right, you can reach Patum bridge in 6hours. Paia is 2hrs of trek from this bridge to the left. After a while, you need to walk up to the paddy fields to cross a difficult section. Follow the path until the iron bridge from Paia to Pobdi is visible. The picture perfect Adi village is visible on your right side. The houses are built by wood supported by stilts and thatched by palm leaf. The size of the houses are more than a hut, measuring up to 2000sqft. The thatched roof last up to ten years. Right to the iron bridge is the hair raising bamboo decked wobbling bridge.




Once you cross this bridge precariously, a steep trail leads to the main road from Aalo to Tato, from where you can get a city bus to Aalo at 12pm. We boarded the same bus and went to Bene village, where a barbeque was in progress after a puja with the cow skull kept on a tripod like wooden poles (hogi). Apong (rice beer) was loaded into the bus from another village, villagers told us about 'Mani Sir' - a school teacher from Kerala.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Crossing the mighty Brahmaputra (Dibrugarh-Pasighat)


http://www.theaustralian.com.au


Hotel Luit Regency (RKB path, near railway station, 9401999448, dbl Rs.650), is a central option with newly tiled clean rooms with bucket hot shower, though the narrow entrance is hard to find. From the bustling city, there are multiple ferries to cross the mighty Brahmaputra. The shortest is to cross to Silapathar and travel to Aalo, if you are ready to skip Pasighat. We spent a day at Dibrugarh working through the Inner Line Permit headache. Arunachal House is on the road to airport at Mohanbari, 40min, Rs 20 for a ride by shared taxi. While coaxing the officials for the permit to Pasighat-Along-Mechuka-Ziro, I met Nirmal Kumar, an avid trekker hailing from a tiny village Khellani near PulDoda in Kashmir. As we had been to that region with HV Kumar in Jul 2012, he was excited to talk about trekking options near his village.  Contact him at 9435716668 to enjoy nature at the virgin pastures of Kashmir.



We booked our jeep (1hr) -ferry (1hr) - winger (4hrs) tickets at Hotel Kusum (0373 2320143, Talkiehouse Rd, Rs.300). The jeep starts at 5.30 in the morning passing through Jhoonktolee tea estates, who owns tea estates at Samse, Karnataka.  The ferry from Bogibeel starts at 7am and crosses Brahmaputra while we were gazing at the rail-road bridge under construction for last ten years. Passing through Jonai we reached Pasighat, a small town of Adi tribe, headquarter of East Siang district. Stroll up to the sand banks of river Siang, which origins from Tibet and joins Brahmaputra, to gawp the snow glad peaks, rocky mountains and thick forest. Chopstick Restaurant run by a friendly Bomdila resident offers excellent Tibetan food.  Hotel Siang (near the sumo counter, behind the filthy meat market) dbl Rs.550, offers prison like rooms with squat toilet and bucket hot water showers. We spent 30min to wake up the staff next morning, to open the gates at 5.30am


 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Two months and counting

Joseph Hyoen

"Wow! You guys are travelling around without a return date, it surely is something to be envied about." This is the reaction we get most of times when we talk to people whom we meet on our journey. Yes it sounds amazing and it's definitely a dream come true for me. How does one feel, when her dreams come true? It's not possible to express in words. Since the very first time I met Romin at Kobe sizzlers in Bangalore, I have envied him and his way of travel. From that time onwards all I did was to dream of travelling like him "WITH" him of course :) According to me, travelling is the best way to learn how to live, not merely reading philosophical books. By travelling you experience every emotion, that you might otherwise not feel just sitting at home or at workplace.

Our way of travelling is backpacking, frugal and no unnecessary indulgences, no creature comforts. This way of travelling is fun there is no denying it, at the same time it requires not being just physically strong but emotionally stronger. For me this is the first time away from home for more than a month, other than summer vacations spent at Grandparents home. As I write this blog, it's more than two months since we began travelling. There are times when I was longing to see the bed at my room and crash on that or just eat the food that my mother cooks and just spend time with friends and loved ones. Like I said before travelling calls for lot of emotional energy at the end of the day. I very proudly say that I am growing strong emotionally. This doesn't mean I don't miss home.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Angami village at Kigwema and Rajadhani

Thommen Jose

Kigwema village, a few kilometres from Kisama is a settlement of Angami tribe. Akieno's sister took us on a tour to this traditional village with two modern Christian churches. We could see two traditional Angami-Naga homes with crossed horn gable (kikeh) which were not in use but rented to foreign tourists upon request. These houses are adorned with mithun skulls sporting a spooky appearance. The village is divided into four colonies with a morung (boy's dormitory) in each colony. Most of the houses are roofed with corrugated metal sheets. Until the common cemetery came up, the graves were built in front of the houses. There are huge water tanks in each colony where people shower, do laundry and fetch water for their houses. Peace settlement inscribed stones recording the settlement fee - number of mithuns - generated curiosity amongst us. These recent settlements were to end fierce head hunting practice which continued until 1980s. Today the Naga people sport jeans and shirt and wear their ethnic dresses and full warrior costumes only for festivals. The kids at the village are extremely friendly, lent me their circular wheel rotated by a metal hook for a joy ride. Adults seemed to be very serious and tight lipped, the need for being accompanied by a local guardian was very obvious.


We had the company of few wonderful people at the home stay. Joe, a globe trotter from Alaska, Fabienne, an avid traveller and Indophile from Brussels, Len, a gardener from Oregon, US accompanying his friend Becca, a teacher who was born in India retracing her early childhood in India.  Becca's father, a Baptist missionary  worked in Naga and Garo hills in 1950s and contributed linguistically to tribesmen. Swapping culture and travel stories, all of us made ourselves at home around the heater (charcoal filled a metal basket) at Akieno's sitting room.

Though we wanted to spend two weeks in Nagaland, the economics of Hornbill Festival was not suitable for our budget. We hitched a 'rocky ride' with Joe to the town- sitting on rocks in a Tata Mobile. Spent some time gazing at the delicacies unique to Nagaland- dog meat and other crawlies. Hiring a cab from Kohima to Dimapur after 5pm took 2hrs of haggling with taxi drivers, ended up paying Rs.300 per head. A police officer's intervention was too late. At Dimapur an ATM was guarded by five army men, this town cannot be considered totally safe after dark. Sleeping at the railway platform was  checked in our wish list while randomly waiting for a train. We never knew we would be travelling in Rajadhani to Dibrugarh! That too without tickets, but paying a small commission to the Ticket Inspector.




"You get angry, when you are hungry or in a hurry" - a traveller's wisdom by Joe

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hornbill-Festival of Festivals


Named after an endangered bird, Hornbill Festival is an annual celebration at Naga Heritage Village at Kisama, 12km from Kohima from Dec 1st to 7th displaying traditions, culture, costumes, valor and camaraderie. 16 various tribes across Nagaland come together in traditional warrior costumes carrying their hunting paraphernalia. Dancers from other 6 Northeast states perform like true professionals. Marathon, cycling, Northeast riders meet, World War II Peace Rally, flower/horticulture/photo exhibitions and shopping stalls - other crowd pullers. Indira Gandhi stadium at Kohima host the music festival on the evenings, the rock festival has 20 bands over 4days. To soak in the whole experience of Hornbill Festival, spend at least 3 days; make sure you reach before 9am on day one.

On Nov 30th, to get glimpses of behind the scene preparations, we visited Kisama village. The flawless rehearsal for inaugural ceremony was exemplary for the meticulous preparation by the event management personnel. Gala opening ceremony on Dec 1st is a must see. Iconic Naga log drum by Chang tribe, unity dance and Tetse sisters' songs justified the sobriquet of Festival of Festivals. Konyak tribe's gun salute was shocking followed by troupes of bagpipers. Naga chilli eating completion drew large crowds, winner hogged 14 chilies- rated one of the hottest in the world, 1001304 on Scoville Heat Unit which indicates the amount of capsaicin. A 7kg piglet was released to be caught by agile Naga men- a daily event.


Dancers from 6 states enthralled audience on Dec 2nd. Cheraw dance by Mizoram, Dhol Dholak from Manipur, Dahal Tungri by Bodo girls were dazzling. Pork fat eating contest was nauseating to watch, winner consumed more than a kilo in 60sec! Naga cultural dances by tribes evoking various emotions - ferocious head hunting, meditative healing
practices, festive harvesting and exorcist burial ceremony - every tribe provided a visual feast. Every village amon the 1400 village in Nagaland gets a turn to perform here, some may take 30years to come back to Kisama.


The Hindu



Vivid pictures showcasing culture and heritage are abundant at the morungs, walk around and interact with the people. Many speak English and have been to South India. Mighty  wrestlers flexed their muscles at the Naga style wrestling. Relish the blisteringly authentic Naga food at the morungs - khalora and rice beer were our favorite. While you are not admiring pastiche of bamboo architecture, indulge in shopping for a piece of household tool at the bamboo pavilion. You can't carry in your bag? Indian Post has a stall inside the village to ship it at a cheap rate. Notably Indian tourists are less in number compared to the foreign tourists, Hornbill is organized eyeing on the dollar and euro signs. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nagaland Express

National Geographic

Nagaland Express - the train from Kamakhya to Dimapur is aptly named. To get the ILP for Nagaland we visited Nagaland House, (Tel:0364 2520083) Laitumkhrah, Nongrim Hills at Shillong. To reach here, ride a taxi or bus up to Fire Brigade and walk across the football field to Bethany Hospital. Pay Rs.60 for a permit and no documents or photographs required-gives access to entire Nagaland for two months. Interestingly foreign tourists no longer need Protected Area Permit (PAP) since January 2011. Later we learnt that all the northeast states except Arunachal Pradesh do not need PAP/RAP for foreigners. Refer www.tourismnagaland.com

You can board a bus from Shillong to Dimapur, there is a Network Travels counter right next to Bethany Hospital. Buses go through Assam (NH52) and takes 12 hours. We took Nagaland Express from Guwahati at 11.30 pm and reached Dimapur by 5.30am. Taxi to Kohima leave the railway station when full and cost Rs.220 for 75km. Despite good roads, taxi fare is highest in Nagaland and goes up as the sun goes down.

Accommodation:
Prices sky rocket and very high demand makes it impossible to find an accommodation during Hornbill Festival. Book very well in advance (6months). Holiday Inn (Tel: 9863156696, s/d Rs.450/600), Hotel View Point (Tel: 9856346445/9856360163, s/d Rs.550/1000), Hotel Fira (Tel: 0370 2240940, s/d Rs.550/800, dormitory Rs.200), Hotel Pine (Tel: 0370 2243129/2240269/ 9436001041, s/d Rs.500/900), Viewpoint Lodging (Tel: 0370 224182, s/d Rs.700/1000). These hotels are at Kohima and the venue of Hornbill Festival is 12km away at Kisama Heritage Village. A taxi ride will cost Rs.30 to Kisama and staying at the city centre will be ideal to enjoy the night bazar during the festival.

For a truly Naga cultural experience, stay at one of the guest houses in Kigwema village, walkable distance from Kisama, albeit pricey. Contact Nino (+919856343037) for bed/breakfast homestay accommodation, who coordinates with women in the village to offer a true homely experience to guests from across the globe at a price range of Rs.1000 per person. Bring your own tent and sleeping bags in the worst case and Nino will find a space to pitch the tent.

We stayed at Akieno's house (9856259469) who runs Dawn Boys Hostel for the boys studying at Japfu Christian College, Kigwema. Akieno's mothering love was obvious when she dished up various local dishes. She ensured to keep us warm by replenishing the coal in metal buckets . It was like staying at a home with truly lovable people as hosts.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Umm-U-Noi Living Root Bridge



The villagers at Sohsarat and Mawlyntuin moved from the foothills due to very short days with scanty sunlight. They grew a living root bridge for access to their farming lands from their new habitat.

Umm-U-Noi Living Root Bridge at Siet village is located at 515m elevation and one hour away from Laitkynsew village (880m). Mawshamok is 15km from Saitsohpen and Laitkynsew 4km away after the splashing park and Cherra Resort. This 90 minute trek starts from a tiny thatched tea shop on the left side of the road from Mawshawmok to Nongwar where the road ends. The concrete steps leads to the villages from where the trail turns right. Ask the villagers for this trail hidden between houses. After trudging along a grassy area this trail leads to a rocky path covered under leafy canopy, so the rocks are slippery in any weather. This is used only by the villagers and least touristy (read no concrete steps).

The main branch of the bridge which looks like a spinal chord is very strong and big. Some branches are as wide as half meter and stronger than a concrete beam. We tagged along with Bansan for this trek and a villager was guiding us to this bridge explaining the history. He made a small cut on the branch with his machete and a sticky white gum oozed out which explains that this is in the family of rubber trees (ficus elastica).




 Ten minutes further from the root bridge there is a rock cavern made of sharp rocks and tree roots in intricate patterns. Interestingly the space below the cavern was hollow (not seen but heard). Half cut bamboo poles are used like a pipe to bring the water from upper hills to the farming lands inside the jungle.

After the trek we had a late but heavy lunch at the tea shop. We couldn't find a taxi from Laitkynsew, so decided to walk 4km to Mawshamok gazing at the starry sky. Bansan explained the location of different villages in the lower hills looking at the electric bulbs which look like fireflies in the forest. This was the last trek we did in Sohra and the easiest.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Nongriat-Weiphngam falls-Nohkalikai trek



"Beware that even for the fittest walker, this hike is highly strenuous"- Lonely Planet, about double decker root bridge trek.

What if this is just a warm up trek for a day long trek from double decker to Nohkalikai waterfalls viewpoint, which takes more than three hours and climbs from 375m (Nongriat village) to 1300m (Nohkalikai waterfalls viewpoint).

As there was no taxi at 6.30am to Mawshamok, the good Samaritan who stays near Saitsohpen offered us a ride. Another fifteen minutes walk to Lum-Sophie, next one hour trek to Nongriat was ceaseless. Being on this trail a few times in the last month the concrete steps were a tad boring. Still, the turquoise blue waters under the wire bridge enthralled us. After breakfast and packing lunch from Cooling Corner, there was an extra trek in our agenda when Byron's father in law offered to come with us as a guide.

Weiphngam Falls:

DO NOT attempt this trail without a guide. This less beaten pathway is very rarely used by the locals, narrow and dangerous, you may have just enough space to place one foot. Starting right after Mawsaw root bridge, the deviation itself is hard to find. Our 50+ year old guide was clearing the trail with his machete. The best thing about this part of forest is that no major wildlife is present and it is very safe to explore as far as you know where you are heading to. It took more than an hour to reach the magical waterfalls with a rainbow across plunging into a pool of blue water. More than endurance, techniques will make this trek easy-use a hiking pole or a stick to balance your body weight on the narrow cliff.



Nohkalikai Falls:

Reaching the viewpoint in three hours seemed to be difficult when we started at 1pm. The trail from Mawsaw root bridge to Nohkalikai viewpoint is not used by locals or tourists often and there are no villages on the way. You may feel little claustrophobic as the sunlight is scanty, thanks to the tall trees keeping the open sky a rare scene. On the rainy days the mossy rocks make it impossible to trudge along this way. Endurance and stamina as well as water and energy bars matter a lot on this steadily steep but wide path. Lots of butterflies and even more spiders await you-a stick to clear the cobweb is a must. There is only one stream after Mawsaw bridge to replenish water bottles. Before sunset we tottered up to the open grassy moors near the viewpoint at 4pm, after dark finding your way in this trail is nearly impossible.

There are taxis to Sohra market, 4km away. This trek is best done with an overnight stay at Nongriat Rest House, trekking to Weiphngam falls on day one and starting early to Nohkalikai the next day. Barefoot Treks and Hikes, run by ever-helpful Bansan Kupar (9615093898) can arrange guides, to explore the forest safely as well as accommodation and meals.https://sites.google.com/site/barefootsohra/

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sohkhmi - The Green River



"We are in Cherrapunjee."
"Is it raining there?" That is the question we hear most often. Known as the rainiest place in the world, Cherrapunjee was there in the social studies curriculum across India. At an elevation of 1400m it is still one of the wettest places in the world. In 1974 it rained 24555mm (80.56ft) which is the highest recorded rainfall in any one place in any one year in the world. On 16th June, 1995 it rained 1563mm in 24 hours! The rainfall in July 2012 was 3847.8mm.

The huge mountains and the rainforests are lashed by heavy rains accompanied by thunderstorms; from mid March to September. Rest of the year can boast about sunny normalcy suitable for outdoor activities.

Fishing:
A major hobby as well as a profession for people in Meghalaya, there are fishing competitions (in ponds)with a first prize to the tune of Rs.3,00,000 or more in the peak season. There are many rivers bordering Meghalaya flowing down to Bangladesh. The river is auctioned to different villagers and demarcated with boundaries at a range of Rs.1000-5000. Each villager who wins the bid, spends day and night at the riverside camping in a cave or makeshift camps and sells his catch at the market. Angling is the only means, which is a sustainable method. Villagers use homemade gear for angling, not fancy but very effective. Fishing rod is made of flexible long bamboo pole and the fishing reel is made of wood and metal. Polythene line is attached to multiple hooks which are hidden inside a block of boiled tapioca, hooks and bait change as per the variety of fish. The captured fish will be kept in the river until the day of selling.

Sohkhmi-the trail and the trek:
Sohkhmi is a village with less than fifty families, which can be accessed only by foot from Sohra. The motorable road from Saitsohpen near the police station ends at Kut-madan village. By foot it takes an hour to the Presbyterian Church, from where you can see the Bangladesh plains. The river is an hour and a half steep descent from the Sohkhmi village. This trek takes you from 1300m to 75m at the river, an indication of the dizzying trail. We could reach the village by 10am, two hours from police station through wide but rocky walkway. We crossed the village following concrete steps lined with mandarin orange trees. The villagers might be curious where you are heading to. After the last blue house you will get a sneak peak of the bluish green river decorated by white rocks.



The traipse down is knee trembling due to the steep rocky trail. After an hour we reached the hidden paradise at 11.30 and got onto the very narrow wire bridge to enjoy the mesmerizing green river. The tranquil water is so clear that you can see the river bed and reflects the sun on the wet rocks on the side wall. It looks like an aquarium displaying the wide variety of fish in their natural habitat. We did a tad rock climbing to find Bah Pen who hails from Sohkhmi village with whom I had been to this location two years back. Though we did not speak any common language he could recognise me when I told him Bansan's name. He offered his bamboo raft for an enthralling joy ride and we spent one hour playing in the water. Like a fish in the water, Romin swam in the river and was difficult to get him out of the water. At 1.30 we started our arduous ascent back to the village; two hours later when we reached, we even thought of sleeping there because of fatigue. Willpower took over physical exhaustion and we foot slogged to Kut-madan village by sunset. This nine hour trek was highly rewarding and each moment at the riverside was like experiencing paradise. Considering the effort, it is highly recommended to spend more time at the riverside.

To do this trek over two days with all the paraphernalia, contact Bansan at 9615093898 and if you enjoy angling he sells fishing gears too. https://sites.google.com/site/barefootsohra/ 

THE MAGICAL GREEN RIVER IS CALLING!!!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Aizawl - Wild Wooded Wonderland



Geographically Mizoram is the remotest state in India. You will be genuinely appreciated by locals for coming all the way from the southernmost part of India travelling 4000+ km. Shillong to Aizawl bus takes 16hrs to cover less than 400 km which speaks of the road condition in the hills. Network Travels buses start from Dhanketi at Shillong and charge 700 for an overnight bone crushing ride. If you stop at Silchar en route Sumos are the only option to go further. The roads are bad between ML-MZ borders through Assam. Once you cross the border you will see endless dense forest thickened by bamboo and teak holding cotton clouds at its branches. Every one kilometre takes two minutes to climb up by the bus because of the steep gradient.

Aizawl is situated at an altitude of 1132m, surrounded by Tuiral and Tlawng rivers. Inner Line Permit for the entire state can be obtained by paying Rs.140 per person at the Mizoram House, Christian Basti, GS Road, Guwahati (Ph:0361 529626/224087), Sonai Road, Silchar (0146 256823), Tripura Castle Road, Shillong (0364 520315/520149). As we had planned for a seven day trekking and caving expedition, our destination was the Youth Hostel at Luangmual, near Chhunga High School (0389 2332243, 9862223095, dm/dbl 100/400). The Secretary Zodinsanga was very helpful to guide us and a taxi dropped us at the Youth Hostel without any hiccups. Our base camp leader Mr.Lalduhkima Sailo (9862712367) introduced details of the program and about Mizoram in general. Later camp leader Mr.Manoj Sahu (9238588126, 9583186177) explained the itinerary of the program in detail. He is an avid trekker with 24 years of experience and very helpful for any traveller in India. We visited The Martyrs Cemetery erected in memory of 1,563 persons died during the bloody insurgency period 1966-1986 whose names inscribed on the marble blocks. The martyrs included MNF rebels and civilians. After breakfast with the help of description and map of the city from the warden Mr.Lalmwai we visited the areas spread around Zodin Square, Bazar, Zarkawt and Chanmari. The swanky new shopping mall Millenium Centre is a pride factor for young Mizos. There are frequent city buses from YH to Vaivakawn, from where the Bazar is a short walk. Long distance buses start from Thuampui though you can get tickets from KT travels (2345280) at Zarkawt. There are numerous Sumo counters for long distance trips at Zarkawt. We visited Salvation Army Temple and the caretaker Issac was kind enough to show us around and took us to the clock tower for an aerial view of the city.

Mizo in local language means a highlander (Mi=man, Zo=high altitude). The ever helpful Mizo people are very friendly and women are highly respected. The women are very liberated and industrious - line up on the streets selling vegetables and handicrafts throughout the town. You will find women running big shops in the Bara Bazar selling automobile parts, electrical appliances and confectionery. Women smoking in public does not seem to be a taboo. You can shake hands with opposite gender without any inhibitions. A young mother feeding her baby in public does not attract stares. Christians make up 84% of Mizo population, everything shutdown on Sunday.




In the evening, a bunch of traditionally dressed boys and girls performed Cheraw- six boys squat on the ground holding bamboo poles while six other girls dance in between the shifting bamboo poles which are rhythmically shifted and struck against one another, drums are used to maintain the rhythm. Multi-talented warden Mr.Lalmwai entertained us with his guitar and songs.

Next  morning we were dropped by two mini buses near 1 MW mini hydel project site from where we trekked 4 km to our first camp at Vaipuanpho. Two is a company but forty four (!) is more than a crowd. Not so agreeable crowd and inclement weather made us rethink about continuing our trek further. Following our intuition we called off the trek and returned to YH. Rest of the day was spent with lovely and entertaining Peter and Rebecca who work at YH reception. The Sunday service at the next door Presbyterian Church was simple and spiritual. Rebecca lent us clothes to dress up to suit the church attire. We thoroughly enjoyed the hymns accompanied by drums, rest of the Sunday was spent chattering gaily with Rebecca and Peter and the second batch participants.

We played the local guides by taking seven of the participants with us to a few local sites. KV paradise-built in memory of Varte by her husband Khawlhring dubbed as Mizoram's Taj Mahal. Take a city bus from Temple Square to Bawngkawn, hire a taxi or bus from Zasanga Point to Durtlang, the narrow mud road leads to KV paradise. The nearby high rises are polytechnic, hospital and women's college. Go down the steps from the parking lot to find the caretaker if the entrance is locked. Enterprising Soni runs LNS restaurant near the ATM-handy for lunch at Bawngkawn. State Museum at Zarkawt (admn fee 10) was our next stop-a vast collection of anthropological/textile/historical exhibits on Mizo people and culture are displayed here. Loitering around Bara Bazar through the evening crowds of Aizawl munching a few local delicacies was fun. Betel leaf with dry coconut is a novelty here. Highly disciplined drivers keep the traffic smooth though slow, following traffic rules strictly. After 5pm you may not get any buses, taxis are the only resort.




For a peaceful stay away from the bustling city, Berawtlang Tourist Home(0389 2352067, dbl 450-650, Zemabawk near Mizoram Science Centre) is an ideal choice. Most of the buses end at Zemabawk via Chandmari-Chatlang-Zasanga Point- past Pushpak Mandir. Walk up the steep hill for 15 minutes where a sign board says Science Centre just before the bus station. The rooms are very spacious though the ceiling is peeled off and toilet is moldy. Cafeteria cooks up decent meals and it is the only option. Walk up the grassy hill in front of the tourist complex to watch the contrasting views of the sprawling city skyline on the west side and lush green mountains on other sides. Mizoram Science Centre (admn fee 10, 10am-4pm) is right after the tourist complex frequented by the students. Basic principles of science are explained well by simple practical and interactive devices. The 3D theatre (Rs.10, 11.30 am, 1 pm and 2.30pm) offers an exciting 3D experience with two ten minute shows.

Though we didn't get a chance to experience rural Mizoram life, it wouldn't be wrong to say Aizawl city is not so urbanized. The simplicity and innocence of village life still persists in this capital city.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sohra - a recce around living root bridges




Sohra aka Cherrapunjee is the one of the most tourist infested destinations in Northeast. Still there are serene locations to hole up for a restorative session with nature. Leave the tourist circuit and venture into the numerous non-descript villages to learn how man can live in harmony with nature. There are many buses (Rs.120, 4 hours)leaving from ISBT, Guwahati. You can also get your tickets from Paltan Bazar and a connecting bus. Frequent Sumos (Rs.150, 3 hours) leave from Khanapara as and when ten people board the vehicle. For an accommodation close to ISBT or Khanapara, Hotel Bhargav (Tel: 0361 2236721, 9207292525, Ishan Arcade, Lokhra Chariali, dbl 460-1400) with decent rooms will be handy, though food at the rooftop restaurant is not recommended.

After reaching Shillong we took the yellow coloured Mahindra Maxi Cab (Rs.70, 2 hrs) from Bara Bazar, from the upper floor at the confusing Taxi/Bus station. The roads to Sohra is one of the best- tarmac and scenic views. You would want to stop at many vantage points where prominent mountains intermixed with valleys and gorges, made dramatic by plunging waterfalls. Hidden from the green cover of bamboos and tropical forest, there are turquoise blue rivers which can be crossed by cable-trussed wobbling wire bridges. There are thousands of varieties of butterflies of various colours and sizes-not found in Nat Geo or Discovery- in this area and spiders who cast web for these fluttering delicate creatures. Some of the butterflies have amusing camouflaged colours when their wings are closed. To experience the magical allure of a Khasi village, very close to the living root bridges, waterfalls and rivers, Nongriat Rest House (John 9615737690 dbl 500, 125 per meal) is an excellent option which has four basic rooms with private bathrooms and squat toilet is ideal for trekkers not seeking creature comforts. This was a well run place by Mary, evident from the comments in the guest book, who passed away one month back. You can have food at family run Double Decker Cooling Corner (Rs.60 for a meal). They are building a basic dormitory style home stay called Serene- contact enterprising Byron (9436739655) / Violet (9615252655) which will be ready by January 2013.

We met Bansan, who runs Halari Restaurant and a four room lodge ( 9615093898, dbl 900 with TV/Geyser, spacious spartan rooms, excellent food of the restaurant upstairs) near Police Station in Sohra. After exchanging pleasantries we chalked out a plan for our stay at Nongriat. Two years back I had been to fishing with him to one of the unspoiled river beds in the vicinity. Bansan is of great help for tourists as well as off beat travellers and very active with community services. We hired a Taxi (Rs 300) which took us through Mowshawmok, a sharp right turn to Tyrna and the dead end at Um-Sophie which is more than 15 km from Halari Restaurant. Trekked down for more than an hour to reach Nongriat. Ahead of the double decker, we found the rest house in the midst of a bucolic village. We couldn't spot the caretaker but the villagers around helped us. Switch off your gadgets and step outside to watch the sky glistening with stars and moonlight Listen to the stream nearby with the background of crickets chirping. Ah! We finally feel at home!!

Living Root Bridges:
The living root bridges is a top most sight of its kind in the world- a perfect combination of civil engineering, art, persistent human effort and above all, natural wonder. Serpentine roots of ficus elastica trees are trained from one side of the river to the other side by the Khasi Villagers over a period of twenty years. The boulders on both sides hold these natural bridges with a strong foundation and these trees are believed to be growing even today. Both the trail and the destination in this hike are enthusing for biologists.




There are five root bridges you can trek in a day from Um-Sophie. (1) A small root bridge at Nongriat before the Double Decker (2) Umshiang Double Decker (3) Mawsaw Root Bridge after Double Decker (4) Long root bridge at Ritymmen (5) The hidden Wide root at Saitynduh. The first three bridges are one the same trail which can be covered in three hours round trip. Start at Um-Sophie trek down through the endless concrete steps and you reach Nongthymmai village. Go left and turn right after a while to reach the first wire bridge. After a steep hike you would reach the twin wire bridges. Watch out for sharp edges while you balance yourself holding rusting cables and place your foot carefully as there is enough gap between the cables to slip your foot while getting amused at the turquoise blue waters below. Another hike up and you'll see the small but strong root bridge. Another 10min walk and you will find the famous double Decker, two bridges one above the other under leafy canopy. The upper one must have been built when lower deck was immersed in water during heavy rains. Twenty minutes walk from double Decker, crossing another wire bridge you'll find Mawsaw root bridge which continues like a staircase to the forest. At Nongthymmai there is a diversion to the long root bridge which is hardly two minutes away, which is in a good shape and size, frequently used by the villagers.

If you have extra time visit the not so popular root bridge at Saitynduh. There is a trail with no concrete steps turning rightwards just before the long root bridge which leads to this unused root bridge. There is a another very interesting trekking trail to this root bridge starting from Um-Sophie: not recommended for an average tourist. When you reach Um-Sophie from Tyrna, turn right to a set of concrete steps going in the middle of houses. Ask the villagers for Saitynduh or the best landmark we can remember is a house with windows painted green at this village with concrete stepped labyrinths. This trail will take two hours round trip- no concrete steps and no wide path but meanders through a few small waterfalls, rocky streams, thick bushes-gives you the feeling of an Indiana Jones expedition. Hiring a guide is a good idea, if you are not good with trekking in wild as there is no open space on this trail to figure out where you are. You will reach a dead-end when you cross the widest root bridge in this area and there is no village further. In four days of stay, we explored these five root bridges and double checked the trails that we found though we got lost in the jungle finding new trails.

Slow Food Festival
At Tyrna church premises, a one day food fair was organized by the locals. Interestingly themed as Slow Food Festival on the base of a campaign that started in Italy against fast food. Food, plates, spoons, tumblers, stalls-all of them were from nature. The most traditional food at its best form was served at ten different stalls-jackfruit seed, rice cooked with tapioca, banana shoot and bamboo shoot,frogs, spider chutney, fish fry. As the name suggests everything was slow at this food festival-no big crowds, no queues and very few outsiders. After relishing a few delicacies, we trekked back to Nongriat village, another exhaustive day which called for a day's rest.




Nongriat village has electricity and running water better than cities. Water keeps running through channeled pipes as there are no taps. Only Aircel has mobile network in the village. Most of the manufactured products are transported by head load and becomes costly. Though we were cursing the 3000+ concrete steps it's a big blessing for locals, especially during monsoons. Villagers cast mosquito net to catch a seasonal insect called Kber just before Diwali which is used as a fishing bait and eaten by villagers. We learned from Bansan that there is another similar insect called world cup insect which shows up every four years. The villagers seem to have one thing in abundance-'enough'! 

https://sites.google.com/site/barefootsohra/  Khublei Shibun!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tawang to Bomdila in 20 hours



Our sumo came to a jolting stop and I was shaken up from my snooze to see that the vehicle hit on a big rock just ahead of a hair pin bend. Read on to find the story of the most precarious day so far in our India trotting: 

After contemplating a lot on whether to leave on 20th or 21st - as the bus on 20 was full and there was no surety on availability of Sumo on 21st - we set off from Tawang on 20th morning at 5.30 in -2 degree Celsius freezing cold. The driver went around Tawang town picking up passengers and rolled out on the way to Bomdila. Sumo was in a horrible condition and driver seemed to be in a hurry to reach destination. He was overtaking every single vehicle ahead of him, honking impatiently on the bumpy, bad roads. Sitting in the last seat of a bad conditioned sumo and the hasty, reckless driving made me feel as though I was in a grinder. Hitting the head on top and bumping against the window. 


On the other hand the view outside the window was captivating - a few snow capped mountain peaks, lovely valleys and waterfalls flowing through them and flowing into vividly colored rivers - which made me feel the ride was worth it. Breakfast stop was at Jang, a nice village in the valley. We continued the journey climbing up the mountain, passing through J.Garh and reached the Sela Pass. Looking at snow capped mountains on the way I was hoping for some frost  if not snow. That was not my lucky day I guess, no snow, no frost but water was frozen and icy at a few places. After passing through Sela, the driver bumped against a big rock on right side of the road. There was a truck on our left, for a second I couldn't figure out what made the driver do this. All I could guess was that he was feeling sleepy and couldn't get control of the vehicle. We then got out of the Sumo, only to learn that the brakes of the vehicle had failed and our driver stopped it banging against a rock. A few meters down the road, a sharp curve and deep valley on the right, had he not stopped there, we would've gone down the valley and end of our all India trip. 

Locals here are very helpful and most or all the Taxis passing by stopped to check what had gone wrong, they also started helping in fixing the problem. They could manage a temporary solution and the driver decided to drive alone while the passengers squeezed in the other cabs, one or two extra in the already full cabs. After driving a little distance we stopped at an Army workshop to find the spare parts for the Sumo. After trying for a while we understood it can't be repaired immediately. Plan of action was to leave the vehicle there and go till Dirang with other Sumo and driver would then take a mechanic or spare parts back to vehicle while we wait at a place by name Samjhana.

This time I didn't want to squeeze in already full Sumo, so we decided to sit on top of the vehicle. The driver was little worried about a girl - that too not a local girl - sitting on top of Sumo on these bumpy roads. Seldom did the driver know this crazy girl loves bumpy rides and to travel sitting on top of vehicles. After several reassurances we settled on top of the Sumo. This was just the beginning of my dreams coming true. This I was sure will be the unforgettable ride of my life. The feeling of travelling sitting on top of a vehicle by itself will make one be on cloud nine. I was way above that and the view of magnificent valleys, river flowing, birds flying at the height you are sitting, all I can say is master card cannot buy these for you. Seeing the clear blue sky on top of you and can you believe we spotted MOON at NOON :) 


We stopped at Hotel Samjhana, a Restaurant in a place by same name. We had our lunch and were strolling up and down, but the roads are way too dusty with vehicles passing through frequently. We then sat at another Restaurant, less crowded  and had a black tea. We were looking for our Sumo and standing near the road. Six of us were waiting, 2 are veterinarians placed in Tawang, who hail from Pasighat and were travelling back home. They studied in Aizawl in Mizoram and were helpful in giving us information about Aizawl as well as Pasighat, we all shared cake and had a cup of tea. All of us were travelling in the same vehicle for past 9 hours but had never interacted with one another. Another girl was working with government in electrical department and hails from Tawang. After tea, we started sharing our stories and chit chatting, by then another co-passenger who was in police force brought all our luggage in a truck with the news that vehicle will not be ready that day. We had already brainstormed about different possibilities of how to reach Bomdila and how to claim our luggage. There was lot of confusion in between, as the vehicles coming from Tawang direction brought us news of their own version. 

Now it was clear that we will not get our vehicle, so we decided to wait for the APST bus that goes to Tezpur. The bus arrived but didn't agree to take us, instead the driver started saying "you take the bus and drive yourself I'll get down here" hence the hope of bus was shattered. It was 7pm already and no hope of other vehicles, we tried our luck with hitching a ride with truck but they all halt near Dirang and it was too late to get an accommodation in Dirang, also other co-passengers had tickets booked from Bomdila to different directions the very next morning. Meanwhile we spotted an empty Sumo and Eeco, after finding the owner and negotiation we got a deal. Rs.3000, which would will be 500 per person. We set off finally having hope of reaching Bomdila by EECO. It was unbelievable but we were by now used to it, though it sounds strange, this vehicle broke down too. 

The problem was same as earlier, oil filter was leaking. Wow now we were undisputedly in middle of nowhere, around 15 km from Dirang. We were sitting in the car wondering what to do next. The driver offered help by arranging another car for us. When the driver disappeared saying he would find some help, we luckily found a truck who agreed to take us along, but only to Dirang. At this moment we thought better to at least reach Dirang. From Dirang we had hope of getting range on our famous BSNL - B(hai) S(aab) N(ahi) L(agta) - (that is how the locals have named it and it is very true). We loaded our luggage in the truck and were about to start when the driver came with his friend and an ALTO. 6 of us with our luggage were cramped in the car and the most adventurous thing, yes you guessed it, the driver was drunk. Keeping our fingers crossed we were praying to reach Dirang safe which was just 7km ahead of us. 

After driving for 10 min we saw a Sumo passing by and we stopped them to find out where were they headed to, as one of our co-passengers bag was at the Samjhana hotel and had to be picked - This elderly man was not with us and had gone in search of the driver to find the status of the vehicle - When we stopped the Sumo we were so comforted and gratified to learn that, this was the alternate vehicle sent for us. After all this adventure, we got the back up vehicle and it was already 10.30 in the night. We then drove all the way back to Samjhana and picked up the luggage and drove to Bomdila. There was no way we could sleep, though we were exhausted, as it was a bumpy ride and we couldn't keep our bums on the seat most of the time. It was 2am when we reached Bomdila and  bid farewell to our new found friends, though we don't know the names of one another. 

We would remember this journey and the time spent, throughout our lives. It was an unforgettable and the most adventuresome in our India trotting so far. In spite of all these, we never felt we were 4000 km away from home. We felt really safe and the best part is the way women are treated and respected by men. Hats off to all men in Arunachal. In this adventure journey, we were four women and two men. I can never imagine doing such things in any other part of country.


Tawang-abode of Buddhist Pedigree



After loading the luggage, we set off at 6.30 am for the nine hours trip to Tawang going through Sela Pass (13,700ft) a gigantic mountain of mountains. Half an hour drive from Sela Pass you'll reach Jaswanth Garh in memory of Indian warrior Jaswanth Singh Rana who had fought alone against Chinese soldiers continuously for 72 hours in 1962 Indo-China war. On the way you get view of Gorichen peak (22,500 ft), the highest peak in Tawang, like a cone ice cream. Passing through vociferous thick forest and valleys, this ride is enthralling sans the dusty roads under construction perpetually. Roads have been widened by BRO but marred by rain and landslide, some phases are really tough. Need a turbo charger for your heart and all wheel drive for your legs and arms. Passing through the bustling town Dirang and sleepy village Jung, 2 km down Nuranang waterfall is located, we reached Tawang at 3.30.

Tawang aka Monyul is derived from two words Ta meaning horse Wang meaning blessing - a place blessed by horse belonged to Mera Lama, the founder of Tawang Monastery. The inhabitants of the district are Monpas immigrated from Bhutan and Tibet, courteous, friendly, gentle and industrious. North of Tawang lies the forbidden land of Tibet connected by the Bum La and Tulung La passes.

Accommodation at Tawang is pricey as the tourist season is short and construction cost is high. There are a series of hotels in Nehru Market and Old Market in the price range of 800 to 1200. Rainbow (03794 222348, dbl 750), NEFA (222419/9436227781, dbl 800), Country Guest House (224142, dbl 1000), Hotel Shambala, Hotel Mouny View (222340, dbl 1000-2000) Dungphoo (223765,dbl 1200). A few guest houses are mushrooming near the monastery. We got the best room at Hotel Mon Valley run by Tenzin Dolma right above the restaurant by the same name opposite to post office, Nehru Market (03794 222119, dbl 1000) at 30% discount, thanks to reference by Tashi's wife. The restaurant can dish up Indian, Chinese, Tibetan cuisines - a favorite among locals.




In mid October mercury varies from 15 C to -2 C at early morning. Thermals, woolen socks, down jacket are must and follow onion dressing, with multi layer of clothes. Both BSNL and Aitlrtel  network is very patchy. Electricity supply is erratic, better to get an accommodation with heavy blanket rather than room heater. A back up line is provided by Government for every business establishment for lighting during black outs. Shops and restaurants close by 6 pm after sun set at 4.30 pm. Newspaper/Magazine is unheard of, dish tv is ubiquitous crowding the terraces.

We walked down to the war memorial erected in memory of Subedar Joginder Singh PVC. Read about the history of 1962 war for which Tawang was the center stage, that we did not study in social studies syllabus at school.

We were walking to Tawang Monastery aka Galden Namgyal Lhatse, 3 km from town at 6am, temperature was zero degree Celsius. This 400 year old largest lamasery of Mahayana sect in Asia and second oldest monastery in the world (after Lhasa) has 65 residential buildings accommodating more than 500 Lamas. The most imposing building is the assembly hall called Dukhang, which houses a richly gilded idol of a seated Buddha 26 feet high in the rear chamber.

There is a much hyped cable car from Tawang Monastery to Gyanggong Anigompa which is no more functional. Gyanggong Anigompa is visible from Tawang Monastery which is under same administration and 50 Buddhist nuns get provision from here. As the cable car is not operational we learnt that the only way to visit Gyanggong Anigompa is to hike up the mountain. The challenging trail starts from the monastery road and passes by a Chorten, after a while follow the water pipes trudging up the mountain. There is a road under construction but the bridge across the river in the deep intervening valley might not get completed soon. Take a diversion and hike up another 15 minutes to go down to the gushing river. After having the packed momos and the sweet river water for breakfast, we crossed the wooden bridge to climb up the next mountain. A very rewarding hike and you can enjoy deep solitude at Gyanggong Anigompa.




Yuten, the lone nun who was at the Gompa welcomed us and poured her motherly affection by giving us tea, apple, biscuits and savouries at the main kitchen. She spoke little Hindi and ensured we took the extra apples with us. Thukje Chueling Anigompa aka Brama Dung Chung Anigompa is another two hours walk from here. Follow the concrete steps, you will reach the road after a blood pumping 45 min walk. The local worker Norbu and his loyal dog Kallu were guiding us to the road. Following the road downwards watching the yak/dzo herds, we reached the oldest Anigompa in Tawang housing 45 nuns. The girls join the nunnery on their own and there is no social pressure or tradition making it compulsory. After they complete the monastic studies, they go to South India to study arithmetic, English, Hindi etc. Unlik the monks, they rarely leave nunneries after becoming nuns.

Thukje Chueling Anigompa is 9 km by road from Tawang town. There is a short cut through defence land to Tawang monastery by foot. A local person offered us a ride back to the town without expecting any money, though we insisted on paying. The love shown by the locals and nuns to total strangers like us is the best fuel for our trip.

Thu-Che-Chey ( thank you in Monpa language).



We took a touristy route to appreciate the natural beauty of Tawang Himalayas. The route is Maratha Ground (12400ft)-Nagula-Y junction (14615 ft)-Sangesur lake, which will take two hours thirty minutes. Better hire a taxi, try to get a local driver and if he was in the army, even better. Sumo will cost 3500 and smaller cars 3000. We got a deal with Kalsang Yeshi (9402934375) who showed up at 6am sharp. There are more than a dozen lakes of various sizes on this route, the most remarkable are P.T.Tso (Pankang Teng Tso), Kyo Tso and Sangesur lake.

The roads are horrible with no trace of tarmac, heavily used by army vehicles. There are check posts on the way and diversion to Bum La is from Y junction. Enjoy a hot cuppa at Y junction cafe. The Sikh Shrine after Y junction is almost at 15000 ft altitude as per the soldiers. Walked up the head spinning concrete steps gasping for oxygen along the friendly soldiers, to admire this inter faith construction in memory of Guru Nanak, who visited Tibet via Arunachal. There are 108 lakes from Sela to the Tibetan border - Kalsang informed us. Sangesur lake is 42 km from town, which emerged during a 1950 earthquake. Maintained by army there is a cafe at this vast lake surrounded by a footpath to walk around the lake. You can enjoy snow capped mountain leaks both in India and China on this mountain hopping route. Keep hydrated as AMS can hit you above 13000 ft. Kalsang shared his stories from his service with SFF (Special Frontier Force), posted at Ladakh while having chow and coffee at Y junction cafe. During heavy winter this route may not be advisable as there is frost and ice as early as mid October. Despite bad roads and pricey transport this route is an essential evil to get a glimpse of the wet lands of Arunachal.

As it was the last day of Puja at Tawang monastery, men and women thronged the town and the monastery road in the traditional dress looking their best. Like any other religious place, premises of monastery was surrounded by vendors and traffic snarls. After a while we took the trail to Urgelling Gompa which is 5km from Tawang town by road on Tezpur-Bomdila road, divert at the Maruti workshop. Lost and found many times, asking people on the way we finally managed to reach Urgelling Gompa by foot but found it closed as the monks have gone to the Puja. Being the birth place of 6th Dalai Lama and 14th Dalai Lama's hide out on his exile to India, this Gompa has a special importance in the life line of Buddhism. Locals appreciate a lot when you are on foot and go out of their way to help you, a few local women who were working at a road construction site offered us part of their lunch and we couldn't say no to them accepting an apple. They exclaim when they hear that we are from Kerala, a far away land for them.  Though we were exasperated, we took the short trail back to the town which was meant to be covered in 30 min. Endless concrete steps and wide open grounds made our hike really tough and took almost an hour. Crashing down at Hotel, after lunch we made our mind to take one full day rest to recover while the town is gearing up for Tawang festival (Oct 26-30) during Durga Puja holidays.