Monday 29 October 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'!  Khublei Shibun!

Tuesday 23 October 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.

Monday 22 October 2012

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.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Bomdila- ethnographic quarters

Bomdila is the headquarters of West Kameng district and an obligatory stop on the way to Tawang, 165 km from Tezpur. We checked-in at Hotel La ( Opp.Buddha Stadium, Bomdila Tel 03782 223344, L.M.Hazarika: 94028 04714, email:, s/d 250/350 with shared bathroom) an ideal accommodation for a backpacker next to the transport hub. Newly built deluxe rooms have heater, TV and geyser d/tr 1200/1400 and the best value is the semi deluxe double room (600, squat toilet, bucket shower). The restaurant at the basement provide good food and there is ample car parking space. The owner Tashi Tsering and his friendly staff are really helpful and make you feel at home. 

Gontse Gaden Rabgye-ling Monastery better known as Bomdila Monastery houses 250 students and is 15 min by foot. The old monastery building is next to SDV school and mostly closed. There is an annual festival at this monastery just before Deepavali (Diwali) and a highly choreographed sacred dance (Chham) lasting for 3 days accompanied by beating drums and cymbals, blowing huge telescopic horns and clarinets. This year it happens from Nov 6th. 

The two room district museum outlines various artifacts of Arunachal and gives an insight about the different tribes. For an evening stroll walk to the garden opposite to Hotel La rotating the prayer wheels. The next door Xerox shop is handled by Nima, who spent 12 years of monastic studies in Karnataka. Did you know? there is a monastery in Hubli where 2000 students study to be monks. 

Next morning Tashi and wife invited us to have breakfast with them, dishing up local delicacies and spicy chutney 'Gokpa' and butter-tea suja were the highlights. After a long conversation they took us for a tour to the nearby village and government owned Helipad, a few kilometers away overlooking Bomdila township and Rupa village. Tashi is very active with community development programs and we shared the popular concept of homestay. He decided to give it a try at Bomdila, to boost the local economy. In a few years, the bypass road will be completed and you may not go through Bomdila town to go to Tawang. Tashi mentioned that the civic sense is at all times low, proven by the shattered liquor bottles at the Helipad. 

There are many tiny hamlets and gompas around Bomdila for day hikes. For multi day hikes, contact Mr. Tsering Wange, Himalayan Holiday at New Bazar Line, Bomdila (Tel 03782 222017, 9436045063/9436888905 Cabbage is one of the major agriculture produce apart from khe potatoes, chillies, bitter brinjals and corn. High mountain and dense forest have prevented intercommunication between tribes, isolation has led to over 26 major tribes with several dialects. Hindi has been the major language spoken all over Arunachal and medium of education. Bomdila is cold throughout the year,winter with snowfall; carry thermal wear. 

Itanagar: Socio-Cultural Capital of Arunachal Pradesh

14 hours from Shillong by overnight APST (Arunachal Pradesh State Transport) bus was not so tiring with frequent stops for food and personal ablutions. Unlike the private services ST buses ply slow and safe on this route – one of the busiest in Northeast – Shillong-Nafaon-Tezpur-Bandewara-Itanagar. Unless you have plans to visit other places in Arunachal than Tawang, you don’t need to come to Itanagar which is the main hub for ST buses to other parts of Arunachal. At the Secretariat you can obtain ILP to any part of Arunachal Pradesh especially the newly opened circuits namely Mechuka, Tuting. From Zero Point to Ganga market there is a dozen hotels of varying tariff. After shopping around for a while we settled at Hotel Alpine (Ganga Market, dbl 550, Tel 0360 221498), cheapest and closest to APST bus station and sumo counters. Next door was Kerala Bhawan, a restaurant run by Mohan and Biju hailing from Kayamkulam who were very helpful to provide rich information. 3 rooms will be ready for accommodation at Kerala Bhawan (dbl 600, Tel 96159 28200/03) by Dec 2012. Hotel Blue Pine (dbl 800-1500, Tel 0360 2211118) is more upmarket and has air conditioned rooms.

We contacted Sabu Kurien whom I had met on my way to NE in the train two years back. Very rarely people who meet on the train make it a point to meet again – Sabu told me this when we met at the gate of NERIST, Nirjuli 15 km away from Itanagar. Sabu and wife welcomed us with a sumptuous lunch despite his busy preparation for convocation at NERIST. People who genuinely welcome just an acquaintance with such a warm heart is a rare creed. Sabu gave us a tour around 600 acre campus and told us the stories from his 27 years of life in Arunachal. The river behind NERIST between Nirjuli and Doimukh is connected by a new motorable bridge and the old hanging bridge is no more functional. There used to be a narrow gauge from New Bongaigaon (Assam) to Doimukh and the train called Arunachal Express – was used earlier to reach Itanagar using ferry service across the river. This track is under conversion to broad gauge for the last many years.

Siddhartha Vihara Buddhist Monastery is 10 min walk uphill from Zero Point. The premises lack the tranquil ambience typical at Gompas, thanks to the youngsters freaking out on the winding road and at the parking lot. State museum seem to be closed.We saw many old local men sporting interesting Hornbill headgear and long swords. Ganga market had many shops lined up with food for both carnivores and herbivores. Garbage management seems to be non-existent, visual and olfactory effect is everywhere in the town. There are many shared auto rickshaws (Rs.10) and open sumos (Rs.20) plying between Itanagar and Nirjuli apart from the buses to Banderwara and Tezpur.

There are buses from APST bus station to Along (330, 6am, 2.30pm), Guwahati (290, 6am) Bomdila (290, 6am); double check the availability and timing at the bus station as they are not reliable. There is an early morning 5am Sumo service to Guwahati Airport for Rs.1500. Private operators run Sumos and buses to different places in Arunachal. We booked our ticket to Bomdila starting at 5pm (Rs.390, 12hrs, Yatayat tours and travels, Ganga market Tel 0360 2292839) reaching next morning, runs via Banderwara-Gophur-Tezpur-Balukpong (check post) – Bomdila. Sometimes the overnight vehicles may halt at check post until 4am due to security reasons, normally the vehicles from Tezpur run only during day.  Shorter and easier route to Tawang from Guwahati is to get ILP from Guwahati or Tezpur DC office, Parvatinagar Tel 03712 220241. For more details on ILP to Arunachal click here.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Shillong- Tourism Capital of Northeast

Guwahati "super fast" express was 4 hours late and we reached Guwahati by 12 noon. Had a booking at Ananda Lodge (MN Rd, 03612544832 dbl Rs.250) but the ongoing book fair made all the rooms occupied. Sweaty Guwahati did not make us stay further. We headed to Shillong taking a share sumo (Rs.150, 4 hrs), occasional 4 lane road construction on the GS road and tree falling on the road delayed us by 30 min. We darted to Aaron's (9863115302) shop,sells hiking and fishing gear ( DD Laloo & Co. U Tirot Sing Syiem Rd, Tel: 0364 - 2502420, email: organizes off beat activities for students and corporates. After exchanging stories of last 2 years, we checked-in at Hotel Embassy (AC Lane, near Assam Studio, GS Road, dbl Rs.650). Rooms could be kept more clean for the price we pay. Shoddy toilet and metal tasting water are deterring but cheapest in the central area. Hotel Koshi Niwas (Hira Market, Thana Rd, Police Bazar, Tel: 0364 - 2500009, 9774040289, dbl Rs.700) is not so easy to find but best value for money. If you can stand the arrogance of the management, Earl Home Holiday (Oakland road, left turn from HDFC ATM, Tel: 0364-2228614, dbl Rs 350-3000) is a nice hotel with vast car parking area, the old hotel is the typical tin sheet roofed hill station building. Relishing the street food at Center Point (chowmein Rs.10, 3 eggs Rs.20) we called it a day, after travelling for 4 days from Cochin.

Called up HVK and updated about the status. After a quick breakfast at Gupta Restaurant in the Police Bazar next to U.P.Sweet Meat, we hopped on to supplementary transport service of Shillong ( TATA MAGIC) to Mawlai from Bara Bazar to visit Don Bosco Museum (Rs.60 admn fee) - the best place to start an expedition in Northeast. A thorough tour explaining the culture and tradition of Northeast, will take two hours and the view of sprawling Shillong city and outskirts from the sky walk on top of this seven storied building is spectacular. DBCIC (9.30a.m - 5.30p.m, Mon-Sat  1.30p.m-5.30p.m, Sunday). The next door Homely Hut restaurant offers mouth watering soups and delicious fried rice/chowmein (Rs 70).

Take any taxi  or bus heading to Guwahati and get down at Orchid Lake Resort at Bara Pani, 15 km from Shillong. Nehru Park (Rs.10) is close by and Water Sports Complex is 10 min walk with an admission fee of Rs.20 and boating extra. A good location to see the magnitude of Umiam Lake and magical Lumpondeng Island at a far distance. You get a great view from the bund next to the diversion to Airport without paying any admission fee. A few boys jumping from the bridge to the river and swimming back took us back to our childhood days.

Shillong comes to a virtual stand still on a Sunday with most of the shops closed and very few transport services, as locals go to church. Spend some time at well kept Ward's Lake and visit the architecturally magnificent wooden churches at the center of Shillong city to get over a lazy Sunday. All Saints Cathedral is the most remarkable for the it's wooden beams and stained glass paintings. The bells imported from England behind the church and the electrical ceramic switches and wiring inside the church take you back in time.

Finding Arunachal Deputy Commissioner's office, Old Arunachal Secretariat building (ITBP NE Head Quarters) near Anjalee petrol pump was not effortless. ILPs (Inner Line Permit) for Bomdila-Tawang circuit and Itanagar-Ziro-Along were obtained separately. Rs.25 for each permit and two passport size photographs along ID proof photocopies. Permits are given on same day unlike Arunachal House at Dispur where it takes two days to get the permit. Booked bus tickets to Itanagar Rs.380 at the tiny counter behind Old AP Secretariat building. Surprisingly the bus driver was a Keralite. Last row seats got moved to the very first row, Megha was saying all thanks to MMTP (Malyali-Malyali-Transfer-Protocol).  A truckload of vegetables was loaded on top of the bus-an indication that vegetarian food will be more expensive at Itanagar compared to Shillong. One of our co-passengers was a cute puppy. Bedford buses plying inside the city two years back gave way to swanky JNNRUM  city buses. Accommodation prices have been hiked up despite a reduction in luxury tax from 20% to 10%.Transport is cheap if you stick to state transport buses and TATA Magic, private shared taxi charges are more than double.Food is dirt cheap at small eateries and on the street. 

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Jobless Backpacker(s)

That's how I introduced myself to Megha when I met her two years back. Jobless is a state of freedom and a good state of mind provided we are prepared for it. Backpacking is a way of life rather than a way of travel. We learn to live with the basic minimum and appreciate even little creature comforts. Travel without a planned return date - there is a special thrill in that. We were planning to do this after a few years, but we learned from others health is the biggest wealth for such a trip. Luxury of time is definitely an advantage too. We start by train (of course on a tatkal ticket) on Oct  2nd from Cochin to Guwahati to explore the Northeast states in the next 3 months. ERS - GHY Tatkal ticket Rs.4144/- for 2 in 3A, distance - 3332 km.

Preparing for this trip - financial and physical fitness - was our single goal in the last two years. Dreams come true if you chase them with persistence. We intend to update this blog as and when access to an internet cafe is available. Stay tuned to know what happens to a couple gone crazy about traveling.