Tag Archives: North-east treks

The Mis-adventurous trip to Haflong

As I had mentioned in one of my previous stories about my first solo trip, I had tagged along with two Bengaluru boys whom I met at Shillong. After covering Meghalaya, we took delivery of a brand new ‘Maruti Swift’ from a showroom in Guwahati and set out on a random road trip across the North-east. (click here to read the complete story). We finished exploring the Ziro valley and were left with 4 more days before our return flight to Bangalore. We worked out many options to best utilize the available time (4 days were too little to go ahead to Mechuka and return to Guwahati, we would be on a tight time if we did Tawang and had no backup in the eventuality of a car breakdown on those bad roads, Sandakphu was doable but we weren’t equipped with sufficient gears).

The National Highway at Ziro

That’s when I popped the option of visiting Jatinga. An unheard place for the other two with me, I explained: “It is a place where mass suicide of migratory birds takes place due to an unknown phenomenon. And this is THE season to witness it!”. There was enough curiosity inside the car but no clue on how to get there. We browsed quite a bit, scrolled through several web pages of the forest department and landed on a random contact list of IFS officers in Assam. We picked a random name (it sounded very South Indian, hence we wanted to try our luck). We got lucky and the call got through. A little perplexed at why random tourists may be interested in visiting this place, the IFS officer asked us to call him a day later as he was travelling. We were ok to wait for confirmation, as we were anyway going to reach Itanagar only on the following noon. That’s where we had to pick our route, whichever worked out- Guwahati or Jatinga.

On the following day, we called on the same number again when we had reached a good network zone. The IFS officer got us connected to another forest officer, posted in Haflong. We got in touch with that officer, who then guided us to reach his office in Haflong. He warned us against stopping ANYWHERE along our way and keep updating him every now and then about our location. We relied heavily on Google maps and were driving through Asian Highway no.1. PS: We would be heading towards Dima Hasao district and the entire route was notoriously infested with anti-social elements.

We commenced our drive on a road that would lead us to Thailand (only if we extended our holidays by a fortnight more), guided by Google maps. But for now, it was destination: Haflong, the only hill station in Assam. The under-construction road was patchy every few kilometers, alternating with smooth asphalt and bumpy gravel. At one point, the road with endless stretch of forest cover was so beautiful and intimidating for a photo stop but we were scared for even a pee-stop. We were however, at the mercy of google-Mata’s directions!

The Asian Highway through Dima Hasao

So, the scene what happened after we passed the Mahur cross is documented in another post for you to read. Long story short: we missed a diversion in the under-construction road, continued on AH1 as per google maps and our car got stuck in a deep ditch, in the middle of a forest reserve. We were stranded without help almost until sunset. Finally help and the forest officer’s army, all arrived together to get us out to safe haven. We waited at the officer’s makeshift container workspace until he finished his day’s work and took us to Nothao lodge, a place where our stay in Haflong was arranged at. It was a nice resort (good for a less touristy place like Haflong) but most of all, the owner was a resourceful person who was going to take care of our travel activities for the next couple of days.

Our car being towed by RSA

“Not all who plan and come here get lucky, as the weather plays a crucial role in being able to see it, even after reaching here. The wind direction tonight is very favorable. You are here at the RIGHT time to witness the mass-suicide of the birds. Be ready by around 12.00.a.m., the jeep will come here to pick you all. The officer and I will join you at my house and then we shall proceed to Jatinga.” The Hotelier said before leaving us. We were all excited! After freshening up, we placed an order for a hearty Dimasa meal for supper. ‘Try Local cuisines, wherever you are’ was a mantra all three of us religiously followed. The must try-dishes were recommended by the friendly chef at the lodge.

The poor car had gone through so much abuse on its very first road trip that it deserved a good shower. While the boys drove out to the town to find a good spa for the car, I decided to stay back at the lodge. The wooden furniture in an open dining space with mellow music playing in the background and cold misty breeze from the green trees around, blowing on my face was enough reason for me soak up some inspiration to write my next story. As a couple of hours passed, the boys returned. I don’t know if the car found a spa, but the boys for sure found a bar 😛 They returned with a few liters of judima, the local brew of rice beer.

We were the lucky few who were to witness nature’s phenomena, one so rare that it is unexplainable by science. We had braved quite an adventurous drive to make it thus far… But the weather was such, that I can’t blame them. The two drank up the stock ignoring all my alerts, warnings and requests! It was now nearing 9.00.p.m. and so, blame it on the ambience of the dining area. While the meal was being arranged on the table, the two were dozing away. Jatinga and the birds were all flying away from me now, faintly to the elusive distance 😛 I tried to keep the two up, at least to finish up the meal and not waste it. The two walked up to their room and had passed out within the next few moments. “See you Jatinga, next time!”, I silently spoke while breaking the roti in my hand.

It did not feel right for me to drive into a forest alone with someone whom I barely knew. Hence, I decided to make ‘Nothao’ my destination for the night.
I requested the hotel staff to serve the same food on the following morning (there was SO MUCH food, that neither of us would want to throw it off), informed the hotel owner and the forest officer of my situation and silently slid into the comforting warmth of the rugs in my room.

Anyway, the miss was made up for, by the two boys who had been my travel partners for the last 2 weeks (well… partially). We explored a little bit 9f Haflong. The duo spoke to the officer and a hike to the highest peak of Assam- Hapeo peak was organized. That’s yet another story you might want to read here. Thus, happened our misadventure to Jatinga and the last bit on my fortnight in the north-east.

The traditional fire making of the Nagas

One of the earliest science lessons we learnt in school is that friction causes fire. We all have grown past reading how the early cavemen generated fire by rubbing two stones together and eventually how this accidental discovery lead to a massive turnaround in the evolution of mankind.

Leaving the past behind, the modern man uses a matchstick or a lighter to create fire, all based on the same science of friction. But, there in Nagaland, the culture still exits where albeit the formal education and access to matchboxes and lighters, the tribes continue to use their indigenous methods of lighting a fire. In order to keep this tradition alive, there are competitions conducted among the various tribes of the state to see who ignites the fire faster. I witnessed one such event during the hornbill festival-2019 in Nagaland.

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The nine other participating Naga tribes at the fire making competition

The traditional method of fire making is done by using wooden log and fiber. Wooden saw dust is placed between small crevices made in the log around which the long fiber is then rapidly pulled along, to create friction. The log and the fiber are the two surfaces creating friction and the saw dust is the fuel/ catalyst. It was a very distinct way of lighting fire to watch. The person who first lights a candle using the fire ignited by him in this traditional method gets to take home the trophy.

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The winner of the contest (Naga fire making)

Here is a video to see how this fire is made in the indigenous Naga way.

The Folk Musical Instruments of Nagaland

It is that traveling exposes one to a multitude of cultures and people. The diverse geography of India is home to some of the most unheard traditions and untold folklores. During my 10 day stint of backpacking in Nagaland, I was introduced to so many of it all, as this little Indian state, tucked in the far North-east is home to more than 17 tribal sects and sub-tribes; each having their own culture, language, traditions and cuisine. Here, is a small list of indigenous musical instruments used in the folk culture of the Nagas.

Mrabung:

Mrabung is an indigenous musical instrument of the Zeliang Nagas. It is a single stringed instrument that is crafted with a hollow/ cured bottle gourd and a fretless wooden neck of about 12 inches long. It is played with hair string bow (Usually a cluster of horse tail tightly tied together to two ends of a thin wooden stick). This bow is used to strike the chords (like a violin) with one hand and the string along the neck is pressed down with the other hand at appropriate places to get the required tune and legato of the song. It is played during merry making in social gatherings and festivals where men and women congregate. I was narrated with a popular folklore of the Nagas wherein, a singer called Arum played the Mrabung. His music captivated the farmers so much that everyone working on the field left their work undone and sat around Arum listening to his songs. Arum had to be barred from playing any songs further just so the people went back to work on their farms. Click below to see an artisan playing the Mrabung.

Atutu:

The Atutu is a handcrafted bamboo trumpet used by the Pochury tribes of Meluri. A particular variety of bamboo is used in making the varied components that are fitted together to make this crafted trumpet. It is played to mark special occasions. For example, blowing of this trumpet towards the end of February means to herald and announce the advent of the Nazhu festival. Also, the male members of the tribe play it in their morungs in the evenings throughout the festival. Apart from this, the trumpet sound is used to ward off birds and animals from the rice fields and prevent from crop damage. In earlier days, trumpeting was a way to alert the collective habitat or a village of a possible enemy attack or as a signal of declaration of a war.

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The Atutu: The bamboo trumpet

Dholak:

This common musical instrument has its own version and avatar in every region of India. Be it weddings or festivals, it is the most common and almost an essential part of any merry making in Indian celebrations. Similarly, each tribe in Nagaland has its own version of the dholaks or the Indian hand drums. Made with an outer casing of wood, laced tightly with cotton strings and the drumming surfaces made with the locally available materials, more often animal hide. Here are samples of the dholaks used by the Garos (Long slender shaped, narrowing at the ends), the Mech Kacharis (fatter and shorter than the Garos) and the Aao tribes (Shorter and fatter than the previous two types and Uniform sized throughout its length) of Nagaland. (Click the below link to watch the ceremonial dances of the Naga tribes with their dholaks)

This is my humble attempt at documenting some unique musical instruments that are lesser known to the world outside North-east India. These have been listed based on my actual experiences and interactions with the Nagas during the hornbill festival-2020. If you know any such unique musical instruments, please do share in the comments section below. I would be happy to learn it from you 🙂

A valley frozen in time- Dzukou

Rolling hills that has many faces to call it BEST described… Every description depends on who saw it during which time of the year. I was heading to this valley in early winter, 1st week of December to be precise. That’s when the days are warm and nights are cold, but there is no snowfall.

So, as planned my friend and I set foot to see a valley that borders the states of Nagaland and Manipur. ‘It’s a magical place’ is the only thing we had heard. I had done enough research about getting there from Nagaland side and learnt that there are two routes with different difficulty levels. One starts from Jakhama village and the other is through Vishema village. Since we had hired a trek guide, we decided to take the route recommended by her. Initially, not knowing what terrain we would be trekking through, we had carried our large backpacks with all the stuff for our fortnight long trip in Nagaland. But then, our guide asked us to carry just thermals and enough water. “Food and blankets can be bought at the peak” we were told. Anyway, additionally we carried our sleeping bags and some food since we had to utilize what we had carried all the way from Bangalore 😛 We left our luggage at our guide’s house in Jakhama and took a short taxi ride to the start point of the trek. (Watch the video below)

We started to climb up from Jakhama by around 11.30.a.m. and the path was unassumingly steep. The entire trail was encompassed in a thick canopy of trees through which the sun rays could hardly penetrate. Although we were climbing at peak noon, it felt as if it was post sunset. The heat generated by the body while burning the calories seemed insufficient to warm us up. The trail only got steeper at almost 80deg gradient and we kept thanking our guide for telling us to leave our excess luggage at the base. Then suddenly, the forests opened to the blue skies… Before our eyes could adjust to the bright light, we were staring at our first glimpse of the valley. I was at a loss of breath. Not because of the tiring climb or the cold winds that was making it difficult for me stand on my feet, but because I was transported to a different world by the setting sun which had engulfed the green valley. I don’t know if I can express that feeling rightly with words, to simply put it: I was SPELLBOUND!

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The first view of the valley

It was a short walk further from there. The trail along the cliff with the green hills appearing one after the other and the sky changing its shade with every second, kept us going until we had finally made it to the guest house for the night’s stay. At 4.30.p.m., when we reached there, it just got dark with the last ray of white light. But the sky continued to mesmerize us as it turned from red to black, in between illuminating the silhouettes of the surrounding hills. I had started to freeze and shiver by this time as the temperatures dropped to single digits. But I did not want to move from there as I stared at what was the clearest night’s sky I had seen in a long while. So many stars twinkled over the Dzukou valley! As reality started to hit me hard, I had started to get cramps in my feet and had to hurriedly go and warm myself with the thermals and the firewood that was lit to cook food in the kitchen.

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As the night passed, the temperatures dropped further. Our thermals and sleeping bags didn’t seem enough and we borrowed additional blankets to help ourselves in the large hall which had just walls, a roof and a wooden floor to sleep on. I could barely sleep through the cold night. Although awake, I was waiting for the alarm to ring at 05.00.a.m. We were supposed to head out to see the Dzukou valley…

At 05.00.am. I was the first one to get up and step out for the hike down to the valley. The morning light was still dim, and I felt the earth below my feet crackle. It did not take me too long to realize that all the grass on which I was walking and the entire valley that surrounded me was frozen. The temperatures had dropped below zero and the frozen valley at a distance looked splendid! Soon, the others joined me, and we walked down the valley to witness what is supposed to be the main reason for our trek to Dzukou. The sunrise! We walked past what the locals call as the cave and walked over a frozen stream. We clenched bits of frozen waterfalls along the way too… And when the sun rose above and shone over the valley- It looked surreal. It seemed like the phrase ‘Frozen in time’ was framed after someone saw this place. The frozen dew drops reflected the lights of the rising sun and the sight was beyond my ability to describe. What I was experiencing from within was a sense of emptiness, accomplishment, happiness- well a medley of emotions. There has been NO place I had been to more beautiful than this, no I’m not exaggerating.

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A frozen pond in Dzukou at Sunrise

The entire valley has a peculiar kind of bamboo grass which gives it its green color. The same valley looks as if it is covered in red/ pink during monsoon. That’s when the lilies, endemic to Dzukou valley bloom. And come during the peak of winter: The entire valley is painted white in snow. This is a photo my guide had shared with me of how the valley looked just 10 days after we returned. The valley does not fail to mesmerize people irrespective of the season they come. Well, after spending a good amount of time, we returned to the guest house, packed up to head back to Kohima, for the hornbill festival.

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The sky on our way to Vishema

By now, we were a big team of trekkers and backpackers who had all bonded over at the guest house and together we decided to take the Vishema route for our return. It was a brilliant decision, I guess! Had we taken the same route for our return; we would have missed the magical sky behind the forest canopy. The sky seemed surreal with every turn in the trail. The valley too looked magical at every corner. It was flat land that we were walking on mostly, apart from a short trail of very steep rocks to slide down from, until we finally arrived at the base. A pre-booked Sumo was waiting to pick us back to Kohima. I want to bluntly end this post because this place is something better experienced than written about.

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The view point from the guest house. Top: After snowfall; Below: before snowfall

About the trek in short:

  • I believe what one calls difficult or easy largely depends on individual’s fitness level and trekking experience. According to me, the distance to the peak is short and could be done in 1-1.5hrs if it was me alone. But it was the first hike EVER for my friend and it took us around 4hours to reach the guest house at the peak.
  • Although people feel Vishema route is easier onwards, in my opinion- we made a good decision by walking the Jakhama route while going up. Since it is steep, climbing would be slow but the distance is shorter. In contrary, if we took Jakhama route to climb down, the gradient would put enormous strain on our knees which is why I suggest taking the Vishema route for the descent.
  • Cooked (basic & hygienic) food and potable running water is available at the top, so apart from energy bars for your walk, avoid carrying unwanted luggage.

The coldest place with the warmest hospitality- Pfutsero

This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the north eastern state of Nagaland in India, specifically covering Dimapur- Kohima– Phek districts of the state during the Hornbill festival.

More often than always, the stories we carry back from our travel are about the people we meet and less about the places we see. Our definition of whether our trip is good or bad is defined by the way we are made to feel by the people we come across. My experience in Pfutsero too has been one of those, where the warmth of the people made me fall in love with Nagaland. All I knew about Pfutsero was that it is the largest town in Phek district, and it is the highest inhabited place in the state of Nagaland. High altitude also means that it is the coldest place in the entire state. Having very little information available on the internet only meant that the place is still off the radar of mainstream tourism. This is what got me inquisitive and itched me to visit Pfutsero which would give ample scope to explore and experience something so raw and unknown to the outside world.

From the day I arrived at Nagaland, I had started to talk to a lot of people to get information about getting from Kohima to Pfutseru. With lack of clear information and high cost of travel, I had almost dropped the plan until the end of my 10-day trip in the state. One last try at finding a cheaper travel to Pfutsero, landed me in a small grocery store at Kezekie taxi stand in Kohima. My friend and I realised that we were at the right place. The courteous owner of the store guided us with all the required information and got our seats booked in the shared taxi that plied from Kohima to Pfutsero the next morning.

My itinerary to explore Phek district:

Day 1: Leave from Kohima to Pfutsero (shared taxi), visit Glory peak (Frozen lake trek if time permits), explore Pfutsero town (Night’s stay at the tourist lodge)
Day 2: Chida lake/ Lowho, Lazami village (spirited stone), Kami village view point, return to Kohima.

Video of the view from Glory peak

The Details:

As instructed, we had reached Kezekie by 07.00.am. the following morning to be assured of a seat. But thanks to the traffic, it was 10.30.a.m. by the time we left Kohima. However, there was one ambiguity before leaving for Pfutsero- We hadn’t booked a hotel at Pfutsero for our stay yet. Despite several failed attempts of calling the mini-tourist lodge at Pfutsero, their phone continued to remain switched off. But my friend and I were up for some adventure and decided to travel without a confirmed stay, go there and find one.

Phek district is inhabited by the members of the Chakesang tribes in majority. With the friendliness of the grocery store owner, we had already started to feel the positive vibes of the place we were going to. She had given the contact information of her family who lives in Kezakeno, another village in Phek. She had not just shared the contact info, in fact forced us to stay with her family. We were feeling grateful and partially sorted in the eventuality of not finding a hotel at Pfutsero.

Day 1:

There were both good roads and no roads, all adding up to a patchy drive to Pfutsero. Apart from the mountainous roads that seemed charming outside, the people with whom we shared our drive made our trip indeed a memorable one. One of them helped us to contact the tourist lodge and confirmed our stay at Pfutsero even before we reached. I had clearly started to feel overwhelmed with the hospitality of the people in this part of the country where the locals wanted to make all visitors feel at home. Almost everyone whom we got talking to, was excited to invite us over for a meal with them. Finally, it was 02.00.p.m. when we reached Pfutsero and a cup of hot tea was what we relished at our co-passenger’s house before checking-in at the tourist lodge. A colourful garden welcomed us into her wooden house that was perched on the slope of the hill. Its windows opened out into a majestic view of the entire town and overlooked a lake surrounded by green lawn. The dreamy house seemed to be no less than out of a Bollywood flick. We soon bid her a warm goodbye and headed to the tourist lodge, freshened up and proceeded to the target destination, before the sun called it a day!

Glory peak is the highest point in Pfutsero. A short taxi ride of 3kms through an under-construction road, jaw-dropping view of the surrounding valleys and a climb on a watch tower got us to the top of the town. Mt. Saramati is the highest peak in Nagaland and Mt. Everest needs no introduction. On a clear, bright afternoon, both the mountains can be seen from Glory peak. Since, we had reached there before sunset, the distant mountains were partially hidden by the haze and hence we could get a clear view of only Mt. Saramati. Nevertheless, the 360deg view of verdant hills from the glory peak was something to die for.

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View from Glory peak, Pfutsero

For those who have an additional day at hand, a day hike to the frozen lake from the glory peak is highly recommended by the locals. We decided to explore the town a little bit, before it was dark. A hike down the peak was fun as the staircase leading to the town passed through thick forests, strange creepers and colourful butterflies. We spent time exploring the town until sunset. It seemed dusty with poor roads. Apart from a few local snacks, we couldn’t find anything interesting. However, there is one souvenir shop run by an NGO that supports local artisans. One can buy some traditional Chakesang tribal jewellery, textile and food products as souvenirs from here.

The dropping Pfutsero temperature had started to numb our fingers and we decided to head back to the lodge. The lodge is situated on top of a hill and the setting sun looked glorious from the corridor. After wearing my thermals and gloves, I decided to take a stroll around the lodge. It is located adjacent to defence property and that gave me a sense of confidence to venture alone after dark. All the people from the neighbourhood were busy in decorating a nearby church for Christmas. They got me talking to them and eventually I joined them in their chore of setting up the wreaths and light bulbs. It was a fun evening until I decided to head back for the warmth of my room. The lodge was a HUGE property, but we were only two girls staying there that night. Although it was a little scary at the first thought to be the only guests, we were soon occupied in long conversation with the caretaker family of the property living in the same building, later to be joined by the owners. The conversation covered a range of topics and ran into the night. Given the lesser crowd of the cliched tourists, company of comforting hosts and warm conversations, we couldn’t have asked for a safer and a better place to be!

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Top: Sunset view from Tourist lodge corridor, Pfutsero; Below: Sunrise view from Tourist lodge room, Pfutsero

Day 2:

The comfort of the heater, cosy blankets and carpeted floors let us sleep like logs, unaware of the freezing sub-zero Pfutsero temperature outside. We were woken up by the alarm next morning, only to be mind-blown by the view of the rising sun over the clouds from our balcony. We packed up and prepared to leave as that was our last day in Nagaland and we had to make it to Dimapur for the night’s train. Meanwhile, we had booked a personal taxi for our return, since we wanted to explore Kezakeno on our way back.

The first stop was at- Chida lake. Locally called as Lowho, this off-road destination is a favourite hangout among the locals who come here for games like fishing and boating. Some enjoy a trekking trail from glory peak to Chida along the Kapamedzu range as well. There is a Border Security Force camp at Chida and hence, it is also referred as Chida Post at times. Since we had reached very early, we were the only tourists there and the place looked absolutely calm and serene.

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Lowho lake at Chida, Kezakeno

From there, we headed to Lazami village. This tiny village is of very high historical importance as it is the site from where the various Naga tribes are believed to have migrated to different parts of the state. A veteran from the village was excited to narrate the legend of Tsotawo, the spirited stone in the village. We were warmly invited by almost every person in this village into their house. We finally settled down at a little traditional house for breakfast and a large cup of tea. We carried back love in the form of guavas and local walnuts given by our hosts from this village. Seeing so much affection in these hills was a wonderful feeling that cannot be expressed, for which a city soul in me would want to come back again.

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The spirit stone

While continuing our journey from there, we did have a stop at Kami village view point to admire the terraced paddy fields of Lekhromi village, the view looked magnificent under the oblique rays of the early sun.

Making our way through the maddening traffic jam of Kohima is for another story to be written about, some other day! Thus, ended our 2 days of amazement and overwhelming hospitality in the Land of the Chakesang Nagas- Phek district.

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Terraced farms at Lekhromi village, Phek

Fact file:

Must eats:

  • Pfutsero is famous for its organic farming and terrace cultivation. We bought fruits (some known and some new) from the local shops that we could eat once we were back in our room.
  • One would find a lot of bakeries in the town selling local cookies and muffins. Sticky rice cake, banana cake and banana chips are few of the things I recommend.
  • Getting around:
  • Daily shared taxis ply between Kohima and Pfutsero. There are limited seats and the taxis leave immediately when filled. The taxi leaves Pfutsero around 6.00.a.m to Kohima and the same returns to Pfutsero on the same day on a first-cum-first serve basis. So, if one is not early enough to get a seat, he will have to hire a full taxi for him/herself or stay back until the next morning to share it. A one-way shared taxi seat costs 300Rs. Per head and a personal taxi would cost 5-6000rs. irrespective of whether it is a 1 or a 2-way journey.
  • Within Pfutsero, most places are at walkable distances. But internal taxis are available for local commute. Talk to one of the shopkeepers in the town and they must be able to help in finding one.
  • Stay:
  • A very well-maintained tourist lodge and a government run mini lodge are available at a very affordable price.
  • There are a few homestays available for a more local experience.

Visiting Asia’s first green village- Khonoma

This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the north eastern state of Nagaland in India, specifically covering Dimapur- Kohima- Phek districts of the state during the Hornbill festival.

Before planning my visit to Nagaland, I had followed a few bloggers who had posted encaptivating photos of what they called the ‘Greenest village in India’. My friend and I had our stay booked at a homestay in this little-known village and were supposed to head there on the first day of our arrival in Nagaland. It was past noon by the time our shared taxi from Dimapur reached Kohima and the temperature had started to drop. Khonoma village, our destination was 20kms away and we stood on the highway, clueless about how we were supposed to get there. The connectivity through public transportation across Nagaland is something that needs the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, without being able to find an honest taxi driver among all those who were quoting higher than what I had read about, we had started to feel stranded.

We finally managed to get a taxi and the courteous driver ensured our ride on the roadless path was comfortable and entertaining. On our request, the best Nagamese songs from his playlist were streamed and he made humble efforts to explain the meaning of each song and its relevance in Naga culture. It was a long ride considering that we took over an hour to cover the short distance. In Nagaland, each district is inhabited by a particular Tribe in majority and each village represents a particular clan within the tribe. Every tribe has its own language and surprisingly, each village has its own dialect which another clan might struggle to understand. ‘Khonoma is inhabited by the Kuthotsu clan of the Angami Tribe’, we were told.

A village tour of Khonoma

On reaching Khonoma, we registered our entry at the tourism office from where we took directions to our homestay. As a first impression, it felt like it was just another settlement on the hills, something similar to my hometown. But as I began to walk towards the homestay along the narrow lanes and past the tourism office- a new world started to unfold. The entire village is built on a slope, overlooking the paddy fields. The slope makes it a requirement to climb winding stairs to get from one house to another, from one street to another. As you do this, you will not just pass by umpteen number of morungs but also walk through gardens full of colourful flowers and traditional Angami Naga gates. All this, while you are being mind-blown by the gorgeous view of the never-ending terraced fields of paddy and vegetables. If not the same, I bet this is far better and untouched than the terraced farms of Bali that has flooded the Instagram feeds. The guava trees around every corner of the village and the widely covered creepers of the Chayote squash added a vibrant hue of green to the entire valley. The extremely warm and obliging villagers allowed me to pluck a few guavas that tasted like nectar. Those were definitely the best guavas I had in my life till date. We then walked down the streets to our homestay, a cozy simple house that stood overlooking the terraced fields. Since we had little time before sunset (The sun sets by 04.00.p.m.), we dropped our luggage, freshened up quickly and ventured out to explore the village and make the most of the daylight.

Naga Heritage museum at Khonoma

As we strolled around the lanes, we were intrigued by the several morungs and the traditional Angami houses that we passed by. Morungs are Naga structures that are comparable to Gurukuls of olden days. The elders of the village would pass on their knowledge about life skills and tradition to the younger generations here, usually in the evenings after finishing their day’s chores. Although the Morung system is slowly passing into oblivion in modern days, Khonoma is one of the few places where these structures are conserved in their entirety. Every Morung and house had animal skulls (ranging from one to hundreds in number) hanging around their roofs and walls. We were quite fascinated with the collection that ranged from Mithuns and mountains goats to boars and other cattle. As we stood there, watching a few women who were busy with their job of de-husking paddy with a large pestle and stone, we were greeted by them with warm smiles to have a cup of tea in their house. I instantly accepted their invitation, jumping into the idea of seeing how a traditional Angami Naga house looked like inside.

The different skulls inside a traditional Naga house

Basic mud-smeared walls with knitted bamboo doors and their wooden roofs adorned with hundreds of skulls all around. “These skulls are prized possessions that represent the heroics of our ancestors. The Nagas are primarily hunters and our forefathers saved up the skulls of all their kills. The larger the collection, higher was his societal stature until the government brought a ban on hunting. Given the history of Nagas being head-hunters before the coming of missionaries, don’t be surprised if you bump into human skulls in some of the remote villages elsewhere”, explained a member of that house. Although the other members in that family couldn’t speak English or Hindi, they continued to smile at us for as long as we were there. However, communication is never a problem in Nagaland with almost 90% being proficient in either English or Hindi.

We visited the Naga heritage museum and then walked up to a small hill where the church stands at a vantage point, outside the village entrance, overlooking the entire hill range. From there, we walked back to the village and climbed up a few stairs to reach the highest point of the village. The setting sun let the hills in the background cast their shadow on the undulating green paddy terrace. The view of the range of hills and the entire village from there was a sight to behold for which, we had lost our senses and not to the dropping temperatures that had started to numb our skin 😃 After the sun had called it a day behind the hills, we munched on some local snacks like sticky rice roti, pakora at a café at the village entrance. We grabbed a few packets of Puffed sticky rice and Naga chilli smeared channa from a small shop before heading to the homestay. We hurried up to warm ourselves in the comfort of our homestay’s kitchen where firewood was setup to cook the night’s supper. Sips of hot tea and long conversations with our Angami host and other guests culminated with a delicious Angami meal that comprised of boiled vegetables and steamed rice with vegetable stew- all grown organically in our host’s backyard. The country chicken curry was a bonus for the non-vegetarian in me 😊

The plan for the next morning was to catch the sunrise from the paddy fields by walking along the stream that flowed down the valley. However, the freezing temperature made it impossible for us to get out of our cozy layers of blankets. The plan that had to follow our breakfast was a visit to Dzuleke, a quaint little village located 10kms away. It consists of merely 32 houses and the residents are also from Kuthotsu clan who decided to move out from Khonoma to a more secluded place when the land on the outskirts were open for new settlements. Today, it is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages that is promoted by the state’s tourism board and accessible only by foot or one’s own vehicle. Since a one-way ride was costing us 1500Rs., we dropped our plan of a day trip to Dzuleke.

There is one NST bus (Nagaland State Transport) that connects Khonoma to Kohima every morning. But the state is largely shut on a Sunday and it is an important note to consider if you are planning your travel/stay in Nagaland. After the day got a bit warmer, we packed our bags and headed out in a personal taxi to our next destination- Naga heritage village at Kisama, the main arena of the Hornbill festival.

Meanwhile, some interesting things I found in this village:

  1. Large bird feathers are made into a garland and hung high around the farms. “It is just for decoration purpose”, I was told on asking what it signified.
  2. There a large stone erected which signifies the previous rift between the Nagas and the Indians on the mainland (It is quite an interesting read how the Nagas fought the Indian army)

Stone Pulling Ceremony with the Angami Nagas

Stone pulling Ceremony is an annual traditional event held across the Angami villages to commemorate a certain important day. It takes place in one village per year on a rotational basis. So that way, it takes about 5 to 10 years by the time this ceremony reoccurs in a particular village. This event is usually timed around the Hornbill festival as there will be people from across Nagaland and outside visiting Kohima (The region where the Angami tribe is a majority).

The stone referred here is a large monolith that weighs several tons and the size and shape is not fixed. It is at the villagers’ liberty to pick the monolith they want to use for the occasion and can be either quarried from the village itself or bought from somewhere else depending on the resources. The large stone slab is then placed on a sled that is made of tree trunks and pulled using thick entwined vines from the forest. Thousands of Angami Naga men pull the large monolith over a few kilometers to finally errect it upright, engrave the details of the event and mark the day.

This year, the stone pulling ceremony was held at Mima village. It was organised to commemorate the 75th anniversary of christianity in the village. The monolith was symbolized for forgiveness, friendship and peace to the enmities that the village had with various villages before the coming of the gospel to Mima village.

The typical stone pulling ceremony (Click here to watch the complete video) is solemnised by the pastor from the village’s church with recitals from the Angami bible before the start. It is then followed by firing a round of shots from the muzzle loaded guns in the air. The captain stands on the slab and shouts Angami cheers through a loudspeaker to motivate the pullers. While all the strong and younger men folk of the village join hands to pull the stone, The eldest two men of the clan walk, leading the tribe. The women get dressed in their traditional attire and walk with a khophi (an utility basket woven with bamboo or cane) hung on their back and they stay around as a mark of support to the pullers. A few of these women carry cotton in containers made of dried bottle guard and walk ahead of the pullers as a part of the tradition. And yet, the remaining women go around distributing gruel made of ‘Job’s tears or Chinese pearl barley’ to all the passersby and the participants from their traditional Aluminium pots. It is served in bamboo cups that are carried in the baskets hung around their foreheads. The gruel provides an instant boost of carbohydrates for the toiling men in the hot sun.

In a Christian majority state, the tribal traditions are still thriving. It was a different experience watching the entire village dressed in their ethnic best and gathering to pull the stone uphill from the starting point to its destination. I somehow drew parallels with the chariot pulling tradition of the Puri Jagannath and several other temples of South India.

Isn’t it true that we all somehow follow the same way of life, only with different names for our faith and the process we follow to achieve it?

Experiencing the warmth of Khasi hospitality in Cherrapunjee

I could not express better than these lines picked up from a website, “If the Raindrops elevate your mood, clouds stir your senses and rainbow brings out childlike pleasure in you, then don’t hold yourself back. We are taking you to the abode of clouds-Meghalaya; where rain weaves a magical spell, spellbinding beauty haunts your senses and you witness nature at its best. Witness the monsoon magic, majestic waterfalls, live root bridges and more…” and one can go to no better place than Sohra fondly called Cherrapunjee to experience all of that Meghalaya has to offer in a small place.

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the state of Meghalaya in a self-drive car hired at Shillong. The places visited in Meghalaya include Shillong – Smit – Cherrapunjee – Mawlynnong – Dawki – Ribhoi- Shillong.

Our Itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive from Shillong / Smit; Wahkabah waterfall, Arwah or Lumshynna caves, Nohkalikai waterfalls, seven sister / Nongsthiang falls (Night’s stay at a local homestay)
Day 2: Tyrna village, Nongriat trek (Double decker rootbridge & Rainbow falls), Mawsmai cave/Krem Phyllut, Ummunoi root bridge at Laitkynsew village (Night camping at Nohkalikai)
Day 3: Dianthlen waterfall trek, Sohra market, Ramakrishna mission, Mawkdok valley, Thangkharang park, Moktrop rock; journey towards Mawlynnong.

The Details:

Like most tourists, we started our day early from Shillong via Smit. To differ from the rest, we had a self-drive car at our disposal so that we had the liberty to stop whenever and wherever we wanted. The drive route was mostly untouched and its rustic charm kept us excited all through as this route is less treaden by the tourists. Pine plantations, lesser explored waterfalls nestled away from the main road, well groomed vegetable farms, hay shacks were a common thing for us while we had stopped atleast 100 times for photos.

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A reservoir enroute to Cherrapunjee

As we approached Sohra, we stopped at several view points, Wahkabah waterfall being one among them. India’s longest cave and the most numbers of limestone caves in one place happens to be in Meghalaya and hence Meghalaya is a haven for cave explorers. Our first stop at Sohra was at the Arwah or Lumshynna caves. Relatively smaller compared to the other caves in the viscinity, but is tucked away in a gorgeous location overlooking the deep valley with the Nongsthiang waterfalls.

After a brief visit, we headed towards our next stop: Plunging down from a height of over 1100 feet, Nohkalikai is the highest waterfall in India. We trekked down the steps and a little beyond into the bushes and enjoyed the rare views of the waterfall away from the reaches of normal tourist. There is an option to camp at the Eco park, over the seven sister / Nongsthiang falls. But we decided against it as the place is filled with backpackers and would’ve been too clumsy for us, we were someone who wanted a peaceful place away from the crowd.

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The Nohkalikai falls

Pitching a tent in Sohra requires prior permission from 4 different authorities: the land owner, the Siam of the village, the local government body and the police. In search of a nice place to pitch our tents, we took help of one of a local Khasi friend. With the local connect, our quest to find a piece of land to pitch a tent ended up more like an exploration of Sohra. We could go to some of the untouched places and sunset views that was completely out-of-reach from typical travellers. We were taken to remote places like banks of a small river, a cliff off-a-small hillock, plains overlooking massive gorges, cement factory backyards among other places. With the sun-going down early in this part of the world, we had very little time in hand and insufficient preparation for the night’s camping.

We finally ended up staying with a Khasi family in a local homestay located amid a serene location. The stay however was the highlight of our day: the warm hospitality of the Khasis is something that will never let one regret their choice of stay. Our host at the homestay, accompanied us for dinner and for a drink as we got discussing everything from Khasi culture, ceremonies, politics, sports, tourism et all under the sky, a clear night’s sky. With no pollution in the atmosphere, my friend helped me to identify several constellations from the place that was brilliant for star gazing. It was an unforgettable night for us with the Khasi family.

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The village settlements around our homestay

Next day, we drove to places around Cherrapunjee including the villages of Tyrna, Nongriat, Mawsmai cave/Krem Phyllut, Laitsynkew to explore the living root bridges which was an activity from dawn to dusk! We got in touch with a local guide ‘Mr.Paradise’, who then arranged for our camping in the Nohkalikai village for the night. It was yet another wonderful night spent with new Khasi friends, as we enjoyed Khasi music, the enriching conversation with Paradise and his friends about the Khasi culture. We gained insights about their customs, religious practices, respect for people, nature’s love among many other things. It was a long night under the starry sky with only my friends, Paradise’s friends, myself and the campfire! Suddenly, while the last bit of the firewood was being lit and just before the night broke into dawn, the skies of Meghalaya had shown their power. It poured cats and dogs for the rest of the night, with thunder storm and lightning. We sheltered ourselves inside our tents while I continued to shiver with cold.

At dawn’s break on the following morning, the skies had seemed to have mellowed down and we stepped out of our tents only to be awed by the beautiful sun rising over India’s highest waterfall! Yeah, Meghalaya has been wonderful to us all this while and this was another new day in this ‘land of clouds’. While we had planned a short trek across the Dianthlen falls, the rain gods continued to lash throughout the day.
Cherrapunjee is the wettest part of the world. So, what’s the whole point if one doesn’t experience the rains here, right? We walked in the places around Dianthlen falls and enjoyed the rains for some wild fun but getting drenched till our bones.

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One of the suspension bridges on the way to Dianthlen falls

It was already noon and we couldn’t cover the other few places as planned in Cherrapunjee because of the poor visibility due to heavy rains. Anyway, speculating no possibilities for any improvement in the weather conditions, we decided to drive to our next destination- the Jaintia hills district.

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The rain fed roads of Cherrapunjee

While the warmth of the very hospitable Khasis has still left me in awe and amusement, I’d like to end this note here with these lines:

Even then, goodbye dear Cherra, and your rain goodbye.
For my life is yonder, though my love is here.”

-Karavan, Stokholm, Sweden

Hiking up Assam’s highest point- Hapeo peak

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the places in a self-drive car hired at Guwahati. We had arrived at Haflong, the only hill station in the state of Assam following a mis-adventurous trip. (Click here to know the details)

This trek to the highest point in Assam happened by chance, as a backup after the original plan for the day had failed. We were told that the hill isn’t yet popular in a typical tourist’s circuit. Apart from the local tribal folk who like to party atop the hill, hardly 4 to 5 trekkers come here from outside the district and the state to climb this hill each year. Having said that, we wanted to reach Hapeo peak, the highest point in the state of Assam for sunrise. However, due to the clouds that had hovered that morning, we decided to snooze for a little longer before going ahead with the plan.

There are totally 13 native tribes in Dima Hasao district of Assam state and each tribe has its own village. A local NGO called spectrum is working towards the empowerment of the local tribal communities through promotion of tourism in the district. They helped us in getting this event organized. We were driven in their 4WD vehicle from Haflong to a village called N.Liekung. N.Liekung village belonged to the Kuki tribes and the required permits from the village head was arranged by Spectrum. A local guide was assigned to take us through this off-beat wilderness to scale the highest point in Assam. I would like to present my trek in essentially three parts.

Part 1: The Ascent

After a small stop in front of the holy Cross at the prayer area of the Kukis, we began our ascent towards the peak. For the three of us, all seasoned trekkers doing this trip together, the climb to Hapeo peak wasn’t a very difficult one as compared to what we had done back in the Southern India. But what made it seem difficult was the high grass that had grown tall enough to cover the entire stretch. Since the trek is not frequented with people, the grass on the path is not worn out as much as in the popular trekking trails. Hence, the way up was something through which we had to FIND the trekking trail. Based on the ease of finding the trail, I would split the trail into three portions:

  • A well traceable path with steps laid. However, at some places, the stairs have been lost amid the thickets. We had to cut the grass and bushes in order to find our way. The stretch was full of high grass with occasionally placed animal traps which our guide who walked ahead, would carefully move aside and make way for us.
  • This was the only flat area with some grassland vegetation for a stretch of around 500mts.This was the only place apart from the highway, from where we could actually see the peak that we were apparently scaling up!
  • The last part passes through thick jungle, with a canopy of trees that allowed very less sunlight to penetrate. Varieties of innocent looking wild mushrooms had bloomed at several patches, but we were warned not to pick any of them as they could actually be lethal with allergens or venom. We were accompanied by strange sounds and cries of migratory birds around.
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The only grassland in Hapeo trek

As we climbed up while chatting up with our Kuki guide, he enlightened us with their tribal customs, culture and showed us a few videos on his phone of their traditional dances, festivals ceremonies and the like. Our guide jokingly told us how his fellow folks are named in the tribe. The names may not mean anything and just anything random that sounds nice goes as a name. He was thus randomly called after a ‘Song that was Sung’ (I’m sorry, I don’t want to give out his name). But the tradition is, that the maternal grandfather selects a name for the granddaughter and the paternal grandmother picks a name for the grandson and vice-versa. It is a patrilineal system of inheritance.

Part 2: Reaching the Top

Suddenly, the darkness of the jungle had turned into snow white of the clouds. Before we could realise, we had reached the top already and we had barely taken us two hours. We were told that one could see the entire district of Dima Hasao from up there. But, we were greeted with thick fog and clouds upon arrival. We spent some time soaking in nature’s beauty and waited for the clouds to clear so that we could catch a glimpse of the beautiful view.

For the benefit of potential trekkers, there is just one small shelter with a bench atop the hill and nothing apart from yourself there! Our guide mentioned to us about a patch of land measuring about 2×2 feet, right behind the bench where a natural and strong magnetic force is believed to exist, due to which none of the mobile phones work in that spot. Yes, we tested the phenomenon too. Although all our phones had FULL network, we were unable to place any calls. But none of us had any scientific reasoning for what he told.

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A view of Dima Hasao district from Hapeo peak

In the next fifteen minutes, the clouds had slowly started to clear. We spotted the railway bridge at Lumding onto the right side of the horizon. This rail line is the longest and highest in the Silchar route. Our guide pointed towards another hill onto our left, through which the longest railway tunnel (around 3.5kms long) in the North-east passes. The Silchar-Lumding railway route has been featured in several tourism websites and has been one of the scenic stretches in the country. As the weather slowly worsened and began to drizzle, we decided to start our descent.

Part 3: The Descent

When we had just started to climb down and we received a call from the NGO. We were told to return to the base of the hill ASAP as an alert for a cyclone had been issued by the meterological department and heavy rains were expected in this region in the next few hours. But, it had started to pour cats and dogs within no time. The fastest pace we could catch was by rolling down the hill. With all the rain, thick grass covered path and steep gradient, just a steady walk itself was a struggle as we descended on the slippery trail. There was nothing enroute to take shelter from the rain. But, waiting at any place made no sense because the pounding rains would continue for the entire day or even two. It made more sense to simply continue to walk down as we were already drenched till our bones.

We were back at the base by 11.00.a.m. and thus ended our trek to the highest point in the state of Assam. We were invited over to our guide’s house to dry ourselves up and have a cup of hot tea. We thanked him much and bid adieu with a warm heart to this lesser known corner of the world!

A walk in God’s own garden- Mawlynnong

“The Soul of India is in its villages”.

-Gandhiji

Sometimes, it is not about the place.. It is about the people that brings you closer.. And that’s precisely my take on this little quaint village called Mawlynnong.. After a refreshing drive through some breathtaking views and best roads of India, we had alighted at ‘God’s Own garden’ nestled deep in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya. Although it is being largely promoted by the Meghalaya Tourism Department(MTD) as Asia’s cleanest village after being awarded so by the ‘Discover India Magazine’ in 2003, I feel it holds a different charm in it with the warmest people I have met so far!

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the state of Meghalaya visiting Shillong – Smit – Cherrapunjee – Mawlynnong – Dawki – Ribhoi- Shillong.

Tourists flock to this place in large numbers just because they have heard about it in MTD handouts. These senseless creatures litter the place extensively with chocolate wrappers, chips sachets etc. all strewn around this supposedly cleanest village they have come to see.. But, the humble villagers watch on with a smile and pick up these wastes themselves and put them in the cane trash bins places visibly infront of every household in the village, thus keeping up to its reputation of being clean!

Things to see in Mawlynnong:

• Inside Mawlynnong village: The old church, floating stone, the water shed and the Bangladesh view point.
• 1 kilometer away: Riwai village (Living root-bridge)

The Details:

I walked around the laid back lanes of the village exploring the old church, the floating stone and the water shed maintained by the villagers. The flowers lining the fences of each household added myriad hues to the green village and grey of the cloudy sky.. I climbed up the skywalk laid up with bamboo and cane that threw up a nice view overlooking the plains of Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh view point at Mawlynnong
The Skyview bridge at Mawlynnong

Finally, I settled down at a locally run restaurant for a cup of chai to beat the chills of the cloudy weather. I caught up on a conversation with a pretty Khasi lady draped in her Asiangyake (the traditional dress of the Khasi women also called Dhara). While she helped me to memorise a few words in her dialect, I learnt about the Khasi culture and customs. Being a matrilineal society, women are respected and are given the preference to choose her husband-to-be. It is considered a bad omen, if a man proposes to a woman.

While she was attending to other customers at the restaurant, I called out for ‘Oikong’ (Khasi alternative for addressing ‘Didi’ in other parts of northern India) to help me with some Soh (Khasi for fruit). “Ohhhh” A voice filled with humility came in response… She then sat down with me and prepared a plate of pineapple seasoned with salt and flakes of the ‘Bhut Jholokias’ (the spiciest chilli in the world). It was one of the best snack I had in years!

I then walked down to the playground where some local kids were playing. They seemed excited to meet me, talk in English and pose for a few candid photos. It was a warm and a very pleasant evening for me. There is nothing in particular in this village to see or do.. Yet, the nomad in me strongly intended to stay there for an extra day. There are homestays that are available where the warmth of the Khasi hospitality can be experienced.

Kids playing on the lanes of Mawlynnong

I would recommend an early morning walk to Riwai village that helps you avoid the chaotic tourists who flock in later during the day. At a distance of about 1km before Mawlynnong, is the most easily accessible living root bridge and hence, a lot of visitors throng down. So after a nice walk, savouring a nice Khasi breakfast and lemon tea, it was time to pack bags to head out to my next destination- Dawki: the last village of Meghalaya on the Indian border!

The church at Mawlynnong
The church at Mawlynnong

Request to tourists:

Please remember that the sole reason that you are at Mawlynnong is to see how ‘Asia’s cleanest village’ looks like. How on earth will you ever feel like littering such a place? Do you want to see if you can take off the ‘Cleanest’ tag from the place? Or do you want to just prove that you are only an uncultured educated rich person who could afford enough money to tour the North-east India? Ask yourself… Be sensible and responsible!