Tag Archives: Northeast India

Tracking the Big Five at Kaziranga

The monsoon has caused the mighty Brahmaputra to take a toll on the North-eastern part of India causing innumerable and irreplaceable losses. I saw this one particular photo of a floating carcass of the striped beast- the National animal of India in the newspaper this morning and I was taken back in time when I visited Kazhiranga last year, post monsoon. After a wonderful drive through the National highway from Guwahati, we reached Kazhiranga on a night lit with Diwali lamps all around. Kazhiranga national park is divided into four main areas: The Central range at Kohora, Western range at Bagori, Eastern range at Agaratoli and the Burapahar range at Ghorakhati. Here, the tourists can enjoy the elephant and jeep rides into the forest that are organized by either government or private parties. It is closed during monsoon and we were lucky that the Central zone at Kohora had just opened. We had a nice meal and settled down at one of the numerous resorts that exist on the boundary of the National park in the Kohora range. Meanwhile, our resort guys helped us to get tickets for a safari ride scheduled for early next morning.

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Enroute to the forest gates

We woke up the next morning and headed towards the gates where the elephant ride was supposed to commence. The drive itself was so refreshing… With the addictive smell of wet ground, Mud roads with green paddy fields dotted with bamboo huts here and there; Thick mist slowly clearing up with dew drops reflecting the rising sun- It was a wonderful drive all the way till the tourist tower inside the forest gates. Kazhiranga is synonymous with the one-horned rhinoceros. Even before we started our ride, we spotted rhino families all around the tower we were standing at. With about 2/3rd of the world’s population of these beauties found in just this area, it was no surprise that we began to spot them one after the other. We even found a few of them grazing by the roadside fields on our way back. With that we realized, that Kaziranga was something beyond rhinos. Our elephant had arrived, we sat atop and started our ride into the haze of the misty green grasslands of the Kazhiranga.

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The elephants marching into the forest

The elephants that we were sitting on were walking through dense thickets of elephant grass- The grass that was taller even for elephants to walk through. Slowly, the mahout started to point out and show us the animal sightings. First, it was a wild elephant with its calf. We were told that Rhino and elephant conflicts were common and that particular mother elephant was wounded just that morning in a bid to protect its new born calf. So, that meant we were not safe sitting on one either! We slowly moved out of tall grass to another area where a couple of rhinos were finishing their morning chores. It was very surprising for us to know that large rhino groups identify space where each rhino marks its own spot (making a private toilet space for itself) and does not let any other rhino enter the area. Wow! We slowly passed that place and spotted herds of swamp deer. World’s largest population of these herbivores too is concentrated in these forests. They are handsome animals. Just as we were photographing them, we saw a herd of Asiatic wild water buffaloes marching out of a slush pool. We had no idea that over 57% of the world’s water buffaloes too were accommodated in the woods here! Another surprise awaited us- Kazhiranga national park has the highest density of the Royal Bengal tigers in the world!!! Whoa!!!! That’s like……..!!! So we had checked off 4 out of the big 5 of the Kazhiranga before heading towards the exit gates- The One horned rhinos, Asiatic elephants, swamp deer and wild water buffaloes… We need real luck to find the last one- the elusive beast: The Royal Bengal tiger…

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Clockwise: The Single horned Rhino, Swamp deer, Wild water buffaloes and the Asiatic elephants

We realized that we still had time to make it for the morning batch of jeep ride. I strongly recommend to try both ways of exploring the woods- on elephant back and by a four wheel drive. Both are different experiences and the type of terrain and sightings are different. While an elephant will be able to take you through the tall grass, a 4-wheel will be able to enter deeper areas of the forest. So, we had a gypsy to take us in… Needless to mention- Herds and herds of rhinos greeted us all along our way. Wild boars, barking deer etc. were spotted in abundance. The highlight was however- the innumerable varieties of migratory birds that we spotted. Our driver mentioned several names, out of which only pelicans and spoon-billed storks were the prominent ones that I have managed to remember. At the end of the drive one way, the guards took us to a watch tower from where we could catch a very good view of hundreds of animals that come to drink water from the flowing river. It was a very calm and a serene place to spend a while with nature… What caught our curiosity was some random years mentioned on the wall of the watch tower. So, here is a picture that may give an idea of the monsoon fury and severity of floods that affect this area year after year. The tower itself is located at an elevation from the river. My friend in the below picture is a 6-footer. The water level of 2016 is marked above him… Can you imagine how impossible it is for the animals to escape out of the area??? It’s insane to think of…

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Record of the flood water level of the Bramhaputra

Although a little disappointed for not being able to spot a tiger, we were feeling content for having our long pending wish of visiting this heritage site come true! We then headed back to the resort for breakfast. The drive back on the highway was an extremely nice one which had gone unnoticed during the hurried drive through misty roads in the morning… Tea plantations flanked the roads on both sides. The famous Assam tea grows in flat lands and under shade, totally contrary to what I had seen and grown up with, in down South. We stopped by to sip on some hot brew and bought some procedded tea leaves for our caffeine addicts back home. A quick visit to the Orchid research centre was an interesting place to drop by too…

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The Assam tea estate

So, that was an eventful day at Kazhiranga with warm memories from the woods before heading to our next destination- Jorhat. If you wish to spend more time with nature, I recommend you all to explore all the 4 ranges of the national park. Don’t go by recommendations of people of which range to go in… Each area is distinct with different types of vegetation, landscape, flora and fauna concentrations.

Endurance testing of a car- A road trip across Assam

I have been involved in testing of new cars that belonged to my company. But, all that are with SOPs and defined patterns. This time, it was about driving a competitor in the extreme road conditions just for the joy of driving and fun of travelling. No SOPs and we were our own bosses… The India unique driving conditions… With money spent from our own pockets… So this is what it was all about.

Part 1: We meet our new friend from the showroom- Maruthi Swift Petrol
The car was delivered from the showroom just 30 minutes before our arrival. It had the ribbon on its hood and a TC plate for registration indicating us that we were the first people to drive it. After all the formalities, the experimental trip kicked off in a traditional Indian way- Getting ourselves photographed in front of our brand new car with the self-drive company owner handing over the keys to us. The road ahead is supposedly beautiful with greenery all the way with paddy fields, hills and tea plantations. It was past sunset and hence, it was just a cruise from Guwahati to Kaziranga highway. We checked into the resort by 10.00.p.m which we had booked at Kohra range of Kaziranga National park.

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The National Highway passing through Kazhiranga

The next morning, we drove through the rustic areas of Kohra to reach the elephant Safari area. It was a splendid view with lush green paddy fields hovered over with mist and mud smeared huts dotting the entire stretch which set a positive tone for the day. We even spotted a couple of rhinos by the roadside itself 😀 An elaborate story of Kaziranga is another post altogether and hence, I will drive you across from here to reach Neemati ghat as the last ferry would leave for Majuli by 04.00.p.m. The car too sped similar to the drive you’ve just been through the post from Kohra to Neemati ghat- HIGH SPEED! Majuli is yet another post in my blog and that comes with Diwali lights, fireworks and a lot of pulling and pushing of the car in the dusty terrain of the countryside. A drive to be truly remembered!

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The kaccha roads of Majuli

Part 2: Driving on the National Highway no.13- A sneak-peak to Arunachal Pradesh
It was complete off-road driving (Read it flying) all along the banks of Brahmaputra from Dhunaguri Ghat of Assam. We had covered a stretch of 165 kms/4hrs via North-Lakhimpur in merely an hour through a shortcut via Parbatipur. We had met a cop from Arunachal Pradesh who had asked us to follow him and we did that although skeptical about his real motives 😛 We heaved a sigh only when we saw some people around and that’s when we realized we were right in front of Arunachal gate at Banderdewa check post. Having sorted out the issues of inner-line permits for us and our swift car with no number plate (We had a temporary registration), a grueling drive into the state of Arunachal had begun along NH.13. It was pitch dark at 6.p.m. in the evening and not a soul on the road san us. We braved a couple of landslides and waterfalls- both plunging right onto the road that we were driving through. It was 12.00.a.m. when we reached Hapoli market in Ziro town of the lower Subansiri district. The three of us were trying to get in touch with the homestay owner for directions from 5 different mobile network providers and yet unable to make a call. All the mobile phone networks were apparently down since evening and felt like the entire valley was paralyzed without communication. And, we were kind of stranded in the middle of a freaking cold night at nowhere!!

There were no civilians on the road but hundreds of cops walking around with balaclava and guns keeping vigil in the place prone to surprise social turbulence. Meanwhile, we were confronted by a CRPF cop as to what we were doing there at that time and we explained our plight to him and sought help. He offered to help us telling BSNL lines were up and he could call our homestay from his mobile- unfortunately, our homestay guy was still not reachable, thanks to his Airtel connection! By that time, we had decided to spend the night on the road with our shorts and loafers to help us bare the zero temperature at Ziro town. But in a while’s time, a miracle happened. Our homestay owner had realized the issue with the mobile networks and come down to Ziro searching for us. He found us! But rightly then, his Maruthi 800 refused to crank… He pushed it aside until next morning, got into our car and took us to safe harbor- his homestay at Siiro!

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The National Highway at Ziro

After all the sightseeing and lifetime experiences at Ziro, we had to now drive back to our next destination- Jatinga. It was the same highway down until Banderdewa, but this time during daytime. So we had ample vistas to soothe our eyes all the way… Deep valley with clear waters and occasional rapids of the Subansiri on one side and thick jungle on the other kept up the motivation for the drive on that Roadless NH road! Occasional Apathani women folk hitch hiking a drop to different villages enroute to Potan and frequent photo stops added to the tempo. Further down, while the sunset added colour, the grazing Mithuns along the valley added charm to the drive. Mithuns are shy animals belonging to the cattle family. They resemble bisons from Nagarhole in their features but are in shades of white colour. They are handsome creatures! In such bad tarmac, we were still able to keep the good condition of our new car with just the rear mudguards hanging down. We crossed the Banderdewa by 06.00.p.m. and thus the next sojourn into Assam happened.

Part 3: Driving on the Asian Highway no.1 to Haflong.
After a short tea break and for dinner, we drove until Tezpur where we decided to stay for the night. After seeing no roads in Arunachal, the new tarmac in Assam seemed more like a speedway in NFS. We were cruising through the NH passes over the 3kms+ long Kolia Bhomora Bridge across the Brahmaputra and cuts through tea plantations and paddy fields in most stretch and was a delight to drive. But, we were watchful at the same time as the beautiful stretch was also known for anti-social elements like militants, Maoists etc. The next morning, we started early towards Dima Hasao district so that we had sufficient time to explore Haflong and make it to Jatinga to watch the famous birds’ mass suicide phenomenon. We were blindly following our dear friend- google maps and cruising on the AH, that is being newly developed in the stretch that we were supposed to drive till Haflong. We were thoroughly enjoying our drive through the newly asphalted 4-lane road passing through the forest reserve area. However, we did not want to risk ourselves by stopping anywhere even for a nature’s call as the entire stretch is known to be socially intolerant and infested with militants. It was only us and no one else amid virgin forests on both sides for as long as our eyes could reach. The map was indicating only ONE road right until Haflong without any crossroads and hence, it was an easy way to go…

We had just passed through the tunnel near Mahur junction and suddenly the road disappeared. The front wheels of our car were stuck inside a deep pool of slush. It was 01.00.p.m. and our enjoyable drive had halted. The map on all our phones continued to indicate the road ahead. We opened the doors to get out and push the car- we were amused by the knee deep water that we had just got ourselves into. There was a huge rock exactly under the front cross-bar which meant we couldn’t push it forward. Meanwhile, we noticed that the water level was rising due to a continuously flowing stream which posed a risk of the water entering the engine. While 2 of us took to task of digging a water-way for the stream to flow out, the other friend walked back until the tunnel where we hoped to find some help. There were a couple of cars who had lost their way too and drove to the place where we were stuck, but they were quick enough to shift to the reverse gear and drive back. Remember… The place is infested with militants?? Our poor friend near the tunnel- was trying to stop every single vehicle that passed by and no one cared! By 03.00.p.m. he somehow managed to walk back with 3 local boys who came down with a couple of posts to lift the car out of the slush. The ground clearance was bad which at the first place had got us down to where we were. The front bumper seemed fragile to come out if we tried to lift up with it. There were no side skirts or reinforcements that could help us to hold the car up. And then there was a huge dent & a bump on the Rear door while my friend was trying to support his shoulder in between. We together tried all possible tricks and ideas to get the car out but all in vain. The sun had begun to set by then which meant we had very little time left with daylight lest spend the night inside the car in the middle of nowhere with highest possibility of getting mugged at gunpoint and worse- become a meal to some hungry wild animal. It was 04.00.p.m. and we were still stranded.

While we had given up and were thinking about the way forward, a Mizoram bound family arrived in a XUV-500. Seeing a girl, they took pity on us and offered to help us by waiting until we arranged for a rope. Fortunately, another truck arrived on a lost route within the next 10 minutes. The truck driver obliged to open a compartment in his truck which was located deep under and was never touched since the time he had owned the truck. He finally pulled out a big chain which was then attached to the XUV and towed the swift out of the ditch. It was a moment of celebration… not only to us, but to so many people who had gathered during the course. With some navigation help from the locals, we took a small deviation to avoid the landslide that had actually caused the entire episode of getting our car towed. The highway ahead right until Jatinga was under construction with just heavy dust all around. There was a spot where our car was in the middle of like ten JCBs around- Like a scene from the transformers. Wow! A wonderful experience in a no-man’s world…

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The Asian Highway through Dima Hasao

Part 4: Swift gets a face wash
We found a local garage at Haflong who vacuum cleaned the interiors and did a high pressure wash for the exteriors and underbody. Our car looked as new as it was when we took delivery. Only change point was that it had a big bump on the rear door and functionally, the power steering would suddenly get harder than its manual version due to the leaking power steering oil, the brakes took a longer distance to stop and the entire electrical system would suddenly go off during the drive due to the excessive electrolyte spillage in the battery and of course- the wheel alignment had gone for a complete toss. We drove back to Guwahati braving the deadly combination of multiple malfunction Indication Lamps on and horrible road sense of the people on the newly laid highways. We returned the car at Guwahati and the rest is better left untold…

Summary: Sorry for the poor car on it’s first road-trip.. It was driven in extreme conditions for what it is not designed.. Inspite of all that we put it through, it got us back safe to our harbour:)

What was your most memorable road-trip? Let me know!

Tripping in Scotland of the east- Shillong

The planned solo trip started when I boarded the BLR- GAU bound flight to Shillong… An argument over paying extra Rs.50 per head for turning the A/C on for 1 passenger’s need in a shared taxi from Guwahati airport ended when the drive uphill pulled-off at Police Bazaar, Shillong at 3.00.p.m. While the streets were bustling with the weekenders finding their way out of the hill state, an acquaintance who had offered to give me place to stay at her place was waiting for my arrival.

Being the 1st day in an unknown city and having very little time with day light left (The sun-sets by 4.30.p.m.), I decided not to move too far from my friend’s house and eventually cause trouble to people in finding me. I dumped my luggage at the house and started to explore the city by foot.

The day ended pretty well where I tagged along with another solo-traveler and together we were able to explore the markets, street food and have a fine conversation about travel & music- we kind of struck similar chords. We shopped for woolens, thermals and shoes at dirt cheap prices on the streets of police bazaar. We tasted a lot of local fruits and even picked up some ‘Bhoot Jhalokias- World’s spiciest chilly as mementoes to our relatives 😉 While we were walking through the narrow residential lanes of the city, we learned about the architecture of the buildings here. Shillong falls under the red belt for earthquakes. Hence, the houses are constructed with light-weight roofs- usually a combination of hay and metal sheet. Also, the houses are usually constructed a few feet above the ground with insulating materials to keep them warm during the winters. Although, a few buildings seemed to have been constructed of concrete, I was told that the walls were mud smeared and if a hole was made with a slightly large nail, the sand from within would ooze out and eventually collapse the wall. This was to protect the people from earthquake & chilly winters together. Pork forms a major part of Khasi cuisine and that made us eat a lot of it (chops, barbequed, fried etc.) since pork goes into almost all dishes. All in all, my first day in the North-eastern India as a solo traveler went rather well.. I did not seem lost on my 1st day and she ended the last day of her trip on a good note!

Day 2 can be broadly divided into 3 parts: 1st- Taxi ride to the outskirts, 2nd- Walk around the city, 3rd- Taxi ride to the cantonment area.

An early morning walk down the road from my friend’s house lead to the Golf course- The largest, oldest, wettest and the toughest to play in Asia. Green pastures have been scientifically proven to have a soothing effect on human mind and it was nothing different to expect from this golf course. I walked back up to the Police Bazaar and hired a taxi thereon to Smit.

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The drive of 25kms was refreshing as I passed through potato farms and Khasi villages on the way. Smit is an old rustic town and the cultural centre of the East Khasi hills. After a small stopover, we drove to Laitlung valley- about 5kms further. The beauty of the valley with 360 degree greenery and fresh air cleansed my mind off half my worries and tension. The villagers I met on my way enriched me with the simplicity and content of life. After a good walk down and up the beautiful valley of Mawkeynrew, my tummy had started to call out for me. I savoured the plantains offered to me by the villagers and sat down with a few school kids who were excited to catch up for a conversation with a foreigner in English! I managed to get breakfast at one of the stalls where a simple plate of noodles was served with a heavy dose of warmth and humility.

After reaching back to Shillong, I enquired for local sightseeing which seemed to be expensive by taxi and that’s what pushed me to explore the city on foot with support from my friend- Google maps. There are many places within 5 kms radius for people of varied interests. Air force museum (at Upper Shillong), Forest museum (Inside Lady Hydari park), Rhino heritage museum, Zoological museum, Anthropological museum (at Mawsbuit/ahead of Happy Valley), Botanical museum, Arunachal museum, State museum, Don-Bosco centre of culture (At Mawlai)- all for the museum bums. The wards lake, Bishop Beadon falls, Spread eagle falls (also called as Sati or Umkaliar falls), Crinoline falls, Elephant falls and the Sweet falls- at a drivable distance for the water lovers. And of course, there are a large number of Cathedrals and churches where you can attend the Sunday mass with hymns melodiously sung in the Khasi language.

By sunset time, I had realized that I had done several rounds of the same roads and covered very few places. And that’s when I took another taxi to visit the farthest of the city-sightseeing and the highest point of the hill station- Shillong peak. The road taken to the peak was blocked by the Air-force and that made the driver to go through Happy Valley and the army area at Mawsbuit to show me the most beautiful of all places around Shillong- Sweet falls. Being tucked away from the city crowd and having limited access to people due to the army area, this place was very serene, clean and beautiful. However, it seemed very secluded with just a couple of riders who had dropped over for a drink. Being a solo traveler, for the first time I felt uncomfortable and headed to the taxi to be driven back. Then followed the highlight of the day: The driver fell sick, his sugar levels dropped, he threw up and all that… I didn’t even have water when he asked for some… I gave him some toffees which would help his sugar level normalize; he rested in the car for a while and then finally drove me back to the city after all the panic session… Pheww!!

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Sweet falls

After a short shopping break at the Police bazaar market, I headed to MTDC (Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation) office where I thought I would be able to plan my next day’s itinerary… and what happened next is history.!!

Summary:
* It’s a safe and a friendly city for the solo travelers.
* Time required for covering all places in the city- 1.5 days

Must dos:
* For the music buffs: Attend the Shillong Weekender NH7 music festival

* For the cultural buffs: Attend the Nongkrehm festival of the Khasi tribes at Smit

* For the foodies: Try khasi cuisine at the many restaurants and give it a try for street food post 6.00.p.m across the city.

* For the shopaholics: lots of amazing winter wears, shoes and boots at dirt cheap prices across the city!