Tag Archives: Offbeat things to do in Assam

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.

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 Kaziranga last year, post monsoon.

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. Our visit to Kaziranga had just one agenda, a safari in the Kaziranga National park and get a glimpse of at least one rhinocerous! Kazhiranga National Park is counted in the list of UNESCO’s world Heritage sites.

My Itinerary:

Day 1: Evening drive from Guwahati to Kaziranga (Kohora forest range)
Day 2: Early morning elephant safari & jeep safari in Kaziranga national park, Orchid research centre. Continue the journey onward to Jorhat.

The Details:

After a wonderful drive through the National highway from Guwahati, we reached Kaziranga on a night lit with Diwali lamps all around. Kaziranga 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. The park is closed during monsoon and we were lucky that the central zone at Kohora had opened just around our visit time. 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.

We woke up the next morning and headed towards the forest gates where the elephant ride was supposed to commence. The drive from the resort until the forest gate was so refreshing in itself. With the addictive smell of wet ground, kaccha roads passing through green paddy fields dotted with bamboo huts here and there, thick mist slowly clearing up with dew drops reflecting the rising sun: It was just wonderful all the way.

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Enroute to the forest gates

Kaziranga is synonymous with the one-horned rhinoceros. 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. Even before we started our ride, we spotted rhino families all around the watch tower we were standing at. We even found a few of them grazing in the fields on the sides of the highway. With that we realized, that Kaziranga was beyond rhinos. There are some other wild animals that are exclusive to the park and are collectively called as the ‘Big Five’, a must on the list of every wildlife enthusiast visiting the state of Assam.

Our elephant had arrived in a bit. We sat atop and started our ride into the haze of the misty green grasslands of Kazhiranga to track the ‘Big Five’ of the this land. The elephants that we were seated 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 at far distance.

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The elephants marching into the forest

First, it was a wild elephant with its calf. We were told that rhino and elephant conflicts were common and that 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. Swamp deer are handsome animals.

Just as we were photographing them, we saw a herd of Asiatic wild water buffaloes marching out of a slush pool. Until our guide told us, we had no idea that over 57% of the world’s water buffaloes too were accommodated in the woods here!

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

Another surprise information awaited us: Kazhiranga national park has the highest density of the Royal Bengal tigers in the world!!! Whoa!!!! That’s like……..something that was unknown to me, a person who hails from the land of Nagarhole, Bandipur & Bannerghatta. But as always, no luck with spotting the elusive beast. Seeing a tiger in the wild is a LONG dream, awaiting to be realised. (So much adventure to see a wild tiger, Click here to read more!)

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. Meanwhile, we realized that we still had time to make it for the morning batch of jeep ride. So, after enquiry and booking at the counter, we had a gypsy to take us into the forest again. Needless to mention, we were greeted by herds and herds of rhinos all along our path. Wild boars, barking deer etc. too were spotted in abundance. The highlight was however, the innumerable species of migratory birds that were spotted. Our driver cum guide mentioned several bird names, out of which only pelicans and spoon-billed storks were the ones that I have managed to remember.

On the other end of our drive into the forest, we were taken to a watch tower from where we could catch a very good view of hundreds of animals that had 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 and the image of the floating tiger’s carcass hovers around in my thoughts.

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Record of the flood water level of the Bramhaputra

The drive back to the resort, 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 seeing in the hills in down South. We stopped by to sip on some hot brew and bought some processed 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

Overall, our day was eventful at Kazhiranga with warm memories from the woods before heading to our next destination- Jorhat. Although a little disappointed for not being able to spot a tiger by the end of our safari ride, we were feeling content for having our long pending wish of visiting this heritage site come true!

Concluding remarks: For those of you planning to visit Kaziranga, 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 automobile will be able to enter deeper areas of the forest. 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.

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!

Celebrating Diwali in the island of Satras- Majuli

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh

A good photo can tell a story… But a camera can never capture what the real eyes see’. This expression explains my feeling when my drive to Majuli started.

After our wildlife safari at Kaziranga National Park, we drove down towards Neemati Ghat from where we had to get our car onboard a ferry… Although the ferry sailed away from the banks, we saw ourselves taking a detour and approaching the same bank within 15minutes. A person who had alighted at Neemati Ghat had created a ruckus for having lost his bag of crackers in the ferry. So, he made the entire ferry return to the bank to find his bag back. Oh yes… Diwali with no fireworks?? After all the drama, our ferry took sail on its final trip of the day… It was approximately an hour’s journey across the mighty Brahmaputra towards Kamalabari ghat on the other end that had conveniently faded into the horizon. On the other end of our journey was Majuli, the largest river island in the World.

Places covered:
• Natun Samaguri Satra (known for mask making)
• Uttar Kamalabari Satra (known for the origin of Sattriya dance)
• Kamalabari Satra (known for boat making)
• Aouniati Satra (the largest Satra)
• Dakhinpat Satra (The oldest Satra in Assam)

The Details:
We were sailing in the middle of the widest of the Indian rivers which seemed no less than a sea… In no time, it was sunset in the sky!! We saw the gold of daylight changing into molten red merging with the darkness of the sea to call it a day! Each fraction of a second was a spectacle to the eye while the universe around us was changing into hues of red. And at the distant horizon, the dark sky was being lit up with fireworks as if the world’s largest river island was set for our grand welcome. With last drop of the set-sun, our ferry reached Majuli Island. The welcome was more than what we had imagined while in the waters… The streetlights in the entire island were switched off and it was like time travel to the history books of ancient days when all towns and villages used to be lit by lamps with oil soaked wicks… All villages, all streets, all houses & shops, every courtyard and like every damned place in the island was lit up with diyas of Diwali reminding us the exact purpose of the festival- Celebration of the grand return of Lord Ram, Sita & Lakshman at Ayodhya..!! The distinct rural ambience with lamp lit bamboo huts reflecting in the swamp waters just added to the amusement we had.

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Lamps being lit at one of the huts at the Missing village

After getting directions from our homestay owner, we drove through stretches of Gurmur only to be guided with lamps that marked the boundary between the road and the bamboo forests on a moon-less night… A neatly done-up bamboo cottage was awaiting our arrival in that bamboo island… After freshening up in our cottage, we took a stroll in that magical village in search of some local food for dinner. We had to satiate our hunger at a small but pleasant hotel with a simple Assamese Thali.

The rest of the night was spent star gazing in a clear moon-less sky outside our bamboo hut, with moist dew-kissed grass underneath and sipping apong- the local rice-beer… Right there, I found what I wanted from my trip- A piece of peaceful life… It was BLISS..!!

The next morning, we woke up leisurely and took a stroll around the village enjoying the rustic countryside… As it was start of the winter, we witnessed several endemic & endangered bird species including migratory birds that had come to nest in this extensive wetland. After breakfast, we decided to explore the cultural diversity offered by the island. Although I would any day choose to cycle around this vast district, my friend wanted to drive around instead and so we did…

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The bamboo huts/ houses in the Mising village

Majuli has always been the cultural headquarters of Assam. It is known for its ancient monasteries which have been practicing various forms of art for over 500years now. These monasteries are called Satras. There were over 660 Satras in the island which has reduced to a handful of practicing schools now. We were hence keen on exploring a few of them. The drive around the bamboo groves alternately opened up to the swamp waters of the island making the drive very enjoyable. And every household had a loom placed outside under the shade of the hut with several women folk weaving the famous textile of Majuli. Several others were busy with the preparations for ‘RaasLeela’ the biggest cultural festival of the island flocked with people from across the world due for a few weeks ahead.

Firstly, we visited the ‘NatunSamaguri Satra’- known for mask making. The humble person Mr. Hem Goswami was patiently explaining the process of mask making to every visitor who dropped by. Since, the preparations were on for RaasLeela, most of the masks available were those of characters from Ramayana. We were amused with the way Mr. Goswami got into the skin of the character of the mask that he wore each time. Be it the aggression of King Vali or the gracefulness of seditious Mohini- He adorned them all with ease… We then drove across the island visiting various Satras scattered across the village. Lastly, at Dakhinpat Satra, we greeted the monks or Bramhacharis as they are called were all occupied in the practice of hymns for the Raas night!

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The masks at the Samaguri satra

The island is inhabited by the Mising, Deori & Sonowal Kachari tribes in separate villages in this bamboo district. And hence, the indigenous culture of the tribal folk is another attraction in addition to all the cultural and bio-diversity that the island has to offer. After all this exploration of the island district, we headed towards Dhunaguri Ghat from where a 3hour drive would get us to the gates of Arunachal Pradesh.

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The ferry and the under construction bamboo bridge at Dhunaguri ghat

Firstly, we need to cross a small swamp with a ferry which is available at any point in time, so one needs to just hop in and get rowed across. There is a bamboo bridge being constructed by the local tribes parallely which I think is eligible to be called world’s longest bamboo bridge. The amount of engineering and effort the locals have been putting in is noteworthy. Next was a short drive through the tribal settlements to catch another ferry that runs on a fixed time. But, this drive was again like an emotional farewell to us by this beautiful island… The oblique rays of the setting sun laid a golden tone for the entire backdrop. With the bamboo huts onto our right, the view to our left was a visual treat! Grey waters of the Brahmaputra, green paddy fields, blue Himalayas at a distance with the golden sunset- all in one sight looked like layers of colors and terrain merging into one another forming as if a dream was frozen on canvas.

We waited at the banks for a long time and captured various silhouettes in the backdrop of a dreamy sunset until our ferry arrived. We boarded our car onto the launch and bid a final goodbye to the beautiful island and its people…

Summary:
Majuli is THE place for a traveler who wants to break through some offbeat destination with multiple touch points- Cultural, traditional, geographical, eco and biological diversity all at one place!

Must do:
• Take a cycle tour exploring the Satras around the island.
• Attend the annual cultural festival- RaasLeela in 3rd week of November.