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North-east adventures

Little did I know, when agreeing to a rather spontaneous plan, just how adventurous a bike trip to the Seven sisters was going to be. The Seven sisters, as we learned ages ago in school geography, represent the 7 states of the north-east part of India, a relatively unexplored, underdeveloped portion with its diverse cultural tapestries.

If only the planning could have been as easy as my acquiescence – the logistics of transporting the bike to Guwahati, booking the tickets at the last minute and waiting for them to be confirmed, packing all the essentials, and planning out the route. We decided on Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya, an ambitious enough yet do-able trail for bikers.

Travel companions often meet in most atypical of ways, and I found a kindred soul occupying the berth just next to mine, Elvin Lonan, a weary corporate who had quit his Bangalore job to ride into the unknown east.  Coincidence? I prefer to think of it as “serendipity”. With a shared objective and after some train bonhomie, Elvin and I decided to ride together. We were also fortunate in meeting Manjit Bhati, another co-traveler, who was making his way towards Tezpur, his hometown. He was most curious to know our route and what we planned to do. Nurturing this contact would prove to be important later on along the journey.

After three long days onboard the train, Guwahati’s humid weather played host to welcome us. Formalities with the parcel officer handling my bike logistics took a further two hours. Elvin and I checked into a Guest House, on G.S Road, ran through some basic bike look-overs and geared up for the first leg of our journey the following day: Kaziranga National Park.

Highway No. 37 stretched away into the slush, wending towards Nagaon, and would ultimately lead to Kaziranga. Recent road widening seemed to have been a waste, as the monsoon showers had played havoc over the tarred surfaces. Five hours through mucky terrain, and we checked into Kohora Reserve’s Wildgrass Resort, the oldest commercial accommodation in these parts.

Two blissful days were spent at the resort, where our daily routine involved safaris, both by jeep and on elephant back. This gave us our first insight into the wildlife of Kaziranga. We spotted twelve of the famed and endemic one-horned rhinos, and the most common species in all reserves, deer.

One Horn Rhino at the Kaziranga National Park

Our other two travel buddies, Anjit and Ankesh joined us later that night at Kaziranga, after dealing with a flat on their sponsored TVS Apache 150CC. We were glad that they had made it till there safely, and their sponsorship for such a trusty mode of transport was the butt of our jokes all night long. After being entertained by Bihu folk music, accompanied by a famous Assamese cultural dance, we drifted off to sleep.

Bihu Dance

An excellent road paved the second leg of our journey: the highway to Tezpur, which despite heavy rains allowed us to ride contentedly over eighty kilometers per hour. Manjit Bhati, our train co-traveler, helped us out with the permits (called Inner Line Permits) for Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, without which entering these community-owned forests is nigh impossible. After two hours of persuasion, hurried market purchases of essentials, Manjit joined me as a pillion and local guide into the forested roads that lay ahead.

It was evening by the time our permits came through, and only then could we set off through more slush, towards Bhalupong, a fifty-two kilometre ride from Tezpur. Two hours later, permits were checked at the Bhalupong entry gate, the entry point to Arunachal Pradesh in the West Kameng sector, and Hotel Kameng Inn was chosen to shelter our weary, muddy selves. It turned out to be a clean and comfortable establishment, and I would recommend it to all who pass that way. We chatted the dark hours away, getting to know each other and effusing about the journey we would be undertaking.

The next morning the TVS Apache had yet another flat tyre but was quickly patched up at the repair shop across the hotel. Yet more jokes of being cautious when accepting sponsorships prevailed over breakfast. But at last, we were all ready to go.

Manjit and I decided to ride on ahead, if only my bike had been as enthusiastic as I was. Yet who can blame her, a mercilessly slushy road, two passengers and a ride into fading daylight and light snowfall, the bike stalled several times along the way. As a persistent rider, we splashed on beyond Tenga (army camp), Bomdila, Dirang and the Sela Pass (13,750ft), at which point the reluctant bike altogether gave up. The snow had come down heavily, making it difficult to sight the road ahead. We had to get the bike off the road and find some shelter.

As luck would have it, a lit up house nearby seemed to answer our prayers. On knocking a young woman opened to door, and on hearing of our problem offered us some room to sleep, Maggi and coffee. (It seemed like a scene from Hotel California…on a dark, mountain highway, cool wind in our hair…you know the rest of the song)

Sela Pass (13,700 feet)

The next day we thanked our host and bade her goodbye. My moody bike too had gotten her share of rest, and revved into action after just one kick. We rode on towards Tawang.

En route lies Jaswantgarh, named after Jaswant Singh, known as Baba to the soldiers, an Army war hero. A temple-like shrine, with a garlanded bronze bust, a portrait of the officer, all his Army paraphernalia and an earth lamp that burns round the clock, were testimonies to how Singh was captured and hanged by Chinese invaders. The memorial itself lies about fourteen kilometres from Sela Pass, and is located where the hanging took place. After taking Baba’s blessings, we continued on our way.

Tawang District in Arunachal Pradesh is located at a height of 12,000 ft. above mean sea level. It shares a border with Tibet and Bhutan. The army has a strong presence in Tawang and it restricts movements in certain areas as the district shares a highly sensitive border with China occupied Tibet.

It is an unusual hill-station that hosts a major centre for the Mahayana Buddhist sect, is considered the land of the Monpa tribe and has great adventure activities for outdoor buffs. Its name is gleaned from the Tawang Monastery, founded in the 17th Century by Merag Lama Lodre Gyasto. The name means “chosen by the horse” and traces its origins to a legend. It is believed that Merag Lama was looking for a place to build and establish a monastery. One day after praying in a cave seeking spiritual guidance, he came out to discover his horse had gone missing. After searching for it he found his horse standing on a hill top. He took this as a divine sign and built the monastery on the same spot.

Tawang Monastery

Things which we saw in Tawang——

The War Memorial at Tawang

Sungester Lake (Madhuri Lake) – It is located 42 kms from Tawang. Ahead of Mahduri lake lies the Taktsang Gompa gompa. We rode upto the Gompa and took lot of pictures. The road ahead goes upto Zemithang.

Bumla Pass:- Tawang is connected to Tibet in the north by the Bum La pass.
Bum la, situated 16500 feet above sea level is about 3 hours drive from Tawang. There are reminders of the 1962 Indo-China war all along, in the form of monuments of the brave soldiers, burnt trees and the Bunkers used by the Indian soldiers.

Bumla Pass (16,500 feet)

Tawang Monastry:-The Famous Gaden Namgyal Lhatse, popularly known as Tawang Monastery was founded by Merak Lama Lodre Gyatso in the year 1680-81. The monastery stands on the spur of a hill, about 10,000 feet above sea level and has ravines in the south and west, narrow ridge on the north and gradual slope on the east. It offers a commanding and picturesque view of the Tawang-chu valley. From a distance it appears like a fort as if guarding the votaries in the wide valley below. Tawang monastery is the largest of its kind in the country and is one of the larges t monasteries in Asia. Though it has the capacity for housing about seven hundred monks, the actual number of resident lamas (monks) at present is a little more than 450. This monastery is the fountain-head of the spiritual life of the people of this region.

Our stay in Tawang at the Indo-Tibetan Guest House (ITBP) was very pleasant, yet all journeys must come to an end. It was even more heart-wrenching as the others in the group were to stay back for a few more days. We thought we could hitch a ride on a Tata Mobile, which goes empty to Tezpur in order to bring back vegetables for the Tawang market. Unable to do so, we had to fuel up and set off on the bike again.

No snow made the journey till Sela most enjoyable. However, between Dirang and Bomdila, my bike skidded off the road and we experienced our first accident. Thankfully, the injuries were minor; the bike had suffered only a few scratches, so we rode cautiously into the dark. A room in Tenga village sheltered us for the night, and the morning saw us ride on towards Tezpur.

En route, another welcome detour in the form of Nameri National Park snared us. Manjit and I parted ways, and I reflected upon how delightful it was to have encountered his company over the past few days. However, the wonders at Nameri held other wonders in store. Nameri National Park, covering an area of about 200 sq. kms is located at the foothills of eastern Himalayas about 35 kms from Tezpur, the nearest town.

The park, with its hills of deciduous forests and the Jia Bhoroli river flowing through it, is a birder’s paradise, home to more than 300 species of birds. In recent years, Nameri has sheltered the rare and endangered White Winged WoodDuck. The EcoCamp allowed me to rest my weary self and partake some of the wildlife that our road-bound travel had denied us. A trek into the jungle along the Jia Bhorali River was a respite from mucky bike riding.

Eco Camp at Nameri National Park

From Nameri to Tezpur, a Bajaj Service station to Guwahati, the journey stretched on. Highway No. 52 which I hoped would be better than the one I had ridden in the opposite direction, passed Mangaldai. Even if the road was less mucky, intense rain and poor visibility made it just as difficult. A soaked soul, I took refuge in the familiar hotel on G.S Road.

The next milestone was to be Shillong: eighty kilometres from Jorbat along a curvy, often uphill road. Two hours later, I was welcomed at Shillong by Jiwat Vaswani, a local who put me up at his Hotel Broadway and arranged for a car to take me around.  I was also initiated into the local sport: Archery. It is one of the main traditional sports of the Khasi people. It is believed that the mother of the Khasi race gave them the bows and arrows and cautioned them not to lose their temper during the game. There are basically two types of arrows, one for hunting and one for sport. Today archery is still practiced, and in Shillong, it has developed into a betting game where the bets are made on the number of arrows hitting a cylindrical target made of split bamboo. Every day near the Polo grounds a small group of dedicated followers gather to watch and place their bets.

A trip to Mawlynnong, was also on the charts. Mawlynnong is a village in East Khasi Hills district of the Indian State of Meghalaya. The village was declared the cleanest village in India in 2005. It is situated in the East Khasi Hills district and close to the Bangladesh Border.


Things to see in Mawlynnong.

1)      Bangladesh View Point

2)      Balancing rock

3)      Sky View

4)      Living root Bridge

5)      Waterfall

Other delights

Dawki suspension bridge, on the Indo-Bangladesh border, is the entry point of all coal-carrying trucks. On the other side of the border is Tamabil which lies in the Slyhet District of Bangladesh. It was tantalising to be so close to international borders and not be able to boast of having visited those countries.

Cherrapunjee, India’s city with the highest annual rainfall measure was something I had only memorised as a statistic during school. It was interesting to see what all that rainfall has nurtured. As a dormant Geologist, the limestone caves were of particular interest to me, yet the waterfalls and greenery were more enchanting.

The main attraction of Mawsmai is the Mawsmai Cave. The other name for this attraction of Mawsmai at Meghalaya is Krem Phyllut. It is located close to the Nohsngithiang Falls. The entry point of Mawsmai Cave is located in the village of Mawsmai, which is situated near Cherrapunjee. The vertical entry is very narrow. One can visit this cave in Mawsmai of Meghalaya for a nominal entry fee. The cave remains open for public viewing from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm.

Sohra Market:- The main Cherra bazaar in Cherrapunjee is famous for its colourful variety of goods including unusual tribal jewellery and orange-flavored honey. Visitors can also shop for cane, bamboo and wooden handicraft items, shawls and fabrics in Shillong.

Sohra Market

The most inspiring of all was the Double Decker Living Root Bridge located at the Tyrna village. Considered a feat of bio-engineering, the Double Decker Root Bridge is a two-tier living root bridge that can carry 50 or more people at a time and is over 100 feet long. While these bridges take 10 to 15 years to become fully functional, they get stronger every day. The life span of the bridges is estimated to be about 500 to 600 years after they are well formed. The Umshiang River flows beneath the living root bridges.

Double Decker Living Root Bridge

North-east seems to be comprised of myriad cultural factions. Every little fragment expresses its diversity through distinct foods, clothing patterns, dialects. Still largely tribal, this area has seen little development and amenities.

The cultural identity is zealously guarded by state laws that prohibit any outsiders from investing in land within these 7 sisters. This may seem like a positive move for cultural identity, however it means that tribal fragmentation and lack of incentives for development, makes this an area of strife and skirmishes.

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