Why? That’s one question people never fail to ask us. Wouldn’t it be better to go to another location? It’s hard to explain to the non-traveller, the thrill of going to a place few people visit. Now, imagine a place neither your family, friends nor remote acquaintances have visited or better still heard of? Yes, that would be our perfect destination. And although India’s north-east isn’t necessarily far-flung, underdeveloped or inaccessible; for many naive city-slickers it’s not very different from leaving civilisation.
The north-east, has perhaps been, one of the most discriminated and neglected areas in India. This despite the fact, that most people are incredibly welcoming and the local sights are comparable to some of the best in the world. With a multitude of tribes, customs, languages, cuisines and religions; the north-east is nothing short of an incredible melting pot of culture and tradition. It would be hard to miss the missionary influence in the north-east, although it might be debatable whether their influence didn’t truly alter the local culture. And while certain areas are turbulent and unpredictable due to insurgents; the north-east is still a destination that beckons discerning travellers to experience – at least once in their lifetime.
Day 1 & 2: From Cityscapes to Plunging Valley Views
Most trips to the north-east India start from Guwahati - the capital of Assam. We had two weeks in hand and had planned the itinerary for the first five days of the trip. But unlike Himachal Pradesh, the North-eastern tourism industry isn’t developed to a degree where you can take the liberty of planning your next destination at the last minute. Additionally, getting permits can create delays in your trip. It’s therefore preferable to chalk out an itinerary before your visit. The month of March is still reasonably cool – with the retreating winter and onset of spring, creating just the right climate. But the period between November and February would be more ideal as you would get to witness the fruit blossoms of the region and explore the numerous national and forest reserves. Fortunately, Assam and Meghalaya don’t need permits for entry.
After a daylong, circuitous route through cities of Ahmedabad, Delhi, and Bagdogra; we finally reached Guwahati at 5:00 pm. in the evening. Surprisingly, it looked like 7:00 pm. Basil had mentioned earlier, that the state government has been requesting the central government for a separate time zone for many years. After you’ve stayed for a couple of days in the state, it becomes clear as to why it is essential to have one. Although the climate was pleasant, the surrounding landscape wasn’t alluring. It was a little disappointing. And that’s probably because Guwahati is a tier-two city; stuck between sporadic development and dreams of promised modernity, creating an uninspiring city of pollution, dust, and stacks of buildings. Our pre-paid taxi ride from the airport was approximately 500 INR. Since we had planned to spend just the first night in Guwahati, we booked a cheap guest house to crash. At 800 INR, we didn’t expect much. But as we passed through the narrow roads lined dingy structures that lead to our guest-house, I couldn’t help but feel regret. Fortunately, the lodge wasn’t as dingy as its surroundings. Although, there was a slight issue of proving my relationship with Basil, the right ID card settled it. The room was basic and relatively clean and that was all that mattered. We headed out to grab a bite to eat. As we passed by the numerous shanties, it was difficult to find a place that might be a safe bet for the stomach. It was hard to believe that this was one of the main tourist areas. After picking up some biscuits (lasted for the entire trip) for the next day, we found a Manipuri restaurant. It was time to experiment. We ordered two Manipuri veg thaalis, surprisingly the chutney of one preparation has fish, so it’s not really vegetarian. To make for the otherwise mild vegetables, a spicy sauce is served. Although the vegetables were quite unlike anything we had eaten before, we quite enjoyed the platter. At 8:00 pm. it felt like 10:00 pm and there was not much to do or see, so we walked back to our lodge for a night cap.
The next morning, I woke at 5:00 am. The time difference can totally alter your sleep patterns. We settled our bills after breakfast and hired a cab (a friend of the pre-paid taxi guy) to Shillong for 2000 INR. As the roads between Assam and Meghalaya were under construction, we had to keep our windows rolled up to keep the dust from entering in. Assam is essentially flat land surrounded by Meghalaya’s green hills and the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. As our car slowly ascended Meghalaya’s rolling hills, the curves got sharper making me queasy. Shortly before reaching Shillong, we stopped at the Umiam Lake viewing point. It was 12:00 p.m. and it would take roughly an hour more to find our hotel. In the afternoon sun, the turquoise waters of the lake glittered as though someone had scattered diamonds on its surface. We spent some time in quite admiration till it got too hot. The journey from Guwahati to Shillong is approximately 4 hours including a stop at Umiam Lake.
Our hotel, Lake View was bang opposite Shillong’s popular tourist spot – Ward’s Lake. At approx. 2000 INR per night, Lake View was definitely a step up from Sunderban Guest House in Guwahati. We were pleased as we would spend the next three days here. The location of the hotel was probably its biggest draw. Police Bazaar, MTDC tourism, taxi stand, the mall and the main town square were all 10 minutes away. After check-in we headed to KFC to grab a bite to eat and plan our itinerary for the next few days. We decided to see the local sights on that day (unfortunately Don Bosco Museum is closed on Sundays), at least whatever was possible. After lunch we visited MTDC office to enquire about day trips from Shillong. Although we wanted to do the double-decker trek in Cherrapunjee (Sohra) since we didn’t have a reservation there, it wasn’t feasible. We learned that it takes 8 hours (to and fro) to complete the trek and it’s best to stay the night in Sohra. Instead, we opted for the MTDC bus tour to Mawlynnong (Asia’s cleanest village) and the Single Decker Root Bridge at Riwai. There were some other points of interest that would be covered as well. After which, we went strolling down the quaint, narrow lanes of Shillong. It’s hard to miss the Christian influence in the city, especially on a Sunday. Right from 3:00 pm. women dressed in their finest clothes walk to the closest church. It was wonderful to be far from the main tourist buzz and truly experience local life in Shillong.
After an hour or so we traced back our steps to Ward’s Lake. We were surprised to spot a fruit blossom tree in the park. And that’s perhaps Meghalaya’s best kept secret. Come spring, the fruits trees are in full bloom. Where else, but the north-east, would you find Bob Marley’s redemption song playing in the park at 6:00 pm. in the evening. Monks soaked in the cool breeze, families enjoyed boating and tourists like us tried to capture the bliss of serenity. Our next stop was supposed to be Café Shillong. Unfortunately, the taxi drivers didn’t know where it was. So we headed to our hotel for dinner. By 9:00 pm. we were all bundled up and deep in sleep.