They say a good marriage involves falling in love several times, and always with the same person.
One can’t deny travelling through India feels exactly the same.
Every new train, every bus stop in shambles, every airport and every queue feels like the beginning of a new love story with the beauty that is our country.
Having spent the greater part of the last half decade in Kerala and Karnataka, most landscapes of south and west India have been etched so deeply in my mind. I had convinced myself that no other place can feel greener than traversing across Kerala while being graced by showers for a better part of the year. And then I went to the North East. And I realised I was so wrong. And I fell in love. Over and over and over again.
So the genesis of this trip lay in my mother’s very healthy endeavour to cover all pilgrimage spots in the country so how could one miss out on the Kamakhya temple?! Thus began the meticulous planning and the endless readings of the Lonely Planet.
Stop 1: Guwahati
Considering that it is one of the relatively easily accessible places in the North East its a good idea to start the trip from here. However be warned that the Guwahati airport has just two pre-paid taxi counters and I don’t understand how its possible but they do run out of cabs by 10PM! Thankfully I found a very kind Father from the Don Bosco school who happily let me share his cab, otherwise tough luck trying to negotiate with the few local taxi drivers outside the airport.
Like any other upcoming city, Guwahati too has a lazy, beautiful old side which tries to maintain its identity with the fast paced new city. If you’re here for a few days, its worth it to stay in the old quarters, walk down the narrow alleys and bustling bazaars, eat in one of the nondescript hotels serving out of the world hilsa fish, walk down the promenade by the Brahmaputra with endless cups of cha.
One of the most famous attractions in Guwahati is the Kamakhya temple and rightly so. The temple they say is the centre of female tantric shakti. When Sati’s body disintegrated, this is where her yoni fell and the temple celebrates the female fertility and power by regular sacrifices of pigeons and goats in the red, womb-like inner sanctum. The ancient sculptures adorning the walls of the temple and the billy goats and monkeys roaming around freely make up for quite a Saturday morning!
Guwahati, amongst many things is also known for some not so usual, but absolutely fabulous food. Some of the well known places such as Paradise, Maihang and Delicacy serve amazing pigeon and duck preparations and if you’re in the season one could also taste the tongue-numbing fiery bhut jolokia or lovingly known as the ghost pepper, the hottest commercially grown pepper.
With laid back lives, the mighty Brahmaputra for company and some homely food, Guwahati was a wonderful start to the North East sojourn.
Stop 2: Kaziranga
Around 250km away, is the Kaziranga National Park. In the early 1900s there were around 100 or so one horned rhinos, and now as per the latest count, the park has more than 2000 of them, accounting for two-thirds of the world’s rhino population. No wonder it is the poster child of all wildlife conservation efforts in India! The way to Kaziranga is mesmerizing to say the least. Flanked by green pastures (looks straight out of a child’s colouring book, they are THAT green!!), fabulous highways, you can stop for daab, tea or even buffalo milk curd served in long bamboo vessels in case you get tired of the lushness around! Though the actual boundaries of the national park start much later, but if you’re lucky you may have your first sighting of a rhino near one of the many water bodies even from the highway!!
Kaziranga again, like most national parks requires some sort of early bird planning. There are two types of safaris available, the jeep one and the elephant safari. While the jeep safari is something that you don’t need prior permission for, the elephant safari requires the tickets to be bought from the government counter a day in advance and if you can get there early, queue up and jostle with the multiple agents for your ticket, then hats off to you! Or you can just take the slightly more convenient way and get an agent to book it who takes care of all the procedures from A to Z (we booked our safari with Landscape Travels, details of all authorised agents are mentioned on the Kaziranga website).
And then finally, 4AM the next day the curtains are finally drawn and the action begins! The first session of elephant safaris start from 5.30AM, so be sure to make it on time with your agent who would have the ticket details. And then once you’re on that mighty elephant, as it chomps its way through the forest, you feel like you’re in a teleporting machine. Like you’ve been dropped in the savannahs with tall grasses, deers prancing, streams gurgling and scores of rhinos enjoying the leisure’s of life just across the river. Even better when a herd of elephants slowly pincer around a rhino and we all just stare at each other, in communal harmony as the elephants and rhinos go about eating to their hearts’ delight!
Just that feeling, just for that, visit Kaziranga, at least once. Yes it is hyped but not over rated, yes it is clichéd but worth every moment. You won’t be disappointed.
Stop 3: Shillong
Already what was beginning to feel like an epic sojourn, got a fresh pump from the moment we took the road to Meghalaya. At the risk of repeating myself for the nth time, my senses could not believe how greener than green the north east is! Meghalaya just corroborated that! While most of the way to Shillong feels like passing through a water painting, but there are areas of quarrying which make it look like the earth has been stripped and left lying nude in the open. Not the most heartening of sights. But nonetheless, entering Shillong feels like entering a different era all together. Lanes and alleys weaving up and down the hills, gardens and lakes, old churches, convents, the continuous drizzle and an extremely stylish populace! Yes, that’s Shillong at first glance, and it only gets better as one delves deeper.
Shillong, while is not so much about tourist areas of attraction, but more about enjoying the vibe of the city. Walk down the Police Bazaar, see local women in traditional Khasi skirts sashaying down in 4 inch heels, shop (LOTS), walk around more alleys and more churches and eat some amazing Khasi food (brilliant pork preparations) at Trattorias!
Stop 4: Cherrapunjee
The last time I had heard about Cherrapunjee was in my middle school geography class, pouring into my NCERT book. One of the wettest places on earth, nestled in cascading clouds, pockmarked with drop-dead gorgeous waterfalls, natural caves and root bridges. Yeah, they could definitely shoot the next season of Game of Thrones here!
The highlight of the region, are the much spoken about living root bridges. The living rubber fig-tree rots which the ingenious Khasi villagers have trained across streams to form natural pathways. Though a trek to the bridges is not for the physically unfit, but the gasping for breathes is worth it! Other attractions include the Mawsmai cave, which is one of the many but the maybe the most famous natural cave in the Khasi region. The 150m long, narrow pathway is filled with natural formations such as stalagmites and stalactites. If the weather permits, then beyond the razor sharp ranges, one can also spot the massive plains where Bangladesh begins, or just spend a few quite hours on the banks of the Bara Pani lake.
Stop 5: Darjeeling
Just writing about it is exhausting, now that I look back, how I managed these places in a week is beyond me!
In the midst of sprawling tea plantations, views of the mighty Kanchenjunga whenever the clouds decide to allow a sneak peek, colonial architecture, the constant hooting of the heritage toy train, calmness of the numerous monasteries and endless cups of fresh Darjeeling tea. Yes, it is crowded, but there couldn’t have been a better place to culminate the sojourn that this has been. Also now a popular tourist spot is the roof top at Keventers where a scene from Barfi was shot! Darjeeling has everything to calm tired feet and weary minds. Sit back and relax at the Chowrasta area as kids run around and pigeons fly about. Or eat steaming plates of momos and thukpas and then for some tea time break shack up in Glenary’s. Shop for trinkets from the many roadside stalls and if you can brave it then wake up at 4AM to catch the sunrise at Tiger Hill!
Do it all, or do nothing, Darjeeling will capture your heart either which way.
It was just 7 days, but I’ve left a part of me behind which I may just recover after several visits. Just may.
They say when you leave a place, what you miss the most is who you were at that place. That pining for myself in the North East exemplifies it.