Trip to the mystical North East
When Travelyaari announced the winners of a Travelog contest, I could not believe that I was declared the runner-up. Such pleasant surprises do not happen often, I said to myself. The prize was in the form of an all expense paid package trip for 2 to either Kaziranga or Alleppey or a hill station at Uttarakhand. I had no doubt in my mind about choosing Kaziranga and my wife readily agreed. This was after all my maiden visit to the North East.
Just as my itinerary was being finalised, I thought since I am travelling all the way to the North East (about 3,000 kms), why not add mystical Meghalaya to our schedule. I had always learnt about Shillong being the Scotland of the East and Cherrapunjee as the wettest place on Earth....while here was a golden opportunity to visit these 2 places.
The trip was planned in early November, when the Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary is open to the public after a gap of 6 months. Though locals say March-April is the right time to visit the sanctuary, the cool and pleasant weather during November is conducive for extensive outdoor activity.
Bangalore is now directly connected to Guwahati by flight and the total flight duration is about 3 hours flat. The Guwahati airport is small and congested unlike the recently privatised airports in other large cities and less chaotic too. Our chauffeur - Zakir was eagerly waiting for us and he remained our constant guide for rest of the tour. Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya (abode of Clouds) is about a distance of 100 kms from Guwahati, the capital of Assam. The road from Guwahati to Shillong is wide, smooth and extremely picturesque. It takes about 3 hours to cover the distance but as you enter Shillong the traffic gets worse. I have perhaps come across the worst traffic jams at Shillong compared to any other hill station in India due to narrow roads but people show lot of patience and follow traffic discipline. The sun also sets quite early in this part of the world and by the time it's 4pm it starts getting dark and most of the public places remain shut. Therefore we reserved our sight seeing trip to the next day and rather explored the local bazaar in the close vicinity of our Hotel.
Next day we set for Cherrapunjee and Mawlynnong about 80 kms from Shillong. On the way to Mawlynnong we came across a small village which hosted the Living Root Bridge, which is very unique in the world and are a sight to behold. The bridges are tangles of massive thick roots, which have been intermingled to form a bridge that can hold several people at a time. The root bridges are strong enough that some of them can support the weight of fifty or more people at a time. The bridges are alive, still growing and gain strength over time. The villagers have built a small watch tower like structure built of bamboo, overlooking the deep and vast Khasi Hills. The view from the watch tower is just breath taking. Women play a very important role in this region and can be seen managing small business, eateries, stalls etc. Most of them speak good English while struggle to converse in Hindi. Taste their local red fruit and pineapple and enjoy the trek.
Mawlynnong village located in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya is also referred as ‘God’s own garden’ has won the acclaim of being the cleanest village in Asia. The village known for its cleanliness is a community based eco-tourism initiative. You can spot tree houses at every junction in this village. The village boasts of 100% literacy rate and English is the widely spoke language. We had simple lunch at Mawlynnong served in a spic and span environment costing just a few rupees. Though we felt the entrance fee to the village (Rs 50 per vehicle) was put to best use that included clean toilets.
From Mawlynnong we moved to Cherrapunjee also called Sohra, which is just about 50 kms from Shillong. Once called the wettest place on Earth (although nearby Mawsynram currently holds that record), the place was absolutely dry now. As a result we could not enjoy any of the famed waterfalls in the vicinity. The 7 sisters falls was almost bone dry while the only saving grace was the Nohkalikai falls. This breathtaking waterfall is the tallest plunge waterfall in the country falling from a height of 1115 feet and it is the fourth highest in the world. It has carved a waterhole where it falls and it's green in colour in summer. Young children sell cinnamon and pure honey across the route and they are just too cute to be ignored. Just a distance away is the Mawsmai Cave, limestone based natural cave, where one can enjoy the rock formation and their patterns. We left Cherrapunjee for Shillong by 4pm and though the distance can be covered in less than 2 hours it took us almost 4 hours thanks to the traffic jam close to Shillong town. Somehow we could not visit some of the top sight seeing spots at Shillong like the Shillong Peak, Elephant Falls etc due to paucity of time and early sunset. But as people say, Shillong has to be enjoyed for its rolling hills and the pleasant weather which resembled Scotland to the British and hence they called it the "Scotland of the East".
Early morning the next day, we started for Kaziranga about 250 kms from Shillong via Guwahati. On the way we enjoyed the breathtaking view of the Umiam lake, most of which is under the control of the Indian Army. There are several dhabas on the way to Kaziranga. On the way we stopped at a rustic village themed restaurant called "Choupal" for lunch, just 30 kms before Kaziranga. The break provided much needed succour from a long journey into the forests of Assam. There are several small tea gardens on the way especially on the plains, which is a marked departure from normal tea gardens found on hill slopes. We reached Kaziranga after a 6 hour drive and the resort called IORA is indeed an oasis in the jungle. It has one of the best facilities right from spa to swimming pool, though sparingly used. The food served at their in house Restaurant was of high quality while they also boast of local Assamese cuisine served in a speciality restaurant. The overall ambiance at IORA can leave one spellbound with lot of greenery around. In the evenings they organise local cultural dance programs like the Bihu dancers who enthralled us on the first night.
The morning after was the day we were eagerly looking forward to....the visit to the world famous wildlife sanctuary - KAZIRANGA, home to the extremely endangered one horned Rhinoceros. We had booked the Elephant safari well in advance since its the most sought after mode to catch the rhinoceros in action in the wild. There are 2 batches only in the morning and the tickets are almost always sold out days in advance. There are close to 20 elephants being used in a single batch with each seating about 2-3 people. A small baby elephant kept everyone entertained while we waited for our turn to embark on the ride. The elephant ride that started at 6am, was one of the best I have had for a long time. The ride went deep into the grassland to catch a glimpse of the elusive rhino at very close distance. We were indeed lucky to spot half a dozen of them either grazing or bathing in the pond. The Mahout told us that March-April is the right time to sight rhinos who can be found wandering freely even in the outer periphery of the jungle. Since the grass was thick and lush green it was not easy to spot them. We also came across a herd of wild buffaloes, elephants and deer but the star attraction remained the "One Horned Rhinoceros".
We came back to IORA for breakfast and after some rest visited the famous Orchid Garden located 2 kms from the resort. The garden has a great collection of orchids and the management also organises a live dance and song program highlighting the rich culture of Assam.
After lunch, we started for the Jeep Safari at around 2pm. Since it gets dark by 4pm, you have to make best use of the daylight to spot wild animals. Unlike the elephant safari you need very sharp eyes to spot the animals at a distance. The sanctuary boasts of Tigers but it remained elusive to us. The locals said its not easy to spot Tigers in the wild due to the thick foliage of grass, that hides even large animals like elephants. We could spot the usuals i.e. Rhinos, wild elephants, wild buffaloes, monkeys and deer. The sunset at Kaziranga was perhaps the most memorable sight for us.
It was now time to say adieu to Kaziranga and Assam and it was with heavy heart that we left IORA for Guwahati airport. Our tour guide had in fact never seen so much of Meghalaya before and he was glad it happened thanks to us. He asked us to return again to the North East very soon and explore Arunachal Pradesh with him. With this promise we bade goodbye to Assam and the North East.
Travel Courtesy: Travelyaari.com in association with Lonely Planet and Times of India
Accommodation: Alpine Continental at Shillong and IORA Resort at Kaziranga
Airlines: Bangalore to Guwahati by Indigo Airlines and return by Jet Airways