Monday, February 23, 2009


The original plan was to go to Arunachal Pradesh. Didn't work out. But with the North-East definitely on the agenda, and close friend Arijit Sen promising the use of his house in Guwahati as the base, we put together a nine-day trip that seemed packed enough to be about three weeks long. Another close friend - Rajarshi Datta - travelled with us; and no, none of the stops were cursory; we did a fair bit at each place.

Nothing spectacular about Guwahati as such, except for a couple of nice walks and drives around the hilly parts of town - the Second War Memorial was nice and tranquil though. There's a separate section for members of the Chinese Army; a separate section for Indian members of the Queen's forces, etc. The place is kind of out of the way, and it turned out that most locals also don't know of its existence. Apart from that, it's mostly a normal Indian big town/small city with the advantage that the hilly terrain offers.
And of course, food at the Delicacy - pork with banana flower (mocha) - fantastic!

Essentially a temple island just off Guwahati; importantly, you take a ferry across the Brahmaputra to get to Umananda, and that's what makes it special. The Brahmaputra itself is dry right now with expansive char-lands; and it's starting to get dirty around here as it enters the plains. But the sunset on the Brahmaputra is quite something.
That aside, the Umananda area is home to the endangered Golden Langoors, and there's quite a sprinkling of the beautiful creatures; happy to pose for cameras, happy to eat of the palms of human beings, not prone to attacking or creating a fuss.
On the Nilachal Hills off Guwahati, the 16th century Shakti temple is unique in that this is where Sati's yoni fell after Shiva danced with her corpse; the yoni itself is worshipped here; deep inside the sanctum sanctorum, which doesn't have an idol, but a natural underground stream.

Some of us had been Shillong before, but none of us had stayed at the beautiful colonial Pinewood Hotel either. It wasn't going to be one of the backpacking, trekking trips anyway, so why not a good hotel? And actually, the hotel was one of the highlights of the hill station, apart from the beautiful early morning walks around the winding roads. And food at the Centre Point restaurant.

And though most of the waterfalls around the area are dry at this time of the year, the Elephant Falls were up and running - not sprinting, but running a fair mile nevertheless.
And while at it, we went the whole touristy hog - playing king and queen of Meghalaya at this tourist hotspot (forgotten the name of the place).
Everyone knows about Cherapunji - wonder how many people actually make the trip to what was the wettest place on earth. And there's a good chance we wouldn't have gone if it had continued to be the wettest place on earth. Massive deforestation means that we have murdered the place and it's been going through a dry spell for years now. So you see a dry mountainside, which used to be a massive waterfall. You see lakes that cattle now graze on. You get the picture.
(L to R) Rajarshi, Arijit and Ajitha at the natural caves in Cherapunji; once upon a time, these used to be filled with water throughout the year; you get a sense of it from the stalactites and stalagmites with their smooth surfaces.

There is the very picturesque Barapani area though, with flowing water and a stunning sunset on the way back from Cherapunji-Shillong.
Manas National Park
But the best part of the trip was saved for later - at the formidable Manas National Park, where we went for night patrols and various other sighting trips through the day. The 64 tigers at the Park proved elusive, but we spotted a fair number of water buffaloes, bisons, elephants, sambars, barking deer, peacocks, etc...
During the night patrol - we went out on both the nights that we were at Manas. On the first night, we had a flat tyre deep within the forest and were told the next morning that a tiger had been spotted at the same area a while after we left, which may or may not be true. What is true is that Manas currently houses 64 Royal Bengal Tigers and a fair few of them do exist in the area were patrolling in. The patrol itself was thrilling; with a torch, a spotlight, the magic of being able to spot deer, buffaloes, etc while on the move...the forest completely dense, the trees providing strange, scary shapes.
Water buffaloes getting out of the Beki river on to the char-lands towards the Bhutan side of the Manas National Park.
A sambar - dime a dozen around these parts; not scared of people, quite curious when it comes to curious tourists. But difficult to photograph as they are brilliantly camouflaged at all times.
And peacocks...

Panbang-Galabi, Bhutan
The Bhutan border is just 300 metres from where we were staying inside the Manas National Park - you don't need a passport anyway, so we drove into Bhutan from Manas. It's 13 kilometres from the border checkpost to Panbang, a further 3 kilometres to Galabi, both completely unspoilt, un-touristy parts of Bhutan. Villages essentially. With a handful of families and hamlets. A wonderful footbridge that goes over the river. A couple of shops that sell local liquor, cooked maggi, oranges, etc.
Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary
The last stop on the whirlwind trip. Pabitora is a small wildlife sanctuary, but is important as the densest population of the one-horned rhinoceros. They say you can spot a big rhino every few minutes and that's exactly what happened. We saw sleeping rhinos, crapping rhinos, brave rhinos, cowardly rhinos, eating rhinos - the works. And also spotted a fair few migratory birds, a staple feature around these parts at this time of the year.