“To travel is to arrive; sometimes the journey is the destination.”

I had finished B-school, and it was time to return home. Little did I know that the upcoming days would unfold a new adventure. A trip to the North East after 10 long years came as a welcome surprise. An offbeat trip planned by the parents. In all excitement, we boarded our flight from Delhi to Guwahati. An overnight stay at Guwahati, the real journey began once we hit the road to Kaziranga.

Nestled in the deep corners of the North East, where roads bent to smooth turns and curves that smiled sweet hellos, I found myself contemplating at times, gazing at other but awestruck at most. About 230 km from Guwahati, after a straight drive on NH37, trailing past dense vegetation, tall Supari trees, terrains bedecked with tea plantations, and sparing rhinos in the spatial distance of empty greens caught in the eye of a binocular lens, lies Kaziranga.  

Our final stop of the day greets us with the Iora Resort tucked in the corner of a lane in Kohora, the central range of Kaziranga. “A stay at Kaziranga!?”, I bemused. In my head, Kaziranga spelled a wildlife reserve with fancy pictures of a safari at most. My parents had pleasantly surprised me. The stay looked promising too with a well decorated-thematic lobby area that marked the entrance, tracing all the way to neat and good-looking rooms.

Wandering about the premises, I chanced upon a huge board that read ‘Bhaatban’. Moments later, I plonked myself on the cushy interiors that served a hearty Assamese lunch with just the right ingredients and condiments to accompany. Also, the perfect-healthy meal I had had in a long time. The Assamese cuisine is high in protein and vitamins, low in fat. The taste and flavours are derived not from the use of spices, but from the bamboo leaves, and herbs used, and slow cooking over wood-fire, the chef explained gleefully.

Passes were in tow for the real deal – the much-awaited elephant safari in the wee morning hours. With the history of a rather unfortunate experience of falling off a camel, I didn’t want to risk this. The safari however, was a refreshing change from all the scary stories that I had concocted in my head. Starting the day as early as 5 a.m., we made our way through ups and downs – smooth driveway and a patchy stretch, but nonetheless worth it. A climb up the elevated platform made way for the coveted seat atop the huge elephant.

A rather unlikely start, a disgruntled elephant trumpeted its way in an agitated manner as we made our first move amidst the grasslands. While the highlight ought to have been the rhinos spotting in the grasslands of the central range of Kaziranga National Park, what caught my attention and interest for the most part was none other than the cutesy elephants. It was heartening to see them eat the entire world of green as they forged ahead with aplomb. The baby elephant at a close distance did not leave the mamma elephant and literally followed in her footsteps plucking at grass that made way into the mouth as effortlessly. Feeding on variety and eating like there’s no tomorrow.

The guide who sat right in front acquainted us with their fancy names – Roopmati, Chandralekha, Barkhabahar (what’s in a name, you ask?). A rather memorable instance that piqued my interest was the delightful scene of a baby rhino scaring away a giant elephant. Unadulterated and pure, nature throws at us such surprises – awe-inspiring, so raw!

The night brought with it its share of dazzle. The tribal dance performance back at the resort was a mix of sounds and cymbals. But the true essence was found in the shared bonhomie. It was delightful to join in the fun and shake a leg too alongside. Wanting to latch onto these moments forever, I pondered upon the beauty the world has to offer. Just a night before, circuiting the holy Brahmaputra waters in the cruise defined surrealism in the purest form.

Trailing in Bagori (western) range of the park, I wasn’t prepared to fathom the human nature in the wild-raw environs of Kaziranga. Spotting a herd of wild elephants, water buffalo, rhinos and a variety of birds – pelican, Indian roller, stork and bulbul, although adding to my vast experience of safaris in India, acquainted me more to my driver than the wildlife per say. Conversation with him was largely aided by gesticulation and hand movements and had little to do with spoken words.

Heads hanging out of an open roof-top jeep made us the subject of all eyes on the roads while the locals carrying tea leaves on their backs caught ours. The tea drying houses visible from close quarters, I was tempted to live the local life. Hathikuli (derived from Assamese words ‘Hathi’ meaning elephant, ‘Kuli’ meaning frequent), a tea estate of its kind in the Golaghat district, was an interesting place to pick fresh, organic tea and delve in its aromatic flavours.

A restful morning with a resplendent balcony view, and a satiated stomach made way for the next adventure – road trip to Shillong.

Shillong Ahoy!

The road is life. –Jack Kerquac

For most part, reaching or travelling to and fro from the Scotland of the East, I found myself on the road. When we would stop, it would either be to embrace the beauty of the teeming waterfalls, drink off the charming views from peak tops, or lose our way in the middle of caves, only to find one back in the light of the pure sun rays.

A comfortable stay the night over at MES-IB, Shillong, local sight-seeing came by the next day. Cloudy skies and resplendent views in the lap of nature – Elephant Falls, Shillong Peak, Don Bosco Museum, Shillong golf club, the busy street market of Police Bazaar – my cup was overflowing.

A mini drive from Shillong, all the way up, the road diverges towards Nohwet village, where a wondrous surprise greets us. Trekking past small bamboo huts selling hand fans, decorations, eatables etc., crossing locals’ homes, further moving down wide stone steps, the living roots bridge stands in sight. It’s marvellous how the khasi tribe from Nohwet village have trained the roots of ancient rubber trees by weaving them into beautiful sturdy living creatures to form what is called the living-root bridge. Dating back to 1840, the purpose of these bridges is to help cross the river, but are a living wonder in themselves; the only kind in the world.

Wading past ‘real’ paan (betel leaves) trees (my mom even went ahead and plucked the leaves mid journey), our next destination came by in Mawlynnong – the cleanest village of Asia – a title bestowed upon it by the likes of BBC, UNESCO and National Geographic since 2003. I wonder what the secret to the cleanliness is. What looks like hats are actually bamboo baskets that are kept outside every house. But there has to be more to it, our driver tells us that the village head is rather strict and ensures that standards are met with willing cooperation of the locals of course. Staying as a local at Mawlynnong is about embodying ‘simple living with clean thinking’.

As the roads bent to steep turns, the remote end saw trucks plonked by the sideway and BSF guards at the gates. At the Dawki border crossing to Bangladesh, the least expected happened. Just as I was standing a few meters away from the border, I got a message from Vodafone welcoming me to Bangladesh. The next thing I know a hefty amount has been deducted from my account as ‘international roaming charges’. Quite a welcome, I bemused.

Situated in the West Jaintia Hills, the picturesque town of Dawki has the Umngot river which also demarcates the Indian side from Bangladesh. However, that’s not the only highlight that the famed river offers. The water is so clear, glass-like and emerald that one can see 12 feet below right to the bottom of the river bed. I walked up to the side where the Bangladeshis were selling dry plum (ber),and was rather surprised at successfully trading with them in Indian currency (cheap thrills), although the same benefits them more than their own currency.

The road not taken the previous day, the other side of the diversion, offered terrains, painted in hues of green and brown. Making way to one of the wettest place on the planet (right guess would be Cherrapunji, yes!), the exhilarating drive made way to open valleys and terrains, with gorgeous views. The Khasi symbol of remembrance, the monoliths were all pervasive in certain sites. The typical symmetry constituted 3 upright (representing men) and one lying down (representing women) solid rocks. Among other reverent symbols among the Khasis is the cock, considered a messenger of God. Myth has it that the cock sacrificed its life to help Khasis reconcile with God (a story dating back to their origin). 

Our first pit-stop on the way comes by Arwah caves. A few kilometres trek to the entrance of the cave is well paved and provides many a scintillating views. The caves took me down the memory lane. Lost in cave-land, I found myself picturing glimpses of the limestone caves at Baratang, Andamans where I learnt my first lesson on stalactites (hanging from the ceiling of a cave) and stalagmites (built up above the floor of a cave). Formed underneath the earth’s surface by solution activity within the limestone rock, the cave is a huge, deep stretch of natural cavity. The most interesting aspect of the cave is the presence of well-preserved fossils (remains of pre-historic organisms) along its walls and roofs.  

And then there were stories of the riveting Nohkalikai waterfalls. With the tallest plunge in India at 1115 ft, the gorgeous falls are the perfect embodiment of the magnificence that is life.  Sterling beauty of the waterfalls reminded me of the Jung Falls right in the middle of dense forests we had visited way back in 2003 on the way to Tawang from Tenga, Arunachal Pradesh. Fresh drops of pristine water gushed like a flying jet, for a moment I was lost in the ebb and flow of the fall so high. The waterfall has been named after a mother Likai who jumped off the falls driven by rage and grief of having in fact eaten the ‘cooked meat’ of her infant daughter, much to her oblivion. Legend has it that the young mother, having lost her first husband, re-married, but because of the unwarranted attention showered on the infant by the mother, the husband cooked her daughter’s meat. Could have never imagined such a tragic story behind the gushing brilliance! The seven sisters fall weren’t much of a show-stopper after Nokillalkai (more like its poor cousin).

Heavens descended on earth on way back as fresh mist canopied the terraces and road-sides in snow-white, gleamingly visible for the first time. Caught in the wee-bit of a fresh hailstorm, the fields rejuvenated, the clouds pouring, the roads shining, much like the self – fresh life infused. I was in a fairytale, dancing to the tune of Mother Nature. 

I woke up to Good Friday in Shillong, rummaging through the streets for its soul. Happy Valley (Gorkha Training Centre) was a well-kept secret. Pine and deodhar trees lined my sight, flowers danced in full bloom, as I gasped at overarching view of the hilltops, from the machhan at the Khukri house. The local markets like bada bazaar, offered interesting sights. Where the roads entering Shillong were marked by proper abattoirs, here I could witness an entire pork in full display on the streets. Women clad in traditional dress, sitting on their haunches selling supari leaves to a variety of red meat – a rare sight elsewhere, was commonplace in this capital.

“A matriarchal society, it’s a boon to be born a girl in this part of the world. Right from property entitlements to the man inheriting the woman’s surname post marriage, the women are an empowered lot.”, my friend’s mother explained over a cup of tea in the local household.  

Besides the busy bada bazaar and Police bazaar, Laitmukrah is a fascinating stop for interesting picks like bamboo pickle, or plum cake from the rustic-looking quaint bakery shop. It houses some very famous eating joints like the Shillong café (also in Cleve Colony), Poinisuk with a notably breezy ambience, my personal favourite ‘Bread House’, and Munchies – known for pocket-friendly beef burgers.  The evening sprang to life, with crowds by the streets. Cross my heart and hope to die, never had I witnessed such primly dressed audience on the roads in India, in a run up to the mass at the Church.

The now familiar routes made way for my exit, out of Shillong. The Umiam lake wading past, shimmered against the backdrop of lilac coloured trees. Shillong is by far one of the most interesting, cleanest and pristine hill stations that I have visited, where you are bound to stumble upon more than what just meets the eye.

Last of the stops, the Deepor Beel bird sanctuary in Guwahati, Assam made for fascinating bird spotting thanks to the bino that came in handy on more occasions than one. As I stepped down from the rented taxi at the airport, with a due thank you in place to the driver who was rather quiet and seemingly lost throughout our wanderlust, therein reflecting an honesty and vulnerability of the untouched life.

Together, not just places on the map, but a rare synthesis of uncharted terrains, conversation with the locals, and a connection with the wild hard to find in the mechanized rut of the daily city life. Perhaps we have forgotten how to live, or maybe we have advanced so much that we have left a lot behind.

Kaziranga and Shillong at a glance:

  1. Fly into Guwahati. Take the first taxi to Kaziranga
  2. The morning elephant safari is a must do
  3. Try local Assamese cuisine
  4. Enter Shillong – local sight-seeing can be covered in a day
  5. Living root bridge, Mawlynnong and Dawki will take a day’s time, have your walking/trekking shoes on
  6. The other side of the diversion – Cherrapunji, Arwah caves and Nohkalikai make a wondrous spectacle – do not miss it
  7. Street shopping in Police Bazaar and exploring Laitmukrah is absolute delight