Assam Memoirs Part 8 – A Throwback

Never did I think in my wildest dreams that a place I had known only through my high school Geography text book and a bit of googling would turn out to be so memorable. Being unfamiliar with the territory and culture turned out to be a boon in disguise, as in addition to a bunch of memorably hilarious experiences I got the opportunity to explore and understand how rich India actually is in terms of beauty and diversity. From enjoying the bewitching view of the Brahmaputra in the mornings and evenings, to losing our way in the criss-cross lanes and using Google Maps to find our way back, to coming up with interesting experiments with breakfast at the guest house (special thanks to whoever came up with Toasted Maggi Sandwich), to being jolted awake at night by an earthquake, this trip had it all. Being terrorised by non-rent-paying houseguests (read: bumblebees and not-so-tiny cockroaches) was a priceless experience – I am sure the helpers at the guesthouse are still laughing remembering us. I can also safely say that I understand a few of the woes of hostellers – handwashing clothes really is a task…and where do those clothespins disappear when we need them the most!

The very thought of Guwahati makes my eyes light up. I have been more than fortunate to meet and interact with amazing people in my journey and have learnt that the tiniest of things make the greatest of differences. Everyone was so welcoming and kind that the six of us posted there needed barely any time to adjust. The most eventful part of the experience was planning our weekend explorations – EVERYBODY (including our colleagues, people we interacted during our field visits and even the cab drivers!) who came to know that we weren’t familiar with the North East helped us plan out our weekends and optimize our limited time. I loved that people in the North East were happier in general – almost everyone we met was cheerful and greeted us with a beaming smile.

 

Speaking of weekend explorations, the road trips are perhaps the ones I will miss the most, right from the “international breakfast visit” to Bhutan to seeing the one horned rhinoceroses sway their tails at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. The abode of clouds, Meghalaya, holds a special place in my heart – I will miss the amazing liveliness of Shillong, zip-lining across the green valley of Mawkdok/Dympep in Cherrapunji, enjoying the blissful paradise at Dawki and gaping in awe at the living root-bridge Mawlynnong. I am surely going to be back for more soon.

 

Being a mythology enthusiast, I was excited to explore places in and around Guwahati with a link to Hindu mythology, especially to Lord Shiva. In addition to Kamakhya I was intrigued to learn more about the Peacock Island in the Brahmaputra, which is the smallest riverine island. Also known as Umananda, the island is fabled to be created by Lord Shiva for Goddess Parvati’s pleasure.

Lord Shiva lived on the island in the form of Bhayananda and is said to have reduced Kamadeva to ashes by opening his third eye, thus giving the island the name Bhasmachal (hill of ashes). We learnt from the colleagues at the office that the island is home to six golden langurs which are looked after by the priests. The tiny island can be reached by a short boat ride (Speaking from experience, I would strongly suggest going with groups and not a private boat).

 

Guwahati has taught me a valuable lesson in adjustment – especially to the cuisine. After facing a few issues in the first week I learnt to stick to the tried-and-tested masala omelette and vegetable salad, while slowly adjusting to the local food. We discovered that there is more than enough to try.

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I will miss having steaming hot vegetable and cheese momos with the spicy chutney at Prem Cold Centre in Fancy Bazaar and the perfect chhole tikki at the stall nearby. I smile at the thought of enjoying a tender coconut on our way to Khushboo Restaurant to have the most amazing melt-in-your-mouth cheese masala dosa. Another instance that I found really baffling was the pricing of food in the restaurants – having eaten at Udupi restaurants all my life, it was slightly shocking to observe the burgers and sandwiches priced lower than idlis!

            Speaking of food-related memories, I fondly recollect celebrating my first salary with a medium Dominos’ Pizza along with a colleague and friend, and carrying our pizza boxes back to the guest house as neither of us were able to finish more than half of it. I still wonder at times how the lunch menu at the office and the dinner menu at the guesthouse was synchronized almost every single day, and developing a liking for Rasgullas after having had them twice a day (and how I have learnt to crave for desserts after lunch).

During our tiny stint we learnt that time is our enemy – we all have limited time in our lives, and despite our best effort, we miss out on things and experiences. Having tried to explore everything possible during our short stay, we visited a number of places in and around Guwahati. Even though we planned our best, we couldn’t visit a number of them. I regret not being able to visit Bellevue Point, Jagaran and Paradise Biriyani among others due to lack of time. I also feel to some extent that I could have planned my project better had I more time. Having said that, I do feel happy and contented about doing the best I could. As Deepika Padukone famously said in the movie Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani -“Jitna bhi try kar lo life me kuch na kuch toh chootega hi.”

In the brief span of a month, I attempted to gain an understanding of the telecom sector in the North East. After interacting with over a hundred people in various parts of the supply chain, I discovered that I have barely scratched the surface of the tip of the needle point! My Guwahati experience has essentially taught me to stay hungry and stay foolish. In conclusion, I would love to thank everyone who took out time to interact with us in the Assam Circle Office, especially Rakhi Ma’am, Mamoni Ma’am and Sayeed Sir, who really made our training a lot more special. I hope to be back in the North East soon.

 

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Assam Memoirs Part 7 – Convocation

The class WhatsApp group had been abuzz as soon as the message about the tentative convocation dates were mailed. Everyone had been planning to fly to Mumbai from their work locations, as this could possibly be the last time the entire batch would be together. There were a number of reasons why the idea of convocation didn’t thrill me – travelling approximately 3500+ km one-way over a span of six hours just to attend an event was on top of the list. However, the more I thought of it, the more eager I became to meet my classmates and collect my degree certificates in person. Convocation wasn’t just an event that marked the completion of five years of university life – it marked the end of seventeen years of hard work and effort.

As the time for my flight to Mumbai inched closer, my excitement hit the roof. I had begun packing a week before the journey and had been counting down the minutes to the flight. Having made elaborate plans to optimise my luggage, I ended up packing stuff almost until the moment I boarded the cab. The seemingly infinite 23km journey from my guest house finally came to an end, as the cab finally came to a halt. The SpiceJet flight was due to take off from Guwahati a little before 4pm and would reach Mumbai only a wee bit after 10. I was allocated a nice window seat in the front and enjoyed the view for the whole of the evening.

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The layover in Delhi was an interesting experience. I got the opportunity to witness the number of activities that take place before the passengers boarded the aircraft. I was amazed by the level of precision and optimization of the entire process – within the span of forty five minutes 150+ passengers had deplaned, a team from ground operations had come in and checked the luggage and the boarding passes of the remaining passengers, the entire cabin had been vacuumed and cleaned (including checking of seat pockets, spraying of disinfectants and criss-crossing of the seatbelts), and the boarding of the new passengers was complete. Kudos to SpiceJet – it felt like an airline equivalent of an F1 pit stop!

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An aerial view of the city that never sleeps

Considering the huge number of graduating students, my college had allowed only one parent to attend the ceremony, and that too on a first-come-first-serve basis. My dad was supposed to pick me up from the airport and accompany me to the ceremony, as my mom was heading to the city where my sister is studying. A part of me was really sad, as my only wish since the beginning of my college was to see my parents and sister celebrate with me on the day of my graduation. A long fifteen-minute-wait at the rendezvous point later, I saw a familiar figure walking to me. My jaw dropped, as I realized it was my mom – she surprised me by cancelling her tickets and coming to Mumbai instead!

The next morning was pretty eventful – like always, I took the train to the college. Having collected my gown and cap after registering for the ceremony, I spent a lot of time talking to my batch mates. It was a lovely feeling meeting up with friends – people had flown in from various corners of the country. There was a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach – although I had been eagerly awaiting the receipt of my degree certificates, I didn’t really want the time to pass.

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We did discover a number of things that day, including the fact that we had a really badass Registrar. She didn’t even need a mic – her voice alone was enough to evoke discipline from the rowdiest of people sitting in the last rows! She did have a sense of humour though. After a couple of rehearsals for the main event (and one of the university anthem), we left for the class photograph and returned half an hour later.

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Seated on the seats reserved for meritorious students, I couldn’t be prouder. Five years of hard work and effort were being recognised, and having my parents be a part of the moment was certainly the icing on the cake. The chief guest for the afternoon was Dr Ajit Ranade, the Chief Economic Advisor for the Aditya Birla Group. His speech was really memorable – he spoke about quite a few topics, while citing examples that we could relate to. Quoting Sir Francis Bacon, he urged us to develop the “Desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to reconsider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; to neither admire something just because it’s new and nor because it’s old.” His speech ended in a thunderous applause as he remarked “Your future is so bright,” putting on a pair of shades, “that I’m putting on sunglasses!”

My day had been excellent so far and I thought I was done with my share of surprises. Clearly that wasn’t the case, as my sister came running out of nowhere and hugged me tight. “I promised you that I wouldn’t miss it for the world” she whispered. Having travelled by an overnight interstate bus, she astonished me by directly arriving at the venue. A million emotions filled my head as we posed for the family photograph, with happiness being the most dominant one. Gratitude was definitely a close second – all that I had ever hoped and wished for had come true.

 

Assam Memoirs Part 6 – The Hidden Paradise

As the six of us researched about the possible places to visit while planning our trip, one location that stood out the most. “Paradise” we muttered, as the images of crystal clear water and the shadow of the boats falling on the golden river bed 12 feet below filled our smartphone screens. Needless to say, we found ourselves heading to Dawki after being left utterly speechless by the numerous attractions in Cherrapunji.

We continued our eventful journey through the cool hills. Meghalaya never ceased to amaze me even for an instant – earlier it had been the deep green hills and the cottony white clouds and now it was the weather. We were pleasantly surprised to observe contrasting weather conditions in really short distances – within a short span of 2km, the weather had varied from cool and misty to a slight drizzle to a downpour and finally to bright and sunny. The winding roads only made the road trip feel like a roller coaster – at times we were literally flying off our seats (a sincere thank you to the seat belts!).

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We covered the distance of 95km and reached Dawki in a little less than two hours. Sandwiched between India and Bangladesh, Dawki is a tiny town in the West Jaintia Hills. The picturesque Umngot River is a natural boundary between Ri Pnar of Jaintia Hills with Hima Khyrim of Khasi hills. Crossing a narrow single-lane suspension bridge, we found ourselves close to the entrance to the shore of the Umngot River.

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The place was really pretty. Boats lined up the shore and had people lining up for the boat rides. We were slightly disheartened as the place looked significantly different from the photos we had seen online – the advent of the monsoon had caused the water to become slightly turbid. While four members of the group decided to go boating for the next hour, a friend and I decided to stay back and enjoy the view. Speaking to locals, the two of us learnt that monsoon isn’t really the best season to visit Dawki and that the river is truly a sight to behold in the winters. Even though the water was slightly turbid, the place did appear as if it was out of a fairy tale.

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After a short stroll at the river bank, we soaked our feet in the cool river water and chatted as we saw the boats go by. We noticed that although there were boats on either side of the river, they wouldn’t touch the opposite bank – the other side of the river bank happened to be Bangladeshi territory! We spent the remainder of the little time observing the tourists and chasing butterflies on our way back to the top. It was just adorable to see babies wearing life jackets staring at the river with their wonder-struck eyes.

We proceeded to the Indo-Bangladesh border after having enjoyed the beauty of the Umngot River. Managed by the BSF, the border looked nothing like what I had in mind. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that it was an international border, other than a couple of boards and a BSF outpost. A couple of BSF Jawans kept a close watch on the people from either side, urging Indian tourists to not go too close to the Bangladeshi side.

Finally losing their temper after a few requests, they sternly instructed the tourists to go back to their vehicles. This experience was truly special – visiting an international border for the first time is something that I will remember for a while (I now officially have the bragging rights to seeing two countries in a span of ten days!). We retraced our route back to the suspension bridge soon after and admired the waterfalls en route to the next place on our itinerary.

 

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Choosing to skip lunch, we proceeded to the next place on our itinerary – Mawlynnong Village. With a population of approximately 500, this tiny village was termed as Asia’s cleanest village in 2003. The level of cleanliness in the village fascinated me – there were dustbins almost everywhere and the people in the village took every effort to maintain cleanliness. The numerous simple yet elegant guest houses invited the travellers to enjoy the place a little more.

Adorned with a wide variety of flowers, the greenery elevated the beauty by several notches. After spending the better part of an hour exploring the village and the unique culture and a rather interesting-looking dragonfly, we proceeded to a place called Sky View, which is an 85 feet high bamboo viewing tower offering beautiful views of not only the village but also Bangladesh.

We finally visited one of the most popular attractions of the area – the Jingmaham Living Root Bridge. The walk to the bridge felt quite long, although the time taken was approximately 20 minutes. A number of vendors had set up their stalls on the path to the bridge, selling juicy pineapples and other sweet treats. The most innovative part about the attraction was the ticketing counter, which is set up at a very strategic location. It’s located almost at the end of the 20-minute-walk and the bridge is just out of sight. The people, having traversed such a long distance, agree to pay. Considering that the attraction is just a hundred metres ahead, they aren’t inclined to just turn around and walk away.

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The bridge was magnificent – made by the roots of the huge rubber tree, it offers a pathway across the stream. After another 20-minute walk, we began our journey back to Guwahati, retracing our journey through Cherrapunji and Shillong.

Here are a few tips which may help if one intends to visit Dawki and Mawlynnong in the near future –

  • Dawki is only 95km from Shillong and can be reached in a couple of hours from there.
  • Ideally, visit Dawki before the onset of the rainy season, that is, between October and April.
  • Boating in the Umngot River is supposed to be a real pleasure in the winters. One can rent boats on for ₹500 on an average.
  • While visiting the Indo-Bangladesh border, do listen to the instructions of the BSF Jawans and only go as close to the border as they allow.
  • Mawlynnong, Asia’s cleanest village, is not too far from Dawki and can be reached in a couple of hours.
  • The Jingmaham Root Bridge at Mawlynnong is definitely worth a visit. However, the walk is quite long.
  • From Guwahati, Mawlynnong is approximately 190km away and takes approximately 3-4 hours to reach.

Assam Memoirs Part 5 – The Abode of Clouds

Having lost ourselves in beauty and bounty of Shillong, the six of us embarked on our journey to one of the wettest places in the world – Cherrapunji. The journey was very eventful – we listened to the latest Hindi and Punjabi songs (having heard them countless times over the past couple of weeks, I am now addicted to “Naja” and “Main Tera Boyfriend”), and the obvious crowd-pleasers “Despacito” and “Shape of You.” We reminisced our university life en route and wondered how quickly the time had passed since our exams ended, and how it felt as if the concrete jungle of Mumbai had been replaced with the natural jungles of Meghalaya. The smooth zigzag roads leading to our destination certainly had the hint of a roller coaster.

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The journey was definitely memorable – the emerald hills and the fluffy white clouds rising from them – it was the definition of picture-perfection. Having stopped to stretch our legs near the valley at Mawkdok/Dympep somewhere around 4pm, our faces lit up as we saw a person just zooming across a zip line. It was the best thing one could think of – literally gaining a different perspective and enjoying the valley from a bit closer. Determined to not let this opportunity go, I asked our driver how far the starting point was, and quickly he could get us there. We reached just in time to be told by the guys from Pioneer Adventure Tours that they had already packed up and were calling it a day. After getting to know a bit about our trip from Guwahati and how we intended to leave Cherrapunji very early next morning, they did something which really won our hearts – they reopened the ride for us. Handing us the harness and the gloves, they asked us to get strapped quick. We were to zip line to the other end and then back to a point a few metres below the start. The organizer jovially mentioned that a complimentary short trek back to the top was included in the ₹300 package.

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Helping three of us quickly with the harness and the hooks, they guided us to the edge of the hill. Listening intently as the instructor demonstrated the use of the equipment to a friend who volunteered to go earlier, I felt confident. After being hooked to the cable with the help of the carabiner and the lanyard, we were instructed to don a sitting posture and cross our legs. While we were supposed to hold the base of the trolley with one hand, the other hand was to be used for decelerating and braking. He also suggested to lean backwards to enjoy the ride more. The final instruction was to glide the braking hand on the cable and apply pressure only when we neared the white flag that had been laid out. “You should survive” he joked as I steadied myself before the ride began. I did scream a bit out of joy as the trolley picked up speed, leaning back as much as I could. The enormity of the bright valley was enthralling, and zooming past the cable with a pretty decent speed approximately 1200 feet above it was definitely a thrill in itself. As instructed, I began to apply pressure with the braking hand as soon as I reached the white flag. “Don’t press too hard or you will stop midway!” exclaimed the instructor at the other end, and I did just that. After repeating the process once more, I reached a point a few metres below the original one. Having the lanyard and carabiner detached, I noticed that another cable took us in a direction perpendicular to the original line. This one appeared longer and older. Although really tempted to give the older line a try, I had to pass up the opportunity. Cherrapunji is notorious for its foggy evenings, and our priority was reaching the hotel before the visibility became too poor. We began the mini-trek to the starting point, and after thanking and wishing the instructors the best for the future, we left for the hotel.

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The awesome team at Pioneer Adventure Tours

 

We had passed by our hotel at Sohra – Café Cherrapunji en route to the view point, and it was the perfect image of a quaint little resort that my mind could conjure. Having booked the hotel through Oyo Rooms, we didn’t know what to expect at such a short notice.

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We were pleasantly surprised as the hotel, despite being small (they had only six rooms, out of which we had booked two), was just amazing. The staff was more than accommodating to our requests, and made us feel welcome. Having spent almost the entire day travelling, we decided to relax for the remainder of it. The simple hot dinner served was certainly a contrast to the chilly evening. Having lived in near-tropical weather all our lives, three of us found the evening to be a bit too frigid. Finishing our dinner in haste, we raced each other to the nearest fireplace. After deciding the plan of action for the next day and playing a few rounds of Charades, we decided to call it a day.

The next morning was pretty hectic – we had initially planned to check out really early and explore a bit of Cherrapunji before heading over to Dawki. However, the breakfast timings at the restaurant made us revise our plans. After a decent amount of re-planning we decided to visit a few points of interest before returning to the hotel for breakfast. The first one on our list was a view point for three attractions – Mawlaikhlieh (three-headed stone), Wakhaba Falls and the Latara Falls. We enjoyed every second we spent there.

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The next attraction that we were looking forward to was that of the Seven Sister Falls. This was by far the most enthralling view we had ever come across – at first we couldn’t even get a hint of the waterfalls in the valley – the clouds appeared like a blanket of white enveloping the valley below. And ever so slowly they rose, giving us glimpses of the seven waterfalls. We understood why Meghalaya is called the abode of clouds – one could witness the birth of the clouds at the base of the valley and enjoy their rise and growth up the hills. I guess I can say that I had my head up in the clouds – I was literally on cloud nine!

 

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This was also the place where I added another language, Khasi, to my kitty, albeit with a single word – Khublei (which means “Thank you”). Lost in Meghalaya’s wondrous beauty, our hearts refused to leave. We did though, only after our driver reasoned about missing out on other amazing locations that he intended to cover. The first one on the list was the Mawsmai Cave, which is famous for its beautiful limestone formations. We all did have butterflies in our stomachs after reading a bit about and seeing the photos of the cave. Interestingly, we walked to the entrance of the caves only to realize that there wasn’t anyone at the ticket counter. It took us only a few minutes to register that the Curse of Murphy’s Law that had been haunting us a day earlier was back with a bang – the attraction wouldn’t open to the public for at least another hour and we just couldn’t wait that long! En route to the caves we happened to pass by the monoliths.

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The monoliths can be found throughout the Khasi and the Jaintia Hills, and are erected to honour the heroes who died in the battles and in remembrance of their clan members.

The Nohkalikai Waterfall, which is the tallest plunge waterfall in India, was the last on our list. With a height of about 1115 feet, it is the highest waterfall in the country. We discussed about it for a bit before realizing that we wouldn’t be able to visit owing to lack of time. We were already running late, and an extra distance of 15km one-way would have set us back by another couple of hours. We rushed to the hotel to finish our breakfast in haste so as to make up for the time lost. Little did we know that we would spend another hour after breakfast trying to sort out the miscommunication regarding the bill. Having booked the hotel through Oyo after being recommended by someone, we realized only at the time of the checkout that we had paid a LOT more than what we should have. Nevertheless, it was a lesson we learnt the hard way. With smiles on our faces after enjoying exemplary service, we began the next leg of our road trip – to Dawki.

Here are a few things we learnt from our Cherrapunji experience. I hope it will help you plan your trip out better.

  • The roads in the hilly areas might make some people uncomfortable. We found orange flavoured peppermint to be helpful in this situation. In any case, we would recommend carrying Avomine along. We also found that keeping your mind occupied with music helps.
  • Try to finish all your sightseeing before 3.30pm. Cherrapunji gets notoriously foggy in the evenings, and people do get stranded on the roads because of near-zero visibility. It becomes pretty cold too – carry warm clothing along.
  • In case you intend to go zip-lining at Mawkdok/Dympep, it is suggested to reach before 4pm. The guys from Pioneer Adventure Tours call it a day at 4pm. The ride is pretty reasonable – ₹300 for approximately 1100 feet.
  • Speaking of zip-lining, lean back, relax and enjoy the beauty of the valley. Do pay extra attention to the instructions given by the instructors.
  • We found Café Cherrapunji to be an amazing place to stay. It would be suggested to book the rooms well in advance (there are only six of them) directly with the hotel. Booking through an agency would unnecessarily increase your costs.
  • In case you are interested, there is a Maggi restaurant close by. Relishing hot Maggi on cold hilly evenings is an experience in itself.
  • The view point for the Seven Sisters Waterfalls is definitely worth a visit. Do ensure that it is a part of your itinerary.
  • Do gather information about what time the attractions open. Mawsmai Caves open to the public at 9.30am and close at 5.30pm. We reached a lot earlier before the opening time and thus had to go back empty handed.
  • Cherrapunji has more than enough attractions to keep one occupied for an entire day. If possible do visit all the attractions, and read up a bit about each one of them beforehand. It will only elevate the experience further.
  • Last but not the least… Cell phone cameras do absolutely no justice to the beauty of Cherrapunji. Don’t rely on devices to capture the visual treat – enjoy it with your eyes. Carry a DSLR if possible, along with battery chargers and power banks.

Assam Memoirs Part 4 – Scotland of the East

Fuelled by the success of our Bhutan trip, and after finally being able to book the hotel rooms, the six of us posted in Guwahati embarked on another adventure – exploring the neighbouring state famed to be the abode of clouds – Meghalaya. Learning from the Bhutan mini-experience, we hired the same vehicle and the driver.

 

The plan was to leave really early – at 5 am. I woke up groggily to find my roommate all dressed and ready to go – and it was just 4 am! After an hour and a quarter, we found ourselves in the vehicle all set to begin our journey to the sister state. A couple hours of peppy songs and amazing scenery later, we found ourselves at the Umiam Lake. Umiam, also called Barapani, is a reservoir in Meghalaya, about 15km to the north of Shillong. We were excited to visit it as it is a popular destination for adventure activities. Looking forward to boating and water cycling, we were disheartened to hear that the adventure sports activities only began at 9 am.

Nevertheless, we stopped our vehicle close to the bridge and savoured the amazing view it had to offer. We resumed our journey to Shillong, in hopes of enjoying a hearty breakfast there.

 

The early morning essentially was the proof of Murphy’s Law – whatever could have possibly gone wrong did go wrong. Almost an hour later, our guide and driver stopped briefly at the golf club for us to stretch our legs and an impromptu photo session. The peckish feeling had metamorphosed into full blown hunger by now, and the chilly Shillong breeze did little to ease it.

Our photo session ended with being shooed back to the car by some serious golfers. After some deliberation, the driver finally took us to City Hut Family Dhaba for breakfast. The first impression really wowed us – the place was beautiful, replete with a wishing well and a duck pond. The seating area was pretty good too, and the food being cooked looked seriously appetising (taking into consideration our burning hunger).

After waiting for a while for the service we were told that the breakfast service was only for the guests staying at the resort attached to the restaurant and that the restaurant would be open to the public only at 11 am. Disappointed once again, we decided to look for other options to satiate our hunger.

The next attraction our driver came up with was Ward’s Lake, which is an artificial horseshoe-shaped lake encircled by lush greenery. In addition to being one of the most scenic and popular tourist spots in Shillong, it wasn’t very crowded. Having passed up on a tempting opportunity to have Maggi at the roadside stalls, our faces lit up as we came across the Bamboo Hut Lake Café operated by the Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC). Overlooking the lake and the bridge connecting the opposite banks, the café offers a limited but rather tasty menu.

The little time we spent in the café was really memorable – it was really bright and clean, and we were the only ones there. “Aane wala pal jaane wala hai… Ho sake to isme zindagi bita do, pal jo ye jaane wala hai” the music system chimed, subtly reminding us to live every moment to the fullest. Finally, after a light breakfast, we strolled a bit in the light drizzle, watching the ducks play and people enjoy their paddle-boat ride. As we passed the roadside stalls on our way back, we vowed to gorge on hot Maggi sometime later in the day.

Heeding the advice of a couple of our colleagues, we went to Police Bazaar. Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend much time there as we were running late. We shopped quickly for handicraft articles and souvenirs for friends, and an umbrella as well (I do surprise myself at times – I really don’t know how I missed out on packing my umbrella considering that we were intending to visit one of the wettest places in the world!).

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After relishing an early chaat-lunch at Delhi Mistan Bhandar, we proceeded to the Shillong View Point, which offers an amazing view of the entire town. Looking at the queue of vehicles ahead and the estimated wait time of two-and-a-half hours, we decided to skip it and look for an alternative view point on the way, and began our journey to the next point on our list – the Elephant Falls.

The Elephant Falls are among the most popular waterfalls in North-Eastern India and were named so after a rock at the bottom of the falls resembling an elephant. Unfortunately, the rock was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897. The three-tiered waterfall is paved with stairs and has a bridge crossing the stream. The stairs lead us to the end of the bottommost tier, which is by far the most impressive amongst the three.

Being a Saturday, the attraction was crowded, and the stairs were a bit slippery at a few place. Standing barefoot on the rocks at the shore of the bottommost tier was another marvellous experience – the cool water from the waterfall makes one feel really relaxed.

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Staying true to our promise made a little earlier, we treated ourselves to a bowl of hot and spicy Maggi once back at the top, before we embarked on our journey to Cherrapunji.

The limited time we spent in Shillong was enough to make us fall in love with it. I guess I will visit Shillong again soon – half a day is too less to do justice to its amazing beauty and culture. Here are a few pointers that we learnt the hard way, and which will hopefully be helpful if you intend to visit Shillong in the near future –

  • Make a note of when each attraction or restaurant that you plan to visit open to the public. In our case, we missed on a bunch of interesting places because of this. For example, in case of Umiam Lake, the adventure sports begin somewhere around 9 am and end around 4.30pm. Similarly for the restaurant City Hut Family Dhaba, rated the #1 restaurant in Shillong, which opens to the general public at 11 am.
  • Although this one is pretty obvious, do carry extra clothes, towels, and swimwear in case you are interested in water adventure sports at Umiam Lake.
  • Unless absolutely sure of the quality of food, avoid consuming street food.
  • Ward’s Lake is an amazing place, and the Bamboo Hut Lake Café is definitely one of the places worth visiting. It’s a bright tiny café having limited but really appetising menu.
  • Police Bazaar is a decent place to visit for handicrafts, but ideally one should have a decent amount of time to explore. Plus, good bargaining skills do really work to your advantage.
  • Delhi Mistan Bhandar was a good place to enjoy some chaat at Police Bazaar. However, if you do crave some western food, then KFC, Subway, and Dominos will surely come to your rescue.
  • Although Shillong View Point is famed for providing a beautiful view of the town, I highly doubt if it’s worth a 2.5-hour wait.
  • The Elephant Falls are spectacular multi-tiered falls. The trail to the bottom of the falls is easy. I personally wouldn’t recommend the trail for elders though, as it is a bit slippery at places.

Assam Memoirs Part 3 – Local Treasures

Having embarked on our journey to Bhutan very early in the morning, we found ourselves free at around 11.30 am. With the vehicle booked for an entire day and almost half the day in hand, we wondered about the future course of action. After a brief brainstorming session, we zeroed on a couple of places outside Guwahati city.

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The first place on the list was the Purva Balaji temple located in Lokhra, about 10km from the Guwahati city. The temple is dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara and is modelled after the Tirupati Balaji temple in Andhra Pradesh. The Gopurams have been constructed as per South Indian architectural style, and the temple looks divine in pristine white. There are other temples dedicated to Lord Ganesha, Devi Padmavati and Lord Garuda in the temple premises as well. One of the facts about the temple that really intrigued me was that the idol of Lord Balaji has been carved of a single block of stone weighing about 4 tonnes, and that the doors of the temple were crafted in Chennai. After a brief stopover for lunch at the Highway City Dhaba, we resumed our journey. The food at the Dhaba was good and not too expensive either. I would suggest ordering rotis with mixed vegetable and paneer suzbis (which worked out pretty decently for us).

 

The next spot on our list was the tea plantations – we had seen a couple of them on our way to Bhutan but couldn’t stop long enough to enjoy them. The one encountered after lunch was pretty good too (and needless to say we stopped for an impromptu photo session). Speaking to the caretaker of the plantation was a pretty nice experience – Shibiriya spoke about how the plantations were owned by a family living far away. Even though language was pretty much a barrier – she wasn’t very fluent in Hindi and I didn’t (and obviously still don’t) speak a word of Assamese, I could understand a fair amount of what she meant to convey.

She hails from a very rural area and came to live at the plantation many years ago. She works hard plucking leaves from the tea plants six days a week, with Sunday being her weekly off. Her eyes sparkled as she spoke about her journey and her three children – her oldest, Mary, must have been about seven or eight when they moved to the plantation. Her son Nelson is a university student, while her youngest daughter Ushmita (who is about eight now) was born at the plantations. After giving a very brief tour about the place, she explained a bit about the process of tea harvesting and processing – how only the new leaves are harvested manually for about eight months in a year, and how the process of curling and fermentation takes place. It was really refreshing to see someone work tirelessly with so much enthusiasm.

Having visited the farm we proceeded to the next and the final part of our itinerary for the day – the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the home to one-horned rhinos. The sanctuary had been on the top of our to-visit list ever since we learned about the training schedule in Assam. The scenery en route to the sanctuary was very picturesque – the lake reflected the mild orange hue of the evening sky, while the birds sat on the electrical wires running parallel to the narrow road paying absolutely no heed to the vehicles passing by. It was only a few minutes later that we realized that it wasn’t a lake at all – it was the flood water, submerging acres of sanctuary land.

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Our driver told us that the situation has improved a bit in the past few days, as the water had receded to some extent, and that the sanctuary remains flooded for approximately half the year. Having spent almost half an hour scouring every possible patch of land for a sight of a rhino, we were about to give up. We finally spotted three of them far away (We saw just the back and the swaying tail). A tiny bit satisfied with our discovery, we resumed our journey to the guest house.

We had set aside the next morning to visit the famous Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, which is one of the oldest Shakti Peeths. Having been advised to leave really early (around 5am) so that we wouldn’t have to wait in the queue for long. However by the time we were out the door of the guest house, it was already six. From the journey to the guest house on the day we landed in Guwahati, we remembered a bit about the location of the temple. The Ola driver ferrying us there mentioned casually that during the festival time approximately seven lakh people visited the temple, and that the waiting time was more than a day! We were pretty shocked with our experience too, as the wait time for the darshan for a person in the regular queue (there were three queues – VIP, Defence and regular) would be around seven to eight hours!

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Tiredness from travelling extensively the day before weighed in on us, and we purchased the VIP special darshan tickets. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple was very dark and was lit very dimly by lamps. We were done with our visit in a little more than an hour. After a brief stop at the nearby Annapurna restaurant (my suggestion for idli lovers would be to not try idli there) on the way down we visited the Bagala temple, post which we hiked down to the bus stop and booked an Ola cab from there. The rest of the Sunday was spent on catching up on our quota of sleep – Having negligible sleep over a period of 48 hours is really exhausting, especially when a good chunk of it is spent travelling.

Here are a few tips which might come in handy while exploring places in and around the Guwahati city–

  • The Purva Balaji temple is definitely worth a visit. I was wowed by the amazing South Indian architecture.
  • The Highway City Dhaba offers decent food at affordable prices.
  • Pobitora is a good place to visit during the winters. In our case, a good part of the sanctuary was flooded, and the sanctuary was closed. We were lucky enough to get a glimpse of a rhino though.
  • Personally I was a bit saddened with the Kamakhya temple experience, as the Bali ghar (the house of sacrifice) was attached to the main temple. We don’t laugh at the term “Bali ka Bakra” anymore.
  • If you do plan on visiting the Kamakhya temple, do so early in the morning, preferably on the weekdays. The wait period for the darshan on the weekends and public holidays is insane.
  • Purses and handbags are allowed in the temple while backpacks aren’t (we learnt it the hard way).
  • Preferably carry your own food while visiting the temple premises – the food in the restaurants near the temple may not suit everyone’s palate.

Assam Memoirs Part 2 – The Happy State

Finding that we had only a limited number of weekends, the six of us resolved to make the most of whatever time we had. Taking almost the whole of our first week to adjust and chalk out the plan for the weekend, we decided to explore Meghalaya and its gorgeous destinations. We were disheartened to find that our plan was made a bit too late – we ran out of hotels to stay in. Considering the suggestion of our new colleagues, we zeroed down on an impromptu trip to Bhutan instead. We wondered though if an international was possible, considering that half the group didn’t have our travel documents (Voter ID card or passport). A senior in the office came to our rescue. He mentioned about the tiny bordering town of Samdrup Jongkhar, and how one could enter through the first gate and explore a speck of what our happy neighbour had to offer.

Being overly excited about the first international trip (sans family) we woke up at 4 am and aimed to leave the guest house by quarter past five. Expecting to be greeted by a pitch-dark sky, we were pleasantly surprised to be welcomed by a bright morning. At 4 am. Despite all our efforts to leave early we ended up leaving only a little before six. We passed by IIT Guwahati en route to the tiny town of Rangia. The trip was just perfect for us – Samdrup Jongkhar is only about 110km away from Guwahati, and we estimated to cover the distance in a little less than two hours. To cure the sleepiness and add a zing to the morning my roomie started playing the latest peppy songs with a good tempo. The splendid morning scenery and the lush greenery helped greatly as well, and the butter-smooth roads only added to the comfort of our journey.

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We passed by acres of rice fields and tea plantations on the way. The funniest part of our journey was to see the cattle laze on the road – be it cows, buffaloes or goats – they walked and sat right in the middle of the two-lane road without a care in the world. We took the Rangia-Daranga Road, which took us to Samdrup Jongkhar in less than forty-five minutes. Once there, we were asked to alight and cross the border on foot.

 

It took us less than a minute to fall in love with the Bhutanese architecture. Even though the design of the buildings was pretty simple, it was very elegant – it appeared as though even the buildings seemed happy! We passed by a few prayer flag installations on the way to the restaurant. After a quick photo session, we proceeded to go for breakfast at one of the nearby restaurants called the Tashi Gasel Lodge.

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I was awestruck by the location – in addition to being a great sight itself, the place offered amazing views of the surrounding hills. We were slightly disappointed with the breakfast options available – even though the menu was expansive, all they had to offer on that day was masala omelet, sweet bread and fried rice. Finishing our breakfast as quickly as we could we proceeded to the next agenda on the list – sightseeing.

The first place we visited first was Samdrup Jongkhar Dzong. A Dzong is a fortified building with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, monasteries and administrative offices. The Samdrup Dzong serves as the town’s administrative and judicial centre.

The intricate design on the outside and the perfectly manicured lawns really wowed us. The most interesting thing about the Dzong is that it is the newest and is made of cement, unlike other Dzongs which are made of brick or stone. Moreover, the Dzong at Samdrup is built on a flat-land, unlike the others which are usually situated on strategic cliffs or vantage points.

Soon after our brief visit to the Dzong, we went to the Rabdey Dratshang, which is the place where the monastic community of Samdrup Jongkhar resides. The monastery was inaugurated in 2004. We were mesmerised by the beauty of the monastery – right from the main entrance to the prayer hall and the houses behind, the art was very tasteful.

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I personally loved how the monastery exuded a sense of peace and calmness. Even though the weather outside was hot, the temperature in the monastery premises was pleasantly cool. We stayed there for a while absorbing its serenity, and after clicking a few photos we moved to the final part of our limited Bhutan experience – the local market.

The local market, Mella Bazaar, was the place we had been really excited to visit and shop for souvenirs. An interesting observation I made at the bazaar was that unlike their Indian counterparts the shops had really simple-looking name boards – the boards were dark (most of them either navy blue or black) and had the details written on them in white paint. I was a bit surprised to find out that most of the products in Bhutan were sourced from India – right from the vehicles to consumer products. We noticed that even the ice cream we relished at one of the shops had been produced in Guwahati itself! Among other things, we purchased prayer flags with the Divya Mantra on them – Om Mani Padme Hum. It was only after I read the meaning on Quora that I realized how beautiful the Mantra is –“In dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of the Buddha.”

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Refreshed, enthralled and enchanted we resumed our journey back to our side of the border. The entire experience had taken us a little more than three hours and gave us bragging rights such as having crossed an international border on foot (without a passport), and going to another country for breakfast.

Here are a few tips and tricks to help in case you are planning a trip to Samdrup Jongkhar in the near future –

  • The distance between the Guwahati airport and Samdrup Jongkhar is 110km. On leaving Guwahati early, one can reach Samdrup Jongkhar in a little less than two hours. The roads are pretty good.
  • Samdrup Jongkhar is the oldest town in Bhutan. To enter it from Assam one doesn’t need travel documents. However, as an Indian, if you wish to explore more of Bhutan, you would need to carry either the passport or your voter ID card. In the recent days, I have heard of the border authorities also accepting Aadhaar, but I am not sure about how accurate this information is.
  • In case you are wondering about the currency conversion between Bhutanese Ngultrum and Indian Rupee, you don’t have to worry much as the exchange rate is 1:1. Indian Rupee is accepted in Bhutan, and Ngultrum is accepted in parts of Assam near the border.
  • The route to the border town is replete with greenery and has acres of rice and tea plantations.
  • It is essential to carry some food (preferably some dry snacks) along with you for the journey
  • Preferably dress conservatively while visiting monasteries – preferably wear long sleeved shirts and full-length trousers. Avoid wearing t-shirts or short skirts. Usually, hats and umbrellas aren’t allowed inside either.
  • Please keep your phones in silent mode and talk in a quiet tone while visiting monasteries.
  • Photography is usually allowed in the courtyard of most monasteries.
    It is customary to give a small donation when visiting a monastery.