North by northeast

681
Sikkim
Sikkim

Note: This article by originally published in The Telegraph on May 21, 2011

By Hoihnu Hauzel (hhauzel AT gmail.com)

FOOTLOOSE

Embark on a voyage of discovery in the northeast and explore many lesser known destinations in the region, says Hoihnu Hauzel

It’s the gateway to the verdant northeast but have you wondered what lies beyond the mighty River Brahmaputra that flows through Assam? There’s a whole new world waiting to be discovered and it’s dotted with offbeat places that have hitherto been low in priority in travel itineraries. But now, discerning tourists, looking for that ‘something different’, are hot-footing it to them.

Here’s what you can expect: countless natural hot springs, mountains to trek, islands and even stone monoliths dating to the 17th century. To top it all, you might even catch a music festival if you travel at the right time.

Rakesh Mathur, president, WelcomHeritage, which has five heritage properties in the region, says: “The northeast is a great voyage of discovery. It’s almost virgin territory as it remains to be discovered by the majority of Indian travellers.”

Subhash Goyal, founder chairman, STIC Travel Group of Companies, feels that people are suddenly turning their attention to the region. Says Goyal: “The northeast is perhaps Indian tourism’s best-kept secret. But all that will change with improved connectivity.”

A word of caution however: Be prepared to stay in modest but comfortable accommodation that’s high on the local experience. Also, getting to some destinations can be an adventure by itself.

So, get around to explore the exotic places tucked away in the interiors of the region.

GURUDONGMAR (SIKKIM)

Would you like to follow the path that was once taken by Guru Padmasambhava, a revered figure in Tibetan Buddhist history? And would you like to drink the ‘holy water or miracle water’ from a lake that’s supposed to have the power of granting children? That’s one of the
legends about Gurudongmar Lake, in north Sikkim.

Gurudongmar is a hotspot for devotees who come all the way to pray at the guru’s temple that’s beside the lake.

“Religious and spiritual sentiments are drawing a large number of travellers
to Gurudongmar,” says Anirudh Kajaria, director of Brother Tours, a prominent travel agency offering specialised tours of Sikkim.

You get to Gurudongmar via Gangtok, the state capital, where you have the option of staying for a night or two. From here, drive to Lachen, which is 108km or five to six hours away. Make this your base, and stay at any of its 3-star hotels. Plan a day trip to Gurudongmar, which is a two-hour drive, through high pastures dotted with thick rhododendron bushes. Another attraction is the proximity to the Tibetan border, which is just a few kilometres from the lake.

Another place to visit from Lachen is Larching, a two-hour drive. A must-visit in Larching is the Yumthang Valley and its famous sulphur-rich hot springs. People take a dip here in the belief that it will cleanse their sins and ailments.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: March to June and October to December.

MECHUKA (ARUNACHAL PRADESH)

It combines history and tradition yet redefines serenity. Arunachal by itself is an interesting state, what with sharing international borders with Burma, Bhutan and China. And the small town of Mechuka — perched high above the sea level at 1,829m — is one of the newer places on the state’s travel itinerary.

Located on the Indo-Tibet border in West Siang district, (one of the state’s 16 districts), getting to Mechuka is just what the adventurer in you needed. Oken Tayeng, of Aborcountry Travels & Expeditions, a leading local tour operator, promises an experience you won’t forget. Dibrugarh, 439km away from Guwahati, is the gateway to Mechuka. After an overnight stay in Guwahati, you’ll need to make the five-hour ferry journey to Oiram-ghat, a small border town between Assam and Arunachal.

From Oiramghat, you either hire a taxi or take a bus to Siang Valley in Pasighat where you rest for the night. The next day, you drive for four hours to Along, another small town, from where your last stop, Mechuka, is another six hours away. So, you’re looking at a total travel time of about two days from Dibrugarh.

Once in Mechuka, get set for high-altitude treks, fishing excursions and cultural safaris. You could also be checking out monasteries like the 400-year-old Galden Namgyal Lhatse Buddhist Monastery. Mechuka also boasts of a gurudwara that’s supposedly 350 years old. Homestays that are high on local flavour and a government circuit house are the places to rest your head. Make sure you have a few days to take in all that Mechuka offers.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: September to mid-March. The local New Year (Losar) is celebrated in the second week of March.

MAJULI ISLAND (ASSAM)

There’s much more to Assam than the famed Kaziranga Reserve. Lesser known places like the Majuli Island are now being put firmly on the tourist map. “Being the world’s largest inhabited riverine island, Majuli has lots to offer,” says Monalisa Goswami, director of Assam Tourism in Guwahati.

The island is connected to the world by a ferry service that operates twice daily. The best way to get to the island is to reach Jorhat (about 303km from Guwahati). From here, Majuli Island is just a 90-minute ferry ride. Go on a sightseeing excursion and visit any of its 22 Buddhist monasteries that date back to the 17th century. The island is also home to rare birds. Keep two to three days for the trip.

The picturesque setting and the colourful traditions of the local Mishing tribes make for a heady combination. The icing on the cake could be the experience of staying in one of the bamboo cottages run by the locals.

In February and March the festivities of the Ali-ai-lvigang, the spring festival of the Mishing tribe, take place.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: October to April.

NARTIANG (MEGHALAYA)
The monoliths at Nartiang

While Cherrapunjee has earned itself the famous ‘wettest place on earth’ tag and is fairly well-known, its lesser known places in Meghalaya like Nartiang that are now coming into the spotlight.

Nartiang is easy to access and just 60km from Shillong. It’s a small Jaintia village located 22km from Jowai, the district headquarters of the Jaintia Hills, one of the seven districts of Meghalaya. It used to be the summer capital of the Jaintia rulers (one of the major tribes of Meghalaya) who took to erecting stones to mark their rule.
Since there’s no accommodation in Nartiang, tourists usually plan day trips from Shillong. Once you arrive in Guwahati, drive up to Shillong (about two hours away), where you can be based for a couple of days. There are comfortable resorts and hotels and Shillong itself has many interesting touristy places that you can visit.

Nartiang is the perfect place for those keen on history and culture. It’s called The Garden of Monoliths by the locals because of the ancient stone monoliths dating from the 17th century that are found here in abundance. Declared as an important archaeological site by the Ancient Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958, most of Nartiang’s monoliths are nearly 30ft high.

Get a local guide in Nartiang to get more of the place. The buzzy weekly local bazaar is interesting to visit, with Jaintia women selling everything from cane baskets to pineapples and even the freshly cooked and piping hot tit tung — wild mushroom cooked with black sesame seeds and pork.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: April, May, September and November.

KOHIMA (NAGALAND)
A village in Kohima

The Nagas have always attracted scores of researchers. And today, tourists too want to get an insight into the life of the people of Nagaland and to revel in its unspoilt natural beauty. There are 11 fascinating districts in the state.

Kohima tops the list as it offers a wonderful mix of culture, soulful music, exotic food and adventure. Plan for at least three days to enjoy the destination.

Once you have checked into a hotel of your choice (Kohima offers lots of options), get set to discover the town. Visit a supermarket if you want to see freshly-plucked greens and herbs from the jungles that serve as delicacies for the Nagas. Or visit the World War II cemetery in the heart of town or even Asia’s second largest village, Bara Basti, which is right here in Kohima.

From Kohima, visit the Dzukou Valley 25km away or drive up to Mokokchung, a district about 150km away, that offers angling spots as the rivers Milak and Tula flow through it. Another place to add to your itinerary is Khonoma, a green village where hunting is banned — that’s a big deal for the meat-loving Nagas — and where trees are not cut down.

The homestays in Khonoma come with Naga hospitality where one can sample the best home-cooked local food. Go trekking to the nearby Japfu Peak, about 15km away.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: October to mid-may. For music buffs, the Hornbill Festival in December is a treat.

AIZAWL (MIZORAM)

Anthurium farms, musical gigs, deep, dark woods and wildlife sanctuaries; Aizawl — one of the eight districts of Mizoram — has it all. “Besides being a complete tourist product, Aizawl can also serve as the base to explore the neighbouring areas,” says Noel Pari, deputy director, Directorate of Tourism, Mizoram.

Aizawl, the state capital, is a small but very lively town. It’s well connected and there are daily direct flights from Calcutta and Guwahati to the Lengpui Airport, which is 32km away. The town offers a handful of privately-owned, small hotels that are comfortable, if not luxurious.

At Bara Bazaar, you’ll find enterprising Mizo women selling handmade souvenirs. You can also set off on picnics to places like Bung (16km) or Falklawn (18km), a Mizo village, which is a major tourist attraction. To learn about Mizo history and culture, just hop across to the museum.

One of the highlights of your stay might be the Anthurium Festival held at a place 20km from Aizawl in September. And nothing can be more exciting than visiting some of the wildlife sanctuaries in different parts of the state.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: October to March.

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