Written by Surabhit Gupta.
In the four years I spent in Silchar, I, at the time, loathed it. It didn’t have the malls and restaurants of Lucknow, nor was I glad about living in a place with an entirely different culture. 300 days of rain a year made DTH TV unreliable. But looking back, it changed me unlike anything till then or since then.
When one first hears about the North-East, they likely think of monasteries perched in the Himalayas, monks engaged in meditation, who are curious case studies for psychologists studying happiness and fulfilment or land in the news for separatist movements.
The region is a melting pot of cultures and has had a troubled past because of tribal rivalries, illegal infiltration, cross border smuggling, and separatist movements. The region’s hundreds of tribes and communities, though slowly embracing modernity, still remain entrenched in customs that predate any written history. Gradually the region is on the road to peace, and apart from some areas of Manipur and Nagaland, it is safer than most typically Indian cities.
It is hard to adequately cover the entire NE region in a single guidebook, let alone a short article. Hence, this article will be a two-part series.
To reach anywhere in North-East, chances are you will find yourself starting at Guwahati, the gateway to Paradise Unexplored. Reaching Guwahati is the easy part as it is well connected to the rest of the country through road, air and rail.
If you haven’t already visited Kaziranga, take a two-day detour. There are effectively two resorts in Kaziranga, Iora and Grassland. Avoid the monsoon season as sightings of rhinos become increasingly rare. The best way to see rhinos is, of course, the elephant safari as compared to the gypsy safari due to the elephant’s height.
GS Road, the main street of Guwahati. Most upscale malls and showrooms can be found here
After reaching Guwahati, there are two options to proceed further:
- The Easy Way: Take flights to the state capitals. This way, while you do save a lot of time, you miss the entire point of visiting North-East, experiencing the culture. Like most other places worth visiting, perhaps even more so, the journey through the hills and the valleys would be more memorable than any destination that you may have set out for.
- The Not-So-Easy Way: Travel through the roads. Eat at the local shacks. Stay in some of the most unique accommodations in the country.
We begin from Guwahati, and we will try to strike the right balance between the two ways. After landing in Guwahati, it is best to hire a car. It is prudent to spend a day in Guwahati to prepare yourself for the adventures and culture shocks coming up next.
Guwahati to Shillong/Cherrapunjee
Sumos, which are basically shared Jeep taxis, are the most common form of travel between cities and villages in the northeast. Sumos from Guwahati to Shillong leave from Khanapara bus stand. Getting from Guwahati to Shillong by shared Sumo should not cost more than Rs 200 per person.
The first to strike me about this place was the cleanliness. There are an almost un-Indian order and discipline in the traffic and the crowd. The state’s population predominantly comprises the Jaintia, Khasi and Garo tribes. These tribes follow the matrilineal system. Don’t be surprised to see women driving taxis, working as shopkeepers, and forming an almost equal percentage of the workforce.
The misty valleys and the waterfalls in the region make a long drive through Cherrapunji perfect for a cinematic road trip.
When I first saw the Dawki river, it seemed almost unrealistically blue to me. The river appears almost out of place among the dilapidated roads. It also forms the border between India and Bangladesh. One can see hordes of boats bringing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into India.
Spare a day for a camp by the river. Mobile network is scarce near the river. The bonfire by the river is something to experience for oneself.
The fourth highest waterfall in the world, Nohkalikai falls plunge 300+ meters. It is best not to set time aside for this as it can easily be a 2-day trek. It is visible on the drive to Shillong.
Once the capital of Assam, when it was undivided, it has developed some characteristics of a typical modern city. Urban sprawl, a lot of concrete, and gridlocked traffic along its contoured streets are increasing by the day. However, it retains an old-time charm in certain areas – and a strong sense of individuality and pop culture, with its many Christian churches and an evolved café culture. One can feel football and rock music in the atmosphere. Team allegiance can be seen in the taxies.
The residents love driving around in heavily modded 800s and altos.
I personally didn’t get to visit the Don Bosco Museum of indigenous cultures. Still, it should undoubtedly be one of your more important priorities.
The air force museum should be next and ideally covered the same day.
Umiam Lake: Try watching the carnivorous plants along the banks of the lake. The locals call it the bada pani. The view from the dam over this lake is probably one of the most serene and tranquil in the world.
Police Bazar: This is the primary market of Shillong and has some of Shillong’s best cafes.
Elephant Falls: Although the rock which lent the fall its name was destroyed in an earthquake, it is still one of the most accessible and beautiful waterfalls.
Shillong to Silchar
The road is punishing, to say the least. It is a fairly busy road which the town of Silchar depends upon for supplies. Road Closure due to landslides isn’t uncommon in the monsoon(which is basically most of the year).
After the gruelling 6 hour drive, take a rest stop in Silchar. There is not much to do in Silchar, the 2nd largest town of Assam. On the final approach to Silchar, the road through tea estates is stunning though.
Silchar to Dharamnagar
“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.”
Be awestruck by the sheer scale of the carvings in Unakoti. Unakoti literally means one less a Koti(crore) in Bengali, hosts an ancient Shiva-ite place of worship with colossal rock carvings celebrating Lord Shiva. If you’re looking for a truly unique and pleasant travel experience, this is it! Not only the fantastic giant rock carvings in their beautiful tropical forest setting but also the whole experience of just getting here.
Before it is dark, reach Agartala and call it a day.
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