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There is a difference between the kind of life you’re living and the one you want to live. I decided to step out of my comfort zone and live the life I really wanted to live, the day I planned my trip to Northeast India. And I was living on the edge. Even before my colleagues asked me to join them, I knew this trip would involve a fair amount of adrenaline pumping through my veins. But I was all set to experience it. After exploring Shillong and Cherrapunji, then Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, my journey around the northeastern states of India continues, through the breathtaking landscapes of Assam.
We waited for our taxi driver to tie the chains around the tyres of our Sumo yet again. The incline was set to become steeper than ever before. It was going to be a serene climb up to the border of India and China. I couldn’t wait to see where our soldiers served.
On our way, our taxi was flagged down by a man wearing a military uniform. My heart broke as I saw him trudging his way through the snow. The roads were narrow enough to let just one car pass at a time. He requested us to give him a lift to his camp, which was a little uphill. His teeth were shivering and chattering in the cold and we could see something close to a stalactite form on his hair falling over his forehead. We welcomed him into the taxi. On other days, we would be wary about having a stranger on board. But today was quite different. Besides, we were all going to the same place.
As we climbed higher, the weather got better. Even though we were surrounded by snow on all sides, we didn’t feel the biting cold winds as was the case in Tawang. Before we knew it, we had reached our destination. The board ahead of us read “Bumla Pass.” We stopped at a small run-down cottage. It was filled with woollen clothes and military wear—souvenirs for visitors. A soldier guided us through the cottage and beyond. He was the most affable person I had come across on that trip.
But as soon as I met the other soldiers at that camp, I realised that all of them were delighted to have visitors over. “It’s always lonely on the top,” he said to me. And I could see how grateful they were for our visit. The snow hadn’t dampened their spirits. On reaching the border, we were introduced to a stone, where one half of it was said to be in China and the other in India. I sat on that stone thinking about how far we had come from home.
And with a cup of tea and some chatter with the friendly soldiers, we made our way down onto our next destination—Tawang’s beautiful monasteries. You didn’t have to be a Buddhist to enjoy a day at the monasteries. One visit was an instant dose of peace. And then, we were all set to explore Sangestar Tso, also known as Madhuri Lake, named after a revered Bollywood actress. This was where a famous Bollywood movie had been shot.
Our drive to the lake was soul-quenching. It was snowing. A little bit of hail accompanied the snow as well. We looked down at the lake and were mesmerised by its beauty. We spent the evening at the lakeside café. And with that, it was time to find our way to Dirang—our next stop.
After hustling through long queues—waiting for a taxi—we finally reached our destination. I felt a sense of calm as I laid eyes on our resort. Up until now, we hadn’t been very lucky with our hotels, but this one was worthy of a mention. We had been welcomed to Awoo Resort with a surprise. There were welcome drinks for us at the reception and we were introduced to an azure blue cottage, overlooking the hills.
Unlike Bomdila and Tawang, Dirang was warm. The pleasant weather, the sight of a meandering river from the cliff, and a swig of homemade rice wine made this quaint little town one of my favourite places to visit. We decided to go to the hot springs and the yak breeding centre—one of the major attractions of the city. While we didn’t get the chance to enter the hot springs and cleanse ourselves of any underlying diseases as proclaimed by the hotel staff (it was filled with locals), a visit to the yak breeding centre was quite an experience.
We noticed that Dirang thrived on farming the long-haired bovids. From yak fleece to yak cheese, the humble animal had made its mark on every aspect of life in the town. In fact, you would often find a stray yak climbing up a jagged, hilly terrain in the distance, and surviving the climb, too.
On returning to our hotel, we were informed that they offered a bonfire and barbecue experience too. It was an offer you cannot refuse, and I’m glad we didn’t. That night, as we sat by the bonfire, playing music through our speakers, the sound reverberated through the hills. A slight drizzle fell lightly on us, dowsing the fire, marking the end of our stay. Dirang had stolen my heart. But tomorrow was another day.
We were about to say good-bye to Arunachal Pradesh and set out for Assam. This was the most bittersweet goodbye we had to say. We knew that nothing could come close to the beauty of Arunachal Pradesh, but we had to give Assam a chance. We decided to visit the island of Majuli. It is said to be the world’s largest river island, soon to erode and vanish into nothingness. Before this happened, we had to pay it a visit and see what it stood for. So we took the ferry from Nemighat and found our way to our hotel—La Mansion De Ananda.
On reaching there, we realised that it was much less a hotel and more so a couple of straw houses on stilts. There were leeches at the entrance welcoming us while the houses were absolutely see-through, so much so that if you dropped something onto the floor, it would fall right through and down into the marshy land below the stilts.
Majuli felt like a ghost town at first. We were scared to see how the townsmen gazed at us. The need for a male chaperone in a town like this was much required. But we decided to brave our fears and stay on. That night, we had the most delicious Assamese home-cooked meal—made by the caretaker’s wife.
We were to stay at Majuli for a couple of days but we cut the trip short by a night. The next day, we travelled to a beautiful little cottage where the ancient art of Indian mask-making was still taught. You would be surprised to see the intricate designs and effort that went into making these beauties. After all, Majuli had its own charms. But even through these beautiful experiences, we were glad to leave the town.
With a sigh of relief, we drove out of Majuli to reach our final destination in the trip—Kaziranga. We stayed at the Nature Hunt Eco Camp. This was in the middle of an expansive tea estate. Our room was on stilts but it felt like heaven in comparison to our hotel in Majuli.
We were excited to explore Kaziranga—India’s most renowned wildlife sanctuary, located in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra river. This was probably the only place where you would find road signs asking drivers to mind their spot in lieu of animals crossing the roads. In Kaziranga, you were enveloped by all sides by the most enchanting wildlife. Exotic birds and one-horned rhinos were everywhere. It was also a naturally conserved habitat for the magnanimous Indian elephants.
The next morning, we woke at 4 am to catch the sunrise and get ready for our elephant safari. You could either ride an elephant or hire a jeep. Our guide introduced us to the rhinos bathing lazily in their pools while sonorous birds flew around us. Our elephant was in a hurry to reach its destination, so we zipped past the safari. While I will always remember the elephants and the introduction to the local wildlife, the highlight of my trip was still yet to come.
The sun was setting while we walked through Kaziranga in search of a good restaurant. Eating to our heart’s content, we decided to sleep early that night. It was the last day of our adventure and we wanted to get some rest before we headed home the next day. As we reached the entrance of our resort, the sun had already set. Kaziranga had very few streetlights and so it was difficult to see in the dark. But the minute we entered our resort, I felt I had walked into a dream. The entire tea estate was glittering with fireflies. It was as if the stars had descended upon us. Walking through the sea of fireflies, I saw that they were beautifully nestled on the tea leaves. We reached our room on stilts and stood in the verandah, taking in the view. None of us spoke. We had lost ourselves in that moment. And what a beautiful end it was, etched in memory forever.