"If India was the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, the remote North East of that country is its Hidden Jewel" …Tony Howard …Tony Howard
Who is writing?
The author has been climbing for fifty years. He has worked as a climbing instructor and BMC (British Mountaineering Council) Guide. He was a founding partner of Troll Climbing Equipment in Sixties when he made the first ascent fo Norway's Troll Wall. In 1980s he formed NOMADS (New Opportunities for Mountaineering, Adventure and Desert Sports) with Di Taylor and Together they were responsible for the discovery of Jordan's Wadi Rum as a climbing and trekking area. Lately they have been exploring new areas in Northeast of India for developing adventure and Eco Tourism.
Adventures on India's North East Frontier - By Tony Howard
A long time ago in the Himalayas, the people were troubled by demons. They went to an ancient lama who, after much contemplation, snapped his fingers, conjuring up five celestial beings who wander the earth ritually dancing the demons away wherever they find them.
We met them quite by chance. Entering a remote valley, the sound of chanting to the rhythm of a Tibetan drum and the tortured notes of a trumpet could be heard. Ahead, overlooked by the balconies of stone and timber frame houses, a cluster of people were watching a group of strangely masked 'demon-dancers'. Chang beer was flowing freely. The drumming and dancing were incessant. There wasn't a tourist in sight nor had we met any during the past twenty days in north east India.
Until recently, the whole area has been closed to visitors. Comprised of seven states, it is a wild region of high mountains, inaccessible ravines, fast rivers and dense jungle, only connected to India by the twenty two kilometre wide 'Siliguri corridor' between Bhutan and Bangladesh. Additionally, it also has common borders with Tibet and Burma to the north and east. The people, like the land, are varied and fascinating - around a hundred tribes from the Khasi Hill People in the south to the once fearsome headhunting Nagas of the east, the Mishmis and Abors of the Upper Brahmaputra and the Monpas of the Himalayan region. The British had failed to conquer them leaving vast areas 'unadministered'. Even today, many places along the borders are still closed.
Di Taylor and I together with photographer friend, Dave Cummins, visited the area in winter 2002 as guests of Ashoka Holidays who, being a local company are keen to develop adventure travel in the region. Based in Guwahati in Assam, on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River, they are ideally placed at "The Gateway to Northeast India".
Our first stop was Cherrapunjee, in Meghalaya, high in the Khasi Hills, overlooking the watery plains of Bangladesh 1500 metres below. It's not surprising Bangladesh gets flooded - not only do the great Ganges and Brahmaputra empty themselves into its flood plains, but Cherrapunjee is the wettest place on earth. In one monsoon month it almost drowned under more than 4.6 metres of rain - try that on your tin roof! However, the ducks are no doubt happy, as are the cavers. The limestone rock is honeycombed by hundreds of water formed passages and shafts, still mostly unexplored. Amongst them is Krem Mawmluh, at 7 kilometres, the fourth longest cave in south Asia, which we descended with a local guide - and don't believe people who tell you that bats have a perfect radar system, one slammed straight into Dave's face! Having explored its depths, we emerged through a sinkhole and vertical jungle to lunch by the side of Nohkalikai Waterfall (no shortage of water here!). It's locally considered the world's fourth highest, but no one knew for sure.
We also heard tales of two 'living bridges' discovered only last year. These unique environmentally friendly constructions were built by the Khasi People by training the living roots and creepers of rubber trees(ficus elastica) across the rivers. They date back perhaps two hundred years but undergo continuous maintenance as new shoots are woven into the old. One of the bridges is two-tiered. They are truly spectacular and well worth the steep descent on the jungle trail.
Back in the hills we headed north, finding an archery competition in Shillong before descending to Assam's famous Kaziranga Reserve. Here we rose in the cold pre-dawn to ride an elephant through the tall grasses and early morning mist as the sun crept over the hills. On numerous occasions, we came within a few metres of India's rare one-horned rhinos. Otters played in nearby pools over which kingfishers darted. Wild elephants trumpeted a greeting to the sun. Deer and wild boar barked and grunted. It was a remarkable experience only tempered by the knowledge that despite constant ranger patrols a few rhinos are still killed each year by poachers tempted by the high price for rhino parts in nearby China.
Then we were on the road again, winding tortuously up into the tangled Naga Hills. Once a no-go area, the disparate Naga tribes who constantly raided each other to add to their head collections have now united as the Naga Nation, proud of their heritage. Their capital, Kohima, was hosting the third Naga five-day Hornbill Festival, ritual dances being performed by many of the colourful tribes such as Konyak, Rengmai, Chang Sang, Ao, Anghami and Chaka Chang, each in their own style and brightly coloured traditional dress. All around in true WOMAD style were craft and food stalls with signs such as 'Organic Tea' and 'Ethnic Food'. With menus such as "Venison, wildfowl & tadpole delicacy" it isn't surprising that wild life is scarce! Local rice beer and the ubiquitous Kingfisher brand were also plentiful despite Nagaland being a 'dry' state thanks to the efforts of killjoy missionaries! With few outside visitors, it's a festival for the locals, not a show for the tourists, which suited us fine. At night, it was time for modern Naga fashion, dance and music - an unexpected blend of Bollywood, Boyzone and The Cheeky Girls - definitely different!
3048 metre Mt Japfu, home of the world's tallest rhododendron, should have been our next destination but was permanently cloud covered. We opted instead for the temptations of the legendary Dzuku Valley "the best trekking in the area". What we didn't know was that its approach involved a four-hour thrash up vertical jungle! Topping out at 2710 metres as the sun sank across the valley we were greeted by a sign nailed to a tree "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Mathew 11.28.) but it was rest and a brew that we craved as we contoured the precipitous hillside to reach the hut well after dark.
Next morning veils of mist parted beneath us to reveal a thick carpet of frost below our sun kissed eerie. Beyond, a bizarre landscape of eroded mountains covered by dwarf bamboo rolled into the distance. There are rumours of a five day trek out to the old fortified hilltop village of Khonoma where the Brits fought the Nagas in 1879 but having other things on our agenda, we reluctantly trekked out along a narrow hillside trail then down into the jungle again. Next day we visited Khonoma and other Naga villages for more rice beer with the locals, before once more heading north - this time towards the Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh.
The road snaked precariously above jungle gorges, leading up to the 4150 metres Sela Pass where we slept in a roadside shrine. It was a bad move. The temperature was down below minus ten. Shredded prayer flags flapped wildly in the icy Tibetan wind. The tin roof rattled and banged. The room was full of smoke. We all had headaches from ascending 4000 metres in two days. None of us slept. The Buddha at the back of the room smiled down on us benignly.
Descending next day to 2000 metres, we rapidly left our headaches behind. Ahead, snow capped 6800 metre Gorichan tempted our minds back up beyond distant ridges but our destination was Tawang, "Chosen by Horse", India's oldest Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The founding Lama, having travelled over the mountains from distant Lhasa to start a new monastic retreat, was meditating in a cave when his horse disappeared. He found it pawing the ground on a high ridge, indicating the spot on which to build. Now home to 700 monks, it is pervaded by the serenity of centuries of prayer. The huge Buddha that dominates the Prayer Hall was carried in pieces on yaks from Tibet. Around are other ancient icons, Avalokitesvara the Compassionate, Tara the Wise and various Bodhisatvas who have foregone Nirvana to help all sentient beings achieve enlightenment.
We spent a couple of days there, walking between Gompas and villages and gathering info on treks to the Trading Post on the Bhutan border or to Gorichan Basecamp, then we were on the move again. We were in search of some Black-necked Cranes - an endangered species - which we were told were overwintering in a remote valley. We found them in a paddy field but were distracted by the drumming of the 'Demon-dancers'. Chatting with the hospitable Monpa locals, it seemed the only previous visitors to this exquisite valley with its old 'alpine' houses had been a party of Indian trekkers. How nice it would have been to walk up into its inner reaches and over the pass to villages beyond, but time was pressing.
By next day, we were rafting down-river surrounded by the overhanging jungle of the Nameri Reserve in which elephants could be seen and heard, crashing through dense vegetation, and disturbing the monkeys. Seeing us, a Sambar deer leapt into the undergrowth and in nearby marshes, deeply incised tiger tracks told of a recent buffalo kill.
The following day we were back in Guwahati, supposedly a town of little interest but like everything else in the northeast, we found it fascinating. We visited ancient and modern Hindu Temples and a nearby silk-making village followed by a river cruise and concluded by an invitation to a Hindu wedding.
Flying out next day, the distant Himalayas were shrouded in cloud. Elsewhere, the jungle mountains inhabited by the most colourful of India's tribal people, disappeared into the distance, tempting us back with endless opportunities for exploration.
Located on the easternmost Himalayas Arunachal is one of the most sparsely populated states of India...
The beautiful hill state of Sikkim lies on the eatern tip of the Himalayas bordered by Bhutan, Nepal an Tibet...
Tripura is one of the best potential places that caters the taste of everything from palaces to lakes and hill station.
Manipur literally meaning "A jeweled land" nestle deep within a lush green corner of North East India...
This predominantly tribal state is blessed with great valleys, meandering streams, high mountains...
Meghalaya is a region of great scenic beauty; a panorama of lush, undulating hills, fertile valleys...
Myanmar and Bangladesh border Mizoram, the finger-like projection in the extreme south of the region..
Wildlife Sanctuaries are known for their, unique, rare and varied flora and fauna...
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