Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Travel Diary: Dec 23 - 27, 2010

Day 6 - Thursday - Dec 23

Try to sleep on the bus during our 20 hour drive to Aizawl from Shillong. Not much luck. The road is mostly bad and the bus is slow as a consequence.

I see dawn in Assam. We pass fields, farms and villages along a dirt road that's supposed to be a highway. All flat topography. Beautiful calm scenery. Yellow fields and blue skies. Wish the road were better. We'd be able to enjoy the ride more and the drive would have been shorter. I have a couple of chocolate chip biscuits and a chocolate bar for breakfast. Parle Hide and Seek Milano is really good.

The guy next to me on the bus, JG, works for a rural development organisation based in Shillong, but works out of Garo hills, which is next on our itinerary. He tells me about their work in Selbagre village.

The bus journey seems never ending. It seems to go even slower after entering Mizoram, where the hills begin, and seems to snake up the hills forever. We pass three check points, and the bus is searched once at the Assam-Mizoram border. Alcohol is prohibited here, meaning it can't be sold in Mizoram, and I think that's what they're searching for. However, my companions are able to get their few alcohol bottles through, so I guess the border guards are mainly looking for professionals with crates of the stuff.

That first glimpse of Aizawl is breathtaking. Never going to forget it. A white city set into the side of a hill. Like nothing I've ever seen before. Kind of like McLeod Ganj, but much larger, and way more beautiful. We finally reach Aizawl at 5.00 pm exactly. It's very dark.

The people on the bus are nice, helping us with a cab and general info. We go to the tourist lodge at Chaltalang, but find it's closed till the 26th, and so head to the market area, some distance away, where the hotels are. Pity about the tourist lodge. It looked nice. And seemed very favourably located, on top of a hill. And their rates were excellent too. Rs 600 for a room for 3 people.

When looking for a hotel in the market area, we employ the same technique we used 2 days ago in Shillong, and find a room for Rs.700/night for the 3 of us in Hotel Tropicana. We dump our bags and look for a place to eat. It's 7.00 pm now. Our last real meal was lunch yesterday. We've missed out on a whole day of food. While looking for a restaurant, we come across a place called Earth Rock Cafe, some kind of lounge cafe set up by these group of friends. They tell us it's still early and we're welcome to come back later.

We then find Hot Pot, a really cool cheap place, and order mutton biryani, pork chow, and pork steamed momos. The bill for the 3 of us comes to Rs. 165 combined! Unfortunately, I don't have much of an appetite after all the travel, but force myself to eat something. The food is tasty. After dinner, we go back to our hotel to freshen up, and while RG sleeps, ZP and I go back to Earth Rock Cafe. Nothing much happening there. Just a group of friends hanging out. We share a drink with one of the guys there. He used to work in the fashion business in Delhi before moving back home.

We retire at midnight. It's not too cold outside, not like Shillong or Guwahati.

Day 7 - Friday - Dec 24

We wake late today. Go for a long walk around the market area. They don't allow traffic into the city centre during working hours, at least during Christmas time (though I could hear a lot of traffic on the streets outside our hotel at 5 am), so the people have the streets to themselves.

There are loads of people shopping. According to the 2001 census, the population of Aizawl is 228,280. We probably pass by 10% of that number on the streets today. The streets are really crowded, people doing their last minute Christmas shopping. We wander about, and I have a beef egg roll. We walk about some more, away from the market, and then take a bus ride, an excellent way to see the town. We return by another bus, and then another short walk back to our hotel.

Aizawl is beautiful, not like other Indian towns. It's clean, and looks prosperous. There doesn't seem to be any poverty. And the people look happy. Everyone is very well dressed, very fashionable. The people of Aizawl, and I suppose Mizoram in general, are among the most beautiful in the world. There are at least 2 beauty parlours on every street, and everyone looks like they stepped off a fashion ramp. Everyone is making a fashion statement, and there isn't a fugly person is town.

Also, almost everyone we see is a local, and they all look decent. I mean, they don't give out bad vibes or look hostile or anything, nor are they over friendly. They simply go about their daily lives, content, and are happy to help out if need be. Some of them occassionally glance in our direction, perhaps wondering who we are and why we're here. Guess they're not used to tourists, or outsiders. To be honest, this is the first time we feel like we're outside India. We didn't feel this way in Meghalaya. I guess it's because we're the other tourists here. There are other people from other parts of India, but they're here on business.

The guys go out for lunch near the hotel. I join them. We're told that tomorrow (Saturday) being Christmas, and the day after being both Sunday and the day after Christmas, the entire place is going to be dead. We won't even be able to find transport in and out of town. I rush out looking to book transport out of here asap, and after some running around, find 3 seats in a shared Sumo to Silchar for early tomorrow morning for Rs. 350/person. They say there's regular transport running from Silchar to Guwahati everyday, so we needn't worry.

RG and ZP join me by now, after finishing off lunch, and ZP goes to double check for alternate transport. In the meantime, a Mizo friend from Mumbai drops by and we chat for a couple of minutes. He's here for the holidays. ZP returns. He can't find anything better, so we book the tickets and chill at the hotel.

I take a walk around 6.00 in the evening to check out the Christmas eve scene. Everyone's dressed and going to church. I stop by one service. It's in a local language. The kids and adults are in different rooms. The kids are singing. I return to the hotel and drag RG out for an early 7.00 pm dinner. I haven't had lunch so I'm starving. He's stuffed himself for lunch so not really hungry. 

We go to David's Kitchen, a restaurant close by that is probably the best and most expensive in Aizawl (it even has a little fountain and lights in front, and people keep posing for pictures in front of it) but we think 'what the hell, it's Christmas, right? Let's indulge ourselves for once'. The restaurant is mostly empty. Not many locals there. I have pork in bamboo shoots and rice for Rs.185. The food is relatively bland, as Mizo food generally is, I'm told, but the quality and presentation is excellent. ZP drops by after his nap and the hostess tells us that there's going to be a concert at Temple square, so we walk there together, leaving RG at the hotel midway. 

The concert is an open-air affair, with different amateur Mizo bands playing mostly average Christmas music. They have some talent, but aren't really professional. ZP and I leave after a while and catch the remainder of the concert live on the T.V in our room. He drinks; we talk. He leaves for a late night dinner, and returns just after midnight to wish RG and I a Merry Christmas. The concert ends at a little after midnight.

Day 8 - Saturday - Dec 25

Christmas day. We take the early morning shared Sumo that we've booked (4 people per row) to Silchar. The ride is bumpy at times, but the scenery is excellent. And we're all fresh so we can enjoy it. We can see a carpet of white mist in the valleys below us as we ride through the hills away from Aizawl. 

I listen to music on my phone all through the trip. Noise canceling earphones. I highly recommend them. They cancel out the dumb Bollywood music playing in the car. Everyone else in the car is non-Mizo. The ride to Silchar is uneventful. We only see a few locals going to church, but that's it. Everything else seems dead.

We come down to the plains of Assam where we see lots of farms again. It's very scenic. We come to Silchar at last at around lunchtime. We can't decide whether to take a bus or a train back to Guwahati. We settle on a bus since a train would involve changing trains at Lumding as there's no direct train to Guwahati.

We're hungry too; we haven't eaten breakfast, it's lunchtime and RG and I go looking for a restaurant for a minute, leaving ZP alone, who soon wanders off, despite instructions to stay in one place. He's like a child. We eat mutton/chicken thalis at a place nearby for Rs. 70/60 each. Nice spicy ones. We then book bus tickets to Guwahati (Rs. 390 each) and head to an internet browsing centre (Rs. 25/hr).

We return by 4.30 to the bus counter. ZP goes wandering off again in search of a snack and we miss our connecting bus to the ISBT, which means we have to take a rick there (Rs.80). Once there, we find our bus easily and like it. It's more of a luxury bus than the one that brought us here, and more comfortable. I listen to music again, till I feel sleepy. No dinner. The roads through Assam are bad, and there's mist everywhere.

Day 9 - Sunday - Dec 26

I don't sleep much on the bus. We reach Guwahati at around 5.00 am and we're all tired. It's very cold, uncomfortable. The original plan was to go to Tura next, but we figure we need to recuperate and get some sleep, so we take a shared taxi to Wireless, walk the 10 minutes to RB's place from the main road (Rs. 40 each), and sleep beautifully for the next 6 hours.

We wake, freshen up, and at 1 pm have one of the most beautiful meals we've had in a long time, courtesy RB's mom - smoked pork, rice, fish, pork liver & prawn chutney. Very filling. I've been surviving on just 1 meal each day for the last 4 days, and my jeans are getting loose, so this food, and more like it, is welcome.

We rest again after lunch, then take a walk to the street outside. ZP makes us wait while he has some momos in chilli sauce. We return to RB's place for tea and delicious snacks, watch a little T.V, and then go out for a drive in RB's car. We meet his cousin K again, buy some liquor and head to the banks of the Brahmaputra. The others light up and drink while I talk and listen and try not to inhale too much smoke. We leave from there a little after 10.00 pm. ZP and K are drunk and high on the drive back making a lot of noise in the back seat, on either side of me.

Back home, I eat a very light dinner, and sleep. The plan is to leave for Tura tomorrow.

Day 10 - Monday - Dec 27

We wake up reasonably early, and are fresh and ready to leave the city by 9.00 am, after a full day of rest, when we hear that there's a bandh in place that's blocking all roads leading in and out of the city to the east i.e Tura and the airport, which means our plans for Garo Hills might have to be postponed.

By 11.00, we're told the roads are open, but inquiries at the ISBT, where RB's dad drops us (they only have buses leaving at 8.00 pm for Tura) and at Machkhowa (where the 2 private operators have cancelled their shared Sumo services to Tura for the day but one of them lets us book for tomorrow morning at 6.30 am) force us to shelve our plans for the day, after taking a tracker and a bus to get there.

We go to Kamakhya Mandir to kill time, taking a bus to the base of the hill, and a shared van to the top, which is mostly congested and dirty on the outside, though I'm sure the inner mandir complex is clean. No good photo opps here. We take a bus from the top to Palthan Bazaar, where the main city bus & taxi depo is, and get a bus to Wireless. And all this with our luggage. So a lot of travelling today, but it still seems like a waste.

We eat a roll for lunch at 3.45 and return home to RB's place where we chill, wait for him to return from work, and then book an early morning rickshaw to Machkhowa tomorrow. Rickshaw booked, the others head to an internet browsing centre while I return home to watch T.V, read and take a nap.

They phone me out for dinner. I go to the street outside, and meet ZP, who gives me really bad news - there's another bandh tomorrow. We hasten to make calls to see if we can get something, anything to move tomorrow, with no luck. ISBT services aren't running. And helicopter services are out of the question, since the road to the airport is also blocked. There's a longer route to Tura and Baghmara via Shillong along the Bangladeshi border, but that's both long and grossly expensive since we'd need to hire our own private vehicle from Shillong.

In the end, we postpone our shared Sumo tickets to the 29th. This is a bad blow. We could afford to spend 1 extra day in Guwahati, but 2 is too much. We'll have to cut short our trip to Garo hills, and if there's a bandh on the 3rd day, scrap it altogether and go somewhere closer like Kaziranga or Manas. We regret not leaving the previous night.

The roads inside Assam and the highway to Shillong are fine. It's just the main highway and connector east to Bengal and the rest of India that's blocked. Unfortunately for us, that's also the road to Tura and the airport. RG worries that if there's a bandh on 3rd Jan, we might miss our flight back to Mumbai.

It's almost 10.00 pm by now, so we catch a late dinner at a restaurant nearby, before going back home. The others tell me this trip is too rushed, but we had no choice really. If we knew there was going to be a bandh, we would have definitely spent more time in Mizoram or Meghalaya.


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