Thursday, 13 January 2011

Travel Diary: Dec 28, 2010 - Jan 1, 2011

Day 11 - Tuesday - Dec 28

I'm up at 7.00 am today, much before the others. I talk with RB's dad. Tell him we're planning on visiting the museum today since we have the time. He tells me about a rhino wildlife reserve nearby called Pobitora. Says it's close by and gives us directions.

I tell ZP & RG when they awake. They like the idea of the wildlife reserve too. We leave at 11.30. Just the 3 of us. RB is at work. Head to Palthan Bazaar by bus. Collect ZP's passport size photos that he had taken on his first day here before we arrived but didn't collect. We find a private car for Pobitora. A WagonR, like RG's car, for Rs. 1100 for the full day. Had to bargain it down from Rs. 1500.

The drive to Pobitora is really nice. We get to see some good Assam scenery - flat fields and farms with blue skies, a welcome change from the concrete jungle that is Guwahati. Like what we saw on the ride to and from Aizawl, only this time was better because we could stop the car whenever we wanted to take pictures.

We see a domesticated elephant on the way, a buffalo, and finally a couple of rhinos on a large field, just before coming to the main entrance to the reserve. Apparently, this land around the approach road also belongs to the reserve. There are many security personnel, trucks and even a crane parked on this field. We figure there's a rhino trans-location going on. Rhinos are being moved from this reserve, where they're in abundance, to a national park, where they're needed. And all this can be seen from the main road that approaches the reserve. What a free treat! Especially for the villagers who live nearby, many of whom are watching the spectacle from the road.

The rhinos are fantastic to watch. This is the first time I'm seeing real live wild ones right in front of me. We try to take pics but the animals are really far away. I have to use the digital zoom on my 18x optical zoom Panasonic Lumix FZ35 (borrowed from friend NC) and go up to the maximum limit of 72x to get the rhinos to fill up the camera frame. The pics will be blurred on 100% magnification, owing to the fact that I'm not using a tripod.

Of course, the rhino trans-location means that the reserve is closed, so we can't take a jeep or elephant safari inside. A bit disappointing, but we do save over Rs. 300 by not doing this, and we already got to see and click wild rhinos and some excellent scenery, so we don't feel too bad. We have a lunch of pork chilly at a restaurant at the reserve called Kunki's. I like the ambiance but the food's a bit pricey.

The drive back is via an alternative road that's also very scenic. We get some excellent pics of the sunset lit clouds. It's nice to be excited about a subject. We haven't taken these many pics in one day since Cherrapunjee. We need this. Being stuck in Guwahati for 3 days has left us a bit edgy and in a bad mood, so this one fun productive day really lifts our spirits.

We get back home, but not before booking the same guy to take ZP, RG and I to Machkhowa early tomorrow morning to catch our ride to Tura. He's cheaper than the rickshaw guys out here. At home, ZP realises he's lost his camera. He searches the house, then calls the driver who says it's in the car and he'll return it tomorrow morning.

We go out for a walk with RB, then to a cyber centre, and then meet K again, who takes us for a drive. A few drinks and smokes later (them, not me), he leads us to Beatrix restaurant, quite a nice place with this cafe look on the ground floor, and caricatures on the walls, like Mondegars in Mumbai.

We all order the 'king burger', this huge chicken burger for Rs. 95. Very filling. K orders 3 rolls too, cut into 2 halves, but RG and I can't touch ours. We're too full. We all head back home. Stop outside RB's house for more smokes (them, not me) and stories of illegal activities. It's really cold now. Need to zip up my jacket. Head inside at 11.30 pm. We've got an early start tomorrow.

Day 12 - Wednesday - Dec 29

We take the 6.30 am shared sumo to Tura. They had originally booked us into a Bolero but cancelled that and moved us into a Sumo instead to accommodate the people who's trips have had to be cancelled over the last 2 days.

The journey is uneventful. The Guwahati-Tura road is good. Beautiful early morning scenery. We reach Tura by 1.00 pm (6 hrs). It's a small town. Quiet compared to Guwahati. The city centre, where we find a cheap hotel for the 3 of us for one night for Rs. 550, is a dump. Mostly outsiders (read Bangladeshis) staying here. We don't see many locals.

Tura, and most of Garo Hills that we've seen so far, just seems like one unending forest, with pockets of habitation here and there, which is what Tura would qualify as. A town spread out in parts here and there in the middle of a forest. There don't seem to be any plains here. Just forested hills. 

Without lunch, we ask around for transport to Nokrek, the biosphere reserve. We've heard a lot about it, and I'm guessing we'll need a full day there to go exploring, but half a day is all we have, since we're leaving tomorrow for Baghmara (we would have stayed an extra day or two in Tura if we had the time, but those strikes in Assam have cut our trip short). Unfortunately, no one here seems to know about Nokrek or how to get there, though they've all heard about Balpakram national park near Baghmara, which is our next stop. Even the rickshaw people either don't know about it or are reluctant to go there.

So we cancel the plan to visit Nokrek and instead take a shared rick to the Forest Office in Dakopgre, a suburb, where we hear there's a Gibbon reserve. We find the place easily, but since we're not sure they allow tourists inside, we pose as official visitors on forest business. However, we see mostly empty offices and residences belonging to the forest dept. The support staff tells us that everyone's on Christmas leave, that there's no reserve here, and that we should try Nehru zoo in Danpokgre if we want to catch some wildlife. One of the staff is leaving on an errand in a car, and drops us half-way there.

We take a bus the rest of the way to the zoo. There's a ticket counter, but no one manning it. We slip inside. RG decides to sit tight, while ZP and I take a long walk around. It's 3.00 pm now. Nehru zoo is really one big garden, with the zoo area hidden away towards the extreme left. We do see a few creatures - bears, barking deer, serpent crested eagles, owls, wild cats, a rock python. 

The animals all seem to approach the cages as we go past. Maybe hoping for food. I hope they're being fed. I can't see anyone around. We're the only ones here, apart from some villagers nearby. There's no security here. We could come in with some wire cutters, steal a pair of leopard cats and be gone before anyone knew.

We take a bus back to town and book a shared Sumo to Baghmara for tomorrow at 5.30 am. There just seems to be one private travel agency arranging transport  to Baghmara. The only other option is the bus. Again, we haven't had much of a breakfast and no lunch so we go for a buffet dinner at Brenga restaurant at the Hotel Rickman at 7.00. (Rs. 185 per person). ZP eats his money's worth.

Back to the hotel. Watch some T.V. Pack. The others are cranky.

Day 13 - Thursday - Dec 30

Early morning drive from Tura to Baghmara in a Sumo. The road is bad in parts, but we're there in 3 hours. Baghmara is a really small town. We stop at the main bus stand and shared transport ground a little further down from the market area. Our first order of business is to arrange for transport back to Tura/Guwahati. 

They tell us there'll be no transport at all on the 1st. And we don't want to leave on the 2nd morning since that would mean spending the night in Tura on the 2nd and leaving for Guwahati on the 3rd, and ZP has to be in Guwahati in time for his train on that day. We're not aware of any night transport. So the only option left is to leave for Tura tomorrow, the 31st, and try to get something for Guwahati on the 1st or 2nd from there. But the problem now is none of the private operators are willing to guarantee transport to Tura for tomorrow, since they have no one else travelling that day and they usually pack in 10 people in a Sumo, and we're just 3. So we're stuck for now.

We decide to at least try to see Balpakram since we came so far, and see what we get in terms of transport to Tura tomorrow morning. We get our permits done at the forest office nearby. Again, most of the staff are on leave but one of the guys lets us write out or own permits in the absence of official forms, and then stamps them. We then return to the grounds where we book a shared Sumo to Balpakram (Rs. 180 per person) and park our bags in the Baghmara tourist lodge on a hill above the grounds (Rs. 20/ person for a really really good room). We hope we can return to the lodge to spend the night. It looks really nice, cosy and has a beautiful view.  We return to the grounds, have a quick pork-curry-and-rice lunch, and take the shared Sumo to Balpakram. 

The drive starts off well on a tarmac road but soon ends upon a rocky dirt track. Balpakram National Park is 60 kms from Baghmara, and it takes us 2 hours to get there, the road being narrow, curvy and bad. We can see the plains of Bangladesh from the mountain road we're on. We reach the entrance to the park; it's on the main road, but there's no one around. We go snooping about. A couple of the residences around the entrance seem to be occupied. They're unlocked, so someone's living there. In one of the residences, someone has just cooked a meal and left. We find a guard's badge in one of the rooms. Maybe he's on patrol. 

We go for a short walk, return, hang around for an hour and then leave. We could stay here for the night in one of the residences, whether our mystery guard returns or not. We even have some supplies. But we decide to see if we can get transport back. We meet a bike on the road outside who tells us we probably won't be getting any transport back at this time (it's almost 3.30) and ask us to check in at a guesthouse about 20 mins away. 

We walk there, but the guesthouse is being renovated. The caretaker kindly directs us to the next village 5 kms away - Mahadev - where he says we might get accommodation in the PWD guesthouse. We start to walk, and then hitch a ride in an approaching border security van. The officers are nice; they seem amused at our story and how far we've travelled, and drop us at Mahadev, which we learn is on the border with Bangladesh and where the army guys have a checkpost.

We get a lot of glances at the village. The people are friendly but curious about the 3 foreign boys who've just been dropped off in their tiny village by the army. We find the guesthouse soon enough; it's situated on a hill just before the bridge that leads to the village, and is unoccupied, so we finally have our accommodation if we need to spend the night here. We look for transport but find none.

It's getting dark. We chill out at the village. This is a really beautiful place. The guys aren't cranky anymore, which is surprising as this is the one point in our journey so far that I'd expect to be the tipping point at which their anger would boil over and we'd all be at each other's throats, but I guess people can surprise you sometimes. RG seems in a wonderful mood. He's happy that a series of unrelated events has let us to be stranded at this beautiful place almost on the Bangladeshi border with little hope for return in time for any transport back to Tura tomorrow.

We shop for supplies at the village market. Supplies for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. ZP's phone is the only one that's been working up till now, but even here, as in Cherrapunjee, he's on a Bangladeshi mobile network. He finds someone who'll let him make a call to his travel agent to book his tatkal ticket. He also finds someone to make us dinner - fish curry & rice & Maggi. Oh joy! He's especially kicked about the possibility of the fish coming from Bangladesh.

In the meantime, RG stops a bus going the other way and confirms that a bus will be leaving to Tura tomorrow, coming from the next village farther up the road. The bus usually stops in Baghmara, but they're running a service to Tura tomorrow because it's New Year's eve. We're in luck at last.

We sit in the village and look at the stars while munching snacks and waiting for dinner. We can see so many of them in the sky because of the darkness. It's wonderful. Then we eat. I have a little Maggi. But all that travelling has left me without much of an appetite. The helpful villagers guide us back to the guesthouse with torches.

We return to the guesthouse. The lights go out as soon as we unlock and open the door. ZP is scared. He believes it's haunted. The guesthouse is a 2 bedroom one, with a small dining area joining both bedrooms. He insists we all sleep in one room. So we drag the mattress and sheets from one bed to the floor of the other bedroom. Some of the glass panes in the windows in both rooms are broken. And the metal grill along the top of one bathroom wall is rolled back a little. And we can hear tribal-sacrifice-like drum beats coming from the caretaker's house nearby. ZP is spooked. We spend the night shivering with 2 candles for company, wondering at the strange turn of events.

Day 14 - Friday - Dec 31

New Year's eve. We were originally supposed to be back in Baghmara early in the morning for a 6.30 am shared Sumo to Tura, but we've obviously missed that now. Instead, we're out in the cold in Mahadev at 6.00 am, waiting for a bus to pick us up and (luckily for us) take us all the way to Tura. The only catch is that our backpacks are still in the Baghmara tourist lodge, so we'll have to stop the bus there to get them. Will they let us do this? Or will we have to get off altogether and spend New Year's at Baghmara. The place is nice, but spending a night in Baghmara means we might not get transport to Guwahati back in time for ZP's train. And RG wants to get back at least a day early to make sure we don't miss our flights in case of another bandh.

We take a lot of early morning dawn pics while waiting for the bus. We wait for an hour. One of the villagers tells us how easy it is to cross the border over here. Everyone seems to be doing it both ways. He even points a couple of Bangladeshi traders out to us. The bus arrives at 7.00. The ride to Baghmara is slow and bumpy. It takes us twice as long to reach Baghmara as the Sumo to Balpakram did yesterday - 4 hours. I have a small snack at a stop midway. We reach Baghmara by 11.00.

What follows next is nothing less than a splendid moment of success. We've already told the bus conductor to stop the bus beside the hill on which the tourist lodge is located, and wait a minute for us to get our bags. We leave ZP waiting at the bus and RG and I dash up the steps set into the little hill leading to the tourist lodge, sprint to our room, which I unlock, grab our 4 bags, and dash down the steps to the bus, all in under 2 minutes. We're panting from the effort. And extremely proud of ourselves. 

The bus continues on to Tura, stopping in between at a place where I eat a roti for lunch. The others are surprised that I'm eating on a journey, something I usually don't do. But it's just a small snack. The journey takes 4 hours, longer than the previous 3 hour Sumo ride. The ride is bumpy and dusty. We reach Tura and search for transport for Guwahati asap, and when all we can get is something for the 2nd, book it and search for a hotel again. RG & I want to stay at someplace better for New Year's. We need to rest, and clean up big time. We haven't bathed for over 2 days. ZP wants to take up a cheaper place, but I tell him I'll treat him to dinner if he goes along with us, and we can stay in a cheaper room on our second day here.

We check into Hotel Rickman, clean up, relax and get some BBQ dinner from outside - 4 pieces of chicken, 4 pieces of pork, and chicken liver. Very delicious. We're starved. We also order some food from the hotel - pork fried rice & manchurian chicken (we had originally ordered 2 plates of rice but they screwed up our order, to our benefit). An amazing new year's meal. One that I will always remember.

I gather that in general, though English is widely spoken here, there seems to be a communication problem. People in Meghalaya can't understand us and we can't get through to them. It's probably easier to converse in Hindi.

We're done with dinner by 10.30 and chill out for a while, watching T.V. ZP and I take a walk at a little before midnight. We move away from the town centre, and discover that Tura is actually quite pretty at night. The town explodes into crackers and fireworks at midnight, and we get to see a real spectacle. Church is over for most people by this time, and everyone's zipping about on bikes & in cars, wishing everyone else. The town's in celebratory mode. It rains for a while too.

ZP returns to the hotel at 1.00 AM, and I continue walking for another hour. It's generally cool outside, but not cold. All the walking has left me hot, and the hotel room is stifling.

Day 15 - Saturday - Jan 1

We take our time getting up today. A lot of our past mornings have been spent on early morning starts to get early morning transport to some other place. And since we're not going anywhere today, we sleep in. We miss the complimentary hotel breakfast that ends at 10.00, so RG & I go out in search of some and a cheaper hotel room.

Almost everything is closed today, except for a few grocery stores. Like in Aizawl, they really take this time of year seriously. RG and I eat a tasty omelette breakfast at a restaurant nearby and book a room at a cheaper hotel. We return to Rickman, and the 3 of us check out. 

On leaving, we see a travel operator nearby who actually has seats available for today afternoon i.e 1 hour from now, in a traveller, a 13 seat vehicle (like a coach). We book at once, even though we've already booked tickets elsewhere for Sunday. The plan is to get out of here asap as everything's dead. We cancel our booking at the new hotel, and dump our bags in the vehicle. It's cloudy outside. Signs of rain. Beautiful weather.

The journey to Guwahati takes around 6 hours, as before. We stop at Machkhowa again, take a rickshaw to Palthan Bazaar, and a bus to Wireless, where we finally get home, and go out with RB for dinner to a restaurant nearby - where we eat pork masala, pork in bamboo shoots & rice.
A very delicious New Year's meal. 

Over dinner, he tells us of a run-in with the cops a day after we left. Ruined his New Year plans. He might have been better off with us. We head home for an early night.



Anonymous said...

few pics would hv added more color to the post :)

Daniel D'Mello said...

Trust me, the pics will go up, and they'll be separate posts in themselves.

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