We all have our favourite travel destinations. These are places that we keep going back to either because we associate a cherished memory with them or because they are a convenient and cost-effective getaway or maybe because the waft of the local grub is just too hard to resist.
Having said that, travelling to a place you haven’t travelled to before is a whole new experience. Charting unknown and unexplored waters is probably the simplest and most plausible way of feeling human. Heading my list of some of the most unexplored destinations is North East India. Tucked away amidst the Himalayan valleys and accessible to the rest of the country only via a narrow stretch of land lies this mystical cluster of regions. It has an incredibly distinct culture, a mesmerising landscape, breath-taking wildlife and, perhaps, a misunderstood image. Read on for more.
What’s the brouhaha all about?
The North East of India is an exotic region made up of eight administrative states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. Although the region has for long grappled with political insurgencies, being endowed with spectacular biodiversity, an astonishing array of flora and fauna and a startlingly original way of life has helped it make a place for itself on the travel map.
However, the region does have a few obstacles for travellers. The relative lack of connectivity and development and the inter-factional disputes can make travelling across the region a challenge in itself. But the floodplains, the fascinating range of persons, the wildlife, the ancient temples and monasteries or, simply, being in the wettest place on earth are reasons enough to embark upon this adventure.
What to look out for?
You can start your journey at the Kaziranga National Park, gazing at the majestic – and now endangered – one-horned rhinoceros and the royal Bengal tigers. While at it, don’t miss the leopards, wild elephants, cranes, fish eagles, Bengal floricans and great hornbills. Next, you can head to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and visit the Gaden Namgyal Lhatse, the second-largest monastery in Asia, and get a sense of the political disquiet pervading this border city. While in Arunachal Pradesh, you can also get a glimpse of the ethereal Sela lake and pass.
Other must-see locations include Meghalaya’s Nohkalikai falls (335 metres), the revered Phawngpui (Blue Mountain) peak in Mizoram, the Dzukou valley in Nagaland for the mesmerising rhododendrons splashed across the surroundings, the Loktak lake in Manipur characterised by a floating vegetation locally known as “Phumdi” and the Gurudongmar lake in Sikkim, located close to the Tibetan border at 17,100 feet. Also make sure you visit Assam’s finest tea plantations for an idyllic getaway from city life.
What about food cravings?
In terms of cuisine, it is a common misconception that North East India seems to offer nothing other than the variety of momos and noodles. While momos, noodles and rice do constitute the staple diet, most regions also offer eclectic fish and pork delicacies prepared with a wide range of spices including Nagaland’s feared Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper), one of the hottest chillies in the world.
A terrible stereotype associated with the region is that it is a gastronomical nightmare for vegetarians. Far from the truth, local vegetarian food includes a wide range of delicacies like the Chi Al Meh (a vegetable soup),Daieneiiong (a type of dal) and Sanpiau (a Mizo street snack) among others. Pitha, a rice-based dessert is a favourite across the region.
How do I get there?
If you intend to fly to your destination, Assam is your best bet. Commercial flights also operate in other capital cities. Most major cities are connected by road, although the quality of roads may disrupt your travel schedule. If you are a backpacker, negotiate a good deal with the local cab services to move around the cities. When travelling in states that are close to the border, journeys can get especially time-consuming as you may find yourself stuck behind a military convoy.
Any other tips?
Some parts of North East India may not be safe for travel. Travel during the day, and choose your mode of transport wisely. The region has a wealth of indigenous cultures and tribes, so be an informed and inquisitive traveller. March is the best time to spot rhinos in Kaziranga.