Friday, April 17, 2015

Land of the rising sun- Arunachal Pradesh

A trip to Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya

Gompa Buddha Vihar, Itanagar
My family visited Arunachal Pradesh (Tawang circuit) twelve years ago and had been raving about its natural beauty ever since. So, I wanted to go there and finally I got the opportunity in April 2015.

We took a 5.30am flight from Delhi and reached Guwahati in 2 hours. During our pre-trip arrangements, I had booked a cab for the entire journey to save time. The cab came to the airport to receive us. Our destination for the day was Itanagar via Tezpur. Within few minutes of the drive, it was interesting to know that the divider of the road was cutting across the boundaries of two states- Assam and Meghalaya. On the left side of the divider lay Assam and on the other side was Meghalaya. The road condition is good, only the last 15 kms to reach Itanagar is under construction. We reached Itanagar by 4.30pm and had booked our stay at the University Guest House. Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most linguistically diverse regions in Asia. There are more than 50 dialects spoken in the state.

Day 2: Itanagar is the capital of Arunachal Pradesh and it gets its name from 'Fort of bricks' (brick is called ita in Ahom and in Hindi language). Our first stopover was at Gekar Sinyi (Ganga Lake) which is a good natural lake. Then, we visited the zoo which was enjoyable. Tigers, leopards, alligator and some beautiful birds were the star attraction. After having lunch, we went to Gompa Buddha Vihar- it's a Buddhist temple consecrated by the Dalai Lama. The serenity of the place made us spend more time within the complex. The Nehru Museum and Craft Emporium were closed as it was a Saturday. We ended the day by visiting the Polo Park, a botanical garden located on top of a ridge at Naharlagun (the twin capital city).  

Lot of construction work is currently underway at Itanagar making it a dusty place. I am hoping this will change in the next few years. Considering that I live in Delhi, the last thing I would like to do on a vacation is to visit another polluted city. We were fortunate to be staying inside the University campus which has relatively less pollution level.
Day 3: We left at 6am to go to Ziro which is 167 kms from Itanagar. It takes 5 hours to cover this distance which gives a good indication of the quality of roads. There is a shortcut to reach Ziro from Itanagar which reduces the distance by 50 kms. So actually, we travelled only 100 kms in 5 hours.

Ziro is a picturesque hill station which nestles on Apatani plateau and is the headquarters of Lower Subansiri district. Ziro was nominated to UNESCO for inclusion in the World Heritage Site in 2012. The road journey was tiring and we had not eaten anything since morning. We had our Sunday Brunch at E&K Resort. The food was really good. We went to Ziro Valley Resort and decided to stay there. After a tea-break, we went to see the 'Basti' where the Apatani tribals live. We saw the tribal ladies in their traditional attire and their homes were made of bamboo. Then, we went to see Shivalinga measuring 25ft in height and 22ft in circumference which has been unearthed in Kardo hills. Surprisingly, the Shivalinga was wearing a Rudraksh chain when unearthed. There is a gate from where one has to start climbing as vehicles are not allowed. There are no sign boards and when we started climbing, we were the only ones. Thankfully, later another local group joined us from another trek route. This place is 4kms from Hapoli town.

Ziro is indeed a beautiful place and if you can time your trip according to paddy cultivation season, then it's picture perfect. It was rather cold when we visited in early April and sowing of paddy was expected to be done by end of April. However, we did get a glimpse of how it would have looked during cultivation season (check the photo). 

Only after the end of the trip, we were told that foreigners frequent this place while Indians give it a miss. This realization came after a not so pleasant cab experience.
Day 4: We left Ziro at 6am. There was a two and an half hour traffic jam at Itanagar and the high pollution level was making the wait seem even longer. We visited the Crafts Museum in Itanagar was on the way and we reached Tezpur at 4pm. We stayed at the Tezpur University Guest House which not only has a beautiful campus but its Guest House is also excellent.
Shivlinga at Ziro

Day 5: We left Tezpur at 9am and on our way visited the Orchids Research Centre at Tipi and thereafter saw the Orchid nursery at Sessa. Typically, beginning of April is a good season to see orchids in full bloom, however, this year, due to climate change the blooming season was delayed. We reached Bomdila at 3.30pm. First, we visited the Crafts Centre, then the museum and finally the main Buddhist Gompa. There was some renovation work taking place inside the Gompa. They have a nice cafĂ© which serves beverages and light snacks. The portion size of the snacks is quite a mouthful.

Pineapple Orchids @ Tipi

We had made our booking at the government's Tourist Lodge, so headed towards our rest house. On reaching there, we saw some festivities in the vicinity and decided to join in. Mopin Festival - a celebration of harvesting season was taking place and we were welcomed with open arms. First, they applied the customary rice flour paste (Iti) on our face. The locals of the Galo trive were dancing as well as singing in their traditional attire (Jepe). We were served locally made rice beer in a bamboo shoot (Apong), traditionally cooked chicken and fish. The taste of all the dishes was very different. The festivities went on till late night but after an hour or so we decided to go back to our lodge as we were tired and it was getting quite cold. The hosts thanked us for joining in and also requested to stay on till dinner time. Our stomachs were already full and we too expressed our gratitude.
Mopin Festival
Yak Breeding Centre
Day 6: We started at 6am from Bomdila to go to Tawang which is at a distance of 183kms. On the way, we went to Dirang (42kms from Bomdila) where there is National Yak Research and Breeding Centre. On reaching there, we were told that this is the administrative office and the Breeding Centre is at Nigamadung. Then we headed towards the Hot Water Spring. Surprisingly, the water is lukewarm- its temperature was just perfect. I washed my face and dipped my foot for some time. Actually, I was expecting boiling hot water, the way it is in Badrinath, Manikaran or Vasisth Bath (Manali). Then, we went to Nigamadung which is a slight detour- 12 kms one way (but it takes time to reach) to see the Yak Breeding Centre which is located on a hilltop. I tasted Yak's milk for the first time. It tastes good but it's quite heavy. Drinking half cup of milk was equivalent to drinking a full glass of Mother Diary/ Amul milk. 
Sela Pass
Then, we went to Sela Pass(45 kms from Dirang) which is the world's second highest motorable pass at 13,700 ft with a clean blue water natural lake. Light snowfall was taking place when we visited the pass making the place look even more beautiful.  
Next, we went to Jaswant Garh (14 kms from  Sela Pass), the War Memorial of the brave soldier named Jaswant Singh of the 4th Garhwal Rifles who showed unmatched courage by fighting and stopping the Chinese army for 72 hours, all alone before he laid down his life for the country. Such brave soldiers truly make our country great (Mera Bharat Mahaan).
According to the locals, when Chinese army invaded India in 1962, the Indian army was caught unaware. Jaswant Singh's battalion decided to leave their post as their battalion had fewer soldiers as compared to the Chinese army and the invaders were better equipped in terms of arms and ammunition. Jaswant Singh defied the orders of his seniors and decided to fight the enemy on his own. In his fight against the enemy, he was supported by two young local girls (named Sela & Nura) who would load the various guns and Jaswant Singh would press the trigger, thereby giving an impression to the Chinese army that numerous Indian soldiers are fighting against them. It is said that Jaswant Singh killed more than 300 Chinese soldiers in the war.
After 2 days of intense fighting, Chinese went to the village to enquire regarding the strength of the Indian army who were holding on to the post. They were shocked to know that there was only a one-man army supported by two local girls. Chinese found out about the family members of the two girls and then they tortured the fathers' of the girls. A villager was sent by the Chinese to inform the girls that their dads are unwell and they should come back home. The girls returned and were killed by the Chinese. Jaswant Singh sacrificed his life fighting gallantly. The Indian army declared that Jaswant Singh did not obey the orders of his seniors and his pension was stopped even after his supreme sacrifice. Thereafter, very unexpectedly, the Chinese government recognised his bravery and was accorded the highest honour of the country. It is then that the Indian side too recognised his contribution and his pension was resumed and was awarded the Mahavir Chakra (posthumous). I had mixed feelings on visiting the site. I felt proud and sad simultaneously. As it is commonly said, justice delayed is justice denied.  
We had hot samosas at the Army’s Canteen. The Army also serves tea (at no cost) to all the visitors.
Thereafter, we visited the Nuranang waterfall which is on the way to Tawang. Finally, after a 10 hour
Nuranang Waterfalls
journey, we reached Tawang at 4pm. We had booked the Circuit House which had been recently renovated and is located on a hilltop, making it a very good stay option. The moment we landed rainfall started which continued for another 11 hours.
Day 7: At 6am, we left the Circuit House to see the Sangetsar Lake (popularly known as Madhuri Lake). A song from the movie ‘Koyla’ was shot here featuring Madhuri Dixit, hence it got a new name. The lake is 33kms away from Tawang and one has to go early in the morning as it gets clouded by the time it's 9am. The previous evening’s rain in Tawang meant that there was snowfall happening in the upper region. There was fresh snow all along and after travelling a distance of 7kms, we were told by the army that the road was blocked as there was 3-4ft snow. Then, we returned to the Circuit House And we were staying at the new Circuit House. On my way back, all the beautiful snow clad mountains surrounding Tawang were visible. After having breakfast, we left to see the Tawang Monastery which is nicely perched on a hill top at a height of 10,000ft. It is the second largest monastery in Asia built in the 17th century AD. We also visited the museum that is located within the monastery. Then, we went to see the Emporium (Craft Centre) and the War Memorial. 
Day 8: Another attempt to visit Madhuri Lake was futile as the previous day it rained again. I felt as if Arunachal is calling me for another visit in the near future.  
Trout Hatchery
We left Tawang at 6am. There was snow all around (almost 15kms before Sela Pass) making the place look stunning. We visited the Department of Fisheries, Trout fish hatchery (it is before Sela Pass). We saw the breeding of Rainbow trouts and prawn trout fishes. Then, we stopped by at Sela Pass and Jaswant Garh once again. We reached Tezpur in the night.
Sela Pass
Day 9: At 5.30am, we boarded the cab to go to Shillong, Meghalaya. After a four hour journey, we reached our destination. After dropping our luggage at the University Guest House (which is near to IIM Shillong), we left for Cherapunjee which is 50kms away. Both Shillong and Cherapunjee are very clean and have good road connectivity. The fresh air of the place was a welcome change. We visited the Elephant Falls, Duwan Sing Syiem View Point (Dympep Sohra, Cherrapunjee), Mawsai Caves, and Thangkharang Park. I was glad to hear from my family who were revisiting this place after 12 years that the city has improved over the years. Our cab driver also had the same viewpoint (he was revisiting the place after 5 years).  
In the evening, we went to Police Bazaar (main market area in Shillong). It is a shopper’s paradise but we had very less time in hand. Yet, we managed to do some good shopping.

Day 10: We left Shillong at 7.30am to go to Guwahati which is around 100kms. After having breakfast, we visited the famous Kamakhya Devi temple which is again located on a hilltop. We had good darshan, though it was crowded as it was a Sunday. Then, we went to the airport and took our return flight to Delhi.

Additional info:
1.    Even Indians require a permit to visit Arunachal Pradesh. The process of procuring the permit is quite simple. Visit Arunachal Pradesh Bhawan located in various cities and provide a photocopy of your photo ID proof along with your two recent photographs, specify the duration of your stay and get a permit instantly.
2.    If you suffer from any respiratory problems, then be careful while visiting Arunachal Pradesh for the time being as lot of construction is taking place making it really dusty and polluted
3.    Shared taxis ply at regular intervals from Tezpur to Tawang
4.    If you hire a cab, then their rates are fixed on a per day basis. Sometimes, the cab operator will want you to agree for a package for a specified number of days but stick to the per day basis payment arrangement as it offers you greater flexibility
5.    The law and order situation is fine in this region
6.    Local people are friendly and helpful
7.    There are two Circuit Houses in Tawang- old and new. We had stayed at the new Circuit House
8. At the Guwahati Airport, there are information desks of Meghalaya Tourism, Arunachal Pradesh Tourism and Assam Tourism from where you can gather more information.

Mawsai Caves @ Shillong

Sela Pass

Sela Pass

Elephant Falls @ Shillong

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Planning a trip to Lakshadweep

Here’s how I planned my trip-

1.       First, I booked flight tickets from Delhi to Kochi; Kochi to Agatti and return

2.       Then, I got in touch with SPORTS (Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports) in Delhi to know more about the places I can visit in Lakshadweep and the process of availing permit. Their Head Office is at Kochi. SPORTS team was not so helpful and they directed me to one of their authorized travel agent from whom I got my permit and made reservation for staying at various islands. However, once I reached Lakshadweep, other tourists informed me that if you get your booking done directly through SPORTS, then the charges would be lesser as the travel agent has his/her commission

3.       So, would suggest that you should personally visit the SPORTS office and get your booking done directly

4.       You need to specify the islands that you wish to visit and for each destination you get a permit. Only through SPORTS can you get the permit.

5.       I applied for a permit a month in advance but I received it just a day before my onward journey from Kochi to Agatti. At the Kochi airport, you have to show your permit in order to get your boarding pass of the flight

6.       I wanted to cover as many islands as possible. However, in a single trip, one is not allowed to visit all the islands, unless you travel to a few islands in the first round and then go back to Kochi and re-enter Lakshadweep. It sounds weird but it’s true. So, the islands I travelled during my trip (mentioned in my previous blog) is the maximum number of islands one can visit in a single visit. However, you may choose and visit another set of islands

7.       Island transfer as well as accommodation booking is also done by SPORTS and has to be done in advance (before commencing the journey)

8.       You can even opt for travelling by ship which can be boarded in Kochi. It takes a longer time, so I did not opt for it. Strangely, you cannot board a ship from Agatti. The ship cannot be compared to any luxury cruise and is basic in nature

9.       No private hotels/accommodation is allowed in Lakshadweep. I did come across a homestay in Agatti whose information is available on Trip Advisor but it’s illegal

10.   It is illegal to stay in Agatti (the place where your flight lands). Only government officials who are on official duty can stay in Agatti apart from the local population

11.   Travelling to Lakshadweep is expensive. Only when I did my bookings, I realized the extent to which it is expensive. For instance, non-AC tents double occupancy in Bangaram is priced at INR 11,000 per night (tented accommodation is the only option in Bangaram and Thinnakara. There is no other economical option available). If there is an additional person, then INR 3000 is charged per night for the extra person (unfortunately, I was charged more). Island transfer from Agatti to Kadmat is INR 4000 per person

12.   The booking procedure is quite messy and tiresome. I was over-charged by INR 20,000 by my authorized travel agent and SPORTS. And have not been successful in getting a refund. So, be careful.  

You may refer to my earlier blogs on Lakshadweep: 



Friday, December 26, 2014

Photo-gallery: Bangaram island in Lakshadweep

Tented accommodation at Bangaram

Map of Bangaram

Fresh water lake at Bangaram




Photo-gallery: Thinnakara island in Lakshadweep

Thinnakara island


View of Bangaram from Thinnakara

Ship-wreck site

Parali I & II

Thinnakara beach

During low tide

Parali II

Parali I

Coral reef (low tide view)

Shell Crab

Shell Crab

Outdoor dinner site