Aizawl – Laipuitlang Landscapes

Eventually I did reach Aizawl at the unearthly (by Aizawl standards) hour of 10 in the night when every shop and restaurant in the city was closed. There were some boys and girls smoking by the roadside who pointed me in the direction of the house I was going to. I stumbled up in the darkness using my phone as a torch and reached the PWD building at the top of the road where L was waiting wearily to chaperone me to her mother V’s house where I would be staying.

V’s house is, by far, the best place to stay in Aizawl. At the highest point in the vicinity, it commanded the most sweeping views of the city and the hills beyond. Turn right and you went down a road that zig-zagged vertically down to the market through homes and schools and basketball courts that defied the laws of gravity. This road is so steep that it is provided with a row of steps for the less sure-footed to make their way down. While the climb up is far more arduous and exhausting (even if it’s only a 700 meter walk), it’s the hike down that destroyed my knees.

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Turn left from the house and you staggered down to Chaltlang Road beyond the Salvation Army building taking in the sublime views of the layered hills overlapping in the distance. The hills that you see from here are less populated and prettier to look at.

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From the terrace of the house one had an uninterrupted view of the western flank of the city where multi-storeyed buildings were stacked on top of each other with the spires of its myriad churches punctuating the monotonous architecture piled around them. And beyond these civilized slopes were the unmolested wilderness of the Mizo hills beyond.

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Because the hills that Aizawl is built on are both vertical and razor sharp, much of its civilian architecture had to mould itself to accumulate one over the other haphazardly on vertigo-inducing slopes. In 2013, a massive landslide slid down the Laipuitlang Hill burying all the houses in its way. V’s house was one of them. They had lost everything they had and rebuilt the house I was staying in from scratch. The large 5-storeyed PWD building was the culprit which was built on a weak foundation and had developed cracks which had been neglected until the slide happened.

I stood on the spectacular vantage point on top of V’s terrace and looked at the city around. Few lessons appear to have been learnt. The houses were still stacked one on top of the other and in another natural catastrophe (Aizawl is both landslide prone and sits on a high seismic zone), they could tumble down again. But for now, it was as astounding visually as a city could be.

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Elusive Aizawl

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I wanted to get to Aizawl as soon as possible so I could take in a bit of the city during the daylight hours. So I hopped around the sumo counters lining the Circuit House Road looking for the earliest vehicle that was going and booked a 7.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl.

Next morning, at 6 a.m., the man at the counter called to tell me that the 7.30 wasn’t going because 3 passengers had bailed out and it wouldn’t be possible to fill the jeep at the time. He asked me if I could make do with a back seat at the 8.30 instead. I said, okay, considering I didn’t have much of a choice.

At 8 a.m., I checked out of my room and staggered across to the sumo stand. A grumpy looking man stood there gently savouring a cup of tea in his hands. He had big bulging eyes that looked like they’d either seen too much alcohol go down the liver the previous night or hadn’t been shut in a long time. I asked him about the sumo. What sumo?, he said. The 8.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl that I was going to be on, I said. There is no 8.30 a.m. sumo, he said, while lackadaisically scratching the back of his neck.

I made a phone call to the person who woke me up at 6 in the morning and heard a ring-tone bearing a Salman Khan hit number ringing right in front of me. “You called me in the morning and said that I had a seat on the vehicle leaving at 8.30. I have already paid for it. Where’s the sumo?”, I said, waving the receipt in his face with desperation creeping into my voice. He lifted his eyes wearily, stared at me blankly for a few seconds, took the receipt out of my hand, rummaged in his wallet, handed me the 240 Rs. I had given him for the seat and walked away.

Left to my own devices and having no idea what to do, I frantically knocked at every counter I could see but none had vehicles traveling to Aizawl at that time. It was a slow day on the Aizawl route, they said. There weren’t enough passengers, they said. And as I was flailing about helplessly, a cheerful gentleman walked up to me and asked me to stop hyperventilating. He took me to his shop, gave me a cup of chai and calmly told me that he had a jeep going at 11 a.m. It was an Aizawl jeep, he said, and it had to go back today come what may. So I thanked this gentleman, booked my seat and twiddled my thumbs at a chaishop near the counters. I had to keep twiddling them beyond the appointed hour because consistent with my fortune that day, the sumo didn’t arrive until 12.30 p.m. My only consolation for this eternal wait was that I got the front seat and since the vehicle was 4 passengers short, I had the entire space to myself.

The distance between Silchar and Aizawl is 172 odd kms. Even allowing for bad roads and chai stops, it shouldn’t take longer than 7 hours. But our driver had other ideas. So 15 minutes after embarking on our journey, we stopped for half an hour near the Mizoram House on the outskirts of the town. The reason? A potential passenger had called and he was on his way from another part of the town to take his seat in the vehicle.  Dust whirled all around us clogging our windpipes and choking our lungs. It was one of the times I wished I had one of those ugly breathing masks on like some of the sensible people sitting behind me did.

About an hour later, we stopped again. Why? Because the driver and some of the passengers wanted to shop for vegetables at a market before the Mizoram border. They were going about it so diligently that I wondered if there was a famine where we were going.

After this bout of shopping, we ascended from the plains up to the Assam-Mizoram border post at the outskirts of the village of Vairengte where we had to furnish our ILPs. This was a crummy, isolated and derelict spot with views of the hillocks below between a few bamboo stilt houses that lined the dusty road. It wasn’t a place one wished to linger.

The driver went to the permit office with all our ILPs and got thrown out immediately because he had only 6 permits for the 8 non-Mizo passengers he had on board. The culprits were the two labourers sitting at the back. No one had told them they had to get ILPs made. So we had to wait while they finished the painstaking process of furnishing IDs, filling up the forms and answering questions.

By the time they got their ILPs, it was 3 p.m. Some of us who hadn’t had lunch were getting very hungry. But we had to wait longer because after sputtering for 100 metres, the vehicle came to a grinding halt. It had run out of oil. I looked at the driver accusingly and asked him how he forgot to stock up on such a crucial ingredient while he was happily shopping for vegetables. He just shrugged and to be fair, none of the other passengers seemed too bothered. They kept their cool like this sort of thing happened every day.

The driver had to walk 2 kms down to the village to get some oil. He took an hour to get back and it was getting dark by the time we got moving again. So it was in the darkness of 5 p.m. that we had lunch in the little town of Bilkhawtir at an eating house sort of establishment after which, he conveniently disappeared for half an hour because he wanted to hang out with his friends.

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The menu at the Bilkhawtir eating house

This was annoying because we had barely covered half the journey in over 5 hours. I went up to one of my co-passengers, a businessman from Silchar, and asked him how he was so tolerant of this crap. He replied with a benign air that the driver worked very hard and deserved a good break once in a while. He was certain that we would reach Aizawl in under 3 hours. It seemed impossible. We had spent over 5 hours traveling 70 odd kilometres and had about a 100 to go and all of it on hilly roads in the darkness.

When we finally resumed our journey, the driver abruptly switched his playlist, which had until now been blaring Bollywood item numbers, to some sermon by a mullah in Assamese. This weird, ambient discourse in the air appeared to have triggered a switch in his head. He throttled his speed from slow as molasses to fast as a shark and we zipped through the hills in the gloomy darkness. It was frightening in its ferocity and I tried to tell the driver that it was okay if we reached Aizawl at midnight as long as we reached there alive. The driver laughed at this suggestion and asked me to stay calm because he did this every day and if he didn’t leave the vehicle with the Aizawl owner by 8.30 p.m., he would be in trouble.

Hanging on to dear life, we reached the outskirts of Aizawl where we had to confront another obstacle strategically planted to delay our progress. This one ticked the driver off as well. The two labourers sitting at the backseat had to get off at Kawnpui, about 60 kms north of Aizawl and had conveniently slept through. Their boss had been waiting for them wondering where they were and called the driver. The driver put him on speaker phone so we could all hear the litany of abuses thrown at him. The boss ordered the driver to turn back to Kawnpui to drop the labourers off or he would speak to the driver’s boss and cancel their contract.

This threat appeared to have worked because he began turning back immediately. Now it was the turn of the other passengers to revolt and they castigated the two labourers for being so lackadaisical in their approach to work. After a fiery debate, we came to a resolution that we would wait at the spot until we found a vehicle that was going towards Kawnpui and willing to take the two passengers.

The landscape here was surreal. On the one side, there was pitch black darkness with hundreds of constellations of stars blinking overhead and on the other, Aizawl’s vertical cityscape lit up in the distance like gigantic fairy lights draped on a mountainous scale. While I was waiting there taking in this stunning scene and breathing the clear, chilly air of the hills, I got a call from L, the owner of the Airbnb I had booked, asking (angrily) if I was ever going to show up. I didn’t know what to say. I should have arrived in the afternoon but it was 9 p.m. and while the city was visibly close, it remained painfully elusive.

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A month in Mizoram

IMG_5911First of all, if you’re going to Mizoram as an Indian national with no local sponsor and wish to travel for anything more than 10 days, it’s a pain and a half to get your permit extended. I can name at least a dozen foreign countries where my visa process and extensions have been easier than what I experienced in Mizoram. I was under the impression that as an Indian traveler, you get a 15 day ILP at the Mizoram House in Guwahati but what I got was just a 7 day permit extendable for no more than 3 days. I wanted to travel around for at least a month as I like to travel slow and long and after several point blank refusals at the DC Office in Aizawl and much begging and pleading and furnishing my instagram profile as a traveler, I was allowed a month long extension as a “Photographer” because mere tourists can’t have the luxury of such a generous permit extension.

That being said, I totally loved my time in Mizoram. The people were friendly and the hills are absolutely tourist-free and beautiful.

Getting in: If you have the time, I totally recommend the overland approach by train from Guwahati to Silchar. I took the 4.30 a.m. Kanchenjunga and after taking a nap for a couple of hours, got to enjoy some of the most gorgeous scenery I have seen from an Indian train. The route goes through thickly forested hills, wide valleys and green fields of the Barak valley on the way. 

Silchar was an unavoidable pit-stop as no jeeps left that late in the evening for Aizawl. Stayed at Hotel Center Palace, which had okayish rooms for 700 odd rupees. Had biryani at Nawab restaurant next door, which I highly recommend if you need to bunk here for a night.

From Silchar, I took the 8.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl (400 Rs.) on a bumpy road that got steadily worse as it went along, getting better only a few kilometers before Aizawl.

Aizawl – There wasn’t a lot to do in Aizawl but walk around and take in views. The airbnb place (Vanhmingi’s house) I stayed in had the most spectacular view of all the viewpoints in Aizawl. It’s one of the only two places in the city listed on airbnb and is on top of Laiputluang hill near the PWD office and is, I was told, on the highest point in the city. The view here, I thought, was even better than the one from the Presbyterian Hospital which was fantastic as well. It’s a short but steep walk up and down from the place to the market but worth the effort to stay there to take in the morning and sunset views.

Apart from this place, I also stayed in 3 other hotels in Aizawl because I had to track back to the city to go to Champhai and Reiek. Chawlhna Hotel was a cheap hotel with dingy, tiny rooms that are just about OK for a night or two and the price I paid. Walk-in rate – 730 Rs. (online aggregators tend to offer a decent discount for this place) There’s a common balcony looking down to Lower Bazaar which is nice for people watching.

Hotel Elite was on the other end of the town about 3 kms from Zarkawt market. Again, got a great discount online which made the place tolerable. I would have been very angry if I had paid the rack rate here (2000 Rs.) for the room I was in. My room was boxed in and the only view I had was of the two building walls ten inches away.

Decided to luxe out for a night at Hotel Regency, supposedly Aizawl’s most fancy address. I don’t know how the expensive suite rooms are but my room was merely OK, with a decent bathroom. It was exorbitantly overpriced for what it was. The restaurant here was pretty good and inexpensive considering this is as fine dining as dining gets in Aizawl.

The best Mizo food apart from my homestay was at Red Pepper which had humongous Mizo thalis and some local rice wine to go with it. The Indian food at Jojo’s was great as well.

Hmuifang: Mizoram doesn’t have an extensive bus network but there’s a bus that leaves every morning at 6 a.m. to Lunglei with an unreliable 10 a.m. service on alternate days. Hmuifang is on the way to Lunglei and I stopped at the tourist lodge here for a couple of nights. The rooms here were somewhat dilapidated (the caretaker assured me it was because of the severe monsoon) but I thought they were decent for the location and the price.

The best views in Hmuifang apart from the top of the hill itself is just down the Lunglei road where there’s a clearing from which there was a 180 degree vista of the mountains beyond. Perfect place for the sunset.

Opposite the tourist lodge, an extremely friendly ex-army guy runs a restaurant which was my go-to place for chai and breakfast. The bread omlette and chicken pulao there was amazing.

Thenzawl: Caught the Lunglei bus and got down here to spend a couple of nights. Again, not much to do but walk around. There’s a sizeable handloom industry here with every house having an old-style weaving mill. The tourist lodge here was perhaps the best maintained of all the lodges in Mizoram. Lots of government functionaries and officers seem to stay here. There aren’t any views from the lodge itself but the church at the top of Thenzawl town had some pretty vistas.

The Vangtawng Falls were about 9 kms further down the Lunglei road. Got a seat on a shared sumo to Lunglei and got down at the falls. Beautiful falls, especially because I had the whole place to myself. Hitchhiked back to town and got down on the way because the landscapes just before Thenzawl on the Lunglei road were beautiful. Walked around 5 kms back.

Lunglei: I did not want to stop in Lunglei. It’s billing as the second biggest city in Mizoram did not appeal to me at all and I was impatient to move on to Saiha and Phawngpui as quickly as possible. But the road from Thenzawl to Lunglei was so horrible (it took 3 and a half hours to do less than 50 kms) that I had to spend a night to rest aching bones. Lunglei won me over though. From the tourist lodge here which is a few kilometers before the town, the views of the city and rolling hills to both sides were just gobsmackingly beautiful. The 600 Rs. I paid for the room here was practically a steal. Did nothing here for 4 days, except eat, sleep, take in the views from the road below, have long conversations with the pastor and stare at the valley on the other side from the church below. Spectacular place. I didn’t like the city itself so much but had to make one trip to book my seat to Lawngtlai.

Lawngtlai: Probably my only disappointment in Mizoram. Maybe because Aizawl, Hmuifang, Lunglei and even Thenzawl were so awesome, wasn’t so taken in with this grubby small town in the south. Probably the best thing about the place is that the lodge here is friendly and food was a bit better than some of the other lodges.

Saiha: Another beautiful town to land in Mizoram after a backbreaking sumo ride. The road from Lawngtlai was just horrible but the views from Saiha and the easy-going laidback nature of the place was just the right kind of balm for aching bones. The people here were the friendliest I encountered in the state. My Vodafone network disappeared as soon I landed in Saiha district but I spent 3 nights here just soaking up the atmosphere.

Twisted my ankle here, so decided not to go further to Vawmbuk and Sangau as I had planned earlier. A big disappointment, especially considering the fact that to come all the way back here, I’ll have to beg and plead at the DC Office again for a permit extension.

Broke the journey at Lunglei and reach Aizawl the day after.

This stretch itself had exhausted 17 days of my permit. To heal my ankle, which the doctor said would take 2-3 days of rest, spent a couple of days in Aizawl and headed to

Reiek – Caught the 12 a.m. sumo from the Bungkawn stand. Don’t go to Reiek on the weekend unless you want to party. I didn’t mind the Aizawl crowds here though and I was amazed that most of them were coming to this awesome place merely 30 kms from the city for the first time. Was thrilled that I could do the hike to the top and the views were just spectacular. Spent 3 nights here and did climbs to some of the other peaks around too. Beautiful trekking country.

The lodge in Reiek was run by a very friendly guy and couple of ladies. Apart from myself, there was only a group of labourers staying at the property. They were building something at the Children’s Park and we hung out over lunches and dinners every day.

Saitual – The share jeeps to Saitual run from the sumo counter on a flight of steps adjacent to the Millenium Center at 6 a.m., then hourly from 12 a.m to 2 p.m.. Saitual was a laidback place but not one worth hanging around for long. The tourist lodge here had been “privatised” but the place was friendly and well-kept enough. Took a taxi from here to Tamdil and back and while the Tamdil Tourist lodge was at a great location right at the edge of the lake, it looked quite desolate and uncared for and I was glad I stayed at Saitual. The lake itself was merely alright and I have a feeling it’s been touted about as an “attraction” only because Mizoram doesn’t really have that many “tourist” attractions. There are spectacular views wherever you go and look, but very few “attractions”.

Champhai – The road to Champhai was less a road than a rocky trail punctuated by landslides. Took 8 hours to do the 100 kms from Saitual, the most obscenely difficult road of all in Mizoram. Since my permit would run out in a week’s time, decided to stick around in Champhai for 3 nights. Loved the town, which had a different landscape of the Mizo hills compared to other Mizo towns. Lots of green fields, beautiful evening light and rolling hills. I wanted to go further to Farkawn and Murlen but just didn’t have the time. The perils of a stringent permit regime and a slow, relaxed travel routine.

Kolasib – Since I had two days left in my permit, decided to break my journey in the little-visited town of Kolasib on the way to Silchar. There was a wedding at the tourist lodge on the day I landed here and since I like social evenings when I travel alone, it was good fun with lots of alcohol and 80s rock music. The lodge here doesn’t have any views but there’s a school at the back which had a little clearing (infested with mosquitoes) that gave a nice view of the sunset over the hills.

The best view of the hills is from the viewpoint just after Thingdawl on the Aizawl road with a jawdropping view of an entire range of hills. There are also nice views of the lake from some of the shop terraces on the way to the market who were nice enough to let me in to take pictures from the rooftops.

So that was the account of my first tour of Mizoram lasting 29 days.

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