Reiek

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I was the first to arrive at the Bungkawn taxi stand where sumos to Reiek departed. As is the protocol, I was given the window seat in the front which delighted me immensely. But this happiness would be fleeting because as soon as I opened the door to occupy my rightful place, the driver snarled at me and pointed at the seats behind. I showed him the receipt. He shook his head. I said I didn’t understand, stubbornly emphasising that I would like to sit where I had been assigned.

He sighed agitatedly and said, “You know Mizo?”

I said, “No.”

“This seat for Mizo. We like to talk. So go sit at the back.”

Something in the tone of his voice suggested it was perhaps not a bright idea to protest further. So I went behind and sat where I was ordered to sit, which was in the middle of two men who smelt like they’d been drinking since morning.

Reiek was located on the mountain ridge bang opposite to Aizawl and was clearly visible from some of the higher elevations in the city but as is typically the case with mountain roads, it took over an hour to get there. The road undulated down to a bridge where the driver and some of his companions stopped for a break as if the 30 minute ride down to the valley had utterly exhausted their reserves.

Having had their fill of some local snacks and moonshine, we climbed up for another half an hour and voila, we were in the village of Reiek. When we reached the turnoff to the Tourist lodge, the driver yelled at me to get off. I thought he was being rude because he didn’t like my face or something. But then, gentle mocking laughter went around at my expense as the sumo zoomed away. For a moment, I empathised with Rajesh and wondered if his xenophobia was justified. But I brushed that thought away since impolite behaviour had no ethnicity and you could encounter it wherever you went.

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The city of Aizawl from the viewing platform in the village

The Tourist Lodge in Reiek was located up a steep road above the village. With my swollen rucksack, it was a heavy climb with no end in sight. The road was deserted and the only people I saw on the way were construction workers from Bihar building a house on a slope by the roadside and kids running around a garden area near a viewing platform. The village proper appeared to be clustered on the lower slopes and the higher I went, the more vacant the place became. Finally, on top of a spur, nestled in a forested grove, were the group of cottages that I had been looking for.

“How long are you staying?”, asked the woman at the reception.

“3 days”, I said.

“3 days?? You’re the only person here for 3 days”, she said, with genuine puzzlement.

I told her I was surprised to hear that because everyone I had spoken to had vouched for its status as the most touristy place in Mizoram. Moreover, I was there on a weekend and I had been scared that the lodge would be packed to the gills with people.

Many tourists came to Reiek, she said, but they returned home once they’d climbed the hill and seen the views. Aizawl was too close by and there was nothing else to do around the place. I was crazy to waste 3 days here.

But I didn’t mind being alone in a setting like Reiek. There was no network on my phone and if I walked a few meters beyond the lodge, all I saw was sheer darkness and all I heard was the creaky sounds of the forest. It was pure disconnection and I looked forward to 3 days of peace and quiet away from the stresses of social media and the internet. My cottage was basic and was furnished, like all Mizoram Tourist lodges, with a clean bed, ample blankets, a functioning bathroom equipped with a geyser and western commode. It was rustic yet comfortable.

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I was hungry owing to the exhaustions of the trip here. So I hit the restaurant near the reception to see what they served. Since they hadn’t been expecting any guests, no food had been prepared. The best meal they could rustle up on day one was chowmein. While I was eating, my idyll was disturbed by a snooty, bearded Indian man accompanied by a sulky woman. Both were originally from Delhi and had come from Aizawl on a day trip to the Reiek mountain. The man was a braggart who had once worked as a government official in Aizawl and was trying all he could to impress the woman by boasting about his time in Mizoram. In his narrative, inaccurate facts blended seamlessly with snap judgements to give a patronising, uncharitable view of the people whom he characterised as too pious, curt and boring. He whined incessantly about how there wasn’t anything to do here and how the mountains here were so underwhelming compared to the Himalayas closer to Delhi.  The woman, who had to make frequent trips to Mizoram on account of her work, had complaints of her own. She complained of the challenges of dealing with the food, the cold weather, the lack of infrastructure, the language, the people and moaned about how even the dogs were nasty and why she wasn’t surprised that the people here ate them. I was fervently hoping for someone to take offence and knock some sense into them.

In the evening, workers who were constructing a Children’s Park nearby took over the restaurant area. This group was more amiable than the grumpy Delhiites. They washed the hard labours of the day by lounging on the sofa, watching Hindi serials and old Hindi movies on TV. I also got to meet the cook/caretaker, who had been missing when I arrived. He was a flamboyant guy who cheerfully cooked meals and made merry with whoever was staying there. He appeared to have struck quite a rapport with the labourers because they hung out in the kitchen when they weren’t watching TV and treated the place like it was their home.

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I made the hike up to the Reiek peak the next afternoon. It was a Saturday and the trail was full of day-trippers from Aizawl. It was a clearly marked stony path that gently ascended past dense forest singing with crickets and a long, gloomy cave to the head of a cliff. The views from here were beautiful and looking at the sheer vertical staircase ascending above me to the Reiek peak, I was half-tempted to call it quits and go back to the lodge.

But when a group of young kids raced past and began chucking at my indecision, I pulled myself together and swore to make it to the top come what may. It was a vertigo-inducing climb punctuated by flattish sections where the Mizo Tourism people had thoughtfully provided benches for exhausted trekkers to break the hike and take in the sweeping views. The young kids who’d mocked me earlier now wanted me to take their pictures while balancing themselves on the perilous slopes. I dutifully obliged though a mere look down the hills made my head dizzy and my palms sweaty as I began to worry about how I was going to clamber down all alone without a dozen panic attacks.

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From the top of the hill, there were sweeping views down to the vertiginous Mizo range. A slender river slithered down far below, the evening light filtering through the hills making it glow silver. A group of more Mizo boys and girls had camped on the view tower. They offered me a drink which I gladly accepted. It was a perfect place to get light-headed. One of the girls who was more inquisitive and chattier than the others told me this was the first time any of them had come here. She found it amazing that someone who lived over 2500 kms away had made it to the spot the same day as herself who lived just across the hill. Another boy in the group came over to make conversation as the sun went down way in the distance. This was the synthesis I always hoped to experience, sitting in a beautiful place with people who belong to the landscape, making a connection.

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Yelagiri – The lake and the landscapes

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I walked around the periphery of the Yelagiri lake on a Wednesday afternoon when its surroundings were pleasantly free of any touristic activity. A stray family or two were paddling in its waters and the only people around were the people who lived and worked in the town. The place had an air of lethargy about it and I half felt like taking a cue from the people running the canteen and slumbering on the bird-shit stained benches lying about.

Part of the periphery of the lake was embellished with a walking track of sorts. A little ahead was a bridge where I idled for a while watching kingfishers leap into the waters for a meal. Also fishing for a lunch by a cabin near one end of the bridge were two fishermen whom I managed to distract from their routines by pointing a camera in their direction. They signalled me over to sit by their side to watch them fish and take their pictures. When I began talking to them, they indicated with their hands that they were mute. So I sat silently watching them fish. Their technique was crude with a long line of string and a bait at the end of it. But judging by the catch they had accumulated, it must be highly effective.

Further down the trail, I came by a small straw-roofed shack where the woman running it was on the verge of packing up. I asked for a cup of tea which the woman gleefully made. I was her only customer for the entire day, she said sorrowfully. It was only on the weekends that she made any money but since it was her only means of livelihood, she lugged her shop all the way here every day. A sombre-looking man was watching our conversation from the sidelines and when the woman went away, I tried engaging him in conversation. But he began pestering me for money and I scooted away as quickly as I could.

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One of the more adventurous things to do in the Yelagiris is to take a rickshaw to the village of Mangalam and climb Swami Malai, the holy mountain that’s also the highest peak in the area. I read a few blogs which claimed this place offered panoramic views of the entire region. I wasn’t witness to these legendary views because I was a cheapskate. I went alone without a guide and had to abort the climb halfway after two snarling dogs blocked my way. Back in Hotel Aruvi, the manager looked at my depressive shell pitifully and offered to escort me to a point which he insisted had the best views this side of Swami Malai.

So we rode on his bike, stopped at the Tourist Information Center and crossed what looked to be a broken fence wall to enter a dense forest area. The climb was gentle over a rocky terrain punctuated with rocky shrubs. When we reached the top, the sweeping views down to the plains made me swoon. The manager beckoned me to a ledge at the edge of the precipice. I have vertigo and avoid all edges as a rule but he pulled me over and made me sit on a rocky shelf.

From the ledge, one could see all the way from Jolarpettai on the left to the larger town of Vaniyambadi flickering in the haze on the right.  In the deep distance in front of us, we saw the Andhra Pradesh border bisected by the Kothur Hills with their misshaped heads and abstract outlines. Sunset was a couple of hours away and I told the manager that I could be done with my pictures and make a move in case he wants to get back to work. But he was insistent that I stay until the sun goes down.

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While I was clicking a ton of pictures from the precipitous ledge, I tried to learn more about the manager and where he came from. He wasn’t from the Yelagiris, he said, but from a village much further south. He came here a few years ago with his friends for a holiday. While they were having fun, he got to speak with the owner of the property.  The owner offered him a job and he never left. With time, the owner became so comfortable with his work that he let the manager handle everything from bookings to housekeeping. His mother too lived in the property now and whenever he had to take guests like myself on an excursion, she took care of the people who arrived in his absence.

I couldn’t converse with him for too long because he was bombarded with phone calls from people looking for rooms on the weekend. Soon, he climbed a spur to sit and answer the barrage of calls in peace. Judging by his side of the conversations, everyone appeared to want a cheaper deal than the already ridiculously inexpensive rates the Hotel was offering. I admired the calm resilience with which he dealt with these requests.

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I sat quietly by the ledge the rest of time. Having taken exponentially more shots than I needed earlier, all there was left to do was to sit quietly, stare at the hills in the distance and wait for the sunset hour. My attention was momentarily distracted by a gecko which peeked out of the rocks. It slid, jumped, tumbled between the holes and crevices of the terrain. I watched it lash its elastic tongue and catch a fly out of thin air. It must have been a satisfying meal because it disappeared back into the cracks in the rocks after this bit of action, presumably back home.

Sunset was quite spectacular. All the haze in the distance meant the sun turned orange long before it hit the horizon while the hills and the plains turned bluer and murkier. As the manager and I were enjoying this spectacle, we heard noises behind us. A group of two boys and two girls came huffing and hurrying up the rocks. “See? I told you. It’s beautiful, right?”, yelled one of the boys as soon as they made it to the ledge. “Wow”, screamed the girls, “this is amazing.” They were from Bangalore, I learnt in a minute’s small talk, and it was a long weekend owing to an Id holiday. Since the serenity of the moment had been well and truly destroyed and I’d had my fill of peace and quiet, I climbed down and let them have the ledge to themselves.

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The next morning, when I was checking out, I realised I hadn’t paid the manager anything to guide me up to the viewpoint. I quit my budget traveller mode and whipped out a couple of hundred rupee notes as a tip. But the manager refused to take it. I was a friend, he said, and the next time I visited, he would happily escort me to Swamimalai.

Beyond alluring places and landscapes, it reminded me why I still traveled over 9 years on. Being on the road makes you less cynical and believe genuine goodness and humanity still thrived in the world.

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Lunglei

Until I arrived in Lunglei, it was going to be a mere pit-stop on the way to more appealing locales like Saiha and Phawngpui. Its billing as the second largest urban conglomerate in Mizoram didn’t sound very enticing. But I was so dazzled by the views from the Tourist Lodge that I lingered on for many nights.

A marker for how enthusiastic I feel about a place is how early it makes me wake up in the morning. In Lunglei, I woke up at the crack of dawn every day and went up to the terrace with a camera, a kindle and a cup of tea and spent hours sitting on its slat-roofed slopes watching the golden light fall on the city. On certain mornings, banks of clouds would envelop the building generating a momentary illusion that you were suspended in the air. It was both beautiful and scary because when the fog began thinning, little holes in its layers revealed not just the azure sky around but also the steep fall into the misty hills hundreds of feet below.

There wasn’t an awful lot to do here but stroll around in peace and take in the views from the vantage points that offered them. Of the city’s urban cluster capping the cliffs to the south, some of the most phenomenal glimpses could be had from the path down to the road below. Here, stony platforms at the edge of a wide, cobbled footpath lined with flowering shrubs provide an unrivalled look at the sunset. It was a languid place for the people who lived in the vicinity to sit and converse.

Of the wilder, timbered hills beyond, perhaps the best view could be had from the Baptist Church just a few meters below the Lodge. Here, steep curvy slopes led down to the tin-roofed dwellings on the hillsides. Here, I spent an entire afternoon speaking to an inquisitive pastor who wished to know my views on everything from politics to sport to the movie business while remaining stubbornly noncommittal on his opinions on the same. Tourists seldom made their way to Lunglei, he said, let alone linger long enough to walk down to the church. He himself had never been out of Mizoram in his entire life and had no desire to go anywhere. Since God willed him to be in Lunglei, he was perfectly content with his life there. He was disappointed to know that I was a bit of a godless person but since he had found me labouring under his roof (taking pictures of the hills i.e.), he felt I would find Him soon enough.

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I wish more of the guests at the Lodge were as amenable to conversations as the pastor. The ladies at the reception were friendly enough but kept a studied distance at being probed further than a request for a cup of tea or a glass of water. It wasn’t a particularly busy place either with a majority of the rooms going unsold. Much of the clientele was from other parts of India and one particular gentleman, who appeared to be a regular visitor going by the chummy way he behaved with the cook, just spread himself out in the lobby and watched Hindi serials on TV all evening.

At breakfast and dinnertime, I was usually the sole person eating in the hall. The only other person I had for company one morning was Chandru, a doctor from Chennai who was working in remote areas of Mizoram for an NGO. He too was surprised to find me traveling in a far-flung district like Lunglei and was taken aback to hear that I had been enjoying my journey so far. He didn’t find anything particularly beautiful about the region and urged me to visit Shimla and Darjeeling if I wanted to see beautiful places.

Work in Mizoram wasn’t as difficult as some other parts of India, he said, as people had a better regard for hygiene, discipline and cleanliness. It only became a problem in the more malarial towns bordering Bangladesh like Tlabung. He felt the bigger challenge was getting through to the people because while they were friendly, they were reticent to trust outsiders. He often had to count on help from the religious fraternity to gain trust in remote villages.

His biggest issue with living in Mizoram was food. Hankering for curd rice might sound like an attempt to stereotype a Tamilian but for Chandru, the fear of its deprivation was very much real. Often, he had to wander for days on end in the rural hinterland far from a city like Aizawl,  the only place in Mizoram where he could find food to his liking. His troubles were compounded significantly by the fact that he was a strict vegetarian as well. The Indian restaurants in Aizawl and Lunglei, of whom he had an encyclopaedic knowledge having trawled their alleys far and wide in search of edible herbivorous meals, served him well but beyond, he had to starve for hours until he reached a government tourist lodge to find himself food that he trusted to be meat-free. He was suspicious of anything he was served at the homes he visited in the rural areas partly because of the language gap and largely because he was fearful he would be served meat either out of mistake or mischief.

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Apart from the slat-roofed terrace, sweeping vistas could be had from a machan in the Lodge premises. They weren’t entirely unobstructed by the foliage around but offered a higher lookout than the road below. One evening, as I was waiting for a sunset here, I was ambushed by a group of Mizo boys and girls from the city. It was a Saturday and they had come to hang out with snacks and drinks in tow. Mizoram had for long been a dry state but prohibition was repealed in 2014, a contentious decision that led to protests by the Church. So while wine shops had opened in bits and spurts, liquor consumption was still frowned upon and consumed clandestinely with like-minded folks.

While many in this particular group were cheerful and friendly with one of the boys even offering me a drink that I politely refused, two of them were inebriated beyond control and became quite rowdy after a few rounds of drinks.

“What are you doing in Mizoram?”, bawled one them while I was perched on the ledge trying to get an angle on the hills with my camera.

“Just traveling around”, I said.

“So you have no job or what?”, shouted the other guy.

“I do my job while traveling.”

“You work for government? Why you take pictures?”

“I’m just a tourist and I love taking pictures.”

“Why you come to Lunglei, huh?”

Realizing this was getting a bit turbulent, I put my camera in my rucksack and climbed down. Then the friendly guy who had offered a drink followed me down to apologize. But up there, I could hear the two guys calling after me in Mizo and laughing boisterously with the girls perhaps gloating about scaring away the non-local. The boy looked at me sheepishly and said, “They’re  good people. Just a little bit drunk.” I said I understood and moved to the road below where the people appeared to be friendlier.

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There, as I was shooting the golden light falling on an Indian Tortoiseshell, an old man in a white t-shirt stopped on the trail to watch me work. He wanted to know what I was doing in Mizoram as well and wondered if I worked for the National Geographic. I said I didn’t but because I wanted to deviate from my usual boring story of being a nobody who roams around, I told him I was working on a travelogue.

“Oh, so you work for magazine, huh?”, he said, smiling expectantly, as if he hoped that were the case.

“No, not a magazine,” I said, “ I’m working on a book which talks about the people and places I’ve seen.”

“Like a guidebook?”

“Yeah, like a guidebook”, I said. It was futile trying to explain a hypothetical idea that even I wasn’t entirely certain of.

“Good, good, very pleased to meet you”, he said with a wide smile, as if this bit of trivia made his day.

“So what have you seen in Lunglei so far?”

I told him I had just been lingering around the tourist lodge for the last 3 days taking in the views.

“Why? You sick or what?”, he asked mockingly.

“No, I’m not sick.  I just like the views”, I said.

“So you didn’t go to the city?”

“Not yet.”

“Many good places to eat in the city. Come with me tomorrow. My name is Jimmy. I’ll take you. Tourist lodge food not good.”

So I went with Jimmy to the city the next morning. It would serve a dual purpose because I had to book a jeep out of Lunglei and I had no idea where to go. And, I thought Jimmy, being a local man, might be helpful in getting me one.

The moment we entered Lunglei city, all traffic and dust and noise swirling between perilously tall structures, I was happy to have stayed away for so long. Like many urban landscapes, it looked more presentable from a distance. After 10 days of peace and quiet in Hmuifang, Thenzawl and Zotlang (where the Lunglei Tourist Lodge was located), this was a bit of a shock.

Jimmy took me to the Ono Restaurant where he said the burgers were the best in all of Mizoram. So I ordered one and found to my profound displeasure that the meat in the burger was so raw that I couldn’t chew through it. I also ordered a coffee which looked like a cup of milk with a sprinkling of coffee powder. I told Jimmy that I could neither eat the burger nor drink the coffee to which he reacted with much amusement. He said he couldn’t do anything about the burger but got the woman at the bill counter to pour a ton of coffee powder into the milk. It had the effect of making it among the strongest coffees I’ve ever had but owing to the poor quality of the powder, not a particularly good one either.

I was still pretty hungry having had to abandon the burger, so Jimmy took me to Classic Restaurant, a place he alleged was the best in Lunglei. From the curtained windows of this top-floor restaurant, there was a pretty fine view of the vertiginous urbanscapes of Lunglei below. The restaurant was done up nicely with a few tables having draperies to give them privacy. I ordered some momos and while they were strictly okay, it was edible unlike the nightmare burger before.

My hope that Jimmy would aid me in finding a mode of transport out of Lunglei were quickly dashed as we blindly walked up and down the steep lanes of the city trying to find the MST bus stand. Jimmy hadn’t travelled anywhere in 8 years and this was as much a journey of discovery for him as it was for me. When we did eventually get to the bus stand, I was told that no buses were going to Lawngtlai. There began another long-winded search for the sumo stand which had jeeps going in the direction I wished to go. Jimmy went about this like an amateur forensic detective would, asking the cobbler in a corner for directions and then corroborating this information with a shop another block away and just to be perfectly sure, asking everyone at the teashop next door if they had any thoughts about what we had learned. Not all the details tallied and we walked the length and breadth of Lunglei in this eternal search.

Every once in a while, I would interject with my own ideas about how we ought to go about things. I would tell him, maybe we could just take a rickshaw or a taxi to where the place was since they would perhaps be more knowledgeable in these aspects. But he would quickly shoo it away saying that would be a colossal waste of money because he didn’t think they were trustworthy. I let him lead the way because his labyrinthine course gave me the sort of elongated tour of the city I wouldn’t have had otherwise. We walked up mighty steps, climbed down to markets, crossed high footbridges and stopped for cups of tea at myriad tea-houses.

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While we were meandering thus, Jimmy told me about his life. He lived alone in one of the tin-roofed houses around Serkhawn. His wife had passed away long ago and all his children and grandchildren lived in Bangalore and Delhi. They kept inviting him to live with them but he was too set in his ways and wouldn’t dream of leaving his idyllic life here. He spent his time reading magazines, watching TV and playing music. His governing concern at this stage in his life (he was a little over 60) was Baptist Christianity and I only had to needle him a little bit to extricate some very strong opinions against the Catholic Church. He was clearly well-read on the issue and a lot of his theological explications flew right over my head.

Finally, perhaps tiring of this routine, Jimmy sauntered to a policeman to make enquiries. The policeman whistled for a lanky young boy to take us to the main market circle where there were a line of shops with sumo counters selling tickets to everywhere in Mizoram. Here, Jimmy took money off my hands and haggled ferociously in Mizo with the lady at the counter. The boy sitting on a chair outside was watching this scene with much amusement and came up to me and said, “He wants to go for 50 rupees. That was the rate maybe 20 years ago.”

Jimmy’s protestations were to no avail as we had to pay the regular 2017 rate for the seat to Lawngtlai. After snatching the ticket off the lady’s hands, Jimmy stormed outside, shook his head and said, “Thieves, I tell you. All thieves! 200 rupees!” Jimmy then met some of his old acquaintances on the street and got so distracted with conversation that he wandered off with them disregarding me entirely. I walked back to the Lodge all alone in the crispy foggy air of the evening stopping at every turn to shoot Lunglei’s ethereal landscapes.

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Hmuifang

After getting my ILP extended for up to a month at the D.C. Office in Aizawl, a painful process that I’ve chosen not to recount, I began exploring more of Mizoram. The first spot on my way was the mountainous village of Hmuifang, 50 kms south of Aizawl with the thickly forested 1619m high Hmuifang mountain towering above it.

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The only place to stay nearby was the isolated and lonely Hmuifang Tourist Resort run by the Mizoram Government and situated on a deep green grassy knoll between the villages of Sumsuih and Hmuifang. Words like “idyllic” are bandied about in travel lit for places that don‘t deserve it but Hmuifang truly embodied idyll in the 3 nights I spent here. There was no network, no electricity for long stretches and no guests other than myself staying there. My room was populated with moths of all forms and sizes and was still recovering from a monsoon which had destroyed many of its electricity connections. But for a measly 600 Rs., it was spacious, well-appointed with a geyser and a balcony overlooking the foliage below and had a friendly caretaker who brought you a cup of tea whenever you wanted.

The resort had a long menu but the caretaker could only make a basic rice thali and an omelette because of the lack of clientele and the remote location. But during the day, bang opposite to the place, there was a small dhaba type joint run by an ex-army guy and his family where the options were considerably better. Here I attacked plates of chicken pulao, cheese omelette sandwiches, bai (a porky mizo salad with vegetables) and numerous cups of chai while chatting with the disarmingly friendly owner R, who would entertain me with tales of bravery from the front and vent about his regrets at not being able to serve his country anymore because of an injury he suffered in action.

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A cottage at the Hmuifang Tourist Resort

 

There wasn’t an awful lot to do in Hmuifang but walk to places and take in the views. The best sunsets were from a spot just 100 meters ahead of the resort where you climbed up to a clearing to get a front row seat to the galloping symphony of mountains cascading one on top of the other in the fading light. There are some sublime views to be had on the way to Hmuifang village of the high ridges surrounding the area and some impressive villages stacked up on top of the steep hills playing hide and seek with the clouds.

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The Hmuifang mountain at 1619 metres is the highest point in the area but my climb here was aborted by a burst of heavy rainfall that I was ill-equipped to handle. The trail, signposted in Mizo, winds up and above Hmuifang village beyond a school through thick forests and splendid scenery. The only people I saw on the way were a couple of kids (bunking school?) and a man shepherding his herd to graze in the knolls above. Again, splendid landscapes on the way.

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Most people don’t linger in Hmuifang nowadays because of its proximity to Aizawl and the somewhat dilapidated condition of the resort which was still trying to get its feet back up after suffering terribly during the monsoon fury. But it’s thoroughly worth spending at least a night or two because the Mizo landscapes you see from here are second to none and it’s a peaceful, less touristed alternative to a more visited spot like Reiek.

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Aizawl – A Sunday in the City

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No city shuts down as completely as Aizawl does on a Sunday. The shops are closed, the roads are empty, none of the restaurants (apart from the ones in the expensive hotels) are open and if you’re thinking of getting out of the city, you might have to do so in your own vehicle because all the buses and share-taxis stop plying as well.

V had gone off to church early in the morning and I had woken up with a hungry stomach. I found R and S, two travellers from Mumbai who were also staying in the same airbnb, ransacking the kitchen to find some edible food. Eventually we found a few eggs in an upper shelf which we broke open to make some omelettes. And then, there was nothing to do but make lots of tea, consume it for hours on end, sit in the balcony, take in the sweet mountain air and play with Moi, the friendly dog in the house. It was the perfect way to spend an Aizawl Sunday.

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Lazing in my room, dreaming bananas
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Moi, the house dog, taking in the views of the city

 

But by 3 in the afternoon, our stomachs began rumbling again and we went to one of the only two places in the city that we knew was open – the Magnolia Restaurant at the Regency Hotel. Here we ordered all the meaty mizo food they had and gorged on it – a platter of starters, roasted pork with mashed potatoes, spicy pork salad, smoked pork with a saucy soup and lots of rice to go with.

The city shuts down on Sunday not just because people want a holiday but also because they have to pray. So in lieu of busy traffic junctions, you have people congregating to sing gospels. Melodious chorals ring out from the churches all around the city filling the air with piousness. Even though all three of us were athiests at heart, it was difficult not be moved by this show of religiosity. Unlike the exceptionally well-dressed people on the streets, we looked like bums in our cut-price t-shirts and shorts but when we entered one of the Presbyterian Churches lining the market road to have a closer look at the choral singing, we were welcomed inside with happiness and warmth.

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After drowning in the Christian air of an Aizawl Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t an awful lot to do but go back to our refuge at Laipuitlang and take in the sunset views from the terrace. It was an utterly spectacular evening to watch the sun go down as big shafts of rays filtered through the clouds in the yellowing light cutting their way between the hills. As the day dimmed, the clouds assumed a kaleidoscope of colors, now golden, then tangerine and in the growing darkness, deep vermillion fluffs hanging above the hills. Faint echoes of chorals from the churches far down below wafted towards us with the gentle breeze and for a few moments, we envied everybody who lived in a setting as magical and beautiful as this.

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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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The 13175 Kanchanjunga to Silchar

Because I was traveling with friends who had to go back to work in Mumbai, the week-long trip to Meghalaya, while thoroughly spectacular, was speedier than I prefer to travel. So by the time I got back to Guwahati, I spent two days vegetating at the Sunderbans Guest House and lazing at some of the city’s hip cafes while editing the pictures from the trip (future post alert).

I had no idea what to do next. One option was to go back to Mumbai. But having come all the way to Guwahati, that felt like a cop out. NE India is not an easy place to decide what to do because there is so much to do and I had a number of mouth-watering ideas on the list. Go to Ziro, do another trip to Tawang, say hello to my friends in Kohima, maybe go back to Meghalaya and explore the Garo Hills, spend a few days idling in the hilly tracts of Assam, hit Imphal and Agartala, too many options.

To resolve this dilemma, I bought a map of NE at a bookshop in Paltan Bazaar, closed my eyes and pointed my forefinger at a spot on the map. It fell on Mizoram. The very thought gave me goosebumps. I trawled through Indiamike and other online blogs/forums but there wasn’t an awful lot of information available and the less information I found the more excited I felt about this journey.

Mizoram is one of the states in the NE which requires Indian citizens to have an Innerline Permit to travel around. So I went right away to Mizoram House and applied for one. I got the permit in less than half an hour but was terribly disappointed to know that it would expire within 7 days of entry. I wished to spend a month in the state and was hoping for at least a 15-day permit extendable up to 30 days. But the people at the Mizoram House wanted me to furnish a local sponsor for a longer permit and my arguments that it was unlikely for an “outsider” like myself to know anyone in the State didn’t gain any traction.

Nevertheless, beggars can’t be choosers, so I resolved the make the best of what I had. There were 3 ways to get to Aizawl – 1). a quick and painless hour-long flight to Lengpui Airport, 2). a hideous 24 hour journey by shared sumo via Shillong and the Jaintia Hills and 3). A 12 hour train to Silchar and a shared sumo from there. I don’t like to fly when I can avoid it because you see a lot more when you travel ground up. Long road trips on hilly roads make me nauseous. And I love taking a train. It would be the most roundabout way to reach Aizawl but it had the potential to be the most satisfactory as well. So I hit the irctc app and booked a 2nd class sleeper berth on the Kanchenjunga Express leaving at 4 a.m. the next morning.

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One of the disadvantages of the 2nd class non AC coaches in India is that the toilets can be quite filthy. The Kanchenjunga travels all the way from Kolkata and by the time it gets to Guwahati, the loos are well-used. So one has to walk through coaches and sneak in to the AC bogies when one needs to go. But one of the benefits of traveling bottom class is that the windows can be opened and unlike the unwashed and scratchy glass of the AC coaches, you get a clear view of the world outside.

Which is great for this particular route because in terms of scenic beauty, it belongs up there with the Mumbai-Goa Konkan Railway and the Siliguri-Darjeeling Mountain Railway as the very best in India. The bogies scythe their way across bright green valleys, paddy fields, high mountains and a number of gentle rivers gliding across the elysian landscape.

Between Lumding and Haflong, the line gains altitude, the air gets nippier, the mountains get taller and the bridges get higher. There was a significant army presence in this stretch, a reminder of the violent history of this insurgency prone region. But these hilly tracts were so beautiful that I resolved to stop at Haflong on the way back to take in more of this stunning landscape at leisure. 

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It was dark by the time I reached Silchar and no sumos were leaving for Aizawl so late. I booked myself into a tolerably clean no-service budget hotel called Center Palace. This was on the main market road very close to the junction where sumos for Aizawl, Imphal and Shillong departed. Having starved all day, I stuffed myself with a biryani at the restaurant next door called Nawabs which was run by a tremendously friendly guy. He had been to Aizawl a number of times and gave me plenty of tips for things to do. It was the perfect weather to travel around Mizoram, he said.

I couldn’t wait.

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Cherrapunjee #4 – Mines, meadows and a jaw-dropping view over the Bangladesh plains

Just a little beyond the view of Nohkalikai Falls is this gobsmackingly beautiful wilderness of rolling hills, dainty meadows and if you’re lucky, double-decker clouds in the sky. It’s better than it sounds because none of the crowds that flock to see the falls on package tours ever make it to this place and we had the entire landscape to ourselves. Certainly a highlight of my trip here.

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One of the defining features of the Khasi and Jaintia landscape these days is the ugly gash of mining that’s cutting up the hills. It’s an unavoidable sight no matter where you go here. The mining money is big and it’s one of the reasons the Khasi Hills have the best roads in all of North-East India bringing some prosperity to a few of its denizens.

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We were fortunate to find a last-minute reservation at the spectacularly located and busy Kutmadan Resort in the outskirts of Cherrapunjee. It was quite late by the time we finished wandering the meadows around Nohkalikai and chose to skip a trip to the Mawsmai Caves. It was a wise call because the view across the edge of the Khasi cliffs down to the watery Bangladesh plains was just jaw-droppingly beautiful. The Resort itself comes highly recommended because while it’s on the pricier side, if you’re in a small group, the price evens out and the rooms are huge and well-appointed. Our room had a living area with a fireplace which was bigger than some hotel rooms I’ve seen and another spacious bedroom area. It goes without saying that the views from the place are worth the price of admission in itself.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 4 – Busy Days in Kotagiri

...and the best is the one you get from an open toilet
The view from an open toilet

Day 1 – A bus parks noisily behind me honking at me unnecessarily as it does so. A passenger jumps, whips out his willy and pisses into the valley below. Two more people slither out and follow his lead. 5 young boys (who probably think I don’t know Tamil) are staring at me and are wondering in hushed whispers which country I’m from. I stare back, they blush, laugh and walk away. Another man jumps out from his vehicle and relieves himself. Standing in the middle of this frenetic activity, I’m trying very hard to ignore the stench of urine and garbage and focus my attention on the magnificent landscape in front of me because this open toilet cum dumping ground opposite the Kotagiri bus stand commands the best views to be had in the town.

The Wesley Church
The Wesley Church

Day 2 – After spending an entire afternoon in peaceful solitude on the steps of the Wesleyan Church, I walked down the steep steps that lead from the Church to the little village of Kannerimukku. Here, in the 1880s a Mr. John Sullivan had the brilliant idea of building a bungalow, growing tea and kick-starting a tourist industry. It is now an impeccably maintained building that looks as good as a well-restored film print and is taken care of by an ex-Hindu scribe Dharmalingam Venugopal, who has also penned a guide-book on the Nilgiris. I didn’t meet him but I met M and G, the friendly Badaga brother and sister who showed me around the little museum whose “before-after” exhibits and picture galleries with shots of Indian politicians looking at the building were livened up only by M’s scrambled, incoherent yet enthusiastic commentary.

Sullivan's Memorial in Kannerimukku
Sullivan’s Memorial in Kannerimukku

Later, M (who was certainly a bit inebriated) took me to his home, served me awesome coffee, discussed football and Badaga rituals, introduced me to his kids who were just back from school, showed me off proudly as a “friend from Bumbaai” to all the people we met on the way and offered to hang out with me for the rest of my days in Kotagiri. His sister seemed embarrassed and apologized for her brother’s “openness”. I didn’t know what to say and mumbling some thank yous, walked back to Kotagiri.

Tengumarada village
Tengumarada village

Day 3 -The wind was lashing my face with what seemed like a lot of wrath and anger but I was finding it very hard to look away from the spectacular landscape that lay before me. On my left were the Talamalai Hills beyond which one could see the villages of the Mysore Plateau. Down below was the village of Tengumarada, remote and isolated, hemmed in by the walls of Talamalai on one side and the winding Moyar river on the other. The women who ran the tourist café seemed bored and started filling me with anecdotal information like how Bharathiraja, the Tamil film director, loves to shoot in Tengumarada. In front of me rose the insurmountably tall Rangaswamy Pillar and the Rangaswamy Peak which fell steeply to the plains below where the waters of the Moyar river had been dammed to form the Bhavani Sagar reservoir. This was the Kodanad view-point, among the best of its ilk. During a conversation with an idle forest guard, I mentioned that the views were somewhat hazy and he advised me to come at dawn when they are much clearer. I mulled staying at the desolate Deccan Valley View Hotel near the view-point but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. Lonely nights in a lonely place are just not my thing.

The Kodanad Viewpoint
The Kodanad Viewpoint

The view was still extraordinarily beautiful though and as I was taking in its beautiful extraordinariness, a Gujarati family led by a patriarch trotted up purposefully. He was a businessman who had lived in Coimbatore for the last 50 years and certainly preferred the life there compared to the one he had in Ahmedabad when he was a young man. He spoke to his wife in Tamil but in Gujarati to his brother and sister-in-law and gave me crucial life-lessons (in Tamil) – “Marry a girl who wants to live here, not in Mumbai”, “Better still, take a girl from here, get married and show her to your parents. It’ll be a load off their shoulders”, “Youngsters these days think sex is everything, but you have to love first”, “We Indians are still backward and afraid when it comes to making moves, that’s why rapes happen so often nowadays”, “When we were young, the women used to do all the household work. They used to get a lot of exercise. Now, everyone has a maid in the house thanks to feminism and all that. That’s why they’re so weak. Women of my generation would fight back boldly.” etc. etc. He promptly took his leave when his wife yelled at him to get back into the car so they can go shop for tea in Kotagiri.

The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri
The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri

Day 4 – I took a walk to the Longwood Shola which is one of the only shola forests that exist close to Kotagiri. As I walked in some general direction, I thought I had lost my way. So I asked a gentleman who was just parking his car where the Forest Office was. After enlightening me of its location, he asked me if I’d like to have some tea. So, instead of going ahead and taking a nice walk in the forests in good weather, I spent the whole afternoon drinking tea and talking to him. He was a pharmacist and Kotagiri being a small town where everyone knew everyone else very well, started filling me in on unnecessary details about the life of the owner of my guest house. After a few hours of idle gossip about his family life, adventures in Sharjah and Dubai, more cups of tea, plans for the new house he’s building, some cookies, lunch, a tour of family albums and a lot of other nonsense, I bid farewell. It had started raining by now, very heavily too, and it was getting late. Yet, I soldiered on to the Forest Office, met C, the super-friendly caretaker of the Forest Rest House there and drank more tea with him. He laughed when I said I wanted to see the Longwood Shola saying I should have been there earlier because the whole track would be covered with leeches after the rains. I told him very quickly about my little time-wasting session with the gentle pharmacist and he shook his head and agreed to take me on a little tour. We walked for a little while inside the thickest forests I’d walked this side of Taman Negara and C very excitedly showed me some Malabar Giant Squirrels, leopard tracks, bison shit, porcupine squills, some mynas and some red-whiskered bulbuls. I’m definitely going back to Longwood Shola someday.

I wouldn’t have made any of those trips if my stay at the “Heavenly Stay” had been truly heavenly. It was a little lodge-like place, very clean, overlooking a not-very-busy road but the hammering noise from the construction site next door made sure I didn’t spend any time in my room during the day (the nights were quiet and peaceful). At 750 Rs. a night, it was also the most expensive place I’d stayed in the Nilgiris with little of the homely atmosphere that even an institution like the YWCA managed. The family was friendly and helpful enough but I wish they were visible more often. D, the care-taker, was among the more annoying people I’d met. If I spent even a couple of hours in the room during the day, he would either look very suspiciously (I don’t know why) or very pitifully (because I was alone). His typical “Good morning” message went something like this – “Good morning (beaming smile). So what are you doing today? It must be very sad being alone, no? Where are your friends?” My trips out of my room were primarily a way to convince him that I was “doing something” in Kotagiri and was “happy”. And, just for that, thank you, D! Caveats aside, it certainly is a good value place to spend time when you’re in Kotagiri.

Climb a few meters above Heavenly Stay to Luke's Church and you get this view
A small, clean, open and charming place, like all hill stations ought to be

Kotagiri is the smallest, cleanest and the most pleasant of all the Nilgiri Hill Stations. It doesn’t have the polluted haze of Coonoor and Ooty and the people (even D!) go out of their way to be open and friendly. My favourite haunt here was the Friend’s Bakery which was hugely popular with locals. It had a little café where the evenings were spent discussing World Cup matches, politics, DMK-AIADMK wars, movies –why Rajnikant is awesome, why Vijayakant is awesome, why Tamil movies are the best movies in the world, gossip – why so-and-so person working in the PWD didn’t get his pension, how this man was ruining his family by piling on debt, more gossip and more politics. In a way, it made me feel warmly nostalgic for the small Himalayan towns and villages in that, in many ways, the people in these hills weren’t so different from the easy-going, affable people one encounters in the Himalayas. Once the altitude drops and the population rises, the smiles start to disappear and the faces appear more tense and unhappy.

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Getting out of Sarahan

A glorious greeting

Most people travel to Sarahan for the spectacularly located Bhimakali Temple and I was no exception. That’s all I had wanted to do, spend a day or two in the serene surroundings of the temple guest house and move on to more exciting things in life, like a short trek in Kinnaur or home-stays in Spiti. Only, I ended up spending a week at the Bhimakali Temple out of sheer inertia.

The village of Sarahan is a dull cluster of dhabas, hotels and a few shabby under-construction guest houses set around the temple. Apart from the odd pack of Israeli backpackers and a Bengali family or two, there was a feeling of desolation here that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere in the Himalayas. Although the views from my verandah were fantastic and living within the grand architecture of the temple precincts was a unique experience, things were beginning to get depressing. I started feeling sad and angry for not getting a move on especially when it was so easy to get a move on with buses leaving regularly for the places I wanted to go.

Bhimakali temple at Sarahan

But the baba had an explanation for it. I was “meant” to have stayed longer than I wished to because I had no choice in the matter. We were “meant” to have met at the temple and he was “meant” to be there to show me the right path. He looked ancient, with a long scraggly beard that extended all the way down to his waist. He was so skeletal in appearance that I felt he grew his beard that long just to cover his bones. He was upset about his previous disciple deserting him on the way to Kedarnath leaving him to fend for himself and I started to get the impression that I was being measured up as a replacement.

I accompanied him for a walk into the forests, him effortlessly walking barefoot, me in my Coleman boots struggling to keep pace. After expounding much on the Upanishads and mythological lore, a lot of which flew over my head, he advised me to do a trek to the lofty peak of Shrikhant Mahadev and said, “I have been to all the abodes of Lord Shiva but none have the ability to make your blood freeze, your feet bleed, your inner systems growel like the Shrikhant Mahadev. At this time of the year, the snow would bury you up to your neck and treacherous crevices could open up at every turn. If you harbour evil thoughts, you will certainly be swallowed by the mountain. But if you have a pure soul, the grace of God will keep your body warm and show you the way. I can help to purify your soul. You can spend months here in these beautiful mountains and get your soul cleansed with the beautiful air and a good diet of fresh fruits and herbs. If you take care of me well enough, we can go climb that mountain together.”

The Shrikant Mahadev Peak from Sarahan

Feeling a little (unjustifiably) creeped out, I told him politely, “I don’t have the faith or ability to live like you do but am highly thankful for your offer to take me into your fold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run because a friend is waiting for me in the village to take me to Rampur. Again, thank you and good-bye!” I scurried down to my room in the temple guest house, packed my bags and hitch-hiked in a milk van out of Sarahan into Kinnaur.

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