Neermahal

A visit to Neermahal, the water palace, Melaghar’s crowning glory, threatened to be elusive. From the ends of the dusty trails lining the banks of the Rudrasagar, the palace appeared so close one could almost touch it. I spent a couple of days idling on the banks of the lake waiting for the large 20 seater boat to take off for a ride across the waters but there were never enough tourists to fill it up. The only visitors were romancing couples on a day trip from Agartala who hired one of the more expensive smaller boats. Boatmen hankered me to go with them to the Palace when they first saw me but left me alone thinking I was a crazy person after I refused to show any interest after knowing their rates. A seat in the 20 seater cost 20 Rs., hiring a private boat 400 and I wished to stick to my core budget traveller roots and wait for the 20 seater to take off some day.

On day 3, two large tourist buses from Kolkata arrived. Their numbers were so populous that they had to hire two 20 seater boats to go across. I felt apprehensive about walking over to the group and asking if I could go with. By now, I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see the Palace and had prepared myself mentally to be OK if that was to happen. I consoled myself thinking how sightseeing was never a primary objective in my travels and how just watching the tranquil scenes of colourful boats bobbing on the lake and the Palace rising up in the distance was enough.

While I was sitting gloomily on the sandy banks watching a group of labourers cut steps in the wet mud down to the boats on the lake, the man at the counter, with whom I shared a cup of tea and jhal muri the last two evenings, came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. “It’s your seat on the boat”, he said, “They have 4 seats empty. Sit wherever you want. You can’t come all the way from Mumbai and not see the Palace.” I thanked him profusely but also told him he didn’t have to do that because I was okay not seeing the Palace at all. “You’re a very strange person”, he said shaking his head and went away.

I looked around the boat and saw that it was full of loud, cantankerous families gossiping among themselves. A group of kids ran about yelling loudly. One of them thought it was a great idea to climb onto the roof of the boat and jump on it before being yanked down angrily by the boatman. The kid wailed in disappointment and two women consoled and pampered him to calm him down. He was happy as soon as they gave him a mobile phone to play with and things were back to normal, or as normal as a loud, chaotic group like this would allow. It wasn’t easy finding a place to sit because I wanted to be away from this family mayhem. An elderly gentleman in a sparklingly white shirt and dhoti was sitting all alone in a corner. So I went and sat next to him.

As the boatman cranked up the engine lever and the boat began moving, the old man began to reminisce. “I used to come here very often,” he said, “I was a cadre of the Communist Party and worked in the office in Agartala. There was nothing here back then. No buildings, no houses, nothing. Only forest. It was like coming to the jungle. None of these noisy steamboats. You had to hire a wooden fishing canoe which would wobble in the waters. This place used to be very calm and beautiful then.”

As he was talking, a middle-aged man came up awkwardly to where we were sitting, smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry. He likes to talk a lot. Hope he’s not bothering you.”

The old man shouted at him saying, “He’s not like you. He listens.” Then he looked at me and yelled,  “Am I right?”

“Yes”, I said, instinctively, out of sheer fright and told the younger man that I didn’t have a problem with the old man talking. He thanked me, apologized again and went back to his seat.

“He’s my son. Just because he doesn’t like to hear me talk, he thinks nobody likes it. Do you have a problem with me talking to you?”

“No”, I said, as quickly and convincingly as I could.

“In our days, we used to love listening to old people talk. People these days are completely spoilt. We have so much experience to share. But nobody listens. I sincerely hope I’m not bothering you.”

“You’re not bothering me at all. It’s interesting to listen to you”, I said, half-sincerely, because while I did ordinarily enjoy a good conversation, all I wanted to do on the boat ride was to soak in the scenery around me, watching the fishermen on rickety boats glide by as the dainty old palace slowly zoomed in closer. There were few pleasures in life equal to just floating on the water and watching life go by.

But the old man was having none of it. Now that he was convinced he had my ears, he launched into an impassioned critique of the various species of fish available in the lake and how eating some of them could make you sick and the subtle differences between the fish that came out of Tripura and the fish that came out of South Bengal and the fish he had the pleasure of eating in the 60s and the fish he was forced to consume today. “I don’t know what people are eating these days, plastic or fish”, he said, animatedly, “Sometimes I think the plastic wrapper at the fish market is healthier than the fish they sell there. Who knows what waters they fished them out of. Most of our rivers don’t even have water, it’s only a drain filled with chemicals and shit.”

I nodded my head dutifully to pretend I was ardently listening to his monologue. It had been a strangely dissatisfying trip. Even if it lasted only for 20 minutes, I felt as if I had been sitting there bored out of my skull for years. I was neither able to enjoy the tranquillity of the lake nor initiate a conversation with the old man in subjects that genuinely interested me, like his Communist past, his work in Tripura, his political ideologies today. So annoyed was I with the journey that I felt genuinely relieved when it ended and we reached the banks of the palace.

As we embarked from the boat, the boatman issued a stern warning to all of us to return within an hour or risk being stranded at the palace. But the kids had other ideas. They had scattered off to different corners of the palace and after an hour was up, their mothers had to spend another hour trying to gather them together. The old man and his son sat on the walls of a rampart with the old man passionately illustrating a point he was trying to make and the son staring into the distance, nodding absent-mindedly.

The Neermahal of Melaghar might seem like a poor cousin of the grandiose Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan (now an expensive Taj Hotel) but to my eyes, it was just as beautiful. It had the air of slow decay, a gentle dilapidation, a faded glory that gave it a character that the exquisitely polished air of the Taj Hotel didn’t have. Despite its whitewashed walls and splendid domes, it looked withered and aged. Architecturally, it was neither imposing nor grand but its lengthy ramparts and latticed walls spoke of a delicate beauty. The people who built the structure and lived in it perhaps didn’t want to make an opulent statement but were content enough to stay in this quiet, isolated palace in the middle of waters, watching the sun go down in rainbow colors every day.

By the time all of us had seen the palace and returned to the boats, it was evening. I took a seat in a corner, far away from the old man because I wanted to enjoy this ride back as peacefully and quietly as possible. The sun was beginning to set in the distance and the sky was milling with cumulus clouds  scattering in all directions filling the landscape with myriad shades of purple and orange. The colors swept into the Rudrasagar melding and mixing with the ripples of the waters. Silhouetted fishermen floated in their canoes in the violet waves. I wished I could live in those water colors forever.

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Hanging out in Kolasib

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The 12 pm jeep that I had booked in Aizawl to go to Kolasib got delayed indefinitely because the President of India was visiting the city. So a lot of us who had to go elsewhere had to wait the few hours before the President, his convoy, his entourage and his security people could pass through the main thoroughfare. While local cops and some of the residents gathered on the pavements to watch the convoy go, I sat glumly inside the tiny medical shop that doubled as the taxi booking counter watching Aizawalites shop for all the drugs they required for their myriad ailments.

The consequence of this delay was that I wouldn’t reach Kolasib until after dark. The Tourist lodge in Kolasib, located on a slope below the highway, looked like it was getting ready for a party. There was a stage being put up, a truck unloaded and a garden decorated hastily with LED lights. The reception desk was empty and I wandered around the space looking for anyone who looked like they worked at the place. None of the people putting up the lights or unloading the trucks had any idea and as I looped around the building, I asked an old man sitting in a corner absorbed in cutting onions if he knew where the receptionist was. He beamed a smile and proudly introduced himself as the caretaker of the property.

The old man was a bit of an eccentric. He said he didn’t have any rooms available but when I reminded him that I had made an online booking and showed him a receipt, instantly an entire buffet of rooms opened up. He took me around the lodge and I had a look at the entire gallery of ramshackle rooms that were up for grabs, from crumbling cottages set around the garden to dark, bare rooms deep inside the corridors. When I asked him why he said he didn’t have any rooms, he told me that there was a wedding about to happen the next day and he feared all the rooms might have been taken up by the families of the guests.

Two hours later, I told him I would like to have dinner and he said there was no food available but when I began throwing a bit of a panicky fit (because the lodge was a good distance away from the main town and I did not want to go hunting for food in the dark), he summoned up an elaborate list of items he could prepare to satisfy my pangs. My dinner, then, would consist of a plate of pakodas for starters followed by large bowl of dal, a mountain of rice, numerous chappatis, two varieties of chicken curry, four different vegetables (potatoes, mushroom roast, stir-fried beans, mutter paneer) and some gulab jamuns for dessert to go with. When I asked him why he claimed to have no food, he said I was fortunate because the cook for the marriage party had stayed back and he had used some of the raw material reserved for the wedding to cook me this gargantuan meal.

Having eaten to my heart’s content, I tried socializing with some of the wedding guests who had arrived. These were to be my last two days in Mizoram and I wished to make as much of it as I could. One gentlemen, who frequently went to Mumbai on business, explained the profound differences he felt between the two cities and cultures like it was the sort of intimate knowledge only he possessed. There was more air to breathe in Mizoram, the pace of life was more relaxed, people were more spiritually rigorous owing to the Church, the hills were more beautiful, the roads were more terrible, the climate was cooler etc.

I made a lame excuse and went to another corner where a group of young boys were fiddling with the playlists on their phones near the DJ console. These boys were among the most musically secular people I’d ever come across. The speakers would be wailing an Adele song one moment, then effortlessly move on to the cantankerous rap of 50 Cent and just as indifferently shift to Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden. I went up to one of them wearing a leather jacket and a hoodie if he preferred any of these. “I can’t say,” he said thoughtfully, “They are all good, you know. Music is music.”

The next day, I wandered about the streets of Kolasib. It was as calm and easy as the other Mizo towns I’d been to with windings lanes, vertiginous slopes, overhanging trees and churches adorning the hillocks. As I walked around trying to find a decent place to eat, I was reminded of what I was going to miss when I went back to the more crowded, noisier towns outside Mizoram. There was a laconic beauty to the laidback, unassuming life here that wouldn’t be so easy to find elsewhere.

At a corner by the market square, I again ran into the musically secular boys from the previous night’s party. They were headed for lunch to a yuppie café in the innards of the town and invited me to tag along. The place had a typically teenager menu of fries, maggi, cheese sandwich, bad coffee etc. I slurped my bowl of maggi silently while the boys were engaged in a raging debate in Mizo about something. Their argument became so animated after a point that I thought they would come to blows. But one of the quieter boys in the group pacified the two calmly after which everyone sat at the table staring at their bowls.

I took advantage of this lull in the storm to ask the quiet guy what they were talking about. He just shook his head and discreetly motioned me to keep my mouth shut. But my snooping was overheard by one of the boys at the center of this brawl. He asked me, face snarling with swagger, “Do you drink alcohol?” I said yes. “Some of us like to drink. But this man,” pointing at the boy he was arguing with, “doesn’t want us to. He works for the MNF. He wants a ban for alcohol across Mizoram.”

“It is a sin against God”, said the other dude.

“It doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that it is a sin. You want people to stop drinking because you want to be in power.”

“You know I speak the truth. Too much drinking is a sin. Will you drink only one beer and say it’s enough? No. You’ll have many more and get drunk and create nuisance. You won’t go to work because you get sick. Then you’ll steal money so you can buy more drinks. That’s the problem. But you don’t understand.”

Mizoram had been wrestling with prohibition since the late 80s when it was first imposed in the state. It was lifted in 2014 after the Congress Government came to power because they felt too many people were falling prey to spurious liquor. But this had been opposed tooth and nail by both the Church and the Mizo National Front, who vowed to reimpose prohibition if they came back to power. In the month I spent in Mizoram, alcohol had been consumed widely at every tourist spot I had been to and was often the only cause of unruly behaviour I had experienced.

They then resumed the argument in Mizo and went hammer and tongs at it again. The quiet guy looked at me wearily and said, “Now they talk about girlfriends.” So I ordered another cup of sugary coffee and sat there listening to them talk about their girlfriends in a language I didn’t understand.

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The Road to Lunglei

The Mizo couple accompanying Rajesh had to return to Aizawl because of an emergency. One of their relatives had suffered a stroke and was on life support. They were terribly apologetic that they couldn’t drive Rajesh to Lunglei to inspect the petrol pump they owned. However, they did arrange for a taxi to take him to the junction in Thenzawl where share taxis plying to Lunglei from Aizawl stopped to pick up passengers and since we had broken bread the previous night as fellow outsiders in Mizoram, he allowed me to accompany him in the taxi.

We were dropped at a restaurant which appeared to be the de-facto hang out place for anyone looking for any mode of transport going anywhere. Here, looking at the row of big vehicles lined by the roadside, we were confident that we would find a seat in one of them. But alas, all of them were full and as they rumbled away, we were left stranded all alone.

We ate some noodles at the shop to bide our time. After an hour of protracted wait, Rajesh was getting nervy and tense. He went up to the lady at the counter asking for assistance in finding a vehicle to Lunglei but she just shooed him away with a flick of a hand like he was a cumbersome pest. Rajesh was infuriated at being dismissed so contemptuously. But he couldn’t take it out on the lady, so he came over to my table and began blurting a litany of racist abuses directed at the state of Mizoram and its people. The faces in the restaurant turned to look in our direction in consternation and the panic-meter in my head was going off the charts thinking of the repercussions of this outburst. The easiest way to get into trouble in a place you don’t belong is to vilify a people while you’re among them.

I asked Rajesh to shut the fuck up and went outside looking for anything that would take us to Lunglei. A taxi driver had been watching me flailing about from a distance and he came over to offer a ride for 2000 Rs. in his Alto. I thought it was a pretty sweet deal for an 80 km ride on some of the worst roads in the country. So I went up to Rajesh and told him we could get a move on because I had found a taxi to take us to Lunglei.

Rajesh reacted to my pragmatic move with fire and fury. He castigated me for getting into such a ludicrous deal without his consent as if I had filched his hard-earned cash out of his wallet. He was a family man, he said, and couldn’t afford luxuries like a private cab ride through the hills when he was on duty. Every rupee saved was a rupee that would put his son through college. We should be looking for the cheapest mode of transport that would help him finish his work and get back home in one piece, he bawled.

This angered me immensely and I stormed out of the restaurant with my rucksack to see if I could make the cab driver shave a few hundred rupees off the fare and get going. But the man appeared to have run away, possibly riled by Rajesh’s caustic attitude towards his generous offer. So I waited glumly by the roadside for any vehicle to arrive. At that moment, I didn’t care if it was a milk van, a truck or a school bus or a pony cart. All I wished to do was hit the road. It was then that the lady at the restaurant, perhaps stirred by the despondent look on my face, sent a little girl with a message.

The message was, “Wait 10 minutes. Bus is coming.” This was sweeter than honey to my ears. For a moment, I deliberated on delivering the good news to Rajesh who was morosely staring into space from the restaurant window. But recalling his disrespectful attitude from before, I chose not to.

The Mizoram State Transport doesn’t run an awful lot of buses in the state but there is one that goes from Aizawl to Lunglei early in the morning. On certain days, there is another that leaves Aizawl at 10 a.m. to reach Thenzawl by 1 p.m. And it was on this 1 p.m. bus that I found a seat by the window of the last row. As the bus moved, I saw a figure running behind banging vigorously at its hindside. It was Rajesh.

Rajesh took the only space vacant in the entire bus, a gap of a few inches between myself and an elderly Mizo woman sitting next to me. He had also bought a carton full of diminutive guava juice bottles for the road and handed me half a dozen of them as a friendly gesture of peace and harmony.

Over the course of the 3 hour journey, perhaps to overcompensate for his rude behaviour earlier, he battered me with questions about my life in Mumbai, my college days, my views on religion, food habits, family life, lack of a family life, marriage plans, career prospects, Salman Khan etc. I indulged him initially with questions of my own to keep the conversation going but soon, it became exhausting as his thirst for the knowledge of intimate details of my private life knew no bounds. But my disinterested monosyllabic replies only seemed to make him try harder at framing more probing questions. So I put earphones on to hint at my desire to end the conversation. But this measure too was to no avail as he plucked one of them out of my ears to find out what I was listening to. King Crimson’s Red was understandably incomprehensible to him and I had to spend an awful amount of time listening to his disapproval of my taste in music and his romantic ideas of what they should be. He whipped out his own playlist and made me listen to some of his favourite songs from the 90s, all of them overflowing with melancholic self-pity, like “Kitna Haseen Chehra”, “Jeeta Tha Jiske Liye”, “Bhari Barsaat Mein Pee Lene Do” etc. He insisted on singing passionately along with these songs drawing stares from the passengers around. At this point, I realised that to put up any fight would be futile. So I let him have his way and endured his shenanigans for the rest of the journey.

The final 10 km of the road before Lunglei had been decimated by the year’s monsoon and the resulting landslides. Work was on in full swing with labourers caked in the dirt of monstrous toil attempting to smoothen the bumps as well as they could. This was a torturous stretch where the road was less a road than a rocky, marshy gloop and seated on the last row of the bus, my spinal cord could feel every little inflection of the route twisting its tissues to the brink. There wasn’t an awful lot of headroom in the bus either, so every big bump on the trail meant a knock on the head. It’s a minor miracle that Rajesh and I survived it without any debilitating concussions.

Rajesh departed at a petrol pump on the way while I got off at the point where a steep road curved up to the Lunglei Tourist Lodge. It was strategically located on top of the highest hill in the vicinity and while the climb up was exhausting, the first thing I wanted to do when I reached the lodge was to drop my rucksacks in the lobby, take out my camera and click pictures because the views from here were so stunning that I had to pinch myself to see if I wasn’t dreaming.

It was 4 p.m. in the evening and to one side you had a cascade of green hills ornamented by low clouds and on the other, yellowing wisps of fog alternately revealing and obscuring the urban cityscape on the hills in the distance, a quintessentially Mizo landscape. I’ll let the pictures do the talking because no vocabulary (that I possess) can do justice to its beauty.

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Thenzawl

Thenzawl is a nodal town, 90 kilometers south of Aizawl and makes for a convenient place to break the 8 hour slog to Lunglei. The tourist lodge here is among the oldest in Mizoram and is better managed than some of the others in the state. My room was huge with a balcony that overlooked a little brook that gurgled all night long. Here I killed many hours reading my kindle and watching a colony of fiery golden ants industriously running up and down a water pipe carrying scraps of food in their mouths.

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A majority of the clientele at the lodge weren’t tourists but people on official duty. While lunching at the dining hall, I got into a conversation with an Army Officer stationed in Lunglei who couldn’t believe I had travelled all the way from Mumbai to cavort about Mizoram where there was “nothing to see or do”. Nevertheless, he enthusiastically showed me videos on his mobile phone of all the scenic spots that he had seen in the region and invited me to a round of drinks at his office in Lunglei. It was a generous offer and a difficult one to resist in the predominantly dry state.

Another guest was Rajesh, a Petroleum Inspector from Bihar who was treated royally by the Mizo petrol pump owners that had accompanied him. After they departed, he joined my table to vent his frustrations about the job. 4 years ago, after a trip to Aizawl, he made the mistake of attempting to impress his boss by telling him that he loved the scenery here. Little did he realize that he would be the only one to show any enthusiasm for the place with the rest of his colleagues regarding the assignment more as a punishment than a pleasure. So he would become the sole individual sent to Mizoram to do the work. And now, married with a kid, he loathed the long haul he had to make every few months here.

Like many of the tourist lodges in Mizoram, the one in Thenzawl is about 2 kms shy of the town proper but it’s a pleasant walk where you pass through dainty pools of water, picturesque houses clustered on lush green slopes, wide open spaces housing poultry farms with clothes drying in the sun hanging languidly by the fences and curious little boys and girls running up to you as you take pictures to see what you’re shooting.

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One of the more ubiquitous sights in Thenzawl is a handloom mill. You see them at the backs of houses, by the roadside, in grocery stores and in their own little private closets with the women of the town chugging away at them. Although it may seem like a quiet, little place, the handloom industry in Thenzawl has boomed with entrepreneurial zeal thanks to sustainable development initiatives involving the women in the area. A lot of the product goes to the Aizawl markets and further to other markets in the Northeast and beyond.

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If you go by the Mizoram tourist brochure, there are plenty of things to do and places to see around Thenzawl. There’s the Vangtawng Falls, supposedly the highest falls in all of Mizoram, the Chawngchilhi cave, commemorating a folktale about a romantic union between a girl and a serpent, Chhingpui Tlan, a memorial stone erected in the memory of the downfall of two lovers and a Deer Park on the outskirts of the town.

But I was content with just walking up to the Presbyterian Church on one of its hillocks and looking at the panoramic landscapes around. There were quaint churches nestled in the hills, quiet little roads curving between thickly forested hills and football matches being played at the training grounds far down below. Perhaps, the best way to experience an ordinary town is to take pleasures from the ordinary things it has to offer and Thenzawl is a marvellously pleasant ordinary town.

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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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The streets of Agartala I

I’m starting a new series here to rewire the blog while I work on the more time consuming long-read pieces. Here I post black and white pictures of the places I’ve been to and hope to update this more frequently than I normally do.

I’m beginning this with a series of pictures I shot in Agartala, a street photographer’s haven. Agartala is a city that smacks of the old world with a distinct texture in its streets and markets that’s fast disappearing from other more heralded urban areas of India.

Many of these shots have been taken using the Samsung Galaxy S7 phone and that’s part of the theme of this series as well – the fact that your camera matters less than the shots you take.

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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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