Chhomrong, a Himalayan village on the edge

The extraordinary landscape of the snow covered Himalayan mountains on the Annapurna Base Camp trekking trail in Nepal.

The Himalayan mountains create their own weather. They change colour and texture with every turn of the light. One day, they’re bright and sunny with a blue sky and the next, dark, gloomy and mysterious.

You need time to appreciate the many moods of these mountains. Most trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trek spend a night in a village and move on early next morning. But I was stranded. I broke my knee on the way to Chhromrong. So I had to spend many days recuperating at the Panorama Point trekking lodge in this remote Himalayan hamlet.

Sinuwa by Balaji Srinivasan

Chhromrong is the last inhabited village before the Annapurna Base Camp. Icy Himalayan wildernesses fill the landscape beyond. Landslides and avalanches are a regular feature and some of those have been deadly.

I would, of course, have loved to walk the perilous trails ahead. But I have no complaints. From the rooftop of my trekking lodge, I had a 180 degree view of the entire Annapurna South range. With umpteen cups of tea for company, I sat on a plastic chair on the rooftop to capture the many moods of these mountains in pictures and words.

Machapuchare by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Machpuchhare aka Fishtail mountain from the rooftop of the lodge.

The family running the Panorama Point trekking lodge were caring and supportive. As soon as the old owner saw my injury, he made a stopgap bandage and tied it around my knee. When another trekker checked out of a corner room with a view of the mountains, he made me shift. It had a western toilet and was bigger than the smaller, darker room I had.

Guides, porters and trekkers stopped through the day for a tea break. When they learnt of my injury, they helped however they could. An American woman gave me a strip of tylenol and a tube of Moov. A Sherpa porter offered me medicinal herbs. A trekking guide gave me half a bottle of whisky.

Evenings would be filled with raucous conversation. Trekkers and guides filled the dining hall. Some bragged about walking for 21 days, some complained about eating dal bhat every day, some would launch into long rants about the being ripped off. But it was never boring.

So I have no regrets about staying in one teahouse for such a long time. Thanks to the injury, the mountains gave me serenity and idyll every day. But I remember Chhomrong primarily for its dal bhat, conversations and the kindness of strangers.

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Lunglei, a hilly paradise hidden deep inside Mizoram

The Hills of Lunglei by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the scenic Aizawl road from the Tourist Lodge in Lunglei

The road from Aizawl to Lunglei is long, winding and arduous. The city feels farther away than most cities in India. But it’s worth taking the bumpy ride for the pristine mountain scenery on the way. The closer you reach Lunglei, the more scenic it gets. Verdant hills surround you with mist enveloping the green slopes.

Lunglei is the second largest city in Mizoram with a population of over 57,000 people. But you wonder where all the people are when you check in to the Tourist Lodge run by the Mizoram Government in the outskirts of the town. The lodge, at 700 Rs. a night, is one of the best bargains to be had. From its surroundings, you only see foggy hills around you.

Lunglei Church by Balaji Srinivasan
The Baptist Church in Lunglei overlooking the Mizo hills.

Lunglei city gleams in the distance with dense clusters of buildings crowding the hilltops. It looks more beautiful from the distance than it does up close. I had to venture into the town only to book my onward jeep ride to Lawngtlai.

But it, too, is an experience to remember. While Lunglei is no culinary paradise, it’s only when you walk through the town and eat momos in its cafes that you get the true sense of what the city feels like. The steep winding lanes and high buildings built on near-vertical ridges can be both dizzying and exhausting.

The Hills of Lunglei by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Lunglei city at dusk

Beyond Lunglei, the road gets worse but the scenery only gets better. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can venture even further to the unspoilt mountain towns of Lawngtlai and Saiha and climb Mount Phawngpui, the highest peak in the state of Mizoram. There are budget Tourist Lodges at both Saiha and Lawngtlai. You might need to hire a vehicle for maximum flexibility but it is possible to find share jeeps if you look hard in the town.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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