The monasteries, villages and wildernesses of Zanskar

(In 2012, a friend and I hired a horseman from the village of Darcha and trekked through the high pass of Shingo La into the villages of Zanskar. This is a continuation (and the conclusion) to the journey I began to recount in the previous post. The focus of these posts is to showcase the photography. I will do a more detailed report of the trip on a future post.)

The terrain below Shingo La was steep and punishing as we slipped and slid through vertiginous snowfields and mighty scree slopes to reach the campsite of Lakong. The lone granite peak of Gumbarunjon would be the defining feature of the spectacular wildernesses between Lakong and Kargiak as the Kargiak river photogenically wound through the arid technicolor moonscapes. 

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Although the goal of the trek was to spend as much time in the wilderness as possible, we couldn’t believe how relieved we were when we reached the stupas lining up the trail to the village of Kargiak and met its people at the trekkers cafe on the outskirts. The five days spent outside the realms of civilized society were beautiful but we were craving for genuine human warmth and conversation. The architecture here felt one with the landscape, whitewashed stone and wood houses set amidst green fields with the craggy mountains of Zanskar hanging above. 

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Beyond Kargiak, the trail passed through more villages and increasing human activity until we reach the campsite of Purne, the trailhead for the walk to the monastery of Phugtal. After you’ve walked through a landscape of sheer scree-ridden canyons, you cross a bridge, turn left and up there hanging in the sky on a sheer vertical cliff would be the Phugtal monastery. The first sight of this magnificent sanctuary is bound to impress even the most jaded eye. I spent 2 nights at the monastery guest house, a humble, spartan establishment, conversing with the monks and making repeated trips to the monastery above to have a closer look at the ancient murals and rituals at the monastery. It was a fitting end to what had a spectacular few days walking in the Zanskar mountains.

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Street Stories from Chennai

Georgetown, Chennai is one of the few pockets of the city that still bustles with an old world charm and character. These are some of the shots I took while walking in and around the streets and the flower markets in this atmospheric corner of the South Indian metropolis.

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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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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 – 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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