17 December 2010

assam revisited

place: guwahati, tezpur, orang
district: kamrup, darrang, udalguri, sonitpur
state: assam
location: some 1000-1200 km from kolkata via train and NH 52
average cost per head: Rs 3000 per head (approx)
mode of transportation: train (general), shared auto, bus
stay: hotel aroma (guwahati, non ac room), hotel durba (tezpur, non ac room)
food: continental and local
fame: culture, rural assam, guwahati, wildlife, brahmaputra etc

a shot taken at RGONP

My parents had left for Deoria the very last day and I had thus stayed put at my didi’s home. It was around 6 in the morning of 12th October when I got a call from my younger sister saying that someone had picked up mom’s purse from the train and since it also had dad’s wallet inside all of his important identity cards and plastic money met a sad demise. I was told to call the multiple banks and get his cards locked which I painfully and groggily did. I was anyway supposed to wake up an hour later to book tatkal tickets from Howrah to Guwahati because our original ticket hadn’t been confirmed yet. It was just two days for the holidays of Durga puja to begin and four of us would embark on a journey that would remain etched in our minds for ages to come. It wasn’t even a month back when I and my namesake friend Vivek decided to spend the puja holidays far away from home. We had many places in our mind. First it was the waterfalls and the jungles of Jharkhand, then the Buddhist sites of Bihar and finally the abundance of Assam and the impressive heavenly abode of Arunachal. Sushobhan, a blogger friend from the company I work for and Prashant, introduced by Sushobhan, were the other two who agreed to join us.

durga puja at guwahati, assam
We had our tickets confirmed for the return journey that was on 21st October but the unconfirmed ticket from Howrah to Guwahati was like a bone stuck in the throat. We had a zillion alternatives but none looked feasible enough considering our financial instability and time deadlock. Booking a tatkal ticket is always a headache in a thickly populated country like ours and more so when you are a lazy bum who has no world beyond the internet. IRCTC is notorious for hanging at the peak hour, around 8 in the morning, and considering the luck of a street dog I almost always have I nevertheless tried for booking tatkal tickets online or else we had made up our minds for an ass-blasting journey of almost 1000 km in the general compartment of a filthy train. For a change, my stars changed their positions and after much haggling, I could confirm four tatkal tickets. That the train was weekly and would be vermin infested didn’t put us on back foot. Two days hence I bid adieu to my didi and jijaji promising not to be going anywhere close to a deep valley and took an auto to Karunamoyee where I met Sushobhan and Prashant. Vivek joined us at Howrah station’s Food Plaza, a favorite hangout for comfort seekers like us.

haggling for the Inner Line Permit at guwahati
Our train was a couple of hours late but finally when it started we sighed relief but not for long. The train was terribly dirty with ticketless passengers hiding beneath the seats, rolling on the alley and even stuffed inside the washroom. The next morning, even before the sun could shine brightly in the October Sky, we reached the beautiful city of Guwahati, the largest city in the whole of north east India. I had come to the city last year and was mighty pleased at its expanse and modernity and even this time the city didn’t fail to impress with its stupendous growth. We left for the bustling market area of Pan Bazaar, adjacent to the railway station, and booked a single room at Hotel Aroma. The biggest concern was our missing ILPs, a silly slip furnished by Arunachal state government office without which we couldn’t travel to the Himalayan state which is claimed by our mighty neighbor China as a part of Tibet. The office in Kolkata where we could have got the same stays closed during weekends so getting it made there wasn’t possible (office man!) and sadly for us, the realization that government offices in Assam (much like everywhere else) stay closed during Durga puja dawned very late. We were disillusioned and looked for hurried alternatives. It was a Friday and the heat was getting unbearable. We looked around for people who could direct us till the place where we could go and check with our own eyes if the offices were really closed for the day. In a potpourri of directions that ranged from “go straight” to “take a right turn, then turn left and then again right” we actually reached Nagaland Bhawan which was closed but a heavily drunken man at the gate did help us with directions to Arunachal Bhawan but with a note that it would stay closed and it was pointless wasting our energy in this heat.

the island houses the uma nanda temple
I wasn’t feeling like taking one step ahead under such adversity. Meghalaya was a good alternative but I had been there before. Am sure it would have been no less of an experience for the other three but still, the very thought of missing out on Arunachal gave me goosebumps and nausea. Nonetheless, we moved ahead looking for Arunachal Bhawan and finally when we reached there and found it open our surprise and excitement knew no bounds. It was a holiday for sure so we had to bribe the man at the counter to get our ILPs ready that day itself. He wanted us to collect it on Monday but we obviously would be in a different city then and thus it wasn’t just possible. Thankfully we had our documents and photographs ready and it was only a matter of half an hour before our ILPs were ready and we returned on the roads happy and satisfied.

sunset over the mighty brahmaputra
Now that the major obstacle was cleared we headed for the Uma Nanda temple, located on Peacock Island in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra. It was already dusk by the time we reached the temple. We climbed over a heap of rotting banana leaves to get a view that I would safely say was the most unparalleled in the whole of Guwahati. The boat journey was awesome and the view of the hills and the river from the ghat was very pleasant to say the least. The temple was beautiful albeit small and though originally started as a Shiva temple got converted to a Vishnu temple. My friends next insisted on going to Kamakhya but it was already dark so we thought going there the next day, early in the morning, before heading for Tezpur. Because of the time lost in getting the ILP the plan for Deepor Beel was dropped. That night, we walked for quite some mile to return to our hotel with a bottle of Breezer, a good substitute for cold drinks and a reminiscent of better days to come.

dining out at domino's pizza
The next day, 16th October and a Saturday, we set off for the holy shakti peetha of Kamakhya located atop the Neelanchal hills. It was pre-decided that we would climb the hill and that we just did. En-route we encountered a huge spider, the biggest I had seen so far and some breathtakingly beautiful scenery of Guwahati with a sudden drizzle interrupting our ascent. The climb wasn’t difficult at all and is a daily routine for many I could see. We hadn’t even reached the main gate of the temple when it started raining heavily and we had to take shelter at the shops lined in tens and hundreds. It seemed the rain would never stop and in the process my phone also took a shower and went kaput for the rest of the journey. I could see people taking goats for sacrifice and thought what good it did for them. The rain stopped and Vivek and I went inside the temple for darshan while the other two waited outside (pseudo-atheists). We had our breakfast at a South Indian restaurant where the masala dosa was pathetically bland. A group of people struggling with buffaloes for sacrifice passed by and that again made me thoughtful. We hired a car which dropped us till the base of the hill from where another bus packed with people, dripping with water, dropped us till our hotel.

rajiv gandhi orang national park, orang
We got ourselves ready and left for Tezpur. A middle aged man outside our hotel was kind enough to tell us that an Omni could drop us till our destination and when asked how much would he charge he was quick to reply, “Sosta podega saabji. Sirf 4000 rupiya!” We paced our steps and decided for the state bus instead. The wait at the Pan Bazaar bus stop was annoying and it wasn’t before a couple of hours that we reached another bus stop in the outskirts of the city where an ASTC bus would take us to Tezpur. I had thought the route would be via Nagaon but they crossed the Saraighat Bridge and took the north bank route (NH 52) via Mangaldoi, Dalgaon, Rowta, Orang and Dhekiajuli. It was a long journey of almost five hours and by the time we reached Tezpur, the headquarters of Sonitpur district, it was quite late in the night. The bus journey was definitely amazing. The time spent with friends with no botheration of the hours to come, of waking up early in the morning for the shuttle from Bally till office, the constant pestering by family members, the umpteen tasks assigned at weekdays and the hapless wait for Friday made me feel really good. The bus was quite comfortable and ulti-baba Sushobhan was feeling better after a stomach upset in the afternoon and with his neck cringed like a crane was sleeping peacefully. Vivek, sitting beside him, was lost in a faraway land. Prashant and I talked of bodybuilding and how adventure gave both of us a high. Amidst all this, the bus came to a halt at Orang. It is famed for the Orang National Park (located some miles away form the stop). We had tea and talked of the days to come. Roy’s proposal of spending the night at Orang itself in some local hut was quenched outright. The bus resumed its journey and going past the line of small shops selling festival sweets and balloons we finally came to Tezpur. I had expected it to be a big city but it disappointed me. We looked for hotels everywhere and finally with the help of a local lad got a room at hotel Durba. It was a night of festivity and we had enough of vodka and whiskey to drown the tiredness of the day and woke up fresh on the Sunday morning of 17th October.

lush green fields, sonitpur district
The fresh morning air and the fact that we weren’t heading for the concrete jungle but the real jungle gave us a high. The feeling of sipping hot tea in the chill of sunrise and so far away from home was really amazing. We hired an auto, then a bus and then again an auto and after a journey of some one and a half hour reached the main gate of Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park. To our ultimate horror we found the park was closed and would open on November 1. We tried to convince the keeper to let us in for a while but then it wasn’t a zoo. They weren’t supposed to pay heed to our rants of, “we have come from so far away” and “we have come with high hopes. Please don’t disappoint us.” The park looked inviting but we had to turn back.

the himalayas at the horizon
The worst thing was that the next vehicle we could get of any type would be 5 km away but we had the whole day with us. Prashant and Sushobhan had already moved ahead and we paced slowly behind them taking pictures and assuaging ourselves with the fact that the walk in itself was beautiful. I was disappointed for sure but then there was hardly anything I could do. We had plans for Pobitora, Laokhowa and Burachapori but none of them looked likely now. We kept walking and thinking what would happen next. The mighty Himalayas seen at the distance with peaks covered with floating clouds and resembling snow looked angelic and alluring. The green paddy fields for miles and miles dotted by small ponds, playful children on the streets and sleepy little villages with humble people residing wasn’t less of a journey in itself. We walked for a while and took a lift from a biker who said he worked at the park as a driver. We showed our two friends a thumbs down the minute we zoomed ahead of them. The biker dropped us at a market place from where we could get an auto to the main road. We waited for the other two but when even after a wait of around two hours they didn’t turn up we got frenzied and since none of us had our phones working we had to employ various techniques to get their telephone number. We had no idea where those two guys had gotten lost. We wanted to assure ourselves they were alright and alive. Finally we got Prashant’s number (a long story) and we got to know that they, after having waited at the main road for quite some time, had left for Tezpur. We shelved our plans for the day and took an auto and then a bus back to the town of Tezpur. The other two had reached early and were quick to announce that not one vehicle was free and ready to drop us till Bomdila the next morning.

walking away from rajiv gandhi orang national park
We went around the city looking for alternatives. The only way out was to reserve a SUV which would cost us just about anything. It was the beginning of the tourist season and vehicles plying on mountain roads are very limited and all booked well in advance. I had been a fool not to realize it and had it not been the constant reminder of a friend I wouldn’t have booked the hotel rooms either. We had rooms booked at Bomdila and Tawang but we just couldn’t think how we would reach there in the first place. Everything was going unplanned and we were missing out on so many things. The whole of today was already wasted to say so and we were all tired. Prashant though had talked with a person who said he could drop us till Bhalukpong, a sleepy little town on the Assam-Arunachal border from where we could take a bus or a SUV till Bomdila and for that he would charge 1400 bucks. We had no way out. We had to move forth and we decided to leave Tezpur that day itself. We packed our bags, checked out of the hotel and off for the border. Night was falling quick and within a couple of hours, bypassing stretches of bad road, expanses of  barren land and via the stunning Nameri National Park finally reached the doorway to heaven, Arunachal Pradesh. The driver insisted we pay him more considering how bad the road was but then for a distance as little as 70 km, Rs 1400 in itself was too big a deal.

mystic, majesty, marvel: assam
The journey was eclectic and wonderful and the darkness spread outside made me realize that civilization is both beautiful and a nuisance. The setting sun, spreading its multiple hues across the barren sky and the distant horizon, inviting and colorful, with the prospects of a day, untold and raw, made us go berserk and the next few days spent in Arunachal redefined our souls like never before. Love you Assam, Love you India for being so divine, so plentiful and so diverse.

5 comments:

  1. Nice post buddy. Waiting for the Arunachal Episode!! And the sunset pic simply rocks!! Reminds me of my home. :(
    Beautiful pics accompanied by a beautiful narrative.

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  2. Awesome rendition.. Was eagerly waiting for such a vivid description of the journey.. Just reading it made me relive the moments spent in Assam.. :)

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  3. @tonmoy: thanks brother! yeah, the arunachal one is over, will post it soon.. glad that it reminded u of ur home..

    @susho: thanks bro! yeah, i took time but then better late than never!! that's a big compliment.. many thanks!

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  4. Sincere thanks for posting this blog on Assam trip with such beautiful narration & lively pictures. Like Tanmoy, I am too feeling very nostalgic about my home in Guwahati. Left Assam almost two decades back, but the heart is still left out there. Many thanks once again .. may God bless.

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  5. @saumen: it always feels good when someone from assam goes through this piece n praises my effort.. i feel satisfied n all the memories of the times spent good comes back! thank u very much for going through it n for all the good words! thanks again!

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