India’s Northeast

Meghalaya – The Abode of Rains

Meghalaya is a state in India’s Northeast on the border with Bangladesh. It is famous for its rains, tribal culture, rock bands and amazing flora and fauna.

We travelled to Meghalaya in the same tour as mentioned in previous posts. Since our last destination, Darjeeling and Shillong, Capital of Meghalaya, are separated by hundreds of kilometers, train was our best option. We arrived in Guwahati, an Assam city, to meet our driver, who then drove us to Shillong. Meghalaya border is only 18 km from Guwahati while Shillong is 90 km. Getting there by road from Guwahati was the best option.

Umiam Lake

Since we arrived very early in Shillong, we had lots of time before check in. The driver took us to Umiam lake to kill some time. As we neared the lake, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The lake was beautiful beyond belief, the deep blue color against the green hills. It was one of the cleanest and untouched lakes that we have seen in India.

Umiam Lake, Shillong

Sightseeing in Shillong

As part of the tour, we did some sightseeing in Shillong. We visited the Don Bosco Cultural Museum where we spent a couple of hours. The museum gave information about the North East Region, it’s geography, it’s people and cultures. The information on the tribes of the North East Region was invaluable and we were thankful for so much information. We were especially glad to have the information about the Khasi Tribe which is predominant in Shillong, Cherapunjee and Mawlynnong areas. Moreover, The view from the roof top gallery was also amazing as it gave the full view of the Shillong valley.

Don Bosco Museum, Shillong

We then proceeded to Wards Lake which was a small and pretty man-made lake. As we bought tickets for entry, we pondered whether we skip this lake as no matter how pretty it was, it couldn’t match the beauty of Umiam Lake. However, we had just ordered our coffee and some snacks at the lake cafe when the heavens opened up. The rain came pouring in as the clouds thundered above. Not listening to our guts meant that we had to wait it out. After 45 mins, we had enough and joined some of the cafe workers who were running out under a picnic umbrella, yes picnic umbrella!

Ward's Lake, Shillong

We continued our tour the next day and saw the Elephant Falls and the Shillong Peak. Both of these are must dos in Shillong and you will not be disappointed. The falls are huge and one gets to understand the huge amount of water coming down the hills of Shillong.

Elephant Falls, Shillong

The peak is also a magnificent and gives the full view of Shillong city.

Shillong Peak, Shillong

Damaged Hills

The rest of our days in Meghalaya involved day trips around the Khasi hills. These hills are old mountains very similar to the Blue Mountains in Sydney. They are small, green and contain rain forests. One of the first things we noticed was the destruction of the hills and hill tops for extracting building material.

Destroyed Hills, Shillong

While one can understand the need to extract building material, the scale of the destruction was immense. The entire stretch between Shillong, Cherrapunjee and Mawlynnong had damaged hills. We only hope this will change in the future.

Cherrapunjee

Cherrapunjee is a well known town in India for being the wettest place, not just in India but also the world, or at least it used to be. No trip to Meghalaya is complete without a visit to Cherrapunjee. The landscape of the area is so beautiful that while at the top of the hill, it feels like the rolling hills of Scotland or New Zealand while down in the valleys, one could be in Australian rain forests.

Cherrapunjee Hills

One of the most amazing sites in the area was seeing the plains of Bangladesh. When the subcontinent was partitioned, the Garo and Khasi hills went to India while the plains of Slyhet went to East Pakistan which eventually became Bangladesh. All the rivers of Meghalaya drain in Bangladesh so all one can see are lakes and fields. A beautiful sight!

View of Bangladesh Plains, Meghalaya

Another beautiful sight in the area was the upturned basket rock, traditionally called Khoh Ramhah. It was a cylindrical shaped black rock in the hills overlooking the Bangladesh plains. There was a waterfall in the vicinity but we decided to climb down to another waterfall in the area.

Khoh Ramhah, Shillong

Finally, we saw more waterfalls and hills in the area. However, the most amazing was the Noakhilikai Falls where the falls dropped into a blue pond. We couldn’t help but thinking that we were close to home in the Blue Mountains.

Noakhilikai Falls

Root Bridges

The Khasi Tribesmen had been using root bridges for centuries to cross waterfalls. They guide the roots of banyan trees using bamboo but eventually remove them as the roots grow thick over the years. Some of the bridges are 100s years old and can carry the weight of over 50 people.

Root Bridge, Meghalaya

On the way to Mawlynnong

Mawlynnong is a village in the East Khasi Hills some distance away from Shillong which has been dubbed as Asia’s cleanest village. As part of the tour, we got to visit it and the surrounding villages.

On the way, we stopped at another living root bridge at the Riwai Village. It was the biggest root bridge we had seen and it was almost a 100 years old. Interestingly, the original designers did not get to walk on the bridge itself. While the bridge was full of tourists, the locals were busy washing their clothes on the river. We couldn’t help but think that while the tourists enjoyed themselves on their property, life was as tough for the locals as it was a 100 years ago.

Roots Bridge, Riwai Village, Meghalaya

Nowet Village, MeghalayaWe decided to walk a little further to the Nowet Lookout. As it happened, the lookout was on the other side of the village and we got to watch the village life go by. There were kids playing, chickens running around the village as well as other animals like dogs and pigs. The houses had traditional thatch roofs with bamboo for walls and support. Modernity had reached the houses as some houses had dish TV and a few houses were made of brick.

Traditional Khasi Houses, Meghalaya

We had imagined the lookout to be a concrete platform built by the Government as is common for the area. However, upon getting to the lookout, we realised that it was a village owned lookout made by a handful of people. The lookout was completely natural made of bamboo, tired with natural rope and supported by a tree on the side of the mountain. It probably would not pass a safety test in Australia but it was one of the best lookouts we have seen. The view was also magnificient as the Riwai river came down the hills on its way to Bangladesh.

Nowet Lookout, Riwai Village, Meghalaya

Mawlynnong itself was a tiny little village atop a hill with a view of the plains. It was certainly clean and beautiful but nothing too interesting to write about. It seems someone had created Mawlynnong as a tourist destination with the surrounding villages as stop off points. We had a traditional lunch in the village before heading back.

Mawlynnong Village, Meghalaya

Guwahati

We were in Assam for 1.5 days to see the sights of the city. Our first stop was the famous Kamakhya temple. Being Navratri (nine holy days of the Goddess), the temple was full of people and the line to enter the main temple was several hours long. We decided to take the shorter route from which we could see the idol of the Goddess.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati

Once done with this, we walked around and saw the animal sacrifice in the vicinity. Animal sacrifice is uncommon in temples nowadays but it is a common ritual during Navratri. Though we don’t do it ourselves, it is an accepted part of Shakta and Tribal Cultures in the area. The temple is famous throughout India for its power and healing.

Brahmaputra

Ever since I was little, I had heard about Brahmaputra river. It is the biggest river in India even bigger than the Ganges. There were stories of its might and its mystique as a home to cannibal tribesmen and Hindu tantrik holymen. Therefore, although we could have gone to Kolkata after Shillong, I wanted to see this river and the city.

Brahmaputra River, Guwahati

We got to visit the Umananda Temple which was on an island in the middle of the river. The river though not very fast was constant and its width really was huge.

We had another chance of going to the Brahmaputra on an evening cruise. Boarding the cruise ship, we got to take some nice sunset shots, have a couple of drinks and even danced a little.

Brahmaputra River, Guwahati

This ended our trip in Guwahati as well as the tour of the North East region.

Final Thoughts

Shillong was certainly one of the cleanest places in India that we have been to. There was a traffic problem but overall it was a beautiful city.

Culturally, Shillong was the most different place in India that we visited. The Khasi tribe is completely Christian due to the missionaries from Europe in 18th Century. We never saw any Hindu Temples and most people in the city were tribal. The women would wear a checked or colored cloth around their torso and tied at the shoulder. Eating paan with lime and beatel nut was a common thing in Shillong. Everyone had Red lips from it but unlike the north, no one spat it out.

There was only one problem in Shillong. The internet was very bad in the city. However, this may be due to our operator.

Guwahati was our last stop in the North East. We weren’t expecting beauty like Sikkim or cleanliness like Shillong, though a lot of the highlights were shut.

The tour itself was a major highlight for us. It had taken a couple of months with several tour operators to sort out the details but we finally managed to do it. The tour gave us a little more information on the region and we would definitely be back though may spend more time in Sikkim or further east like Nagaland or Manipur.

Shillong & Guwahati Gallery

« 1 of 5 »

Darjeeling

We left Gangtok and headed towards Darjeeling, famous for it’s tea. Instead of taking the main highway, we traveled on a village road. The drive was stunning as we saw terrace rice fields in full bloom facing the Teesta river which itself had a deep jade colour. As we were entering the city way past sunset, we saw thousands of stars above us and the lights of Darjeeling all across the mountains. It was a great start!

Tiger Hill

Since it was a clear night, we decided to see the sunrise from Tiger Hill. It lies just outside the city and is must see. The issue though is that the crowd is too big so you need to get there by 4am to get a good spot to see the sunrise.

Therefore, we woke up at 3am and were ready by 3:30am but the driver was nowhere to be seen. He turned up at 3:50am after a wake up call from us and drove crazy to get us to the hill by 4:30am.

Tiger Hill Adventure, DarjeelingOnce there, we realised that we hadn’t rugged up enough and it was absolutely freezing. After a couple of coffees and wearing our scarves on our faces, we grabbed a spot on the balcony in the cold. Although we had a expensive ticket, the seats were full by the time we arrived.

Tip: If you don’t want to stand outside in open balcony, we recommend getting to Tiger Hill by 3am. Hopefully then you would get a seat at level 2.

The sunrise time was 5:30am and we were clicking pictures of the sky till 5:15am. The crowd came in by this time and the viewing area was packed like a Mumbai local train. There was tension in the air about the clouds and whether we will see the mountains. At 5:20am, someone shouted “Look! The Mountain”, heads turned to the west, people started whistling and we saw the first rays of the sun hit the Kanchenjunga and other mountains in the Himalayan range.

Kanchenjunga, Tiger Hill Adventure, Darjeeling

Sunrise, Tiger Hill Adventures, DarjeelingIt was the first time, I had seen something beat the sun and the sky – no one was interested in the sunrise anymore. A faint sun showed up at the horizon  and although there were clouds, nothing matter because the white snow covered peaks were now golden. Being sleep deprived and cold was the last thing on our minds and we were glad we decided to see it that first morning.

 

Kanchenjunga, Tiger Hill Adventure, Darjeeling

Darjeeling Sightseeing

Tours by car run on stop-off point system. Darjeeling has 7 points, i.e, tourist stops. We first visited the Zoo and the Mountaineering Institute. Now, Shruti and I aren’t particularly keen on zoos and parks. We feel that zoos are generally the same everywhere and parks are mostly boring. We would rather walk in a National Park which provides both these things.

Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, Darjeeling

However, the Zoo and the Institute were a combined ticket and the Zoo had Red Panda. If you grew up in India in the early 90s, the ‘Jungle Book’ animation was on TV every Sunday morning. As kids, you just couldn’t miss it. The main character Mowgli had been raised by animals and had friends like wolves, bears and a cute Red Panda. Since then, I had wanted to see a Red Panda. To see one in the wild is tough as they are endangered and live in trees in thick forests.

We finally saw two of them sitting on branches of trees looking rather cute but a bit sad. Once done with getting our panda on, we saw Himalyan birds, bear, deer, sheep, wolves and several cat species. The mountaineering institute was interesting as it showed the history of mountaineering in the Himalayas and several attempts on Mt Everest made by mountaineers from the Institute.

Red Panda, Zoo, Darjeeling

We saw the Tea Garden, Rock Climbing, Japanese Pagoda and Ghoom Monastery before heading back to the hotel. We left some of the flower garden and parks – can’t be bothered!

Ghoom Monastery, Darjeeling

We also had the opportunity to try a traditional Nepali Thali for lunch. The food is served in brazz utensils and a chilli is must. Yum!

Nepali Thali, Darjeeling

Temple of Unity

Mall road is the main shopping area of Darjeeling and we walked around it after lunch one day. We found a sign pointing to a Hindu Temple there and decided to follow the trail up a hill.

Other than the mighty pine trees, we noticed Buddhist Prayer Flag on the trees and temple itself. While we noticed this, we heard temple bells, a sure sign of a Hindu Temple. This left us confused and our confusion increased as we saw prayer wheels outside the main complex.

Mahakal Temple, Darjeeling

As we took off our shoes, we noticed a trident and 2 deers with a wheel. Both these signs are of Shaivite Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism respectively. As we entered, we saw a Hindu priest to the left and a Buddhist monk to the right. We paid our respects and spoke to the Hindu Priest to calm our curiosity. He confirmed that the temple has always been for both religions, perhaps a sign of the mixed Gorkha Nepalese community.

Mahakal Temple, Darjeeling

We left quite happy after ringing all the bells and spinning the prayer wheels. Maybe India needs more of these religious places to avoid confrontation.

Please take note Mr Modi!

Reliving the good ol days

As we finished from the temple, we walked back to Mall Road area and noticed a lot of people looking at a screen. We thought they were watching a film when we noticed it was just songs. It was then that we realised that Darjeeling Govt had put up a screen to show songs that were filmed in Darjeeling. We grabbed a seat, ordered some tea from a hawker and sat watching songs.

We sat watching for over an hour in the cold. Bollywood songs had been shot in Darjeeling for over 40 years and there were a lot of songs to go through. In addition, there were some classics like Mere Sapno Ki Rani which showcases the Famous Darjeeling Train and recent ones like Barfi which anyone seriously into Bollywood will remember.

Bollywood Songs, Darjeeling

Mirik & Nepal Border

In the initial research, I had been reluctant to go to Mirik as they was not a lot to do. In addition, at the time we had planned to go to Nepal so going to Nepal border again would be useless. We told the driver in Darjeeling that we didn’t think we had enough to do on the day and he combined a few things within Darjeeling with it. We visited the Batasia loop on the way and it was beautiful.

Batasia Loop, Darjeeling

Once on the road for Mirik, we stopped at Seemana View Point which was a mountainside which divided India and Nepal. The people were Nepalese on both sides but their nationality was different depending on the side of the road which they lived on. We stopped again on the same viewpoint for sunset and we were glad we did. The colours were absolutely amazing and there was a thick cloud drifting through the valley which was a first for us.

Seemana Viewpoint, Sunset, Darjeeling

Pashupatinagar is a town on the border of Nepal and India but most famous for the market which is in Nepal. Shruti signed up with her Indian ID and we were able to get in to Nepal without a visa. The market itself had a lot of winter clothes with fashion similar to western countries. Most importantly, we had been looking for winter pants to wear in 0 C and lower weather in Europe or US and we found it in this market. Thankfully, we had enough money for it and grabbed a bargain!

Nepal Border, Darjeeling

Nepalese Lunch, MirikThe rest of the journey passed through tea gardens so beautiful that words cannot describe them. Mirik itself is a small town with not a lot to do. We grabbed some Nepalese lunch and walked around Mirik lake. The view across the lake was beautiful and we took lots of photos. At the end, we though the day was a success at least for the shopping.

 

Mirik Tea Garden, Darjeeling

Summary

Transport

As part of the tour, we had Dheeraj, our driver driving us everywhere. However, taxis are readily available from NJP train station or Bagdogra airport to Darjeeling and within darjeeling itself.

Accommodation

We stayed in Seven Seventeen which was a boutique Tibetan hotel. Staying close to Mall road but far enough to the main road as there is a traffic problem in Darjeeling.

Final thoughts

We had a great time in Darjeeling seeing the main attractions. However, it appeared that the city was a bit dated. Its hayday was probably in the 1980s and it now suffered from traffic problems and fake clothing in the market. However, there are still enough places in the city and nearby to give a great 2-3 days of activities.

Darjeeling Gallery

« 1 of 3 »

Exploring Sikkim

As part of traveling around India, we made sure we didn’t miss the North East Region. Based on North Indians, India has been split into three parts – North India, which is up to Goa, South India, everything below Goa and the North East part of India, which brings an exotic feel about it.

We initially wanted to travel around the region by ourselves but as we researched we figured we needed guidance in transport, bookings and places we can visit. So we decided to book a tour that covered Gangtok in Sikkim, Darjeeling in West Bengal, Shillong in Meghalaya and Guwahati in Assam. In a series of 3 posts, we will share our experience of discovering the ‘exotic’ North East Region of India.

This post is all about Sikkim, the do’s, don’ts and what you can’t do!

Crossing the border

Yes, getting into another state in India was almost like crossing the border for Manish. We will give you the dirt in a bit. But first, getting to Gangtok, Sikkim’s Capital.

Teesta RiverBeing a mountainous state, there are no airports. We flew into Bagdogra airport in the neighboring state of West Bengal. The drive to Sikkim was beautiful as we drove around the hills along the Teesta river. The blue of the river contrasted the green of the hills and the light green of the paddy fields making it picture perfect welcome into Sikkim.

So now about the border – Sikkim is a protected state which shares border with China and as I am an Australian Citizen, the Govt. needs to be aware about my presence in their state for my own safety. As such, a foreigner needs to get an ILP (Inner Line Permit) and sign in and out during entry and exit of the state at the border post of Rangpo. It was a strange experience taking a permit for an area within India though I am identified as an Overseas Citizen of India. The experience with the officials was like any other Indian Government Office – slow and tedious, but in the end I got a stamp and entered Sikkim.

TIP: Usually tour operators are aware of this requirement but the drivers may or may not be to alert. If you are non-Indian by citizenship, make sure you stop by Rangpo and get the permit, otherwise it may cause issues while site-seeing. Also, carry photocopy of your passport and Indian Visa otherwise you will be asked to go find one in the middle of new place!

Misty Lake

When we researched into Sikkim, a few places stood out,  Gurudongmar Lake, Tsongo Lake, Baba Mandir and Nathula Pass. All these places are up in the mountain range of Himalayas and along the highway to China, which means added border security. Visitors need to get additional permits to visit these places but unfortunately, non-Indians are only allowed up to Tsongo Lake! It was definitely a huge disappointing but we made sure we visit it at least.

Our North East tour operator functions off West Bengal and because Sikkim is so restricted, we got in touch with a local Sikkim tour operator who could help us get permits to Tsongo Lake. But there was a bureaucratic problem – we needed two foreigners to travel together in order to get the permit. For safety reasons, one foreigner and one Indian, which is the case with us, isn’t an ideal match. While we were started to get even more disappointed, our Sikkim tour operator said they will “manage” it. And, trust me, they did!

Tip: When traveling to Sikkim, make sure you book your car and tour package with a local Sikkim operator. Tour operators from other states will have issues arranging visits to places along the border. Additionally, if the car is not registered in Sikkim, they could have unnecessary issues with the police and border personnel.

Thanks to Sikkim Travel Info (Tara, Suman and Tara’s husband), we were able to go up to Tsongo Lake which is around 13,000 feet high up in the mountain. There was a lot of Military presence past the check post and we couldn’t help but salute the soldiers as they live in rough weather all year round.

Tsongo Lake, Sikkim

The lake itself was beautiful beyond belief despite the bad weather, fog, in the area. We enjoyed it nevertheless – we have never been so high up in the mountains before!

Another highlight for us were the yaks. Yaks are known as the wagon of the Himalayas and are one of the cutest animals. We bargained with the yak herders and rode them around the lake. The animals were sure-footed and very calm but it was scary for us nonetheless. We highly recommend riding them – it is nothing like a camel or elephant ride! We talked to the herders about the training and how they live with the yaks. The yaks start being trained from age 1 and work till 18. The best thing was the decorations on their horns and bodies.

Yak Ride, Tsongo Lake, Sikkim

Before heading back down to Gangtok, we decided to have lunch at 13,000 feet. We headed to a tiny shop next to the lake and munched on momos and maggi. Delicious and very satisfying! Do try momos and thukpa while you are in Sikkim – these are the traditional dishes from Tibet.

Momos and Maggi, Sikkim

The Weather

It was already around 10 degrees at the lake, and as we left,  the rain came in. The driver was an expert at high mountain driving but we freaked out when the clouds rolled in and the visibility dropped to 2 metres. The driver however couldn’t care less and drove at 50 km/hr along winding roads with a bit of honking. We survived!

Tip: Please bring along a jacket at least. Depending on the month of the year and the altitude you are visiting, the weather may range from 20 C to -15 C. Don’t forget to do your research and gear up accordingly.

India-China Highway, Sikkim

A small bite of Gangtok

MG Road, SikkimThough we didn’t have many days to explore Gangtok, we visited quite a few places. Gangtok is a well built city over several levels on the mountain. We visited MG road which is the street shopping mall. One could see the mix of cultures of Gangtok with Tibetan, Nepalese and plain Indians living side by side.

The cleanliness of the city and the traffic etiquette in Gangtok was immaculate. The city was a great tourist destination with pubs, casinos, and restaurants as well as well known sights.

In addition,  we had a funny experience related to getting beer. On our first night in Gangtok, we decided to get a local beer. Upon wandering out,  we noticed everything was closed so we asked a local young man about a bottle shop. He told us that as it was an election day, the usual bottle shops were closed though he was also looking for a beer and we should follow him.

Next thing we knew, we followed him a few metres down a descending alley, waited outside a house and then followed him through a series of doors into an alcohol storage area. The air was musty, lots of wooden shelves with alcohol everywhere and an old local lady constantly reminding us to stay quite. We bought two beers which Shruti kept in her jacket, paid and were about to run out when we saw a policewoman doing her rounds. Somehow we avoided attention and went to the hotel. The taste of the beer: absolutely criminal!

We saw the Gangtok valley from the Hanuman Tok which was the hindu temple of God Hanuman run by the Indian Army. It was awkward seeing an Hindu priest dressed in khaki uniform! We also visited Ganesh Tok – another hindu temple with a great view of the city. Though both these temples were hindu, Tibetan influence to the building and decor was very evident. Everything at the temple was very colourful and prayer flags could be seen everywhere!

Hanuman Tok, Sikkim

Tibetan Buddhist Experience

Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, a famous Mahayana Monk and an extremely important personnel for Tibetan Buddhism, visited Sikkim a long time ago. Since then, Sikkim has been an important centre of Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana. And as such, throughout Sikkim, prayer flags flew alongside mountains, roads, waterfalls, houses and shops. Shruti absolutely loved them and, I must say, she managed to get LOADS of photographs.

Prayer Flags, Sikkim

While we were exploring Sikkim, we visited a few key monasteries. At Enchey Monastery, we saw little monks just initiated in the religion as well as senior monks doing their daily practice. Shruti insisted we buy prayer flags, which we took to a monk to bless. It was a spiritual experience as the monk read Tibetan mantras while throwing rice on the flags.

Enchey Monastery, Gangtok, Sikkim

We also visited Rumtek Monastery which is on a mountain opposite the Gangtok city. This monastery was made by the Karmapa who is second only to His Holiness Dalai Lama. There was a big pooja going on at the time and the monastery was jam packed. We saw monks of all ranks and ordinary Sikkimese chanting mantras and doing meditations.

Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim

Lastly, we visited the Tibetology Institute which had art, history and the deities of Buddhism as well as the history of Buddhism in Sikkim. We definitely learned a thing or two there about Buddhism.

Tibetology Institute, Sikkim

Summary

Accommodation

We stayed at the White Conch residency which was a decent budget hotel. There are plenty of hotels options of all budgets and home stays in Sikkim.

Transport

As we were part of a tour,  we had a driver available the entire day.  However, staying near MG road means you don’t need a driver and there are plenty of local taxis available to take you around the city. Having said that, traveling to the tourist spots is easier done with a pre-booked driver.

Final thoughts

Sikkim was truly exotic to us! The people, the food, the culture, the roads and the geography of the place made every second of our trip astonishing and memorable. The place was unique – something we haven’t seen anywhere in India or even overseas. The mix of Tibetans, Nepalese and Indians added to a wonderful mix of culture.

Prayer Wheels, Sikkim

Neither of us had been to Sikkim before and we are sure we will be visiting again. Occasionally, you meet someone who lives his/her job and is very passionate about what they do. We met Suman, the local tour guide you accompanied us to Tsongo Lake, and he inspired us to come back and further explore other aspects of Sikkim. He was so passionate about everything Sikkim has to offer, from the mountains to food to culture, we definitely felt the urge to visit again. And this time, we will be contacting him to plan an outdoor focused trip to Sikkim that may range from treks to camping. Aaah, can’t wait!

Exploring Sikkim Gallery

« 1 of 3 »