East India is an oyster for those who like to stray off the beaten track. The wondrous region of Northeast India is rife with adventures ranging from daunting road trips to the exploration of exotic and antique tribal villages.
Ever fascinating, ever beautiful, East India is a land waiting to be discovered. Here’s a list you should consider.
TAWANG ROAD TRIP, ASSAM & ARUNACHAL PRADESH
Two full days of hobbling along what could easily be called the worst road in India takes you through layer after layer of magnificent blue mountains until you reach Tawang, the archetypal Shangri-la guarded by ageless hills and inhabited by the Monpa (a tribe of Buddhist-Tibetan origin) people.
A mighty gash in the earth ringed by sharp ridges, Tawang Valley begins to work its magic on the minds of travellers the moment they start descending along patchworked sloping ridges to its lower floor after the arduous journey. Swept by vast fields and dotted with Buddhist monasteries and Monpa villages, the route is prettiest in autumn, when waterfalls lining the road are in spate and cosmos shrubs lining the way come alive with a riotous blossom of red and pink.
Best time to go: March–April and October–November
Getting there: From Guwahati, you will have to hire a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle for the odyssey. Sumos and other SUVs (4 passengers max for the sake of comfort) cost about INR4000 per day, along with a daily allowance for the driver. You will need an Inner Line Permit (ILP) for visiting Arunachal – if you hire a vehicle in advance, the driver can help with the logistics for securing the document.
ZIRO–PASIGHAT ROAD TRIP, ARUNACHAL PRADESH
Passing through a most pristine landscape marked by forested hills and quaint tribal settlements, the highway linking Ziro to Pasighat via Along offers great photo-ops of dizzying suspension bridges and thatched Adi and Apatani hamlets. Attractions along this rough and remote route are low-key in the touristy sense of the term, and villagers around Along can prove to be much less welcoming unless you visit with a local driver or guide.
However, despite the xenophobia, it’s a route almost custom-made for intrepid travellers willing to stray off the beaten track. Throw in a possible detour to isolated destinations such as Mechuka, and you’ve got a whopper of a road trip ahead of you.
Best time to go: October–April
Getting there: The road trip will technically begin from either Guwahati or Tezpur in Assam, where you will have to hire a sturdy 4×4 vehicle for the trip, which is fairly rough in sections. Daily vehicle hire charges are about INR4000 per day, with an allowance for the driver. You will also have to secure an Inner Line Permit (ILP) for visiting Arunachal, which your local driver can help you process.
OFFROADING TO MON, NAGALAND
Northern Nagaland is a rugged and divinely beautiful country where antiquity still thrives in tribal cultures, built around pretty villages with thatched long houses. Most people here still continue to live a fairly traditional hunting and farming lifestyle. The most accessible villages are the Konyak settlements around Mon, where traditional houses abound.
Some villages still have morungs (long houses) and religious relics from pre-Christian times. Village elders (many of whom once actively engaged in the local headhunting tradition) may still wear traditional costumes, and people of all ages carry an unrifled country-made gun or the fearsome-looking dao – a crude machete originally used for headhunting – as a standard accessory.
Best time to go: November–March
Getting there: The road trip to Mon can be undertaken from either Jorhat or Dibrugarh in Assam, both of which are connected to major Indian metros by air. Daily hire charges for a 4×4 vehicle from here are about INR4000 per day, with an allowance for the driver.
SANDAKPHU TREK, WEST BENGAL
The summit of Sandakphu is the highest point in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal and is a preferred destination for several trekkers keen on glimpsing great views of Mt Khangchendzonga without the rigours of the Dzongri-Goecha La Trek.
Many seasoned trekkers will admit to the fact that Sandakphu was the very first trek of their lives. Unsurprisingly, a lot of adventurers keen on exploring the mountains still break into their hiking shoes on this trek. Known for its low degree of difficulty even while promising the best of the mountainous outdoors, Sandakphu is possibly the best introduction to the world of trekking.
Best time to go: March–May and October–November
Road: There are daily flights from Delhi and Kolkata to Bagdogra. From Bagdogra, hire a Sumo or Innova (INR2000) and make the 4-hour journey to Darjeeling. Maneybhanjang, the trailhead for the trek, is an hour’s drive from Darjeeling.
Rail: The Darjeeling Mail departs Sealdah station in Kolkata at 10.05pm and reaches New Jalpaiguri (NJP) station in Siliguri at 8am. The Dibrugarh Rajdhani leaves New Delhi at 9.30am and reaches NJP at 11.45am the next day. From NJP, you will find road connections to Darjeeling. You could also take the toy train.
BETLA FOREST SAFARI, JHARKHAND
Also known as Palamau Tiger Reserve, Betla National Park is spread over the hilly landscape of picturesque Palamau district 140km west of Ranchi. Tiger sightings are relatively rare here, but you almost sure to see wild elephants roaming freely. A trip to this primitive region of Jharkhand is also worth considering because it guarantees a glimpse into the rich tribal and anthropological heritage of the state.
The park is technically open all year-round, but the best time to visit is between November and March. If you can stand the heat, May is prime time for tiger spotting, as the forest cover is greatly reduced in dry weather, and animals are forced to venture out of the thickets in search of waterholes and streams.
Best time to go: November–March
Air/Road: Ranchi – the roadhead to Betla – has daily flights to Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. A pre-paid taxi from the airport to Station Road in Ranchi town is INR250. Betla is best visited by arranging an organised tour from Ranchi. Suhana Tours & Travels (9431171394; Guru Nanak Market, Station Rd) dispenses valuable tourist information and has updated security alerts for this insurgency prone area, and organises two- or three-day tours to the forests (from INR 3500 per person per day).