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City Focus: Majuli, Assam

The title of this post is misleading when it says, ‘City Focus’. Instead, we are going to focus on a unique village that has settled on the largest river island in the world.¬† We will also see the unique Satra culture of Majuli’s settlement and why Majuli is perfect getaway for a day or two. Majuli holds a special place in our hearts, because we celebrated 3 years of our marriage on this island. Continue reading

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How we covered it: Assam

Assam, the state known for tea, forms one of the states in north-east India termed as ‘seven sisters’. Apart from tea, Assam is also known for its mighty Brahmaputra river and one-horned rhinoceros. Other things about Assam are less known. E.g. the first crude oil extraction and refinery in India was started in Assam. Assam also has the world’s largest river island that is continuously inhabited. In this post, let us see how we drove around the state of Assam and what we covered in it.

Our route plan

Assam is a state that appears long and thin on the map. The east-to-west territory is significantly longer than the north-to-south. Cutting the already thin north-to-south expanse is the gigantic Brahmaputra river, which at its widest, spans 14 km in its north-to-south breadth.

The region to the north of the river is very thin. Less than 100 km of travel will put you in Arunachal Pradesh or Bhutan. The northern side has only two major cities: New Bongaigaon and Tezpur. There are other towns which are just entry points to different circuits in Arunachal Pradesh, such as Dhemaji, North Lakhimpur and Gohpur. Arunachal Pradesh is the only state that borders north Assam, also locally referred to as upper Assam. There are two national parks, Orang and Manas, on the north side of the river. Two more towns, Nalbari and Rangiya are important highway junctions with access to river bridges that cross the Brahmaputra river to the south side.

The region to the south of the river is broader, twice the span of the north. The south of the river also saw various dynasties such as Ahom and Kamrup. Hence you will see more cities here. Assam’s most happening city Guwahati, second-most important city Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Sibsagar, Jorhat, Digboi, Lumding and Nagaon are all part of the southern side of the river. The south side also has more national parks such as Kaziranga and Laokhoa. 5 north-eastern states in their entirity can be approached only from south of the river, while Arunachal Pradesh has one entry from this side too. The southern part has a less-explored hilly region with hill stations such as Haflong.

It made perfect sense for us to divide Assam into two sections using the river. Here is how we planned a route.

Click to enlarge

I. North of the river: Ne w Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Manas national park, Nalbari, Orang national park, Tezpur, entire state of Arunachal Pradesh
II. South of the river: Dum Duma, Digboi, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Jorhat, 4 north east states (Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura), Lumding, Nagaon, Kaziranga, state of Meghalaya, Guwahati
III. Barak valley: Most of Assam is centred around Brahmaputra river. There is another river named Barak, that flows in the south of Assam, where it serves as a natural border to Bangladesh. It is worth checking out the highway between border city Karimganj to Lumding via Silchar that takes you parallel to the Barak river till you reach the hill station, Haflong. We don’t recommend this route unless you have an excellent motorbike with a powerful engine or a four-wheel driven SUV. Most of the time, we had to ride over slush and flowing river beds. Low ground clearance vehicles would have inevitably broken down. 20 months have passed between our trip and our writing this post, so you should check if those highways are in better condition today.

Section I: North of Brahmaputra

Assam to the north of Brahmaputra is a narrow strip of land, where the north-south expanse at some places is less than 50 km, before we reach one of two places: the state of Arunachal Pradesh or the royal country of Bhutan. Here are some things worth seeing in upper Assam.

New Bongaigaon: New Bongaigaon is one of the major cities of Assam state. Its growth is mainly due to Indian Oil Corporation’s refinery. New Bongaigaon is one of the 5 districts in Assam, where you will find more Bengali influence than Assamese. For this city, the Bengali influence is due to being at the border of West Bengal and Assam. Bongaigaon district shares a border with Alipurduar district of West Bengal. In fact our entry to Assam during India 360 was crossing the Gangadhar river on the highway between the two districts. While there aren’t touristy things to see in New Bongaigaon, the city makes a good place to break for the night or for lunch, if you have just crossed the state border or even if you have exited Bhutan via Gelephu.

Barpeta: Barpeta is a town that serves as an entry point to the Manas national park. The park is partly in India and partly in Bhutan, where it is known as the Royal Manas national park.

Tezpur: is a city situated at the confluence of Brahmaputra river with Kameng river. The Indian Air Force has a base a Tezpur. Places of interest at Tezpur are: Brahmaputra river view, Mahabairabh temple, Agnigadh and Tezpur market. Tezpur is also an important road-head for travelling to Tawang district of Assam, along a road that follows the Kameng river. We stayed with close relatives at Tezpur. To the south of Tezpur is a river bridge that crosses to the southern Assamese town of Kaliabor, from where Kaziranga national park is less than 40 km away. Because, we had close relatives at Tezpur, the city formed a place where we could crash after completing different parts of our north-east trip.

Brahmaputra river south of Tezpur

Section II: South of Brahmaputra

We crossed to the south of Brahmaputra in the state of Arunachal Pradesh at Parshuram Kund (see the post How we covered it: Arunachal Pradesh). From there, here is what we covered.

Dum Duma: is a town from where one can access Bhupen Hazarika river bridge, the longest road-over-river bridge in India, spanning 14 km. It is also a highway junction from where it is easy to travel to cities like Digboi and Margherita. We stayed with friends at Rupai, a locality about 3 km from Dum Duma.

Digboi: is a town where India’s earliest oil refineries were started. During those days, elephants were used as counter weights on pulleys in order to release the oil from the depths of the ground to the surface. The British exploited Digboi more than any other area of Assam, because it was extremely lucrative for them. They used Digboi for oil, tea and timber. Today, Digboi has one of India’s largest oil refineries operated by Assam Oil, a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation. You can drive around town enjoying the tea plantations, the Indian Oil township and its Oil museum.

Tinsukia, Dibrugarh: are two cities 40 kilometres apart and form important settlements to the south-east of Assam. Both cities have several tea processing plants and educational hubs.

Sibsagar: is a town that used to be the capital of Ahom dynasty (see the post History revisited: The Ahom dynasty of Sibsagar, Assam). You can see several heritage structures built by the Ahom dynasty around Sibsagar such as the Shiva Dhol, Devi Dhol, Vishnu Dhol, Rang Ghar and Talatal Ghar.

Shiva Dhol, which was built by the Ahom dynasty at Sibsagar

Jorhat & Majuli: Jorhat is a town that serves as the ferry point for exploring Majuli island. Majuli is the largest river island in the world. Majuli is divided into regions called Satras. Each Satra is carved out based on the chief occupation of the people of the Satra. E.g. Samaguri Satra is for making masks, Solmara is for pottery, etc. Auniati Satra is the religious and cultural hub of Majuli. In Majuli, one can stay in one of the several homestays or cottages, most of which also comes with food. A good way to explore Majuli is by hiring a bicycle.

Mask making at Samaguri Satra, Majuli

Kaziranga National Park: is India’s most famous national park for spotting one-horned rhinoceros. This park has the highest number and density of rhinos. One can take a jeep safari inside the park. But it is also possible to spot rhinos at the edge of the park on the highway between Nagaon to Jorhat, from a place called the rhino view point. Besides rhinos, Kaziranga also has tigers, leopards, water buffaloes, several species of deer and bird life.

Rhino spotted from the Guwahati – Nagaon – Jorhat highway at the edge of Kaziranga national park. This shot is very lucky. Due to rhino’s aggressive nature, even jeep safaris keep this amount of distance from them. We got this shot for free from the highway without having to pay for a safari!

Guwahati: is the most happening city of Assam. Within Guwahati is a seperate enclave with is own corporation. This enclave is named Dispur and is officially the capital of Assam. Guwahati is famous for Kamakhya temple, silk museum, several institutes, and a beautiful Brahmaputra river cruise.

Section III: Barak valley

Barak valley is a route that follows the Barak river from the hill station of Haflong to the point where the river enters Bangladesh near the state of Tripura. The only major cities on the route are near the Bangladeshi border, i.e. Karimganj and Silchar, both of which are Bengali speaking due to their proximity to Bangladesh. Along the way there are stunning views of the river, the rail route that connects Lumding to Agartala via Silchar and the view of forested hills in every direction. The smaller rivers from the hills, on the way to joining the Barak river, form streams and waterfalls along the way.

Barak river at Karimganj. Across the river is Bangladesh.

While stunning in beauty, the road is full of slush, loose rocks and mud. Some rivers have also overflown and knocked down some of the bridges. Such rivers flow dangerously on the road. The route is not for the faint-hearted or those with ill-prepared vehicles. Barak valley road was our most challenging motorbike ride segment in all of India 360. But once you reach Haflong, you cross a tunnel. On the other side of the tunnel, a different world awaits. The road turns into a 3-lanes-a-side fully paved high-speed national highway. You will reach Lumding and then Nagaon in no time.

Conclusion

Assam is a fairly easy state to plan your route. But there is so much in the state that is undiscovered and not well-documented. You are suggested to spend some time on TripAdvisor and also speak to the locals about what is unique to their area. You will discover plenty of hidden gems.

How we covered it: Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most beautiful and least travelled states in India. We had the fortune of getting to travel across the state on our motorbike and I would suggest you to do the same if wish to cover the state fully. The state’s public transport does not get you to every corner, nor is it possible for you to take your car to some of the narrow roads in the remote areas of India’s eastern-most state. A road trip across Arunachal Pradesh can leave you spell-bound as you will see plenty of rivers, valleys, rugged mountains, snow, green pastures, picturesque villages and wonderful people.

On the map of India, Arunachal Pradesh looks tiny. But trust us, the state is big. Barring Assam, Arunachal is the largest among the states termed as the seven sisters. Despite using the most nimble form of transport, i.e. our motorbike, we could not cover the entire state. This is because, the distances between towns are really high. Arunachal Pradesh occupies more than 300 km on the northern bank of Brahmaputra river. There are days you will need to cover 150 – 200 km on a single day on winding mountain roads which are in a state of disrepair, thus taking you 6 – 8 hours to cover what seems like a fleeting distance on roads like Mumbai – Pune expressway, Delhi – Agra Yamuna expressway or Tamil Nadu’s Grand Southern Trunk (GST) highway. We had to take hard decisions about having to drop certain plans simply because the roads were not ready for us yet. Hopefully, the current government has considered the matter and they are supporting BRO (Border Roads Organisation) to prioritise the completion of important roads in the state.

In this post, we will replay the road route we took to cover as much of the state as we could and the places that are interesting along the way. This should hopefully help you plan an exciting, jaw-dropping trip to the state named the ‘the province of the crimson veil’, a name that arises out of the fact that the state is the first to see sunrise in India.

Our route plan

Our Arunachal Pradesh route plan

We covered the following 4 routes in Arunachal Pradesh

  1. Tezpur – Tawang
  2. Itanagar – Ziro – Daporijo – Aalo – Mechuka – Aalo
  3. Aalo – Yingkiong – Tuting – Yingkiong
  4. Yingkiong – Pasighat – Tezu – Parshuram Kund – Namsai

Inner Line Permits

Please note that you need an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to visit Arunachal Pradesh. On the permit, you need to mark all the districts that you wish to visit. At all the checkposts between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and at intermediate checkposts between districts, your inner line permits will be checked. An inner line permit can be obtained online from Arunachal ILP website.

Tezpur – Tawang

This is the only route in the state that will take you through snow all year round. The route follows the Kameng river and then the Tawang river to take you to Tawang district that borders China. You can see upto two high altitude Himalayan passes on this route. One of them is the Se la pass that needs to be crossed to reach Tawang. The other pass, Bum La, borders China and can be seen if the weather conditions and diplomatic relations are favourable and you are lucky.

Tezpur: is a city in Assam to the north of Brahmaputra river. It is the second biggest city on the northern bank after New Bongaigaon. All other major cities such as Guwahati, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia are on the southern bank of the river. Tezpur is at the confluence of Brahmaputra and Kameng rivers. It is the road head for a trip to Arunachal’s Tawang district. There is a road bridge across Brahmaputra from Tezpur, that takes you to the south bank town of Kaliabor. From Kaliabor, the Kaziranga national park, famous for its one-horned rhinos, is less than 50 km away.

Brahmaputra river at Tezpur

Bhalukpong: is a town at the border of Assam and Arunachal on the Tezpur – Tawang route. The town is on the western bank of Kameng river. Your ILP will be checked at a checkpost in this town. The highway from Tezpur to Bhalukpong is flat. Beyond Bhalukpong, the highway starts ascending into the Arunachal Himalayas.

Bomdila: is the headquarters of West Kameng district. Bomdila is the biggest town on the way to Tawang. It has a monastery and a district-level playground. On the way back from Tawang, we used Bomdila as our halt for the two day motorbike ride from Tawang to Tezpur.

Dirang: is a town midway between Tezpur and Tawang. Dirang has a hill top monastery worth exploring. There is also a hot water spring near the Kameng river, which flows in a valley slightly lower than the town. We used Dirang as a halt for our two day ride from Tezpur to Tawang.

Se La pass: is a Himalayan mountain pass at an altitude of 13700 feet (4170 metres) at the border of West Kameng and Tawang districts. It has a lake that is frozen for half the year and has clear water reflecting the surrounding mountains in the other half. Se La has an army post. During bad weather, Se La becomes a bottleneck due to heavy snow or rain, either blocking or damaging the road, thus cutting off Tawang from the rest of India.

Frozen lake at Se La pass

Taxi drivers from Tezpur to Tawang and back usually ensure that they are at Se La pass before or by mid-day. No one wants to drive there during fading sunlight. When you are planning a trip to or from Tawang, you should also ensure a pre-noon pass through at Se La pass. So the best thing is to leave your source (either Tezpur or Tawang) very close to sunrise. In fact if you are using a motorbike, we suggest that you break your trip into two days: Tezpur – Dirang and Dirang – Tawang.

Jaswant Garh: is a war memorial in Tawang district. It is a memorial built for Garhwal rifles marksman Jaswant Singh Rawat, who singlehandedly kept the Chinese army at bay during the 1962 Indo-Chinese war. It is said that the spirit of Jaswant Singh still lives there.

Jang: is the first municipality on the way from Tezpur to Tawang. Near Jang town is a waterfall named Nuranang formed by the Tawang river.

Nuranang waterfall at Jang

Tawang: is a town and the headquarters of the district of the same name. It is inhabited by the Buddhism-practising Monpa tribe, who speak the language of the same name. Tawang has a famous and ancient monastery. Other attractions around Tawang are Tawang war memorial, Panga Teng Tso lake, Sitting Buddha statue, Sangetsar lake, Takt Sang monastery (not the one in Bhutan) and Bum La pass.

Tawang monastery

Here’s a video of our motorbike ride between Tezpur and Tawang.

Itanagar – Ziro – Daporijo – Aalo – Mechuka – Aalo

While Tawang is the most popular circuit among tourists, the Itanagar – Ziro circuit is gaining popularity as the roadways and transport are developing. This circuit starts from Assam’s Gohpur town and crosses the state border at Dhipu, where you need to show your permits at a checkpost. While most tourists head upto Ziro and return to Assam, we extended our route to cover Daporijo and proceeded to Aalo, from where one can visit Mechuka village. Aalo – Mechuka is a popular circuit among motorcycle groups and there is very little public transport in these areas. You cannot cover these places in a planned way through backpacking alone and public transport alone. You may get lucky enough to tag along with a group of motorcyclists or private village vehicles that happen to be going that side. I suggest that you take control of your itinerary by taking your own vehicle or a hired self-driven vehicle.

Itanagar: is the capital of Arunachal state. It does not belong to any district and comes directly under the rule of the state government. Interesting things to see at Itanagar are the hill top Ita fort and state museum that tells us about the culture of the various tribes of Arunachal. Itanagar is often combined as an urban conglomeration with nearby city Naharlagun, which is 5 km away in the district of Papum Pare. Similar to the way that New Delhi combines with Gurgaon, Faridabad and Noida to form NCR and Mumbai is often combined with Thane district to form MMRDA, Itanagar and Naharlagun are referred to as the Itanagar urban area. Due to space constraints, many of the state administrative offices are actually inside Naharlagun instead of Itanagar. Both Itanagar and Naharlagun have railway stations, the only major ones in Arunachal so far. There are frequent trains to Guwahati, New Bongaigaon and Siliguri. There is also an Arunachal Rajdhani that runs from New Delhi to Naharlagun twice a week.

Clock tower at Itanagar

Ziro: is the headquarters of Lower Subansiri district. The town is the most populated and the most commercially active town in the district that is named after the Subansiri river that flows through. Ziro is divided into Ziro town and old Ziro, with the old one having an air strip. Between the two is an ancient Shiva Linga. The Ziro music festival happens here every September.

Ziro town

Daporijo: is a town in Upper Subansiri district. It has fantastic views of the Subansiri river valley. If you are travelling from Ziro to Aalo, then it may be necessary to break your journey at Daporijo for a night. You can also look at Daporijo to fill up your petrol reserves, since there are no petrol pumps upto Aalo on one side and Ziro on the other.

Subansiri river at Daporijo

Aalo: is a major town in West Siang district, with the name of the district coming from the river Siang, a major tributary of Brahmaputra river. Another name for Aalo is Along. Aalo is a three-way junction with one highway leading to Ziro and Itanagar, another one to Mechuka village and yet another one going to Yingkiong. Aalo is also a good place to fill up your petrol reserves if you are planning a trip to Mechuka, where there are NO petrol pumps yet.

Siko Dido waterfall: is a tall waterfall on the road between Aalo and Mechuka. The visible plunge of the waterfall from the road is 200 feet (60 metres). It is near the village of Tato.

Siko Dido waterfall. Notice Priya standing near the waterfall. That’s how tall the waterfall is.

Mechuka: is a remote village close to the Chinese border. The name of the village means the ‘place with healing water’. The Siang river flows through Mechuka, while snow clad mountains stand tall far away. There are several green pastures with cows and horses grazing, making the village look straight out of Switzerland. Combine it with the colourful wooden houses and the cleanliness. The effect is complete. Mechuka has a history with close ties to Sikhism. It is said that Guru Nanak travelled to Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet to teach the virtues of compassion and sacrifice. Curiously, there is a monastery dedicated to ‘Nanak Lama’.

Mechuka village

Mechuka village

An Sikh regiment army major posted at Mechuka after independence noted that the locals heal ailments with medicinal water from the Siang river and prayers to Nanak Lama. Intrigued, he dug out history and found that this very land was graced by the man that Sikhs hold in highest reverence. Thus a Gurudwara was built in the army camp. This Gurudwara can be visited today, along with a river side temple where Guru Nanak is said to have parted stone to clear a path. Various regiments are posted to this army camp in rotation.

Please note that Mechuka is a dead-end. One must return to Aalo to be able to explore further circuits.

Aalo – Yingkiong – Tuting – Yingkiong

While Aalo – Mechuka road is beautiful and Mechuka village is hypnotising, the natural beauty on the Aalo – Yingkiong – Tuting circuit was at a different level, leaving both of us gaping our mouths and parking our bike for photos far too many times. The areas are so remote and so pristine that you will see hardly see anyone, locals or travellers. It also meant for us that the roads were in a terrible state of neglect. While the Aalo – Yingkiong road is in a fairly good condition, the road from Yingkiong to Tuting puts you under a level of test you’ll not often experience. But the stunning sight of the Siang river carving its way through the Himalayas bordering India and Tibet is so refreshing that the adverse effects of the driving test are soon forgotten.

While we want you to certainly take a trip to Yingkiong and Tuting, we would ask you to wait 2 or 3 years to wait for the roads to be repaired. If you haven’t ever ridden on low quality mountain roads before, then this trip is not for you. We do not recommend an SUV yet because the roads are too narrow to allow two SUVs to pass each other, should such an occasion arise. There are several large army trucks that use this route and your SUV will be found wanting for space to squeeze. Hatchbacks and sedans are definitely out of question due to their low ground clearance on such atrocious roads.

Jengging: A board outside Jengging claims that this is the most pollution free village of the country. We cannot confirm that. But certainly the village has excellent views to the Siang river flowing in the valley deep below the road.

Zero pollution board at Jengging

Yingkiong: While the highway from Aalo to Tuting runs parallel to the west of Siang river, Yingkiong town is to the east of the river. It is the headquarters of Upper Siang district. The distance from Aalo to Tuting is way too much to cover in one stretch, due to time and fuel requirements. it makes sense to cross the river for the evening to rest and refuel at Yingkiong and then cross back to the highway in the morning. This was not possible before 2017. But then the government provided two brand new, sturdy road bridges with good quality roads on both sides, north and south, of Yingkiong town to access the highway on the west of the river. But even before these bridges made it possible for Yingkiong people to commute to Aalo, the town has always had a south-east bound highway to the town of Pasighat, that we will see in another circuit.

State Bank of India branch and BSNL phone towers at Yingkiong

There is nothing to see inside Yingkiong, but one thing stands out. The reassuring brand boards of Indian Oil, BSNL and State Bank of India stand tall in a town so remote from the creature comforts we are so used to, thus bringing fuel, connectivity and banking to remote corners of India. It puts the Shells, Vodafones and Standard Chartered Banks to shame.

Mingging: is a army outpost town on the way from Yingkiong to Tuting. We were lucky to be served food from army ration at the Mingging army camp, eating lunch with the soldiers. While we took photos, they politely asked us not to put photos on Internet, so we heed.

Tuting: is a remote village at one end of the state. It has beautiful views of the snow mountains bordering India and Tibet. Tourism has not caught upto this village and there are virtually no places to stay. There are no petrol pumps either and you need to buy petrol at higher than market rates from grocery shops. Tuting has a beautiful monastery with monk quarters. We wrote about our experience at Tuting in another post.

Yingkiong – Pasighat – Tezu – Parshuram Kund – Namsai

While most of Arunachal Pradesh is on the north of Brahmaputra river, a small region, namely Lohit, Namsai, Changlang and Tirap districts are to the south of the river. In Lohit district, the Lohit river joins the Siang river to form the Brahmaputra. This region of Arunachal is on the plains rather than the mountains.

Pasighat: is a bustling town by Siang river. It is the headquarters of East Siang district. To the south of Pasighat, the Siang river is joined by the Lohit river to form Brahmaputra.

Bhismaknagar: is the site of the ancient ruins of the Sutiya kingdom, who ruled the region around Brahmaputra between the 12th and 17th centuries.

Roing: is the headquarters of Lower Dibang district. It is home to Adi and Mishmi tribes.

Tezu: is the headquarters of Lohit district and is on the northern bank of the Lohit river. Tezu is home to Mishmi tribe.

Parshuram Kund: is a religious site that worships the site where Lord Parshuram bathed in Lohit river. Near Parshuram Kund, the highway crosses the river from the north bank to the south bank. At India 360, we used this fact as a logical seperation between exploring regions to the north of Brahmaputra (Arunachal, Tezpur, Bongaigaon, etc) and regions to the south (Guwahati, Majuli, Dibragarh, Digboi, Nagaland, etc).

Lohit river at Parshuram Kund

Namsai: is a town at the border of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Near Namsai are a few Buddhist temples, such as Solungtoo Buddist temple of Lathao and a hill top Golden Pagoda. Namsai district has a Buddhism practising population as many are descendents of Burmese kingdoms such as Tai and Shan.

Golden Pagoda near Namsai

Places we did not cover

We did not cover the highway between Roing to Anini, a town near the international border with Tibet. We think that Anini would have been a pristine village similar to Mechuka and Tuting. But the thought of 300 km and back over the poor roads of Arunachal over 4 days discouraged us. We will return when the roads have been repaired.

We also skipped the road from Tezu to Walong for similar reasons. Walong is the first village in India over which the sun rises in the morning. The summer sunrise is as early as 3:45 am, whereas the winter sunrise is around 4:45 am. But the distance between Tezu and Walong is 200 km and the roads are bad. It would have taken 3 – 4 days too and fro. A future trip on good roads is eagerly awaited.

Conclusion

While a lot of states in India have multiple highways with several combinations of itineraries, the fact that the roads in Arunachal follow the rivers and wind around mountains, thus keeping the total number of roads inside the state to very few, it is very easy to plan a well-rounded itinerary to the state, especially if using your own transport. Use our route and plan your next trip to India’s land of rising sun.