Sorry folks I got busy with my new job and also had another 3000kms trip meanwhile.
3rd Weekend / Late November 2020
This time it was Cooch Behar.
Cooch Behar Palace in Cooch Behar was originally designed by Koch King Maharaja Nripendra Narayan. Now the palace property is owned by ‘The Mantris’. One can say the majestic building is a masterpiece of brilliant architecture exhibiting the rich display of regal era. Gayatri Devi (born as Princess Gayatri Devi of Cooch Behar; 23 May 1919 − 29 July 2009) was the third Maharani consort of Jaipur from 1940 to 1949 through her marriage to Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II.
Cooch behar is 149 kms from Siliguri, of which the stretch from Dhupguri to Pundibari is pathetic to say the least. Places which interested us were the Palace and Madan Mohan temple, which surprisingly had a major puja organized on the very day. We went on a Sunday. The city sleeps on a Sunday, thus our choices of food was very limited. Overall a good weekend getaway.
Gajoldoba - 'Bhorer Aalo' (The Dawn)
For once in my life I wanted to thank Mamata didi (CM of West Bengal) for her acts. She understood West Bengal has a lot of potential for tourism and developed unexplored places / virgin places to get better traction. Gajoldoba (37kms from Siliguri) is one such place. It is on the banks river Teesta created around the swamps. It is such a lovely place to be by the evening. Take a boat ride (~ Rs 400 for a boat, otherwise Rs 50 per person) in the swamps full of tall mangrove like plants all around, while the sun sets behind the Himalayas. Have nice spicy local fishes (shrimps in particular) from Teesta, prepared by locals at the banks to wrap up the evening. Next time you plan to cross Siliguri, I would suggest keep a day for Siliguri and places around. Tiger safari (in actual forest, unlike what you see if most places) > Salugara Gumpha > Bhorer Aalo> shopping @ hongKong market and lovely street food to wrap up.
Now it was time for the leg 2 of our trip i.e. North East. The plan was to travel to Silchar in Assam from Siliguri with a night stay @ Guwahati. WFH for few days and then head for Kohima via Imphal over the weekend. Return to Silchar and WFH for few more days and spend another weekend in Agartala.
From Siliguri, Silchar it is just 766 kms and that should take hardly 15/16 hrs in general but the issue was from Guwahati to Silchar the entire stretch is through hilly roads. Add to that, we were on a road trip to this part of India after 12 long years, so we were not really sure of what to expect. This time the passengers changed and my father (70+ yrs) decided to accompany us for this trip. It was almost 15 year since he did such a long road trip, so he was really excited about it.
Siliguri to Guwahati : There is not much to talk about. Mostly straight long good roads except for 50kms on Assam's side of the border once we enter. The stretch from Siliguri to Silchar is part of the larger NH27 thus the quality of road is mostly consistent. Besides the current Govt has done marvelous road infra development across the Country. Right before the WB/Assam border you get these millet farm lands. This reminded me of DDLJ so we parked out car and spent some time cherishing the scenery and cool evening breeze. That night we stayed at Guwahati bypass to make it a quick outward journey to the Shillong road.
Next morning we woke up early and started the journey almost on time 5 am. Our target was to reach Silchar latest by 2 in the afternoon. BTW the Guwahati to Shillong road is probably one of the finest hilly roads you can drive. Not just the quality but the landscape as well is extraordinary.
Towards the last stretch of the hill section you cross this river which enters Bangladesh and then eventually to the Bay of Bengal. Not sure what it is named. The rivers in this part of India are generally very clean and green.
Next Friday (early Dec'20) I took a leave and we packed our bags for Imphal and Kohima. The plan was to start by 5 am and reach Jiribam (the border town) by 6:30 and try our luck with covid related travel restrictions. Back in Silchar we have heard all kinds of stories that travel to Manipur is completely restricted, few told us one can travel but only when the passengers have double dose certificates etc. Three of us did not have any covid vaccination certificates till then, so we decided to try our luck and the state border. In all we wanted to try it out before calling it a failed vacation.
Unlike the plan, we started at 5:45 (typical Indian family you see) and reached Jiribam by 7. At the Assam’s side of the border we were informed by the security guards that the Manipur side mandates RTPCR report. He was kind enough to also inform us that there is a Government hospital nearby and we can get one from there. The only catch being the Doc will start his day by 9, so we have two more hours to spend doing nothing. We decided to finish our breakfast, get a few photocopies for Inner Line Permit (ILP) and be prepared with fingers crossed for a negative RTPCR report. Luckily the Doctor visited on time and in the next 30 mins all 5 of us had our negative RTPCR reports with us, for a nominal (unofficial) charge of Rs 300.
The stamp we get at the Manipur side of the border.
Government Hospital (Assam side of the border).
Next we have to put up a que for temperature screening on the Manipur side of the border, get an ILP and hopefully start for the destination….finally. The problem was we did not know much about getting ILP, if there are nuances to get one.
Up next - The Robbery.
I will put up further posts only when I see there is any interest from the forum members in reading these travelogues. Please drop a comment, if you really want me to continue ?
Imphal is 253kms from Silchar/Assam (our base location for entire NE trip). Out of which, almost 180 kms is through hills with fairly dense forest and curvy roads. The roads are pathetic for almost 60 kms out of this 180km stretch. If you have done road trips, then you would probably agree with me that a 250 km drive through the hills in a day is quite a lot. In this entire stretch, there are just small villages named Nungba and Noney. Yes you heard it right, for entire 180 kms there is nothing but 2 small villages.
26% of people in Manipur are Naga, who are spread over majority of the hills in Manipur. The red highlighted zone. They (Naga) claim themselves to be the ‘original’ inhabitants of Manipur / Assam / Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh apart from Nagaland. A separatist’s extremist group named National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) are very active in these dense hills of Manipur, especially around the Nungba and Senapati region (marked in green).
Source : Google it.
Manipur is a state with borders common with Myanmar. A border notoriously famous for smuggling of various items including drugs.
Source : Google it.
Jiribam (yellow) is where an ‘outsider’ should get an ILP, if they are entering from Assam. An Inner line permit is a pass a visitor should get to enter the state. Thanks to special status provided to many NE states (sarcasm fully loaded). ILP ensures that an outsider does not live in these states for a long term and thereby skew the population composition which is mostly tribes. After filling up the ILP forms and sharing necessary documents, the officer at the counter asked me about all the places we are visiting. Further they went ahead to ask the names of the hotels where we would be staying, something which they are not authorized to ask. After all, We were simply crossing one state to another and not an international border. I profoundly refused to share any details (neither did I have it). They kept blabbering among themselves in manipuri and the only thing I could sense was, they were looking for ways to get bribe. My indifferent attitude towards their blabber ensured they eventually allowed a ILP without any bribe.
From Jiribam we started our journey by around 11:30 am, which means it would be late night, by the time we reach Imphal (200kms). On our way we crossed multiple armed police check posts which were built in the middle of nowhere. Mostly in dense forest. Pretty much all the cops asked if we are going to visit Moreh (border to Myanmar). Another point to note is after J&K, Manipur is probably the second state with maximum armed police, apart from Army. We were intercepted at each and every check post for a verification. By 4 pm we had covered only half the distance and it was already getting dark. Little did we know that out of nowhere, three young chaps wearing black clothes from top to bottom face covered in black balaclava, would stop us. I drop the window glass to realize they are ‘collecting’ taxes. ‘What taxes ?’ was my first question to which they replied ‘If you (a Bengali) have to spend time in Manipur with a vehicle registered in West Bengal, you have to pay us taxes’. I obviously rejected to their demand to which one chap warned if he should pull out the gun while he introduced himself as a member of NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland), an underground extremist separatist group notorious in this part of Manipur (red highlighted area) and Nagaland. Beyond this, with 2 senior citizen and a teen in the car, it was clear that rejection is not a solution but negotiation probably was a better choice. I made up stories that a we had paid similar ‘taxes’ to another group few kms ahead so it is not a fair to ask ‘taxes’ every now and then to a family on vacation, they should reconsider the amount demanded (hilarious but true). Somehow this appeared to click with one guy who understood my hindi. A long debate (or negotiation if you may term) lead to an eventual agreement of Rs 5000, out of which Rs 500 was returned by the guy who knew hindi. I found it really funny to see an extortionist/robber/militant (whatever you may call) returns you part of the money they looted. We moved ahead just to realize that 500 mtrs ahead was a police station where a patrolling armed police officer was lazily sitting in his old maruti gypsy. On explaining the situation to him, he was in denial mode of such incidents happening in his jurisdiction and asked us to move ahead and forget about it. His body language and his responses were clearly indicating towards his involvement in the ‘tax’ collection exercise. This locality is called Nungba (marked in green). Few more kms ahead we observed a group of civilians carrying sophisticated guns taking a smoke. Things weren’t safe at all for the rest of the ride.
We eventually reached Imphal by 8:30 pm just to realize that there was a Covid curfew from 6pm evening and all the shops/hotels were closed. So we asked a cop guarding the city junction about hotels available in the area. He was so drunk that he could not understand our questions. We moved ahead to another check post where the cop started asking irrelevant questions. He kept asking for all types of documents and when we came clean on all his questions, he started demanding penalty for breaching a curfew which only locals would know. Note, during our entire journey we met many police officers but never did any cop warn us about the curfew. Besides we could see many tourists’ cabs were entering Imphal along with us. I guess our WB registration attracted more attention. Nevertheless, we paid another ‘tax’ of Rs 500 and continued our search for hotels.
The receptionists in most hotels were rude to say the least and at last when we found a basic room for the night’s stay, it did not come with a secured parking. I was driving my cousin’s brand new car so leaving it on road (where our experience so far was not good) was out of question. In a short span of 30 mins, I could sense the city was not safe at night. My intuition constantly warned me about Imphal being not so safe. We could see several cabbies sleeping in their cars on road, which reaffirmed our doubt about the city. All our family members were of the same opinion. Two of us decided to sleep in the car while the elders stay in hotel. By the way, it is sheer punishment to sleep in a car when the outside temperature is 7 degree Celsius.
Next morning we left for Kohima and returned a day later. What was surprising was the experience was completely different in the Imphal to Kohima route. Well-mannered people, beautiful scenery, lovely roads. All the villages were beautifully decorated for Christmas. No wonder why the AH1 (Asian Highway 1) was changed from crossing via Shillong >Badarpur > Silchar > Imphal > Moreh to Guwahati > Kohima > Imphal > Moreh.
On return we roamed around the city to experience it during a day light. By and large what we observed was even more disappointing. Roads though broad in most parts, the homes and buildings appear shady. It was evident that wealth was heavily skewed to a smaller section of this society. You could see BMWs / MG Golsters and Mercedes SLK series once a while but every house appeared to be made out of materials from scrap shop (I mean it). Not a single prominent structure in such a large state capital city. Loktak lake (one of the main attractions in Imphal) is something I was eagerly looking for. It is 47 kms away from Imphal. On reaching loktak, our disappointment levels with this vacation in Imphal reached a new low. The lake looks nothing like what you see on google image search. The place is not maintained at all, there is filth, garbage and plastic bottles littered all over. There is hardly anything focused on tourism. Charges for a night stay in a basic bamboo tents above marsh lands were exorbitant to say the least, for the comfort they had to offer. We had taken way too much from Imphal and decided to spend the rest of the day in our hotel, after a sumptuous Manipuri thali. Though I love to experience food from different cultures, but the Manipuri thali was something of an acquired taste. Nothing much to praise about it either.
To summarize: As a family on vacation I would rather suggest you avoid Imphal (or at least the Silchar > Imphal route). Instead visit Kohima / Aizwal / Agartala.