Solo Drive To The Seven Sisters - A North East Travelogue


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Just back from a solo drive across all the seven North Eastern states. I was not a member of this Forum, but when I was planning this trip, I gathered a huge amount of information from travelogues here. I now owe it to you guys and gals to contribute my two penny bit. Very special thanks to Mithun123, English August, Sanuroxz, Kshil and so many others who have contributed to the richness of information here on North East India.

First the teaser. Identify the places in these two photos. And then answer the question !

Photos first.


Now the second one

The Bridge.jpg

And the question ?

Where is Barhi ??

Easy peesy for the gurus here. If not, read the travelogue to find out :)
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As is usual for me, the drive is a solo drive. Me, my car, and the long, winding and potholed road, it shall be.

Well, its strictly not solo, as there will always be the faithful companion.


Hyundai Xcent, Petrol, SX(O), AT. Yes, its a sedan, yes its a petrol car and is it suitable for such a journey ?? Well, it is. The car has the heart of a warrior ! As it proved, it didn’t just have the heart of a warrior. It was veritably Hercules himself.

Prep was as usual. Kit out the car, get it serviced, and research like crazy for the trip. The kit in the car was the usual stuff - engine oil and coolant supplies, puncture kit, tyre inflator, tyre pressure gauge, tow rope, seat belt cutter, windshield breaker, spare headlamps, spare fuses, car cleaning stuff, GPS, full set of documents and list of Hyundai service centres along the way.

I am structuring the travelogue as three or four posts to a state. I’ll do the narrative and story first and then conclude with a separate post on road conditions in each of the stretches with some practical guidance for travelers to the North East. The story first.

Its early morning. Dawn is breaking. There is a chill in the air. Perhaps a trace of mist. Off I go. Join me in the co passenger’s seat.

Statutory Warning : This is a looong travelogue. Read it at your peril :!: . And I am a terrible photographer - so photos will, at best, be passable.

Days 1-6 : Bangalore-Vijayawada-Bhubaneswar-Haldia-Durgapur-Siliguri-Guwahati (3305 kms)

Its not often you can begin a travelogue like this, almost dismissively. So I will say it . After 3300 kms and 6 days, my trip really starts ! The detour to Haldia was simply a personal tour down memory lane.

Little to say on this, except that I put my head down and just drove ! Regular motorists will know that on this run, the Bhagalpur crossing of the Ganga is a nightmare. Well, I full "enjoyed" that experience. What a mess that is.

Days 7-10 were in Assam, which I will come to after covering Arunachal Pradesh - the first state in this travelogue.
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Arunachal is a huge state and you have to pick and choose where to go. I chose some places in central Arunachal – the districts of Subansiri and Siang for this trip.

Day 11 – Agoratoli to Itanagar (260 kms)

Itanagar wasn’t a destination for me, but I thought I would reach there to make the next leg, which I knew was going to be horrendous, just a bit easier. The town itself is completely featureless, not worth visiting as a tourist. First thing I noticed in the town was the amazing number of Car Wash places. There must be more Car Wash outfits in Itanagar alone than in the whole of Bangalore. Every place in Arunachal had a car wash. There may not be restaurant or a hotel, but there will surely be a car wash. Speaks volumes of the horrible condition of the roads in the state.

Day 12 – Freezing in Ziro

Itanagar to Ziro (176 kms)

For long I have wanted to visit Ziro. With a name like that, its an irresistible attraction ! Arunachal Pradesh is full of places with interesting names - take your pick from Miao, Singing, ....... I chose Ziro !

Ziro is an old town, located at a height of 8000 ft . Summers are very pleasant, but winters are cold - at the fag end of winter now, it's still very cold. It's the home of the Apatani tribe, one of the important tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Ziro has been on the shortlist for UNESCO World Heritage Site status ; one of these days that is bound to happen.

The scenery around Ziro is lovely. Pine clad hills, and rice fields all around makes for very pleasant surroundings. This is not the best time of the year to come here - during and post rains, I believe the greenery is even more stunning. But this is good enough for me and I drank in the atmosphere suitably braced for the cold. One of the advantages of traveling by car is that you don't have to watch what you pack. My car looked like a small shop. So no shortage of woolens - fully clad, I must have weighed twice my normal weight !


(Sunrise at Ziro)

Misty views.jpg

(Misty views)

Kago Obing.jpg

(My friend Kago Obing showing off Ziro)

I am staying in a log cabin - at the Siiro resort. It's a charming place, away from the town itself. Completely serene and silent, it makes for a lovely stay. Power is infrequent and is only for about 12 hours a day or so. Mobile connectivity is poor. What better way to be cut off from civilization, although the town itself, where everything exists is only 4 kms away. The place is new being just 3 years old, and was opened by the daughter of the British administrator who founded this district -Subansiri - in 1946. He , and his family, are held in high esteem by the Apatanis. This is a recurring theme, we will find all around in Arunachal Pradesh . It was the British who brought the tribes into the mainstream and the person who did it is much loved and respected even today.

Siiro Resort.jpg

(The Siiro Resort)

The Shiv Ling.jpg

(The Shiv Ling just outside Ziro)

The only negative of Ziro is the appalling roads that lead up to it. It took me 8 hours today to cover 150 odd kms. Its was like this for all my time in Arunachal Pradesh - speeds of 10-20 kmph is all that is possible in a sedan unless you want to completely total your car.

Day 13 : The Apatanis

The Apatani are a unique tribe and are the main residents of the Ziro valley. Unlike many other tribes in the region, they are not nomadic, but are settled down in and around Ziro. They are a peaceful and largely agricultural tribe, with their interesting way of farming.

The Apatani have been more known to tourists because of the practice of nose plugging and facial tattooing amongst the women. The younger generation have abandoned this practice, but you can see this in many of the older women. The facial tattooing is very modest by today's standards of tattooing, but the nose plugs are quite a sight. The legend is that Apatani women are considered so beautiful in the region that they were frequently abducted by other tribes and by the British as well. Hence the women disfigured themselves to prevent themselves from being kidnapped ! I have no idea if this legend is true or not, but I did notice that Apatani women are beautiful ! Out of respect for their privacy, I did not photograph any of the women, but you can see tons of photos on the internet on face tattooing and nose plugging.

I visited Hong, the largest Apatani village in Ziro district. It has a population some 10-15,000, which even by Indian village standards is not small. It has got electricity, drinking water supplies and is a fairly modern village. Yet the Apatanis have largely stuck to their traditions – houses are mainly of wood and bamboo and built in the traditional style. Very interesting to visit.

A typical Apatani house.jpg

(A typical Apatani house)

Apatanis practice the Donyi Polo religion although Christianity has made some inroads. They worship the Sun and Moon Gods. They have no temples, but there is a place reserved for prayers. Prayer seems relaxed – they seem to pray only on festivals and when there is sickness or misfortune in the household ! Animal sacrifice is part of the prayer. The Hong village had its festival coming in March – apparently the custom is to invite neighbouring villages for a feast which is then reciprocated. This way they spread brotherhood and avoid fighting .

Totems erected after sacrifice.jpg

(Totems erected after a sacrifice)

Apatani houses consist of largely a single big room which is also the kitchen . Bamboo is much used in constructing the house. Cooking is done in the middle of the room in a wood fire. Smoked meat (mainly pork) occupies a prime place in the room – the house I visited had seven year old stuff, and apparently the longer it matures, the greater is the taste ! The house has a loft where grains and rice beer is stored. In the backyard is the chicken coop and pigsty. Because the houses are made of wood and are closely packed together, fires are common,frequently wiping out a large portion of the village.

The big room inside the house.jpg

(The big central room in the house)

Apatani cultivate mainly rice and bamboo. Rice cultivation is interesting – in the same rice fields where water is standing, they also grow fish. When the rice is to be harvested, they drain the water in channels and catch the fish by hand. Bamboo is grown in huge groves providing timber and food. They do not practice jhum cultivation (slash and burn). For firewood they cut branches of the trees and when a whole tree has to be felled, they replant more than one tree. It’s a nice self sustaining way of life.

Inside a bamboo grove.jpg

(Inside the bamboo grove)

They are of course hardcore meat and fish eaters, but the interesting thing in their cooking is that they don’t use oil. Dishes are mainly boiled, roasted or smoked. In the past they also had a problem with getting salt – there is no rock salt here and the sea is 1000 miles away . So they burn some grass, do some filtration with charcoal and get a salty fluid which is what is used to season dishes. They still use this process even though packed salt is of course available.

Homestays are easily doable in an Apatani house, if you would like that. With my youth somewhat (?) behind me, I opted for the more conventional “hotel” .

Day 14 – Ziro – Daporijo ( 173 kms)

Another long tough hill drive through bad roads. There isn’t even 100 metres of a straight road. Twisting, turning, climbing, falling – all on terrible roads. But beautiful scenery to lessen the pain somewhat. That’s the story of Arunachal. Daporijo was only a night halt for going onwards. The home of the Tagin tribe, its an OK place but I didn’t tarry. Just moved on next day

Day 15 : Daporijo – Along (170 kms)

Another similar day of torturous hill driving. On to the town of Along. Yet another stopover town, the home of the Galo tribe. This was the first disappointing place I have come to. Unimpressive town. Again moving on the next day to my real destination.
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The last Shangri la : Mechuka

Along – Mechuka (179 kms)

Well, at least to this forum members, Mechuka is no Shangri la. Many have visited it and there is more than one travelogue here on Mechuka. But, for so so many, Mechuka is indeed a mysterious and unknown place. The road to Mechuka was constructed only 10 years ago. Until then this town was cut off from the outside world. Few places in India are likely to be more beautiful than Mechuka and the surrounding areas.

The magical village of Mechuka, about 30 kms from the China border , I reached after a grueling 9 hour , 180 km drive from Along. This is the nearest you can come to the Chinese border without going through army permissions. You can get that too and reach the actual border, but that involves a 2 day trek through bitterly cold mountains ,and that is beyond my capability. So I am content with staying here and shouting very loudly a Ni Hao across 30 kms to our Chinese brethren ! It was Chinese New Year time and so I shouted "Xin nian kuai la" (Happy Chinese New Year)

The border is the McMahon line which China does not accept (it claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh). This line was accepted by the then independent Tibet, British India and China under the rule of the Manchus in 1914. The Communist Party of China has never recognised this on the grounds that neither the Tibetans nor the Manchu ruler had any right to bind China ! Hence the dispute, but the McMahon line is the practical border now.

Although the road conditions were very bad, even by Arunachal standards, it was an amazing drive. The hills were taller and the scenery was even better than my previous drives through Ziro and Daporijo. And I had the Siyom for company right through – Siyom is one of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra. And in the distance, peeping through the clouds, were the snow clad mountains of the mighty Himalayas. I am seeing snow capped peaks for the first time on this trip. There is a big Army presence all over this area (after all we are close to the China border). I had two army trucks for company on the road as they were going to Mechuka as well. When we all stopped for tea, I chatted with the armymen and found that one was a Tamilian delighted to find somebody he could speak in Tamil to !

Some stretches are like this.jpg

(When you have to drive on roads like this, it is torture)

Bad section after tato - but this makes up.jpg

(But streams like this keep you from heating up under the collar)

First peep of snow clad mountains.jpg

(And views like that can change your mood)

Mist is below you.jpg

(The mist below you on the drive takes your breath away)

Tall waterfall.jpg

(And the waterfall completes the picture. All is great with the world !)

Up and down we went, seemingly endlessly, until I turned a corner after a descent and entered the barren valley, more in the Ladakh mould, of Mechuka. In a couple of kilometres, the green changes to brown. It's a beautiful , small town (a village I should say, but nicely developed). Its in the valley with hills all round and in the near distance, the snow capped mountains. What a sight.

The town of Mechuka itself is lovely. Its bitterly cold here – late in the night the mercury drops below zero. Houses are mainly wooden , and of course there’s no heating, But every home has a fireplace, where a wood fire is lit and you gather round it in the evening and have your meal there. At night you swathe yourself in a ton of blissfully warm and fluffy blankets and in the morning you wake up to see the mountains peeping at you through the window. Sheer magic.

I roamed around the town all day. Stood on the banks of a gentle Yargyapchu river and ruminated on the meaning and purpose of life ! Went up to the hanging bridge which sways with the wind and bucks alarmingly when you step on to it and , yes, crossed to the other side (have a photo to prove it !) . Decided to give my companion a similar experience with a rickety wooden bridge that groaned and croaked and had a number of planks missing in the middle ! There’s a market, a bank, a number of shops , a couple of schools , and even an internet cafe (which rarely works of course !) here. There’s a small airforce airstrip, which they are currently expanding. I waited to see if a plane would come in, but alas there wasn’t going to be one today. The strip is charming – people are crossing it all the time, and I suppose when a plane is due, the army would come and shoo everybody off and let the plane land !

Morning view from my window.jpg

(Morning view from my window)

Siyom at Mechuka.jpg

(The Yargyapchu river)

Hanging Bridge 2.jpg

(The Hanging Bridge)


(This is Budhdhist land after all)

The fascinating thing about Mechuka , and the Memba tribe, is that the road on which I travelled was built only some 10 odd years ago. Until then, they were fairly isolated. If they had to travel to Along, they had to walk the hills for a month to reach, Few ventured there - they must have simply lived by themselves, The army presence was always heavy and the army supplied them with essentials by airlifting supplies. You would therefore expect the place and the people to be somewhat behind times. Far from it. They are the most modern of people in Arunachal Pradesh. Ten years ago they rarely ventured out. Now they have dish TV, mobiles, cars, visiting foreigners, and even the rarely functioning internet cafe. Many have email accounts, the young claim they are on Facebook, they even know Whatsapp, although connectivity is so difficult to get, How does a group of people transform like that in just a decade ?? I am simply amazed.

The town itself has a sad history from the Indo China war of 1962. Two battalions of the Indian army was simply overrun in the town. Their retreat was cut off by snow. They were vanquished. I went in search of a memorial, but sadly I couldn't find one.

Of course, I stayed at Nana and Gebu Sona's place, thanks to all the reports on this Forum. Even though I sort of expected it, the hospitality blew me away. Consider this. When they learnt that I was vegetarian, they became vegetarians too for the days I lived in their house. Despite my protests, they just didn't cook any meat at all. When they discovered that I was a teetotaler, the drinks stayed firmly under lock and key. I pleaded with them not to change their daily ways just because I was there, but they simply would not listen. They refused to let me stay in my room other than just to sleep. We all gathered together around the fireplace for warmth all evening and talked and talked and talked. Normally they don't light a fire everyday because firewood is expensive, but the days I was there, the fire was lit early in the evening and stayed lit even though I was the only "guest". They must have lost money on me, but that didn't matter to them. They were of course very curious about what I was doing and totally floored that I was driving all the way alone. When they learnt that I had lived in China, they plied me with questions about that country and the differences with India.

The homestay.jpg

(Nana & Gebu's home)

The fireplace.jpg

(The fireplace. Tenzing warms himself too !)

In literally two hours after arriving at their home, I was feeling as comfortable as in my own home - I put my feet up and warmed my toes and hands. When it was time to retire, they plied me with three huge fluffy woolen blankets and I drifted off to sleep in the biting cold, but with a lot of warmth, both physically and in my heart.

Mechuka is a magical place, the likes of which is rare in India,It is traditional and yet modern. It is difficult to get to, but amazingly beautiful in a rustic and natural way, The people are wonderfully friendly. Come here , if you can, before the hordes find out about the place. Its worth the slog of coming , many times over. Mechuka, or Menchuka means in Memba - "medicinal water of snow". Maybe it is the elixir of life.

Lovely morning.jpg

Day 18 : Mechuka to Along ( 180 kms)

Returned back the same way to Along (not an inviting thought to come back to Along, but there is simply no other way). The next day I leave Arunachal Pradesh, with some sadness, for it is a beautiful state having so much to offer to a visitor.
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Day 7 : Inner Line Permits

Day 7 was spent in getting the Inner Line permits required to go to three of the Seven Sisters - Arunachal, Nagaland and Mizoram. I will cover the procedure in the final post

Day 8 : Kamakhya Temple

Guwahati's famous Kamakhya temple is one of the oldest temples in the land. Although the current temple is dated to 1565, there are references to this deity and a temple at this place at the time of Alexander's foray into India. It is one of 51 Shakthi Peeths and a marvelous temple, but somewhat uncomfortable for me because of the practice of animal sacrifice.


(The Kamakhya temple; photography not permitted inside)


(Guwahati city from atop the Kamakhya hill)


(Even at low water levels, the Brahmaputra is a majestic sight)

Days 9 & 10 : Elephant in the front and elephant in the back; where do you run ?

Guwahati to Agoratoli (Kaziranga) : 245 kms

We turned a corner on the game trail. And right there, about 100 ft away was a huge bull elephant, very obviously in "mast" ( the Indian term to describe a male elephant in heat when he is at his most dangerous ). A golden rule in wildlife safaris – do not mess around with an elephant in mast. This was too close for comfort. Our driver started to back off. And what should we find, but a huge female elephant blocking our rear.


(He is in mast)


(And she's having fun blocking the rear)

The bull had seen us and started to walk forward. 80 ft. Then 70, then 60, and he was still coming. You could see clearly the secretion streaming down the sides of his head. Our rear was cut off and the female was not giving way either. Our ranger tried to get the female to move away, enabling us to retreat. He yelled at her in elephant language. But she was having fun with scared humans and wouldn't give an inch. The bull was 50ft away and coming. Then he stopped and glared at us. Finally he decided he had had enough fun and ambled away to one side. We could now get away.

We relaxed and continued on our drive. And what should happen at the next corner ? There by the side not more than 50 ft away was a majestic rhino. Rhinos are peaceful animals, but are known to charge. They have weak eyesight and normally don’t panic, but you don’t want to stand in the way of a charging 1 ton armor plated fellow, do you ?. We cut the engine and remained still. The rhino had a staring match with us for a full 2 minutes. We stared back . This guy also decided that puny humans presented no threat and gave a majestic side pose before ambling away and mooning us !


(Staring match with Mr Rhino)


(Mooned by Mr Rhino)


(Mrs Rhino showing Junior how to cross the road)

Nice way to see the Kaziranga National Park. Along with its sister parks in Assam and Nepal this is the last refuge of the wild rhinoceros in the world. The 2000 odd numbers in Kaziranga represent the largest concentration in the wild. It’s sad that such a majestic animal has been reduced to near extinction status because of frustrated human males trying to reverse father time !


(Glorious sunrises and sunsets)

A word about the forest department. . I had the same experience at Gir last year and the same here now. The forest rangers are an incredibly dedicated lot and immensely knowledgeable. They patrol the park day and night in inhospitable conditions and look after the welfare of the animals – filling water holes, preventing poaching, stopping the influx of domestic cattle, etc etc. And they do this for measly wages – perhaps $150 a month. A five minute conversation with any ranger is enough to convince you of their passion for the animals. I tip my hat to the ranger community.


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Day 19: OMG, how do I get across

Along to Tinsukia : 264 kms

After the detour via Arunachal Pradesh, back to Assam. First I had to descend from Along to Likabali in the plains. The first 65 kms from Along past Basar is my nomination for the worst road in India, outside of mountain roads. The craters aren't even lunar or martian; they are from another universe. Even SUVs will scrape their bellies here. Rest of the drive is uneventful, crossing over from Arunachal into Silapathar and then I reached Bogibil with much trepidation.

There is still no bridge over the Brahmaputra at Bogibil. It is being built for the last 14 years and I am 99% certain that it will be completed in the year 2057. So it has to be a ferry to cross, car and all. This I knew.

But what I hadn't anticipated was that this being the dry season, the Brahmaputra has receded a good 2-3 kms from her banks. The only option was to simply get down into the river bed and drive inside the river , first on caked mud and then on pure river sand ! Oh God.


(Now can you recognise my first teaser at the start ?)​


(My companion looking stunned at being asked to do this)​

The scary ferry ride has been documented in quite a few travelogues. So just some pictures.


(The car has to "walk that plank")​


(Almost there; look at the squeeze)​


(Another few inches and into the river it goes)​


(Now have to do it all over again and get the car down)​

I freely admit that I was scared to hell and gave over the car to the boatmen to load. Yeah, I know, this is no way for a driving enthusiast to behave !

Phew. After all that, onwards to Tinsukia for the night halt.

Day 20: The Stilwell Road

(Tinsukia to Lekhapani & back : 152 kms)

Nearby, Tinsukia, from the town of Ledo starts the famous Stilwell Road. It was built during World War II as an alternative route to Kunming to ferry supplies to China. 15000 Americans and 30000 Indians joined hands to build the road under the command of General Joseph Stilwell of the US Army. They crossed Pangsau Pass (nicknamed Hell's Pass) and built it in 2 years during a War (and the Bogibil Bridge is being built for 14 years and counting). It is an amazing engineering feat even by today's standards. Every road enthusiast must do a pilgrimage to the Stilwell Road at least once. Of course, I only travelled the few kilometers inside Assam. Some day, when northern Myanmar opens up, many will go all the way to Kunming, I am sure.


(The start of the Stilwell Road)​


(We are on the Stilwell Road now)​

Lekhapani is also the easternmost point of the Indian Railways.


(The eastern end of the Indian Railways and that's where the track ends)​


(The plaque says it all)​

Day 21 : The land of the Ahoms

Tinsukia to Jorhat (272 kms)

Passed by Sibsagar , the ancient capital of the Ahom kingdom. There are only a few reminders today of the majestic kingdom of the medieval times.

Shivdhol 4.jpg

Shivdhol - the majestic Shiv temple)

Devidhol 2.jpg

(Devidhol adjacent to Shivdhol)

Rangghar 1.jpg

(Rang Ghar - the ancient stadium where the rulers witnessed animal fights and song and dance)

Talathalghar 1.jpg

(Talathal Garh - all that is left of the palace)​

That is really the end of the "seeing" of Assam. I'll keep coming in and out of Assam as I visit the other states, for that is the lie of the land in this region. But they'll just be commute points, not places I am really visiting.