Travelling with the Brahmaputra — on a cycle
The third year of cycling was more an idea than a journey when we started out. The flatness of the land carved out by the mighty Brahmaputra helped us no doubt allowing us to pedal the entire 450 km from Guwahati in Assam to Miao in Arunachal Pradesh in a week, not once breaking into a sweat. The cycling now seemed like an illusion. The food, the conversations with people and the sights are what remain with me after the trip.
January is when the sun is full and the air cold even at mid-day. The dri fit clothes were of no use as they felt cold to the skin in the early morning. The sun that rose every morning to meet the Brahmaputra valley tried hard to cut through the mist but could only colour orange the bamboo houses, the harvested paddy fields and the ber fruits instead.
The first night at Guwahati was spent in the Pygmy Hog Conservation Centre which is one of the rare conservation successes we have to our credit. We started the next morning which was the first but the worst of the cycling days as we tried to get out of the city of Guwahati. The four lane highways were not pleasant. But once we were out of Changsari which is about 33 km from Guwahati, we could feel the countryside. The new big highways rob the diverse Indian countryside of the warmth of its people, even at the slow pace of a cycle.
The first night of the cycling trip we stayed at Mangaldoi. This was the day when all the troubles of the cycles and the riders were being ironed out. We reached Mangaldoi and asked a respectable looking couple standing for a bus by the roadside for the best hotel in town and were sent to Shyamboli which was written as Shymalee. It was a lovely quaint hotel with clean rooms, a spectacular garden that only the hotel reception window had a view of. The lunch although spectacular was quite expensive but we were mentally and physically very hungry having covered about 80 km that day. After a late lunch we hit the town which like any other town in India had a fascinating bazaar. We bought nolen gud (palm jaggery) which is very rich in its taste, had a cup of tea in a 1943 hotel and hit the bed.
The next morning we left early to Dekhiajuli but did not take the big road the entire way, instead at Dalgaon we took a right towards Orang Wildlife Sanctuary. We did that to avoid the manical drivers on the highways with their swaying buses and screeching air horns which started blaring a mile away. The internal roads were quiet with very little traffic and everyone on cycles. It was lovely. But the roads were not as good as the highway.
Near the bifurcation to Orang National Park we raided a lovely tea stall to have tea and paratha. As usual the babaji of our group; Sri Rajshekara started his proselytising to the natives (about politics) while the rest of us attacked the little eatery, some not even removing their helmets to eat.
The villagers then told us that Orang National Park was close by and indeed it was; just 5 km away and there was a chance we could see rhinos there. So off we went. A private resort at the gate of the Sanctuary rents a gypsy for Rs 1200 and the park entry was Rs 500 and off we went. We even got to see a rhino lady with her little one and the beautiful grasslands of the region.
We reached Dekhiajuli late and the “best” hotel was Hotel Dihang on the main road of a place that was trying hard to be a town which is a bad thing in India as it is not a lovely village nor a bustling city but a dirty soul-less place in-between. The distance we covered was a total of 62km plus 10 km diversion to Orang National Park. On seeing the hotel rooms and the town we thanked our stars we reached late. We asked a shopkeeper the best place to eat and he sent us to the bazaar to Loknath on the first floor. Then you know why you were meant to stop in this podunk town- Loknath had the best rasagullas made from nolen gud and the best fish too served on a beautiful brass plate. He had an old dharmendar-in-sleeveless-shirt movie on his old TV and a fancy RO unit where we filled our water bottles. He also gave us his empty 2 litre water bottles which we would need to brush our teeth the next day because there was no way we would in the dark waters of the Hotel Dihang.
The next morning we started really early — around 545 am — the only day we managed it so early and it was good that we did. We had thought we would take the smaller and shorter roads to Pabhoi Greens (https://www.facebook.com/PabhoiGreens/) which showed 77 km on google maps. But when we reached where the short cut should have started it was a pebbled little track. A bystander told us the best road was the main road as the speed is drastically reduced on the smaller untarred roads so off we went on the crazy road driven by crazier people. It also meant we had to cycle a 105 km or so. Exhausted by the time we reached Pabhoi — only because we had not mentally prepared ourselves for a plus 100 ride we reached. And it was worth it.
Pabhoi Greens is an organic farm that is run by a very happy and jovial person Neelam Dutta who would say the wrong things in the right way. His entourage of dogs and cows and fishes and people made our stay there memorable. So much so we decided to spend a day just sitting in the sun in Pabhoi Greens the next day and take a tempo to the docks that would take us to the Majuli island — our next stop.
The next morning in Pabhoi was spent in the sun, talking and reading and drinking tea and then we took a tempo to Baghora Deuri from where the ferry leaves for Majuli. The houses had already started changing and we were told we were in the land of the Mishings (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mishing_people). We got on to the ferry just as the light was fading because the road from Pabhoi to the ferry was nearly 105 km and about 100% longer than we expected. The ferry was packed with motorbikes, cars and people and our four cycles.
Picnics in Assam: Assam was full of picnic parties in this month of January. It consisted of a small vehicle crammed to its fullest with people, goats, gas stove and giant speakers that blasted music as it speeded by.
We got off the ferry in Majuli, with the soft grey sand of Brahmaputra all over us and the cycles. To greet us in the complete darkness were a whole bunch of drunk picnic revellers wanting to help us tie our bags to our cycles. Finally we managed to get going on a sandy road of which we had no clue where it was going. We reached a village where we had to pay Rs 20 toll each (to use their bamboo bridge), increased by 100% from their normal Rs 10.
Once we paid we were accompanied by a young chap on his motorbike. He came with us to the main road and said he came to see us off and went back. That was nice of him as we were quite lost. The large moon and the dark roads with houses lit by a dim bulb or two made the ride a memorable one. There were chang ghars on both sides of the road with sounds of evening dinner and we made our way 20 km away to Goramur. Even the setting seemed to be from the Lord of the Rings, darkness all around, the full moon above, bamboo houses here and there and vast open plains of the Brahmaputra and we forging ahead on the raised road with no one else. But once there, it was just another town but there was a nice hotel and restaurent. The hotel was squeaky clean with nice people but two double beds in a single room which had blue concealed lights. We slept off wondering about the blue lights. Early next morning we had to ride to catch the ferry on the south side of Majuli and we were told that it was just 8 km away. The ride to the ferry was surreal, through the mist and bamboo houses with lovely people on the roadsides. I only wish we had had a whole day to spend at Majuli.
No one told us about the sand we had to cycle through to get to the Kamalabari ghat area and we took more than an hour to cycle the 8 km and reached just in time as the ferry was taking off.
They initially refused to let us on the ferry but emotional blackmail about how we had to cycle another 50 km away made them put us on. This ferry ride is about 1 hour 15 minutes and takes you along with Brahmaputra and close to the sand banks where the sand constantly drizzles down the embankments. Watching the grey sand gently fall into the waters of the river that has piled it there in the first place is a humbling experience. Not to talk about an overloaded ferry where no one has a life jacket — which is the ultimate humbling experience
On the other side of the ferry at Nimati ghat, we took the small Laigohgarh road to Sibsagar which was a lovely ride. The breakfast stop was a quaint bamboo tea shop made of bamboo lattice on all sides, including the base.
The fire was so close to the bamboo that I wondered how long before the entire tea stall went down in flames.
After breakfast we proceeded on to Sivsagar which was about 60 km away. We started cycling slower, stopping more often as if that would lenghten our nearly-ending trip alowing us to remain here a bit longer.
There was a haat (or village market) en route and a few of us wanted to shop although we had no space to keep anything we could shop. Some of us did the chai-pe-charcha and the others stood to the side watching the the entire scene. As I and a friend started cycling slowly ahead, a maruti van quickly overtook us, frantically telling us to stop. While a whole chain of possible events ran through my head, a person got down with a gamcha (a hand woven cloth that is given as a greeting) and said they would like to welcome us to the district of Sibsagar since we have come from so far away. They had seen us and gone home to get it. It is not often, but as he put it around my neck, I had tears in my eyes. After we thanked them they turned around their little maruti van and zoomed off. We stood there dumb founded by what is quintessential rural Indian warmth and hospitality.
As we turned right towards Joysagar, away from the AT road, past the Deo Volente Hotel, we saw one of the old structures of the Ahom kings on our right and there was a nice hotel complex as well right on the banks of the Rudrasagar tank. It was a new and completely up market hotel run by the Assam Toursim called Rudra Singha. The staff was extremely helpful and polite and the food was good but bare as there is not much occupancy and we had to do with what they had in their kitchen.
This day was the third last day and we decided the next two days are going to be slow, soaking in the places and talking to people. The destination was Margherita but we had decided we would cycle till about 1 pm and then take a jeep to Margherita. The first of the numerous stops was Gauri Bakery where delicious little mildy sweet puff pastries were neatly decorated in the mobile bakery.
Markets in India: All rural areas in India have their weekly markets where farmers from the surrounding areas descend to buy and sell their wares. These are fascinating places because different places have different things on sale.We went to many in the entire trip and some of the pictures are posted here.
At Margherita we had booked before in a Singpho Eco Lodge (googling this will provide contact details and images). What I thought of it was not at all what it was. It was hard to believe I was in India and that perhaps is because we do not have much of an idea of cultures that we do not know about. The Singpho tribes claim to be the first who discovered and used tea and Mr Manjela whose home stay we went to in Margherita had tea gardens next to his lovely house.
The food was delicious Singpho food and we slept well to leave early next morning for the last stretch of our trip to a quaint place called Miao which is also the entrance of the Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh.
Namdapha Tiger Reserve is a very special place for me. I had been there for a long duration around 20 years ago and then after for short trips. It was like going back home. It was also interesting to see how the place had changed. Assam had changed for the most part for the better. The hotels were cleaner, the open drains were fewer which I thought was definitely an improvement. But as we left Margherita, Ledo and the border roads, things were the same. Towns that were built for the coal mines had the look of forgotten towns very unlike places of people and their families.
Getting to Miao was unlike all the other places over the 430 km we had done, the last 20 km of road was even worse than I had seen it 20 years ago. Obviously the contractor had got his money and vanished. But then there were more white SUV’s passing us by in a trail of dirt than the small Maruti 800’s that were there 20 years ago. But the difference in human density between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh was immediately perceptible once we crossed the checkpost where we had to show our inner line permits.
The town of Miao had not changed. The shops were coloured the same dark blues as when I had left them. Only the SBI ATM was bigger and painted.
It is perhaps one of the eastern most towns of India where you can easily go. The people are lovely, the Singphos, the Lisus, the Chakmas all inhabiting this part of India. The famed forests of Namdapha are here.
It was something to have reached a journey that none of us thought was possible. All we could do is sheepishly pose in front of the lovely arch that welcomed us to the town.
The first thing was to eat. We had not expected the road to be so bad and the ride to take so long and it was nearly the end of the day. Then we went off to a lovely camp — The Namdapha Jungle Camp (contact https://www.facebook.com/phupla.singpho?fref=ts) that has just been started by an old friend Phupla Singhpo.
The food was lovely Singpho food with mushrooms, pork, chicken, banana flowers, sticky rice and chutneys.
The last day was spent in going for a walk to Deban, Namdapha Tiger Reserve where we saw Hoolock gibbons up close. We also had to pack our cycles for the journey back. Some of us took a flight out of Dibrugarh to our respective cities and some bused it back to Guwahati with two seats for them and two seats for the cycles.
Not sure what and why, but these trips where we pack all our items into two small bags and drive out into the unknown does something to all of us. At the end of the 7 days, with no unpleasant news, no social media updates, lots of fresh good food — time slows down. It slows down and you start to take in the air, the sounds, the people, the food. Cycling 8 hours a day without any other distraction also makes your ideas, your thoughts jostle with each other to sink some place deep. If I were asked why I do these rides, I would say it is the best way of seeing and feeling India — an amazing country with amazing people.
For Women cyclists: North east India is the safest place for women to be in. Even drunk guys are remarkably well mannered — just bothering us becuase they feel offended we do not want to take their help. The loo stops were provided by the Indian Oil Company petrol pump toilets although I was told later that the NRL ones are much cleaner. In some urgent situations where it was not possible to find a private bush in this very densely populated part of the country, we barged into people’s houses and were not allowed to leave until we had long conversations with tea and biscuits :)
For carrying cycles in planes: I use the Btwin cycle bag which is then folded and sits on the carrier. Different airlines have different rules. But is is best to book extra weight online before the flight as it is much cheaper than at the counter.