From Darjeeling Ollie and I took a night train to Guwahati, the capital of Assam. There are seven north-east states of India, attached to the rest of the country by a sliver of land. They are bordered by Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar and Bangladesh. These far-flung states are a world away from the typical chaos of India; this is a region of rugged beauty, tribal cultures and dramatic landscapes.
Each state is very different; the mountainous Arunachal Pradesh is a snowy land of Himalayan charm and Tibetan people whilst the floodplains of Assam are home to rhinos and tea plantations. Tourists are few and far between in this part of India and travelling here can be tough; roads are terrible, permits can be a hassle for Arunachal Pradesh and rebel armies sometimes cause disruption.
Yet, persevere; this might just be the most rewarding part of your trip. We had the most amazing few weeks exploring this off-the-beaten-track region; we covered three of the seven north-east states and plan to return soon to see the remaining four. In this blog I will tell you all about Assam, the first state we visited and the gateway to north-east India.
Assam is the largest and most accessible of the north-east states. It lies in the Brahmaputra Valley and has a rich green landscape of rice fields and manicured tea estates, the blue mountains of Arunachal to the north and the highlands of Meghalaya and Nagaland to the south, providing a dramatic backdrop.
Assamese cuisine is unique with its own set of flavours and signature dishes; unfortunately for us, meat and fish feature heavily. Assam also has a vibrant artistic heritage, which is evident in its colourful dances and Hindu temples.
The large, bustling city of Guwahati was where we started and ended our north-east journey; it was where we obtained our permits for Arunachal Pradesh and where the adventure really began! There is a scattering of interesting sights that are worth exploring if you have a day to spare but, really, Guwahati merely serves as a transit point for most travellers.
You don’t come all the way out to the north-east states for cities and shopping; you come for the landscapes, the mountains and the tribal cultures. We spent one day in Guwahati after arriving off a night train, stayed one night, then spent our last night in India in the city at the very end of our trip.
The main sights worth seeing in the city are Kamakhya Mandir, Umananda Mandir on Peacock Island and the Nepali Mandir. A stroll along the riverbank of the Brahmaputra River is also worthwhile, especially at sunset. On the way, pass through Old Guwahati with the Courthouse, Dighulipukhuri Park and the planetarium; the park is quiet and offers a welcome respite from the hubbub of the city.
The two highlights of Assam for us were Majuli Island and Kaziranga National Park.
Majuli sits amid the Brahmaputra River and, at 452 sq km, is India’s largest river island. Every monsoon much of the island disappears under water and many of its inhabitants move to the mainland. This is a place of timeless scenic beauty and simplistic living at its most peaceful.
Ollie and I spent three wonderfully relaxed days here, slowing down to the pace of island life and learning a little about the unique culture. We walked and drove around on a hired scooter, taking in the verdant rice fields and shimmering water meadows bursting with all kinds of birdlife.
We also visited some of Majuli’s 22 ancient satras, Hindu Vaishnavite monasteries and centres for art. They were unlike any kind of religious building we had ever been to before, so simple in design and yet filled with a definite mystical ambience. We were lucky enough to be able to watch some traditional dancing in one satra, which really brought the place to life.
The two main villages on the island are Kamalabari and Garamur; we stayed at Ygdrasill Bamboo Cottage in between the two. What a wonderful place! Ygdrasill was a highlight of our north-east adventure; staying in a bamboo-stilted cottage on the edge of a marshy lake reminded us why we travel.
We fell asleep listening to the chorus of a thousand cicadas and awoke in the morning to an amazing sunrise over emerald green fields. We slept on comfy bamboo beds and enjoyed the most amazing home-cooked food, all freshly grown on the island. Think healthy brown rice, hearty vegetables, like pumpkin, and fresh creamy dal.
We could quite happily have stayed longer on Majuli; there isn’t a lot to see or do but the island is just a dream, the perfect place to unwind and recharge your soul.
Kaziranga National Park
Kaziranga National Park was a trip highlight for Ollie; he loves seeing wild animals in their natural habitats. We took an early morning jeep safari into the park, which has a population of around 1800 one-horned rhinos, two thirds of the world’s total. The vast grasslands were green and beautiful; we saw lots of animals including the famed rhino, wild elephants and deer. Being out in the expansive parkland was a wonderful experience and an adventure that we would highly recommend.
The final place we visited in Assam was the city of Tezpur, a transit point for us from Kaziranga to Arunachal Pradesh. We stayed only one night but, having arrived at around lunchtime, had enough time to see the few interesting sights.
The main places to explore in Tezpur are Chitralekha Udyan Park, which has a large pond wrapped around pretty manicured gardens, Ganeshgarh Temple, backing onto a ghat overlooking the Brahmaputra, and Agnigarh Hill, which offers great views over the river. The most scenic vistas in town are at sunset, watching as the sun dips low over the mighty Brahmaputra.
Another thing you will notice on your journey through Assam is the tea plantations, of which there are many. Assam tea has a distinct full taste; it is much stronger than that of Darjeeling tea. The chai we had in Assam was, therefore, much darker in colour and more like British builders tea! Dibrugarh, a little further on from Jorhat (the access point for Majuli Island), is Assam’s original tea city.
It also struck us how rural Assam is; once you leave Guwahati, the large expanse of land between towns and villages is one of simple rural life. You know that you’re in a part of India relatively untouched by modern interventions, where life goes on as it has for generations. We delighted in watching these pastoral scenes, knowing that our journey through the north-east would be one that we would never forget.