India’s North East is opening up to host an increasing number of travelers. The Dialogue Diaries™ – Interview Line, a platform by Backpacking Series, is delighted to feature early explorers who have ventured inside the region. Rameswar Prasad, with his friends, went for a monsoon drive in Northeast India. Find out what to and what not to expect in the wet season.
What’s your favorite destination in North East India and why?
My friends and I recently traveled across Northeast India. We went to places such as Guwahati in Assam, Shillong and Cherapunjee in Meghalaya, Gangtok, Ravangla, Changu lake, Nathula pass in Sikkim, and even Darjeeling in the neighboring state of West Bengal.
From what we experienced, my favorites are Nathula pass, Changu lake and Tarey Bhir in Sikkim. It rained during our travels and, though short of a clear view, all the mist and the ever dancing clouds made for an amazing, mystical experience.
Nathula Pass is a historic passage between Indian and Tibet. Being an international border, visitors are not allowed to click pictures. One of the highest motorable roads in the world leading to Nathula pass makes for a scenic, sorry, stunning route! It crosses an equally stunning glacial marvel called Changu lake.
At an altitude of over 12,000 feet with mountains surrounding it, Changu or Lake Tsomgo is a serene place to spend time. It lies in East Sikkim district and is under 50 kilometers from Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital.
The drive to Tarey bhir is yet another of my favorite memories from North East India. This spectacular high-mountain cliff walkway, in South Sikkim District, overlooks river valleys and a vast lush-green forested landscape.
Let me add, from what I gather and the images I see, even though I could not visit (due to weather), some of my other favorites include Kanchendzonga, Gurudongmar Lake, Lachen, and Yumthang Valley in North Sikkim.
Notes by Backpacking Series:
- Changu Lake is open to both Indian nationals and foreigners. However, at this time, foreigners need to apply for a permit in a group of two or more.
- Nathula Pass is a restricted area along the Indo-China international border. Photography is strictly prohibited. At the time of this interview, Indian nationals need a permit to visit this area, while foreigners are not allowed.
- For more on the topic, click to read permits for Northeast India.
What stands out for you about North East India?
The first thing that I noticed, other than the obvious natural beauty, is about the people of Meghalaya and Sikkim. Every single person here obeys traffic rules, even if there’s a traffic jam and so driving here is a breeze. Coming from Bengaluru and looking at the traffic here you’ll just say WOW! Shillong is probably the best example of this.
The other thing I immediately noticed is that many places shut down so early here like 8-9 PM, which is unlike elsewhere in India. So, if you are planning an evening out, just be sure to place your food / drinks order early enough. Speaking of food, you must try some noodle delicacies at ‘The Taste of Tibet’ restaurant at MG Road in Gangtok! Delicious, it is:)
Note by Backpacking Series: In many parts of the region, especially the hills, local lifestyle is governed by daylight hours. For more on the topic, click to read Northeast India follows the sun.
What is it like to visit Northeast India in the monsoons?
To make the most of your travel, you must know what type of traveler you’re. For instance, do you like to witness a place in it’s peak season and are willing to endure a higher number of tourists and possibly higher room rents or, do you prefer when it’s less crowded even though weather / driving conditions might not be conducive? This time, we chose the latter.
There’s a certain charm to monsoons and India’s Northeast is no different. Clouds engulf the mighty mountains, you breathe misty-fresh air, and the landscape is lush green. However, if you are planning a road-trip in this season, you need to be prepared for surprises too.
I recommend driving in Northeast India in the wet season only if you are someone who enjoys immersing in the journey and do not stress too much whether you may or may not reach the day’s destination. For instance, the news of landslides disrupted our plans to visit some of North Sikkim’s most beautiful places such as Lachen, Lachung, Yumthang Valley, etc.
So, if you are traveling on a tight schedule during the rains, you’ve been warned! The best time I’d suggest to visit Northeast India is around Oct-Nov or Mar-Apr.
As a visitor, how is it to self-drive in Northeast India?
For us, it was a mixed bag experience. Self-driving comes with real benefits. You may take as many breaks, stop for photography where you want, bring as much luggage as you can throw in your vehicle, or even, sleep in your car! But.
Given the terrain with narrow mountain roads, with deep gorges instead of a curb, there’s an adventure to live and a story to tell at almost every turn. Unless you are familiar with the local routes and traffic patterns, poor visibility due to misty / cloudy weather would cut your speed down to a crawl.
Self-driving in isolated hills means you are responsible to fix your vehicle in case of minor breakdowns such as replacing a tire, etc. During our travels, we had to contend with two minor breakdowns. So, follow my lead, only if you can take such things in your stride.
In many parts of the region, especially in the monsoons, sometimes with slippery gravel under the tyres, you need folks who are comfortable behind the wheel. Thankfully, we had more than one extremely attentive drivers.
How did you plan your road trip in Northeast India?
I have to confess – while I was busy wrapping up office work, my friends pitched in their time for all the research and planning. We looked up offbeat places, sought inputs from folks who’ve lived in or recently traveled to the region. For instance, a friend from Indian Army offered tips for some places in the region. We also looked up blogs and sites (such as Quora) for related information.
We took a train from Guwahati to Siliguri, where we rented a car to explore the region. But, if you’re planning to visit only Sikkim (out of the 8 northeastern states) then it’d be better to fly to the newest Pakyong airport near Gangtok. From Gangtok, Changu lake and Nathula Pass (East Sikkim) can be planned as a day-trip. Similarly, you may plan another day-trip to Tarey Bhir in the South Sikkim district.
Please note, self-drive rental cars are not allowed in some restricted parts of North Sikkim and you must hire private tour services operated by approved agencies. Also, to visit such restricted places, you need a permit (keep few copies of your ID and photo to get this).
What are your recommendations for visitors to drive in Northeast India?
Our plan-A did not work. Driving in Northeast India, (or any Himalayan state for that matter), especially in the rainy season, has it own challenges. And so, I’d recommend you backpack instead of a road-trip! However, if you must insist for an extra dash of adventure, just as we did, read on please.
- Watch the Weather: Irrespective of the time of the year you visit Northeast India in, always keep a close tab on weather and driving conditions. Landslides are common in many Himalayan states of India.
- Alert Behind the Wheel: Unless you have two very good drivers with you, it is better / safer to hire a private cab with a local driver familiar with the terrain.
- Know Mountain-Time: Reading distances in the mountains can be misleading. A 50-km drive in the plains and urban areas is not comparable to driving 50-km in the hills. As a thumb-rule, double the usually estimated travel time. I’d also recommend to not pack too many places in a day’s itinerary. Go slow. Enjoy the journey.
- Use Layered Clothing: Weather can be unpredictable. This can be true even if you have conviction in some of the best weather-forecast apps. Hence, wear clothing in layers. At all time keep your gloves, thermals close.
- Travel Safe: Safety is always a priority, be it personal safety or securing your stuff (cameras, phones or any expensive stuff). So always check reviews of hotels and guesthouses before booking a place to stay. We used AirBnB!
- Travel Responsibly: Do not litter. Enough said:)
What’s your new bucket list for North East India?
- Dawki River, Meghalaya: When it’s not raining, I would look out for an opportunity to experience the crystal clear waters of this river near the Indo-Bangla border.
- Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
- North Sikkim: Since I could not visit this district due to seasonal landslides, I would go back in the winters to witness the snowy Yumthang Valley, Gurudongmar lake, a high-altitude, glacial-water lake, and Mount Kanchendzonga. These make for sights to behold in North Sikkim and hence compelling places on my bucket list.
What’s your favorite festival in North East India and why?
I’d definitely love to go to Ziro Music Festival in Arunachal Pradesh. I mean, who wouldn’t want to attend an event like this, sitting on open fields, surrounded by mountains and live music! For more about my visit to Northeast India, follow me at The Window Seat blog on Medium or on Instagram (links in bio).
Think North East India
For those who do not know, Northeast India comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles his people follow.
That North East India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.
The region’s innate charms have remained under-explored. Travelers, who figure out how to backpack in Northeast India, find gems such as Dzükou Valley all to themselves. Importantly, the hospitable people of the region make sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Meanwhile, pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices.
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Have you been to or live in India’s North East? Come, let’s talk about your experiences and help someone follow your footsteps! Click The Dialogue Diaries™ – Interview Line for details and to get started.On the Interview Line
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