Destination India: Travels to the land of the rising sun

We drive from Guwahati in Assam to Pasighat, the oldest town of Arunachal.

From Kaziranga, there are two routes to reach Pasighat—the straight via Dibrugarh, and the fascinating via Majuli river island (largest river island in the world).

The conditions, on the day we started driving the new Honda CR-V from Guwahati in Assam to Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh, were just right. It had rained the previous night, so there were waterlogged roads for us to check out the SUVs under-body insulation; slush to inspect its 4×4 ability; tiny intermittent landslides to check out its ground clearance; and misty, low-light conditions to gauge the effectiveness of its fog lamps.

The north-east of India is unique in more ways than one. “We share a lot of cultural elements with Southeast Asia, including our cuisine,” says Neelotpal Deka, a local guide we meet in Guwahati. “Stay local, eat local,” he suggests.

From Guwahati, we take Asian Highway 2 (AH2)—it starts from Denpasar, Indonesia, and ends in Khosravi, Iran. In India’s Northeast, it enters from Moreh (Manipur) to Shillong (Meghalaya), via Assam, before entering Bangladesh.

The AH2 is well-carpeted, and driving non-stop you can achieve average speeds of over 60kph, easily reaching Kaziranga National Park, 200 km away, before it gets dark (sun sets earlier in Northeast than in western parts of India because of longitudinal differences; the region has been demanding a separate time zone for long).

Driving the CR-V is drama-free. On good roads, like on most of AH2, the ride is smooth—like a luxury sedan. The cabin-noise levels are low. Unlike a Fortuner or an Endeavour, there is little body-roll.

Kaziranga, a World Heritage Site, hosts two-thirds of the world’s great one-horned rhinoceroses, and while it’s closed during the monsoon season, you can easily spot a rhino or two driving on NH2. But while it’s a sight for tourists, it also makes these beautiful animals vulnerable to poaching. “Thankfully, poaching incidents have been reducing over the years,” says a forest guard we meet in Kaziranga. According to WWF, poaching for “the illegal trade in rhino horn remains the biggest threat to the greater one-horned rhino. Although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, the horn is used in traditional Asian medicines, and extensive illegal trade persists throughout Asia.”

The forest guard adds that the growing human population’s need for land, leading to human-rhino conflict, is also a threat.

From Kaziranga, there are two routes to reach Pasighat—the straight via Dibrugarh, and the fascinating via Majuli river island (largest river island in the world). We suggest the latter, but for which you’d have to cross the mighty Brahmaputra river on a ferry (it ferries vehicles, too).

‘Kos kos par badle paani, chaar kos par baani’ (The taste of water changes every few miles, as does the dialect). Defining the idea of India, this adage holds true for Northeast. As you cross the river into Majuli, you’ll be in for an experience that’s not quite Assamese. The tribal communities inhabiting the island include the Misings, the Deoris and the Sonowal Kacharis. Languages spoken are Mising, Assamese and Deori. And the ferry service operates six times a day, connecting Majuli to Jorhat in Assam. While traditionally houses in Majuli are traditional bamboo huts, concrete has started getting popular. To truly live the local life, one must stay at the numerous non-AC bamboo cottages.

In Majuli, there are places where you can find broken roads, or the lack of them. So, a 4WD SUV is suggested for driving. While it’s a 4WD SUV, the CR-V appears so genteel that we didn’t want to take it off the road. But at a couple of places where we had to, the high ground clearance and large tyres did ensure we didn’t get stuck.

From Majuli, it’s about a five-hour journey to Pasighat, which takes you through some of the most scenic routes in this part of the world. Population density reduces as you get closer to Arunachal Pradesh (population density in Assam is 398 persons per sq-km, while in Arunachal it’s just 17), and so all you see is untouched natural beauty, devoid of human activity. Unfortunately, here also we find a lot of plastic waste, some left over by tourists, and some by locals. After all, there’s no such thing as ‘truly pristine nature’ any more.

Pasighat, the gateway to Arunachal, is the oldest town in the state. It was founded in 1911 by the Britishers (prior to that, there were only villages and hamlets in Arunachal). Here, the Brahmaputra is narrow and fast, as it has just descended from the mountains up north. While there aren’t many touristy things to do in Pasighat, there are hundreds of scenic areas that can be explored.

From Pasighat and into Arunachal, a different world opens up. One that is still pristine, still green, still calm, and still clean. However, you’d need many days to explore that world—and that’s a story for another such column.

(The drizzle that started during the days we were driving the CR-V turned into a heavy downpour and has caused havoc in the region. We pray for people’s safety in the flood-hit Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.)

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