It was a lovely four days of music, apong, fun and frolic at the Ziro Festival of Music and once it was over life seemed to say ‘welcome to the real world!’ Even getting out of Ziro without a pre-booked means of transport was proving to be the biggest challenge. The bus organised by my friend Manash’s company, Discover Northeast was headed to Guwahati while the next leg of our journey was supposed to take us to Longwa in Nagaland. We are 3 of us and are headed to Dibrugarh to pick up my partner from the airport.
We get lucky when Manash’s friends who hail from Dibrugarh informed him that they had some space in their car if we could somehow ‘adjust!’ Now we all know how we adjust in India; it was the last row of the Honda Mobilio and we were 3 grown-up adults. At best, the space was barely enough for 2 people. My co-travellers were both over 6 feet tall and we had fully stuffed backpacks in our laps. It was a comical scene and as I write this in hindsight; the hosts of the car – Ronal and his friends were very considerate to stop the car almost every hour to enable us to stretch our legs. When we sat in the car, Longwa seemed far far away!
We had started our journey from Ziro at 1030 am after the bus for Guwahati left. It was a challenge to make Ronal understand that his car was our only way out of Ziro. Thankfully he understood our predicament even though he was adamant that it would be very uncomfortable and I found a middle ground by suggesting that we could tag-along with them till Potin (which was a bifurcating point for many roads in Arunachal Pradesh) with more likelihood of finding a shared sumo/bus/other public transport.
I’d done a basic research of a Sumo from Ziro to Dibrugarh but since it was a day when everyone was getting out of Ziro; the taxi guys quoted an astronomical range of INR 18000-20000 for a drop to Dibrugarh! Even by usually very expensive north-east standards; that was way too much for 230 kms! On an overcast morning when we left, we had little breakfast; paranthas, black tea, thelpas and pickle that we had carried with us! Once we crossed the shared sumo stand in Hapoli (Ziro); the enormity of the situation was evident when we observed the hordes of youngsters standing with their backpacks on the road – in hope of a ride!
After hardly 30 minutes of leaving from Ziro, it started drizzling and we were stuck in a traffic jam as a bus had got stuck in slush. We got a breather from sitting and wandered outside even though it was raining. I wondered if the folks waiting had a better chance of hitching a ride if they stood on the highway out of Ziro since a lot of the local attendees were going back to Naharlagun / Itanagar. It was fun to observe the locals when the bus was stuck : A Nyishi tribal man was surveying the scene in his elaborate headgear.
Only a few two-wheelers were able to manoeuvre their way through the blocked road. This traffic jam has given an opportunity to Ronal to rearrange the baggage and he somehow fits 2 backpacks in the boot. Now, only my 15-20 kilo backpack was is kept on us and its a lot more easier when the weight is spread. In the meantime, the Police have arrived and they are bringing a rope to somehow get the bus out. Ronal and his friends (Doctor, engineer, scientists) have a few conversations with us and realise we are chilled out and will make it to Dibrugarh, inspite of the strife!
The rope has arrived and the bus is moved from the centre of the road; clearing the traffic jam. All the vehicles start moving; and we reach Potin in 2 hours; at about 1 pm. Potin is one of the entry points for getting into Arunachal Pradesh from Assam. The road is excellent here; unlike the mud and slushy road from Ziro to Potin that has turned even worse due to the constant rain in the past 2 weeks. We are a bit hungry but don’t dare to eat because there is barely any space to sit and an extra inch on the bellies can seriously hurt us! So, even though Ronal & Co. stop in Potin for lunch; we just roam around and decide to eat on the next stop.
I’ve carried back 2 bottles of the locally made fruit wines with me; one is a pear wine & the other one is a pineapple wine. Its time to share one of the bottles with Ronal & his friends and they all love it.
In Potin, the road bifurcates for Guwahati/Itanagar/Naharlagun. I noticed an APSTC bus from Ziro to Itanagar costing only 150 INR per seat. Arunachal Pradesh has become so much better with the public transport in the last few years. We resume our journey at about 130 pm and we are feeling so much better after the much needed break and breather to let our legs feel normal again. My wishful thinking says we should hopefully make it to Dibrugarh by about 7 pm – it felt impractical to even dream about reaching Dibrugarh by daylight.
I was also hoping that it was possible for us to get seats on a bus headed to Dibrugarh from North Lakhimpur (a town that we would be crossing later). Nice playlist of songs in the car; we make another stop at one of the fruit sellers on the highway. I ogle at the pineapples & guavas. The pineapples are at 10 Inr per piece and we are juicy (like always in the northeast); so we gobble a lot of them and I end up buying a kilo of guavas to be shared with everyone. I thank Ronal and give 1100 INR (handed over by Manash) as fuel expenses. We have covered good distance as the road is now in much better condition and are about to enter Assam.
I am not certain but we must have taken the Kimin border road. We stop for a breather in the town that is surrounded by tea gardens. I spot few ladies on the street selling sel roti and pickle! It is as delicious as it would be in Nepal/Kalimpong and we enjoy the unexpected bounty! We all take a moment to thank Ronal and his friends for being extremely considerate and stop the car after every 1-2 hours so that we can stretch our legs and prepare ourselves to sit again in the cramped space. We experience moments of excruciating pain because we can’t move and the entire weight of the backpack comes on the knees.
The weather suddenly feels quite hot once we enter Assam and the windows are rolled up and the ac is put on. Its nice and cool now in the car and we are happy after entering Assam, in the knowledge that we should make it to Dibrugarh in respectable time. The distance left is about 180 kms and the road is a proper highway so we should make quick time. While crossing North Lakhimpur, there is no sign of a bus and this ride seems to be our only way! Now the question of an alternate ride doesn’t even cross anyone’s mind and we stop in Gogamukh for a short break.
I’m trying to look for a hotel on the many online platforms for a comfortable night stay in Dibrugarh but am unable to finalise anything. We take the opportunity of the break to take a short walk in Gogamukh. I meet some marwari businessmen in the sizeable market there; it seems the marwaris from Rajasthan are everywhere across India for business! Once we are back in the car; I ask Rolan to book us in a reasonably priced hotel and he recommends one Raj International in Marwari Patty in Dibrugarh. We are dropped right in front of the hotel at 9 pm and we can’t thank Ronal and his friends enough for the help.
We feel like kings at Raj International; nice hotel & very comfortable separate rooms. The rooms are air-conditioned and we quickly order dinner and I take a relaxed shower in the meanwhile. I ask the waiter to order food for me and choose the dishes as whatever he would like and atta chapatis. I am very tired and sleepy and polish off 4-5 rotis with the freshly made delicious mixed vegetable curry.
(I recently sent small gifts to Manash & Ronal from my craft platform ‘Indilocal’ & they were well received in Dibrugarh!)
We are so exhausted that no-one bothers to check about the status of food for the other room and we end up eating separately. I thank the waiter, close the door and sleep – like only a tired body can after so many hours of uncomfortable travel! I wake up from my sound slumber directly at 8 am next morning and feel fresh and relaxed on a proper bed. After all, we were in a campsite in Ziro and the mattress felt so much better than the sleeping bag!
My co-travellers have woken up as well and we laugh over the discomfort of the previous day. We ask for breakfast in the form of aloo sabji + puri and masala chai with lots of ginger. After all it is a hotel owned by a marwari and thats why the food and chai is on point. The flight at Dibrugarh airport arrives at 1 pm and our target was to reach close to the Nagaland border and stay for the night in Sonari town.
After a hearty breakfast, I go down to the hotel reception to enquire about autos / cab to the airport and then the subsequent mode of transport to depart for Sonari, that was the last sizeable town before entering Mon district in Nagaland where Longwa was located. I was also a bit concerned about the ILP for Nagaland – there was no physical office for us to go and get the ILP (Inner-Line Permit) issued. The online permit was just for namesake and wasn’t really something that worked in real life. I was told that there is a Nagaland Government office in Dibrugarh that issues ILP but that information turned out to be false and we decided to just enter Nagaland and see how it goes with the ILP.
At the hotel reception, a Maruti Alto taxi driver was standing and asked for INR 500 for pick/drop from the airport. I asked him for drop to Sonari and he quoted INR 3000 for the same. I check the distance to the airport from Raj Palace is 16 kms and from the airport to Sonari is 75 kms and offer him INR 2100. He declines my offer and says its not profitable at all. He takes down my phone number and informs he that he will call if he changes his mind. I tell him that I’m going to the bus stand to check about a bus to Sonari and also for an auto or other mode of transport to go to the airport.
The bus stand is a 6-7 minutes walk away from where I am and I find that there are buses to Sivasagar every 10 minutes. We ‘d have to switch buses for Sonari from Sivasagar and the frequency of the Sonari bound buses kept decreasing in the latter part of the day. Some locals informed me that it would take roughly 2 hours from Dibrugarh to Sivasagar and then another 2-2.5 hours from Sivasagar to Sonari if we were able to find a bus. The fare for the buses was estimated at INR 180 per person; i.e 720 for 4 of us. Further, the auto guys asked for INR 350-400 for a pickup/drop from the airport. I estimated the total to come to about 1200 INR and involved a lot of hassle + uncertainty about the bus timing.
I made up my mind to call the taxi guy and fix the price with him. The taxi should take maximum 3 hours for reaching Sonari and it was better to arrive in that unknown place before dark so that we were better placed to find a hotel to stay and check about the shared taxi to Mon.
I walked back to Raj Palace and had a quick shower. Luckily, before I could call the taxi guy – he only called me and that ensured that the price was fixed at INR 2100 for pick-up from the airport and drop to Sonari town. We checked out from the hotel and were picked up by the cab guy at 1230 pm; he had a drop to the airport and that guy was sitting in the front. The flight was on time and I was glad that the taxi guy was making extra money.
We leave for Sonari directly from the airport and see buses marked for Tinsukia, Jagun on the airport road that led to Namdapha National Park. The journey is very smooth and after an hour or so, we begin our search for a nice rustic bamboo dhaba. We’ve got home-made food packed from Delhi and luckily we spot an empty dhaba with chairs and a glorious view of the green grasslands. We give the food to the driver as well and he is pleased with our carefree behaviour. I thank him for being kind! We are overjoyed with the home-cooked simple food and realise that however exotic travel in the northeast is, we still can miss home food.
The dhaba owner comes and gives us a bottle of chilled beer. It is a priceless experience. We resume our drive to Sonari; the scenery is stunning with green grasslands and sunset colours at 430 pm. I try checking some homestays just before reaching Sonari town but it is more practical to stay on the road leading to Mon in Nagaland. We are dropped bang in the centre of Sonari Market; the taxi guy tells us that he has to rush back to Dibrugarh. Sonari market has an eerie feel omnipresent in border towns; there are policemen roaming on the road.
The market is sizeable and all the products are available in Sonari; vegetables and greens are available in plenty. It seems like most of the locals from Mon district in Nagaland come to Sonari to shop for all essential commodities. I ask around for a nice and respectable hotel in Sonari, preferably on the road to Mon so that there is no trouble with the early morning shared taxi. We walk on the road to Mon and there is water filled in potholes in the dirty town of Sonari. We find one hotel and there’s a huge room for 4 of us and it also has an air conditioner. This is the advantage of reaching a place in daylight; the same hotel would have costed us a lot more if it was dark.
We figure its easier and more entertaining with all 4 of us in one room and settle for it for INR 1500. The entire building is very damp with the constant rain and we keep the room open to air it out. There are sufficient charging points and I am told that the Mon shared taxi booking counter is nearby. We step out just as its about to get dark; with the aim of finding some light dinner and also to check if there’s a Nagaland ILP office in Sonari town.
There are battery rickshaws in Sonari that charge us 10 INR per person and drop us in the main market. We come across a nice looking hotel in the market – since it is already night and the rooms are available we are quoted a final price of INR 1100 per double room for the supremely comfortable business class rooms. We are a bit disappointed to not check this place but anyway since the pre-requisite of staying on the road to Mon were clear, can’t do much about it.
We ask for a chowmein and are delighted with the preparation; the prices are very reasonable as well. After finishing dinner, we walk back to the hotel and notice the signboard with funny rules! The shared sumo taxi stand is quite close to where we are staying and the guy there informs us that a sumo for Mon will ply at about 6 am. We will have to take another shared sumo from Mon to Longwa. We try to book the front 2 and back 2 seats but there’s just a tree and a stool_chair which is the booking office and it hardly inspires any confidence. He just tells us to come early in the morning.
The distance from Sonari to Mon is some 50 kms but the price of the shared sumo is an astronomical INR 250/300 per seat! ‘Welcome to travel in the northeast’, I say to my travel companions. High transportation costs are one of the biggest reasons that the northeastern states have not been explored well by travellers. I take down his phone number and tell him that we will be there next morning.
We go back to the hotel and relax; there are funny conversations about how well the day has gone! Thankfully, Sonari has excellent mobile internet connectivity and that means we are all on our phones. The issue of ILP for entering Nagaland has still not been sorted out and even though it appears that we are already on a never-ending journey; the truth remains that we are still in Assam. The difficult and troublesome part of the journey is yet to begin.
Since I don’t want this to become an unbearably long post, I shall be continuing the narrative of the journey in a separate post.
Imagine our fright to go to the sumo stand early in the morning and be told that the shared sumo to Mon has already left! Would we be allowed inside Mon district, Nagaland without an Inner Line Permit? As we are nearing the border in Nagaland, there are locals in Assam who ask us to stop and eat while we can. They say,’There is no food in Nagaland’; as a reference to the pre-dominantly non-vegetarian culture that is commonly thought of by the outsiders.
It will be fun to write the next chapter of this …