The Ziro Option



Last year we (Lorne and I) went to Nagaland for the final two days of the Hornbill festival.  We decide on a rare repeat performance: the opening two days of the festival, then on to Arunachal Pradesh, another tribal state in the Northeast.


By booking almost a year in advance, we are able to secure rooms at the one decent hotel in Kohima, the capital.  (Last year the accommodations were pretty dire.)  We are a bit out from the center so not in the middle of the action, but it’s a lot quieter.


The festival takes place at Kisama Heritage Village a few miles out of town.  Huge buzz: recently-elected Prime Minister Modi is coming to open the festival, the first visit of an Indian PM to Nagaland in ten years.  The entire route is a security lockdown: police and soldiers are spaced every few yards.  Normal traffic is at a standstill but we take advantage of the situation to latch on to the tail end of a motorcade and zip right past the halted non-VIP traffic.  (Our vehicle blends right in with official cars.)  Along the route billboards by various trade and interest groups greet Mr Modi, but there is not a single one welcoming moi.



The crowds at the festival site are enormous – no seating remains, and we can barely squeeze in the standing room area to get a glimpse of Mr Big.  As it his wont, he dons festive headgear (a man after my own heart).


The opening ceremonies consist of the Naga tribes in traditional garb parading around (good) and the politicians speechifying (bad).  As soon as Modi is done declaiming, he splits and much of the crowd does the same, opening up seating and better photo opportunities.  The morning concludes with various group dance performances.


The highlight of the afternoon is the chili-eating contest, pitting locals against contestants from around India and other countries over who can consume the most in one minute. A hot pepper like the Jalapeno rates about a thousand Scoville Units (the measure of these things); the Naga King Chili comes in at upwards of a million.  The judges closely inspect to make sure that each chili is entirely consumed and swallowed – spitting it out or vomiting or spitting out results in disqualification. Water and powdered milk are provided to quench the fire.  Normal people have a limit of exactly zero of these peppers; the winner was able to down 7 in the 15 second time limit.


The second day of the festival is more subdued, but still good. To commemorate the 1944 Battle of Kohima, there is a rally of restored jeeps and other vintage military vehicles. In the shopping department, I replace the Naga geegaws that I accidentally left in a hotel room on the way home last year.


On day three we are joined by our guide (the first two days we had only a car and driver) and depart Kohima for the all-day drive to Majuli Island.  It’s not that far, but the road is narrow and winding.  (But in way better condition than last year: it’s been repaved for Modi’s visit, even though he arrived by helicopter.)  We exit Nagaland and drive through Assam’s tea-plantations to reach the ferry to cross the Brahmaputra.  The government-operated ferry service has posted a list of thirty-three fare categories: for the price of carrying our boring SUV, we could be transporting a bullock and cart, 2 buffalo, 2 tigers,  2 cows, 2 horses, 2 pigs, 6 goats, 12 ducks, and 12 chickens.  (However,  if we want to play full Noah, elephants would bust our budget: each one costs as much as one and a half cars.)


It is dark by the time we reach our lodgings.  There is a dearth of western-quality accommodation, so we are in a hotel built and run by the state government tourist development scheme. The “Prashaanti Eco-Tourism Resort” comprises multiple buildings and a shuttered conference center. The dedication plaque shows that it opened In 2010, but it is already practically a ruin, on a vicious downward spiral of few guests leading to low budget (apparently none for maintenance), leading to ever fewer guests. There are no other guests at breakfast.


Majuli is the largest river island in the world (or was; it has been eroding for decades).  It is noted for two things: its Mising tribal inhabitants and as a center of Vaisnavitism, a monotheistic variant of Hinduism.


Apart from the obvious puns, it escapes me why the Mising count as a tribe. They look normal to me: they look and dress like the other residents of Assam.  Supposedly, their songs, dances and some traditions differ.

The tourist thing to do is visit the various Vaisnavite monasteries.  You have to be a maven (or a Hindu) to tell the difference from the mainstream sort.  After the first couple we get the flavor and beg off the rest.  The sect dates back to the 15th century, although its island home was not even formed until 1750 when the Brahmaputra changed course.


What is good is a visit to the mask maker.  The gross part is that an essential element of what appears to be paper mache’ is actually cow dung.

We also stop at a pottery village: not pottery for tourists, but wholesale production of everyday containers.  What is astonishing is how much skill and effort goes into making one and how little they go for: about 10¢ each.

A full day on Majuli is enough.  We drive to the north side of the island to the ferry landing. The river is low this time of year: there is a riverine island drive in between so we actually need two ferries.  The far side riverbank is still is Assam, so the roads are good.  That is, until we reach our goal: Arunachal Pradesh.

Arunachal, or AP, the northernmost portion of northeast India, borders China, Bhutan, and Burma.  Formerly under jurisdiction of the Northeast Frontier Agency, it became a state in 1987.  Like Nagaland, it is all mountains – part of the Eastern Himalayas – and hills.  There are no airports or railways.  It is a restricted area – all visitors need permits – and foreigners must be accompanied by a guide. Various Tibeto-Burmese tribes comprise its inhabitants.


The drive is slow but scenic.  It is quite literally a countdown to Ziro, the first town on our AP itinerary.  Ziro hour (the puns just won't stop!) is at dusk, when we reach our home for the next two nights.  The standard of accommodation is surprisingly good.


The Ziro option is visiting the various surrounding villages.  Most photogenic are the Apatani tribe, noted for the facial tattoos and wooden nasal plugs of the women.  The story goes that the women were considered especially beautiful and the nose plugs were intended to reduce their desirability for kidnap by neighboring tribes.  The custom has pretty well died out: only old woman sport the adornment, and in a few years there will be none.  The male counterpart is wearing ones hair in a topknot with a large pin through it.


There are also weird totems made of straw and eggs.  We visit a sacred spot outside of town where dozens are erected in a field; most houses have a smaller version in front.

In the market I decline to partake of the local specialty: smoked rat on a stick. (Although it could be a hit at the Minnesota State Fair, where they serve everything deep-fried on a stick.)

Ziro is a also a major post of the semi-military Indo-Tibetan Border Police, The northern part of Arunachal is claimed by China as part of Tibet, and the roads leading to the border are constantly being improved and enhanced, supposedly to be able to meet any incursion.  This seems to be to be an undue concern since the border itself is the high Himalayas and there are not even any passes through which an invasion could advance. 

The next day, day seven of the tour, we move on to Daporijo.  Nothing special here, except it is about as far as you can drive in day – a hundred miles or so – and halfway to our next destination.  Here, the tribe that predominates is the Tagin.  There are dozens of tribes and languages in Arunchal, but, as I am not an anthropologist, they all blur together.  What is distinctive is the unique Donyi-Polo religion indigenous to the region, .  It means “Sun-Moon” and is described as shamanist-animist.  Rather than trying to grasp its theology, it is best understood as a nativist reaction to the introduction and spread of Christianity and Hinduism.  It is easy to spot its adherents by the sun-moon banners that fly over their houses. 

Another day of travel takes us to the town of Aalo.  The major tribal group here is the Adi.  Although they are relatively prosperous, they live in huge communal houses shared by an extended family.  The structures look look more like what you would expect to see in the south Pacific than in India. 

We spend the next day visiting the surrounding villages.  The natives are friendly.


 A good souvenir would be one of their hat/helmets woven from a rattan-like material, but they are priced like they are spun from gold.  So I pass.

The final day of the tour is the drive to Dibrigarh in Assam, where the best hotel of the tour awaits.  We start out bright and early and drive two and half hours to a crossroad where we get some bad news: at 5 AM a 72 hour general strike began.  It is some minor political dispute, but bandhs and hartals are a popular means of protest in India.  Roadblocks have been set up at all entry points to the affected district.  Normally these things are announced in advance, but there had been no word of it in Aalo.  If we are to get to Dibrigarh and our flight out, we need to drive back to Aalo and take another, longer route around the bandh area.


After a quick lunch in Aalo we start out again.  The dirt road follows a river, winding along the steep mountains above.  It is slow going.  At times we are halted by heavy equipment clearing recent landslides.  The consolation prize is that the drive is highly scenic.  Too bad it's misty.



To reach Dibrigarh we need to recross the Brahmaputra. The last ferry leaves at dusk; after dark it is too dangerous to navigate the river.  The delayed start and longer route mean that there is no chance we will make our desired hotel.  After twelve hours of driving we reach the flatlands of Assam and its fast roads. We race along until we reach a market town with a place to stay for the night.  The substitute hotel is acceptable, but still of considerably lower standard than the one we were looking forward to.


In the morning we finish the drive to the river, charter a ferry (plenty of room to spare!) and make Dibrigarh for a late breakfast and in plenty of time for our flight to Calcutta at noon.


Like much of urban India, Calcutta has grown and modernized in the five years since I was there last.  A new airport terminal, elevated highways, shopping centers, and office buildings line the way to the old urban core, which is still Calcutta.  (Actually it’s not, since the name of the city has been changed to Kolkata.)


I am just here for the night.  In the morning I am picked up for a three-day trip to the Sunderbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world.  It’s not far from Calcutta, 80 miles, and the journey takes only two hours. 


We reach the jetty at Gadkhali, where my chartered launch awaits.  The river journey to reach the jungle camp on Bali island (no, not that Bali) takes another two hours.  The waterway is crowded with other traffic: many boats of size similar to mine but instead of one passenger (moi), they are carrying seventy or eighty souls.

The Sunderbans comprise the hundreds of islets of the Ganges and Brahmaputra deltas spread over 3900 square miles of India and Bangladesh.  Originally a royal hunting reserve, much of it is protected parkland – both in India and Bangladesh – while some parts are inhabited.  (In hopes of deterring tigers, orange plastic netting surrounds the populated areas.)  This being India, all numbers concerning humans are large: the small island of Bali on which the jungle camp is built has about 100,000 residents. 

The camp consists of separate huts, nicely decorated and fully equipped.  Electricity is by generator (dusk to dawn) and hot water is delivered by bucket.  Meals are prepared from the freshest seafood.  This is upscale tourism, not budget travel.


I arrive in time for lunch, after which we take an afternoon cruise.  The draw here is the wildlife: there are perhaps a hundred resident tigers (in the Indian portion), but we are unlikely to spot one as they are extremely elusive.  (Although the up to fifty people a year that get eaten get an up close and personal look -- must be by color-blind tigers that can't see the orange netting.)  What we do see is lots of birds: this place is a magnet for the twitcher set.  My naturalist/guide readily identifies each species, but it’s not like there are huge flocks of scarlet ibises or flamingos.  The only types that are particularly colorful or distinctive are the kingfishers.

We also get reptiles: crocodiles and monitor lizards.  My guide is quite thrilled to spot a young croc that she released from a hatchery the year prior (she can tell from notches on the tail).

The second day is a full day on the water.  We stop at a couple of park stations where observation towers have been erected overlooking artificial ponds.  The ponds provide a source of fresh drinking water (the river water is brackish) and the paths to it have been cleared.  The idea is attract tigers, and I suppose they increase the chances of seeing one to slightly greater than zero.  All I see from them are deer and more birds.

Most of the time we spend cruising with the guide and crew scanning the banks and calling my attention to and proudly identifying everything they see; I am mostly reading my Kindle.  At one point there is great excitement: the captain and a crewman caught a glimpse of a tiger.  We then patrol the area in hopes it will make another appearance, but to no avail.  Lunch is fresh fish cooked aboard.  We cruise until sunset.

Three days and two nights of this is enough for me.  The next day is a return to Calcutta for my flight to Delhi, then to Paris, then to Atlanta, and finally home.


Trip date: December, 2014


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