Hey guys, hope you are doing great 🙂
Last Christmas, I was in Aizawl, the state capital of Mizoram situated in North East India. Being a devoutly Christian state, a large dose of Christmas fun and frolic was expected. I spent five days here, from 25th to 29th of December. Read this first of my two-part travelogue and discover a bit about this small, hilly state which is second least populated (after Sikkim), second highest literate (after Tripura) and the most Christian populated in the country. Happy reading 🙂
A bit about Mizoram…
Land of blue mountains, pristine lakes, lush greenery and more…that’s Mizoram, one of the eight North-eastern states of India. It lies in the southernmost corner of the North East, bordered by Myanmar to its east and south, Bangladesh to its west, and the states of Assam, Manipur and Tripura to its north.
Mizoram in the local Mizo language means ‘Land of the Highlanders’. It is a land of rolling hills with as many as 21 major hill ranges (average height of 1000 metres) running through its length and breadth with some scattered plains. The highest peak in the state is Phawngpui (or Blue Mountain) in the south-eastern part of the state with a height of 2210 metres.
Like other north-eastern states of India, this mountainous region was previous part of Assam. It became a Union Territory in 1972 before achieving statehood in 1987. Aizawl is the largest city, as well as the capital of the state. Located on steep hills, it is the religious and cultural centre of the Mizos, who followed tribal religion before the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 19th century. Large-scale mass conversions took place, as a result of which the native population is almost entirely of Christians, largely Presbyterians. And yet they have retained their distinct Mizo culture, which is reflected in their festivals, dances, folk art and handicrafts. A beautiful example is the famous Cheraw (bamboo dance), a group dance of two males and two females wherein girls dressed in traditional colourful costumes gracefully step in and out of clashing bamboo poles.
Mizoram is a land of great natural beauty, an endless variety of landscape with rich flora and fauna, dense forests, quaint villages with houses on stilts and lots more. But the state is not easily accessible due to inadequate transportation. More than 90% of the area of the state is covered with narrow hills, making road construction a difficult and challenging task. Road connections to Mizoram are through Silchar, 180 km away in Assam. Aizawl is accessed only through road and air travel. Buses and shared Sumo vehicles are available for travelling to neighbouring state capitals. The bus journey from Silchar to Aizawl usually takes about 6 hours.
Non-Mizo Indian visitors are required to present an Inner Line Permit which can be obtained at its government offices in New Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Silchar and Shillong. However, those arriving by air can get the Temporary Inner Line Pass at Mizoram’s Lengpui airport, near Aizawl.
The official language is Mizo, but English and Hindi are spoken too.
About three-quarters of the population are engaged in agricultural activities. There are no major industries in the state. Small-scale industries include sericulture, handloom and handicrafts industries, sawmills and furniture workshops, oil refining, grain milling, and ginger processing.
Handlooms and cane and bamboo products are the popular Mizo crafts.
Friday, 25 December 2015
It’s a one-hour flight from Kolkata to Aizawl. The Air India flight, delayed by one hour, lands at Mizoram’s Lengpui airport around 1:15pm. A few minutes ago, I had been amazed by the scenic view from above. On ground too, the beautiful hilly surroundings leave me enchanted. Descending the stairs, I take in a strong whiff of pure air, which is slightly chilly even at this hour. It’s a small airport and at present only two airlines, Air India and Jet Airways, provide services from/to Kolkata, Guwahati and Imphal. Almost all my co-passengers are Mizos returning home for Christmas. Collecting my bag, I walk over to the desk where the Inner Line Permit is issued. One of the Mizo cops manning the desk hands me an application form to be filled. With a passport photo, ID proof and 170 rupees in cash, I get my permit which is valid up to 31st December. Next, I stop at the pre-paid taxi service counter. That’s when I receive a shock… 1400 rupees to travel to Aizawl! I didn’t know that the airport is so far from the city. Well, its 35 km away, almost an hours’ road journey. The guy tells me that a road bridge has collapsed so a longer alternate route has to be taken. There’s a shared Sumo service too, but there aren’t any vehicles left. Sharing a ride with ten with ten passengers – two in the front, four in the middle, and four at the back – works out very cheap. But there are just a few of them and seats get booked very quickly.
As I soon learn, taxis and hired cars are pretty pricey in Mizoram. It’s not that diesel is expensive. Instead it’s cheaper compared to other hilly states. The roads are bad. This is the condition of the road to Aizawl…
Watch my video: On the way to Aizawl – I
It’s a dusty road, so I have to roll up the windows. The green vegetation on the sides of the road is caked with a layer of brown. The young driver speaks neither English nor Hindi. So I can just hope that everything goes fine on the long road to the city. And then to my horror, the road slopes down into a river…
Watch my video: On the way to Aizawl – II
There are two large vehicles stranded in the river and the driver tells me that his small Maruti car will easily sail through! To my surprise, it does cruise the water with ease. Crossing the river, the driver stops to clean the car. I take the opportunity to click some photos of the river crossing by cars…
Watch my video: On the way to Aizawl – III
This is where the road bridge stood a month ago. So the driver didn’t take the longer route after all!
Watch my video: On the way to Aizawl – IV
We drive through lush green hills and small roadside villages. And there are some more of them perched on hill tops in the far distance…
And then we reach Aizawl. Located on a steep hill, this city is really quite something. Homes and buildings crazily hang out from the sides of the high mountain walls. At first sight, it looks like one of the overgrown touristy hill towns of India. But no, Aizawl attracts fewer tourists. Tourism has yet to make inroads. The city has spread across the adjacent hills and is home to about 300,000 people, which is one third of the state’s population. Right now, the roads are deserted. It’s Christmas day so I guess everybody is at home. On the way, I hear loud, bellowing sounds of a large animal. A couple of men are pulling a huge wild boar, the size of a buffalo, up the pedestrian stairs to the road. For Christmas feast… The city roads are steeply inclined and run more or less parallel to the mountain side. So the quickest way to go up and down the hill is by taking the pedestrian stairs instead of the road.
Pedestrian stairs are a common sight in Aizawl…
It’s around 4pm when I reach the hotel where my room booking has been done in advance. Thanks to MakeMyTrip.Com, I have got 60% discount on room tariff at David’s Hotel Clover in the Chanmari area. It’s a family-owned place with comfortable rooms and wifi facility. Dolly, the young and industrious sister of David looks after the business. I have booked a standard room for tonight and the 28th because I plan to go to Champhai (194 km from Aizawl) tomorrow. It’s a commercial town with scenic landscapes near the Indo-Myanmar Border. Rice is cultivated on a large scale in its fertile plains giving it the name “rice bowl of Mizoram”. So also grapes, making wine-making a prosperous industry. But the roads are bad and the journey takes about 8 hours. My plan is to spend the night there and in the morning start for the border town of Zokhawthar. And from there to the main attraction – Rih Dil, a heart-shaped lake sacred to the Mizos. It’s in Myanmar, about 3 km from the Indian border. But Indians can freely travel up to the lake and return on same day. The border market, Zokhawthar Border Trade Centre is another attraction for visitors. After spending two nights in that region, I’m going to return to Aizawl on the 28th.
Dolly gets a quote from the car owner-cum-driver who serves the hotel guests’ travel requirements. The entire trip by a small hired car is going to cost me 11,000 rupees. To check for a cheaper rate, I contact a travel agent on his mobile number. He’s presently in Shillong. But he’s very kind enough to give me all the information that I need. He tells me that shared Sumos are available at 400 rupees per head. They start from the Champhai Sumo counter located in Electric Veng. But due to Christmas holiday season, most of the drivers would be on leave. There’s a helicopter service from the airport to Champhai at 2000 rupees per head. I think it’s the best option. It takes less than an hour. But again, it’s unavailable during the holiday season. Damn! Maybe next time it would be best to catch a heli and proceed directly to Champhai before travelling to Aizawl. It would save the to and fro taxi cost.
It’s 5pm already. I decide to check if there’s a shared Sumo leaving for Champhai tomorrow. Dolly gets the tourist car driver to drive me to the place. By now, it’s dark. In winter, dusk falls early in the North East, around 4:30pm. There are hardly any vehicles on the road. Reaching the place, I learn that due to Christmas, the shared Sumo service is unavailable. So it’s back to the hotel.
I need to book a room for the next two days. Dolly reveals that she has given me a double deluxe room whose tariff is 1500 rupees plus taxes because the standard room that I had paid for wasn’t available. That’s nice! I have paid a discounted tariff of 300-odd rupees for a 1500-rupee room. Unfortunately, the MakeMyTrip.Com discount is no longer available for this hotel. So I decide to check some of the nice hotels close by.
In a small room near the reception, the hotel staff is singing Christmas carols in Mizo language….
Watch my video: Christmas Carols in Aizawl
Chanmari is a nice location. The Grand Hotel is a few metres away. Hotel Regency a bit further at Zarkawt. There’s only one hotel in the MakeMyTrip.Com list which falls in the range of 1000 rupees and that’s The Esquire at Sikulpuikawn, Mission Veng. The area is far and due to holidays, there are very few of the white and yellow Maruti taxis on road. But I manage to get one. I discover that Sikulpuikawn isn’t a convenient location. The taxi rates are high here and nobody follows the official published rates, so a bit of haggling is required. Still, the to and fro taxi ride costs me 150 rupees! At least I got to see the Christmas lighting and decorations as I passed by each locality.
Back at my hotel, Dolly is ready to give me the same room for 1000 rupees including taxes for the next two days. So that’s settled. It’s dinner time. Initially, I had thought of trying Bai, the traditional vegetable stew. But the cold chill makes me change my mind and I opt for spring rolls instead.
The full moon night is inviting, so I go out again.
Watch my video: Christmas Night in Aizawl – I
It’s 7:30pm. Colourful festive lighting greets me everywhere. There’s not much activity on road. Most people are at the many churches dotting the small town. Each locality has its own church.
Christmas scene near Chanmari church…
Christmas decorations are put up at convenient places in each locality of the city. Visiting each street decoration and taking photos with family and friends is part of the Christmas celebrations in Aizawl.
Christmas decorations near Chanmari Church…
Watch my video: Christmas Night in Aizawl – II
With two days in hand, there are some really nice places to explore but they are far from Aizawl. Unlike other popular tourist destinations in the country, Mizoram does not have famous buildings and landmarks to talk about. It’s all about raw nature… dense virgin forests, scenic landscapes, fresh mountain air, flora and fauna, peace and tranquility, etc. There are numerous wildlife sanctuaries and mountain spots for the adventurous.
Around 300 km from Aizawl is the highly revered Phawngpui (or the Blue Mountain), the highest mountain peak in Mizoram. Declared a National Park for its exotic species of flora and fauna especially the orchids and rhododendrons spread within the surrounding valleys, it’s an extremely popular destination for trekking. The Tropic of Cancer runs through the picturesque village of Thenzawl (43 km from Aizawl) which is an important handloom centre. From here, Vantawng Falls (137 km from Aizawl) – one of the highest waterfalls of the country – is nearby, set in thick bamboo forests. About 110 km from Aizawl is Tam Dil, a scenic natural lake and a lovely picnic spot. Another great place for picnics and outdoor camping is at Hmuifang Mountain, 50 km from Aizawl. For curiosity’s sake, at Baktawng, 70 km from Aizawl, lives the world’s largest existing family. Its head, Pu Ziona has 39 wives, 94 children, 14 daughters-in-law and 33 grandchildren…180 in total! And there are some more lovely places. So it’s hard to understand that despite its stunning natural wealth, tourism has not gained a foothold here. Like some of the other north-eastern states, lack of connectivity with the rest of the country is one of the main reasons.
Within Aizawl, there are fewer tourist sights. So the best thing to do is walk around the town and get a glimpse into the everyday life of the Mizos. The last few hours have shown me only a bit of it. But I have four more days on hand. So it’s early to bed for tonight. I can imagine the locals having a quiet family dinner and going to bed. Life is simple here.
Saturday, 26 December 2015
After breakfast at 8:30am, I start my walking tour of the city. It’s a lovely, quiet morning. With all commercial establishments closed for the holidays, the city looks more or less deserted. Even bus services are unavailable. I was lucky to get a tourist guide map of the city at one of the hotels I visited last night.
With it, I’m able to localize myself well. To the left, the road leads to “the pulse of the city” and to the right, residential areas.
I proceed towards the right, to Durtlang Viewing Gallery. It looks quite far on the map, high among the hills. But I’m game for a long and uphill climb.
Vehicles (buses too!) parked alongside the quiet main road…
A view of the city…
Houses at road level are supported by log concrete stilts on the other side…
Watch my video: A walk around Aizawl
Following the map, I reach Bawngkawn. Here I’m confused. As per the map, the viewing gallery is supposed to be to the right, but there’s no road leading to it. The only road to the right goes downhill to the city’s helipad. To the left, the road goes uphill towards Durtlang Hills and Silchar. And to Aizawl Theological College (ATC). Despite making enquiries, I’m clueless. Nobody knows of Durtlang viewing gallery. And they speak neither Hindi nor English. To my surprise, the few youngsters whom I ask, are unable to reply in English too. The viewpoint area has got to be towards the left, so that’s where I proceed.
A cute Christmas decoration at Bawngkawn…
Further along the uphill road, I get directions to ATC from a man cleaning his car. He speaks good Hindi. He tells me that I can get a panoramic view of the city from ATC in Durtlang Hills which is to the north of the city. There are share taxis going up to Zero Point. From there, I will have to go walking. Instead of waiting for a taxi, I prefer walking the distance to Zero Point. But the guy implores me to take a taxi. Because boys on bikes often pass by the area and I might be catcalled. Accha nahi dikhta. (It doesn’t look good). Awww I can deal with that… Catcalling happens everywhere. But he insists that a taxi will soon pass by. Meanwhile we chat a bit. He’s amazed that I’m travelling alone. When I mention my hotel’s name, he looks a bit upset. “You should have taken a taxi from the hotel. It’s so far. Dolly didn’t tell you?” Oh! So Dolly is famous in Aizawl… Nope, I didn’t discuss my travel plans with her. He says that he’s lived for a little while in Mumbai. No wonder his Hindi is good. Here, people mostly speak Mizo. English is the medium of education, otherwise like Hindi, it’s less spoken among the locals. Some taxi drivers speak Hindi, so that’s good for tourists.
Soon, a taxi with three passengers comes up the road. The man exchanges a few words with the driver and tells me that I will have to pay 30 rupees. That’s so nice of him because neither the driver nor the other passengers speak Hindi. From Zero Point, I walk on for twenty minutes. Seeing an uphill road leading to the Doordarshan TV Tower, I follow it. It’s restricted area, but I convince the security personnel to let me in to take a few pictures of the views. This is the highest point in the surrounding hill ranges.
The Doordarshan TV Tower in Durtlang…
Watch my video: View from Doordarshan TV Tower on Durtlang Hills
Splendid vistas of blue-hazed rolling hills…
Mud fields serving as football grounds are prominently seen far in the valleys and levelled hilltops. It’s no wonder as football is everywhere in Mizoram. I still cannot locate Aizawl in the surroundings and ask for help from a man walking around. It turns out that Aizawl is visible from ATC, which is down the road on the adjacent hilltop.
In Mizoram, each village home has a pigsty. I pass these oinking pigs behind the staff quarters in the Doordarshan TV Tower premises…
It’s around 12:00 noon and the sun is directly overhead. Very hot with slight breeze. It’s a long way to ATC. Every now and then, a few cars and bikes pass by the road. Otherwise there’s just me walking under the hot sun. The silence of the hillside is broken by faint sounds coming from a school near ATC. Probably a Christmas programme.
The sprawling premises of Aizawl Theological College (ATC), overlooking valleys and hill ranges …
Aizawl was founded in 1890 as a fortified post on the recommendation of a British military officer of the Assam Military Brigade. It stands on a high ridge of approximately 4000 ft with the Tlawng river valley to its west and the Tuirial river valley to its east. The city gets its water supply from the Tlawng river.
View of Aizawl…
Zoomed-in view of the 125-year-old huge citadel…
Watch my video: View of Aizawl from ATC in Durtlang
This viewpoint attracts plenty of couples. Right now, I can see two of them. After enjoying the views for a while, I return to Zero Point. It’s lunch time. I hear plenty of oinking as I pass by the village homes. On the return journey to Bawngkawn, the share taxi costs 20 rupees. Because downhill journeys cost less. Some families are out on road, taking photos at the many Christmas decorations like this one…
In the evening, the roads come alive with gaily-dressed people having a good time…
Watch my video: Christmas in Aizawl
Christmas lighting at Zarkawt…
The best place to stay in Aizawl is at Hotel Floria with rooms starting at 4000 rupees. The location is perfect. At Dawrpui, near Bara Bazaar, the city’s main shopping centre. It’s right next to the popular Zote Bakery and opposite the city’s mall, Milleneium Centre, both of which are presently closed for the holidays.
The hotel’s terrace offers a panoramic view of Aizawl. This is at 6pm…
Watch my video: View of Aizawl from the terrace of Hotel Floria
Watch my video: Full Moon Night in Aizawl
It’s an amazing night and I’m the only person on the terrace which is totally covered in darkness. The cold breeze is inviting too. Later, I have a soup for dinner and then return to my hotel.
Sunday, 27 December 2015
On Sundays everything is closed. And I mean literally everything, from general to essential. People stay home and relax, so the roads are empty too.
At 8am, while most are still in bed, I’m on the terrace of Hotel Floria taking in the lovely morning view.
Watch my video: Sunday morning view of Aizawl
After a light breakfast, I return to my hotel where the hotel tourist car is waiting for me. I’m going to Reiek Hill, 35 km away. The trip is going to cost me 2000 rupees. Read about it here: A Hike to Reiek Hill
I return to Aizawl around 3pm. A short distance away from my hotel, 2-3 women from Manipur are sitting alongside the road, selling freshly-prepared food.
Among the hot items are potato fritters, chilli fritters, deep fried hard boiled eggs, jalebis and a salad-like stuff made of cabbage, roasted tiny dried shrimps, green chillies, etc…
I get a few potato fritters and two jalebis for twenty rupees. The salad-like stuff is their popular item. The entire large bowl gets over in a matter of minutes even as I’m debating whether or not to try it.
When I return to my hotel, Dolly shows me the kitchen in the basement, where her famous momos are prepared. Someone has told me that her momos are said to be the best in Aizawl.
Watch my video: Dolly’s momos in Aizawl
Dolly and her boys…
It’s 4:30pm. I have vegetable hakka noodles and step out half an hour later. This time, to check Mizo handlooms. Dolly has suggested a place where I can see weavers at work. She insisted on my taking the car, but I prefer going walking. So she has drawn a map for me giving directions to the place. Despite the directions, I lose my way in the maze of small lanes near a shopping market which is closed today. However, I manage to get my bearings right and reach the place with ease.
Being Sunday, there’s just one man at the machine…
After a few minutes of looking around, I leave. It’s 5:30pm. Unlike yesterday, there are just a few people on road today. I’m looking forward to buying a winter coat tomorrow. The weather is cold and my full-zip sweater just isn’t warm enough.
Dolly is surprised to see me back within an hour. Yesterday I left her stunned when I told her that I had gone to ATC and Doordarshan TV Tower on foot. She isn’t used to meeting tourists who walk long distances and go like the wind. They all move around in cars. Well, I’m different…
Today I learnt a good deal about Mizos and their lifestyle, thanks to the Gorkha driver.
Mizos love boiled food and non-vegetarian food, mostly pork. And they love eating rice. Their meals are not complete without a large bowl of rice. Hence most of their dishes are rice-based. Earlier they used to put a traditional ingredient in their bai (boiled vegetable dish) but now it’s replaced with cooking soda. Pork is the cheapest, followed by chicken and lamb. And a few eat dog meat too. It’s the most expensive at 500 rupees a kilo, because supply is scarce. Till 2010, alcohol was prohibited. Earlier they used to have a traditional beer. Now, they have grape wine.
Mizos are a close-knit society devoid of class distinction and sex discrimination. Many girls work soon after their schooling is complete. Most of the garment shops and businesses are run and managed by women. They get the goods from neighbouring Myanmar and sell it in the city shopping centres.
There are fewer private companies, so most of the population is employed in the state and central government, and other government-owned enterprises. There are no factories, so no pollution. The only pollution comes from exhaust fumes of vehicles. And there are about 58,000 of them in the city. No wonder people wear face masks. But I have yet to see traffic jams on the roads. Most probably tomorrow…