When I arrived with my huge backpack at Sangau, the basecamp for Mizoram’s highest peak Phawngpui, the kids shouted “Scientist!” They have seen the regular local travelers, government officials, researchers , nature photographers mostly from outside the state and a few foreigners bold enough to stray into very remote Mizoram. They have not seen my kind, the independent traveler touring his home state solo. Benjamin, formerly sitting in the cubicle at HP who is on his way to everywhere in Mizoram is way above their imagination. Who can blame them?
I was asked if I was doing research way too many times I was beginning to think like a researcher at some point. They never asked if I was on a government duty but straight to which government department I work for. “Are you a surveyor” was another question I had to reply “No” many times. When I said “Adventure” some heard “Evangelist” instead. “Ok so you are traveling on your own but you must be sponsored by the government” said my fellow passenger on the Sumo to Darzo.
I sat in the cubicle for 8 years in Chennai and Bangalore. Somewhere along the way, I got hooked to my childhood passion- the outdoors. Weekends and holidays were spent on trekking, traveling and cycling. I have been to the hills and beaches of South India. I trekked to the peaks of Karnataka Western Ghats and cycled through the coffee plantation of Coorg and tea estate of Nilgiris. And I wanted more.
The thought of exploring my home state crossed my mind several times. The last time I made a plan, a stray dog bit me and the plan was called off. Last year after a lot of thinking and an even more lot of thinking, I quit my job, packed my bags and went home with an aggressive goal of traveling everywhere around my state. Fast forward to today, I haven’t been everywhere exactly.
On Republic Day at Sangau, the BDO was delivering a speech at the playground while school children were running helter shelter. He spoke of India’s greatness. I wonder how less that mattered for the people of Sangau when there is no electricity the whole day and till late night. I spent 5 days at Sangau and it was always a candlelit dinner.
At Phura, there’s hardly any use for TVs and Fridges. Even when electricity finally comes on, the voltage would be low- dim light.
On my trek to the end of Mizoram along the Kaladan river from Palak lake through Tongkolong, Bymari, I saw wireless electric poles and not even the poles beyond Bymari.
One can easily guess the Church denomination of one’s host from the calendar on their wall. For example in South Mizoram, ECM rules in Saiha district. It’s LIKBK in Lawngtlai district.
In a stranger’s town, when walking on the street you put your head down and smile when you talk to people. You are very unlikely to get into trouble this way. Keep politics off the chatter unless you figure out which side your host is on.
I am impressed by the reach of Sumo Maxi cabs in Mizoram. If there is a motor-able road to a village, there will be a Sumo service most likely. The fares are anything from about 100 to 700 rupees. The most I paid is Aizawl – Saiha, 700 rupees, a journey of dawn to dusk. But I beat the reach of the Sumo’s too. I walked, trekked or travelled by boat at places. Twice I rode sand lorry.
At Saisih Chhuah beyond Pangkhua village, there’s a river crossing to Burma. It was here that I find myself very fortunate to see canoes. I have seen South American tribes using canoes on TV. I did not expect to see one in Mizoram. We trekked along the river Tuipui which forms a natural boundary between India and Burma, from Saisih Chhuah to Tiau Chhuah.
Tiau Chhuah where two rivers Tiau and Tuipui meets to form the mighty Kaladan aka Kolodyne aka Chhumtuipui is a nice spot for a picnic. The locals say the wave created by two strong currents in monsoon at Tiau Chhuah is quite a sight.
During my travel, every village I had been to has at least up to middle level (standard 8) school. Everywhere I found the students neatly dressed in their simple uniform. There are marks of the Central Government programs like RMSA and SSA everywhere. At Darzo a group of little girls were on a tree, reading, studying. On the way to Phawngpui, we encountered students on their 7km daily trek to Sangau to attend High School. God be with them in monsoon.
There are tombstones like memorial stones. Too many of them. At the peak of Phawngpui, in the middle of nowhere, at the center of villages, at the outskirt of settlements. As we descended from Phawngpui Peak towards Vawmbuk village, my guide Pu Chhanuka pointed me to one such stone. It’s a memorial stone for his uncle who was bitten by a tiger decades in the past not very far from where we stood.
The word Phawngpui is derived from the Lai word Phongpi meaning Phulpui in Mizo which means grassland in English. There are a couple of almost level grasslands in Phawngpui area, one of them being Farpâk. Farpâk means single pine tree. I did not know this.
As a kid I have heard of Tongkolong. It’s famous because of its funny sound and because of its remoteness. A posting to Tongkolong meant punishment. I learned the rightful name is Tokalo in the local language Mara. The Maras are one of the dominant ethnic groups in South Mizoram with their own language and cultures. Likewise Saiha is Siaha, Longmasu is Lomasu, Tuipang is Tipa. I never knew. The other half of Mizoram does not and might never know.
Chhimtuipui as we have always known is the biggest river in Mizoram. It is also known as Kolodyne, Kaladan. But little did I know the Maras called it Beino, Bieno Boinu meaning Queen. In fact she has a castle. It is called Saphaw or Castle of Beino.
A sprawling alley of rocks on the both sides of the river is the canvas. The current of water rushing downstream is the artist, the sculpture and the painter. Saphaw is result of this, a magnificent art and a magnificent creation of nature. It’s a geological marvel and a Nat Geo material, in my not humble opinion.
Back in the day the toilet in rural Mizoram was a challenge for city folks. The problem was the basic style of pit latrine without a commode. Not anymore. Though pit latrine is still very much in use in rural Mizoram, so is the use of plastic commode, government supplied or subsidised I heard. Nowhere I saw the pit latrine of the old days locally called Mizopa ek-in (Toilet).
Never have I seen so many birds like I did at Palak lake, the true biggest lake of Mizoram. The other more famous and more visited biggest lake of the Mizo in exile due to arbitrary international boundary is 3km inside Burma from the border. The morning mist at Palak lake feels magical. I thought of fantasy movies where fairy creatures arise through the mists. Palak lake to this day is still quite pristine. Perhaps the remoteness and inaccessibility of South Mizoram is nature’s gain.
The stream of visitors to Farpak area of Phawngpui have left litters all over. It is quite sad to see Farpak slowing becoming a picnic ground. There are wrappers of Mimi Wai Wai everywhere. The same case goes to Vantawng Falls (Mizoram’s highest waterfall) view point, and Tuirihiau- a water fall upstream of Vantawng. We are going the way of the rest of India. Litter!
I stayed with family, friends, strangers or at government lodges. There are now tourist lodges, at least an empty building at a lot of places I didn’t expect. The Tourism Department is clearly not as quick when it comes to running a lodge after construction buildings. It looks like they build and they forget.
Mizoram is truly a mountainous region but not as tall. It isn’t like the Himalayas, not quite like the Western Ghats. It is a class of it’s own and it is awesome. It does not boast of a plethora of tourist hotspot but it’s sheer peace and raw nature will surely mesmerize you.
In my Bangalore and Chennai days, I spent money to travel to Ooty, Kokaidanal and the likes for the cool mountain air. At home in Mizoram, I need not go anywhere. It is just right outside.
There is no travel here, only off-beat travel. When I read of off-beat destination on the internet, I chuckle because everywhere is off-beat in Mizoram. You may not have plentiful options in terms of stay and food but there experience is something you will always cherish. As long as you maintain a certain level of politeness and decency, there is plenty of hospitality here.
As I traveled from corner to corner, zigzag between Lai district and Maraland, language change, dialect change, food change but hospitality did not. As I lay in the comfortable bed, the best they can offer, I would ask myself why do I deserve this? I am just a nobody who was tired of the cubicle farm. I have nothing to offer except my sincere thanks.
We will not force strange meat down your throat. We will offer the best we have though it may be far from what you are used to. There will often be extra sugar in your tea. In the morning you might find some members of the family sleeping on the floor because they have offered you their bed. By nature, we don’t know how to look after our guests but we don’t stop trying.
I have only been to a certain portion of South Mizoram. I have seen a lot already. There’s a lot more to cover and to see. At first chance I am getting back on the road to everywhere else I have not been.
Mizoram, in fact North East as a whole isn’t really the darling of the ever emerging travel enthusiasts in India. Everybody goes to Ladakh which undoubtedly is extremely beautiful. But would you not like to come here before it’s all over the internet and travel magazines? We were the last frontier for the British in the colonial times. We are today again the last frontier, of travel and tourism.
This is your chance to beat that so called every Tom, Dick and Harry. Be the pioneer.
Don’t miss it.