A bad decision

As I was packing for a trip to Guwahati in early December, The Family asked me “Aren’t you packing your camera and binoculars?” I wasn’t planning to. I thought of this as a quick trip and wall-to-wall meetings, fly in for a couple of days of intense discussion and then get back home. No time to visit the wonderful birding spots around Guwahati. How was I to know that I would be living in a wonderful room overlooking a lake full of migratory birds?

Perhaps if I hadn’t spent all of November traveling from one meeting to another I would have paid it some thought. If you spend even a couple of hours outdoors in winter in India you can’t miss migratory birds. If you are fortunate enough to have breakfast at a window overlooking even a little waterhole, let alone a large pond, it’ll be like watching a documentary by a famous narrator. The naked eye and a phone camera are better than nothing, but certainly not adequate. Also, given that several of the birds were unfamiliar, I really wished I’d at least packed my field guide.

The days were pleasant and sunny, the air full of the squawks and trills of birds. My surroundings were beautifully manicured, but lacking the hectic life of Guwahati’s center. The birds which do these long migrations are usually larger creatures. Small songbirds seldom migrate long distances, although they often do local vertical migrations which are specially noticeable in Bihar, Bengal and Assam. No more traveling without all my optics in my backpack, I promised myself.

Winter’s produce

Winter in the north east of India is a lovely time, even if you are not on a family holiday. I was. A bunch of my cousins and their families had flown in to Guwahati over the last day. They’d gathered at the airport when we arrived in the morning, and, after all the hugging and greeting and marveling at how fast the youngsters grow up, we started out for a drive to Shillong. With a seventy year spread in ages (between the Youngest Niece and Aged Aunt), this was going to be an interesting trip. The plains of Assam were pleasant, the air was cool but the sun was warm. It would get colder as we climbed. But we had to stop to take on fruits.

Our driver stopped at a bunch of shacks on the roadside. Mounds of pinapples of course, the east is famous for its pineapples. There was much discussion about it, and eventually we agreed on the considered opinion that although it would be good to eat some, we couldn’t possibly take whole pinapples with us. Family democracy is wonderful; I enjoy the process of talking it out even when the conclusion is something that we each reached in ten seconds. The kids (not really, any longer) had not expressed opinions yet; I guess that would change over the next few days. They hadn’t really spent long times together, and had individually complained to me about this whole trip. “It’ll be so boring, I won’t get along with anyone,” the oldest had said. Now they were carefully gauging the dynamics of the clan.

The shops had a huge variety of squashes, pumpkins and gourds. Even a big inflorescence of banana. That’s a delicacy across the east, and the south. Nothing that could be eaten during the journey. Where were the oranges that had been recommended to us by a fellow blogger? There were dried out large wrinkly oranges here. I wouldn’t mind eating them in Mumbai, but not here. Maybe we would get the local variety higher up. We took on a few oranges in any case. There were some of the large olives that you get in these parts. Bag a few. I love the flavour of fresh turmeric (featured photo) in salads. I should remember to pick them up on the way back.

The pride of the place went to preserves. Pickles of various kinds: chili, olive, lime, mango. I could feel the memory of the spicy sourness in my mouth. But there was also preserved fish, and unfamiliar vegetables. Regrettably, this was not on our shopping list. We got back in our clan bus, and were on the road again. I had an uncomfortable premonition that I would put on some unwelcome kilos on this trip.

Crossing the Brahmaputra

trucks

As our flight came in to land in Guwahati, I peered over The Family’s shoulder at the lush greenery and little ponds brimming over with water below. The flight was on time. As we collected our baggage and walked to the exit, The Victor pointed out a kiosk which said "Arunachal Tourism". Our plan was to spend a couple of days in Assam, and then cross the state border to Arunachal. That requires a permit. We were very happy to find that it could be obtained right at the airport. We collected the permits, and went out to look for the man who would drive our rented car for the next ten days: Mr. Avatar Singh.

It was midday as we drove out of the airport parking lot in a large Innova. I had the seat next to the driver. As we negotiated the traffic in Guwahati I thought we had a taciturn Avatar. Only when we hit the highway did Mr. Singh start to talk. He told me the route he was going to take, south of the Brahmaputra, crossing it near Tezpur. He was radiated happiness when he saw me looking at the map on my phone. He thought he hd found a kindred soul, and told me more details about the route. Suddenly I found he had crossed to the wrong side of the highway. Twenty meters on he drove into a petrol station. He grinned at me and said that this side of the highway was in the state of Meghalaya and petrol was cheaper here. Clearly, from the number of trucks parked in a bay next to the pump.

adjutant

Very soon The Family screamed us to a halt. Even Avatar had to pay heed to her command to back up. Not having done any birding before, Mr. and Mrs. Victor had little idea of what was going on. When the car had backed up enough, I followed The Family as she walked a little further back. There was something interesting and enormous on a large nest at the top of a tree. The Victors had followed us, and we gazed at the bird which resolutely turned its back at us. Having seen things like this before, I knew it was an adjutant. As I focussed my camera, I heard multiple gasps: another adjutant had raised its head above the foliage. As the two birds glared lovingly at each other, we completed our identification: they were lesser Adjutants (Leptopilos javanicus). Our holiday had truly begun.

taxi

The highway is part of the Golden Quadrilateral which connects India with a continuous four lane highway. Here it passes numerous little towns and villages. There were many state transport buses plying the highway, but clearly not enough to take care of all the people who needed to travel. The road was full of multi-utility vehicles, with people packed in as densely as a black hole. Our car kept overtaking them too fast to photograph. Avatar kept up a non-stop stream of highly personalized information on whatever we passed, for example that these MUV-buses went so fast that it was clear that the drivers could not care less for the state of their cars. As I tried to photograph the vehicles we passed, I realized that the Avatar was not one who slows down for a passenger. On the other hand, he did slow down at every speed breaker on the road.

brahmaputra

As the shadows began to lengthen, our long eastward drive turned north on to a well-surfaced two-lane road. We reached the Brahmaputra. This river arises in the Tibetan plateau, where it is called the Tsangpo. As it crosses into India its name changes to Siang. In Arunachal it meets another, almost equally large, river called the Lohit. The meeting of the two creates the incredibly wide river which we crossed as the sun was about to set. In winter it is a braided stream flowing around huge sandbanks, presenting a tranquil picture in the sunset. But every year during the monsoon it floods, and the human cost is tremendous.

night

Night fell as we passed the town of Tezpur and continued along the highway. There seemed to be deep jungle around us. Avatar Singh knew the eco-tourism lodge that we were headed for, but he wanted me to look at my GPS for the correct turn off. We found it, and drove a couple of kilometers in. It wasn’t the jungle it had seemed to be just a few minutes ago. We passed a few huts and soon we were driving through a large village: there were small fields and clusters of houses. Eventually we came to a signpost which assured me that Avatar knew where he was going. Soon enough we came to a gate I remembered. Our dash across India had come to an end. We were two time zones away from Mumbai. The dark night would have been early evening at home; we might not be back home from work yet.

We found our tents and gathered for an evening’s tea. Permits were needed for a walk into the forest the next day. A river rafting trip had to be arranged. But most important: we had to find someone with a knowledge of where to find the local birds. We would wake at sunrise.

Birdlist for NH 37 and 37 A (5 November, 2015)

It is hard to identify birds with certainty when you barrel down a highway; for example, was the bulbul you passed a red-vented or red-whiskered? So the birdlist here is just indicative.

  1. Lesser adjutant stork
  2. Asian open-billed stork
  3. Black kite (formerly pariah kite)
  4. Little blue kingfisher (formerly common kingfisher)
  5. Long-tailed shrike
  6. Oriental turtle-dove
  7. Spotted dove
  8. Little egret
  9. Drongo
  10. Bulbuls

So much to do, so little time!

The distance between Guwahati and Tawang is supposed to be about 570 Km. Not much, you would think, but we are informed that even in good weather it would take us at least 14 to 15 hours to do this trip. Clearly, this is not something that we should try to do in one day in November. We need to break this journey up, so that we do interesting things on the way, and still have enough time at Tawang.

My friend, The Victor, is great at planning road trips. He figured that Nameri National Park, which is almost halfway, 220 Km from Guwahati, should be a 5 hour drive. We reach Guwahati at around 11; so we should be in Nameri at five in the afternoon, allowing an hour’s stop for lunch on the way. Since sunset is just after 6 in this region in November, we might get in an hour of birdwatching in Nameri on our first evening, provided we do not dawdle over lunch. If we are a little delayed, then we might do our birdwatching on the way, and reach Nameri after sundown.

We plan to spend two nights in Nameri, so we should get one morning and one evening of birdwatching for certain. Then we leave for Dirang, where we plan to spend the night. This is a 165 Km stretch which begins to climb, and should take us 5 hours to do. Since a check for permits is involved as we leave Assam and cross to Arunachal Pradesh in Bhalukpong, there might be queues which eat up time. Still, it would be safe to give ourselves 6 hours of driving. It should be enough to leave by 10 in the morning, which means we might be able to get in another quick morning of birdwatching in Nameri.

There may not be spectacular things to see in Dirang. It is supposed to be good for birdwatching, probably also in November. Although a dzong (monastic fort) is mentioned, the descriptions do not sound great. There is a mention of a gompa (temple) and great views on the way to the dzong, Since this is very close to Dirang village, we might do it in the morning before we leave for Tawang. The road distance is about 200 Kms, although the straight line distance is about a fourth of this. The road is full of switchbacks, so we should expect to take around 6 hours if the weather is good. This is reputedly the most unpredictable part of the journey.

We plan to spend three nights in Tawang. Half a day will go to see the monastery, which is the largest Gelugpa monastery after the Potala palace in Lhasa. I wonder how much it has changed since the Dalai Lama was welcomed here in 1959 when he finally left Tibet. We’ll take a day’s trip to Bum La and the Shangetser Tso (lake). I’ve read about a Takhtsang Gompa in this region, if this is anything like the Dzong which goes by the same name in Bhutan, then we must try to find it. We could try to find the Nuranang waterfall on the way, although it seems to lie a little away from the main road. I’ve seen some lovely photos of the Pangateng Tso, so that is another place we could try to visit. But really, the place The Family and I would like to go to is the Eagle’s Nest wildlife sanctuary. Our three nights in Tawang may not give us time to do everything in this list. We’ve heard much of Monpa food, especially the thuppa and the fish. We should be able to find this kind of food once we start climbing.

We return by the same route. The first day we plan to spend seven to eight hours on the road and halt at night in Bomdi La. The Sessa Orchid Sanctuary near Bomdila is supposed to be wonderful; in November we may not see too many orchids, but we might spot a red panda or two. Bomdila is the gateway to the rest of India, as the Indian public learnt when this town fell to the Chinese in November 1962. From Bomdila the drive to the Brahmaputra is short. Unlike the Chinese army, which pulled back from this town after declaring an unilateral cease-fire, we will press on southwards. We’ll probably take a look at the Bomdila monastery before we start on the drive back. We’re planning to stay in a small tea estate for a night before getting back to Guwahati to catch our flight.

The great unknown in all of these plans is the state of the road. We don’t drive very hard on most of the days. In spite of that, mountain roads are unpredictable. There’s only so much planning that you can do. Once you are on the road, things tend to change. That’s part of the fun.