India’s northern soul

You want relics of the British Empire, a dash of marble domes, and all of it topped off with a strong cup of char? Chris Haslam plots the perfect beginner’s itinerary to India’s beautiful north

 

Days 1-3: Kolkata

This two-week journey by river and road through wild Assam starts in the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), capital of West Bengal and once second only to London as the biggest city in the British Empire. It’s an intoxicating place: part colonial monument, part cultural capital and part high-spending hipster metropolis. Top sights include the Mullik Ghat flower market, best seen at dawn when the growers arrive; the dazzling marble confection that is the Victoria Memorial; the street-food stalls on Dacres Lane; the wonderfully eccentric Indian Museum, the biggest in the country; and, at 54A A.J.C Bose Road, the home of Mother Teresa.

Days 4-6:  The mighty Brahmaputra river

It’s an hour’s flight from Kolkata to Guwahati, in Assam, the embarkation point for a cruise on one of the fastest flowing rivers on earth. Draining half of all the rainwater that falls on India, and nearly half of all the meltwater from the Himalayas, the Brahmaputra swells in monsoon season to more than 29km wide. In the dry season, dense jungle and palm-fringed paddies give way to dazzling fields of mustard and sunflowers, not to mention villages where people are so unused to tourists that your arrival will kick off a frenzy of selfies and tea. You’ll visit the silk-weaving workshops of Sualkuchi, rarely visited riverside temples, and Bhashmachal, said to be the smallest inhabited river island in the world (population: two men and a dozen or so golden langur monkeys). The Orang National Park on the north bank of the river is home to a healthy population of tigers, which can sometimes be seen swimming out to islands in the stream.

Days 7-8: Kaziranga National Park 

The grass in Kaziranga National Park grows up to 6m high. It hides elephants, tigers, deer and about 2,000 of the world’s 3,000 one-horned rhinos. The traditional way to explore this riverside paradise is on an elephant, while the alternative is a 4WD safari, and while it might not get you as close to the wildlife as a pachyderm, it’s a lot kinder. Stay at the superb Diphlu River Lodge. It was good enough for William and Kate.

Elephant safari, Kaziranga National Park
Elephant safari, Kaziranga National Park

Days 9-10: Majuli, river island

The fast-growing city of Jorhat hasa gibbon sanctuary and little else, but a few kilometres west lies the Haroocharai Tea Estate, owned by the charming Rajib and Indrani Barooah. They also run a little B&B, called the Puroni Bheti Lodge, a good base for two nights. Around 20 minutes north is the ferry terminal for Majuli Island – once the biggest river island on Earth, now downgraded by erosion to the number-two spot. It’s home to the Missing people, a fun-loving lot famous for their music and their weaving – if you see the fluffy blanket called a gadu for sale, don’t hesitate.

Days 11-12: Teatime

Shortly before his death in 1824, Mr Robert Bruce of the East India Company learnt that the Singpho people were growing tea in the jungles of Assam. He realised that India could rival China for tea production and in 1836 his brother Charles planted the first saplings at the Chubwa Tea Estate, near the town of Dibrugarh, just upriver from Majuli. It’s fair to say it took off: there are now 144 plantations in the district, the highest density in India, an achievement that has earned Dibrugarh the nickname Tea City. The Mancotta Tea Estate isn’t much younger than Chubwa, and the old planters’ house – a stilted structure in the Arunachal Pradesh style – is now a comfortable, welcoming hotel. From here you can gaze across the estate, hang out with the pickers, and get a tour of the factory.

Day 13:  Back to Kolkata
The most appropriate way to say farewell is to take the cheesy evening cruise on the Hooghly river, sailing up to the Belur Math religious site to watch the magnificent sunset.

Victoria Memorial at sunset
India, West Bengal, Kolkata, (Calcutta) Victoria Memorial at sunset.

Three more adventures in the north… 

Toy Train, Darjeeling 

West of Assam, in the mountain state of Sikkim, Darjeeling, is the hill station of your dreams. Colonial bungalows sit in tea gardens with the snow-capped peaks of the Kanchenjunga range looming to the north. Reached aboard the Toy Train, this is walking country, with easy rambles through forests of rhododendrons and magnolias for views of Everest, Lhotse and Makalu.

Into Nagaland 

Those dark mountains rising from the Brahmaputra flood plain to the south are in Nagaland — India’s wildest state. It’s a place of stunning beauty, populated by the friendly Naga tribes, who have mostly given up their head- hunting ways. It was in this difficult land by the Burmese border that some of the fiercest battles of WWII were fought, including the Battle of Kohima, where, in April 1944, 1,500 British soldiers held off 12,000 Japanese.

Living bridges

Deep in the forests of Meghalaya, the mountain state between Assam and Bangladesh, the Khasi people put up with the highest rainfall on earth. Normal bridges can’t cope with the torrents, so the Khasi came up with the ingenious solution of training the roots of the native ficus elastica (rubber plant) to cross watercourses, thus creating astonishing living bridges. There are about 88 of them.

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Credit: Chris Haslam / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Syndication