MatadorU student Priyanka Kher walks us through this remote region of India.

The majority of Northeast India is made up of the “Seven Sisters” — a popular collective term for the 7 contiguous states of:

Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram

If you’re unfamiliar with this part of the country, check out a map — the Northeast is attached to the rest of India only by a narrow passage through the state of West Bengal, hemmed from the south and west by Bangladesh and from the north by Bhutan and the Purvanchal Range of the Eastern Himalayas.

Much of the area is mountainous, while other parts are covered with sub-tropical rainforest. Isolated both geographically and culturally from the rest of India, it is extremely ethnically diverse — around 220 tribes inhabit the region, each with its own language, dress, and customs. The majority live in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Mizoram; the biggest / best-known include the Angami, Khasi, Garo, Jaintia, and Bodo tribes.

Up until a few years ago, stringent permitting rules made it hard for foreigners and even Indian tourists to visit the Seven Sisters, but recent relaxations have increased accessibility.


Getting in

Crossings into the Seven Sisters exist from neighboring countries — China, Bangladesh, and Bhutan — but entry to the region from within India (by land) is only via the Siliguri Corridor, or the “Chicken’s Neck,” a narrow stretch connecting the state of West Bengal to Assam.

Entering the region, your first stop will probably be Guwahati, Assam, an urban centre with a population of over a million people and the Northeast’s largest city. It’s more a transit hub than an attraction itself.

From Kolkata (Howrah station), the Saraighat Express is the fastest train option at 17 hours for the express trip. You can also fly into Guwahati (Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International). There’s no direct international air route to Assam, so Kolkata, 50 minutes by air, is the closest and most convenient location for a connector.


Travel between states

From Guwahati, the most realistic option to travel within the Seven Sisters is by road. Air connectivity is extremely minimal, with states like Arunachal Pradesh not even having an airport. Trains connect some major hubs, but routes and schedules are limited.

On the roads there are state-run buses, shared cabs, and private taxis. Routes are narrow, mountainous, and poorly signed, so renting a vehicle to drive yourself isn’t recommended.

Bus fares are typically around US$15-$20* / person. Don’t expect much comfort; transit times are long and stops numerous. Shared cabs tend to go for ~US$10~$15 / person. Drivers squeeze in as many passengers and luggage as is physically possible and won’t leave until either the cab is full or someone agrees to pay for the empty seats.

Comfort increases with private taxis — a luxury you’ll pay for. Check with your hotel (they’ll likely have regular contacts), and get them to book you one from a reliable operator. Depending on your destination, type of vehicle (with or without air conditioning), and number of days, you’ll be looking at about US$90-$100 / day.

Tips

  • Standard sedans are fine for lower altitudes, but choose a 4WD for more mountainous areas like Manipur and Mizoram. Must have: Spare tires and emergency kit for breakdowns.
  • Avoid nighttime travel. Due to poor conditions and the fact that the area is ethnically / politically sensitive, roads can be precarious after dark. It’s best to leave early in the morning and reach your destination in daylight.


4 recommended activities

1. Kaziranga National Park

Photo: Subharnab

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kaziranga is the oldest national park in Assam and one of the oldest in India. It covers 146 sq miles and is extremely biodiverse — most famously serving as home to two-thirds of the world’s one-horned, or Indian, rhinos. Over the years, successful conservation efforts have protected the rhinos and other wildlife from poaching and created a viable natural habitat for numerous species.

Get there – The park is ~220km (136 miles) from Guwahati, and travel time is ~6hrs. Many buses make the journey (US$10-$15 / person depending on service chosen). If you’re in a group, it’s definitely worth considering the $100-$120 for a private cab.

  • Notes: Entry fee is US$5 / person. Due to flooding, the park is closed between May 1 and November 1.

Where to stay – Depending on how much you want to spend, there are a) tourist lodges in the government-run Assam Tourism Department campus, or b) private tourist lodges, like Wild Grass, that offer more specialized services. The campus is opposite the bus stop in Kohora (~4 miles from Kaziranga) on the Guwhati-Tezpur road. Wild Grass and other resorts are located off the highway within two miles of the park.

Check availability and enquire / book in advance. Online booking is available via holidayiq.com, as are phone numbers (website registration required).

  • Cost: Assam Tourism Department lodges run ~US$15-$45 / night for two people, while private lodges will be ~US$70-$100 / night for a double.

What to do – Guided jeep and elephant safaris are the only methods available to explore; unaccompanied hiking is not permitted. Elephant safaris are shorter (about an hour) and are only offered in the mornings. They do get you closer to the rhinos, though. Jeep safaris cover a larger area of the park, with a good chance of spotting more wildlife.

  • Cost: Jeep safaris = US$50-100 for half a day, depending on the areas covered. Elephant safaris = US$18 / person.

Travel permit – No permit required to enter / stay in Assam.

2. Multi-day whitewater rafting on the Brahmaputra

Photo: Martinliao

One of Asia’s major rivers, the Brahmaputra originates in western Tibet and drains into the Bay of Bengal. By the time it reaches Assam, it’s as wide as 10km in some sections.

The whitewater is further upstream, in Arunachal Pradesh, where the river quickly loses elevation from the Tibetan Plateau. Conditions can get really rough (Grade 4 to 5, same as Class 4 to 5 in the US) and the current extremely strong, so it’s definitely recommended to go with an approved adventure tour operator for this.

In addition, the areas through which whitewater sections pass are extremely remote, populated by tribes who can only communicate in their native language.

  • Note: Trips are run in winter, November to March.

Get there – Tour operators in the region are plentiful, but it’s important to choose quality / experience over economy. Older companies like Aquaterra Adventures, who’ve done these trips for several years and have well-trained guides, can better guarantee you a safe trip.

Where to stay – Operators usually run fixed itineraries (10- to 15-day packages), and tours include accommodation at riverside campgrounds. The downside is these tours are fixed from start to finish, which leaves very little flexibility.

  • Cost: Depending on the operator and tour itinerary you choose, costs can range from US$2500 to $3000 (all inclusive / person).

Permit: A Protected Area Permit is required for foreigners. Application fee is $50 / person, and the permit is valid for 30 days. See this page for more information.

3. Tawang Monastery

India’s largest monastery sits at 10,000ft elevation in the Tawang District of Arunachal, just a short distance from the Bhutanese border.

Get there – Reach the town of Tawang by driving from Bhalukpong (on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh). The trip is 14hrs and mostly mountainous; take an overnight stop at Bomdila. Preferred vehicle is a 4WD in good condition. Cost should be between US$200 and $250 one way.

In Tawang, hire a cab (mostly Maruti OMNI vans) for half a day to get to the monastery and back.

Where to stay – Accommodation is available in Tawang, but it’s pretty basic. The town is a hill station and doesn’t have much by way of ‘modern amenities.’ Small hotels like the Tawang Inn, Tawang View, and Buddha Hotel are decent options. Prior booking is recommended and, again, possible via holidayiq.com.

Phone connectivity is shaky at best, and if you find internet consider yourself lucky.

  • Cost: US$25-$35 / night will get you a comfortable room.

Permit: A Protected Area Permit is required for foreigners. Application fee is $50 / person, and the permit is valid for 30 days. See this page for more information.

4. Hornbill Festival

This festival, organized by the State Tourism Department, takes place in the first week of December each year in Kohima, the capital of Nagaland. There are 16 major tribes in the state of Nagaland, and all of them participate in the eight days of cultural shows, music, food, and sports.

Get there – The festival is held in Naga Heritage Village, 7.5 miles from Kohima. Head to Kohima via road on NH 39 from Dimapur, Assam. Distance is ~45 miles, and travel time is about 3hrs. The drive is scenic and not as mountainous, so you don’t necessarily need a hardy vehicle.

From Kohima, hire a cab for a full day (costs about US$25) to get to the festival. (Tip: Check to make sure the cab has a parking pass for the venue.) The festivities start at 9am, so get there early to beat the crowd.

Where to stay – Kohima is a medium-sized hill station and accommodation options reflect that — nothing very fancy, just comfortable enough. There are a couple hotels, namely Hotel Japfu and Hotel Rahzu Pru, and about a dozen B&Bs, like Aradura Inn, but that’s about it. For online booking, holidayiq.com works here too.

  • Cost: Hotels go for US$27-$35 / night, while the B&Bs will be US$20-$25 / night.
  • Note: Hotels are filled around festival time, so it’s imperative to book in advance; no campsites or outdoor options are available.

Permit – Permit restrictions for foreign nationals have been relaxed for the year 2012; none are required. Nonetheless, registration with the local Foreigners Registration Officer (FRO) within 24 hours of arrival is mandatory.


Additional notes

The Northeast is a politically sensitive region. Check news updates when planning your trip. For Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland, permit rules are subject to change after 2012.

Hiring the services of certified guides and tour operators is highly recommended. For a permit (e.g., for Arunachal), go via a certified travel agent. It costs an additional ~US$100 / person but will save you some major legwork. Allow at least 2-3 weeks for issuance.

Two good options are:

* Note: The exchange rate used in this article is US$1 / 52 Indian Rupees.

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