North-East India, without a speck of doubt, is one of the most beautiful regions of the country, and yet, one of the lesser-explored and written about. For most of us, its rustic beauty is often seen only in picture postcards. Most of us who claim to have seen the North East have their experiences confined to the relatively modern setting of Guwahati, maybe a drive to Shillong, with the slightly more adventurous ones amongst us even making it to Cherrapunji. You haven’t however, seen or experienced the North East until you move farther away into the rural setting. So when I was offered a chance to explore Assam and a bit of Arunachal Pradesh as a part of the ninth edition of Honda’s Drive to Discover, I couldn’t muster the will to refuse, despite having an indescribably busy month with automakers having gone nuts with their respective launch and drive events. So here it is then, my experience of the North East, put in words as concisely as I could, based on the unforgettable ninth edition of Honda‘s immersive, exploratory motoring initiative, namely Drive to Discover.
Day 1 – Getting acquainted
We had a 10:00 am flight to Guwahati from Mumbai to board. The Mumbai-Guwahati sector is one of the longest in the country, with an effective flight time of about 3 hours. The flight itself was quite eventful, with one of the passengers getting an epileptic seizure. One of our journo friends who also happens to be a dentist, along with another paediatrician who was on-board saved the day and helped stabilize the patient.
We were welcomed in Guwahati by a light drizzle. Now, Assam weather doesn’t get too hot and summer stays for a relatively shorter time spanning from March to June. The highest level the temperature reaches is about 37 degrees though it rains as soon as it gets too hot. June is a good time to witness Assam, draped in a lush green robe and we looked forward to it, as during the drive we were to visit some very beautiful places like Kaziranga National Park, Jorhat, Majuli, Dibrugarh and many others.
A one and a half hour-long drive took us to our hotel, and we spent the evening settling in, followed by a short briefing about what to expect over the course of the next four days. The fun-filled evening, where a local artist beautifully played some Hindi and English numbers to perfection, made the evening a memorable one. Another highlight of the evening was the presence of Mr Rajesh Goel, Honda Car India’s VP For Sales and Marketing, who invited the entire pack of the journos to ‘Use and Abuse’ the brand’s cars and test them to the fullest during the course of the journey. Duly noted, sire!
Day 2 – Crossing over a raging river, exploring a charming island
The day looked promising with only the top-of-the-line Honda cars having been offered to us for the drive. We had the very capable CR-V and the legendary Civic as the media vehicles. The CR-V with its 1.6-litre diesel and a beautiful 9-speed auto seemed like the ideal choice for this kind of a trip which would traverse through rural areas with broken roads, big potholes and lashing rains.
We looked at the Civic with a bit of apprehension, which had lower ground clearance and a very sporty lineage. The sexy looking sedan, however, was about to astonish us with its strength and ability to take bad roads in its stride over the next few days. More on that later, though.
We had to make an early start to the day, as we had to reach a jetty at Jorhat on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra river, board a ferry and reach Majuli, a beautiful island which is currently the largest river island in the world and a nomination has been sent to UNESCO to list it as a world heritage site.
We traversed through the streets of Guwahati to get out of the urban hustle and bustle, and in a matter of a couple of hours found ourselves passing through the lush green forests of Kaziranga. The Animal Corridor flanking the National Highway has numerous signboards for animal crossings, although the park itself is shut for tourists until October to allow Rhinos some peace and solitude during their breeding season.
This was a drive-intensive day as we had to reach the jetty before 3:30 pm, the last one to Majuli Island. The operations are shut thereafter as the sun goes down early in the North East and the Brahmaputra can be quite a handful to deal with in the dark. We drove at a fast clip with only a couple of stops along the way, soaking in the refreshing sights of lush green forests, vast paddy fields expanding into clusters of trees on the horizon, forest fields and swamps, which gave us a glimpse of the abundance of natural beauty we were to experience over the next few days.
We took a short tea break along the way and stopped at the famous Wild Grass resort for lunch. The beautiful British-era building warps you back in time and is surrounded by tall trees, bamboo clusters which were the tallest I have ever seen, ponds where farmers do organic fishing and of course, vast expanses of wild grass, as the name suggests.
Beautiful wooden windows in a row have a disarming old-worldly charm about them. And as you get inside, they show you their functional side, by letting enough air and light. The main hall of the building features an almost 20 feet tall ceiling, with tastefully appointed wooden furniture, deer head taxidermies, traditional paintings featuring animals like elephants and tigers, rhino figurines and other forms of local handicrafts.
Apart from the beautiful ambience, the absolute highlight of the place is the food, which represents the local Assamese cuisine. The food cooked here is organically grown and prepared in the most authentic manner possible. The Assamese cuisine isn’t very spicy by itself, though it does have an assortment of hot chutneys offered on the side – some of them featuring the world-famous Bhoot Jholakiya, or ghost chilly, known to be the hottest chilly in the world.
With our bellies full, we headed towards the jetty for Majuli at Jorhat, and upon reaching there, saw the vast expanse of the Brahmaputra. The raging, powerful river that carries stupendously high volumes of water is quite an overwhelming sight to behold. Had the other bank not been visible, far away in the horizon, almost 10km away, it wouldn’t have been too improbable for one to have mistaken it for a sea. The currents are pretty strong, and with that enormous volume of water, one could only imagine the force that this river notorious for being violent carries.
With all the cars aboard, we waited for some time as the ferry was fully loaded with other local passengers and vehicles. Thereon, it took about an hour’s time before we reached the jetty on the other side at Majuli Island. The journos on board, including myself thoroughly relished the visuals of the forests in the distance, the tiny islands that merge while the river is not overflowing and the different hues of the sky and the ever-changing cloud patterns with the setting sun adding to the visual charm.
At Majuli, the CR-Vs, the Civics and the rest of the crew cars lined up to drive towards our abode for the night – the Dekasang Resort. The half an hour drive felt refreshing, as it took us through the hutments of the tribal Assamese population, still largely unaffected by the invasion of technology.
These folk live peacefully, fully in tune with nature, in their houses which are still made largely of bamboos – they live off the land and can be seen dressed in their traditional attire. It was a beautiful experience driving to DekaSang, a quaint, beautiful little resort situated on the banks of a small, but a fast-flowing tributary of the Brahmaputra.
Tribal dancers, most of whom were school kids, delivered a fantastic performance in the evening before the journo bunch. This slightly different offshoot of the famous Assamese Bihu dance gave us a glimpse of their rich culture and their strong connection with their traditions. The happy bunch of these young dancers delighted everyone with their stamina, energy, fine movements and impeccable synchronization.
My drive for the day was the Honda Civic 1.6 diesel manual. And from a driver’s perspective, I couldn’t have asked for anything more exciting from the bunch. Sure, there’s the 1.8 i-VTEC too, but with a slick-shifting manual transmission thrown in, and being more of a diesel guy, I absolutely loved my time with the slick-shifting diesel Civic. What really stood out was its impeccable build quality, and the absolutely amazing suspension, tuned and raised beautifully for the Indian conditions. Despite appearing as a low slung machine, the Civic took every hardship the broken roads could throw at it with aplomb, and delighted us to the core with its comfort, cabin space and a thoroughly enjoyable and involving drive.
With an action-packed day and about 380 km behind us, we retired in our traditionally built rooms, looking forward to the next day, which would take us to Dibrugarh.
Day 3 – Of long bridges, hot chillies and a mesmerizing view
We looked forward to Day 3 with great anticipation, with our itinerary promising to take us to Arunachal Pradesh, give us a taste of Arunachali Cuisine, and take us over two really iconic road bridges. Most of all, driving through the bucolic beauty of Majuli was a great incentive in itself.
The day started off on a great note with representatives of the Mising Tribe gifting the journalist a traditional scarf. Humbled and deeply thankful, we commenced our journey for the day. Powering us in our quest to explore today was the extremely comfortable Honda CR-V 1.6 diesel, with a 9-speed auto ensuring that there won’t be any signs of fatigue even if the day lasted long, which, as we were to realize later, it would.
Now, Majuli, as mentioned before is a river island. It currently holds the world record as the largest inland island formed by a river. It is also the first island to be made a district in India. Majuli Island is formed over the Brahmaputra. A section of the river, called the Kherkutia Xuti breaks out from the Brahmaputra and joins it again via Subansiri River in the north forming the Majuli Island.
When it was first formed, Majuli Island was rather huge with an area of about 880 square km, at the beginning of the 20th century to be precise. The raging Brahmaputra river, however, has been eroding it consistently, and now it has shrunk to about 352 square kilometres.
Majuli is a beauty to behold, as we realized traversing it. Vast expanses of picture-perfect fields, with tribal folk working them, offer a refreshing visual delight. There are tons of beautiful green swamps flanking the narrow roads, with water peeking out as a large puddle from them in the middle, reflecting the dull sunlight dimmed down by the dark clouds in June.
With a sensational display of light and shade, thanks to the constantly changing light conditions, we witnessed some incredible landscapes and tried to capture them all, though no pictures could do justice to the beauty of the bucolic charm of the place.
Our next destination was an Eco Resort namely Donyi Hango, where we would sample some authentic Arunachali Cuisine for lunch, before driving towards the Pasighat Bridge. Driving towards Arunachal Pradesh, we saw the beautiful Himalayan Range drenched in clouds running parallel to the road on our left, offering some spectacular views. Wide bridges over rivers descending down from the mountains appeared as a garnish to this sumptuous North Eastern visual delicacy we were being treated to.
By the time we reached Donyi Hango, most journos were quite hungry and looked forward to a different, delightful culinary experience. And boy, did the Eco Resort oblige with food which was authentic not just in terms of preparation, ingredients and taste, but also in terms of presentation. We were offered boiled rice wrapped in banana leaf, with local leafy vegetables, a local variety of pumpkin, pork, chicken and many other dishes to be savoured. A highlight here was a small plate which had chopped Bhut Jolokia on offer if anyone had the heart to sample it. Few amongst us who threw caution to the wind and popped a small piece in their mouths were seen scrambling for water almost immediately.
On my part, I smashed it with a spoon, and picked a really teeny, hardly visible speck on another spoon and touched it with my tongue to gauge its potency. And potent it was, with even that tiny atom, sending a clear warning to my brain not to act too adventurous. Making a wise decision, I withdrew, but not before having sampled the potency of the much-feared spice.
After the delightful lunch, we were off to the Pasighat Bridge which is 763.5m long and built over the Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh. It was arguably the most breathtaking view of the trip. From one end, the bridge appeared like a gateway to the beautiful Himalayas, all lush green and covered in beautiful elongated dark puffs of clouds offering a heavenly view.
Once over the bridge, one could see the exotic mountains in the distance, and the wide expanse of the quiet river with fog hanging low over its surface, giving it an appearance which looked too beautiful to be real. After spending some time at the edge of the bridge soaking in the beautiful views, we started our journey towards Dibrugarh. We passed the famous Bogibeel Bridge on our way back and stopped for some images.
On the way back, we enjoyed some of the most beautiful roads to drive on, with the fantastic surfacing. The Honda CR-V showed us what has made it such a legendary nameplate amongst all urban SUVs. The high ground clearance, fabulously set up suspension, and a fantastic engine-transmission combo ensured we were fresh as a daisy when we stepped down from it at our hotel in Dibrugarh. What came as an icing on the cake was that despite having driven it with a heavy foot, the fuel efficiency was amazing.
Day 4 – Tea estates and gibbons
It was time for me to switch to the Civic petrol today, the 1.8 VTEC powered car, mated with a CVT. Our target today was to experience the tea gardens surrounding Dibrugarh, the tea capital of Assam, take a halt within the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary and finally, end our day in one of the resorts situated in the Kaziranga National Park.
After filling up the cars in the convoy, we quickly started our journey towards Kaziranga. On our way, we witnessed the beautiful tea estates of Assam in abundance. The tea estates in this part of the world are mostly on flatlands, unlike the estates in Darjeeling and Munnar where you’ll find them on the hills.
We ventured into a couple of these tea estates and breathed in the fresh aromatic air. The health-conscious ones amongst us also bought their respective supply of Assamese green teas, feeling sure that teas don’t come fresher than the ones they’ve procured from the estate itself.
Our lunch halt was at the famous Gibbon Homestay, situated in the midst of the Gibbon wildlife sanctuary – home to, you guessed it, Gibbon, a rare primate, native to the land. The small homestay is known for its simple, home-like ambience and for serving food which is true to the region’s tradition. After having our fill of the simple, yet sumptuous food, we headed for our final destination for the Day – Kaziranga.
The group headed for the IORA Resort in Kaziranga. Later in the night, the members of the media contingent were welcomed by local dance groups performing Bihu and other Assamese dance forms, and inviting the journos to join them, who duly obliged and brought the eventful day to a fun-filled end.
Day 5 – Spotting rhinos and charging back to base
This was the day when we would make a Dash to Guwahati and catch our respective flights back to our cities. We were still in Kaziranga, though, and this trip won’t be complete until we spotted a Rhino. On our way back, we passed through open wild grass-fields where wild buffalos could be spotted aplenty. The animal corridor has been beautifully maintained, and speed limit signs are prominently displayed to ensure a safe passage for the animals. During this time of the year, rhino sightings are not very easy, as the inner parts of the National park are closed for visitors. The mighty one-horned rhino, the very identity of Assam in many ways, had been eluding us all this while. Eventually, however, a few amongst us managed to spot a couple of them, basking in a pond in the grasslands, even posing for cameras.
With this essential item ticked off our wishlist, we started our journey towards Tezpur, where North East Honda, a leading dealership for Honda in the region is one of the first to adopt a new, more customer-centric layout, cutting edge facilities and practices for the brand.
The dealership offers the best in terms of customer service and convenience. Inside the dealership, there is a dedicated lounge area for customers with TV screens, sofas and a cafe which serves authentic coffees and refreshments. There’s also a digital wall, with a huge screen where the customers can digitally configure their cars. One can check all the features and functions of the cars like sunroof, infotainment system etc, in action with a mere press of a button. And it’s not just the welcoming, open, and airy environs of the customer area which has witnessed an overhaul. Even the service facilities have gone paperless with the entire process of car service, job card creation and the delivery is taken care of through easy to use digital tabs.
Our final pitstop for lunch was at Maihang, a restaurant which specializes in the North Eastern cuisine. As we experienced throughout the trip, the food here was quite amazing and we ensured that we had our fill of the North Eastern food to our heart’s contentment before we left. The latter part of the day saw us charging towards Honda’s stockyard in Guwahati where we would drop our respective cars. Our five days with these beauties were extremely exciting, and the way these machines took all the abuse we threw at them was quite incredible. A special mention needs to be made of the Civic here, which despite its sporty stance, never, even once scraped its belly and managed to take some of the most ravaged streets in its stride without a whimper – keeping us cocooned and comfortable at all times. It also shattered the perception that many had that it’s a car which is meant only for the well-paved streets – if the Civic can handle what it handled during this journey, it can handle everything the streets of India can throw at it.
With some unforgettable experiences, great memories and some new friendships, we bid adieu to the beautiful North Easter of India. The fun times we had, the vistas we explored, and the scenes we witnessed will be etched forever in our memories. We discovered a lot, not just about the geography and landscape of this beautiful part of the country, but about its wonderful people, their strong connection with their land and their lively, inspiring ways. In its ninth edition, Honda’s Drive to Discover lived up to its name and reputation and gave us an experience which won’t ever be forgotten.