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Sunday 20 Mar 2011
Kaziranga National Park, India

Fun day of travel (not)...

Today I was heading off to the lesser-visited North-East states of India. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do up here as I had limited time to plan this part of the trip: I was going to head east and visit Kaziranga National Park and/or the area surrounding Tezpur in search of my Bhut Jolokia chilis, and I was going to head down south to explore the mysterious jungle containing the living root bridges of Cherrapunjee.

How I was going to get there, or what order I would do these in, I was going to make up on the fly. The north-east states are notorious for flaring regional violence (hence a large army presence) and are little visited by most tourists, so Lonely Planet's chapter was not greatly detailed, particularly regarding how to get around. Typically people visit this region as part of an organised tour so, as I was to learn pretty quickly, it was very unusual to see a traveller making his own way. Thus, getting around wasn't going to be quite so straightforward.

I had hoped the "North East tourist office" in tiny Kolkata airport would be opened before I headed off, but alas it was still closed. In fact it looked like it hadn't been occupied for several months. On arriving at Guwahati airport later that morning, the same situation existed for the "Tourist office" there as well.

So as I sat there alone in the small arrivals hall of Guwahati airport, the other passengers all having since dispersed, I opened my Lonely Planet and tried to plan what to do.

I decided it best to go east first, for Kaziranga National Park. I decided on staying at the park itself, rather than staying at the Bhut Jolokia-haven of Tezpur (about 1 hour away), as most park safaris left early in the morning, and I could always visit Tezpur in the afternoon.

LP recommended getting the bus there, so I hopped in a taxi and headed straight for the Guwahati bus station. As luck would have it the LAST bus to Kaziranga was leaving in 30 mins!! As I hadn't had any food all day a quick bite to eat was in order. I got my usual "safe" food of Vegetable curry and Naan, crammed it down quickly and paid without checking the bill, to later see they ripped me off (a little) ... that's India for you!

The bus to Kaziranga was pretty relaxing. Not nearly as cramped or dirty as buses in Guatemala or South East Asia, with sufficient leg room, although in later experiences I discovered that this must have been a "Premium" service as it was perfectly possible to find the cramped buses depending on your luck. There weren't any toilets, the "AC" was just "open windows", but toilet stops were plentiful (Indians love to urinate.. all the time, and anywhere) as were food stops. The scenery too, was a complete contrast to what I'd seen so far in northern India: wonderfully green, Assam is the bread basket for a lot of India with rice fields and tea plantations. Yet the region was clearly very poor with some terrible bumpy roads (and consquently mental drivers!)

After a FULL DAY of driving, the bus pulled up. At this point it was 5pm and already pitch dark (India keeps the same time zone for all it's states, even the Andadman Isles 1000km east, so it gets darker earlier than back west). One of the bus boys came down the aisle and alerted me that we were stopped "at Kaziranga". Clearly I was the only one on the packed bus getting off at this point, so I flung my bags off the bus, and they continued off easterward throwing up a nice cloud of dust around me. As the dust cleared, in front of me was a small village with 2 neon-lit shops; several locals pausing to stare at the crazy dust-covered white guy in the middle of the road carrying a huge backpack. No-one spoke english of course. No sign of any hotel, no taxis, or any sort of information kiosk at all. Apart from the two shops, there were no street-lights and it was completely dark. "Erm... fuck" I thought...

One thing struck me rather quickly about the locals though, they all looked very South-East Asian, and hardly Indian at all. The women, in particular, were very pretty with a combination of Burmese and Indian features. Up here they consider "mainland Indians" to be foreigners.

After getting blank stares when I asked "Hotel?", I decided to wander up across the road past a large "Kaziranga National Park" gate where I saw some sort of building with lights further down a dark lane. I didn't know where the "actual" rhino-infested park started, so as I wandered down the lane, I was prepared for a large beast to jump out of the dark at any moment! The building turned out to be a police station. I entered and was greeted with confused looks by the officer in charge as if to say "You're a bit lost aren't you?". The officer took me in to what I thought was an interrogation room but when he offered me some delicious Assam tea, I eased up a bit and explained the situation. He seemed rather amused (he'd never seen anyone arrive via bus before), but offered to help me find a place to stay.

"So you have no reservation?? Hmm it may not be possible to find anywhere at this time as it's a busy season" ... despite his optimism I remained hopeful. I didn't want to have to sleep in the police station if I could avoid it!

My lucky streak continued as the first hotel he rang up, Aranya Lodge, had a room available! Yay! It was about 1km further up the dark lane, so the officer instructed one of his staff to drive me up in the police jeep. I can only imagine what the hotel staff were thinking when they saw the police land-cruiser chauffeuring a dusty backpacker hippy up to the lobby.

The hotel was, thankfully, lovely in a sort of 70s era style, and my room had a balcony with a rocking chair.

My first course of action that evening was to try and book an elephant trek safari for the early morning. A hotel staff member led me down the road to the government ticketing office, past a football field that was being used as a makeshift outdoor cinema playing Hindi films.

Predictably the elephant trek was all booked up as they have limited numbers, so I booked a jeep safari instead. No matter where you go in India you have to contend with Indian tourists arriving in throngs. India has a population of 1.2 billion, most of whom couldn't afford to holiday abroad, so this isn't surprising. You always need to book in advance for anything.

The other tourists in the hotel seemed equally surprised to see a farangi in their midst so I got my fair share of stares in the restaurant and even while out on safari the next day!

I told the receptionist in the hotel of my other intention for heading to Tezpur to find the Bhut Jolokia peppers and asked how I could get there (Kaziranga is lacking in any sort of tourist infrastructure so taxis are non-existent). He reliably informed me that I wouldn't have to go all the way to Tezpur but in fact they could get a guy to take me on a hike to see where they grow nearby (fantastic!)

At least that's what I thought he said...

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In Search of the World's Hottest Chili

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