Nomadic Luxury in Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival

Nomadic Luxury in Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival

Piece published in SUITCASE magazine.

My Bell 412 helicopter searched for the helipad, a spherical silhouette on a patchwork of multicoloured terraced houses, slung out on a ground of undulating forest. I felt like Elizabeth Bowen, a lone female entering the Land of the Head Hunters – albeit by much more modern means. In these far-flung reaches of eastern India lies Nagaland, a region shrouded in mist, mystery and misconception. Every December, amidst a cacophony of colour and sound, the state’s 16 tribes put their differences aside and take part in the annual Hornbill Festival.

Heard of it? Probably not… but in India, the Naga’s notoriety precedes them. Despite government initiatives to increase footfall, only a trickle of tourists travel to this corner of the country every year. But the wheels of change are in motion. The 12-hour journey from Delhi has been slashed thanks to the introduction of daily flights to Dimapur and The Ultimate Travelling Camp, India’s most ingenious ‘hotel’ has embarked upon a pioneering venture to introduce luxury travel to the region.

I was not fortunate enough to enjoy such luxuries as direct flights but the private helicopter, courtesy of TUTC’s Kohima Camp, made up for it. Operational for just two weeks, from November 29 to December 12, the team has perfected the concept of nomadic luxury. Brainchild of General Deepak Raj, of former Indian Army fame and Dhun Cordo, wedding planner to the stars, this unlikely duo combined military precision with artistic flare to create the first camp of its kind. Nestled between the lush Dzüku Valleys in the village of Kigwema, it is just a 15-minute drive from the festival ground; when Modi is not in town.

Tribal Dance Khaki Tent

Having missed the opening ceremony (the Prime Minister does not do security by halves nor do I skip breakfast) Keja, my guide, updated me on the afternoon’s activities: a pork fat eating contest, a pork fat kicking contest and a pole, lathered in pork fat, climbing contest. So that myth was true: Naga’s love their pork. Lard-based activities aside, attendees can also look forward to traditional song and dance performances and peruse the tribal wares for obligatory souvenirs.

While we waited for Modi to complete his presidential duties, Keja took me to his tribe’s morung. Traditionally the physical and metaphorical centre of village life, a morung is a place for men to share stories, farming tips and the odd glass of rice beer. These days women are allowed in too and I was treated to a tankard of the stuff. I was beginning to enjoy myself as much as the locals, who’d been boozing since the AM.

“How about a traditional Angami lunch?” suggested Keja, “to accompany your traditional ‘aferitip’? They’ve got everything”. He was right, the Angami’s really did have everything on the menu: cows intestines in a blood gravy, fermented bean curry and tushichi which, for those of you that are not familiar with, is dog.

Stomach distinctly turned, I passed at the opportunity to take part in the infamous (and potentially fatal) chilli-eating contest. But for purveyors of peculiar foods or those in search of the unusual, Nagaland and the Hornbill Festival is the assault on the senses that many have been looking for. Be gone the Golden Triangle, this is India as you have never seen it before.

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Leh Lady Leh: The Girl’s Guide To Ladakh

Leh Lady Leh: The Girl’s Guide To Ladakh

A piece published on one the bestest gal pals there is, Maia Sethna’s superb blog Girl Panic:

After flying solo and moving to Delhi almost a year ago, I felt like I needed a change of scenery. I had never even set foot in Ladakh, but you don’t get much more of a dramatic scenery change than here. In fact, as soon you step of the plane at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport (or Leh to you and me) there are two things you notice. One, the absence of that ‘open oven door’ sensation; the air is cool here, you can actually breathe. Two, that view. You might be mistaken for thinking you’d just touched down on the moon. It’s not named the ‘lunar landscape’ for nothing.

Once considered so remote that “only your best friend or worst enemy would visit you” there, or so the local adage goes, Ladakh is now a firm favourite on the tourist trail. With several daily flights from Delhi to Leh during season time, it has never been easier to reach: the perfect destination for a long weekend getaway out of the sweltering Delhi summer.

meg - ladakhShamless #selfie on a rare afternoon off

Upon arrival make sure to set your watches to “mountain time”. One adopts a different pace of life here: early to bed early to rise. My morning routine in Delhi generally involved dragging myself out of bed by 8.45, ready to leave the house by 9am (read 9.30). Now I am tucked up by 10, a good book my only bed partner, in order to be up at 5am before my sacred morning stroll. Yoga, shower, breakfast: check. I am generally ready to carpe the hell out of that diem by 7am.

But what to do? If you’re the kind of girl looking for poolside butler service then Ladakh is probably not your thing. But, if you’re on an odyssey for some adventure in your life then look no further: you have arrived. With more adrenaline fixes than a back-street physician’s medical bag, Ladakh is the destination for those craving a natural high. Or a literal high (it does sit at over 10,000 feet after all).

meg - ladakh 2Me and some of my new friends!

From white water rafting to off-roading; mountain biking to climbing Ladakh provides a colourful array of ways to attempt to kill oneself. Or give your parents a scare. A trekkers mecca you can cover the same rocky passes that many before have tried and failed to complete. Near death experiences avoided, you might want to thank god (or Buddha) you are still alive. And with more monasteries than you can shake a dorjey at (google it) Ladakh is the perfect place to discover your inner sanctuary.

For the believers or the just plane curious, a trip to the oracle at Saboo makes for an enlightening afternoon. No she won’t be able to tell you who you are going to marry or whether or not your boyfriend really cheated, but she might just be able to shed some light on some personal or family gripes. Or for all your homeopathic health needs, there is the Amchi at Thiksey monastery – probably the happiest man in Ladakh. Save for my co-worker Captain Sonam. You haven’t known joy until you’ve met Captain Sonam.

In short, there is no short-age of things to do in Ladakh, especially over the summer season. And if you are man, or should I say woman enough, to brave its winter season and sub-zero temperatures, then you may well be rewarded with a rare snow leopard sighting. All I know is that I have been here for over a month, have another three to go and I have not covered even half of my “To Do” list. So I am sure you Delhiites darlings can fill up a long weekend!

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Room with a View: My new Home Sweet Home

 

Ladakh: The Low Down

Whilst I could write an exhaustive list of “Must Do’s” in Ladakh I will let you figure that out for yourself, but here are just a few of my favourites…

Monastery: Thiksey

Not the richest, not the oldest, but in my opinion the most beautiful (and home to the largest and most photographed statue of the Matreya Buddha in Ladakh). Wake up early for the morning prayers with the monks and several cups of butter tea if you can stomach it. Whilst you are there why not make a trip to the local herbal medicine man, the Amchi, who will tell you more about yourself than your childhood paediatrician. Every malady imaginable is prescribed with one of his foul smelling “Tibetan dirt balls” as I like to call them. Hold your nose, they taste as bad as they look.

Cycle route: Wari-La

You might want to leave it a couple of days before you exert yourself too heavily. Whether it’s your lack of physical prowess or those extra 3000 feet: the views will quite literally take your breath away. Look out for yaks, zos, marmots and a whole menagerie of wildlife not found around town.

Shop: Jigmet Couture

Whilst Ladakh is hardly a shopper’s paradise Jigmet Couture is the best place to pick up some tailor made souvenirs. The man behind the name is a real enigma. Using locally sourced textiles Jigmet offers Ladakhi fashion with a modern twist.

Place to eat: Nimmu House

Local new kid on the block with its French owner and French chef, Nimmu house provides a sophisticated alternative to momos and thukpa.

Sunset Spot: Victory Fort

Forget the crowds of Shanti Stupa, Victory Point is where those in the know go to witness the ending of another day. Watch as the afternoon shadow casts itself over the valley below like a blanket before bedtime. Romantic much?!

Drive: Towards Alchi

Traverse several different landscapes en-route to the (largest?) monastery in Ladakh. From the winding roads to open planes you will feel as though you have travelled a thousand miles in just a couple of hours. Finish up with a picnic lunch overlooking the the Alchi dam.

Book to read: “Servant of the Sahibs: A Book To Be Read Aloud” by Ghulam Rassul Galwan

This is one of those books that will stick in your mind. Francis Younghusband, friend, explorer and fellow player of The Great Game was not exaggerating when he wrote “There has never been another book remotely similar to Servant of the Sahibs”. As much a primary source as it is an adventure novel Rassul writes with such naked honesty readers (or listeners) are permitted a personal account of the caravan trails of Central Asia that no modern day historian could hope to create. An absolute must read when travelling to Ladakh!

It’s My Birthday: I’ll Get High If I Want To!

It’s My Birthday: I’ll Get High If I Want To!

Lying in bed with a pounding headache, unremitting nausea, unable to leave my room save for some medicinal strength coffee is pretty much how I spend most of my birthdays. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Except that this year my incapacitation was not alcohol induced, this year it was because I got high – 10,500 feet high to be exact.

thiksey  View of Thiksey monastery – and some local wildlife!

Waking up with altitude sickness isn’t everyone’s idea of a Happy Birthday, but as I lay in bed, feeling as rough as the local terrain, with that view of the Thiksey monastery, the “hangover” was totally worth it. A self-proclaimed vagabond and unashamed indophile what better job could I ask for than working for a nomadic camp, traversing some of India’s roads less travelled.

988   My new Home Sweet Home

Consequent to its remoteness “only your best friends or worst enemies will visit you in Ladakh” or so the local adage goes. There is merit in this – Ladakh is not everyone’s cup of chai (in fact its local butter variant is one of the more disgusting things I have tasted). With overland routes closed due to heavy snowfall, for the majority of the year it is only accessible by air and even then, flights operate at the mercy of the weather. Assuming you’ve arrived in one piece you then have the altitude sickness to contend with: 24 hours bed rest, one Diamox tablet and a helping of sobriety for good measure. Like I said, Ladakh is not for everyone.

But for those of us who like their mountains high and their rivers wide it is a veritable Himalayan heaven. “The Land of High Passes” really is a perfect destination for the seasoned road-tripper, mountain trekker, river rafter and spiritual learner. Not to mention an excellent escape from the merciless Indian summer.

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One of those seasoned travellers I was talking about…

2014 saw Ladakh set the scene for the 33rd annual Kalachakra festival. The largest Buddhist gathering in the world it was hosted by the Dalai Lama – during which we wished him a very happy 79th birthday! As I sat crossed legged amongst a sea of red and yellow clad monks, wishing His Holiness many happy returns, I could not help but give myself a mental pat on the back. Swapping Delhi for Ladakh, knowing that I was going to spend the summer here, was a gift money could not buy.

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     Happy Birthday Your Holiness

Four months without a working phone (the Kashmiri government restricts use of all non-local prepaid simcards) and very limited access to internet sounds like your average city dwellers worst nightmare. Yet armed with a yoga mat, a stack of books almost myself in height, my DSLR camera and a new pair of walking shoes I cannot wait to see what the rest of summer brings.