01 of 03
Meandering Around Mokokchung
Nagaland is like the last wild frontier of India.
Crossing over the border from Assam, the scenery immediately transforms from dry, flat plains into lush hillsides. Children wander along the street side carrying huge knives or rifles in hand, and there are no animals to be seen or heard. Asking our Assamese driver where all the birds had gone, he dryly responds in Hindi, “They’ve eaten all the animals”.
It felt like we’d crossed into another country, no longer in India, we’d entered a part of South East Asia I had never seen before. The faces closely resembled their Burmese neighbors, and roadside temples had given way to huge Baptist Churches that dominate landscape. I don’t know what I was expecting Nagaland to be like, but this edgy atmosphere with an overbearing Christian presence certainly wasn’t it.
Our first stop was the town of Mokokchung. This large sprawling district has houses perched on the hillside and is home to over 190,000 people. At the recommendation of Kipepeo we stayed... at the Whispering Winds, a comfortable hotel costing 1,800 rupees per night. We’d hoped to see tribal villages but were advised that these are quite rare in Nagaland now, with only some remaining in the far north of the country, such as Mon. Unfortunately, time did not permit us to travel to these. While distances look relatively short in Nagaland (ie. only 200 kilometers), Piran from Kipepeo had warned us that appearances could be deceiving. We soon discovered what he meant, with a relatively short journey of 150 kilometers taking up to six hours to complete on the rocky roads.
There are many villages around Mokokchung that can be visited. While many are now being modernized, there’s still a lot of local charm on hand to experience. It was Republic Day when we were there, so our first stop was the local celebration that included a market where villagers had come to sell their wares. I picked up some pickles made from the fiery Naga king chilies and local bamboo shoot pickle, not for the faint-hearted.
At the recommendation of Persis from Kipepeo, we visited five different villages around Mokokchung that day:
- Aliba Village -- A quiet hamlet with a huge drum that has been carved from a single tree trunk. Each village has a drum that is used as an alarm to alert and summon the villagers;
- Longkhum Village -- In my opinion, this was the best village we saw around Mokokchung. It was a peaceful place, with a more traditional feel. There is a lovely rocky path that we walked down that took us to the edge of the jungle. Legends of Chenno and Etiben abound, the Naga Romeo and Juliet, with the love-struck couple hiding here amidst the rocks as they cemented their love for each other;
- Mopungchuket -- If you want to see a Hornbill then this is the place to come, although the solo caged bird is looking a little worse for wear. The town also has a reconstruction of a traditional village hall that is interesting, both for how spacious it is and its rather odd basket contraption used to punish young children (or so we were told);
- Impur -- Next to Mopungchuket, Impur was home to the first Baptist mission in Nagaland; and
- Ungma -- This is the largest village of the Ao Tribe. While the town itself is not that extraordinary, there is a reconstructed tribal home and some statues that have been erected to commemorate the original Naga founders of the region. There’s also a lovely view at sunset overlooking Mokokchung from the highest point of the town.
From Mokokchung we drove the painfully long and rocky path to Kohima. Piran had recommended that we stop here to see the morning market before heading on. It seems the market started a bit later than it’s advertised at 6 a.m., as we arrived at 7 a.m. to find many stalls still closed. Locals sold fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fish, meat and rodents (although we were a little too afraid to ask what these were used for). It is a lovely little market with friendly locals, and well worth a visit. We’re told that as the day continues the market also becomes more lively.Continue to 2 of 3 below.
02 of 03
The Delights of Dzuleke
About 40 kilometers from Kohima is the tiny town of Dzuleke, which was our next stop. The road to Dzuleke was rough to say the least, and I strongly suggest taking a 4WD for the journey, but it’s well worth the effort. We were booked into a home stay here that we’d arranged through the North East Initiative Development Agency. I’ve done many home stays in India, but this has to be my favorite. The focus of the Dzuleke home stay experience is to experience real Naga life and provide an alternative income source to the rural community.
The village has 35 households, with four participating in the home stay program on a rotational basis. Our host Kevi was just a delight. She was more than happy to chat about her life with us, with discussions covering how she was able to remain unmarried well into her 30s, to how marijuana is used to calm down the hyperactive hogs on the farm. We spent the day wandering through the village, traversing rice paddies to chat with locals, and having tea with... Kevi’s family members. Life is simple in Dzuleke, with most earning their living from the land or the local school, and social activities revolving around the two churches. Yet, everyone looks happy and content. It was enough to make me wonder why I persist with the urban rat race.
To the horror of our driver, there’s no connectivity at all in Dzuleke except for the landline at the house of the village head. I needed to make an urgent personal call, so we visited his house and were welcomed into the kitchen as the evening meal was being prepared. To my amazement the head of the village was sitting on a small stool in front of an open fire preparing a fish curry while his wife, eldest son and kitten sat around patiently waiting for their meal. Kevi explained to us that Naga society was matriarchal and this scene was a normal one here, such a refreshing change from the relative position of female enslavement I’ve seen in other parts of India.
While smoked pork could be seen air drying in Kevi’s kitchen, we went vegetarian for our home stay, and the food was delectable. More akin to South East Asian cuisine than Indian, sticky rice accompanied each meal, paired with delicately fragrant organic vegetables and spicy but tangy pickles made from tree tomatoes. The highlight was Kevi’s own creation, a pumpkin and cabbage curry that still has me salivating several weeks later.
It was a fitting end to our Naga adventure. In the morning we started the tedious drive back to Kohima and then onto Assam through the rather nondescript town of Dimapur. Before we knew it, we’d crossed the border, the roads flattened, Hindu temples appeared and once again we’d entered India without needing to show anyone our passport.Continue to 3 of 3 below.
03 of 03
Nagaland Travel Tips
- Give yourself plenty of time when traveling by car, estimate about 25 kilometers an hour for travel time. Having your own vehicle will make it much easier to stop and enjoy the drive, and also give you flexibility to visit villages along the way. In this regard, local advice is important. Even though we traveled independently, the advice and assistance we received from Kipepeo when planning our travel was invaluable and I have no hesitation recommending them.
- If you’re vegetarian, be prepared for a very limited selection of food. Pork is the staple of choice in Nagaland, and while vegetables are abundant, at many roadside restaurants Vegetable Chow Mein is really the only option available. Pick up some snacks along the way. We loved the candied wild apple we found at a roadside stall, if only we’d picked up more.
- Do a real home stay in a small town like Dzuleke, it’s the best way to really engage with the locals on a personal level and learn more about Naga life. A stay at Dzuleke... costs 1,030 rupees per person (including meals). However, they don’t have specific driver accommodation so they will be counted as an extra person.