The first few hours with any city are like the first few hours of a date that turn into a one night stand.
The initial, guarded appearance and romance gives ways to more and more parts — some brightly lit and others as shadows. Eventually, I’m drawn into the ‘feel’ of the city….its fragrances, stinks and odours.
My ride from the airport to Guwahati was the first few minutes of the date.
“How’s it looking like?” Sur was asking me.
I could see the greenery, the unmistakable feel of Kolkata and the mighty Brahmaputra steadily flowing. The airport bus was marked JNNURM (as are the AC Buses in Mumbai). Most people don’t know what that stands for. I will leave it at that.
I hit the hotel and crashed for hours before coming back to my senses. It was 6 pm and technically, I was in Bangladesh time. Even the +30 mins don’t do justice to the darkness that grips the city by early evening.
Over the next few hours, I did a self directed walking tour of Guwahati.
The way I do it is simple — I look at the maps, identify spots and get a general orientation. Then I head out, shutting it all down and rambling, letting my brain make the connections. Occasionally, I may spot a landmark and feel the delight of being on track. At other times I may find myself at a junction and take out the map to figure where I am. But mostly, I am rambling, letting my gut do the walking rather than my brain.
This is the route I ended up doing (the dotted line is an Uber ride back to the hotel) — bridges on both side of the Gwahati station, Pan-Fancy-Paltan bazaars, the art distrct and a lil bit of the shopping district.
Most cities are very similar in terms of having what are ‘typical’ areas — and except the parliment kinda area that I visit tonight, I pretty much covered large spots.
I jumped into the crowded noisy Paltan Bazaar ready to cross over — except that the bridge was dark and shady. If I’d be a woman, I’d have turned back.
The walk towards Brahmaputra was dotted with some shops that were straight out of the British era like the India Drug Distributors. There was typical small town bollywood music blaring out of stores, garbage (that made Mumbai seem clean) in the corners and garbage on the street.
I must confess to being spooked out. Extremely poor people in dark alleys where you can’t tell the people from the piles of dirt can feel like unsafe places. By the time I hit the river (blessed are cities with rivers), I found relief in the light.
Walking along the bank of the river wasn’t as romantic as I’d have imagined — it was mostly dark, and families were also chilling in the shadows. Traffic was whizzing by and there was little to compare it to Bosphorous or Rhine (somehow they form images of what it is to be a river in a city)
Maps was telling me I was moving further and further away, without anything remarkable — so it was time to dive into one of the lanes and head back to the heart of the town.
The street I choose was the clothes street.
It was a strange collage of small-town polyester, the road lined with used plastic wrappers and non-chalant (but colourful) bra sellers.
A crowded buzz at a shop drew me to it. The name of the shop wasn’t in English and locals seemed to be swarming in — just the perfect place to get drawn to! This is what locals are doing, so I must as well :)
This was a special chai-samosa-sweets shop that was apparently very popular. The samosa totally did justice to the reputation and the tea was just a strong Assam. For a moment I found both these totally ordinary — and stared at the crowd around me. Were they just a bunch of tourists or an assorted group of locals? I guessed it was the latter, and the food was special once again!
The name of the place was Lakshmi. It was 7, and I had an appetite to build to head to Mahajing (A lonely planet secret find for Assamese cuisine). So I headed onwards, pausing at junctions but continuing to move towards my destination. There was no local music — either news in Assamese or bollywood, so I switched off my radio.
Somewhere on my way, to my left, I could see a beautiful hang out zone. Walking inwards, I was pleasantly surprised to find a government supported food-garden. With fountains and sit out areas, it had many cuisine options, restaurants, food courts and some play areas. It is so cute when governments do this for people — it creates space for people to have fun, and that’s all thats needed.
My onward march brought me to the lake, that looked very different in the night, and onward to the state museum. At an entry fee of 500 I thought it was expensive….maybe it was a great grand museum. On a closer look I figured it was 5.00 — as much as an Indian would pay for art I guess!
The excitement I had about the theatre festival melted away when I found Mumbai plays being performed (the next day Kalki was dining at the same restaurant that we were!)
The turns and alleys brought me to the shopping district — suddenly the Barbaque Nations of the world sprung up (at 4.9 / 5 it is the highest rated restaurant in Guwahati).
On my way to Mahajing I saw “Shola Ana Bengali”, a bong restaurant that I had almost committed to (given I’ve not had bengali food in a while). But this is Assam so assamese it had to be. Maps showed me I should be there but Mahajing was nowhere in sight.
After some more search, I convinced myself that it must have shut down, and headed to the traditional favourite “Khorika”. My first Assamese thali was an assortment of flavours, and I guaged the waiter’s enthusiasm for ‘khorika’ (a local tandoor-fill) meant that it was worth trying.
Wasn’t disappointed with the khaar (a black dal prep as a starter), the mustard potato, the sabzi, the sour curry, kheer and so on…..overall, a great meal!
I got myself an Uber and reached my hotel in under 5 mins, reflecting on the city that I had just explored.
I must have walked between 6–10 kms exploring different parts of the city, at the end of which I was left with something hard to put in words….a first flavour of this city, the portal to the much more diverse North East!