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Exploring Ukhrul with Chiko Adventures

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While I was planning to write a blog on my only visit to Manipur (that happened way back in 2015), I was also secretly wishing for another trip to Manipur. It was on official capacity last time and I could not stay longer to check out much. But I was longing to make another trip to the Land of Jewels soon. My wish got fulfilled through an invitation from Chiko Adventures, asking me to be a part of their 5-day annual state festival – Shirui Lily Festival (24th-28th April, 2018) in Ukhrul. I did not waste much time to book my flight tickets.

Manipur celebrates its State Flower (Shirui Lily) at Ukhrul District every year since 2017 and features the age-old traditions and culture of the inhabitants of the district of Ukhrul. Live music, cultural shows, beauty pageants, exhibits, folk songs, traditional dances and indigenous games and sports competitions like the MTB form part of the celebration. The festival is sponsored by the Department of Tourism, Manipur and organized by the Shirui Lily Festival Organizing Committee along with various agencies (one of them being Chiko Adventures). Through this festival, Manipur Tourism aims to spread awareness about the endangered flower, Shirui Lily as well as promote the district of Ukhrul as a must-visit tourist destination in Manipur. The event is a part of its efforts to develop and implement sustainable and responsible tourism in the State.

[Know more about the festival in the informative blog by my tentmate cum amazing writer, Upasana Kakati. Read it here >> ]

HOW TO REACH IMPHAL:

  • By Air: Imphal Tulihal Airport is located about 8km from the City and is well connected directly from the major cities of India like Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati and major cities of North Eastern States namely Aizawl, Silchar, Dimapur etc.
  • By Rail: There is no direct train service to Imphal. But travelers can travel up to Guwahati or Dimapur (nearest rail head from Imphal) and then rest by bus or by air.
  • By Bus: Buses are available from Guwahati/Silchar/Dimapur on a daily basis
No Inner Line Permit (ILP) is required to enter Imphal or other parts of Manipur. But if one is traveling beyond Dimapur in Nagaland (or entering Manipur by road via Dimapur or Kohima), make sure to get the ILP offline/online.

OFF TO IMPHAL

I may have sat on the wrong side of the flight or the flight took a different route. Because I was hoping to take an aerial picture of the Loktak Lake (which I visited last time and can’t have enough of it). May be I should ask the flight attendant on my return flight which way I should sit to have that privilege. An hour flight from Guwahati, I reached the cute little airport at Imphal, hoping I got all the bags with me. Aso Chihui from Chiko Adventures was already waiting at the airport exit to take us to the Hotel where I was going to meet my fellow travelers and photographers. I have already met Jony Jindal (a 19 year old traveling solo in India) in the car and was excited to meet the others.

Honestly, I was expecting our accommodation in Imphal to be in a simple guest house but we found ourselves checking in to individual (not sharing, even) rooms in one of the best hotels in Imphal, Hotel Classic Grande. WOW!!! Chiko Adventures surely knew how to make us feel special and welcome and ready for what laid ahead. After freshening up, we gathered at the restaurant downstairs to meet the entire team of bloggers/photographers and got felicitated with a bouquet of flowers too (by two beautiful ladies). We had a mini introduction session and were briefed about the schedule for the next 5 days, before we headed off on our own without any planning to explore Imphal in the evening.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

While most of us chose to stay in the hotel, I, Upasana, Bijoy and Pankaj wanted to see Imphal before it gets dark. So we decided to take a shared taxi to Kangla Fort and also planned to visit Ema Keithel (Mother’s Market) which was nearby. It was already 5 PM and Kangla Fort was closed by the time we reached. The guards won’t even let us take a walk around. So we took some photos outside (with the mental note to try again another day – I tried twice again after that, which I will write about on another post) and proceeded to Ema Keithel Market. Bijoy was our Google Map operator that evening, while I and Upasana were busy taking photographs at every nook and corner.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Kangla Fort visiting hours : 9 AM – 4 PM (though it is supposed to be till 5 PM in March-October, the authorities start closing from 4 PM); Wednesday closed
Entry Fee : Rs 10 per person (No camera fee)
Time needed to visit the entire Kangla Fort : 2-3 hours (if you want to see it all, including the museum)
Tour Guide services are also available.
Cycles (ordinary/double/child carrier) can also be rented on hourly basis.

Ema Keithel was within walking distance from the Kangla Fort and the way leading to it has many street vendors, all women. It felt so empowering to see the women taking on the mantle of business, an occupation which is considered to be a man’s domain. Although an old market, I was so inspired (as a woman and a would-be entrepreneur) to see the Manipuri women leading the way.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Ema in Manipur means ‘Mother’. Ema Keithel, which translate to Mother’s Market has been providing livelihood for the locals from generation to generation. Evidence has been found about it dating back to 16th century. Traditionally, women were responsible for running the household and men earned for their family. But during British rule, the men were converted into soldiers and women had to come out of their houses to feed their family. The market was built out of thatch and mud in the beginning (not anymore) and it used to be more like a morning market.

Operating hours: 4:15 AM – 6:00 PM

As a traveler, I believe that if you want to know about local culture, you must visit the local market. And Ema Keithel was exactly that. It gave us an insight into the local culture and food habits. We found out many items which we had never seen earlier. While one lady was dealing with handloom/traditional wear, we found another lady selling just Salt. It was the local salt, made at home and in a disc shape. Had she not told us what it is, we would have passed it off as something else. The kind lady even let us have a taste to satisfy our curiosity.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We had lot of questions for the ladies at the markets and they patiently answered our queries even though we did not buy anything (the unemployed me could not afford to spend on reckless shopping, though I was tempted 🙁 ). While roaming around, one lady called us to ask what we are doing and why we are in Manipur. She was genuinely curious and interested when we said we were travel bloggers, invited for Shirui Lily Festival in Ukhrul. We talked about various things including other festivals in Manipur until we parted, not before we asked for a photograph from her; to which she shyly smiled.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

As it was already dark, we decided to go back to our hotel after  a cup of tea. I was secretly hoping for some snacks as all I had was a little bun during the flight as lunch. We entered a little restaurant on the way and ordered ourselves tea and samosas. When we asked for chutney, the guy came and bathed/dunked/drowned (we could not figure out which) Bijoy’s samosa with dollops of sweet chutney. We managed to salvage ours though.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We reached our hotel and had to order our dinner in the room because the hotel restaurant closed by the time we all assembled (we all were planning to eat together). Bijoy received some local snacks (they were yummy) as gift from a friend in Manipur, which were God-sent because they kept us hungry souls alive until our dinner arrived.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We retired soon to the comforts of our room as we had to start early next morning for Ukhrul.

OFF TO UKHRUL

After a heart-warming breakfast (all you can eat buffet), we got ready to leave for Ukhrul. A car took us to the nearby ISBT (Inter-State Bus Terminus) from where the Cross-Country cycle race was to start off. From Imphal to Ukhrul (84 kms), it was quite the distance and I was amazed to find all kind of participants, irrespective of gender and age. We met the other members and co-founders from Chiko Adventures and got our goodies bags (ID badge, festival t-shirt, notebook and pen). Excitedly, we changed into our new t-shirts and looked forward to begin our journey to Ukhrul.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Chiko Adventures is a one-stop-shop for adventure and outdoor enthusiasts in Manipur. The name, Chiko means the number ‘Nine’ in Tangkhul dialect as Nine friends teamed together to start this company to promote adventure tourism and Eco-tourism in Ukhrul. Even though all the founders have regular jobs, they are equally invested in encouraging youth education and promoting North East India as the next destination for mountain biking.
Chiko Adventures handles the adventure sports during Shirui Lily Festival since it became a state festival in 2017.
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The cycle race was flagged off and we followed suit. While the others went in the car, I and Jony decided to hitch a ride in the pick-up truck, carrying water bottles and other stuff. The pick-up truck would provide water and support to the participants on the way and we thought it would be a great way to see Manipur. The roads were bumpy and so I hanged on to the railings as tight as I could (so that I would not fall off ) while Jony slept peacefully on the pile of bags and water bottles. Even with the bad roads, it was a long journey but a beautiful one. I wished I could capture the gorgeous scenes on my camera but I was busy hanging on to my dear life and preferred to store them in my mind. 😉

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We cheered for the cyclists on the way, often stopping to give them water bottles and buying sweets from the local ladies.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We stopped for a while to have lunch at Litan (46 kms still left to reach Ukhrul) while arranging for more water bottles to be carried to Camp Chiko. While I wandered about in the Liten market, my curiosity was piqued by some snacks on the road side stalls. They were made of gooseberries and tamarind. I wanted to try but the Chiko guys advised against having it on empty stomach as they were quite spicy and might cause acidity.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Walking along, I found a couple sorting puffed rice (made of black rice), which I found to be similar to the one we have in Assam called Akhoi which is made of white rice. They gladly allowed me to take a candid photo of them while working.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

A few hours and many beautiful locations later, we arrived at Ukhrul town where we would be putting up on the second night. Not only did my back hurt a little, my face was blackened with dirt and my nose got roasted like a sun-dried tomato. I was looking forward to having a great cup of tea, which Yuimi quickly ordered for me at the 25 degree North restaurant we all gathered in. The view from the restaurant was amazing (so was the tea) and we got chatting as to what we do next. There was a SHIROCK concert happening in town with the international band ‘Steelheart’ performing that evening.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Ukhrul is a small town in the Ukhrul district and is known as Hunphun in Tangkhul dialect. It the home of the Tangkhul Naga. Despite having district administration, the villages are governed by village heads. The Nagas are commonly believed to be a ferocious tribe of head hunters but traditional Tangkhul Naga social structure reveals that they were well-organised with their own socio-political system and clan administration. With the advent of Christianity, Tangkhul Nagas became pioneers in the field of literacy, education and social transformation.
Though they have converted to Christianity, the Tangkhul Nagas maintain the traditions, customs and festivals of their forefathers along with Christian culture.

As the sun was setting in, we all decided to visit the Shirui Lily Festival celebrations in TNL ground and get an insight into the local way of life. The sky looked amazing and we ran all the way trying to capture the sunset in our cameras from various spots.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The local rice beer is known as Khor in Tangkhul dialect. I was very curious about it since we (in Assam) have a similar way of making rice beer (Read about rice beer by Bodo community in Assam) and had a good time knowing more about it from the couple, who ran the stall.

Khor is made from the local sticky rice, which is kept in the sun for drying. A pot of water is then boiled and added to the dried rice. After skimming for around half an hour and the bubbles disappear, it is kept aside for 5-7 days. The older it gets, the better it tastes.
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We had been told that we may have to sleep with sleeping bags for the night but we found ourselves with beds in a classroom of the Central School in Ukhrul. On looking carefully, we saw that the desks and benches had been joined together with mattresses on top for maximum comfort. The weather was getting cold and we headed to the SHIROCK concert after a quick dinner. Though I am not used to western music or concerts, I wanted to see how it is in Manipur.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The energy in the crowd was electric and they sang along with the band. I wished I knew those songs to sing along too. But I was so tired from the bumpy ride, I went back to our classrooms and got some sleep in our cozy bench-beds.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

OFF TO CAMP CHIKO

It was sunny bright even at 5:30 AM. Others were asleep but I wanted to get up and have a look around, possibly even check out the town. My parents would have been so proud of me had I woken up like this back home. 😛

I found few of the cyclists getting ready to start their remaining journey (about 26 kms) to Jorcheng Phangrei where Chiko Adventures had put up the campsite. I joined them over breakfast and began talking with the people at my table. One of the people I was talking to was Mr. R. K. Singh who is also the founder of MAAMBA (Manipur Adventure and Mountain Biking Association). I got to know from him that one of the cyclists is a Plastic Surgeon, another is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and while the oldest is a 63 year old Father Francis, Rector of Don Bosco in Imphal. Their stamina and love for cycling at this age made me ashamed of my zero-fit body. But I was inspired. Hopefully, this drags me to begin my exercises soon, which I know I definitely need.

The entire cyclist team had a group photo before they began their race and I was glad that they allowed me to take one too.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

A quick munch later, we saw off the cyclists at TNL grounds and set out for the Camp Chiko. I and Pankaj could get in the first car out of the grounds with Aso,  so as to mark the first break point. We were joined by Loving, a happy-go-lucky girl I totally loved being around (she also felicitated us with flowers on the first day). She showed us the beautiful views on the way including the point from where one can see the entire town of Ukhrul. She was excited to show us a cliff from where one can see the entire valley. Her excitement passed on to us and we eagerly waited to check it out.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

After a quick break for water/juice, the cyclists were on their way to the campsite and so were we. But we stopped for 2 minutes (after persistently requesting Aso) to check out the beautiful cliff that Loving got us excited about. It may look ordinary from the road but once you get on the top, the view makes you want to sit down and soak in the beauty of the valley. We took some quick photos (where my featured image is taken) before it got crowded (after people saw us) and we left for Camp Chiko which is no longer far away.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We reached just in time before the first winner came through. I congratulated Father Francis and others for having completed their race. Father Francis has been cycling for a decade and has covered more than 15,000 kms. Even though he is entitled to a motor vehicle, Father believes that cycling is good for health and it brings him nearer to the people. Sure agree with him.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

After the chief guest came, we all went inside the Camp site. It looked festive with the little huts cum hotels, zorbing ball, coloured flags and tents. The view of the hills from the site made it even more stunning. We all were equally excited to call the exquisite campsite as home for the next 3 days.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

DAYS AT CAMP CHIKO

By the time we reached the campsite, we all now knew each other and were becoming a good team. We began to explore the areas nearby, talked a lot about places, photography and ourselves. We even got to book our tents on a beautiful hillock overlooking the valley.

 Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We tasted the wild berries that Loving got us. They were tangy in taste but as delightful as they looked.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We celebrated with the winners of the cycle race.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Also by getting ourselves on the winners’ stand.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

When it was time for afternoon nap, our Pahadi friend, Dhaval made the best sleeping arrangements. He was also the one who knew how to light up the perfect camp fire.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

In the evening, we just sat down and enjoyed the view of the sun setting fast, as it coloured the entire sky orange.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We had all the meals together like one big family.

Photo Copyrights - Jony Jindal (@nomadicjony)

Finally, we slow-danced away to the music of the live band performance with the locals every night. Even though I am not used to many western songs, I was happy to hum along the ones that I did. Like ‘Stand by Me’. A song that my boyfriend (now my husband) used to sing to me (I missed him in that moment though). The night was cold and I was looking forward to get inside my tent. Some of the campers played/sang music all throughout the night. It made me glad and humbled that I could have the chance to be a part of this festival. I heaved a sigh and slept like a log. Did not even realize when my tent-mate, Upasana came in.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

I woke up early and to a view like this. Amazing right?

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

I could not stay inside longer and was soon hanging out in the tea-hotel having breakfast, talking with others and knowing more about the Tangkhul way of life. On a walk near the campsite, I and Rachit got ourselves invited into the home of a sweet family of 4. Their little son was so shy that he refused to come out and peeked at us through the door, despite our repeated efforts to bring him out. The father could speak in broken Hindi as he studied in Delhi, but returned back to look after his home and family. I wish them all the happiness in their lives. Personally, I believe that no money in the world can equate the feeling of being at home, with your near and dear ones.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We also had an interesting session with Mr Rohit Suri, a renowned photographer who not only showed us about how perspectives can make a simple photo great but also got us all(us, local photographers and other interested participants) together to discuss how we can collaborate with each other to help each other grow and move ahead. We have formed a WhatsApp group where we will be brainstorming on how we can help each other and also promote Ukhrul as a tourist destination.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

I and Upasana wanted to check the cultural festival in town to get more insight into the way of life of people in Ukhrul. Yuimi granted us our request by making the necessary arrangements. Bijoy and Pankaj had a flight to catch the next morning and so the 4 of us crammed ourselves in the back of a Sedan (Upasana slept comfortably in the car though 😛 ). We missed the cultural show as we reached late and so we took a walk around the local stalls. There was this shop which beautifully decorated all the local produce outside their stall. Great way to promote the local way of life.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Upasana spotted the stall where she had a delicious slice of the goat cheese cake on our prior visit and wanted another one. I was famished too and was eager to taste what Upasana was complimenting so much about. The stall belonged to Yun Makan, a young artist from Ukhrul. We ordered a couple of Yun’s Fantasia slices. While we were getting lost in the yummy cake, we noticed the beautiful art canvases hung around her stall. We were totally blown away when she said she had done it all. (Just see the talent of this young girl.) I wished I could buy one of her paintings but I was traveling on a budget. But I did get a post card. Original and signed by her. (You can view/order her work here.)

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We talked to the stall owners where the local objects piqued our interests and everyone answered our queries patiently. Even though we could not buy anything from them. While walking, we met some girls in traditional attires who gladly agreed to our request for photographs.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

But the ones who totally humbled us and touched our hearts were the wonderful owners of a little hotel. Remember how I mentioned about talking to a couple about Khor, the local rice beer! We talked even more this time. They were Pradeep and Rinchenphy. We talked about Tangkhul Nagas and their culture. We talked about their village near Bangladesh border. We talked about King Chilly (Naga Jolokia) that originated from their village. We talked about them and their beautiful daughter from 14 years of marriage. We felt totally like old friends when Pradeep got us another round of beers to continue our conversations. We felt like family when they decided to walk us from the festival venue to where our restaurant was. We were humbled and grateful to have found such good friends in new land and we promised to visit them in their village. I have heard great things about the hospitality of Tangkhul Nagas and now I cannot stop speaking about it.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

For me, the people we meet along the way, specially the locals, change my whole perspective of a journey and a place. I have experienced the same heart warming hospitality in Sri Lanka. (Read about my Sri Lanka experience here.) We came back to the camp with a happy and grateful heart, promising to come back again to Manipur. As soon as possible. That night I stayed late with the others, discussed photography with Rushin, basked in the campfires with music, enjoyed the starry night sky and made travel plans for the future. I felt lucky and thankful in my heart for being given this chance to do what makes my soul happy.

We had planned to leave by evening on the next day but a car with vacant seats was travelling to Imphal in the morning. So, I and Abhishek (we both had flights on the same day) had to take leave of the others in the morning, with a heavy heart but many happy memories.

Photo Copyrights - Momo Irengbam (@momo_irengbam)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Jony Jindal (@nomadicjony)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Jony Jindal (@nomadicjony)

I was not ready to go back but I assured myself that I will be back soon. As we reached Imphal in the afternoon, I could explore a bit of Imphal again (the ones I missed on the first day) but that’s for another post. 🙂


Note: All the photographs are copyrighted with all rights reserved. Please do not download/use my work and never for any commercial use without contacting me in advance for purchase or licensing rights.

Planning to visit Shirui Lily Festival next year? Pin this.

  1. Ketki Ketki

    Chiko Adventures seems to have spoiled you plenty! What a lovely read this post has been. I would love to visit Shirui Lily Festival in Ukhrul, hopefully next year 🙂

    • nookandcorners nookandcorners

      Thanks a lot, Ketki.Chiko Adventures spoiled us so much that we are looking forward to visiting again next year. Fingers crossed, you guys will join us too!!!! 🙂

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