Brahmaputra Assam Adventure
In 2019 I was offered the trip of a lifetime to test out Grasshopper Adventures’ very first Brahmaputra cycling cruise. This trip is the very first of its kind in the region of Assam but I really wasn’t prepared for how totally inaugural this adventure would feel.
Our hotel for the week was the ABN Charaidew I, a gorgeously classic river vessel synonymous with the region. She was built in the 70’s but was completely remodeled in 2003 to perfectly suit to Brahmaputra. Everything, down to the place mats at dinner (which were woven by local women) is locally crafted. This is evident through all the fixtures and fittings on the ship. The words that come to mind for me are classic and stunning!
Onboard there are only 12 cabins (10 twins and 2 doubles) so a maximum of 24 travelers. There are 24 members of staff onboard so this is one of the highest passenger/staff ratios on the rivers. This absolutely came across and I can very honestly say that I have never had better service on any trip – ever.
Our trip began on Monday 7th October. We decided to stay at Heathrow airport the night before at Terminal 4 Premier Inn using one of our trusted meet & greet parking providers. This was an incredibly convenient way to arrive at the airport as all we had to do was drive into the short stay car park, drop the car off in the convenient parking spaces dedicated to meet and greet, take the lift up to the terminal and walk down a corridor to the hotel entrance. The time between arriving at the car park to unlocking the door of our hotel room was no more than 20 minutes!
Now the very first thing I want to make anyone aware of on this trip is it is NOT easy to get there. I won’t sugar coat it; it took three flights to get there and three flights back. Not every sailing will require 3 flights to reach as some start further down the river but this was our experience. We didn’t have the opportunity to break these flights up and spend any time in Kolkata but I would highly recommend it to anyone who was interested to factor in a night or two on either side of the cruise. If you’re reading this thinking ‘Not a chance, I wouldn’t dream of it!’ then perhaps this trip isn’t for you, but if you yearn for remoteness, fresh adventure, and the chance to experience one of those few remaining places in the world not overrun by tourism then I cannot describe how perfect this is for you.
So, onto our journey!
While this write up is really about the Brahmaputra, I do want to tell you a little bit about my journey there. I’d never flown with Qatar airlines before but having heard many good things I was certainly looking forward to it (even though it was economy!). I was totally impressed! The service was excellent, I didn’t feel cramped in my seat and the entertainment service on the back of the seat was top class. My least favourite part of flying is the dryness you feel after being in a plane for so long but they came around with water every half an hour or so meaning you were fully hydrated. For airplane food I was impressed, it was delicious and filling. I would definitely recommend flying Qatar where possible. For our internal flights in India we used IndiGo which I was impressed by, they reminded me of EasyJet and seemed perfectly suitable.
We arrived in a little town called Jorhat early afternoon on the 16th October. Jorhat has a tiny airport that has one flight in and out a day! The town is bustling with the beeping of cars, meandering cows and a dozen tired but excited travelers ready to take it all in! Our bags were taken and loaded onto mini vans and we were all given cool thermos bottles filled with water, very welcome after our journey.
The drive from the airport to the river is approximately an hour but instead of going straight to the boat we drove to a local tea plantation and had a traditional Assamese lunch consisting of beautifully cooked meats, rice, curries, vegetables, grains, etc.! We sampled their tea while looking over the fields of growing tea before having a short, interesting demonstration about Assamese tea, how it’s grown, prepared, and drank!
After such a refreshing and energizing stop, we were ready for the next part of our journey.
One reason for NOT going to India that we hear most often is the roads. I won’t lie, depending on where you are the driving can certainly be eye opening and can definitely quicken your pulse (you need only take a look at Clare’s Kerala blog from April 2018) but I felt so safe here that on the way to the river I had a quick nap! India is such a vast country and it’s so easy to put all assumptions in one basket but any assumptions I had were completely thrown out the window. Because Assam isn’t a busy region, especially this far North up the river near the Foothills of the Himalayas, the driving isn’t too bad!
After a while we arrived at the banks of the Brahmaputra, a wide expanse of steadily moving braids of water winding through Northern Assam before carving towards heart of Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra is subject to flooding during the summer as snow melts off the Himalayas causing numbers of floods throughout its route. During these floods the river carves new routes meaning every year you visit the landscape will be somewhat different! The waters are brown with mud from the river banks after the flood but our guide informed us that the Brahmaputra is one of the cleanest rivers as there is so little industry north of where we are that would cause pollution.
Arriving at the river bank we were met by a bright and colourful little river boat. The roof was covered in bikes! We climbed aboard, donned our life jackets, and putted along the expanse of water as the sun started to set below the horizon. It was magical. We saw river dolphins bob up through the fast-moving surface. After about fifteen minutes we approached our home for the next week!
After climbing onto the lower deck, we ascended to the main deck to the lounge area. We were introduced to our amazing crew and given a safety briefing before heading to our cabins. One of my favourite parts about the experience was the food. I am an absolute foodie and was so excited to experience some of the local cuisine. I absolutely wasn’t disappointed! We were offered the most incredible buffet with such a variation of dishes, flavours. For every meal, morning, noon and night, we dined like kings and queens! The chefs baked fresh bread in the shape of dolphins, fish, birds, and other fantastic creatures. The dining room was laid out in two long tables making dinner such a homely experience. On the third day when we had a long day cruising, the head chef offered to give us a cooking demonstration which we eagerly accepted. We were taught to make traditional masala, chapatis and rotis!
Our first day cycling was breathtaking. We started at the river bed, hopped onto the bikes provided and set off for a cultural, fascinating and certainly challenging day! We cycled roughly 30 kilometers through bustling villages, past fields, over rivers and along roads. Stopping to let a herd of cows pass in the middle of town was certainly an eye-opening experience!
The Brahmaputra river is unique to other river cruises we offer for several reasons. However, the one that stuck out to me most of all was how untouched by tourism this beautiful part of the world is. We were told that we may be the first tourists that visited, let alone cycled or cruised past these villages. This was evident one morning when we stopped for coffee at a café. Within 15 minutes of stopping, we had drawn quite the crowd! One member of our party had red hair and with all the selfie requests it felt like travelling with a celebrity.
To experience someone else’s culture so fully, without the influence of modern tourism culture, is rare. At times while cycling, when we took a quick water break, we would be greeted by a local and end up spending the next 20 minutes learning about the local fauna and flora, tasting sweet fruits growing on trees in gardens and hearing of how cunning elephants figured out how to avoid the alarms set to wake farmers when they came to take food. One of my favourite memories is of a small town called Biswanath Ghat. One of the members of our group was a photographer and had brought a drone to capture video footage of our journey. We had all gathered by the grounds of the Bordol Temple and out came the drone. It was a warm evening in October, the sun was low in the sky, and the air was filled with the playful shrieks of several dozen young children who were absolutely awestruck with the sight of this metal contraption buzzing around their heads and through their hometown. We wandered through their streets and learned of the little things that made up their lives, like how they have to hang long sticks with string around their goat’s heads to stop them from escaping through fences, and the big things like where they processed tea leaves and weaved fabrics to wear and sell. We watched fisherman throwing their nets into the river, casting long shadows on the sand. We laughed and took pictures with a group of teenagers and stood on the beach as the sun finally dipped past the horizon.
One of my favourite cycling experiences on this trip occurred one day along the side of a smaller river, roughly 200ft across. The small grassy path that we cycled along was blocked by a herd of cows. We were asked to give a wide berth and we watched as the herder encouraged them across the river. They huddled up on the bank and slowly, one by one, the cows and calves picked up the courage, waded into the water, and swam to the other side. This is where we learned that we would have to cross the river too. With no bridge in sight and despite the heat, we hoped that we wouldn’t be going for an unsuspected dip!! A short while up the river bank we found the solution! Several men stood on the bank of the river atop a large, wood/reed raft. A long rope was tied to a pole and stretched over the entire width of the water. Our bikes were loaded up and with a little hesitation, like the cows, we clambered onto the raft. The raft-men stood in the middle, grasped the rope, and pulled us across the river. What an unexpected yet imaginative mode of transportation!
I was unfortunate enough on our trip to injure myself falling down some stairs. This meant that for the second half of our journey I wasn’t able to cycle and instead followed our groups journey in the support vehicle that always drove ahead with extra water and puncture kits. When we were waiting for the cycling group to catch up one day we stopped at a roadside café for some tea. We chatted to the café owner for some time and admired a stray little ginger kitten who sniffed around for crumbs under the table, and enjoyed the sound of the gentle breeze rustle the trees. When the cyclers arrived, we shared another drink in the sun before heading off for our next destination 20 miles further. We could see the banks of the Brahmaputra through the trees but we were far from where we left of that morning. I didn’t realise that we had reached our destination when we simply stopped by the side of the road. It wasn’t until the cyclers caught up that we were told we were here! Upon further inspection we saw that there was a small path in the trees leading down to the beach. I hobbled down with some assistance and we were greeted by the most glorious sunset and our little blue boat. There were seats on the sand under the shade of the trees so we sat down and the cyclers enjoyed some respite from a long day! I had enjoyed the air-conditioned van but it was lovely to sit under the hot sun and breath in the clean river air. We had the most amazing surprise when half an hour later we were greeted by the most glamourous, beautiful young women and men we had encountered so far! Dressed traditionally in red and gold with instruments and adorned head pieces, we were treated to an energetic, fast paces performance of song and dance. Afterwards we talked, laughed, took photos, and learned of how they each train all year to perform at a local festival. We were so honored to have been able to bear witness. It was the perfect end of the day.
If I were to outline every single moment during this week that touched me, every moment that felt real, authentic, and gave me a perspective that I simply couldn’t have experienced on any major city group tour, it would take me far more than these few pages. Of all the travelling I have experienced in my life so far this was by far the most unique and eye-opening. If you would like any further information, want to hear more about the experiences I had on the Brahmaputra, or are thinking about your own Assam adventure, I would absolutely love to help with that!