Guwahati, the largest city in India's North East (population of 1-2 million, depending on where you stop counting), home to the capital of Assam state (Dispur) and the gateway to the region, with most travellers in this part of the world having to pass though it at least once. The centre of the region's road, rail and air networks, the city is busy with people always flitting in and out.
So what is Guwahati like? After all, this really was my first taste of India. Unusual for a foreigner in that I chose a small regional capital in which to step foot into India rather than one of the big metro centres. But such is the growth of India's air network that internal transit flights can be added onto the international leg of your ticket for very little extra. And so, my first real footsteps in India were taken on the streets of Guwahati.
I really did like the city. There are no appealing sights to speak of, but the city itself is pretty easy on the senses. With the Brahmaputra flowing close to the Fancy and Paan Bazars in the city's central district, there is always a landmark by which to locate yourself. In fact the centre of town is relatively easy to get around by foot, although the lack of street lighting means that you have to keep an eagle eye open at night.
The city's food scene is pretty good as well. From the Bazar's at night to the restaurants serving rice dishes to my favourite 'quick stops' where everyone congregates to get a quick snack. You will see many 'Fast Food' joints dotted around, and they are exactly that. Hole in the wall places or at most a long bar where you stand up and get served fresh food. Classics such as dhal and paratha are easy to find and make a cheap and nutritious meal. South Indian dishes are surprisingly common in the city with Dosai and Idli being readily available for those needing a nutritious vegetarian fix. And of course on every corner there is a worker serving Chai by the bucket load! Guwahati is very representative of India as a whole – you will not go hungry, food is readily available, and the food is good.
Guwahati is also very relaxing in terms of settling in. While I would not actually make a beeline for the city itself (with very few sights that are worth flying thousands of miles for), as a communication's point, it is relatively benign. It is a good place to get things sorted out. From the excellent Assam Tourist Board located in the air terminal to the guys who will shine your shoes for a few rupees or will shave your face for the same amount, it is a good place to get a lay of the land and to begin exploring the North East. And it is cheap for a city. Food can be bought for a song, so can any other piece of equipment/clothing that you might need on the road. It is a good place to restock on supplies if heading out into the wild unknown of the border regions.
Of course though, the city is a lot bigger than at first meets the eye. Guwahati has recently experienced Chinese levels of growth (and unfortunately) town planning. The outskirts of the city look no different to the strip malls of Guangzhou (or even suburban L.A.), a place where the car is becoming king and where distances are large. Hemmed in by mountains, Guwahati is growing fast along the southern bank of the Brahmaputra. At the moment it is quite a relaxed city, but unfortunately, its suburbs are going in quite a funky direction. But as a tourist, you're unlikely to stay here more than a couple of days and even if passing through the city, there is no real need to spend a night here. Essentially, Guwahati makes a good first stop or layover, but is not a destination in itself. That treat lies beyond Assam's capital, into the interior itself...
At the airport, there is a booth in the arrival's hall where you can purchase a coupon for 430RS and the taxi driver will take you directly into town. You can also book hotels in the arrival's hall. Alternatively you can head outside and share a taxi (400Rs split by however many passengers can get into the cab) – a great way to chat to the local people. There are buses into the centre of town, but these need to be booked in advance.
There are representatives for the Assam Tourist Board (very helpful – really will go out of their way for you) and the Megahalaya Tourist Board in the arrival's hall of the airport.
Skip the airport food, unless you are really hungry. It's passable but pricey. There are thousands of places in the city, far better to the palette.
The weather while I was there was hot and humid with frequent showers. The monsoon has now kicked in, so it will be raining most days. However even outside the monsoon, expect wild weather as the Bay of Bengal is proverbially, just downstream.
Hotels can range from a couple of hundred rupees to a thousand or more at the 'classier' joints (at the moment £1 = 70-75Rs, US$1 = 45-50Rs, €1 = 60-65Rs). It is possible to pre-book a hotel in Guwahati before you arrive in India, but you will have to search the web hard, due to the lack of visitors to the North East.
I changed money at the Thomas Cook office, located about a fifteen minute walk (to the north east) of the train station (opposite a branch of the UCO bank). Although the rates were poor compared to Delhi airport, Guwahati is a good place to obtain rupees as money changing facilities are limited in the North East. It is advisable to change more rather than less. And try not to get anything over 100Rs, as many places will simply not have the change. Stock up on your 10Rs notes and anything smaller, hold onto them!
If coming in by land, the rail station is in the centre of town. The main entrance faces north. The busy part of town lies to the south of the railway tracks (across the footbridge) while to the north, up to the river, Guwahati is actually quiet and very pleasant. This was the part of town I was staying in.
Just to the north of the train station, opposite the army hostel is the advance booking office. Take a deep breath and dive in! You will secure a ticket and the overworked staff are really helpful to the foreign visitor. Remember to fill out a paper form while pushing and shoving in the queue, in order to reserve your seat. Alternatively, there are plenty of travel agents in the city who will book your ticket for a small fee.
Just to the south of the railway station is the Central bus stand. Go here to get tickets for all over the north east, but then get on a shuttle bus that takes you to the 'Intercity Bus Stand', a 30-45 minute drive in the suburbs of the city. You will also see plenty of shared taxis and 'sumos' (jeeps) taking you to various parts of Assam and the North East as well as the airport. Along the stretch of road leading from the central stand there are plenty of ticket offices for the private coach companies. If travelling by coach in Assam, avoid 'Pooja' – a truly awful company (more to come later) unless you are up for an adventure into the unknown...