Ziro Festival of Music with Discover Northeast
Inspite of having visited Ziro Valley twice earlier, I had failed to understand what the fuss was all about. I had even been lucky to stay at an Apatani local’s traditional home, but perhaps the effort vs reward ratio had been too skewed in Ziro Valley. Nevertheless, I have been focused on trying to explore and Discover Northeast India and kept bumping into Manash of Camp Zingaros at every other festival. It was during one of the drinking sessions at Hornbill Festival in Nagaland when we got talking about Ziro (pronounced Jiro by locals) and Manash remarked that the Ziro Festival of Music is one festival that I should get soonest to and that ZFM had the most picturesque setting for a music festival in India.
On a phone call with Manash sometime in July, he invited me to experience the Ziro Festival of Music with his company Discover Northeast where they put up a campsite by the name of Camp Zingaros. I am not exactly a ‘music festival person’ but having heard praises of ZFM from other sources as well, it was almost a must that I attend it. ZFM (Ziro Festival of Music) is usually held in the last week of September, and the dates for 2019 were from 26 to 29 September.
The nearest airport to Ziro is Lilabari airport near North Lakhimpur in Assam. Dibrugarh airport isn’t very far in terms of distance from Ziro Valley as well. The most preferred airport with frequent connectivity is Guwahati and my flights were booked to-fro from Guwahati. Guwahati airport isn’t close to Ziro Valley at all but can be said to be the most convenient for people travelling to Ziro for Ziro Festival of Music.
From Guwahati there are numerous day and night trains to Naharlagun station in Arunachal Pradesh. From Naharlagun, Ziro is only 100 kms away and shared cabs ply in the morning hours coinciding with the arrival time of the train – Donyi Polo Express.
Hearing about my ZFM (Ziro Festival of Music) plans, I was joined by 2 of my friends. We landed in Guwahati just after noon and were promptly welcomed by a downpour. I was very keen on sampling authentic Assamese cuisine at Khorikaa Restaurant and had ample time since our train to Naharlagun was only at 9 in the evening.
First we headed to the waterfront on the banks of the Brahmaputra river and had just ordered a jhal muri chat when it started pouring down. We scampered for cover under the green trees and were disappointed when there were no sunset colours in the waters of the Brahmaputra in the evening.
Khorikaa was a delight with its delicious Assamese Thali that comprised of many dishes and the aromatic Joha rice. I liked the rice so much that I ended up carrying a kilo back home on my return journey. It was a fabulous early dinner at Khorikaa restaurant and since Guwahati train station was very close from there, we ended up reaching the station early.
That left me with some time to pick up a souvenir from Manipur at the small shop at Platform No.1 just after you enter the Guwahati Railway Station. I got a small muffler; on my third visit to this shop and realising the authenticity of the woven woollen products since it was owned by a Manipuri local.
Himanshu from Discover Northeast waved us goodbye at the station and we met some co-travellers as well. Manash had already informed me the number of the sumo driver who would drive us to Ziro Valley from Naharlagun Railway Station. Although ZFM was starting from 26 September, we had opted to reach one day early to arrive before the crowds and rest a little.
There are limited sumos in this region and the influx of festival goers to Ziro means that the demand for seats becomes more than the supply for these few days. Coupled with the horrendous roads it results in the cab guys quoting whatever price that comes to their mind!
It is best to book the comprehensive package provided by Camp Zingaros wherein they take care of the entire transportation after arriving in Guwahati, including the Pass for Ziro Festival of Music. The usual per seat price from Naharlagun to Ziro is INR 500. I also noticed a solitary bus on this route Itanagar – Naharlagun – Ziro, the bus leaves after the train arrives and the ticket charge for the bus is only INR 150 to 200. I enquired that the bus from Ziro leaves early in the morning and reaches Naharlagun by around 1-2 Pm.
It was daylight by the time we reached Naharlagun. It was foggy and misty since Naharlagun is surrounded by lush green hills. We were six travellers in the sumo and the rate had been agreed by Manash – INR 4500 for the entire sumo; since the 6th guy who had joined us was from a different campsite the taxi guy took some extra money from him to make it over 5000 for the sumo from Naharlagun train station to Discover Northeast’s campsite deep inside Ziro Valley.
I’m sharing this information since there were reports that sumo’s were charging approx INR 7500 next day when the mismatch between supply and demand was at its most skewed.
The road to Ziro (as expected) is in a terrible condition (as always); but I must add that it is better than I remember during my earlier visits. We stop numerous times according to the whims and fancies of our sumo guy! Thanks to Discover Northeast’s efficient work style, our ILP (Inner-Line Permits) are in place and checked at the Check Post near Potin. We have our breakfast at a ramshackle dhaba with a stunning view.
I spot some juicy pineapples at a nearby stall and rush to get some for us. A child is in charge of the pineapple stall and refuses to cut it. I beg a lady from the next shop and she takes pity and asks the kid to cut 2 pineapples in small pieces for us! Sweet Joy! Hollowed out bamboo roots are kept for selling as well, and almost every vehicle that passes by buys the bamboo shoots kept in the bottles. The pineapples are heavenly and I am left wondering about an entirely different world that I am in. India’s North east surely feels like an adventure and Arunachal Pradesh is at the forefront of it.
The road winds and winds and as Yazali approaches I am apprehensive that Ziro Valley is like a mirage that is much farther away than the 95 kilometres that the signboards indicate. When the valley finally opens up, I can’t help but feel that I am in dreamland in the midst of misty rolling hills. The swaying paddy fields have turned golden and I finally begin to appreciate the wonder of Ziro Valley, on my third visit! We keep bouncing on the road for what feels like an eternity and the sumo finally rolls into Ziro Valley at around 1 pm in the afternoon.
Hapoli is the modern town in Ziro Valley and we cross it to make our way across the verdant golden valley. The road in Ziro runs right through the middle of the valley and is flanked on both sides by swaying paddy fields. During the Ziro Festival of Music, traffic is made one way in many sections so that there are no traffic jams and proceedings are smooth for the festival. Since we had arrived one day before ZFM’s official dates, there was no such one way issue and we smoothly made it to Camp Zingaros’s vantage location of its campsite.
While most of the other campsites were located close to each other, Camp Zingaros campsite was in a different location and overlooked the golden paddy fields and green misty hills in the distance. The most important part was that the campsite was dry and we didn’t have to buy gum boots to navigate. Ziro Valley had received its fair share of rainfall over the past few days and weeks and mud and slush was the norm in other campsites (other ZFM attendees were privy to this information).
Camp Zingaros campsite was at a 10 minutes walking distance from the festival grounds of ZFM. That ensured that we could have our calm whenever we wanted! Camp Zingaros campsite had ample open space, there were numerous sit-outs made in the form of bamboo benches. There were 2 sets of areas where around 30 odd people could enjoy the live guitar performances along with bonfire. We could see the clouds floating past and the distant sound of music during the day added a lot of character to the proceedings.
The campsite was huge and there was an onsite restaurant/café as well where one could order snacks, meals and other refreshments like tea and coffee. The land of the campsite had been leased from a local and their home was on the premises too where an annexe was converted into the café space.
Charging points were in a separate enclosure and the reliable electricity supply in Ziro meant that phone charging was never a problem, even though there were around 180-200 people at Camp Zingaros campsite for Ziro Festival of Music. Filter water was available in a bamboo filler, although some pipeline issue meant that most people had to forcibly buy water bottles due to no other option.
It was a joyous atmosphere at Camp Zingaros. The tents were spacious and were in close proximity to each other. The fencing of the boundary was done with wooden sticks and that doubled up as a space for drying clothes and towels! Thankfully, the rain didn’t create havoc during the festival and only on one of the days did it actually pour down.
Washrooms for men were portable bamboo ones while the women had theirs done in concrete. It was anyway too cold to have a bath but some adventurous ones braved the queues and emerged victorious!
The defining and most memorable memory of Camp Zingaros is the guitar sessions in the night over free flowing apong (rice beer-wine). Roktim from Guwahati was the in-house guitarist for Camp Zingaros and everyone sang and huddled close to the bonfire for warmth. New friendships were forged as the crowds swayed to the mellifluous voice of different singers. The chorus continued well into the night everyday and I even heard the singing at 4-430 one morning which indicated that the revellers hadn’t let the bonfire go off all night!
Ziro Festival of Music
The festival grounds of ZFM were a short 10 minute walk away from Camp Zingaros. On the way, we passed some food stalls selling snacks and local apong (rice beer-wine). Entry to Ziro Festival of Music (ZFM) had the requirement of either a day pass or a composite festival pass that granted entry for all days. The per day pass cost INR 2000 while the Composite ZFM pass for all days cost approx. 5000-6000.
There were huge queues on the first day of entry since the passes had to be collected; thanks to Manash’s excellent organisation our passes had been brought in advance and we didn’t even have to stand in a long queue.
The entry tag for ZFM was RFID enabled and entry was smooth after extensive checking. Carrying plastic bottles was totally banned, which was a great step. For those who had a Composite Festival pass for all days, they didn’t have to stand in the ticket queue everyday while the day pass holders were required to stand in the ticket queue everyday which made the Composite 4 day pass a great buy. Filter water dispensers had been installed in numerous places in the ZFM festival grounds and that ensured plastic waste was not created unnecessarily.
The main act – Music at ZFM was magical and I was insanely happy with the knowledge that the crowds were well behaved and I was actually witnessing a European style open air music festival right here in India in the northeast. The festival goers swayed and danced in the open grounds and everybody made friends with everybody.
Day Stage & Night Stage (Danyii – Piilo)
ZFM typically began at around 2 pm in the afternoon where the performances would be held at the day stage. It overlooked the paddy fields and was a gorgeous location to soak in the sunshine and enjoy the picnic sort of atmosphere created by the local crowds. The night stage performances would begin by around 6 pm after a break of an hour or so from the time the day stage performances ended. The sun sets early in the northeast and we could witness stunning evening colours everyday at around 430 to 5 pm.
Stalls at Ziro Festival of Music
There are food stalls set up by tribes from across the state of Arunachal Pradesh and also other states and cuisines at ZFM. These food stalls offer a variety of local liquor in the form of Apong, Kala Apong, Marwa and different types of home-made wines like peach, pear, kiwi, pineapple etc. Prices vary between 100-300 per bamboo glass and 300-500 for a half litre bottle. Meat lovers were in for a treat with every stall having their own speciality. Homesick North Indians were not to be left behind as a Chole Bhature stall was doing rousing business having identified this opportunity!
We had got really lucky with the local alcohol during Ziro Festival of Music. In my customary style, I had asked for a ride to Ziro when a lady was heading to Hapoli and over conversations in the car, she took us to her sister’s home near Hapoli. Her sister was a master brewer and we had all the varieties of apong and wine laid out in front of us! We went berserk and brought around 20 bottles for 200 Rupees per litre! It was to stand us in good stead since the same alcohol was priced at over 500 per litre in the festival stalls. Thanks to the lady in Ziro who came like an angel!
There are also unique stalls near the Day Stage Area where a model tourism village showcased its agri-products like pineapples and other fruits. Another stall sold t-shirts with local designs, while another one sold baked goodies made from grains like millet and barley. AP Tourism also had a small stall where they had signboards of other festivals. Official Ziro Festival of Music merchandise was available for sale at one of the stalls.
A central area had one huge bar where one could buy bottled beer (and maybe other bottled alcohol too). There was European (Lithuanian or Liechtenstein) wheat beer Ponaa being sold for very cheap prices thanks to almost negligible taxes on alcohol in Arunachal Pradesh. City folks were super excited by the prospect of cheap beer and had their bellies full. In the wine shops in Ziro, one could try even Korean beer! Surprise surprise it was super tasty too.
The stalls space had 8-10 huge tables constructed under a canopy and everything was made of bamboo. It had a nice eco-friendly feel about it since everything was so connected to the earth. ZFM could prove to be a great example for other festivals for lessons in sustainability and using local materials while keeping the setting authentic.
Eco-friendly bio toilets were setup in two separate areas and the volunteers were efficient in handling the festival goers. There were separate loos for men and women and manageable queues. Only on the Lucky Ali day did the crowds actually become humongous and the toilets had such huge queues that we had to actually go back to Camp Zingaros campsite to relieve ourselves!
When I had made up my mind for attending the festival, I was a little apprehensive thinking if I might get bored at ZFM for the entire 4 days. Funnily enough, I have no idea how the 4 days of Ziro Festival of Music went by in a jiffy. Maybe it was the pear and pineapple wine, which started our day in the absence of filtered water; or it was the musical and fragrant air of Ziro Valley.
Whatever it was, during ZFM 2019 I had finally fallen in love with Ziro.