The North East is India’s last unknown. After spending two days in the surreal beauty of Loktak lake, it was easy to adapt to the laid-back mountain life and its golden sunsets. I landed in Ukhrul on my quest to discover more gems beyond the beaten path. If you do travel to Manipur and you absolutely should, you must set aside a few days for Ukhrul and the Shirui Lily peak. It is a beautiful hill station, 80 km from Imphal – the capital of the state. It is predominantly inhabited by the Tangkhul tribe whose origins go back to China. The word ‘Thangkhal’ is derived from two syllables, ‘Thaang’ – a hilly region, while ‘Khalh’ – a dense form of fog.
This offbeat and budget-friendly location is a quiet escape in the mountainous landscapes, resting contentedly in the lap of nature. Once we drove past the agricultural lands of Imphal, we entered lush green valleys on serpentine hills. The altitude increased gradually as we drove through many bends on the way to Ukhrul. The region does not have the harsh humidity that you experience in other locations in Manipur.
How to Reach Ukhrul?
Typically, your trip to Ukhrul will commence from Imphal, the capital city of Manipur.
There is no direct flight to Ukhrul, the nearest airport is Imphal Airport. You will then have to take a cab till Imphal State Bus Transport (“ISBT”), 10 km from the airport. Here, you can easily get buses and shared cabs to Ukhrul which takes less than 2 hours.
If the trains are your preferred mode of transport, the nearest railway station is in Dimapur, Nagaland. Here too, you first have to travel to Imphal, shared cabs are available from Dimapur to Imphal for INR 600. Bus and shared cabs are both available to Ukhrul from ISBT, Imphal.
Must See Places in Ukhrul
Ukhrul is a picturesque hill station that is perfect for travelers who are looking for a weekend escape from Imphal. Situated at an average height of 5400 feet, it offers a remarkable vista of the mountains encircled in chilly weather and golden sunsets. Ukhrul has some captivating caves and the Shirui Lily Peak that makes this place worth a visit.
Khangkhui Cave better known locally as the Khangkhui Mangsor is a limestone cave. What took me by surprise was learning that excavations revealed people from the Stone Age lived here.
The road to the caves is in awful condition. Paving of the road seems to have slow progress as it is carried out with little support from the local authorities. Our ride was a friend’s Maruti Alto, the preferred car in the North-East, comfortable enough to get around Ukhrul. But the road to the Khangkhui Caves required an off-roading vehicle. The prevailing road conditions left us no option but to pull over at a point beyond which it seemed best to walk from. We walked a kilometer not knowing how much longer it would take to reach the cave.
It was nearing an hour on the clock when a passing jeep with a stout middle-aged man at the wheel stopped for us. Fortunately, Alung was going the same direction and so we hopped on. In our conversation along the way, Alung mentioned he was in charge of building government-sponsored accommodation, including a guesthouse and a community hall, close to the caves. Little did we know, the adventure our next to mudding experience would bring along. Navigating this trail in the jeep got us covered in layers of debris even before we reached the cave. I learnt a thing or two on driving through this track, rather no track. The experience was a whole lot of fun and left us craving for more.
But first, the cave is what we came for and so we explored. The cave has five large compartments, albeit not all are accessible. It is believed, in the olden days, the king kept his wives in different chambers. The first chamber has human body shaped stones and with the right gear, one can climb and further explore areas that are not directly accessible. The second compartment is almost inaccessible, it has a steep fall and is connected to the third chamber. The fourth chamber is the longest, about 500 meters long and 4 halls inside it. This is where we spent more time, there was no one else here but us, Alung & his co-workers. This cave and its chambers are off the beaten path and rarely visited by tourists.
The Khangkhui Cave was even used as a shelter by the local people during World War II. It is said that till date; the hills adjacent to the cave have mines that were planted in the battles fought against the Japanese during the Second World War. Bones and bullets are found in these hills as well. Caves in India continue to be under-explored as travelers head to the Himalayas or to our vast coastline. This limestone cave presents huge tourism potential and can attract lots of archaeologists and research students. While the local community stands to benefit from initiatives taken to promote Khangkhui caves, the measures should be sustainable while keeping the well-being of our environment in mind.
In this obscure world underground, there is a lot to uncover. Day 2 was to another cave but our adventures were on the road for now. Before we could even get to the cave, the Alto was low on fuel and Ukhrul was on yet another bandh (temporary shutdown) – a frequent occurrence in the home town of the notorious insurgents. Ukhrul has just the one fuel station which had no fuel left due to the third bandh in the week.
As worry began to sink in, we checked with several local kirana stores and garages who supposedly sold fuel over the counter but we had no luck. Well, help comes only to those who are willing to offer some first. A young Thangkhul man looking for a ride to his home assured us he knew someone who always kept an extra barrel. With the fuel tank on E our destination now was known only to the man who hitched a ride with us. We drove past the market area into a quiet rural neighborhood where the young Thangkhul started patting on my shoulder to stop. The despondent look on his face made us wary as he pointed towards a wooden door that was locked. Then, he insisted we drive further to another possible location. With our fingers crossed, we moved ahead.
Almost certain the car was going to stall, right then we heard whistles being exchanged between a man who sat on a wooden plank outside his house and the exuberant face I saw in the rear mirror. 5 liters at max is what you can procure at such times, but our Good Samaritan conjured 10. He was happier than we were and pointed towards his watch indicating he was late to get home. His home was less than 2 km away. We dropped him and were grateful we ran into him. We were now on our way to Mova.
Mova is located on the outskirts of Ukhrul, approximately 15 km. It is near an inoperative cement factory and river in a small hamlet called Hungpung. An interesting fact – Mova is one of the oldest archaeological caves in India.
We first explored a steep solid rock mountain which as per the local myth is believed to be the male partner of the cave.
Not too far from this rocky mountain is the Mova cave. The main hall of the cave can assemble over 100 people. In our short adventure inside the compressed tunnels, we had the company of a faint warble, mysterious birds that we never actually saw. Until a few minutes back, it was pleasant outside the cave where a burbling stream adds to the experience. But in here, the temperature was rising and the birds now had a shrieking tone.
No locals or guides, two untrained cavers, and no clear passage. Before long we were back at the allure of the stream, poured ourselves a drink, and lay in more familiar territory. Nothing unearthed, but whoever discovered anything in the first visit!
The Shirui Kashung Peak is a popular destination in Ukhrul. Apart from being easily accessible as compared to Khayank Peak, it is famous for the Shirui (Siroy) Lily (botanical name – Lilium Mackliniae), a rare pinkish-white flower found only here. The Shirui Peak is 9300 feet above sea level and is located 18 km from Ukhrul Town.
The visit to Shirui was with my friend from Manipur who also had two of his friends along. None of us were keen on a trek and we heard of a nearby café that served wine. The only café with an alcohol license here, ideal to fight the freezing temperature in the evening. Our plans were pretty well laid out. Besides, the Shirui lily flower blooms from May – June, and we were in the cold winter month of December.
There is an annual Shirui Lily festival in the month of April to promote Manipuri traditions and culture, especially the inhabitants of Ukhrul, and its potential as a tourist destination.
Other Places to Visit
Ukhrul is most famous for its Shirui Lily Peak. The better part of my experience in Ukhrul was the adventure at Mova and Khangkhui caves. Some other attractions in this hill station are the tea gardens at the Nillai tea estate, black pottery in Longpi village, and open campgrounds in Phangrei.
If you are timebound I’d recommend going on the trail to the caves for an element of adventure.
Where to Stay?
Ukhrul town has around 10 hotels within a radius of 500 meters. There is basic accommodation available, some providing views of the hills. A decent room would cost INR 800 – 1000 in these hotels.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Ukhrul is from the months of April to June. This is when the Shirui Lily flowers are in full bloom and one can attend the Shirui Lily festival as well. The temperature in these months is around 35˚C during the day.
If winter is what you prefer, then a favorable time is between November and January when its pleasant throughout the day, and the temperature falls to lower single digits in the evening.