A solo traveller is never as isolated as the term sounds. Even if I leave home alone, my journey will be lively with the company of local people and other travellers. Read the full story...
The British used ‘Scotland of the East’ catchphrase to describe Meghalaya’s dramatic waterfalls and Rocky Mountains. I would not think this is an overplayed sobriquet. Meghalaya is ideal for both the armchair and adventurous traveller. Once you are in Guwahati, don’t wait for a permit, just board a mini bus (Rs 78, 4hours) from ISBT terminal. Alternate option is to grab hold of an Indica or Sumo from Paltan Bazar for Rs 150/200. If you love sexy curves, bring your own vehicle and tackle the winding roads of Meghalaya- good tarmac and splendid views; I was missing my Yamaha RX100. Once you cross the Assam border there are just three colours- blue sky, green forests, black roads. After a shameless bargain, I could obtain a bed at Hotel Blue Pine (0364-2229814, GS Road s/d Rs 300/600 geyser, TV). Hotel Ashuthosh Inn (0364-2221276/94361-65135, s/d Rs 550/850) and Hotel Rainbow (0364-2222534, d Rs 700) are two more options on G.S Road. Met with Mr.Biju Joseph- a friend of HV Kumar and he briefed me about a few sights nearby and Mawlynong village. MMTP (Mallu-Mallu Trfr Protocol) worked well between us.
At an altitude of 4,908 feet (1,496 m) above sea level, shivering evenings at Shillong call for a fleece jacket. Walking around Police Bazar, Bara Bazar and Ward’s Lake gave glimpses of Khasi culture. Khasi women wear a pinafore in checked cotton, tied up on one shoulder. Including women, everyone chews betel leaf; lime and areca nut go together. Evening food stalls, western-clothed college students and the tourists flocking around it was more crowded than I was expecting. Yellow-and-black Maruti Suzuki 800s ply as city taxis carrying a minimum of seven people and it can go up to ten (Rs 5-10 per hop). Shared taxi is a good concept- 1)Cheap 2) Low carbon footprint 3)Always a girl is sitting next to you!
Meghalaya Tourism offers package daily tours to various places of interest, check their office near MTC bus stand on Jail Road if you are an armchair tourist. English is more useful than Hindi; many of them speak first-rate English with a Welsh accent without any trace to the Indian language influence, thanks to the Welsh missionaries. Most of them are Christians and religiously attend church on Sundays.
Rise with the sun and you will not miss the fun. I was using Google Maps on my cell phone for directions, thanks to Savindra Tiwari-Sachin’s brother who gave me a Meghalaya mobile connection. After munching an omelette and noodles, I made use of the Hindustan Bedford city buses to hop on and hop off to go around the city. After photographing All Saints Cathedral, Welch Presbyterian Church on Kachari Rd–illustrations of the Colonial timber architecture, I walked to Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Culture (http://www.dbcic.org/ near Sacred Heart Theological College, 9:30am-3:30pm). Tours at DBCIC last for an hour with excellent audio visual presentation and tribal artefacts displayed in the seven storied tower. Humbled by the tribal life and dance forms of the Northeast states I acknowledged the fact I have seen very little of this region so far.
Umiam Lake was my destination after a yummy lunch – pork noodles and sizzling soup. Spread over 220 square km, popularly known as Bara Pani meaning Big water is 17km north on the Guwahati-Shillong road which you can’t miss; by shared Sumo Rs 20, 40minutes. There are many adventurous water sports if you are not aqua phobic. Later in the evening, I met with Ms. Carol at D.D Laloo & Co, G.S Road- they sell camping gears and two colourful tents dragged me to this shop. Carol (Tel: 9863115302) takes care of the cleanest village in India- Mawlynong and as there was no easy mass transport to this village I decided to head to Cherrapunjee and got Mr. Bansan’s (Tel: 9615093898) contact from her and confirmed a bed at his hotel.
Sohra village (Cherrapunjee):
A sleepy town with basic infrastructure compared to crowded Shillong; 60km from Shillong, you can reach this statistically wettest place in the world by a shared Jeep/Sumo for Rs 70. The telephone exchange at Sohra is out of order for last two years or so! Reading from Lonely Planet, I was riveted to the idea of trekking down to see the ‘living root-bridges’; so nothing else was not a major treat for my camera- Nohkalikai Falls, Mawsmai Caves, Monoliths and grassy moors. By evening, I met with Bansan; a tourism graduate who left his career at Pune and running a hotel/restaurant at his hometown - we had a long chat for hours. It was like meeting an old friend again after a long time; strangers are friends yet to meet. Bansan mentioned that he is going fishing to a nearby river with his friends and I casually asked him. “Can I tag along with you?” Though he was dubious about my fitness to trek down to the riverside and stay with them with minimal creature-comforts, I could convince him I will do anything to enjoy the nature and reiterated that I am not a tourist but a traveller. Sharing a fag and chewing a betel leaf with him made our friendship even stronger. I checked in at his place - Halari Restaurant (near Police Station, s/d Rs 600/800), the best accommodation in my trip.
Living Root Bridge:
Next two days’ agenda was trekking down to Meghalaya’s unique ‘living root-bridge’. Bansan gave me a hand-drawn map to reach the root-bridges and made arrangements to stay overnight at Nongriat village. Ficus Elastica tree-roots are trained over a period of more than ten years by directing the upper roots of the trees to the other side of the river and penetrate the soil. The roots gain strength over time and form a sturdy bridge and some of them are 500 years old and the “Double Decker” is the most legendary.
At 8 am paying meagre Rs 10 for breakfast- two puris, sabji and a red tea, I walked down to Mawluh village past Cherranpunjee Cement Ltd factory. Bansan was waiting near his house at his village and gave me the directions to the bridges. Though there was an option to take a taxi to Mawshamok, next 10km walking was appealing due to the flora/fauna and pleasant weather. Walk past the tiny hamlets of Mawshamok and Tyrna- your last option to get food-Lumsophie will welcome you with millions of butterflies of various colour and size. Giant spiders cast their enormous web to catch these sexy beauties. I was spellbound by these fluttering splendours and just watched them standstill. There were a few set of concrete steps going down and I chose the first set seeing the tiny board of ‘living root-bridge’. A few dozen steps past, I did not know how the next few hours were spent and I was deep inside the forest. Natural springs, butterflies, steep up and down trekking-finally; I was at the root bridge-the unique architecture in the world was worth the physical strain. Nongriat village was supposedly after the root bridge, so crossed bridge and hiked for another one hour but could not find my way further after a waterfall. I started digesting the reality that I am on the wrong trail, hiked back to the starting point and I lost my way. Though my fear factor is close to zero, Man Vs Wild episodes flashed through my mind. I did not have the equipment or skills of Beary Grills; one packet of biscuits, water from the springs, magnetic compass and following my instincts –I was back to Lumsophie village by 4pm- after a good adrenaline rush. There I found the countless concrete steps over the next 3km to the double-decker, but decided to return as I hated concrete steps and I was running out of energy after 8hours of hiking. Got back to Mawshamok and while munching some snacks; I befriended with a gentleman from that village on his way to Shillong who offered a drop back to Sohra and I was back at Halari Restaurant.
Next day, I took the same hiking path to see if I can go further after the water fall. Cederic from France – I met him during breakfast -was an avid rock climber and he joined me in this trek. Both of us could not find any route further the water fall and returned by 4pm and had lunch at a tiny restaurant at Tyrna- rice and boiled pork; the smart and attractive girl at this place spoke fluent English, cooked two omelettes as a bonus. There were a dozen kids aged around two or three saying ‘Hi’ to Cederic and asking him ‘What is your name?’ We got a taxi back to the hotel; bon voyage to Cederic and I was looking forward to go fishing next day. Double-decker? Next Year!
Trekking down to the River:
Since 8 am, I was ready and waiting for Bansan and friends. They arrived at 11 am with tents, sleeping bags, grocery and fishing rods. Aaron Laloo (Tel: 9774031871) owns XSV adventures and organises camping tours, trekking, hiking etc in Meghalaya. Sympian was the fourth person- works at the cement factory. We were dropped 2km from the town to start trekking down to Lyngam River. After two hours of knee-breaking steep trek, we reached a tiny village and two other villagers- Bah Pen and his cousin joined us. Their hospitality was commendable and they provided red tea and some snacks. In their baskets, there was a chicken travelling with us and some other food items. By evening after 6 hours we reached the riverside. Pristine blue coloured crystal clear water! Tranquil and pleasant weather and musical waterfalls! I can’t ask for more in life. We pitched our tents and a makeshift kitchen was ready. Delicious fish curry and rice was cooked for the dinner– never had such a tasty fish curry -kudos to Bansan.
Next day in the sun-soaked late afternoon, I took pleasure in swimming. Later, I learned from Bansan that not many knew swimming and they were watching me with admiration. Bamboo canoeing was another tough but cardiovascular activity. There was a hair-rising wire bridge right across the river to cross and reach other villages. I made tea in the evening and pop corn was our snacks. We were camping in tents for two nights and three days. Fishing, swimming, rock climbing, bamboo canoeing, cooking, bonfire were the highlights. We relished smoked pork, baked beans, chicken and fresh fish with rice for meals. Aaron explained fly fishing and demonstrated the same. I was amazed seeing his toolkit and various gadgets for fishing- he had been doing this since childhood.
On the Rocks!
Bah Pen and his cousin amazed me with their life skills-they have a solution for every problem from nature. They used tapioca as food for fish and immersed the baits in finely cut rectangular blocks of tapioca. Compared to the modern fishing rods, bamboo poles and homemade wheels toiled better in fishing; Bah Pen placed his baits strategically after spotting big arm size fish resting on the rocks in the river belly. Mercury was hovering around 14C; a bit chilly at night and warm during day. Chicken was carbonated entirely before cooking and rice was cooked in water mixed with chicken blood - called 'Jadoh' in Khasi. After three days of living with bare basic creature comforts, I was a lot contented with life. Sipping rum and brandy, smoking French tobacco and local ‘Joy’ bidi, chewing betel leaf, enjoying the camp fire, I lived my ‘reclaimed’ life –next to riverbed, sleeping in tents and – ON THE ROCKS!
By Sunday, we trekked back to the town, taking multitude of breaks and we were back at Halari by 7pm and Pork Hakka noodles welcomed us. I stayed two more days at Halari and took a Sumo back to Shillong, and then I was a bit satiated with 4 weeks of travelling, searching for new friends, adventure, and experience. I would go back to Cherrapunjee during monsoon (Apr-June) to enjoy the dramatic thunder showers.
I booked a tatkal ticket GHY-ERS using NGPAY from mobile and got back to Guwahati to board that train. Stayed at Ananda Lodge (s/d Rs 140/200 MN Road, Ph: 0361-2544832) for a day. During my return trip, I got another friend in the train -Ms. Liju –she is working in the paramilitary force SSB (Sashastra Seema Bal) guarding Indo-Nepal border. When I reached Kerala, the pouring rains welcomed me and I felt so good to be home. A dream of visiting Northeast India was fulfilled- was planning since 2008; indeed it was worth waiting two years!
The no of plastic bottles I bought in 30days is ZERO. I drank from restaurant/hotel jug, tap water at railway station, natural springs in forest, river water while camping and my tummy was never upset. Bottled water is just a marketing gimmick. At the rate of 5 litres of water per day I should have bought 150 bottles.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT!