In all of these years of travelling in India, I would have to say that the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya have become one of our all-time favourite places. The capital of the state of Meghalaya, Shillong, at about 1500 m (5000’) is on the highest plateau of the region, high enough to see the distant snow peaks of the Himalaya to the north. In November it is cool at night; you can see your breath, and we pull on heavy quilts to sleep. The days are immaculately cloudless and warm. We have made our base camp in Earl’s Holiday Home, serving explorers in the Khasi Hills since 1910. Just down the road is Ward’s Lake, still a peaceful spot for a romantic paddle boat, just as it was for Hugh Arbuthnott and J. O’Brian, signaller. Both are buried in nearby All Saint’s Cathedral: Hugh killed in the Sudan wars and O’Brian in the Naga campaigns. The Nagas, a few hundred km east of here are still restive; in fact there are so many fractious tribal groups in this part of India that Australia has designated it the 4th most dangerous place in the world. That seems like utter nonsense from our Spartan-but-twee room at Earl’s. The people we have met have been incredibly friendly and hospitable. Bombs do go off, one acronym-challenged group or another taking credit, but I would say, without being at all cavalier, that no one should be deterred from visiting most parts of the N.E.. Flaunting the Australian Government, we make a plan to go to Mawlynnong, ominously billed as “The Cleanest Village in India”.
Starting in the filthy and chaotic Bara Bazar Sumo stand, things can only get tidier. A Sumo is the Indian version of the Toyota Land cruiser, built to seat nine, but not considered full until there are 11 crammed inside. We get squeezed into the back seat of a Sumo bound for Pinursla, from where we will have to change to go to Mawlynnong. The back seat, in a conventional Sumo, is the worst place to sit. The bench is slightly higher, and there are often wheel wells and spare tires to further restrict leg room. On a milk-run Sumo, such as this, it has the advantage of having no doors. Therefore when the driver of the already-full Sumo stops en-route to pick up even more passengers, they get forced into the first two rows. Soon we are seated 5 X 5 X 4. The next flag-down goes on the roof, much to my relief, but then we stop for a woman. Seeing only four in the back she tumbles in, and somehow space is found. When we arrive in Pinursla we are 15 inside and 10 outside. The 60 km journey has taken 3 hours.
Penursla, like Bara Bazar, has no pretensions for India’s cleanest village award. Sumos are flecked along its main drag like flies on a fly strip. Still, it has an interesting and lively market, and most villagers wear the characteristic Khasi blanket on their heads, and a wide-strapped cloth shoulder bag. It’s not easy finding the Mawlynnong sumo, and when we do there is no one in it – not a good sign; it means a long wait.
So far – as much as we could see the scenery – we have been travelling on a surprisingly-treeless plateau, broken by dramatic deep canyons. When we finally depart after a 2 hour wait for Mawlynnong we start to descend, and we are soon travelling on a rough road through beautiful forest. Having zero idea what to expect in Mawlynnong, I am relieved when we pull up and there is a sign for a home stay – it’s getting late, and I really couldn’t face a ride back. The owner says she is full, which I didn’t expect, since we have seen no foreigners since coming to the N.E., and this place in on no path, however slightly beaten. But even in our state of homeless exhaustion, we already love this village. Betel palms punctuate a red evening sky, and we walk down a path over a river past flower-filled well tended gardens.
It isn’t long before Ricki, the town fixer, takes us under his wing, and after a couple of unappealing options finds us a room in his brother’s house. The bathroom is outside, the mattress is coir, but the view out the window is an undisturbed jungle valley. A flower garden frames a cute stone church, and kids laugh uproariously as they kick a soccer ball around by moonlight.
At Mawlynnong we have come to the very southern edge of the Khasi Hills, where the escarpment plunges precipitously to the Bangladesh plains. An old stone-paved trail out of town was once a trade route, and even a short walk through the verdant forest full of butterflies and birdsong brings us views of the utterly-contrasting country below. It’s a steep drop down, and we turn back after awhile, but the only other foreigner we meet in town – a Montrealer doing a book on global villages – went all the way and didn’t realize he was in Bangladesh. The police picked him up, took him to the station, questioned and released him, but on a bad day it could have turned out much worse.
The main reason we have come to Mawlynnong (and to Meghalaya) is not for this pretty village – which is a real bonus – but to see the living root bridges. This is the wettest place on earth. The nearby town of Cherrapunjee gets an average of 11 m/ year! Almost all of it falls in the months of the summer monsoon, and during that time the run-off turns rivers into monsters of unstoppable force. Besides the daunting logistics of transporting building materials through such steep and forbidding terrain, the Khasi people discovered that the strongest river crossing they could make was by patiently training the long aerial roots of ancient fig trees to join others across the chasms. It takes 30 years to “weave” a bridge, but they last for centuries. The bridge near Mawlynnong, they say, is about 200 years old.
The finished product produces an architecture as unique as anything in the world. The roots harden into a distorted macrame “V” shape, with chest-high “rails” and a matted, thick floor into which flat stones are often laid. The whole thing flows down from the massive parent tree like a web cast from its gnarled trunk. The bridge doesn’t stop growing, and some of its thigh-thick shoots start to reach back skyward, growing branches and leaves. Many others continue on their disrupted journey down to the soil and water, dripping rope-like from the bed of the bridge. Communities of parasitic epiphytes that inhabit the parent trees don’t stop their colonization just because the host has taken on a new and eccentric form, and ferns and orchids festoon the bridge walls. The entire effect, when seen from a distance, is as much like a marooned spell-cast pirate ship as anything else. Fittingly so; the root bridges are magic creations inhabiting an enchanted land.We return from Mawlynnong to Shilloong glowing with a big inner smile. If this was all we were to see in the N.E., I would be happy, and we haven’t even been to the star attraction at Cherrapunjee yet.
Mawlynnong we found by accident; Cherra is in the guide books. According to the guide books, there is only one place to stay, and it is on top of the escarpment, 2000 stairs above the valley of the bridges. Lonely planet also mentions a “basic” accommodation at the valley bottom, and living in dread of a 4000 step day we decide to stay on top one night, and then take our chances on the shaky valley option the next.
The well-known Cherrapunjee Holiday resort (they have painted their advertising on what seems like every boulder and bridge on the 18 km road from the town itself) sits pulpit-like on a spur of the escarpment, from where the ebullient owner, Mr. Denis, conducts a virtual monopoly on visitor comings and goings. Its popularity attracts the few foreigners who make it out this way, as well as a full house of domestic tourists. All that we could rustle up was the 5 bed dorm. Apart from the personal attention bestowed on all by Mr. Denis and his son Joel, it would have been a bit depressing were it not for the surroundings. On one side the prow of land on which the resort perches drops off toward the Bangladesh plain. On the other are the walls of the Grand Canyon-scale escarpment, jungle covered where the sheer cliffs end.
It’s that canyon wall we head down the next day, starting from a small village called Tyrna. For anyone wanting to by-pass the Cherra Resort, it would be possible, getting an early start, to get a taxi from Cherrapunjee town directly to Tyrna, and hike down to the valley in one day. Just make sure you start the descent by 2 pm. It is getting dark this far east at 4:30, and you do not want to be doing the stairs at night. The walk down is unrelentingly-steep, 2000 closely-placed steps with no let-up at all. K is counting. At the bottom there is the option of going left to the village of Nongriat, where we will stay and where the famous “double decker” root bridge is, or right to the “long” bridge. We go the short distance upstream for a look and a rest, and then back towards Nongriat. This is the part that K wasn’t prepared for. She had psyched herself up for 2000 stairs, but after we cross a rather flimsy wire suspension bridge we have to climb up and down another 1300! The village of Nongriat doesn’t come any too soon.
It is, like everything else in this part of the country, totally delightful. Bernadine, the pixie-like manager of the guest house, meets us on the trail, and takes us there over the double-decker. Then she goes off to get us some local tangerines, while we sit in the sunny garden and watch the butterflies. The place certainly is basic – squat toilet, dim bulbs, coir mattress and slab of pillow – but there is a room. We don’t have to go back up the cliff. Inspired by the beauty of our surroundings we head further up the valley of the Umkynsan River that afternoon to another set of bridges. It’s as if the entire valley is a botanical garden; the village economy is based on the harvesting of bay leaves, wild pepper, betel and oranges, but there are no plots or fields. The crops are integrated into the forest itself.
The first bridge is steel cable, rusty and dodgy, but picturesque. The next is a beautiful root bridge whose parent tree has sent off massive girder-like horizontal arms that span the trail. The whole thing looks like it could only be possible as a computer-generated set on a Lord of the Rings movie. It’s pleasantly warm at this elevation in the afternoon, and there are supposed to be some swimming holes just upstream from here. The path starts to climb steeply, and I expect a trail off to the left at any moment. Still it climbs, more steeply than the one we’ve just come down. At some point it’s obvious even to me that we’ve missed the turn-off, and now our legs are really beginning to feel the accumulated 1000’s of stairs. There are a few groans and yelps on the walk back, and the rock-hard mattress that night doesn’t help things either. Still, we stay another day, and have enough mobility to find some amazing pools that aren’t on our map, as well as the path that we missed yesterday.
The next day it is another 3400 stairs back to the top. And that’s not even the hardest thing about leaving this magical valley.
For many more photos and videos, you won’t want to miss our flickr site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet/sets/