Shillong was a cure for that travel itch. It was close, we knew the place, we had friends (and family) and we weren’t going to spend much.
I’ll cut to the chase. We were psyched out and had high expectations for Dawki. The Dawki river (as seen through Instagram) was crystal clear. It was so clear you could see the pebbles at the bottom of the river bed. It had an idyllic setting with the boats set together as well as people saying it’s “totally worth visiting” or “had the best time ever” following by many hashtags including the dreaded #wanderlust.
But no. For us, it was nothing special. For us, it was green. It was just that dirty shade of green and in our sinking boat, we had no chance of even seeing one pebble or the face of the riverbed. The boatman handed me a broken jerry can indicating me to scoop out the water in the boat while Debbie decided it was a great time to selfie. Where was the beauty? Where was the vison of perfection? The boatman told us that it was a cloudy day so it wasn’t as clear. Wasn’t as clear? It wasn’t clear at all.
Resorting to Instagram for travel tips has its downsides. Given that we only show the best versions of our lives and in turn our travels and edit to a crazy level, its misleading. Lesson learned.
Although, I hope this wouldn’t mislead you. First Paris, now this but really. You should know that luck doesn't shine too bright on me so you’ll probably get luckier than us. We went during April and it IS advisable to visit during October/November. So go. Don’t miss out on this piece of clarity just because we had a bad time.
I did get a pro tip from my friend about a site a little further from Dawki that they go to so I convinced Debbie and with google map on the go, we directed the driver towards the spot. Clearly, this was a road less travelled and the driver began to freak out and get irritable and in turn, Debbie began to worry. Me on the other hand was still all for it. Unfortunately, I was out numbered and once the driver got it into his head that there might be black magic practitioners in the area, there was no way of convincing him to go ahead. I was actually laughing at him and Debbie looking so worried and while I really wanted to get to that point mentioned by my friend, I had to give in. You win some, you lose some.
So that was our Dawki. So you will forgive me if the one photograph I have posted here is verging on 'uninspiring'.
Moving on to Cherrapunji (also Sohra).
Debbie and I both visited Cherrapunji while we were younger and we remember going to the “tourist spots” like the Seven Sisters falls and Nohkalikai falls. This time though, we were there for a trek to the Root bridge in Nongriat and to venture further to get to Nei-Phngam (Rainbow) falls, something I found on the internet (and while I would love to link that piece too, I can’t seem to get my keywords for it because that particular one is not coming up in the searches).
We hadn’t decided on a place to stay and considering we were in a safe territory, we weren’t worried. I did find a backpacker hostel for Rs. 100/- a night on TripAdvisor so we decided to go for it. Why the hell not. Well turns out, the chap running the place had upped and left for a holiday of his own so we looked and found ourselves at La Kupar Inn. It was much more than we expected to pay even with our friendly bargain banter but because it was so welcoming, we booked it and got a room with a balcony. Bansan, the owner, also gave us a hand-drawn map of the area which (through the course of the next three days turned out to be more accurate and helpful than google maps). La Kupar Inn and the rest of the other hotels, restaurants and shops as well as the taxi stand are in a vicinity called Saitsophen which is all laid out on the main road making navigation (by walk of walking) very easy and also enjoyable. The roads in Meghalaya are so good and coming from the rocky roads of Nagaland, it felt marvellous to see no potholes. We felt so much love for the roads, we even took a mandatory (is it mandatory?) sleeping-on-the-road shots.
On our last day, we walked all the way from Khleishnong crossed a very beautiful Presbyterian cemetery that was established in 1845. Had it not been for our aching muscles and bones and just our aching life after the trek, we probably would've walked up to the hill. Taxi's always run up and down the road and it doesn't cost much but walking is a better option if you ask me. We took one on the way back from the rather dry Seven Sister falls and in typical Khasi fashion, we were jammed in the back with two old men who were talking in Khasi and laughing while Debbie and I did the same.
Our initial plan was to trek all the way to Tyrna village, the starting point of the 3000 steps towards Nongriat but in the end resorted to a taxi to drop us off. It’s not too far, about 45 minutes, but if we walked, we’d have reached Saitsophen only at night. So I reckon it was a good call. Next time though, if I am mad enough to do this again, I might just walk till that village too.
So we began. 3000 steps don’t sound like much and to be honest, we weren’t worried. It’s downhill and it’s just steps. Just steps. We were grossly mistaken. There’s only so much stress your knees can take and I’d like to state that we are fit people. Debbie’s going to laugh out loud reading that but for this trip, she was semi fit. She prepped is all I will say.
Cherrapunji being one of the wettest places on earth (bumped off the spot by Mawsynram, an hour away), the weather is extremely pleasant throughout. Yet, we broke out in sweat within an hour of the trek. We also reached the first of the four hanging wire bridges but that is no way an indication of your proximity to Nongriat village. With a fear of heights, Debbie wasn’t too thrilled at having to cross four of these bridges and repeat it on the way back but turning back was not an option. The local inhabitants were quite literally racing across.
By the time we reached the Double Decker Living Root Bridge, the 3000 steps felt like a joke. It was definitely more. Way more, much more etc. The root bridge in itself is a natural wonder and felt as mythical as that tree in Winterfell. There are hundreds of root bridges around Meghalaya but the one in Nongriat is the only double decker so far. As Debbie said “why settle for a single root bridge when I can see two?” (and this was said simultaneously with a gesture of two fingers). It was peaceful and serene and we saw a couple of travellers who were reading by the Root Bridge after a quick swim in the calm waters that flowed below. It's quite possible that one would lose track of time in Nongriat amidst this natural wonder. It's ridiculous how resilient you need to be to ascend and descend every day and when we saw a group of kids wearing school uniforms and older folks carrying supplies, we felt inadequate to say the least!
We took a short break at the Root Bridge and before getting too comfortable, began our quest for the waterfall. Admittedly, we weren’t prepared for how tough this was going to be. We saw a shoddy sign board stating it was an hour away. Not too bad, we thought. The two bridges we crossed here were not only ricketier but also looked far more precarious than the first two. We saw a group of people also heading for the waterfall but I think they turned back midway. We didn’t see any signs of them as we delved further. The colour of the water changed during every part of this journey. It became clearer and more ferocious as we delved in further and further.
This ‘short’ trek was treacherous. Not only did it not have a path, it was wet and slippery and your shoes are sure to get wet as you cross the gushing streams. With the side of the mountain on your right and a freefall on your left, we were required to be extra careful.
From the time we reached Nongriat, Debbie and I were greeted by a pair of dogs that decided to trek with us. Midway, the black one left while the brown one continued to accompany us. Of course, in this narrow trek, little doggy proved to be more of a distraction than a joy. We wondered midway if we were on the right track. There were no signs or people around and our only indicator was the gushing sound of water. We thought that was loud but it was nothing in comparison up close. Nei-Phngam or Rainbow falls is called so because (obviously) you see a rainbow there. I don’t even need to tell you because as you may have guessed, we saw no rainbow. Yet, that’s didn’t even matter because the spectacle of the waterfall made it up. The water gushed out and formed a clear blue natural pool that looked perfectly dangerous to swim in. we were drenched in sweat but had no plans to rest here. We had a different plan for that. We hiked back on the same trail and, without actually knowing that it was the right point, scaled down to (I suppose you can call it) the foothill to get to the river side. With a mini water fall, the water was unspoiled, clean and perfect for a swim. “Can you imagine we have to trek all the way back?” we asked each other. It was daunting to think about it so after the swimming, we listened to music, read a book and took a nap. There was a young Frenchman who had the same idea as us and a quick chat with him revealed that his next stop by Kyrgyzstan.
We set off after an hour of rest and an hour later, we were at the entry/exit single decker root bridge of Nongriat where we stopped in a tiny homestay/restaurant. As hungry as we were, resorted to a very light meal of maggi noodles and rice and daal that we shared. We had the unimaginable ascend ahead of us and the last thing we wanted was to overeat! We saw two girls crossing us with a guide and Debbie and I felt certain that no matter how long we would take to eat we were still going to make it past them. You need to know that I am not a competitive person in nature but when I trek, I become someone else so I was in Ryan Lochte's JEAH zone . My alter ego doesn't like to settle for anything less than being the first to reach in treks. There's no level of a 'good trekker' and a 'bad trekker'. It only depends on your pace and either slow or fast, they're both fine because you just have to find what works for you.
to come back to the two girls though, sure enough they had stopped and were completely out of breath, resting on the steps and for good reason too. The ascend was ridiculously hard. As we passed them, I think we might have smiled because one of the girls, out of breath and having plonked herself on the stairs made a humorous remark “yeah, yeah I know what you’re thinking. What are these two girls from the city doing out here?” I just laughed and said “it’s a great experience that’s for sure!” and sped past. As per the usual, it fell to Debbie to talk to them.
Debbie of course made conversation with them and found out they were from Kolkata and/or Mumbai "city slickers" we said with a smirk and a nod.
I resorted to several techniques: running, counting, crawling and listening to eye of the tiger. A culmination of all that resulted to me reach half an hour ahead and getting bitten alive by mosquitos and having some local folks probably poking fun at me. I waited for Debbie to reach and once she caught her breath, we began discussing how we would get back. I opted walking back (obviously) but being the more practical one, told me that during her conversation with them "city slickers", she found out that they had a taxi waiting for them and maybe we could hitch a ride back with them because they were staying further off and we'd only need to get off on the main road. During this discussion, the cab driver inquired whether we would be interested to get dropped because according to him, he could drop us and come back and those girls still wouldn’t be done (the latter part added with mild irritation). Only problem was his unwillingness to reduce his price. A young local boy was helping him with his translation and when he saw that it wasn’t going to happen, the boy told me that he could call a friend who drives a cab. We continued haggling for the price, smiling and exchanging banters. He finally asked us where we were staying and thank god for Debbie’s memory loss issues, she mentioned the name of a place to which the guy said “oh I know that place! How much are you paying for your room?” I immediately said “500” and then he settled for our asking taxi fare. Clearly, showing that we were super cheap and poor travellers did the trick. Can you believe Debbie did not realise this until I told her? Amazing isn’t she? We didn’t wait long for our cab guy and as we were leaving, the local chap asked me whether I was on Facebook or WhatsApp. I said no, I only had Instagram to which he did not react. I don’t think he had heard of Instagram until then. You know the most fascinating point here? That in an obscure corner where you struggle for a 2G connection, people were still connected to the likes of Facebook. We were enveloped in thick fog as we made our way to Saitsophen and got out before reaching the Inn.
As soon as we reached the bed, there was no way anything could make us move. Even a bath seemed like a task. The trek, including our break by the river, took us about eight hours. What most people do is break it into two by staying down in the Nongriat homestays and while we should’ve considered that, I reckon we decided that we were capable of that and more. Sometimes, over confidence kills and it sure did us in. The next day, we explored some caves and had a quiet evening before heading off to Shillong in a shared cab that took in around 14 people. Not a big deal in Meghalaya apparently! The big deal however was someone letting out a terrible fart. Honestly, what can you do in such a situation except laugh out loud but suffer internally?
In the Northeast, Meghalaya has always had an exceedingly good reputation (then and now) in terms of educational institutions. I have had my own family members, close and extended, who have studied in Shillong since the '50s and it's the same with Debbie and many other Nagas (and I''m sure it's possibly the same for the other states too). I remember traveling to Shillong when I was as young as five or six years old with my parents so while this visit was made after more than 10 years, the last one being in 2004, it still felt familiar and safe. I hate to that the word 'safe' around traveling but I reckon it's so important for people to know this because if we've learned anything from the daily news feeds, anything can happen anytime. But I am diverting from my main point which is this: we tend to forget our neighbors. We tend to ignore things close to us. Being from the Northeast, I have visited quite a few of the states but I haven't really explored them nor do I know any major information about them. I seem to switch my thinking off automatically when it comes to the neighboring states because it's so close! I can visit it anytime I want! And information? Google of course. Definitely not the right frame of mine.
So this trip to Cheerapunji was a refreshers course in awakening ourselves to learn more about our neighbors because each of the eight states in the Northeast are fascinating and still have so many unexplored and unknown regions. Of course, this isn't always a good thing because sometimes even Google map fails miserably and this is a point worth nothing: I don't now how Google map operates, if there's a specific HQ in every country with a team, but whatever the case, maybe they need to look into putting the Northeast on the map, pun very much intended. For example, Dimapur is always geo-tagged as Kohima. Anyway, that was my 10 second rant.
The trek was a major highlight but what I really took away were the nights in Cherrapunji. The rain is your constant companion as night turns to day, overpowering every other sound on earth and while it does seem apocalyptic at times, it nonetheless becomes a soundtrack of your time there.
APRIL 25 - 30, 2016