Almost a month into our north-eastern romance, Parul and I were on our way to Meghalaya. This leg had required some planning and coordination since there were more than two jobless people involved. So after Tawang, Parul and I headed to Guwahati to be hosted by an amazing warm family (more on that later) and to meet Aamir and Neha, who were flying in from Pune to join us for Meghalaya.
Where is Cherapunjee?
We started from Guwahati on a Monday afternoon. (Why waste the weekend? Good question.) Parul joined the others in the rented Alto (automatic!) and I was to come later on Typhon. The reason for my delay was that a bike part I had been looking for more than a month now was available with a vendor here in Guwahati. So it was almost 3:00 PM by the time I got my bike’s part replaced and battled the Guwahati traffic out to the highway. Fortunately Meghalaya’s roads were super smooth and the traffic was not too much to begin with. There were small undulations that flanked the weirdly twisting and curving road and I started enjoying the ride despite the setting darkness.
A little after two hours since I had exited Guwahati, the traffic suddenly picked up. I had entered Shillong. Like any other hill station, the traffic here was a pain. But it seemed like there was a decorum to it. The cars kept to their lanes and the two-wheelers managed in the space between the lanes. I managed to pass Shillong relatively easier than it would have been in a car and wondered how long it would have taken the others to cross this patch. By my calculation, they would still be 30-40 minutes ahead of me.
It had gotten completely dark by the time I had entered Shillong. So I had missed all of the scenery thence and the path was just a yellow patch of tar in front of me. This was a familiar feeling by now but not one that I had ever enjoyed. I had no idea what was around me and this, coupled with the foggy patches and the lack of traffic on the road amounted to a very eerie feeling. Another very weird thing was that there was no mention of Cherapunjee on the signboards. Some even had a blacked out location that I calculated to be the same distance as Cherapunjee. This was very weird indeed!
A little before 9 PM I reached the place mentioned Sohra and realising that this was where the Maps showed Cherapunjee, I thought Sohra must be an area within Cherapunjee. I met the guys over dinner and we got talking. Even the restaurant we were sitting in had the word Cherapunjee blacked out on it’s board. We speculated that Cherapunjee had been renamed to Sohra. But there was another interesting incident I had missed. The homestay that Neha had booked had no idea that we were coming. Turned out that the number mentioned online was fraud and the reservation we had made never reached them. The phone number, not surprisingly, had been turned off. They did accommodate us but the room was in shambles and we had to pay again. All in all, Cherapunjee did not provide us with a very promising start to the Meghalaya trip.
The next day Parul and I got on Typhon and searched for a new guesthouse for the remainder of our time in Sohra. This proved to be much more difficult than we had initially thought. Sohra is an extremely popular tourist destination these days and with the Pujo holidays going on, it was flooded with tourists. The good thing was that these tourists were spread across the place and rarely crossed one another’s paths.
Eventually we did find a nice place to put up in. Christie, the girl who managed the place had one of the most endearing smile. We shifted our luggage here and decided to make most of the remainder of the day. Picking up on the most recommended thing to do, we jumped into the Alto and drove on the broken roads till Nohkalikai Falls. This waterfall is famous for being the highest plunge in India and has a sad suicide story to it’s name. The day was clear enough and we got a good view of the grand waterfall. It looked quite beautiful despite there not being as much water as in the wetter months.
We were seeing the falls from one of the hills on the side and tried to find a way to get to the base of the falls and failed. This place seemed more suited for the nonathletic tourists. There were also a few shops here that sold spices, pickles and souvenirs. We got some spices for back home, a bottle of pickled Bhut Jolokhia and some pickled tamarind to eat. 😋
After exploring the area for a while we headed for our next destination for the day, Arwah Caves. I was driving this time and realised that the Alto’s automatic gear shifts were somewhat funny. It seemed like someone was actually taking his own sweet time to shift the gears. Also, there were times when the car would get confused on a slope and spend more than 3-4 seconds in a gear shift which was not even required, leaving the car without any power for the duration. 😂 To top it all, Google Maps decided it should give us more adventure. It navigated us through lanes and on to a flight of steps which, for some reason, it thought was a perfectly good way for the car. 😒
We got to the caves with an hour or so in hand to explore it. The path to the caves was quite scenic and we decided to make it unnecessarily adventurous by taking the trail instead of the perfectly paved path. Anyhow, we entered the caves with almost no expectation of what was inside.
The stalactite and stalagmite formations seemed rather unimpressive. Perhaps it was because I had seen better in Vietnam. But by any standard, there was hardly anything out here. So we decided to have some fun by entering random tunnels. This was quite something. Every tunnel seemed to go on infinitely. Every time we thought that it would end, there was a turn and another dark alley that stretched beyond. Parul and Aamir thought it reminded them of the movie “Descent”. Neha and I had not seen it and we decided to watch this that same night.
We finally hit a spot which was marked as Fossils. This was the highlight of these caves. It was also clearly written at the entrance but we had missed it in our rush to get in. The Arwah Caves have a lot of well formed fossils of gastropods inside. There was an entire panel of the cave walls which displayed clearly formed fossils. We spent a lot of time here looking at the fossils that we understood nothing of. But the shapes were enough to keep us engrossed.
It was past sunset by the time we got out. We walked back to our car and were the last ones out of the parking lot. Sohra had redeemed itself today.
Bridges, Waterfalls and Pools
The next day we did one of the more popular features of Meghalaya. We headed out to see the Living Roots Bridges in Nongriat. We picked up a guide from the starting point, a local boy who was still practicing his English on tourists. While it is a straight-forward trek that does not require a guide, it is a good way to give back to the community.
Andy, our guide, led us down the many steps into the valley while pointing out various plants and trees and their local usages. The hike was mostly steps and path paved with stone or cement. We got to a village at the base of the steps and then crossed the streams on “hanging bridges” - a form of rudimentary suspension bridge that bounced as we walked on it.
Nongriat was a small village on the other side of the valley. Right in the middle of it was the famous Double Decker Living Roots Bridge. It was interesting to see how the roots of the trees had been intertwined to make these stable structures. It took years to make these bridges and it was a Khasi specialty. We spent some time here clicking photographs.
There were a lot of people around and we decided to head out further into the valley since we were making good time and were not very tired yet. The path had gotten better after Nongriat with less people and more unpaved routes. We crossed more bridges, one made of roots which was more elaborate than Nongriat’s.
An hour or so later, we were at the Rainbow Falls. It was a pretty waterfall which splashed onto a rock below and the spray lit up in rainbow colours when the sun shone on it. The sun did come out while we were admiring the falls and we saw the rainbow form in front of our eyes.
The pool there looked enticing but Andy advised against it because of the strong flow of water. Instead, on our way back, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon - a natural swimming pool that had formed in the stream. This was by far the best part of the day. The cool and refreshing water was invigorating for our tired limbs. The water was amazingly clear as well and that holds true for every stream in Meghalaya. We spent almost an hour in the water - washing, swimming, jumping around and having fun.
After a small Maggi break at Nongriat, we climbed the 2000 odd steps (I actually counted) back to the parking lot and returned to Sohra. Nongriat was one place where I would have loved to spend more time. There was even a hiking trail that led to the base of Nohkalikai. Getting a guesthouse and staying here for 2-3 days would have been great.
We had another day in Sohra that we spent trying to do more things. The Mawsmai Caves had better formations than Arwah but they were full of people and you got rushed into a single file with zero sense of adventure. The Seven Sisters Falls View Point was a playground for people clicking selfies in dried up stream beds. We had come to realise that although Sohra was full of places to visit and explore, finding something of real beauty and interest would take effort. We would have to drive to some spot, hike for a while and spend the day thus. Unfortunately our time in Sohra was over but we took it as a learning for the rest of the trip.
Asia’s Cleanest Village
From Sohra we made our way to Mawlynnong, deemed as Asia’s cleanest village. On the way out, the lady who ran the restaurant where we were having breakfast broke the mystery around Cherapunjee and Sohra. The village was always called Sohra. Some of the outsiders who first publicised it mistakenly named it as Sehra. Thence came the anglification by the Britishers to Chera. Punjee simply meant village. Hence the name Cherapunjee. That seemed simple enough to believe in.
The road to Mawlynnong was beautiful, through green plateaus with nice views. Turns out that riding in Meghalaya wasn’t too eerie in the daylight. However, I was also coming to realise that the ML number plates were backed by some of the worst drivers in the country. They drive without using an iota of the human brain. There is no uphill preference; they stop in the middle of the road to pick up passengers without so much of an indication; the Sumo drivers act as if they own the road and turn a deaf ear to requests for a pass; they do not indicate their turns. There was a very “my way or the highway” attitude they had. I was slowly getting used to their driving quirks and but for these bouts of frustration, the ride was enjoyable because of the scenery.
We got a beautiful cottage right outside Mawlynnong. It was a two storey accommodation where Parul and I gladly took the attic. The balcony opened to a nice view of the jungle beyond.
After settling in we went to check out the village. The village was quite pretty and it was the neatness that made it specially beautiful.
But the place seemed to be marred by the familiar ravages of tourism. There were so many people and honking cars. There was a stall in every corner selling the same souvenirs as the one next to it. Perhaps with less crowd this village might have seemed much more beautiful but right now there was a lot of visual noise.
Abhinav, my brother, had been to Mawlynnong a few years ago when it was not yet touristy. He had suggested us a trek in the area which we decided to enquire about. Having no idea where to begin asking, we walked into the first restaurant and asked if someone knew anything about a trek that we did not know the name of and showed them a few pictures sent by Abhinav. The woman running the restaurant nodded and said it was Shillang Jashar. Guides? Sure, her brothers were back in town from Shillong and would gladly take us there. We later found out that they had plans to go fishing in Dawki and were stuck with us on their vacation. Big sisters, eh. 👿
At 6 AM the next morning Aamir, Parul and I set out with Maio and Samuel for the trek. Neha had decided to sit this one out and chill in the cottage. The trek started a little way away from Mawlynnong. We walked a couple of kilometers on the roads before it would be taken over by heavy traffic. After the village of Lumpengshyrang, we took a cut that led us into the forest along a stone paved path. The path was slippery because of the moss that covered it and the morning dew. I found this first hand by slipping twice on the stones. Samuel told us that the erstwhile king had made this path to take him to his village.
I asked the boys how Mawlynnong got to be so clean and they said that it was just something that they had been taught as kids in school. Samuel recounted how his teacher had one day took all of them on a cleanliness drive. Goes a long way to prove what good education can achieve.
We stopped once at the top of a small waterfall which looked tempting for a longer halt.
But our guides said that this was not the one we had come for. So we walked on, crossed a village and eventually we got to a small living roots bridge and halted for some photographs. The tree that formed the root bridge seemed to be suspended in mid air!
Right on the other side of this bridge was a cascading waterfall which sloped down into the valley. We crossed the bridge over it and went on the other side where a path led us down along the waterfall. Despite coming quite a way down, the end of the falls were always elusive, curving down and out of sight. There must have been a way to get to the base of the waterfall but we made ourselves content with a small cave that ran behind the falls. We crawled in and marvelled at the flow of water. This was the Urkyrming Waterfall.
After the falls we followed the water upstream along the river bed. We were looking for the “bamboo bridge”. The river bed involved a considerable amount of clambering up and down stones and jumping across rocks. Parul seemed to be doing alright when she suddenly announced that she had had enough of jumping rocks and would be going no further. 😒 Fortunately we sighted the bamboo bridge right after the next bend and she changed her mind and completed the hike.
This bridge was the highlight for me. It was some sort of suspension bridge made entirely of bamboo. The pool of water under it was blue and inviting. I chickened out of diving in because I could not see a gradual decline into and out of the pool. Perhaps another day when I get confident enough in my swimming skills. 😬 Maio and Samuel had dived right in and Aamir and I took a dip on the shallower side upstream. Parul lazed around and took some photographs. We could have spent the entire day there, each in his own way.
My respect for bamboo grew several notches in this hike. The bridge was such a stable structure made entirely from bamboo. It had also been used for fencing along the Urkyrming Falls and to create ladders and tie it all together. It certainly is one of the most versatile materials I have ever seen.
Finally we decided to wrap up and head back. Samuel asked a few villagers passing by for an alternate route back that would avoid the river bed and we headed on the way pointed out by them. After walking for some time, I decided to check Google Maps on impulse and realised that we were headed in the wrong direction. I told Sam and Maio as much and they agreed. This was a new route for them as well. We tried correcting course and went on another path which seemed to head in the right direction. We followed this narrow path for more than an hour, crossing rivers, getting cut by bamboo leaves and avoiding slips. A series of wrong foot and hand falls saw me fall back first in a ditch of water. I got up quickly and was drenched, but that was to be the least of my concern. My phone had fell out of my pocket into the water and the few seconds it took me to retrieve it would be the death of it. Samuel and Maio scouted ahead and returned saying that the path ended in a steep fall. We now admitted that we were lost in the jungle.
There was still enough time before sunset so we decided to track our way back to the bamboo bridge and take the known route from there. There was a village we had passed in between and we stopped for a break there ere Samuel ran off to find someone who could help us with directions. We were starting to tire out and had now spent more than twice the time trying to return than what would have ideally been required.
Sam returned with good news and we discovered a path going to the right not far from where we were sitting. This was paved in stones and did seem like the correct one. Not long after, we were back in the village we had passed on our way to the waterfalls. Then on, it was a simple walk back to the highway and then Mawlynnong. Aamir was devastated from the long hike so he returned to the room to rest while Parul and I followed Maio and Samuel to the village and had a hearty meal at the restaurant. We tipped the boys their due which they accepted with surprise. They were no longer expecting it but they did get us back safe and sound.
More (Unnecessary) Adventures
Back in the room we were further entertained that night by a group of guys from Delhi who had taken the cottage next to us. It was their obnoxious behaviour, loud music and louder conversations that gave us the idea to write a post on how not to be an asshole. That work is still in progress though. 😝
The adventures had not ended yet. Sometime in the middle of the night while I was trying to sleep, I felt something bite on my thumb. I got up with a jerk thinking it was a nightmare. Turned out it was not. Parul’s flashed her phone’s light around and we saw a mouse sitting in a corner of the attic. It was the same one Parul had seen earlier that evening but I had not imagined it coming to bite in the middle of the night! Damned thing. We shifted our bed down below, washed and treated my thumb and tried to sleep again. We were jumpy with every noise that we heard thence and eventually slept with the lights on. Miraculously, Neha had managed to sleep through the entire half an hour ordeal and we had to recount the entire incident to her later the next morning. 😂
Waters of Umngot
The next morning we checked out of the cottage and headed to the village for some breakfast before heading out. Today being Sunday, the entire village seemed closed except for a single restaurant. Mawlynnong seemed much more peaceful and likable today.
A group of riders came in, perhaps twenty or more in number. I asked one of them where they were coming from. Turned out to be Royal Enfield’s Tour of the North East. Quite a few of them were females and almost all of them had the entitled vibe. They rushed through Mawlynnong, got group pictures clicked and zoomed out of the village. Reasons I steer clear of such groups. 😬
We left Mawlynnong after breakfast and headed towards Dawki. I was without a phone and Parul was somewhat concerned. Right outside Dawki, we hit a bad patch of traffic. There were tourist vehicles of all sorts here - cars, Sumos, travellers, buses and what not. And the number of people were far too many for my liking. This was where the docks were that offered boating for tourists.
Once both our vehicles cleared the jam, we unanimously decided to skip Dawki and head ahead. We had lunch and then stopped briefly at the Bangladesh border before driving the few kilometers to Shnongpdeng.
Shnongpdeng is a small village sitting on the slopes of a hill flanking the Umngot (also known as Dawki) river. We were offered a homestay and took it up since it seemed nice and clean. Then we decided to spend the rest of the evening along the river. More boulders for Parul to cross but she did this one without complaint. 😆
We sat by the river till it got dark, enjoying the cool breeze, talking and watching the activity in the village slowly subside. We even found an abandoned fire between some rocks and rekindled it to life. After spending some hours thus, we had our dinner and returned to the room to enjoy our favourite way to kill time throughout the trip. Alcohol and card games. 😂
The next morning Parul and I got up early to get a picture of the boats crossing Umngot. The windy bridge, the landscape and the good shots we got more than made up for getting up early.
Once the others were up, we decided to take a boat ride along the river. The boat went upstream and the scenery changed for the better as out boatman ploughed further in. We saw a lots of fishermen - some on boats, some sitting on rocks, some peeking into the water to find their fish 😂 Our boatman expertly navigated, avoiding their fishing lines, the reason why kayaks are not allowed this far upstream. It is a shame though; it would have been great to be able to explore this far by oneself.
We went as far as the river allowed us. Faced with a rapid, we turned back and then stopped a while at a bank for a quick dip. No sooner had we gotten into the clear waters that we could see small fishes surround us. The more adventurous ones came closer and nibbled the dead skin off our feet. As can be imagined, a lot of excitement and giggling ensued.
Back from the boat ride, we decided to rent the kayaks and fool around some more. It was an hour long of unsynchronised rowing. We played bumper kayaks and Neha used to scream every time the kayaks got close enough. We even practiced rowing in reverse and parking the kayaks on the bank.
There were more “adventure” activities being offered - ziplining across the river and cliff jumping. None of us were very interested in either since they did not look very exciting. I mean the cliff jump was more of a rock jump if you have done the one in Rishikesh. 😑 We went back happily tired and spent the rest of the evening tripping over some cookies Aamir had got from Pune. We came back to the river later in the evening to watch “Dude Where’s My Car” for the nth time.
End of the Road
We decided to spend the last few days in Shillong. Once again, the drive back was quite beautiful except for the few frustrating interactions with the ML drivers. We decided to take the longer route via Jowai and made a stop at Krang Shuri Waterfall. Good decision! Krang Shuri was a far cry from being offbeat but had a relatively smaller number of tourist footfall. At the parking we met a fellow biker from Kerala who was attempting to take his beloved through all the states of India. Quite a feat!
Around 10 minutes walk from the parking lot brought us to the waterfall. The stream fell over a large cave and had formed a pool of clear, blue water underneath.
I went to get the lifejackets that were mandatory to get into the pool. Neha sat this one out as well but the rest of us put on the lifejackets and went into the water. The water was pleasantly cool and we had a lot of fun for the better part of the next hour. We swam all the way below the falls and beyond to the cave. Aamir was feeling adventurous enough so he even swam through the falling water. He called it a “skull thumping massage”. 😂
Eventually we got out and dried up. We sat at the small dhaba near the parking lot to fill ourselves up and resumed our journey to Shillong.
Back to Civilization
We got to Shillong right after sunset. The day had a fixed agenda. We wanted to taste the warmth of civilization so all of us put on the best clothes our backpacks had to offer and headed to the city to enjoy an evening at Dylan’s Cafe. The cafe was quite nice and the food was typically North American comfort food. It had been a while since Parul and I had had such a meal and we enjoyed the indulgence.
The next day I tried to figure out if my phone could be fixed and it turned out that service center needed at least 9 days to do so. This meant that I would be without a smart phone till we got to Delhi almost ten days later. I was looking forward to what that would be like. I had not spent this long without a smartphone for a long time now.
We went to the highly recommended Don Bosco Museum next. It was a very well done museum that spanned seven floors! It had information not just about Meghalaya but the whole of North East India. I found the museum extremely informative but then I have a known bias for museums. Even if museums is not your thing, I would suggest a trip here for the skywalk that tops the seven floors. You literally walk on the roof of the building and can see the city of Shillong sprawling in front of you.
Parul and I stayed on in Shillong after Aamir and Neha went back to their regular lives. We had a few days to kill before our flight back to Delhi which was to be a break from this spree of travel. Our preferred thing to do was to sit in some cafe and work on our respective projects. Our favourite became Hoitea Toitea, a pretty cafe beside the city’s oldest swimming pool.
I also tried some Khasi food at Trattoria in Police Bazaar. Too bad the local food does not have many vegetarian options but if you are not too fussy about what you put inside of you, I recommend having the pork platter here. It was lip smacking delicious! The owner of the place is a nice chap who loves to talk to the tourists.
Since we were there for way too many days, Parul and I decided to make a day trip to the Laitlum Canyons that Maio had suggested back in Mawlynnong. The drive was pleasant and not too long. Laitlum literally means “end of the hills” and the canyon had a very infinite feeling to it. We were late in the day so the sun was up and shining hard. There were quite a few people around as well. There was a music video (or so we thought) being shot on top which was quite entertaining to watch.
One can walk down the path to the village and stream below but we were not feeling up to it. We just went down a bit and sat on a rock and enjoyed the beauty of the place. While we were enjoying the quiet, there came an incessant buzz and we tried to spot the origin. Turned out to be a drone. It is amazing how a single person holds the license to destroy the peace of everyone around him.
On the way back to Shillong we stopped at Smit to see the King’s Seat. It was essentially a big wooden cottage made without nails and used to serve as the king’s residence in times of yore. Now it looked like a big amphitheater.
Parul and I were in Shillong till the weekend and decided to check out the music scene that the city is so popular for. Most of the cafes were mellow but we were told that college bands perform regularly in non-examination season. We hopped a couple of pubs on Friday night and found The Evening Club to our liking. A decent jazz act to compliment the good cocktails and food.
While there was more of Meghalaya that we were tempted to do, we were running out of time and decided not to rush ourselves. The state had given me an overall bittersweet impression and while it was extremely beautiful, much of it was marred by being overtly touristy. One could still find a way to enjoy the place far from the maddening rush but that would take a lot of information and effort. I tried doing my bit with this post and another one on medium.
We are still exploring North East on our bikes and Parul keeps pushing daily updates on instagram. Follow her to know more.
Here is a complete album from our time in Meghalaya. Pictures are credited to Aamir, Neha, Parul and me.