I had been in India for three months covering the major tourist draws like Rajasthan, Goa and Kerala. I had shuffled through the Taj Mahal, squeezed on to local buses, slept at train stations after long delays and been hassled for taxis, rickshaws, tours and hostels. It was a country that never rested and was in your face day and night. It was time to find a place away from all the hustle and bustle to reinvigorate the real reasons I love to travel. I found the peace I sought in Meghalaya.
A friend had told me about a place called Meghalaya in the far northeast of the Indian subcontinent. It occupied only the last couple of pages in guidebooks and there was limited information online. Even local Indians I had met in states like Rajasthan and Goa didn’t know anything about the place. This only intrigued me more.
The wild Northeast of India is the awkward triangular shaped piece of land that sits in between Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China and is connected to India by a skinny corridor east of Nepal. It comprises of seven states, one of which is Meghalaya; seventy percent covered by forest and known as the wettest place on earth due to its downpours in the wet season.
Meghalaya was not much of a secret though. In fact, within Northeast India it attracted lots of local tourists and the tourism department even had a catchy slogan, “The Scotland of the East”. It’s biggest attractions were the living root bridges found in the south of the state towards the Bangladesh border. Amongst the dense forested hills lived the traditional Khasi tribe who had been forming these bridges out of the roots of the rubber trees for centuries.
However, other than the local tourists from nearby states and a short paragraph in Lonely Planet about the bridges, it is largely not on any foreigner’s India itinerary. That’s not surprising though, as it’s not the easiest place to get to. The phrase, “off the beaten track” gets used a lot but these bridges really are in the back of beyond.
I caught a train from Siliguri in West Bengal to the end of the Indian railway network in Guwahati, the capital of Assam, one of the seven northeastern states.
Guwahati is a bustling city, similar to any other Indian metropolis I had been. Taxis and rickshaws crowded the roads, you could buy anything from underwear to cashew nuts from stalls on the street and there was a constant burning sensation in the back of your throat from the black smoke pouring out of the old buses. It is the main transport hub for the entire Northeast with the only inter-state train station and buses and shared jeeps prepared to go to all corners of the region.
First, I got a shared jeep, which leave when full (and full in India means at least 11 people) to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. From there, I jumped in another shared jeep heading to a town called Cherrapunji, which is considered the ‘jumping off point’ for exploring the root bridges but really the adventure is only just beginning.
I walked from Cherrapunji town to Lower Cherrapunji where, I was told by my friend, there was a small hostel. I arrived to find that the hostel was closed down but the friendly man who used to run it still operates two small cottages for people passing through. He showed me a detailed hand drawn map of the area and he assured me that between 9-9.30am every day a bus came through town heading to Tyrna, which is where I needed to go.
Of course, I was naturally dubious. This was still India after all. However, just after 9am I saw an old metal shell of a bus screeching down the road full of people and luggage. I waved it down and I was on my way to Tyrna.
A skinny mountain road wound it’s way down to an intersection where the locals all motioned for me to get off. Surprisingly, I found myself in front of a “Meghalaya Tourism Welcomes You” sign.
A small village perched on the edge of the mountain, Tyrna was peacefully quiet and I could already see the beautiful green hills surrounding me. I kept walking straight until the road ended and stone steps began descending down into the valley below.
It took me around one and a half hours to complete the long steep staircase, which arguably consists of somewhere between 2500 and 3500 steps. I also had to cross a few wire bridges, which were seemingly more dangerous than the root bridges I would eventually find. At the bottom of the valley I came into a little village called Nongriat, home to the most famous double decker root bridge.
It consisted of two bridges above one another constructed by interweaving the roots of the giant rubber trees. With the sunlight streaming in and the sound of the trickling stream underneath, it looked like a scene from a fantasy movie set where fairies and elves might play.
There were a few local day-trippers from Shillong and they all stopped to talk to me, amazed that a foreigner had even heard of this place. I continued on for another hour to Rainbow Falls along a tough jungle path with more hairy wire bridges to cross but the reward was a beautiful fluorescent blue lagoon. I sat and thought to myself that this really was paradise.
I walked back to Nongriat and had hoped to stay in the village for the night. I approached a little, wooden house with a small ‘homestay’ sign hanging on the outside and a smiling Khasi woman came to greet me. Santina welcomed me into her home and gave me a small room with just enough space for a bed.
The entire family slept in one room and there was just another small area for cooking. The communal toilet was outside and they had a bucket on the back verandah for a shower. Santina only spoke limited English and neither her husband nor her children spoke any at all. There was little phone reception and definitely no internet. It was perfect.
The Khasi are a traditional, matriarchal tribe where the children inherit their mother’s name and the land titles remain with the female head of the household. It was quite obvious, after having travelled in India for some time, that this was a very unique culture in a country that is explicitly patriarchal. The women were overtly strong, confident and curious. The men were shy and most of them left in the morning with machetes swung over their shoulder to collect food from the jungle for dinner.
I was never quite sure when the next meal would come but whenever Santina brought me a plate it was always a delicious mountain of rice, a vegetable stew and a pickled salad (though I was never certain what the vegetables were).
I ended up staying three nights with Santina’s family and explored the surrounding trails leading to other root bridges and small villages deep in the jungle. I had only a hand drawn map and no GPS, so it was often anyone’s guess where I might end up. However, the people were friendly and always smiled at me as I walked past, although some of the children often ran and hid at the sight of a foreign girl walking in the jungle. It was such a refreshing experience, to witness a culture that has stood the test of time and people who, in many ways, carry on living they way they have been for centuries.
It was such a beautiful, green area; one that has escaped from the devastation of humanity’s excessive endeavors, at least so far. It was an oasis and a paradise that was completely far removed from the hustle and bustle of the chaotic urban streets in India that I’d come accustomed to.
How far removed it will remain, however, is yet to be known. Although there will not be a road any time soon, the steps I had walked down from Tyrna had only recently been concreted as a state government initiative to boost access and tourism in the area. On my way hiking out of Nongriat, I saw young men carrying baskets of supplies back down into the villages. Not fresh produce or personal items from the market, but bottles of water and Coke Cola ready to sell to the tourists sweating their way down to see the root bridges.
It’s only a small corner of the world and I was only there for a few days but it proved to be the best experience I’d had on my trip in India and only reminded me that stepping into places like that were the reason I loved to travel so much.