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Published: August 8th 2007
The bus drops us at the junction to Shillong, where the road back to Guwahati forks sharply uphill next to a small Hindu temple. It is midday and the sun is beating down on us as we re-load the bikes, which have emerged unscathed from the back of the bus - no damage and only 2 minutes to load and unload at either end, and cheaper than putting them on the train. We vow to use buses from now on if we don’t want to cycle.
After a quick feast of fried rice at a small dhaba opposite the temple we are ready for the long slog uphill. We will not reach Shillong today but hope to escape the heat and get halfway up the Meghalayan Massif, an isolated 2000m high rolling plateau that sits south of the Brahmaputra valley and north of the Bengal and Bangladeshi plains. The dhaba owner complains to us that Assam is becoming too dirty and polluted, we point out that it seems so much greener and cleaner than the rest of India and he sighs that yes, this is still true but it is fast catching up. “Every year it becomes worse, there is
less forest, more dust, more smoke, more industry. It used to be so beautiful…..”
Our road follows a small river into the hills, fairly flat for the first 10km or so, and there is little forest left in the valley, new industrial complexes are springing up along the road or else land has been demarcated for such projects with big signs announcing their coming. We pass huge quarries cutting into the steep hillsides, exposing the deep red earth and I imagine the Brahmaputra turning blood red as all this washes away during the coming monsoon as Assam literally bleeds from its open wounds. The horizon of the hills ahead is lined by columns of smoke rising from the steep forests.
We try to focus on the positive, the area is still beautiful and as we push up the valley the hills close in and forests crowd the slopes, they are depleted but still beautiful and the shade they provide is much appreciated. We cross the river by another temple and the banks are lined with people bathing in the hot afternoon; the river looks clean and is fast flowing. From here the road begins to climb and turn
more steeply, up through patches of forests, betel palm and bamboo plantations and small tribal villages. We are now in Meghalaya proper; the people are all from the hill tribes with round, Asian faces, yellow skin and almond shaped eyes. The village houses are built from bamboo and usually perched on stilts on the steep slopes, with walls made from rattan panelling and rainforest timbers. Everyone waves and smiles hello at us through wide smiling mouths of blackened, stained teeth and red froth from the huge wads paan (betel nut) they are chewing, while scrawny, long-legged chickens scatter in front of our wheels.
The road continues to twist and turn through the patchy forests, relentlessly climbing steeply higher with every bend. Our calves are not used it after months on the plains and the last week of lazy luxury, but the pain and searing lactic acid feels good in a perverse way and with each bend there is the prospect of a new, different view, a cooler breeze and the joy and exhilaration that only mountains can provide. It is hard work, but it is rewarding in way crossing the plains never was. The traffic is moderate; heavily laden
A rare sight in India, but not in Meghalaya.
trucks struggle to overtake us and often we catch them up again on the really steep slopes. Smaller cars of Bengali tourists speed past us dangerously overtaking with no regard for the blind corners, whilst the local tribal people are crammed into over laden jeep-taxis, with homemade baskets full of produce piled high on the roof above. There is also a lot of military traffic but we get waves, thumbs-up and salutes of respect from the trucks and buses full of soldiers, all of which helps us push higher and higher.
As the afternoon wears on we emerge from the forests onto bare ridges above steep valleys draining the plateau-lands above. This area has been badly deforested and the small patches of remaining forest are on fire. Scars of bare blackened earth cover the slopes in places, elsewhere scrub is regenerating amongst steep erosion gullies. We wonder why anybody would try to clear such impossibly steep slopes, then realise that the scrub is not all natural - the slopes are being turned into pineapple plantations. Every now and then we pass roadside stalls where tribal women are selling huge piles of fresh pineapples. Tempting though they are we can’t
bring ourselves to buy any; it feels like we would be endorsing the destruction of the rainforests.
In addition to the changes in the people and the landscape there is something else that changes as we push higher into the hills. The trucks that pass us are no longer painted with images of Hindu gods but instead they all have same image of a long-haired, bearded, pale-skinned holy man who looks rather familiar. The roadside shrines and temples that we are so used to have also disappeared, occasionally being replaced by a large concrete cross instead. I find it slightly odd that after thousands of miles travelling east, slowly leaving the Christian world behind and entering the Islamic world, then in turn leaving that to enter the Hindu-Buddhist world, we have now, at the most easterly extreme of our journey, re-entered Christianity. There is of a course a simple answer for this - missionaries.
Meghalaya is known as “Scotland of the East” as apparently the British colonists thought it looked just like Scotland when they found the place. They were so enamoured that they used to flock uphill from Calcutta to spend the hot summer months in the
cooler air of Shillong, which became the summer capital of the Raj. Apart from the prevalence of Christianity we couldn’t see many similarities between Scotland and these hills covered in tropical rainforest, with their bamboo villages and paan chewing population.
At nightfall we arrive in the small town of Nongpoh and look for lodging. The single hotel has been closed for some time and has an advert for the local Presbyterian Synod painted across its front in huge white letters. Presbyterians - maybe we are back in Scotland after all! We also pass a booze shop and notice with amusement that the staff and all the stock is separated from the customers by a large steel cage, something I haven’t seen since leaving Glasgow years ago. We ask around and are told there is no lodging, but there is a government inspection bungalow so we follow directions to a group of stone and timber cottages set amid pine trees and hope we can stay here. Despite the official notices which make it clear that the bungalow is not for public use the caretaker is happy to let us stay; for 36 rupees each we have an enormous cottage all
The Inspection Bungalow - our very own house for the night for well under a quid.
In the morning we spot a large standing stone in the grounds to commemorate the tribal ancestors of the area, another similarity with Scotland. We are only halfway up to Shillong and our road continues to climb steeply, but as we get higher the ecology changes and we enter pine forest. We pass a large dam and stop by the huge lake surrounded by pine clad hills and can start to see what the Britisher’s were on about. More steep climbing through sweet smelling pines brings us finally to Shillong, supposedly a beautiful hill station. Instead we find a sprawling, dirty concrete metropolis with the roads jammed with traffic. At least the drivers are waiting patiently with their engines off and not leaning on their horns as they tend to elsewhere in India. As in Assam accommodation is more expensive, but it is even pricier here as we are up the mountains now. We bite the bullet and get a really nice room for 600 rupees, we can’t find anything less than 400 and those are pretty grotty for the money.
Shillong is the main town of Meghalaya, but also the centre of the Khasi tribal
district. Meghalaya has three main tribal groups; the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia, that supposedly originate from places as far apart as Burma, Tibet and Mongolia. The guidebooks maintain that you can still see tribal men and women carrying bows and arrows etc. but we see none of this. Many Khasi women wear traditional dress of a checked cloth pinned over their shoulder, and both men and women wear woven handbags. The majority of younger people are wearing jeans and western fashions though, and the city seems much more westernised because of this than other parts of India. Teenage boys have long hair, something unseen in mainstream India, or dress like wannabe-rapstars complete with fake bling and baseball caps. They cruise the streets crammed into their tiny Suzuki cars that have been customised with extra chrome and flashing lights, blasting out hip-hop or heavy metal. It’s not India, but its not traditional Khasi culture either. It could be anywhere in the west except the faces are all eastern. Rap and grunge is everywhere, which to be honest makes a nice change for us from the endless same-same Bollywood tunes we have heard for the last 6 months.
We spend the
afternoon wandering around the city and getting hopelessly lost in the bazaars. The Khasi people are amazing friendly and smiley and the girls are stunningly beautiful. We try lots of new and strange fruits in the market, including black mulberries and a strange sour red fruit that they tell us is called a “biscuit fruit”. The main produce here is betel though. Tons and tons of it - betel nuts, raw or chopped and ready to chew, betel leaves, and the white lime paste that is mixed with the nut and then all chewed together with the leaves. In the rest of India paan chewing is a distinctly male pastime, but not here, everybody is chewing paan, young or old, male or female. At first I think many of the women are wearing red lipstick until I realise their lips are just stained from the paan. We provide immense amusement when some beautiful Khasi paan sellers give a free taster and lesson in how to chew it. It tastes disgusting and the older women crease up in laughter at our faces as the full biter taste of the nut hits our tongues. We are given more leaf to chew to
help with the taste but this just tastes even worse. It is supposed to have some kind of intoxicating effect but we don’t experience it, I suspect you have to chew quite a lot for a long time. It is also addictive which I can easily understand - as with tobacco there is no way anybody would constantly use something that tastes so disgusting unless it had a soporific and addictive effect on you. I persevere and keep chewing as we walk through the bazaar and the taste does improve or wear off after a while, but I’m not exactly rushing back to buy more.
Although beautiful the Khasi people are incredibly small. In the shoe section of the bazaar Erika tries to get her trainers re-soled but the guy says they cannot be fixed, she must buy new ones. Erika asks where she can buy something like her current shoes and he thinks for a second before tuning them over in his hand and laughing, “Nowhere in Shillong, you can’t find shoes this big here”. The rest of the traders then all gather to have a good laugh at how big Erika’s feet are.
Rivalling the paan
industry is the gambling one; Shillong is full of betting shops that make huge business from the daily archery stakes. This is an event where a large number of archers fire a certain number of arrows at a cylindrical bamboo target in the middle of a field twice every day. You bet on the number of arrows that will stick in the target each time, and if you guess both numbers correctly you stand to win a fortune. The odds and betting system seemed quite complicated and when we asked one bookie if he could explain it he looked at us, the chart on the wall and then back at us before simply shrugging “no”. Perhaps he had tried to explain it all to dumb foreigners once before…
There was little nightlife in the city as a transport strike had evolved into a full-blown bhanda (the hindi word for closed) and all businesses closed down by 7.30 for fear of reprisals from those who have called the strike. There is apparently also ‘simmering ethnic tension’ in the town but this seems at odds to the relaxed atmosphere we perceive. As elsewhere in the North East though there is resentment
Just like home...
by unemployed local tribal people against successful incomers from Bengal and elsewhere in India and Bangladesh, or so we are told.
The next day we cycle up to Shillong peak, a pine forest covered mountain on the high ridge above the town that has a viewpoint and an enormous air-base. This is the major military base in NE India to react to the various ‘insurgencies’ by local people who resent Indian rule. The pine forests, potato fields and low-flying jets were another reminder of the Scottish hills, although the view south across the open plateau was amazing.
The next day we would cycle back up the steep ridge out of town and down the other side and across this plateau, on our way to Sohra/Cherapunjee, the rainiest place in the world. As a high ridge above the northern end of the Bay of Bengal Meghalaya attracts a lot of rain year round and had the heaviest monsoon of anywhere in Asia. Cherapunjee has recorded an average of around 12 metres of rain per year, and this high rainfall is another reason why the place is compared to Scotland. So far we had experienced only clear skies and burning
hot sunshine and as we crossed the grassy moorland of the plateau we noticed that many streams and rivers were running almost dry. Shillong had also been suffering a major water shortage. The majority of the plateau was open, rolling grassy hills that did indeed look quite like Scotland. The level of deforestation almost matched that achieved back home, although there were few cattle grazing this ‘moorland’ and little of it had been turned to crops so I wondered why all the trees had been removed.
Towards the southern edge of the plateau large canyons and gorges began to open up and on the steep, near vertical slopes of these amazing valleys we found lush tropical rainforest again. This is where the warm, moisture laden air off the Bay of Bengal hits the towering rock massif, rising and cooling and shedding record amounts of rain. There were no clouds though, just a heat haze that obscured the sprawling watery plains of Bangladesh far below us. We follow an amazing road along the edge of one of these steep canyons, the open ridge above us is scattered with standing stones, stone circles and dolmen like structures and I am intrigued
by these, they look so much like the stones of pre-Christian Europe. Nobody I speak to in Meghalaya can explain the purpose of these stones or their significance; despite the fact that Christianity was brought here only a couple of hundred years ago their old Khasi customs and religion have been completely forgotten already. Bloody missionaries, I curse the Welsh and Scottish do-gooders responsible for this loss. In a small village somewhere before Sohra we pass a “Himalayan Free Church” - even the “wee frees” have made it here. I half expect to find an Orange March somewhere round the next bend.
Fortunately we don’t and Sohra is heaving not with Orangemen but with Khasi tribesmen and women from all the surrounding tiny villages, here in town for the regular 8-day market. There is more traditional dress on show here and less hip-hop bling, but still no bows and arrows. We take the only room in town for an excessive 400 rupees but the manger of the hotel, Wanpei is such a warm and friendly guy it is hard to be miffed by the price. He also serves us double portions of food for the same price as a
Certainly treeless enough.
single one, and our huge appetites amuse him a lot - he doesn’t look like man who has ever stuck to simply wan pie in his life. The town is perched on the lip of a deep canyon with huge cliffs dropping vertically down to forested covered slopes below, though always there is some forest on fire somewhere. We watch the sunset over the cliffs and buy some gin from another caged bottle shop. Alcohol consumption is noticeably higher here than in the rest of India where Islam and Hindu-ism frown on it. Being Christian of course there are no such constraints here and I wonder if the missionaries ever considered that they would bring alcoholism with them. Two ten year old boys come to see us to ask about our journey etc. and there English is amazing. We ask their names and are surprised to learn they are called Kevin and Clive.
We spend the evening drinking and chatting to Wanpie, who plays Best Of Dire Straits over and over in his restaurant. He only has 3 tapes and as the other 2 are Bryan Adams and the Backstreet Boys this seems the better option. We ask about
One of the famous waterfalls.
the rain but he tells us that the weather had gone haywire in the last 5 years. “Now it should be cloudy with a lot of showers, not full monsoon but getting ready”. He tells us that in March they usually have over 30cm of rain, it is now almost the end of the month and so far they have had less than 3cm. There is a big problem with water as what little rain there is quickly runs off the plateau or sinks down through the porous rock that in places is full of caves and sink-holes. Erika asks Wanpei about the enormous ‘Ram Krishna Mission’ on the edge of the village, are they some kind of Hindu missionaries trying to convert Khasi to Hindu-ism? He tells us they provide education and health care services and other social needs, “but they are not like the Christians, they don’t push anything…”
Over the next few days we would be constantly reminded the rain and water crisis as we cycled around the area to see the sights - most of them being thundering waterfalls that were actually just bare rock faces with no water at all flowing over them, not
even a trickle. Where
there was water in the riverbeds groups of women were being driven out from the villages to do the laundry, and children cycled or walked to these same spots to wash and swim as there was so little water available in the villages. All the tourist bumf goes on and on about beautiful waterfalls, the romantic clouds and mist etc. etc. but there was none of this and everybody seemed concerned about the situation and how unpredictable the weather was becoming. We remembered the drought conditions across the northern plains and the erratic monsoons there, but never expected things to be so bad here, the ‘wettest place on earth’.
We visit some caves and spend a day cycling halfway down towards Bangladesh in the hope of a view - none - and to trek down into the bottom of the gorges to see some living root bridges. The Khasi living deep in the canyons have a network of paths climbing in and out of these steep forested valleys and running along them. They are amazingly steep and for one hour we descend a near vertical stone staircase down and down into the forest with the
Old & New
Nobody can explain the purpose of the Stone Monoliths thanks to the success of the church.
air growing thicker and hotter with each step. Flowers and ferns grow all over the mossy rainforest trees and huge, beautiful butterflies float all around us in the thick air. At the bottom of the slope we pas through a tiny traditional village with a half dozen houses, a small wooden church and a patch of forest cleared for a football pitch, before we plunge back into the forest and down again to the turquoise blue river, flowing sedately through a jumble of enormous rocks.
The villagers carry their foodstuffs as they grow only cash-crops such as betel and harvest other resources from the forest to sell or barter for vegetables and meat. In order to get across the deep, often raging torrents of rivers in the bottom of the valleys the Khasi trained the roots of trees growing on the banks to grow across the river. Trees such as Banyan and other fig are particularly good, and using large boulders midstream the roots slowly connect with each other and the far bank to make a bridge that can be walked across, complete with handrails and all made from the roots of living trees. These bridges get stronger and
Church on Sunday
stronger each year as the roots continue to get thicker, longer and intertwine. Despite this they are being replaced by steel wire suspension bridges that don’t look quite so nice and require a lot of concrete to anchor them to each bank.
We play on the root bridges and then find a nice deep pool below a small waterfall to enjoy a cooling swim and our picnic lunch before the long, hot, hard climb all the way back up to Sohra.
On the road back to town we meet the owner of the eco-tourist resort that promotes the root bridges. We have a long discussion about the weather and the environment - the dry conditions make it easier for people to burn the forests for relatively small-scale crop cultivation. He tells us that he has a hard time convincing people that the forests have an economic value for tourism and that the only way he can see to save what’s left is if more tourists come and people can see that this is linked to the natural beauty and nature. He put up a notice saying “Conserve the Forests” but this was quickly vandalised, so he changed it to
Down & Down
Yes it really is as steep as it looks. On the descent into the forested gorges south of Cherapunjee.
“Conserve Topsoil” and nobody objected, yet he still has a hard time making people understand the inherent link. We wish him luck, but it seems hard to imagine that this will stay the same with all the deforestation elsewhere and the climate changing so dramatically.
As ever we wish we had more time to explore the rest of Meghalaya, to cycle right out into the more remote Garo hills further west, or to trek around the canyons staying in the tiny tribal villages, but we also want to get to the Himalaya before the monsoon arrives - if it ever comes. The next day we bid farewell to Wanpei and the cliffs of Sohra and cycle back to Shillong where we buy a bus ticket to Siliguri for the next day. On our last night in Shillong there is free public concert in the main square featuring an American rock band. We actually meet them wandering around and check out the gig come evening - the bhanda has thankfully ended by now. The support group is a local Khasi thrash band playing to their hometown on a huge stage with video screens and everything and they can’t quite seem
to believe it all.
The Americans turn out to be a “Jesus-Rock” type band and having had more than enough of the whole missionary thing by now we wander off to get some food. Bizarrely despite there being a crowd of a couple of thousand people in the square the police don’t bother to close it to traffic or set up a diversion. No instead throughout the gig buses and cars are forcing their way slowly through the crowd trying to blast their horns over the deafening music. Only in India……
We turn up nice and early for our bus but of course it leaves hours late, and only after the crew from the next bus chase a large and very unhappy pig all over the bus yard, it was actually quite mental, like some kind of ‘running of the pig’. Eventually it is subdued and dragged squealing to the rear of the bus where a team of guys manhandle it into the dark luggage space. Another trussed up live pig is already in there, and only then do we spot more tied onto the roof. Our bus has no pigs thankfully, only our bikes tied to the
roof. We baksheesh the roof-man to look after them and he is so happy he buys me a cone of paan in return. Lovely…. We descend back to Guwahati in a fraction of the time it took to cycle up. After dark the bus crosses the Brahmaputra over an enormous bridge and our fellow passengers all lean across to throw coins out of the window as offerings to the moonlight god below. I bade it farewell and hope we will meet again, upstream in Tibet.
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