Shillong: The Rock Capital of India
Getting to Shillong from Guwahati should be a lot easier than it is. There are no regular buses going inbetween the two capitals, instead one must take a shared Sumo cab (Sumo being a type of Jeep constructed by TATA). This costs 200 per head and takes about three hours. The drive is quite beautiful; going up up up the mountain, entering the pine forest, passing the glittering Umiam lake and finally reaching Shillong, which must be at least 10 degrees colder than Guwahati.
A little background on the area
Before I begin my story, I want to tell you a little about the Northeast and its people. The Northeast is made up out of seven states, also known as the Seven Sisters: Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. In these states the population is largely made up of different tribes, which have lived in the area for at least hundreds of years. They look more “asian” than the Indian people from the subcontinent; legend says that these tribes wandered up from South East Asia a long time ago. They are not hindu’s, at least in Shillong, most people seem to be christian, and the local food contain a lot of meat, of every kind. Some of the tribes have a more matriarchal society, meaning that women runs businesses and that the man moves in with the woman when they get married. I love this about the Northeast, women seem so free here, liberated, you can see women everywhere, even after dark they can walk alone safely. In “India” all you ever see is dudes, old or young, alone or i groups; just dudes.
What really spark mine and August interest regarding the Northeast is the different peoples fight for their rights within or outside the Indian union. In every state, there are insurgencies, underground groups which either want more autonomy, controlled immigration, more rights, and/or Independence from India. As the British did with Kashmir, they seem to have left the Norht East in sort of a limbo, in order to cause tension in the region. Ghandi said that no one could force the tribes of the Northeast to join India, but this is just what happened. The first insurgency started as early as 1946, even before India became independent! This group is called the Naga National Council, which wants independence from India. The Naga tribes lives in the state of Nagaland, in which one until recently needed a special permit to enter, and in the northwest of Myanmar.
In Meghalaya, which previously was a part of the state Assam (you might recognise the name becuse they have a large tea industry), the biggest tribes are the Khasi tribe and the Garo tribe. They basically want more rights to their ancesteral land and controlled immigation as a means to keep their land. HNLC (Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council) is one of the most predominant of the underground groups, and started as a student movement. It’s the same old story, really, students go away to get a degree, they come home to find that there are no opportunities or very limited opportunities for them back in their home. They see other people (Indians, Bangladeshi, Nepalese) getting the jobs they want, at the same time as they are sick and tired of the Central Indian Government neglecting the state and not supporting development in the form of roads, education, health care… But what started as a group of angry students, has now become an armed insurgency with automatic weapons. These underground movements have caused several riots in the state, and hate with a vengance against non tribals, resulting in several murders of non tribals in the area (non tribals not meaning foreginers). Today the government of Meghalaya has like 90 percent of their seats reserved for tribals, but in reality 95 percent are held by tribal people. The HNLC have in many ways succeded with chasing non tribals out of Shillong by threat of violence of actual violence, but are now dealing with “illegal” immigration from Bangladesh. In Assam, after India gained independence there was a huge influx of people migriting to the state, making the tribal communities a minority in their own land. This is what the HNLC, Tripoura National Volunteers, Garo National Liberation Army and many more fear.
Me and August, being white tourists, did not experience anything other than kindness and genuinity from the people of Shillong, but we did see some messages on walls, written in large red letters “Maghalaya is not a dumping ground for Bangladeshi”, or “Justice delayed is Justice denied, let us honour the law”. We were actively looking for signs of the insurgencies after reading a book called “In pursuit of conflict” by Avalok Langer. He is a journalist, and also son to a long line of important persons within the Indian Army, making his interest in his fathers enemies s little controversial.
First time in Shillong
We were staying in Isabella Hostel, a small place whith all one can desire: refrigirator, hot water and really really good wifi. NEVER underestimate the importance of good wifi for travellers! Suraj and his family started the hostel, named after his daughter Isabella, a few years back, and are doing quite well. They are going to rebuild the hostel into a four story building and have music events every week in a few months. Suraj gave us a complete itinerary over what we should do in and around Meghalaya (which is the name of the state). The place that he recomended most was a village called Nongriat. He said that people went there for one day, but stayed for a week! This sounded like a place for us, calm, clean and relaxed. Travelling has it’s ups and downs, but traveling between places without being able to spend a longer amount of time anywhere sucks.
To get to Nongriat, one has to first go to Surah, or Cherrapunjee which the British for some reason started calling it. From Surah one must take a bus, cab or hitchhike to a village called Tyrna, some 40 min down the side of the mountain. From Tyrna there is no longer any roads, on which vehicles of any sort can drive on; to get from Tyrna to Nongriat, one must climb down at least 2500 narrow, concrete steps, cross two sketchy bridges and then climb a few steps back up before reaching your destination. Suraj told us all this, and offered to keep our heavy backpacks safe in the hostel, so that we could bring only necessities down the steps. This was a great idea.
We made friends with a man from Mumbai, named Rohit. Rohit had at this point been in the Northeast for a few months, and had only a few days left before his 50 hour trainride back to Mumbai, so he decided to come with us. Rohit started travelling a few years back, by bicycling around in India to educate his countrymen and women about veganism. During this journey he met his current girlfriend and he learned how to travel, which as I have discoverd of lately, is an art.
Shillong to Cherrapunjee
Go to Anjalee area in Shillong, if you are walking down from the Cinema hall, enter the second floor of the secound garage on your right. These garages are very sketchy, From these garages you can get to any major and minor town in the Northeast, and they are filled with jeeps and mini buses and people selling snacks, cigarettes and paan. In Shillong, EVERYONE is chewing this thing called paan, which is a bettle nut-lime-tobacco-bleech mix that makes your mouth and lips blood red. The bleech is used as glue, and someone told me that it makes you whole mouth numb. I really wanted to try paan, but too many people discouraged me so next time I guess 🙂
The ride took about 1,5 hours and cost us 70 rs per head. Well in Sorah (which is what the locals call Cherrapunjee) we found ourselves completeley alone in a very deserted market place. We had arrived on a Sunday, so I guess most people were in church. Rohit found this place called By The Way Hostel , which no longer is a hostel, but the guy rented a small hut with two rooms to us. One thing that I really like about the North east is how clean it is. Perhaps it’s related to the cold; the weather in Sorah was even colder than in Shillong. But I could feel spring in the air, in the warming sun and chilling wind, making me think of home.
From Chreeapunjee to Nongriat
At 9 am the next morning we caught a bus from outside the post office in lower Sorah and jumped off in Tyrna, the village closest to Nongriat with a road connected to it. We walked those many many, staggering steps but we were not disappointed. Imagine, all the people who live in Nongriat who does not have their primary employment in the village have to walk these steps every day. All kids above 12 years old must climb up to Tyrna every day to go to school… Every household item, food item, toilet, TV, electronic device, every brick has been carried on two legs down those stairs. The locals have gotten the concrete steps funded by a Mahatma Gandhi initiated rural employment scheme, so there is a sort of concrete highway creeping through the jungle around Nongriat and it’s neighbouring villages, as opposed to natural steps, constructed by natural stones and mud.
Coming down the mountain, the orchestra of the jungle, freaturing crickets, cicadas, frogs birds and surely millions of other insects became deafening. During our five days in Nongriat, I never managed to push their song to the back of my mind, making it hard to hear what people were saying some times. We stayed in a place called Serene Guest house, also known as Byron’s or “The Mansion”, because it’s the biggest house in Nongriat, and it’s run by Byron and his family. We paid 300 per person per night in a dormitory. As I said above, everything that is in Nongriat has been carried down there, so there is not much groceries or food items to purchase in the village, except for cockies wrapped in plastic and the occasional pineapple (which is amazing).
The homestays and Guestouses in Nongriat will provide you with breakfast and dinner, but Serene also provides you with lunch if you want it. The dinner at Serene is a delicious buffet with pretty standard food: dahl, rice and sabji, but it’s so fresh, all vegetarian and not at all so spicy, which I like alot. I have never felt like a guest in a place like this as much as I did at Byron’s. Their kids come and hang out with you, they clean the table and come running when food is ready. When we went out for long days of hiking we got lunch packed in a tupperware box, really increasing the homely feeling!
Already when we entered Nongriat, in the first place with the sign “Real Italian Coffee” we met Morgan. I found this really cool spider and I he showed interest and showed me and Rohit a huge moth, chilling on the stone beside the spider. Morgan is from Wales, a musician and a painter, and quite an inspiring person, for someone like me, who also apsire to be a painter and a musician 😛
If you read about Nongriat in a Lonley Planet guide, for example, they will tell you about the root bridges. These are what Nongriat is mostly famous for. The root bridges are actually bridges across the water made by trees. The locals have trained the trees for hundreds of years to grow in a certain way, creating these really stable and beautiful bridges. It takes 20 years for the roots to take root on the other side, but after that the bridge grows stronger with age. The Double-Decker root bridge, is exactly what it sounds like. But the best root bridges, according to me, can be found in the neighbouring village of Mynteng, because these root bridges (there are two of them) are made only by roots, no planks, or stones or wires, only roots.. Strictly Roots 😛
The next day, me and August, Rohit and Morgan went to the Rainbow falls together. When Suraj gave us our itinerary for our time in Meghalaya he said “If you go to Nongriat and do not go to the Rainbow falls, your whole trip is for nothing”. Matéo, our friend from France who tried out the North east a few months before us aslo highly recommended the rainbow falls. So there was a hype.
After walking for one hour or so on the shady jungle paths we turn a corner and see the most beautiful sight… the drop is atleast 20 meters, and the water crashes down into a pool with a colour of blue I have never seen before; it’s bluer than the sky, bluer than human eyes can be, more blue than any of my watercolours… It’s so blue it must be the original blue.
Beside the waterfall, there is a valley coming out, bringing with it a strange cold wind from up the mountain. This incredibly blue water is very cold, but being from Sweden, I have swam in way colder water, but still, it’s pretty cold. Under the waterfall the water crashes down into the pool, sending waterdrops in the form of spikes onto you, making it difficult to see and to breathe. Under the water, however, the view is as clear as day.
I think that there are many other pools that are better for swimming than the one at rainbow falls, and closer too, but still, going to the falls is a MUST! There is toilets, and a chai shop and good infrastructure all the way.
Since we were there in the dry season, much of the riverbed was dry, exposing many bolders, ready to be climbed. I think what I like to do most in the etnire world is to jump on rocks, from one to another, preferably with a little speed. Doing this makes me feel strong and capable and it’s really good excercice, because you need to involve your whole body. One day when August was sick, I took my lunch and went bouldering up the river from one bridge to another. The sound of the many waterfalls, gushing under your feet, creates a sound bubble from the songs of the jungle, a much needed break from the orchestra. Standing on these massive bolders I feel very small, how old is this river? Was the bolders or the river here first? Jungle surrounds the river on both sides, jungle filled with honey bees, the most diversity I have ever experienced in form of everything, plants, insects, reptiles… Walking arund Nongriat is like walking in a botanical garden, or a butterfly house. You do occasionally catch a whiff of jasmine flowers that grows in the wild in the jungle..
Speaking of dry riverbeds, in the monsoon the amount of water that run down this river is incredible. Sorah, or Cherapunje, is the second wettest place on earth, right after its neighboring village Mawsynram, which gets an incredible 12 meter of rainfall in a year, Sohra gets 11.7 meters per year, mostly concentrated in the months of June and July. Crazy!! This water flows down the mountain, to places like Nongriat, filling the river bed with a crashing and violent ammount of water, pure and clear water, making it even more biodiverse in monsoon, at which point you can find snakes like the Black Mamba or cobras in the area. The British established a base of operation for the region in Cherrapunjee, but were forced to move to Shillong because of the rain.
This one day,Morgan showed us to the neighbouring village of Mynteng, where we went to look at the “pure root bridges” that I mentioned above. We made a friend also, Elina from Chezc republic 🙂
Then Morgan took us down a small path into the river bed, to a place where minerals sip out of a rock, attracting hundreds of butterflies who drink these minerals! So incredibly beautiful!! The butterflies are big also, like small birds.
Further down the river is a clear pool, perfect for swimming in, with cool patterns on the rocks made from all the iron the land contains. These lands are very rich.
In the evenings we ate dinner all together and then we played cards, Morgan came some nights and we talked, one night we went with two Israelis – Jordan and Noah – to a football field where there were lots of fireflies. I had never seen fireflies before. Because it’s very dark, one cannot do much outside ot the home in the night time. The Northeast should have it’s own time zone also. The sun rises at like 3 am and sets before 6. In the south of India it rises at like 6:30 and sets at 7! In Myanmar for example, which is much closer to the North East than mainland India is, the time is one hour ahead. It’s very strange, and messed up my sleeping rythm.
IN THE NAME OF ALL GODS, KEEP INDIA CLEAN!!!!!!!!!!
But as in any paradise, tourism brings a dark side with it. Eery single day we were picking plastic, making eco bricks and filling our backpacks with old beer cans, water bottles and snack bags. It makes me so ANGRY that people come to this paradise (first of all you can drink the water in the river, finding water bottles in the river feels like some sick, really dark joke that I am not getting) and throw their trash… Is it too heavy to carry? And it is no secret that this pollution does not come from western tourist, it is the indians themseleves who ruin their own country!??? IT’S FUCKING MENTAL!! After walking the same road, three days in a row, and finding new plastic every day, I started telling groups of Indians that I met to bring their trash with them back home. Another day, I heard some one talk about the “Do not litter” girl and I thought they were refering to me, but later I met another girl who was doing the same thing ❤ Vivien from the UK, currently based in Guwahati and in Nepal, spending a few days in Nongriat for some peace and quiet. I am so happy to meet others who are as passionate by pollution as I am. We really hit it off, but unfourtunatly, me and August was leaving the next day already, so we couldn’t discuss the subject further. you keep up the good work Vivien!! ❤
Rohit left on Thursday, Morgan and Georg (from Austria) left on Friday, so it was certainly time for us to go on Saturday. Every day in Nongriat I had massive pain in my legs, feet and arms and back from all the walking and climbing and jumping. We were walking barefoot every day, and that makes you use muscles that you don’t usually need, when you are wearing shoes. The concrete steps did hurt alot though in my feet, and I still havent recovered completely. We didn’t get to say goodbye to Morgan and Georg, they left when me and August was on a hike, but coming up into Sorah, Morgan, Georg and a danish guy named Lasse, were drinking chai, just by the Sumo stand. Georg were staying in Sorah for a few more days, but Morgan and Lasse were going back into Shillong, so we all squeezed in to one of the sumos.
Second time in Shillong
Well back in Shillong, we went on top of the first garage for another chai. Morgan and Lasse were going to Guwahati and onwards, so this was good bye. As we stand up there on the roof, a guy in a 1/2 m2 “phone shop” is playing Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, making Shillong live up to its title.
Me and August return to Isabella hostel, and are very happy to see our bags still there. In the hostel there is a new group of people. It’s a fun group of Indians and a guy from Germany. We had beer in the evening and watched the finally of the Indian football league, Bangalore and Goa was playing eachother. Jit and Veron tried to explain to me how the hell Indian tourists can be so bad at being tourists, with little success. They say that the indian tourists are still learning how to travel and meet people of different cultures, and that in time, they will learn not to throw their garbage around them… and not to wear heels when you are supposed to climb a mountain… Jit and Veron have learned how to travel, just like Shaun and Danish and Rohit. They will guide the rest 🙂 It is an art, and it is a lifestyle that you must embrace whole-heartedly, like, fashion is of no importance, wear comfortable clothes, because it’s the only thing you will wear for a week and a half. Be mindfull about your environment, otherwise it will not be as nice when the next traveller arrive.
Me and August ate dosas for the remainder of our days in Shillong, and at this dosa place (it’s small, nothing special, like a fast food place), they play ABBA’s
“Money Money Money, must be funny , in a rich mans world….”
The cultural and economic influence of Sweden can be found in the strangest of places 😛 I bought a new phone also, after long discussions with Jit and Veron and Rafael in the hostel, I decided to get a Nokia. My first three phones were Nokias, so it was tome to go back to basic… I did however get a smartphone, so hopefully my pictures will be of a higher quality from now on 😛
But a word of caution to those who want to travel these areas; bring incence, becasue I am not sure why or how, but somehow the sewers are above ground, making it the worst smells come out of there.
Next post will be about our travels from Shillong to Mandalay in Myanmar.
Lots of love
Linnea & August