The abode of clouds..

May 13, 2008 at 10:24 am (Travelogue)

As we left Indore at noon on the 4th of March, all of us were quite excited at the thought of seeing a new place in our country. We didn’t really know what to expect in terms of the security situation having heard conflicting reports from people who had been there before. Nevertheless, the spirits were high and following a boring train journey (which allowed all of us to catch up on sleep more than anything else), we got off at Nizamuddin station on 5th morning. After a quick breakfast, we started for the airport in a private cab which had a “press” sign at the back. It turns out that the Sardar who drive us to the airport was a driver for one of the local media persons and he threaded the car through some restricted areas claiming he was driving a vehicle for the press. It was funny to see him convince guards at 2-3 places that “yeh Press ki gaddi hai!” After the first round of acting as media people, we landed at the Delhi Airport for the flight to Guwahati. Being a Deccan flight, no surprises that the flight was delayed by about 2 hours and we landed at the Gopinath Bordoloi Airport at Guwahati around 3.30 PM. As we stepped out of the airport, we were surrounded by a group of cab-drivers for the first out of many rounds of haggling for prices from then on. After weighing the options, we sat on the ASTC (Assam State Transport Corporation) bus leading to Paltan Bazaar which was supposed to be the central market of Guwahati. As soon as the bus left the airport, we encountered lots of greenery with hills in the background giving a feeling of being in Kerala with the coconut and palm trees as well as the water streams flowing all around. Needless to add, Viggy was extremely excited until the bus entered the city of Guwahati.

The one thing that struck me about Guwahati was how dirty the place is. I don’t know if it was just me who felt this but the entire place seemed to be strewn with litter. When we reached Paltan Bazaar, the first thing Viggy noticed was a board “Kerala Bhavan” written in Malayalam and Tamil. We managed to somehow convince him to try something a little more local than Kerala Bhavan and after a heavy meal mainly consisting of rice, fish and dal, we were on our way to Shillong in an ASTC cab. Even though it was dark by the time we left Guwahati, we were all excited about the drive to Shillong looking forward to the the first of our destinations.

Meghalaya

The road from Guwahati to Shillong was initially very crowded with traffic jams for most part. As we entered Meghalaya, the climate seemed a lot cooler than before. With plenty of blind curves, the road as well as the constant traffic kept me awake. The most exciting part of the journey was when one of us suddenly decided that we needed a bottle of water. We noticed a small shop open and stopped the cab abruptly near it. This prompted two young security personnel to walk up to our cab and interrogate us. A thorough ID check of every single one of us along with checking of the driver’s license and vehicle papers happened. While this was on, we happened to notice that the place we had stopped was called Nongpoh. The entire place seemed really quiet for 7 in the evening and we learnt from the driver that security in this area was tight because this was the election season in Meghalaya. After being questioned for 10 minutes regarding our purpose of visit by the guards, we were finally on our way. The rest of the way was pretty much through hills and the weather was increasingly colder. The entrance into Shillong is through a bridge called Barapani. Because it was almost 8.30 by the time we reached Barapani, we could not see the spectacle on our way into Shillong.

It was almost 9 PM when we got off the cab at Police Bazaar. Viggy wanted to check out a hotel called Pine Borough which was in one of the side roads. As the others checked the rooms, I waited outside in the cold seeing over the luggage. There appeared to be a brawl brewing outside the restaurant as the lady managing it was driving out the last of the customers, all of whom did not exactly seem very stable. Our driver started telling me that it was not a good idea for us to keep our luggage outside like this. He seemed more scared than I was about the chances of a scuffle. At that time, a group of policemen came down the road and surrounded the area where the trouble was starting. One of them stopped next to me and started asking routine questions about where I was from and what I was doing there. On hearing that I was a visitor from Indore, he appeared to relax a bit and chatted with me for a while about our trip plans. He informed me that 9 PM was the closing time for all the shops and restaurants in Shillong. Apparently the place was known for drinking problems and the police had to make the rounds at night to ensure that there is no trouble. He also suggested to me that one of his friends had some cheap rooms available in case we were having trouble locating a hotel that late. In the meantime, the others decided on a hotel called Magnum with decent rooms. We moved in and settled down comfortably for the night.

To see some of the pictures of the places mentioned below, click here

Cherrapunji

As we got ready to leave on the morning of 6th March, we were still undecided on whether to cover Cherrapunji (its called Sohra now) or Mawsynram on the first day. We eventually decided on Cherrapunji for that day knowing that we would end up skipping Mawsynram in the process. The way out of Shillong towards Sohra was through the Army cantonment as well as the Air force centre. As our man Viggy kept clicking away photographs, the cab driver asked him to stop clicking any pics of the army area. Viggy started off in typical fashion wanting to know why it was such a big issue and we asked him to restrain himself just to be on the cautious side.

The drive to Cherrapunji was really nice with scenic views on both sides of the road. We kept crossing a number of small villages. A characteristic feature in most of them was the ubiquitous presence of small kids carrying schoolbags as well as women walking with either a kid or basket tied to their backs. The distant valleys and hill-tops coupled with some unique huts along the way made the ride through the Khasi hills worth it. Every village we passed looked similar to the previous one with some unique constructions.

One thing that struck me about the area was the amount of quarrying and physical construction work happening along the roads. In fact most of the men seemed to be involved only in physical labour whereas the women took care of the shops. We learnt along the way that Meghalaya is a matriarchal society and women generally enjoy the status that men seem to in most other communities in our country.

On the way to Sohra

The ‘Abode of Clouds’ has a very misty look to it all around and the view was not very clear over a distance. On the way to Sohra, we stopped at a bridge called ‘Nong Sai Siem’, where we got the first uninhibited view of the depth of valleys along the Khasi Hills. Viggy, Vicca and Manas also bought a ‘head-massage’ at the shop selling local things. Although it looked quite innocuous, they claim it is effective! After a quick stop at the Seven sister falls (we had a hard time locating the 7 falls there!) and an amusement park called ‘Sai-Mika’, we reached the eco-park at Cherrapunji with viewpoints overlooking the plains of Bangladesh at a distance. The border is apparently about 12 kms from the village we could see at a distance. While the plains themselves were not visible to us from such a distance, we could see patches of water beyond the hills which supposedly precede the plains.

Next stop – Mawsmoi Caves. They have been indigenously built with lighting inside. As we walked in, we were told to just stay where we were in case the power goes out as there were no generators. It does get really dark inside and unless one knew the way, it was very easy to get hurt. The narrow entrances and rocky pathways make it a place to visit for the young and the fit. As we approached the other end of the caves, yours truly and Viggy decided to explore more and managed to figure out another small entrance. The cave inside had absolutely no lighting. As neither of us had a cell-phone with torch, we used our cell to get the reflection from sunlight and with some strategic positioning, we were able to throw further light in and I went in as far as I could see. By this time, Putta also located the entrance and the others joined us. Iyer’s mobile had a torch and the two of us walked in to the dark cave which kept forking into branches inside. After sliding and slipping our way in for about 25-30 metres, we reached a very narrow gap leading further in and decided not to take the risk of hurting ourselves in the dark. I and Viggy left our signatures at the entrance of the cave as we left the place. After the exploration, we ate a well-earned local lunch at a nearby hut. We got a taste of Khasi food and got to see a typical khasi home. Again, it is worth mentioning that it was women who were running the place – an old woman and presumably her daughter – while the man who walked in later stayed at the back of the house not venturing to speak to us even once. We also realized with the rates the woman quoted for lunch how the visitors are always fleeced if possible.

Mawsmoi was followed by Nohkalikai falls, which is a nice viewpoint atop a hill overlooking the waterfall at a distance. This waterfall is one of the biggest in terms of height in the north-east. It is of course a lot more scenic during rains. Nevertheless, we got some good shots of the landscape there even though we didn’t have a camera good enough to capture the ridges between the hills. We were accompanied by a group of four mallus, true to the saying that wherever you go, you will always find a malayali! Iyer and Manas decided to do some exploring and walked down the hill following two of the locals. It took all of 10 seconds for the locals to walk down the distance whereas our men kept feeling their way through for 5 minutes and finally gave up.

Nohkalikai Falls

The final destination at Cherrapunji was the Ramakrishna Mission school and museum which gave us a gist of the history of Cherrapunji with nice pictures of all the nearby attractions. Sohra was earlier very important as it used to be the connecting point from Kolkata through Dhaka. From a spot at RKM, we could see the Lawkyntang forest as well as Mawsynram at an aerial distance of 6 km. We also saw pictures of the Shivling (hill-top) from where the Bangladesh border is clearly visible. As we left RKM, we left with a slight regret that we were unable to make a trip to Shella, which is the last village in India before hitting the hills preceding the Bangladesh border.

Shillong

After the day-long trip to Sohra, we spent the evening in Police Bazaar, the central market area in Shillong, looking at the various local articles. Giving in to Vicca’s constant pestering, all of us tasted momos during dinner, which seemed like vegetable stuffing in what are called as “kolakattai” in south india.

The next day was entirely dedicated to places in and around Shillong. This included Elephant falls or the Three step falls which also had a park adjoining it. We also visited Shillong peak, located within the Air force command area. We got a nice view of the entire city of Shillong along with the forests and landscape surrounding the place. We also saw a fairly detailed map of Meghalaya giving us a good idea of the general direction of each of the tourist spots. The last two spots we saw were Lady Hydari Park and St. Mary’s cathedral in Shillong. The park gave us a flavor of the local flora and fauna.

Shillong Peak

Our drive around Shillong coincided with the day the assembly election results in Meghalaya were being announced. It was amazing to see the number of vehicles carrying hoards of people into the city of Shillong right through the day. They were all bundled into the cars and jeeps moving in shouting slogans for their respective parties throughout the day. There were major traffic jams all across the city with a lot of roads blocked for processions. We finally managed to wriggle our way out of the traffic, finish lunch and leave from the hotel. On the way out of Shillong, we stopped at Barapani – which is a very scenic bridge with a good view of the river and a beautiful entrance to the city. The driver told us that the water levels during the rains rise alarmingly and the dam has been constructed to utilize the water effectively. We were not allowed to take pics of the dam as this was again controlled by the Army.

On the way back to Guwahati, our driver – Munna Singh – kept giving us lots of “info” about the place. One could see he was majorly fond of Shillong and kept rattling on about what all we could have done had we stayed longer in Shillong. We had a brief halt at Nongpoh – which looked very different at 5 PM from what we saw on our way into Meghalaya. At Byrnihat, we reached the border of Meghalaya & Assam and interestingly, for the next 10 km, we had Meghalaya to our left and Assam to our right. All the wine shops, petrol bunks were predominantly on the left side in Meghalaya due to the cheaper rates with lesser tax. Khanpara is the place where we finally moved fully into Assam. We reached Guwahati by about 7.30 PM and finally parked in at Hotel Geetanjali at Paltan Bazaar having completed the first among the unique destinations we were visiting on this trip.

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