Sunday, December 2, 2012

Across the Khasi Hills Day 1: Getting to Cherrapunji

The Objective: The Nongthymmai living root bridge, at somewhere in the vicinity of 110 feet in length,  the longest (known) living root bridge in the Northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. Taking around 15 years to grow strong enough to become usable,  the Khasi Living Root bridges are some of the only examples of architecture that are grown rather than constructed...more on these later.




Howdy folks. Been a while, but I'll be putting up loads of stuff in the coming weeks to make up for that. Needless to say, I've made it back from my last trip to India, where I not only revisited the Cherrapunji area and explored it greater depth, but also successfully completed a NOLS Wilderness First Responder course, and then traveled over a wide swath of Southern India, from Hyderabad to Bangalore.

In these next few posts dealing with the Khasi Hills area of Meghalaya, I'm going to take a rather different tack than what I've done before: I'm going to do a separate post covering the highlights of each day. When I was there, I actually kept a fairly thorough diary (something I should probably do whenever I travel from now on). 

Right now I'm mulling the idea of trying to write a book about travelling in this area. Obviously there's the little problem of being able to stay in the area long enough to get something worth putting on paper accomplished, not to mention the issue of whether just to self publish an E-book, or to go the more ambitious root and try to produce something that I could get a real publisher for...we'll see. But now that I've visited three times, I've come to know this area comparatively well, and I get the impression that there's still plenty of amazing things down in those jungle clad canyons that nobody but the locals know about. Meghalaya is a place where new species fish and amphibians are being discovered all the time, where the longest caves in India have only recently been explored, and where tourism, at least outside of the state's main city of Shillong, has only just started. I think, and I have fairly good instincts about this sort of thing, that there's much in Meghalaya that has yet to be noticed. 

But if I'm going to write a travel book that's still ahead of the curve, I had better get started pretty soon: Probably in ten years the area will be seeing a hundred times as many tourists as it does now, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if in the future the jungle canyons of Meghalaya become one of the top tourism destinations in all of India...they certainly deserve to be.



Across the wide Brahmaputra, as seen from my girlfriend's back porch in Guwahati, Assam. This is where my travels into the Khasi Hills began. 

My goal on this particular trip was to reach a guesthouse in a village called Nongriat, which, at the bottom of a 4000 foot canyon that cuts into the southern edge of the Shillong Plateau,  has become world famous over the course of the past few years for its spectacular double decker root bridge...but getting there from Guwahati is no simple task. First you have get from Guwahati to Shillong, and then from Shillong to Sohra (Sohra being the local, easier to spell (Yay!), name for Cherrapunji town), and then from Sohra you have to get to a village called Tyrna, from where you hike down 2000 feet via stone steps, and then cross two raging rivers via rusty steel wire suspension bridges...and then you're in Nongriat. Needless to say, it's rather a lot to accomplish in one day.

My goal on the first day was simply to reach Sohra, a town once known as the wettest place in the world in terms of precipitation, though that title now goes to a different town in the Khasi hills just a few miles away called Mawsynram, which has received over a thousand inches of rain in a single year. 

I took a non-AC taxi from Paltan Bazaar in Guwahti, up to Shillong. The start of my journey, as is so often the case, was rather bumpy. Me and an Assamese guy who goes to visit his family in Shillong had already gotten seats in our taxi (rs. 300 for Guwahti to Shillong, which isn't half bad), but the third passenger had been holding us up by telling the driver that he might take our cab, while at the same doing all he could to bargain down an A.C. cab to take him for the same rate as our non-A.C. cab....I think he thought he was being clever, but in reality it just pissed everybody off, the non-A.C. cab didn't take him, everybody in my cab got really sweaty because we had just been sitting there in the torrid Guwanati center city funk, and everybody got ten minutes late...still, eventually, we did made it out of Guwahati....though I wound up in the middle of the back seat, between the new arrival and my sweaty fellow traveler,  who was perfectly friendly towards me, but refused to speak with the other guy the whole duration of the trip.

Sweaty, pissed off negotiations at Paltan Bazaar, Guwahati, where I caught a taxi to Shillong.

Like travelling for more than a few hours in any other part of Northeast India, the trip from Guwahati up onto the Shillong Plateau is like crossing into a different country. The plateau itself slants gently up out of the Brahmaputra river valley, getting steadily, though never dramatically, higher and higher, until, just a few miles from Sohra, the land suddenly drops off in a series of vast escarpments with giant canyons chewing deeper and deeper into them. Geologically speaking, the plateau is at least in part composed of some of the oldest rock formations on the surface of the planet, dating back to the very first continental land masses in the Earth's history, and was originally attached to  the central Indian Plateau. After the collision of India with the rest of Asia, a fault was created into which the ancestors of the Ganges and Brahmaputra flowed out to the Bay of Bengal, in the process isolating the eastern segment of the plateau.

Leaving Guwahati, you start out on G.S. Road and then get onto route 47, which takes you directly along the Assam-Meghalaya border. Here, all along the right (Meghalaya) side of the road, you see one wine shop after another after another after another (after another, after another). In Meghalaya, apparently the taxes on alcohol are much more reasonable than in Guwahati, so it seems that the whole city flocks to the border to get its booze.

By this point, most of the faces you see are still pretty typically "Indian," the vast majority of Assamese people being Indo-Europeans (or Indo-Aryan...or Caucasian and Indian ...whatever term you want to use, I think you know what I mean). But it's just across the border that you start to see the occasional Khasi woman wearing a distinctive, usually grey, checkered cloth, known, at least according to the website wearabout.com (http://wearabout.wordpress.com/tag/khasi-women/) as a Jain-Kyrshah. But gradually, as the road gains in altitude, the people you see on either side start to look less and less Indian and more and more, again for lack of a better term, Southeast-Asian, until you begin passing through villages where you see practically no Indian features, except maybe on the ubiquitous road crews. 

The Khasis are remarkable for quite a number of reasons. From an anthropological perspective, they are one of the few societies on earth who have matrilineal system of decent, meaning that, among other things, property is inherited through the wife's side of the family rather than the husbands's. They are also one of the very few people in India to speak what is known as an Austro-Asiatic Language. Rather counter-intuitively, the language the Khasis speak isn't related to the languages of anybody around them. While one might assume that Khasi would be more closely related to the language of its next door neighbors,  the Sino-Tibetian speaking Garo's, than to some of the adjacent Indo-European tongues such as Begali and Assamese, it appears (at least from what I've read) that Khasi and it's various dialects do not have a common ancestor with any of the other languages in the Northeast. In fact, the only other Austro-Asiatic speakers in India are tribals in east and central India, who speak what are known as Munda Languages, which constitute their own, and only distantly related, branch of the family. The Khasi language is instead related to tongues such as Khmer and Vietnamese, and how exactly the Khasis wound up where they did, and where exactly they came from, is a matter of much speculation...I was just reading an article by a man who was arguing that the ancestral Khasis were in fact Celts.....I doubt it, though one does see tartan patterned cloths everywhere...Meghalaya is the Scotland of the East, after all....Anyway, one of the few things about their origin that is fairly certain is that the Khasis arrived in Northeast India before most of the other groups who are there now. There is apparently reason to believe that, before the ancestors of most modern Assamese moved in, the site of what is now Kamakya temple in Guwahati was a proto-Khasi place of worship. 

Also, on rather a different note, Khasis are remarkable in that they they seem to be some of the very friendliest people in the whole country, which, at least for me, is one of the main reasons for taking the time to reach this part of the world. Much of the typical tourist hassle that comes with the territory in places like Agra, or in most of Rajasthan, is noticeably absent up in the Khasi hills (outside of Shillong, at least), even though tourist infrastructure is starting develop.


A poster for some locally produced Khasi film called: "Mafia, The Futureless Life" that was on a wall in the Shillong bus stand. It looks f***ing awesome. Here's the preview:


 I know almost nothing about Khasi language films, other than that the first was called Manik Raitong, or, "Manik the Miserable", and it was made in 1984....otherwise the Khasi film industry is a world unto itself that I have yet to set foot upon, though I would definitely love to see Mafia: The Futureles Life.


As me and the two other passengers in the taxi gained in elevation, the sky became increasingly darker, until, about 40kms out from Shillong it began to rain, and it didn't stop until we reached the city. There I had to change vehicles. I knew that in order to get from Shillong to Sohra, you need to catch what's known as a Sumo at the Shillong bus stand. However, that turned out to be rather an adventure in and of itself. The Shillong bus stand isn't the most attractive place in the world...actually, it's quite loud, crowded, dirty, and unpleasant, and, as the (seemingly) only white person in town, I had swarms of taxi drivers running out of weird places to get me to ride with them to Shillong...which would have been vastly more expensive, but also vastly more comfortable, than riding in a Sumo. Actually, some day I should properly visit Shillong. I'm sure the bus stand isn't representative of the whole place.

Sumos are big four wheel drive taxis that are common in the Northeast, where the roads tend to be steep, or in poor repair, or both, or not roads at all. They're designed to hold around nine people, which in practice generally means about 15, not including babies and grannies (and livestock). Sumo rides aren't especially comfortable...except when you buy all the seats, which I've never tried, but probably should some day just to be able to say that I did. But they are cheaper: My options were rs. 1000 in a taxi, or rs.40 in a Sumo...Not a difficult decision. 


Raising environmental awareness at the Shillong bus stand. 

The stand itself is something like a huge, noisy, really busy, parking garage, with buses downstairs and Sumos upstairs. It took quite a bit of asking, along with hiking with my huge, full, trekking bag, to find where exactly to pick up a Sumo for Sohra. I felt like I was getting sucked deeper and deeper into the dark world that was the bus stand. After navigating for some time, asking assorted amused locals where exactly to go, I finally came to a place where two of the large load-bearing concrete pillars that hold up the parking garage were marked "Sohra." However, I was soon to find out that this only meant that Sumos Sohra-bound would only be showing up in that general vicinity, along with plenty of others that were heading various other places....this meant that, for the next 45 minutes or so, I had to ask each and every Sumo that pulled up where it was going (which some little kids thought was funny as hell).

Once I found one that was going to Sohra, my troubles were far from over. Usually when you ride a Sumo and have a big piece of luggage (such as a pig (or chicken) in a basket...a common sight), you put it up on the luggage rack. But this particular one didn't have didn't have a luggage rack. What was more, the instant it showed up, it was crowded by around 25 Khasis, who all started pouring in, cramming themselves into every conceivable space...the fact that Khasis tend to be small just means that there's less room between them...the effect was something like a clown-car routine in reverse. Anyway, with my large bag, I didn't see any chance of fitting into the Sumo, so I waited for the next one....and was subsequently presented with exactly the same situation. So, I decided, "To hell with it, I'll just push my way in, bag and all." Given that I'm relatively tall, and I had a great big bag with me, I think I took up roughly as much space as four Sohra-bound Khasis, but I still squeezed in somehow, holding my huge trekking bag in my lap, and feeling supremely uncomfortable. However, it turned out that the Sumo did have a trunk in the back, though getting my bag there required that I hand it back across two rows of squashed Khasis. For a few seconds after completing this maneuver I actually did have a little tiny bit of space, though much of this was soon filled by a tiny but especially chatty young woman who squeezed herself in at the last minute. 

Still, I made it out of Shillong....

I don't who these fellows were....You can't see it in this picture, but they were both fully 30 feet tall....they loom menacingly over the entrance to the Shillong bus stand like the watchers before the tower of Cirith Ungol...Exactly...

Outside of Shillong, the road to Sohra continues to gain in elevation, while the landscape consists of misty, green, rolling moorland, dotted with ancient Khasi monoliths and scarred occasionally by cement and coal mining operations, all of it underlain by black limestone, outcroppings of which are frequently visible where rushing rivers have stripped away the ground cover. The area is pleasant to look at, though not spectacular, and the landscape certainly gives no indication that it's about to drop straight down, almost a mile, to the plains of Bangladesh..... 

.....and, needless to say, when you're completely surrounded by fog, you get even less of an indication. I had known from previous visits that, after some time the road begins to travel along the edge of a giant canyon, but under the conditions I had found myself in, I barely got any sense of that at all. Twenty or thirty miles out of Shillong, the fog and the rain moved in, and for the rest of that day (and most of the next two), it was nothing but rainy soggy wetness ...not that I really have a right to complain, the Khasi Hills being, after all, the wettest place in the world. The reason for this is that monsoonal moisture moves up out of the Bay of Bengal and travels unimpeded over the plains of Bangladesh, but then hits the sudden escarpment that makes up the southern boarder of the Shillong Plateau and gets stopped dead. Though they call them the Khasi Hills, a more fitting name might be the Khasi Walls...

So, I can honestly say that I didn't see anything at all until I reached Sohra....other than fog, and lots of it....



After dark in misty Sohra Bazaar, from my spartan room at Hotel Sohra Plaza...there are a couple of little restaurants in the building across the way that I went to later... 

Getting into Sohra, I checked into Hotel Sohra Plaza, which consists of a few rooms opening off a restaurant, directly above a different, competing, hotel that also consists of a few rooms opening off a restaurant. The building is right in the middle of Sohra's little bazaar, which seems to be the primary hub of activity for miles and miles around. That makes the hotel rather a noisy place, though people seem to pack it in relatively early in Sohra, so it's not too much of a problem. My room was, just as the Lonely Planet promised, spartan...though not unlivable. It certainly was clean. Though the door was made of plywood, it wasn't a bad place to spend a couple of night...and the restaurant was really quite good. 

After taking a walk out in the misty night, and buying a bunch of pens (mine were all out of ink, you see), I went to bed early, with the song "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by the Scorpions blaring up from some unknown location below. Yes, the Scorpions are huge in Meghalaya....

So, that's all for now, I should be ready with the next installment soon. 

3 comments:

  1. Gatsby in Cherrapunji
    Got hungry.

    Sir, that is the best I can do this afternoon.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, yeah, when I watched that Khasi movie trailer I thought they were speaking something similar to Vietnamese or Thai. It was sort of mystifying.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Can't wait til "Mafia; The Futurless Life" comes to Regal. That living root bridge is one of the trippiest things I've ever seen!!!

    ReplyDelete