Monday, September 14, 2015

The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 2: Bridges Near Pynursla


Jungle Man John Cena and friend cling to roots with the longest known living root bridge in the background

First, for more info on obscure living root bridges, go to: The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 1: Bridges of the Umngot River basin

Also, for info on a trip I'll be leading to the amazing place in the picture above (along with tons of other incredible places!), go to: Northeast India Explorer Itinerary



Before I get into the post, I'd just like to thank my friend Alan West, who pointed me in the general direction of the area in this post, and also my redoubtable jungle guides: Morningstarr, John Cena (A.K.A. Jungle Man John Cena), and Morningstarr's dad. Without them, I might very well have seen just a few of the bridges in the area, and then moved on. These three know their area incredibly well, and were able to show me places I otherwise would have surely missed. They know that what they have in their area is something truly of value.

So, moving right along:

PYNURSLA

VILLAGES COVERED: RANGTHYLLIANG / MAWKYRNOT-MYNDRING 

Once I had reached the medium sized Khasi town of Pynursla, I had already vastly exceeded the number of living root bridges that I thought I could expect to find on my long trek. My assumption was that the trip's greatest discoveries were probably all behind me. But then Pynursla blew that notion away. Within a few kilometers of that totally unassuming, entirely untouristed town, is the highest density of living root architecture known to exist. In comparison, the living root bridges around Cherrapunji seem rather thinly spaced out. Even around the village of Nongriat, at the moment the center of root bridge tourism, there are only  (by my calculations) nine living root structures, including two rather beyond the tourist zone. In the Pynursla area, I came across as many on a single hike. Here, I'm listing nineteen structures. There are many more in the area. 

Just a warning: The photos below are of very variable quality. Conditions were often just too rough to have the time to take lots of really good photos. All nineteen bridges were visited over the course of only four hikes, and these were all immensely difficult endeavors. My guides had such a knowledge of the land that they simply did not need trails. Rather than walking, they often preferred to climb, up and down unstable slopes, precariously clinging to roots and bushes, me following as best I could. And, for some of the living root bridges, this was the best way to reach them. Many living root bridges do not have clear paths to them (or paths leading to them at all). Those that have survived yet outlived their usefulness are lost out in the jungle, forgotten, but still growing stronger. 

The incredible density of living root structures in this area should not lead to the assumption that there is no place in Meghalaya that has more of them. The only thing that the number of living root bridges around Pynursla suggests to me is that, in all likelihood, there are places with just as high, or even higher, concentrations of living root architecture, that are simply further from civilization and therefore will take longer to become known (if the bridges aren't destroyed in the meantime, which is likely).


RANGTHYLLIANG / MAWKYRNOT: 16 BRIDGES (MANY MORE UNVISITED)

At the moment, the village with the most known living root bridges is a small settlement, almost a kind of suburb, of the town of Pynursla (though it in fact predates the town), called Rangthylliang. The village is on the edge of a vast canyon system, and it's land slopes down into the gorge via a huge, steep, jungle covered ridge. An astonishing number of living root structures occur on this promontory, a handful of which are already starting to be famous, though the vast majority are unknown.

While I can reasonably safely say that I was the first foreigner to reach most of these bridges, several very local Khasi tourism societies do operate in the area, though so far they seem to have had little luck promoting the area. Maybe this post will help in a small way.

There are a few bridges that have been "discovered" as it were. These are what I'm listing as Rangthylliang 1-5. Several of these are among the most extraordinary known living root bridges, including the world's longest example, and also an (unfortunately damaged) "Triple Decker." There is, sadly, something of a political dispute over the world's longest bridge: It actually crosses over the stream that marks the border between Rangthylliang's land and that of a village called Mawkyrnot. The bridge appears to have been planted on the Rangthylliang side of the border, but it's easier to access from Mawkyrnot. The only tourism that the area is seeing at the moment is a little bit coming from the world famous village of Mawlynnong, and a few guides from that village take tourists to the longest bridge via Mawkynot. The bridge seems to be claimed by that village, which is something that's not going to sit too well in Rangthylliang once the area starts getting famous and tourist rupees start pouring in...I was told that, back in the hazy past, the two villages fought wars over that particular piece of real-estate, so I hope that doesn't start up again.

I'm listing the first five bridge under Rangthylliang, though be advised that more people in Meghalaya (though not many!) are going to have heard of Mawkyrnot as the village to approach these bridges from. After 1-5, the rest of the bridges mostly seem not to have been photographed or visited by outsiders....not that anything on this list has seen more than a handful of visitors at this point...

RANGTHYLLIANG 1:

This is, in terms of a single span, the longest known bridge (there is another bridge, later in this post, which might be longer in terms of its full structural length, through it's divided into two spans). This is also the most famous bridge on this list, having appeared in a photo in The Atlantic. The photographer had visited Mawlynnong, and was brought here. Still, visitors are exceedingly few, though that's likely to change very soon.


The classic shot of Rangthylliang 1, undoubtedly one of the most spectacular examples of living root architecture. At over 50 meters, it's much longer than the longest (known) living root bridge in the Cherrapunji area. It's also over 30 meters above its stream. The claim has been made that it is a newly planted bridge, since it does not have functioning rails composed of living roots. I find this doubtful: The main root of the structure is very thick, while the tree, which you can see on the right of this picture, certainly looks like it was modified a very long time ago. Also, some of the secondary roots coming down from the main root look to be as thick as small trees. It seems either that the rails were destroyed at some point, or that the bridge has always had the current, hybrid, arrangement, where bamboo is used to provide the actual walkway and hand-railings


Looking up at Rangthylliang 1 from below. Note the way that the tree the living root bridge is formed of seems to lean out over the precipice. This would seem to indicate that the tree has been there a very long time, and that the ground beneath it has been undercut. That also leads me to believe that Rangthylliang 1 is an older bridge

RANGTHYLLIANG 2:

Rangthylliang 1, 2, and 3, are all within sight of each other. Rangthylliang 1 and 3 cross the small stream that separates the land of Rangthylliang and Mawkyrnot. Rangthylliang 2 spans a small brook that comes down a rocky cliff face and then feeds into the larger stream, between the other two bridges. It's a very pretty bridge in its own right, though not an especially photogenic one. 


Rangthylliang 2, viewed from a distance


Crossing Rangthylliang 2

RANGTHYLLIANG 3:

This is quite a large, "classic," living root bridge, perhaps 150 meters upstream from Rangthylliang 1. 


Jungle Man John Cena swinging on a root, under Rangthylliang 3


Rangthylliang 3 


RANGTHYLLIANG 4:

This is a very small bridge between the three pictured above and the next entry. As I had to keep up with my guides, I only manged to take one photo, which was out of focus, and wouldn't look like anything if I posted it here. I would estimate it's about eight feet long.

RANGTHYLLIANG 5 (RANGTHYLLIANG TRIPLE DECKER):

This extraordinary bridge is about a twenty minute (at a reasonable pace) walk from Rangthylliang 1. When I first visited, I had thought that it was a "Double Decker," with a similar arrangement to the world famous Double Decker living root bridge in Nongriat. While perhaps not quite so perfect as the more famous structure, the Rangthylliang bridge struck me at the time as rather more spectacular, simply because the upper span was longer, and also higher above its stream, than the Nongriat Bridge. 

Sadly, the bridge has been damaged very recently. A tree has fallen over onto the lower span, and if you weren't paying close attention, you might not even realize that the bridge was a multiple span structure. That being said, the span that was hit does not seem to have been badly damaged, it's just partially hidden under a big tree. If there was somebody in the area who was sufficiently motivated (and there does not seem to be at the moment), they could probably repair the living root bridge. 

However, just in the last couple of days, as I was scouring the internet to see if there was any other information on the bridges in this area, I found something that makes this bridge even more exceptional. It may be the world's only known example of a "Trip Decker" living root bridge. A very local Khasi hiking club put up a photo of the living root bridge from two years ago on their Facebook page. This was before the tree fell, and what the photo shows is actually three spans. 

At the time I visited, I didn't see a third span. It might have been destroyed, or it might have been hidden by the fallen tree. Also, there is the possibility that the third span is actually an entirely separate living root bridge, grown from another tree. Still, whether it is a double or triple decker structure, Rangthylliang 5 illustrates that the diversity of living root bridges, and of living root architecture in general, is vastly greater than than the world assumes.


My guides on Rangthylliang 5. You can see here that the upper span is a great distance above its stream. The lower span is under that tree


Jungle Man John Cena on the uppermost span


Here you can get a fairly good impression of the arrangement of the two upper spans. It's a fairly similar to layout of the world famous double decker living root bridge in Nongriat


Investigating the lower (or middle?) span


Jungle Man John Cena on the upper span

RANGTHYLLIANG 6:

This small, simple bridge is beyond Rangthylliang 5. I've never seen another photo of it online.

Jungle Man John Cena on Rangthylliang 6

RANGTHYLLIANG 7: 

This living root bridge is interesting simply because it's very newly planted. It's two or three years old at most, and probably has at least a decade to go before it becomes operational. 

It's important for two reasons: First, it demonstrates that the actual practice of creating living root bridges is still alive (though clearly becoming rarer) in the Rangthylliang area. Second, it is the only newly planted bridge that I've ever encountered outside of a tourist zone. I'm reasonably sure no other outsider has seen it.


The roots of Rangthylliang 7 are very thin. I suspect that a large number of living root bridges actually don't make it past this stage and are destroyed in landslides, fires, and floods

RANGTHYLLIANG 8:

This is another truly remarkable living root structure, though, funnily enough, when I visited it didn't even occur to me how unusual it was. Here, a single tree has been ingeniously modified into both a bridge and a ladder. 



The main bridge, which would be an impressive example of living root architecture all by itself. Note the root swing.

My friend Morningstarr climbing the living root ladder, which was made by training the secondary roots hanging down from the bridge into rungs


Jungle Man John Cena swinging again....he never misses a chance...

RANGTHYLLIANG 9:

This is yet another extraordinary living root bridge. 

Two things set it apart. The first is that, as I remember it, this bridge is higher up off its stream than any I've come across. If memory serves, the stream was something like 100 meters below. Needless to say, a fatal drop. The living root bridge crosses a deep canyon. Unfortunately, at least as far as photography is concerned, it's right in front of a waterfall (dry at the time I visited) and therefore its almost impossible to capture its great height in a photograph (in the time I had...we moved on pretty quickly). A picture looking straight down from the bridge doesn't look like anything.

The second thing that sets it apart is that the bridge is another double span structure, but in this case, it's two spans are at a ninety degree angle to one another, an arrangement which I've never seen elsewhere....this is one I'm really looking forward to getting back to and taking more pictures of...

Jungle Man John Cena on Rangthylliang 9. Note the very straight object near the bottom of the photo. My theory is that this is a failed or abandoned root bridge. I'll talk about it in the last post is this series. 

RANGTHYLLIANG 10:

This was a bridge that my companions and I crossed over very quickly, right before we started a near vertical, thirty minute downward climb. Below is the only picture of the bridge that I managed to take. The bridge is clearly very old, and has been damaged in several places. 


Morningstarr on Rangthylliang 10

RANGTHYLLIANG 11:

This is a spectacular, classic, living root bridge. A second root has been trained across the river right next to it, creating something like another "Double Decker," though the other root does not constitute a separate, functional span. 

I wasn't able to establish what the purpose of the second root was. Currently, there does not appear to be any effort being made to use the second root to form a new span. What it might be is a remnant of an older span that has been almost totally destroyed in floods, except for that one root...or it might just be a mistake...

Looking up at Rangthylliang 11


Closer on the main span and the mysterious second root


My companions on the main span of Rangthylliang 11

RANGTHYLLIANG 12:

This is one of a pair of two small, though very old, living root bridges, well off any major trails. Living root bridges such as these, which must be very numerous across Meghalaya, would be absolutely impossible to find without guides who had an extremely intimate knowledge of the local landscape.


Rangthylliang 12....yes, the photo doesn't look like much, though this is the best one I managed to take

RANGTHYLLIANG 13:

Judging by the secondary roots growing out of the bottom of this living root bridge, it must be very ancient...perhaps the oldest I reached in the Rangthylliang area. As I remember, it was no longer in use.



Morningstarr grins like a madman on Rangthylliang 13


Jungle Man John Cena finding another opportunity to swing on roots, in front of Rangthylliang 13

RANGTHYLLIANG 14:

Rangthylliang 14 and 15 are another pair of small but interesting living root bridges. Again, without really good guides, I never would have even suspected they were there. They were accessed by climbing up a stream bed, the paths they once serviced having long since faded away.


Rangthylliang 14 in the foreground, with 15 in the background. Why the original planters put the two living root bridges so close together is an interesting (though probably unanswerable) question

RANGTHLLIANG 15:

This is a short distance upstream from Rangthylliang 14.

Looking up at Rangthylliang 15

RANGTHYLLIANG 16:

This living root bridge is a steep, three hour (one way) downhill hike from Rangthylliang, near the border of Rangthylliang's land with that of another village called Myndring. The living root bridge itself is a very satisfying example of living root architecture, while the setting of the bridge is one of the most beautiful places I've visited in Meghalaya. The bridge crosses a small, clear stream right in front of where it issues from a narrow gorge, poring over a very pretty little waterfall. There is a nice, swimmable, pool in front of the waterfall, and if you climb up the falls, there is another, even nicer, swimmable pool at the top, with yet another small waterfall at the end of that pool. It's a great place to spend a few hours, though since it's quite some distance from Rangthylliang or Mawkyrnot, and since those villages don't have any real overnight facilities as yet, this particular spot will probably not be overrun by tourists for quite some time.


Rangthylliang 16


The stream in front of Rangthylliang 16. A wonderful place for a rest



MYNDRING: 3 BRIDGES (MORE LIKELY)

Myndring is a small Khasi village on a ridge downhill from Pynursla. While not very far from the town as the crow flies, it is still very remote, being only accessible on foot via a steep stairway. My companions and I approached it from rather an odd direction: We started in Rangthylliang, then climbed down into the valley between Rangthyllliang and Myndring, and then climbed up into Myndring from the jungle. I was told in Myndring that I was the first tourist to visit within living memory, so the living root bridges pictured below had probably not been seen by an outsider before.

MYNDRING 1:

Myndring 1 is a huge living root bridge that crosses the river that marks the boundary between Rangthylliang's land and that of Myndring. The main tree that the bridge is grown out of is on the Myndring side of the border, so I'm listing it under that village. 

I view this living root bridge as the most important single discovery of my month long trek. This is for several reasons:

The first is that it appears to be a very old bridge, yet it is also over a large river. What this means is that it is an ancient bridge that has nonetheless withstood the test of time. It might be 300 years old, and yet has taken 300 years of abuse from 300 Meghalaya monsoon seasons. While a few living root bridges still exist on larger streams, they seem to usually be well up off the water, safe from floods. They are also, as is the case with the longest bridge near Nongriat, or the Great Bridge of Kudeng Rim, relatively new living root bridges. This particular example is, very clearly judging by the root thickness, ancient, yet it is fairly close to its stream, and is probably bombarded yearly not just by flood waters, but also with the rocks and brushwood the floods take down the stream with them.

The second reason it's remarkable is that it is another double span structure, in this case with one span before the other. Unfortunately,  I couldn't get a picture of the second span (something I hope to do properly when I return), but what you see in the photo below is only 60% or so of the complete structure.

The third reason why I view this particular living root bridge as so exceptional is that, by certain measurements, it might actually be the longest known example. Rangthylliang 1 certainly  is the longest in terms of a single span, however the bridge below may be the longest in terms of the distance over which a single organism has been modified. I'm reasonably sure (though, again, I'll need to revisit!) that both spans of the bridge put together would be longer than Rangthylliang 1 in its entirety. 

Sadly, as I crossed this bridge I saw that some of the roots were dying of some sort of disease. It is more than likely that the living root bridge will be swept away in the next few years, particularly if there's increased slash and burn agriculture upstream. There isn't any especially pressing practical reason for the locals to maintain the bridge: While it once serviced a major trail between Rangthylliang and Myndring, that path seems to have fallen largely into disuse over a century ago. As far a tourism is concerned, even if there were facilities in Pynursla or even in Rangthylliang, it's unlikely that your average hiker would make it this far. I'm really not sure if this bridge will be there the next time I visit, meaning that there is a chance that the photos you see below might be the only ones that are ever taken of this living root bridge.


Jungle John Cena and Morningstarr's dad stand mightily upon Myndring 1, giving some scale. The living root bridge continues for some distance beyond both ends of this photo. Note the size of the secondary roots hanging down from the bridge, indicating an ancient structure


Another view on Myndring 1. Note the way that the secondary roots have been bent back, presumably by year after year of monsoon floods. They must look like that permanently, as there hadn't been a significant rainfall in the area for several months when this photo was taken

MYNDRING 2: 

This is a small but very interesting bridge, deep in the jungle on the south side of the ridge Myndring is on. My companions from Rangthylliang were just as surprised to run into it as I was, Myndring being well outside of their usual stomping grounds.


Myndring 2


Morningstarr's father on Myndring 2. I was told that sign said, if effect, that the village council had forbade local villagers from taking hacks at the bridge with machetes. Once again, you can see here that the roots on the bridge look to be well over two feet thick, making it yet another very ancient structure

MYNDRING 3:

This exceedingly remote bridge, belonging to a local family in Myndring, is in my estimation one of the most beautiful in the Pynursla area. At a mere 40 years old it is, by the standards of living root bridges, quite recent (though that figure was obtained from an old drunk and is probably at best a fuzzy guess). I could only reach it by paying off the family who owned it, something I would have of course been happy to do had I not known the money was going to immediately go to alcohol. 


Morningstarr on Myndring 3. Notice the two roots that sort of reach down onto the bridge like support cables. I've never seen this arrangement anywhere else. It does not seem to have made much difference: One of those roots is actually connected to the bridge and is holding up some of the weight, but the other is just hanging there. Still, they give the bridge a very distinctive profile.


A view of the living root bridge from a distance. It's 20 to 30 meters up off the ground in the middle of the span, the land behind it dropping off very precipitously


The only picture you'll see of me on this list, along with Jungle Man John Cena doing moves from the film "Ong Bak" (which happens to be his favorite movie). Note how relatively thin the roots of the tree can be and yet still be fully functional

The view across the span of Myndring 3

Coming soon: The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 3: Bridges of the Twelve Villages
                      The Undiscovered Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya Part 4: Living Root Ladders, and other uses for Living Root architecture.







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