Monday, December 17, 2012

Across the Khasi Hills Day 2: Soggy Preparations

My umbrella, at the entrance to a small, almost certainly illegal, coal mine. On the way to the Nohkalikai Falls view point, about 5kms outside of Sohra.

So, moving right along........

On the second day of my trip into the Khasi Hills, I decided to stay put in Sohra. I had some supplies that I needed to buy, and I needed to put more minutes on my cell phone. All pretty mundane stuff. I hadn't been planning to push myself too hard, in order to save my energy for the coming days. Still, somewhat by accident, I wound up doing far more exploring of the nearby area than I had anticipated. 

I woke up that morning at about 5 a.m., as I was still a little jet-lagged, this being only my 5th day since landing in India. Not at all surprisingly, it was pouring rain outside. Still, I decided I would go wander a bit. My objective was to reach the Nohkalikai Viewpoint, which was about 6 km from my hotel. The rain would, eventually, stop, though I had no way of telling when...that being the case, I reasoned I might as well go out rather than waiting in the hope of a break in the weather.

I left the hotel room around 5:20, and headed out into the dark, damp, soggy, clamminess outside, almost immediately pondering the wisdom of my decision. In the fog and driving rain, there really wasn't much to see. Most of Cherrapunji went by as bleary grey outlines in the mist. My umbrella soon proved to be too small to protect me, and after only a little while the whole lower half of my body was soaked.

Fog on the moors, on the road to the Nohkalikai viewpoint.

It wasn't long before the outskirts of Cherrapunji faded out into wet rolling grasslands. Not far beyond the edge of town, I came to a low ridge that ran parallel to the road, into which to a row of small, very unstable looking tunnels had been bored (rather like the world's most poorly made hobbit-holes). You see these all over Meghalaya, and I knew from previous experience that they were hand-dug coal mining tunnels. 

As it was raining cats and dogs, I thought that maybe if I went and huddled in the entrance to one of the coal mines, it might provide me with a respite from the ever-present dampness....however, just the opposite was true. I walked about four feet into one, and immediately found that the floor was hidden under a muddy stream, into which my sandals sank about six inches. It really looked like a crappy place to work, and dangerous on top of that. Certainly, I would never trust the walls of the tunnel enough to venture more than a few feet in. 

The entrance to an illegal coal mine, along with a shelter and a wheel barrow made partially out of bamboo. Note the little waterfall pouring over the entrance. 

Quite thoroughly soggy by this point, I left the coal mines behind and continued on across the misty moors. A few kilometers later I came to a place where a few old, abandoned buildings coalesced out of the fog. Again feeling like I could use a break from the wetness, I made my way over to them, hoping to find a dry spot. As I recall there were about four or five ruined structures, the remains of some instillation that was now rapidly rotting away in the monsoon moisture. Man-made things seem to go to pot pretty quickly in this part of the world. 

As I made my way over to an abandoned concrete pavilion, I started hearing a roaring noise, like rapids far in the distance, the sound coming from ahead. As I walked on, it grew louder, and then, all of a sudden, the ground in front of me dropped away into mist. I couldn't see it from ten feet away, but I had accidentally stumbled into the edge of the giant canyon that's cut by the stream from Nohkalikai Falls. Given how extremely steep the terrain is in this part of the world, the drop-off must have been well over two thousand feet, though all I saw was white cloud, the sound of the distant waterfall filtering up through it...It didn't appear as though I would get much of a view of the falls that morning. 

I actually did manage to find a (small) patch of dry grass under the either ruined or incomplete concrete pavilion. From there, through the fog I could just make out the outline of another, more extensive, collection of buildings. Walking towards them, I saw that I had come to the official view-point. It seemed not to be operating (this was, after all, at around 7 AM), but the gate was open, so I wandered in, having long since lost any hope of seeing anything in the distance. There is a little collection of shops at the viewpoint which mostly cater to domestic tourists, though they were all closed at the time, and the only signs life at the time were a couple of wet chickens and a little old lady who probably thought I was a ghost. 

Not at all sure that there was any reason to be at a viewpoint when the view wasn't much more than my hand in front of my face, I was considering turning around and heading back into town, when I noticed that there was a concrete stairway that lead from the viewpoint, down the side of the canyon, how far I couldn't tell. I decided to follow this, vaguely entertaining the idea that, if it went down far enough, I might get below the level of the clouds, which is something that's happened to me a number of times in the Himalayas.

In the jungle just over the edge of the precipice, on a staircase that leads down from the Nohkalikai Falls Viewpoint. In the canyonlands of the Khasi Hills, once you leave the top of the plateau, the vegetation changes almost instantly from grasslands to jungle. 

The stairs led steeply down about 300 feet through luxuriant (and not very Scotland-like) jungle, but then stopped, quite abruptly, right there on the side of the cliff. It looked as though the staircase simply hadn't been finished. It was literally a stairway to nowhere. Beyond that point, the route that had once been a staircase became a small watercourse. Maybe in the dry season it would be possible to proceed further down, but with the watercourse in spate, it looked too dangerous for me to contemplate.Therefore I turned around and started the rainy 5 km return hike to Sohra, feeling damn hungry. 

By the time I got back, I was so wet that it would have been physically impossible for me to get any wetter, so I changed my clothes, and had a nap. When I woke up, I went and had breakfast at a place across the street from my Hotel/Restaurant (and felt like kind of like a traitor, though the place across the street was better). Then I resolved to spend the rest of the day doing errands, which, as any traveler in India knows, usually winds up being much more of an adventure than one anticipates.

My first goal was to visit an ATM.....

A thousand foot waterfall pouring over a huge rock wall, as seen from the middle of Sohra Bazaar. A hole in the clouds opened up for about three minutes, allowing me to get this shot. This was the only time that day that I got any impression of the lay of the land. When there aren't too many clouds, being in the area is something like being in a jungle-clad version of Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park U.S.A.: You're out on a huge promontory of land that's bordered on three sides by massive drop-offs. 

The directions I had received to the ATM made it sound as though it was right around the corner: I just needed to go to a nearby intersection, and then turn right, and I would soon come to a gas station with an ATM next to it. I reached the intersection, turned right....and then rapidly found myself wandering out into the mist, with nothing but foggy grasslands to my right, and an unseen cloud-filled canyon to my left, through which I could hear distant roaring water. I walked further and further out into the fog, asking everyone that I met if I was on the right course, and always getting the same answer: That I was going in the right direction, but that the ATM was further away than the last person had led me to believe. It seemed like the ATM was actively running away from me. 

Still, after about 4 KM, more and more buildings started to manifest out of the fog, and I realized that I must be getting closer to my goal. I had entered an entirely new town, called Pomsohmen, one where foreigners get rather more sidelong looks than in Sohra. Here, as I was walking along, I came across a great big blue Presbyterian Church, next to which was a missionary school for local kids. One thing about Khasi settlements is the vast profusion of little kids one encounters in them: It seems as though there are fully five kids between three and thirteen years old for every adult. I had the luck to be walking by the school just as it was letting out for the afternoon. The kids came quite literally screaming out of the building, and then were immediately greeted by the fascinating sight of a soggy white foreigner going along. I remember hearing laughter behind me, and then looking back and seeing a great flood of Khasi children giggling after me, following me along Pomsohmen's main street. There must been about fifty of them, all in their blue school uniforms. It was quite the parade, and the spectacle seemed to provide a good few minutes of entertainment for the local adults. 

Still, few of the kids were bold enough to actually come up and talk to me. Those that did tended to spout a bit of fake English at me for fun, and then loose interest and run off, or ask my name, which they all seemed to agree sounded like a sneeze (my name frequently gets rendered "Patchoo" rather than "Patrick"). A few did hang on long enough to guide me to the ATM, however, which was nice of them, and if I remember correctly those that stuck it out to the end did receive a couple of Kit-Kat bars.  

Under close observation from road-side shelter goats. They had the sense to say out of the dampness. On the way to Pomsohmen.

After taking out a few thousand rupees from the ATM, I proceeded to take a rather senseless tour of Pomsohmen. I had wanted to purchase more minutes for my cell phone there, and it seemed like on any other day it would have been possible, but at each shop I asked at, they said they couldn't do it, and so referred me to a different shop, which also couldn't give me the recharge, but could refer me to another shop, which also couldn't do it, and so on, and so on, and so on... I think I saw every single shop in Pomsohmen, for whatever that's worth, and got a extra 1.5 kms of walking in.....

It was now getting fairly late, and, especially since I hadn't even been planning on taking another longish hike, I decided to turn around and head back to Sohra. 

As I went along my way, I remember looking up at a hill to my right and seeing a couple of mysterious, tall, triangular objects rising up out of it. Through the mist, it was impossible to tell what they were, though they seemed creepy and worth a look. I saw that there was a small path that led off to the right, so I followed it, and soon found that it was leading me up the hill, though at the same time disappearing under the grass and so becoming increasingly difficult to follow.  

The old Khasi graveyard in Pomsohmen. 

Climbing further up, the trail became completely overgrown. All around, though frequently almost entirely hidden under the grass, were old grave-markers made of grey and black stone. I had wandered into a Christian cemetery. The place had a distinctly spooky vibe. Even though Christianity is, at least by Indian standards, a relatively recent development in this part of the world, this particular cemetery has been around for around 160 years, and many of its gravestones are in the process of crumbling away and being swallowed up by the vegetation  The great triangular objects, as it turned out, were only the most prominent  grave markers, though they too tended to be in poor condition, and some were well on their way to falling to pieces.

Another view on the graveyard. 

After that, I made my way back to Sohra. The weather had improved somewhat, though I never received another view into the canyon that I was walking along the edge of. I reached Sohra Bazaar, where I got a recharge, and purchased a hoodie, a rain-jacket, and a giant umbrella, all in the same, quite excellent, general store, which seems to have the best selection for miles around. I'm pretty sure I was their best customer that day. Of the three items I purchased, the giant umbrella would prove the most useful in the days to come. 

Having had a rather more adventurous day than I had planned, I retreated back to Hotel Sohra Plaza, to an early dinner and an early bed. Now that I had a giant umbrella, I felt confident about the next phase of my trip: Hiking, alone, 2000 feet down into a canyon, crossing raging rivers over steel wire and living root bridges, to go and live for a few days in a Khasi village. 

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