Thursday, December 20, 2012

Across the Khasi Hills Day 3: Down to Nongriat

The famous Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge in Nongriat Village. The only root bridge with two spans (I suppose to allow for two-way traffic). Living Root bridges are made by taking the roots of Indian rubber trees and placing them in hollowed out betel nut tree trunks that have been cut in half lengthwise. The halves of the betel nut trunks are lain across the stream that needs to be crossed, while the rubber tree roots grow through them. When the roots reach the opposite side of the stream, they anchor themselves in the soil. Usually a full bridge is composed of a number of such roots, sometime from two different trees that have had roots trained in opposite directions. Smaller roots are used to provide additional stability, while flat stones and bamboo poles are used to produce a surface to walk on. It apparently takes about 15 years for a bridge to become operational. Once the construction of the bridge is complete, the roots continue to grow, meaning that the bridges are in effect self-reinforcing: The older the bridge is, the more structurally sound it is. They can evidently last for many hundreds of years. Though the British knew about the bridges as far back as the late 19th century, as of the turn of the 21st the bridges were largely forgotten. Not long ago, the villagers in the area were contemplating tearing some of the bridges down in favor of less exotic wire suspension bridges. Thankfully, the owner of the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort in Laikynsew convinced them to keep the bridges around as a tourist draw.

Still moving right along......

The next day, the day that I decided I would attempt to reach Nongriat, I woke up to the sound of pouring rain. I had a long journey ahead of me. First I had to take a taxi to a village called Tyrna, from where I would  have to descend over 1500 feet, down a virtually endless staircase, and then cross two rushing, flood-swollen rivers on narrow steel-wire suspension bridges, all of this in the pouring rain and with a huge trekking bag on my back....I had my work cut out for me.

That being said, I knew the route: My brother and I had come this way in 2011. Our hike that day had been spectacular, though marred by navigational errors (yes, I led my brother into dark, dank, and increasingly unfriendly I recall we broke open a big Jack Fruit by throwing rocks at it...all before finding the right path, and then rushing down into the canyon and back up again before we lost our light). Also, there had been a disaster a few days and my brother had been staying at the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort, and one the other guests had gone down on the same path, and then drowned in the Umkynsan river, which rushes along the bottom of the canyon. There was a search party, which included her boyfriend, out looking for her body. That added a touch of the macabre to the affair, and reiterated just how lethal the environment in the canyons of the Khasi Hills can be.

Still, I saw enough in me and my brother's brief trip into the canyon to come to the conclusion that the area was worth visiting again, and in greater depth. Frankly, though it's tough, I think the hike is one of my very favorite walks anywhere.

Anyway, after quickly packing my bag, I went out for tea and a light breakfast. It was still pouring, and I had no reason to believe that it would stop, so I put on my rain gear, deployed the rain-proof tarp that came with my fancy trekking bag (which I had never needed to use before) and then got a taxi and was on my way. I'll always look back fondly on Hotel Sohra Plaza: It's not a ritzy place, but it's all it needs to be, and then some.

The drive from Sohra to Tyrna starts across rolling moorland, over the top of what is little more than a narrow isthmus of land with giant drop offs on three sides, and then rapidly descends around 2000 feet to Tyrna on a narrow mountain road that hugs the side of an escarpment. If it's raining on the way down, you'll have a verdure clad wall on one side, off of which pour numerous not-so-small waterfalls directly onto the road, and to the other side, a misty drop-off into indeterminate depths. If the mist isn't too thick, you'll be able to see multiple, gigantic, two and three thousand foot waterfalls pouring over the sides of cliffs across the canyon. 

The drive ends rather abruptly in a sort of cul-de-sac. Tyrna lies just beyond it, though you can't see much of it through the jungle vegetation. I paid the driver (he was asking for rs.50 more than is apparently the normal price (rs.200)...though I wasn't in the mood for an argument), and then started the long hike down. It had been raining cats and dogs ever since I had woken up, and it didn't look like it was going to quit now....I would be making the hike in my rain jacket, with my umbrella open, and with my camera hidden underneath my shirt.

The trail in Tyrna, before it takes its epic plunge down into the canyon. Khasi villages have the, as far as I can tell, quite well deserved reputation of being some of the cleanest in India, and in all of Asia for that matter. They are by far the most attractive villages that I've been in. Even in ones that plainly aren't particularly affluent, they have a very tidy, washed, quality. Despite the weather, Khasi villages come across as very cheery places. Most seem like they would be perfectly good places to live, even with the extreme sogginess of the climate.

Flowers in Tyrna.

Tyrna is a pretty village perched on the side of the wall of a huge valley, with a stream running right through the middle of it. The trail down to Nongriat begins here, and, at least for the first few minutes, isn't all that steep. But then the village fades out, the jungle closes in, and you suddenly find yourself at the top of an immense concrete staircase. The air gets much warmer very quickly. I soon found myself sweating rather badly, and soon all of my rain gear was rendered, I fear, quite useless ..I had protected myself from the rain only to get soaked by sweat. Ewwwww.....

A view through the mist towards a big damn waterfall, on the way down the Endless Stairs. As the crow flies, that notch where the top of the falls is spilling over is about four miles from where I was standing when I took this.  

Cables on the way down. This picture is actually in color, though there's not much in evidence. Note the really tall waterfalls on the opposite wall of the canyon. Those probably only run in the wet season, though they seem to be at least two thousand feet tall. You can just make out, to the lower left hand side of this picture, a few of the buildings in Nongriat, though they just look like white specks. 

One of the advantages of such steep terrain is that it never takes long to lose altitude ( falling or otherwise). The Endless Stairs may cover a difference in altitude of over 1500 feet, but the route is startlingly direct. Khasis evidently don't usually bother with switchbacks. I've heard that they had such strong legs that back during the Raj they were among the very best porters in the whole of India.

The village of Nongthymmai lies the bottom of the endless stairs. Up on top, around Sohra, the air feels damp and clammy and slightly chilly, but down here in the canyon, the effect is more sultry. It is, after all, a genuine tropical rain forest. The slopes are steep, but in every place where plants can take hold, the ground is smothered in close vegetation. Utah it's not....   

Looking back up at the last flight of the Endless Stairs. This is only a small section of the whole staircase. I've heard that there's somewhere in the vicinity of 1800 individual steps between Tyrna and Nongthymmai. The prospect of climbing back up these, in extreme humidity and with my giant trekking bag adding a whole lot of weight, was less than appealing.

Once you reach Nongthymmai, you have the option of turning right and visiting the root bridge on the outskirts of the village, or turning left and continuing towards Nongriat. I had already seen the root-bridge with my brother in 2011, so I kept on towards Nongriat. Though the Endless Stairs are the most talked about part of the trail, you still have quite a ways to go before Nongriat once you get to the bottom of them.  By this point my legs were feeling pretty rubbery...I was noticing the extra weight of my backpack in my thighs after coming down so many steps, and the mixture of sweat and tropical moisture that I was becoming increasingly saturated with made me feel...well...funky...

Old slippery stone steps on the way to Nongriat. These are how the Khasis built their trails up and down the valley sides before they switched over to concrete. The effect is certainly more picturesque than the newer stairways, though the steps are also much more slippery and treacherous. By far the biggest danger I faced down in the canyon was simply taking a nasty spill on a wet step. It's so moist in this area that the rocks are covered with a thin layer of slippery algae (which is often at its very worst a few hours after it has stopped raining). Going uphill is not a problem, but while heading down with normal shoes or boots it's practically impossible to get a solid footing. You might as well be walking on a stairway made of ice. Sandals are a much better idea, or no shoes at all. You can also walk in your socks, or take your socks and put them on the outsides of your shoes...all lessons I learned after collecting a fine assortment of multicolored bruises....

In the pouring rain, the path to Nongriat became a river.

Here the path leads over a relatively flat ledge of ground, the last step before the river at the bottom of the canyon. One still encounters a couple of staircases here, and these tend to be of the older, treacherous, local stone variety. The going on these is slower as one has to be very careful not to slip. Since I had a huge backpack on me to throw off my balance, the threat of falling was even greater than it would have been otherwise. It was only later that I realized that my sandals had much better traction on the wet stones, and were actually much better hiking gear for these parts. 

After maybe twenty minutes of hiking on from Nongthymmai, and taking a marked right turn in the middle of the jungle, I came to the first of two steel-wire suspension bridges that one has to cross to get to Nongriat. These are essentially nothing more than collections of steel cables that have been strung from two arches on opposite sides of a river. Perhaps they are less unique than their bio-engineered counterparts, though crossing one, particularly in the rain with the river below a rushing torrent, is a worthy experience. Every step you take reverberates through the structure, causing the whole thing to wobble up and down. Since the floor of the bridge is just a few cables banded together, it's possible to see all the way down to the rushing river when you look at your feet. Quite exciting, and not for anybody with a fear of heights, though I think you would really have to work at it to fall to your death.

Crossing the first river.

Between the two bridges, one has cross over a peninsula of steep land, usually refereed to as "The Hillock." After that, there is another steel wire suspension bridge, with a ruined root bridge that spans the stream to the left (which I investigated the next day). After getting across the wire bridge, there is one more steep ascent, and one more small living root bridge to cross, and then you're in Nongriat.

When I stumbled into the village, I was soaked, sore, spaced out, and blind, my glasses having fogged up and stayed that way practically since Tyrna. But I needed to talk to somebody to open up the guest house...who, exactly, I wasn't sure. That being the case, I just wandered up into the first person I met, a teenage boy with some chickens, and started throwing words at him, in English and Hindi (Guesthouse, chabiya, guesthouse Ki chabiya, keys...). This resulted in a chain reaction, wherein the kid got a friend,  and then the friend got somebody else, then that somebody else got somebody else, and then that somebody else told me to sit on their porch and talk to their first I wasn't sure if this was what I wanted, but then a fellow named John showed up, and after a few minutes of awkward English and Hindi, with our mutual broken Hindi being the most useful mode of communication, we establish that a: I wanted to stay at the guesthouse, and b: that John was the caretaker. 

Now I was led through Nongriat. The village itself is a maze of concrete paths, intersected by watercourses and draped over about three hundred feet of mountain slope.  There is very little flat ground, and to get from one house to another frequently entails hiking up or down long flights of stairs. To get to the guesthouse, you first head towards the Double-Decker root bridge, which is on the outskirts of the village.  You cross the bridge, and then the guesthouse is a few minutes up the path, to the right.  

The Nongriat Guest House. I know it doesn't look like much, but it's much more than I was expecting. It's really quite nice, if simple, inside, and a fine place to spend a couple of nights. 

The guest house is simple, but cozy. It has four bedrooms, each with two beds and an attached bathroom, along with a kitchen, a dining room, and even sporadic electricity....not bad for the last outpost of civilization upstream from Nongriat. When you're staying there, it's easy to forget just how far removed from the rest of the world you really are (as in, two and half hours and 1500 feet in elevation from a road). The cost is rs. 500 per night, which includes meals. There usually wasn't much besides Maggi and biscuits for breakfast, but the dinners were enormous. Also, water was not a problem. In Nongriat they use water from pipes that they've connected to aquifers in the sides of the canyon walls. Apparently what comes out is naturally filtered and safer to drink than bottled water. And there's definitely no lack of it. I felt like I was getting my money's worth. 

I spent the next hour and a half or so getting settled, and doing my best to communicate with John. After having a huge bowl of Maggi and arranging what we were going to do about dinner, I laid my funky wet clothes out on PVC chairs in the foolish hope that they would dry, and then headed out for the terra incognita upcanyon. Me and my brother had been about as far as the guesthouse in 2011 when we turned around and rather hurriedly hiked back up to the top.

I now explored upstream at my leisure. The path beyond the guesthouse, which was undergoing maintenance while I was there, first passes through a soccer field, and then continues an along a rocky, though comparatively flat, jungle-clad bench of ground, before it comes to the last, and arguably most spectacular, steel wire suspension bridge.

A dark jungle path. As I was walking upstream, I came across a very faint trail that looked like it might offer access to the river. This picture was taken from that. 

A small waterfall. The path led down to a rocky bank composed of rounded, water-smoothed boulders. Like in a large canyon in the American West, the rocks in the streams at the bottoms of these canyons are of all different types, stones from multiple strata of the Shillong Plateau having been carved out and carried down into the valleys by the area's extreme precipitation. In this exceptional corner of the world, one encounters small waterfalls like this virtually around every bend.

A much larger waterfall on the other side of the Umkynsan, viewed from about the same spot as where the previous photo was taken. Though I'm sure that traveling to this area in the dry season would be less challenging (and, truth be told, less lethal), I still think I would prefer coming during the monsoons. In the rain, there are waterfalls to be found virtually around every corner. The intense precipitation may take some getting used to, but it does make the area immensely dramatic. I can say with reasonable certainty that hidden back deep in these jungles are literally hundreds of falls, the majority of them unknown. I think there's a reasonable chance that this fall has never been photographed before: There's nowhere along the main trail that  you can see it from, there's no trail anywhere near it, and the path out to this viewpoint is not obvious. Also, throughout the dry season, these falls probably aren't even running.

The final steel wire suspension bridge over the Umkynsan. 

The last of the steel wire bridges was beyond where me and my brother had reached in 2011. The bridge leads out to a riverine island in the middle of the Umkynsan, which, at the time I visited, was surrounded by a ranging, dangerous looking torrent on all sides. Once you reach the island, which is really just a collection of big boulders that have rolled down from above, you come to a sign on the side of a rock which says: "Don't throw lighted match here, climb up large stone carefully." Next to the sign is a large rock, up which the Khasis have trained a set of roots to create a sort of ladder. Once you reach the top of the ladder, you come to a sketchy looking bridge made up of bamboo poles that span the twenty five foot deep gap between the boulder you've just climbed and another, bigger, one. It looked like the boulder across the way would provide a good view upstream, so I took a step out onto the bridge...and, just like something out of a movie, the bamboo collapsed, having rotted out in the monsoon moisture...I beat a hasty retreat...

Treacherous bamboo bridge. 

After that brief brush with death, I continued on, and came to the bridge that connects the island with the opposite bank of the river. This is a unique structure, in that it is a wire bride that the locals have allowed to become covered in rubber tree roots. It's kind of a hybrid, in that the roots now clearly take a substantial portion of the weight that gets placed on it. Maybe one day, the steel will corrode away, and all that will be left are the roots.  

Immediately across from the hybrid, the trail takes you across a tributary stream of the Umkynsan. Over this stream there is an old, strong, fully formed root bridge. As you walk across, you have one set of falls pouring into the Umkynsan below you and to your left, while, to your right, you can see another, much larger (maybe 40ft) falls upstream. This particular segment of the walk, from the last wire bridge, to the island, to the hybrid, to the root bridge, to the waterfall, is perhaps the most spectacular, and anyone who goes as far as the Double Decker Root Bridge would be well advised to take the extra 20 minutes to reach the final wire suspension bridge.

A view from the hybrid root bridge, towards the waterfall and the root bridge. In real life, the waterfall is much larger than it looks in this picture.

From here, I continued along the trail, which from this point on becomes increasingly overgrown and, well...adventurous...However, with the light beginning to fail, after a brief reconnaissance (in which I crossed two more waterfalls) I determined to turn back...that trail was a task for another day.

I quickly made my way back to the guest house, and did little more than eat and write in my journal for the rest of the night. Later on, a another group of tourists arrived, which surprised me a bit: I had heard that the guest house doesn't get too much traffic, but evidently it's becoming more well known. I didn't know it at the time, but the place gets a mention in the latest edition of Lonely Planet. The guys who showed up were two British-Malaysian-Chinese from Leeds (!!!!), and an Australian fellow. One of the British guys had been travelling about India for the past six months and had brought his younger brother along to visit him for a few weeks. They seemed like a swell bunch. To tell you the truth, I was so exhausted by this point that I barely remember the conversation. Though at one point I had a salt shaker that was all gummed up, and when I shook it too hard, the top popped off and got salt all over my vegetables and rice.....

....That was big crowd pleaser.....

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