Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Across the Khasi Hills Day 4: Exploring the canyon floor

Abandoned Root Bridge over the Simtung River. This was one of the highlights of my trip into the Khasi Hills. Despite its derelict appearance, this bridge actually felt safer than the other, functioning, root-bridges elsewhere in the area. There are two living root bridges that span the Simtung. This one leads from the eastern bank of the river onto a rocky, rubber tree covered  island, while another leads from the island to the western bank. Unfortunately, the further bridge has largely fallen apart, and is now little more than a big root across the river. But the first bridge, now useless from a functional perspective since it only leads as far as the island, continues to grow and strengthen, it's roots now stronger and more stable than those of either the Double-Decker bridge or the Nongthymmai bridge. 

Waking up on the fourth day of my explorations in the Khasi Hills, I received a nasty shock. When I turned on my camera, the screen was a white blur. I had spent a while trying to figure out what was wrong, thinking that there was some serious problem with either the display screen or the sensor, when I realized that condensation had formed on the inside of the lens. It turned out that all I needed to do to fix the problem was to take the camera out of its case and open up the battery compartment to let air pass through. That got rid of the condensation in a few minutes, though moisture would continue to periodically build up in camera over the course of the next few days. The incredible sogginess of the Khasi Hills is certainly visually satisfying, and it is of course the area's chief claim to fame, but it's hard on electronics. Keeping my camera functioning was just one more challenge that I faced down in the canyon. 

After having a two-maggi-and-tea breakfast, I set out to accomplish what I had come all the way back to Nongriat to do: Explore the canyon floor in real depth. My companions who had arrived the night before decided to head upcanyon, but I opted to go and wander about in Nongriat itself, and then head generally back in the direction of Nongthymmai and its root bridge. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that I would bump into them somewhere in the canyon later on. 

During the early part of the day, it rained in the morning, though by around ten thirty, the rain began to slack off, and the mist started to retreat up the sides of the slopes. For walking around in the Khasi Hills area in the wet season, this isn't necessarily a good thing. The rain may make it harder to get around in some ways, but when it stops, it gets replaced by air so hot and thick with moisture, that instead of getting soaked with rain, you wind up soaked in sweat...I rather prefer the rain...  
In misty Nongriat. By this point, the weather was starting to gradually clear. You can see, to the left of the lowest house, one of the concrete stairways that lead through the village. Though Khasi villages are very neat in some respects, they tend to have fairly haphazard, maze-like layouts. Getting from point A to point B often requires some creative and exercise intensive navigation.

Trash Bin, with Bengali writing and Shiva. I don't know what this container was originally used for, though now it serves as a trash can on the side of a concrete walkway in Nongriat. Like the other Khasi villages I've been in, Nongriat is clean to an almost surreal extent....I don't recall seeing a single piece of litter during my whole time down there. Of course, if you did happen to litter, the trash would almost certainly get washed down into a stream...and then into Bangladesh...

A big Pineapple! This was just in somebodies front yard. There are pineapples all over the place in the jungle around Nongriat. I saw one growing on an island in the middle of the Simtung River, though in order to get a proper picture of that one, I would have had to risk falling to my death in raging flood-swollen you'll have to settle for this pineapple, which is also quite nice. They also grow a lot of citrus fruit in this area. There are a couple of lime trees just outside the front of the Nongriat Guest House. The caretaker retrieved a couple limes for me by throwing ridiculously well-aimed stones. That's a skill I wish I had.

Big damn spiders. I have never been anywhere with bigger or more numerous spiders than the Khasi Hills. 

Nongriat in the distance, in gradually clearing conditions, as viewed from "The Hillock," a narrow peninsula created by the confluence of the Umkynsan and Simtung rivers. The term "Hillock" is misleading: A half mile upstream from this point the "Hillock" is a blade of jungle covered rock around 1500 feet tall. Note the big waterfalls in the background.

I spent a good forty five minutes wandering about in Nongriat, getting strange, though well-meaning, looks from the locals, and loosing all sense of direction. Though I spent a fair amount of time walking through the village over the course of my stay at the guest house, I never really got a proper feel for how things were laid out. 

From there, I headed back in the direction of Nongthymmai, with two specific goals in mind. On the trail between Nongthymmai and Nongriat, there is a T intersection, with a sign that indicates which trail to take to get to the Double-Decker Root Bridge. I wanted to see what was down the other, unmarked, trail. Also, I wanted to ascertain if there was a path beyond the Nongthymmai bridge. When me and my brother had visited the bridge in 2011, we were told in no uncertain terms that there was no trail beyond it, and we didn't have the time to investigate if this was true. However, this seemed odd to me: Why would they have built the bridge if it didn't lead anywhere, unless it had been specifically constructed as a tourist attraction (which to my knowledge it hadn't).

However, the first real discovery I made that day was totally unexpected. When crossing the Simtung River on the not-so-new steel wire suspension bridge, looking to one side, one can see that the old path used to cross the river via two living root bridges, both of them leading, from opposite banks, to a riverine island consisting of a couple of large boulders covered with rubber trees and jungle undergrowth. From the steel-wire bridge, the living root bridges appear totally ruined, and there isn't any indication as to how one would reach them.

The still usable, overgrown, root bridge over the Simtung.

After crossing the wire bridge, one comes to a recently constructed flight of concrete steps. As I was going up these, I saw to my right what looked like a slippery, overgrown, stairway, built in the older style, leading down in the direction of the river. Thinking that these might have been the steps that went to the old crossing, I headed down. The steps, though nearly covered in undergrowth, were still possible to follow, and led directly to the abandoned root bridge, confirming my suspicion that they were part of the old trail across the river. 

The abandoned root bridge is a surreal sight (more so even than the functioning bridges). It looks as though a narrow strip of the jungle floor decided that it simply wouldn't allow the river to stop it from growing. Every type of jungle vegetation,  from moss, to ferns, to flowers, to small trees, exist on a bizarre garden suspended high above the raging waters of the Simtung. All of the sticks and pieces of bamboo that usually cover the bottom of a living root bridge have long since rotten away here, allowing the whole span to become colonized by jungle growth.   

A closer look at the floor of the derelict root bridge. I've never been able to find much information on this bridge on the internet, and as far as I know, there is only one other picture of it up online, at least in close up.

My first thought upon being confronted by the derelict bridge was that it couldn't possibly be safe to cross. I had, after all, had a bad rotten bridge experience just the day before which I did not wish to repeat. However, putting my foot down on the bridge, I found to my surprise that it barely wobbled at all, and that the roots which made up the main structural elements of the bridge were, if anything, much thicker than those on many of the other root bridges in the area. The bridge was old, but strong, and unless it gets washed out in a flash flood, it'll probably be around for a while. Why the locals don't decide to clear the path down to it in order to provide yet another tourist attraction, I'm not sure. 

Beautiful Flowers on the riverine island that the derelict bridge leads to. The island, like the bridge, is another strange natural garden in the middle of the river, complete with rubber trees and pineapples.

Getting to the island, I took a few pictures, though very few of them turned camera had a lot of trouble focusing on what I wanted it to. After that, I headed back across the derelict bridge, and then continued on. But the abandoned bridge got me thinking. I know that there is a huge network of ancient trails across the Khasi hills, that lead to places far more remote than Nongriat. I wonder how many other abandoned, or otherwise unknown, root bridges there are out there. Though the Cherrapunji area receives loads of tourists, the canyonlands to the west appear to be very rarely visited, and the jungle there is deep.

Anyway, shortly after coming back to the main trail, the sun, for the first time during my trip into the Khasi Hills, came out...and practically the instant it did, an almost deafening chorus of jungle critters sang out. It was startling. As loud as the nights can get in Delaware during the Summer, I had never heard bugs as loud as these, seemingly rejoicing in the first appearance of the sun for god knows how long.  

I now came to the intersection I had seen before, and followed the unmarked trail. It lead down through deep jungle on the left side of the river, though after maybe 30 minutes, it faded underneath undergrowth and became impossible to follow. The last faint traces of it were at the edge of some sort of plantation, judging by the neat rows of palm trees, though no one seems to have been there for a long while.  

The trail beyond Nongthymmai. The sun had come out and the rain had stopped by this point, but the sides of the hills were still emptying out. 

A mushroom covered log next to the trail. Needless to say, the rot and wetness of the Khasi Hills make them a fine place for fungi of all sorts.

More jungle mushrooms.

This picture is slightly out of focus, but it gives you a good idea of what naturally growing rubber tree roots are like.

After finding that the trail didn't lead much of anywhere, I turned around and headed back towards Nongthymmai, in order to revisit what is, perhaps, the most spectacular of all the living root bridges, and to ascertain what, if anything, lay beyond it. 

The Nongthymmai bridge, longest of all (known) living root bridges. This one is visited and used quite often, though, as far as I can tell, almost exclusively by tourists. Its primary function now is to provide a neat thing to go and visit. However, it did once lead to a path, now abandoned, that lead up onto the slope on the opposite side of the Umkynsan.

The span. This root bridge is maybe the most nerve-wracking to cross. The roots are long, and seem sort of stretched...they have to span nearly a hundred feet, so they have yet to get thick and stable. When you walk across it, the whole bridge wobbles, just like one of the steel-wire bridges, though one is less inclined to trust in thin, moss-covered roots than in steel. Also, the floor of the bridge is covered in bamboo, which in the dry season might be perfectly fine to walk on, but in the monsoon season is rotten, soft, and slippery. The bamboo tends to crack and fold in on itself when you step on it. Still, it's an experience worth having.

Close up on one of the roots that serves as a support for the bridge, with smaller secondary roots trained around it.

Crossing the Nongthymmai bridge, you have to climb down the side of a rubber tree via a slippery root ladder, whereupon you find yourself on a sort of rocky beach. At this point, there is little sign of a trail, or indeed any indication that the root-bridge was built for any real purpose other than to look interesting.  Indeed, I spent some time looking, and had  largely given up hope of finding a trail, when I noticed that there was a small stream leading in from the right, that flowed down over a steep, rocky course. Following the stream for a minute or two, and starting up the rocks, I realized that the path that the bridge had once led too had now become a watercourse. It had obviously been left unused for quite some time, though one could still clearly make out places where stones had been carved to make steps. 

The stairway beyond the Nongthymmai bridge.

Intrigued, I started up the abandoned stairway  and into jungle that got steeper, darker, and creepier  with every hundred feet or so. The path left the stream bed after some time. In places it had been constructed over very old rockfalls and landslides, while as it went further up and up, it led me though areas where the slope was so steep that the vegetation seemed to be barely able to cling onto the side of the hill, resulting in clearings in the jungle. 

I came up further on this path then I had gone down from Tyrna on the Endless Stairs, and I thought that this was probably about the best preparation I could have for my final hike out of the canyon.

A view in the general direction of Bangladesh, from the top of "The Hillock," about a 1500 foot climb above the Nongthymmai root bridge. Nongriat is on the bottom of the slope on the right (though not in this picture).

After climbing up what must have been around 1500 feet, I came to the top of the massive rocky blade between the Simtung and Umkynsan rivers that makes up "The Hillock". From here, the path, now badly overgrown, led in the general direction of Nohkalikai Falls along the top of a ridge. But it was too late in the day for me to investigate. Where exactly it goes is anybodies guess. I would not be a bit surprised if it fades out entirely somewhere on the top of "The Hillock"...but who knows...

Now I started the long hike down, much of it barefoot in order to avoid slipping. T'was'nt comfortable....though it was quick. Soon I was back at the Nongthymmai bridge, just in time to see my companions from back at the guest house come across...unfortunately, none of the pictures I took, which would have given a good sense of scale, turned out....oh well.  

I started back before them, though I decided to take a bath under a smallish waterfall that pours out beside the trail. Despite the waterfall being relatively small, the force of the water was such that it actually hurt to stand under it. I did feel much cleaner afterwards, however. 

I wound up reacquiring my friends after my short but effective bath, and we all headed back to Nongriat together. On the way back, inside Nongriat itself, we bumped into yet another person who was staying at the guest house; an American, the first I'd seen since Newark N.J. Having so many people staying at the guest house is apparently unusual, though I'm guessing this location is only going to get more visitors as time goes on. And I'm not complaining, either...the locals seem to make pretty good money off of it, but they're not obnoxious to tourists (as in, employing North Indian Style "wheedle-every-penny-out-of-these-damn-firengis" tactics), so I don't hold that against them.   

Anyway, the American seemed like a fairly interesting guy. He had been an aero-space engineer, and had gone to the air-force academy near Colorado Springs. However, he seemed rather puzzled by the fact that I had opted to return to this area, saying something to the effect of, "The world is an amazing place, why would you want to come back here?" Of course, the reason was crossing the derelict root bridge, discovering long since abandoned stairways deep in the jungle, and going to places which I know very few travelers have ever laid eyes on. The fact is, I've run into all sorts of world-travelers who seem have visited half the world and seen none of it. To really get what's "Amazing" in the world, particularly in a place like the jungles of the Khasi Hills, you have to get up close and personal with it, and that means taking time. Now, obviously, if you don't have a lot, you do your best...but if I had a choice between spending 7 days hurriedly visiting 7 amazing places, or visiting just one amazing place but for seven days, I would go for the latter.

Anyway, after the sun set, we still had a few hours until dinner, so I decided, just to see what it was like, and what strange creatures I would bump into, to put on my headlamp and head out into the darkness.

I walked upcanyon, and after fifteen minutes or so, came to the last of the steel wire bridges. For the hell of it, I wandered out onto the bridge across the blackness.......

The last bridge on the Umkynsan, after dark. This picture was taken with the flash on my camera.Walking out on one of these in the dark (with a good headlamp, obviously!) is a creepy and unsettling (though very interesting) experience. The feeling is that you have darkness pressing in on you from all sides, even from below. And you know that there's a rushing,  swollen, river 50 or 60 feet below you, but all you can see of it in your headlamp are the faint, ghostly impressions of raging rapids. Once you approach the other side, the first thing you see is the spectral white foam of a waterfall, followed by the great hanging roots of rubber trees, which in the darkness appear like huge grasping tentacles. You start to expect Sadako, or some awful ancient horror from Khasi legend, to be waiting for you at the other end. Either that, or the ghosts or people who have died around here..and there are many.... 

The pathway to Lovecraftian Horror. This is the hybrid root bridge. That white blur to the left of the photo is a waterfall. Another reason why having lots of time in an interesting place is worthwhile is that you can get a chance to see what it's like after dark. 

After that brief, disconcerting (but interesting and very much worthwhile) experience, I headed back to the guesthouse...but not before having a few more brushes with the macabre. As I was walking along at one point, I suddenly froze in my tracks. Well ahead of me, I clearly saw a bright red eye, seemingly floating along just above the forest floor to the right of the trail. It drifted on for some ways, stopped, and then there was a screech, and the disembodied eye flew across the trail and into the jungle on the left. It must have been some sort of small mammal, its eye, but nothing else, caught in the light of my headlamp. The effect was decided unsettling. 

Anyway, that was the last of my adventures for the day. I got back, and found that dinner well under way...there was rice, lettuce, Dhal, and large chunks of pork fat...mostly without any sort of meat on them at all. I suspect that the Khasis of Nongriat, by virtue of having no choice but to live extremely active lives, earn their huge chunks of pork fat...though I think for the rest of us, eating a whole big pig's worth of solid fat in one night just isn't the best of ideas.....

.....though there wasn't anything else left, and I hadn't eaten in twelve hours, so I kinda had too....

....hopefully I made up for with lots of exercise the next day....

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