Friday, January 25, 2013

Across the Khasi Hills Day 5: Into the Green Unknown

Nohkalikai Falls, one of Meghalaya's most famous sights, along with six subsidiary falls...I didn't know I would be seeing this that day...

Now I began my fifth and perhaps most adventurous day in the Khasi Hills. My goal was simple: To take the trail beyond the final wire-suspension bridge over the Umkynsan, and see where it led. I had absolutely no expectations, other than a suspicion that the trail would probably peter out in the jungle somewhere way up the side of the canyon wall. 

That day all of my (foreign) companions happened to be leaving in the morning: The Brits (or, rather, the "Loiners" (and I'm not making that up, that's really what you call someone from Leeds (talk about parenthetical statements)) of Chinese Malaysian extraction), along with the Australian and the American, were all headed roughly in the direction Guwahati... apparently they were going to hike all the way out of the canyon, take whatever they could flag down to Shillong, and get a sumo from there to Guwahati, where they would then have to find a hotel. It sounded like a hell of a lot of travelling for one day...not impossible, but tough, and not what I would do unless I had no other option. 

I gave the Brits the number of a good friend of mine named Babu, who often houses foreigners travelling through Assam. The hotels in Guwahati have the reputation of being overpriced (not that I've ever stayed in one), and as I learned later, they wound up staying with him.

Once I had seen my friends off, I packed my day-pack, filled every water bottle I could lay my hands on, told the caretakers where I was going, and then started the hike upcanyon and to an uncertain destination. 

On this day, the weather decided that it was finally going to stop raining entirely. The sun was out most of the time, and the jungle was hot, loud, and steamy. 

After the trail crosses the final root bridge, it starts to lead steeply upward via old-style stone steps. At one point, a faint side trail leads to what one of the maps handed out by the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort calls the "Natural Swimming Hole," though during this time of year, even with the sun out, the risk of a flash flood is far too great to go swimming. It was here, during the 2011 monsoon season when me and my brother visited, that a woman we had briefly met decided to go swimming in the Umkynsan and got sucked under and never came back out again. 

The stone steps at first lead almost straight up, while the condition of the trail starts to deteriorate rapidly. After a short time, the path leads next to two wooden huts, one of which I went and investigated. The hut looked quite old, though with the jungle rotting it speedily and steadily, it might have been younger than it seemed. The wood and bamboo the building was made of had gone soft, so I decided to turn around and keep heading up the path. However,  I did accidentally leave behind my Gamosa (Assamese hand towel...very important in these parts), on a stone wall next to one of the structures....a rather huge mistake...I spent most of the rest of the day pouring sweat...

From this point, the trail cuts in an upward leading diagonal line across the side of the canyon wall, only going up in switchbacks and straight staircases when it is absolutely necessary.  When the trail was first built, which might very well have been hundreds of years ago, a great deal of thought appears to have gone into the course it would take. And the pure muscle work needed must have been tremendous. Though the path has no sustained uphill sections as long or intense as the Endless Stairs which come down from Tyrna, it covers a much longer distance, along with an elevation change of around 3500 rather than 1000, feet.

 Pushing deeper into the jungle, it became very apparent that the path had not been used for quite some time. All of the steps were of the old, slippery stone, style, and were usually covered with moss, roots, and ferns. Going up and up and up the path, I came to a place where the trees receded a little bit, and more sunlight reached the ground. The result of this was that undergrowth flourished, and the path became totally submerged in greenery.  

A big damn spider, in the sunlight. I've asked numerous times whether or not there are any poisonous spiders in the Khasi Hills area. I've always been told there aren't...thankfully, because they sure were everywhere....even in my bed....

Wherever I came to a part of the trail that was choked out with greenery, the first thing that I noticed was a large increase in the number of spiders of all shapes and sizes, some of them truly gigantic. I had been told that none were poisonous, so I wasn't worried on that score, but I still didn't want to get covered with them (and their webs....and their wrapped up sticky prey).

Thinking that, if conditions got too bad I would turn around, I continued the long slow battle uphill.

Looking down at Nongriat, from about 1000 feet above. The village is just about in the middle of this picture, though the houses appear to be little more than white specks. 

Here, my rs. 380 umbrella really came in handy. I had brought it along just in case it rained, but I wound up using it in many different ways: As a walking stick, a machete, and a spider-web removal device. The umbrella did get a couple of holes in it along the way, though I doubt I could have done what I did without it.

Still, in some places the undergrowth was too thick to simply swat away with an umbrella. I had some relatively thick gloves with me that had been sitting in my day pack since earlier in the year, so when I had no other option, I simply weeded my way up the side of the canyon wall, clearing the trail step by step and thinking that, for all this effort, there better be something really good at the end of it. 

The trail....see it?

I fought my way up and up, deeper and deeper into the jungle. Finally I came to a place where there was a few hundred feet of nearly horizontal steps, completely obscured by thick green undergrowth as tall as I was...truth be told, I considered giving up at this point. It wasn't that there was much chance of getting lost: The trail usually followed the only route up the side of the canyon that it could have, but the sheer effort of pushing through so much jungle growth seemed unlikely to be worth it. 

Another, even bigger, damn spider, of a different species. This picture was taken with a flash, and I zoomed in a bit and cropped it.  Still, the size the spider is on my computer monitor is about the size it was in real life.

That section was the worst part of the trail. Though, I have to admit, with every foot uphill so hard won, seeing the canyon wall across the way getting gradually lower and lower did give me quite a sense of accomplishment.  

Now many tough miles out from Nongriat, on a largely forgotten trail on the side of a jungle covered cliff, I began to feel cut off from the rest of the world. The spooky, forgotten, feel of the place made me wonder if I wasn't about to stumble on some overgrown lost city around the next bend.

An unusually clear section of the trail, somewhere between 500-1000 feet from the top.

I started seeing nasty old rotten jack fruit next to the trail, and from this knew I had come up at least 2000 feet, into a different, higher altitude, vegetation zone. Despite the extreme difficult of hacking my way up the trail, I was getting somewhere. From this point on, the trees were taller, and the jungle darker. Though the path remained slippery and rough, there were few points where it was obscured by undergrowth.

Some time after entering this new zone, I can to an area where, long ago, part of the side of the canyon had collapsed, creating an area of giant fallen stones through which wound the now well-defined trail. I rested here for some time, and then started the final push to the top. 

A huge rock alcove, and bamboo.  

By this point, though I was well stocked with water, I was getting damn hungry...I had taken a bunch of bananas with me, but earlier in the day I had taken a spill and squashed all of them. What I had now was more like a backpack full of banana pulp...something I could eat (and have) in an emergency, but would only do so at the utmost end of need, so to speak.

But now I realized that it might not come to that. Civilization was closer than I had assumed. As I made my way higher and higher into the jungle, I started to notice that the tops of the cliffs opposite were not only getting lower, but that they were now almost level with me. And the temperature also started to dip. The altimeter on my watch now indicated that I had come up well over 3000 feet. 

Looking up, I saw a wide clearing, and all of the sudden, I stepped out between two trees and was back out on the Meghalaya moors. Above me, at the top of a short, grass covered slope, was the first piece of modern civilization that I had seen all day: A metal fence with an opening in it. It was at this point that the trail became the most difficult to follow, for it now disappeared under a covering of thick grass. Still, the opening in the fence was not all that far, and in only a few minutes I came up over the top, and had successfully climbed out of the canyon......

.....and found myself right where I had been a few days before: The Nohkalikai Falls viewpoint.  

Another view of Nohkalikai Falls, just for the hell of it.

After hours of hacking through thick jungle, on a seemingly forgotten old stone pathway, suddenly coming up over the side of a canyon wall in what is more or less just big tourist trap for Bengali sightseers felt like emerging from the land of the dead. I certainly wasn't presentable. My clothes were soaked with sweat, I had leaves in the my hair, holes in my shirt, and my bag smelled like crushed bananas...Still, a couple of domestic tourists did demand that I take pictures with them, so I couldn't have been toooo terrible...then again, maybe they just assumed all foreigners are filthy...also plausible.

Anyway, Nohkalikai Falls are beautiful, even if the viewpoint is a bit too far away. Now, when I began my long trek, I hadn't known I would wind up all the way back at the viewpoint. But now I had an opportunity to do something I'd been wanting to do for a I wound up having wai-wai, biscuits, and tea, and I was also able to make a phone call for the first time in a few days (there being no signal down in the canyon).

Looking south, over the last ranges of India. Here you can just barely make out the plains of Bangladesh.

I'm pretty sure that the trail I took was once a route between Cherrapunji and Nongriat, which fell largely into disuse after the roads were built. As such, it's hard to say how long the trail has been there. And people may still use it occasionally; certainly  during the dry season, when much of the undergrowth has died back, walking from Nongriat to Cherrapunji would  be a much less daunting task.

Another waterfall, to the east of the Nohkalikai Falls Viewpoint.

So, after having lunch, and walking around a bit, it came time to disappear back into the jungle. Though first I decided to stop at a stall and buy a souvenir: A jar of really spicy Khasi Hills hot peppers. When I told the woman who was manning the stall that I had just come up the trail from Nongriat, she looked at me like I was an evil spirit. I don't blame her. The whole day felt sort of dreamy and unreal. It all had a rather Werner Herzog sort of a vibe to it.

Starting down, into the clouds and the jungle.

So now I headed back down the 3500 feet to Nongriat, and from this point on there isn't much to report: With the jungle overgrowth already cleared on the way up, I made extremely quick progress on the way down. However, it turned out that the lid for the jar of hot peppers was impossible to screw on all the way. The fluid the peppers were stored in started to spill out into my backpack, though I only realized this after it was too late.... 

Oh, and I remembered to pick up my gamosa.... 

The long stairs home.

With night closing in, I made it back to Nongriat, extremely well exercised, though smelling like a mixture of sweat, jungle, crushed banana, and hot pepper. Still, the good people at the guest house didn't seem to mind, and if they did, they never said anything.... 

Dinner that night was quiet, though again full of pork fat.....

And my hosts were listening to the Scorpions......

In Meghalaya, you can't get away from them.....

That's all for now.

P.S.: Can anyone identify the species of spiders pictured above? Or does anyone know where one would look to do so (such as an "Arachnids of Meghalaya" book)? Thanks.

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