Friday, May 24, 2013

Exploring the Abode in the Clouds

My brother crosses the Nongthymmai Living Root Bridge, the longest of all (known) living root bridges, and arguably the most spectacular, in the monsoon season of 2011. Believe it or not, the whole span is made up of nothing but rubber tree roots that were trained across that stream over the course of a few decades by the local Khasi villagers. It is perhaps the world's most amazing example of biological architecture. During this trip that I'm putting together, we'll be staying in a village guesthouse about half an hour away from here, in a little visited corner of northeast India that is simply abounding in fantastic things to see.

Hi Folks!

So, I'm going to use my blog to put up info on a trip to Northeast India me and my brother are putting together for next Jan. Just be warned, this document is going to be something of a perpetual work in progress. But right now I'm just going to set down the basic plan, and the rest will follow.

Also, if anybody just happens to stumble onto this page, and is interested in going to Northeast India in January 2014, just get in touch with me in the comments section and I'll get back to you presently.

Here Goes:

I guess I should have name for this thing...Meghalaya, the name of the Northeast Indian State where we'll be spending most of our time, means "The Abode in the Clouds," so perhaps I can call the trip the "Exploring the Abode in the Clouds" Tour. Or, maybe, the "Northeast Indian Jungle Canyon Khasi Cave Rootbridge Extravagansa." Whichever.


I'm aiming for an 18 day itinerary, including the day we leave the U.S., and the day we come back. I'm going to try and avoid doing this the typical tour company way, which is to say, absolutely packing every day and moving as fast as possible. My travel philosophy is that it's better to see a few things well and thoroughly than to see a bunch of things quickly and sloppily. To add to that, as a wise man once said "No campaign plan survives contact with India." Now, in my experience, the lesson from that is not to avoid planning altogether, but rather to come up with plans that can absorb a large number of unforeseen contingencies while still maintaining their basic framework (saying that out loud would be a mouthful).  Also, I want to avoid travel fatigue as much as possible. So, this itinerary is going to be comparatively languorous, but it's how I would structure a trip if I was planning it just for myself.... believe me, we won't get bored.

Now, just one thing to bring up. I intend on traveling out to the Meghalaya, the focus of this trip, sometime later this year, so then I'll be doing a bit of reconnaissance work and filling in a few of the more fuzzy details.


DAY 1: JAN 5. We'll fly out of Newark Liberty International Airport. Flight UA 82.


Humayun's Tomb, the best looking bit of architecture in Delhi. Very Red.... 

We'll be landing in Delhi, and I aim to spend three full days there. The reason for that is mostly practical: It'll be quite a haul getting from Delhi to Meghalaya, and I don't want to put two travel days right up against each other. Also, I want to make sure that people don't go into the main part of the trip jetlagged, and unacclimatised. Also, providing we get a few people who are new to India, it'll be a chance to give them a comparison between so-called "Mainstream India" (as in, Delhi), and so-called "Most Decidedly Not Mainstream, Nobody's heard of it, What's this doing in India, India" (as in, Meghalaya).

We'll be staying at the YWCA, right in the middle of the city. I know that this isn't the most adventurous choice of accommodation in Delhi, but our accommodation later in the trip should be more than adventurous enough to make up for this. I've considered a range of other places in the city, but I think, given that our primary objective during this part of the trip is simply to acclimatize, the YWCA is the best option.

That being said....we won't get bored. While we're in Delhi, we'll take it moderately easy, and focus on visiting places in the city that are off the usual tourist radar, of which there are actually quite a few that are worth visiting.

Note: I'm not sure how many people coming will be first timers, and how many will be seasoned India veterans, we'll just have to take that into account once we know.

DAY 2: JAN 6. We'll arrive in the evening, transfer to the New Delhi YWCA, and try to sleep.

DAY 3: JAN 7.  We are going to relax. And I mean that. I'm calling this our "Vanquishing Jetlag Day". I intend to focus entirely on visiting places that are within walk distance of the YWCA. In the morning, we can visit a 16th century Sikh temple, wander about a bizarre 18th century astronomical observatory, and walk to one of central Delhi's most simultaneously spectacular and obscure sites: Agrasen Ki Baoli. This is an ancient step-well which is thought to have been in existence for well over 3000 years (though it's been rebuilt a number of times, most recently in the 14th century).

In the afternoon, we'll deal with the usual little issues that arise on the first day of a trip, and familiarize ourselves with the geography around the YWCA. Later, anybody who wants to can visit the shopping areas around central Delhi (Connaught Place, Janpath Road), or walk a bit further afield and visit Delhi's Government headquarters. We'll eat at the YWCA dining hall.

But, the main thing on day 1........RELAX........I can't stress that enough.....RELAX.....

This is Agrasen Ki's much bigger than this picture makes it look. It's right in the middle of Delhi's business district, and though it seems to be pretty well known by Delhi's canoodling couples, not too many foreigners go there, despite it being a 20 minute walk from the YWCA.

Here's a bonus Graffiti Ganesh, just outside the step-well.

DAY 4: JAN 8. We'll try and make this a bit more of an exciting sort of day. In the morning, we can focus on exploring the narrow, congested, medieval streets of Old Delhi. Then we'll come back and have lunch.

Later, we'll take a trip down to South Delhi. One of Delhi's main attractions is the Qutb Minar, a great minaret built by the first Islamic Conquerors of North India in the late 12th century. It's perhaps Delhi's most iconic landmark, and for any first timers, the minaret and the sprawling complex of Islamic ruins around it are a must see. I'll certainly take anyone who hasn't been to Delhi before to go and see it (and if any India veterans want to visit again, that's fine too.)

However, right next to the Qutb Minar is what's rather dryly referred to as the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, which is arguably Delhi's best kept secret. It's part of the same complex as the ruins around the Qutb Minar, but it's virtually unknown, even by most people who live in Delhi. Whereas the Qutb Minar is the most visited tourist attraction in India (beating out even the Taj-Mahal by an average of ten million visitors annually), the adjacent Mehrauli Archaeological Park doesn't seem to be visited by practically anyone...I've been there three times and only once saw other foreigners (a grand total of two!). Yet the complex is strewn with around 70 spectacular monuments, and is at same time being one of the most peaceful places in's one of my personal favorite spots in the city....and it's free, too...a fine place to spend an afternoon, and a good deal all around...

After coming back from South Delhi, those who still have the energy can accompany me to Delhi's Tibetan refugee center, a rather surprising pocket of Tibetan Culture in the far north of the city. There's not tons to see here, though there's a Buddhist Monastery, and a bunch of the best value budget restaurants in the whole mega-city. It's also a fine place to pick up bootleg Chinese and Korean DVD's, if that's what you're into...

This is just one of the many many many many things to see in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. It's the tomb of a Sufi mystic and noted court poet who lived during the 16th century. The tomb itself is tiny, and from the outside it looks quite plain, but the inside is maybe the most beautiful single room in Delhi, and amazingly few tourists visit...highly recommended...

Note: There's so much to see in the Mehrauli Archeological park that I'm making a whole blog post on it, out soon.

DAY 5: JAN 9. This'll be our last full day in Delhi before we head out to Meghalaya. In the morning, we'll visit a Delhi classic: Humayun's Tomb. This is the best looking building in Delhi, and the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. We'll try and visit as early to beat the crowds....the earlier we go, the more we can relax and see things at our own pace. The place can turn into something of a circus starting about 10:30.

Later, we'll have a real adventure. Just south of the walls of Old Delhi, there is a now largely ignored 14th century fortress called Firoz Shah Kotla. Here, every Thursday afternoon, thousands of people come to pray in dark ancient chambers beneath the crumbling ruins inside the fort, asking for the blessings of disembodied spirits called Djinns. The atmosphere is absolutely supernatural, and the number of tourists who come to witness this truly exceptional event seem to be very few. While so many of the things to see in Delhi have been done many times over, visiting Feroz Shah Kotla on Thursday is a genuine adventure (and a possible brush with the supernatural to boot).

After that, we'll have dinner, and hopefully get to bed early...we'll have a long journey the next day.

Praying to the Djinns of Feroz Shah Kotla, in a dark alcove underneath a ruined 14th century mosque. In all my travels in India over the past five years, I've never been anywhere else which felt quite so supernatural. 


My brother on a trail somewhere below Laitkynsew, in 2011....yes, Meghalaya has many difficult though picturesque old stairways.

So, hopefully after Delhi we'll be properly warmed up. In the next phase of our trip, we'll head out to the Northeast, leaving so-called "Mainstream India" far behind. 

Perched on a steep escarpment overlooking the plains of Bangladesh to one side, and vast jungle clad canyon on the other, is the Khasi Village of Laitkynsew. This is our jumping off point to go and visit the living root bridges and explore the canyons. We'll be staying for three nights at the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort (which, I assure you, is a much more adventurous place to be than the name would suggest), which is in Laitkynsew, and makes a perfect base for a number of hikes in the near vicinity. The owners of the hotel are the people who made the living root bridges known to the world, and they're the top experts on the area.

While we're there, I'm planning on doing two things: To explore one of Meghalaya's many caves, and to give people their first taste of what it's like hiking around in the Khasi Hills.

Meghalaya, given its abundance of both limestone and precipitation, is the premiere caving destination in India. There are a number of caves near where we'll be staying, and our hotel will be able to arrange equipment and guides. The group size for caving has to be relatively small, so half of us will go caving one day, and the other half will go the next. 

The non-caving group will have a choice of any of the huge variety of  non-subterranean hikes in the area. If you're feeling energetic, you can hike practically all the way down to the plains of Bangladesh, along an ancient Khasi trade route, to a village called Shella. Or you could visit one of the living root bridges that are within walking distance of the hotel. Either way....we won't get bored...

It's important that everybody gets to warm up a bit on the Khasi Hills terrain before we descend to the bottom of a giant canyon....the Khasi Hills make the foothills of the Himalayas seem positively flat! 

Yes, we may very well see these people.

While staying in Laitkynsew, being machine gunned by small Khasi children will be a constant threat.

DAY 6: JAN 10. We'll have breakfast at the YWCA, and then take an early flight out to Guwahati, in the Northeast Indian State of Assam. Our transport will meet us there, and we'll immediately start the long drive to Laitkynsew. 

The road will take us south, out of Assam, and up onto the Meghalaya Plateau. The drive is reasonably pleasant, and as we get closer and closer to our destination for the day, you'll feel less and less like you're in India. We may stop in the hill station of Shillong for lunch.   

However, don't expect to be blown away by the drive, that is, until the last half-hour. From Assam, we'll be going slowly but steadily uphill,  but just before we hit the town of Cherrapunji, the ground will abruptly start to drop away in vast, green, chasms, thousands of feet deep, down to the plains of Bangladesh. That's the point at which the drive gets interesting. 

We'll check into the hotel, and maybe do a bit of exploring the immediate vicinity.

DAY 7: JAN 11. One group will go and explore a cave, and another will go on a spectacular, fantastic, life- changing, amazing'll be a win-win situation. There should also be plenty of chances to wander about Laikynsew, and meet the local Khasis.

DAY 8: JAN 12. Another win-win day, though with the groups reversed.  


The Double Decker Root Bridge. This is perhaps the most most famous of all living root bridges. We'll be staying, literally, just a minute's walk from the top of those steps to the left.

This is the core of our trip, and it's going to be the most adventurous part. We'll be spending a full five nights in Nongriat village, which is literally at the bottom of a canyon. From here our itinerary is going to be a little less specific, and we're going to have to play it by ear rather more. On some days I'm sure most people will just want to just relax (swimming should be possible this time of year), but on others we'll be able to go off on proper adventures in the near vicinity.  In short...we won't get bored.

Nongriat village is world famous for it's spectacular Double Decker Living Root Bridge (which we'll be staying two minutes from). But nearby are no less than three steel-wire suspension bridges, four other living root bridges, and innumerable waterfalls, swimming holes, and boulder strewn watercourses. To add to this, the people of Nongriat are extremely's a perfect place to relax, and it's a perfect place to set out on giant, endurance testing hikes through tropical rain forest...and we'll have plenty of time to do both. 

I know of a number of long hikes that we can take, and also of other villages, deeper in the jungle, farther away from civilization, rarely seen by foreign travelers, that we can go and visit. By staying a number of days in the village, rather than just going down for a night and coming up the next day, we'll be able to get under the skin of the place, and see things very few visitors get the chance to.

Me and my brother once day-hiked to Nongriat in 2011, and I spent four nights there in late 2012...and I still haven't seen it all....we won't get bored...

DAY 9: JAN 13. This is going to be a pretty tough day. First, we'll have a good, big, breakfast. Then, we'll pack up our back packs. We'll all need to have large trekking bags that we can carry a few days worth of clothes and supplies in. Taking the morning at a fairly relaxing pace, we'll leave the hotel at around checkout time, and then we'll be driven about 3km to the village of Tyrna. From here, we'll put on our bags, and then walk down down down down down down down about 1500 ft, to the bottom of a giant canyon...not something one does everyday...from there, we'll have to trek on a few more kilometers, crossing two steel-wire suspension bridges, and a small living root bridge, to reach our home for the next five nights: Nongriat. 

We'll get settled in, maybe explore out immediate surroundings a bit, and then have dinner.

My brother, deep in concentration, crossing over the Umkynsan River via a steel wire suspension bridge. Yes, Meghalaya is a land of many adventurous bridges.

A distant view of misty Nongriat...there's actually much more to it than this picture would suggest. However, the town is so well hidden in the thick jungle that it's hard to tell where it starts and stops.

This is the Nongriat guest house. Yes, it's basic, and, yes, settling down in Nongriat is going to take a bit of adjusting. That being said, the guesthouse is located within easy walking distance of a number of places that are absolutely unique, and every direction you go there's something beautiful and interesting to stumble's really quite a good deal. The guesthouse has eight beds (with mosquito nets), but I've been told that it's possible to pitch a tent in Nongriat, and also that the villagers could make room for a few of us, so even if we have more than eight people (and I aim too), we'll manage just fine. 

A simple but tasty Nongriat Guest House dinner....not too shabby at all...

DAY 10: JAN 14. In Nongriat. In all likelihood, people are going to be rather sore on this day, so we'll probably want to take it easy.

DAY 11: JAN 15 In Nongriat.

DAY 12: JAN 16 In Nongriat. 

DAY 13: JAN 17 In Nongriat. 


DAY 14: JAN 18. So, after an idyllic five nights in Nongriat, it'll be time to clamber back up out of the canyon. Yes, there's no good way to put this: This day's going to be a bitch. We'll have to lug all our stuff back up the giant endless flight of stairs we came down, and it will be tough. However, we'll arrange transportation from our hotel in Laitkynsew to pick us up immediately once we reach the top.

In my own experience of this part of the hike from Nongriat, yes, it's hard, though the stairs are so steep that  the torture just doesn't last all that long. We'll spend one more night at the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort.

DAY 15: JAN 19. On this day, we'll ride down from Meghalaya, back to the Assam plains, and then take a flight back out to Delhi, and transfer to the YWCA.

DAY 16: JAN 20. We'll spend a day in Delhi, just so that we don't wind up with two huge travel days back to back. Basically a free day.

DAY 17: JAN 21. The morning and afternoon will be free. We'll fly out in the evening, on flight UA 83, back to America.

DAY 18: JAN 22. Providing the flight is on time, we'll land at around 4:30 A.M., and we'll all go home....Yay....


P.S.: Shall be coming up with a packing list shortly.

P.P.S: Regarding the budget, I'm still in the process of working that out. The Cherrapunji Holiday Resort is in the process of revising their room rates, so I may not know that for a little while. Otherwise, I do know that by far the biggest expense, the airfare, is going to be between 1300-1500 dollars. I'm sincerely hoping to have a proper, reliable figure sometime in June.

Don't let the jungle madness take you, lest you wind up like this Khasi chap.

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