Sunday, January 26, 2014

An Unknown Living Root Bridge

Tyndrong Bridge 

[Note: All of the spellings of Khasi villages below are merely my idea of how they should be spelled...I don't pretend to have a system, and many of these names I've never seen in writing. I have encountered the spelling "Tynrong" for "Tyndrong" a few times, and that does seem to be the more common version. However, I think for practical purposes, "Tyndrong" is a more useful English rendering of the word, as whenever I've heard it pronounced it definitely contains a rolled "D" sound between the "N" and "R" sounds, and if you were asking directions from some random Khasi in the middle of the jungle, I think you would be more likely to be understood with "Tyndrong" than "Tynrong."]  

A few months back, I decided to go exploring in the rugged jungle canyonlands west of the Khasi village of Nongriat, in a part of the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya which has seen almost nothing in the way of tourism. While on this expedition I discovered, quite accidentally, a living root bridge which I am now reasonably certain was previously unknown to the outside world. It runs across a stream just below the village of Tyndrong, which is about three hours of moderately difficult hiking from the world famous Double Decker living root bridge of Nongriat. Living root bridges are exceptional given that they are among the only forms of architecture that are grown rather than built. Given that there are less than twenty known examples in the world (which are all in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, except for one in Indonesia), finding a new one is no small thing. However, I think that what stumbling upon a new living root bridge primarily indicates is that there are probably many more out there which are unknown to the outside world. There would seem to be a great deal more exploring to be done in the canyonlands of Meghalaya. Of course, saying that the bridge was "undiscovered" would not be true. Locals use it everyday, and presumably have for the past few hundred years. But what is notable is that no word of Tyndrong Bridge had reached people just a few 
villages over. 

I've visited Tyndrong Bridge twice now, the second time with my friend Glen Saunders, who came with me on an expedition I led to Northeast India that came to an end just a few days ago. As far as I know, he and I are the only non Khasis ever to have clapped eyes on the bridge, at least in living memory...and I may be wrong about that, though if any other non-Khasis have seen it, they've  not done anything to make the outside world aware of its existence. 

Getting to Tyndrong from the village of Nongriat is not difficult, though the information I had regarding the route was largely incorrect after a certain point. The first time I went I took a number of wrong turns, and went looking for the village in the wrong part of the canyon. As far as I can tell, though they're only separated by a few miles and three hours of moderate hiking, the villages of Tyndrong and Nongriat are worlds apart. The clans that founded Nongriat and most of the villages nearby originally came from a settlement upstream of Tyndrong called Thieding, and ensconced themselves in the valley below Nohkailikai Falls several hundred years ago, having been evicted from their homeland after losing a war with another Khasi village called Mauphu. The Thieding clans were then incorporated into the kingdom of the ruler of Sohra. But Tyndrong appears to have had rather a different history: I think it was part of the kingdom of the rulers of Shella (though I'm not sure). They speak a slightly different dialect of the Khasi language, and are rather further removed from the rest of the world. Though Nongriat is physically remote, being only accessible via ninety minutes of hiking over stairs,  the world is coming to it, with ever more Israelis, Australians, Brits, Japanese, etc. arriving each year. But Tyndrong remains, for the moment, beyond tourism.

Tyndrong would be worth going to even if there weren't a living root bridge there. The hike is through jungles thicker and greener than those around Nongriat, and along the way is one of the most scenic, and also unexpected, swimming holes within walking distance of Nongriat. 

The walk starts behind the Catholic church in Nongriat, where a path leads south for about 20-30 minutes to another village called Mynteng. At Mynteng, take any of a number of right turns. Ultimately, you'll wind up on a path through the jungle to the west of Mynteng, with a stream to your left. After only a few minutes, you'll come to a very new looking wire suspension bridge.

The Very New Wire Suspension Bridge of Mynteng. This was built only in the past few months. There used to be a living root bridge across this stream, but it got washed out in a flash flood ten or fifteen years ago.  You can still see a small part of the ruined root bridge, upstream of the new bridge. The wire bridge wasn't there the first time I hiked to Tyndrong in late October of 2013...everywhere in Meghalaya, things are changing fast.

After the bridge, you come to a steep uphill section. It doesn't last very long, though it's one of the very toughest stretches of trail around Nongriat, and that's really saying something. 

The worst part is over when you come to a small clearing. Beyond this is more stairs leading uphill, though the incline is not as steep. These stairs lead to a small village called Ramdait, with maybe twenty houses. From here, you want to take the trail heading left, or west. Just ask any villager for Tyndrong, and they'll point you the way. 

The stretch of trail immediately west of Ramdait is the highest part of the hike. From here on, the whole way to Tyndrong is downhill, and if you find yourself heading up, you're going the wrong way. There are a number of expansive views along this section, along with two smallish streams. A minute upstream from where the path crosses the second watercourse there is an extremely beautiful waterfall and swimming hole, which is worth visiting. 

Ramdait Falls and swimming pool. The cascade is about 75 feet high, and the pool, in late October, was maybe fifteen feet deep in the middle. I doubt that many tourists have been here, though it's one of the prettiest swimming holes in the area, and the only one I know of that's on the side of a cliff rather than down below in one of the main rivers. The pool is almost perfectly circular, the water emptying out of it on the south side and flowing in a narrow watercourse for only a few hundred feet before spilling over the lip of yet another precipice.  

Beyond Ramdait Falls, the trail begins to descend, and soon comes to a T intersection with a steep stairway. If you go uphill, the stairs will take you, after an agonising 1500 foot deathmarch,  to a village with a roadhead called Mausahew. However, the way to Tyndrong is downhill, to the left.

A rugged Khasi chap on his way to Mausahew, at the intersection. Glen Saunders and I encountered this fellow as we were walking back to Nongriat, having visited the Tyndrong Bridge as part of a long day hike...yes, he posed for that picture, though he was walking along behind us for a while, shooting things with his slingshot. As nearly as I can tell, all Khasi boys learn to use slingshots at a very young age, much to the detriment of the local bird and ground squirrel populations.  

After the intersection, one heads down a series of steps that get gradually less steep. The jungle here is thicker and greener than around Nongriat, and the soil becomes red in color. There are vastly more ferns.  I get the impression that the area gets more rain than Nongriat, perhaps because it's on a south facing slope, directly in the path of the moisture coming up from the Bay of Bengal, while Nongriat faces east. 

In some time, you'll come to a sort of square stone enclosure, situated at the point where the path splits into three branches, one straight ahead, due south, one to the right, down from the enclosure, and one off to the left. When I first came to this point, I was forced to guess which way to go. There was nobody around (I had'nt seen anybody for hours), so I decided to go in the general direction I had thought Tyndrong was. The path at this point leads along the crest of a ridge that runs across the top of a rugged peninsula. This is formed  by the stream at the bottom of the canyon Nongriat is in flowing into the much larger river of the next canyon over. I had been told that Tyndrong was at the southern edge of this peninsula, so I went straight....which was wrong. I was now walking away from where I meant to be going. 

The stone enclosure. It seems to be quite old, and looks like it might have been meant as a camp...if you ever come this way, make sure you turn right here, that is, if you mean to get to Tyndrong. 

I wandered for quite some distance through thick, lonely, and very unfamiliar jungle. I had plenty of food and water with me, and a huge pack, but it was late in the day and I was considering making an about face, and perhaps beating an ignominious retreat to Nongriat, when I met a random fellow out working in the jungle. Needless to say, I'm pretty sure a Delawarean coming down the trail at him was the last thing he expected. We had a long conversation, in broken bits of four different languages (English, Hindi, Khasi, and a bit of Assamese, largely from his side), and after much effort he pointed me in the right direction. 

A good Samaritan

When I came back with Glen Saunders, I didn't repeat my mistake. After the enclosure, it's perhaps a twenty minute walk to edge of Tyndrong. All you have to do at that point is stay on the most prominent trail. One path leads to the right, and then one comes in from the left, but you keep straight, and soon you'll reach the top of the village.

The first time I came to Tyndrong, I approached it from rather an odd direction. I wound up wandering into the village from behind its large Presbyterian Church, hearing it long before actually stumbling into it. While still enveloped in the jungle, without a clear impression of where I was going, I began to pick out the sound of children playing loudly, accompanied by mid to late 90's dance or techno (if there is a distinction) music (there is no escaping it, even in remotest Meghalaya). This last time, when Glen and I walked to Tyndrong as a day hike, there was again trashy Euro pop playing somewhere, perhaps even from the same house.  

The Presbyterian Church in Tyndrong. My first view of the village. 

Tyndrong lies on a long narrow slope, with valleys on either side, which runs down towards a river which is still some distance below. I had been told that the river was only around twenty minutes walking from the village, and on first arriving in Tyndrong I still didn't think I had reached the my intended destination because the bottom of valley still seemed to be somewhere between 1000-1500 feet below me...however, again, my information was incorrect.  Tyndrong is actually rather higher in elevation than Nongriat, and getting to the river from the village, though not an especially difficult hike, still takes a little while. 

The Catholic Church in Tyndrong, and a dog. As far as I know, Tyndrong is divided between the Presbyterians and Catholics, with Catholics (I think) forming the minority. It was actually from a Keralite Catholic priest who was conducting a mass in Nongriat that I first heard about the village back in 2012. I think it's a fairly safe assumption that most of the outsiders who have reached Tyndrong have gone there on business associated with the Church. 

A large pool about 45 minutes below Tyndrong. This is part of the river that drains what I call, for lack of any other name that I know of, "The Great Western Canyon." The huge gorge that Nongriat is at the bottom of is only a side canyon to this much larger chasm. I would spend the next several days exploring this  canyon, which is, as far as I can tell, virtually untouched by tourism. The pools in the river here are much larger and deeper than those near Nongriat, and they're full of big fish. The water in them isn't quite as clear as in those around Nongriat, probably because this river drains a much bigger area. Not far downstream from this point the river apparently becomes navigable by inflatable rafts, and it's possible to float to Bangladesh. Two of the very few other tourists to come to Tyndrong walked through the village in order to the gain access to the river and float to the next country.  

The first order of business when I arrived in Tyndrong was to find a place to stay for the night. It of course was not hard to find someone to talk to: Wherever I went I immediately became the center of attention, and pretty soon I had virtually the entire village was wondering what the hell I was doing there. 

 While I was totally dependant on the hospitality of the villagers, I didn't want to impose. Trying to find some place to sleep, I spent a little while trying to locate either Tyndrong's headman or  the local school teacher, perplexing numerous villagers along the way. Finally I asked a random, rather concerned looking man if it was possible for me to stay in the Presbyterian Church for the night. He didn't know English, though he did know a little of what he called "Bazaar Hindi," and that was enough for us to get by. He decided then and there, for reasons that I didn't quite understand, that I was his responsibility, though at first he didn't seem quite happy about it. He told me that there was no hotel in the village, and that the people of Tyndrong were poor, and wouldn't be able to provide me with much in the way of food. He seemed to assume, because I was from elsewhere, that I would be picky and unsatisfied with his hospitality. But he still offered to let me stay at his house.

The man had something like seven children, including a baby who was less than a year old. His home was badly eaten by termites, and resembled, except for the corrugated metal roof, what many northeast Indian houses made of wood must have looked like before the widespread introduction of concrete. I spent much of the remainder of the day sitting in the the man's home being gawked at by small khasis. Soon, not only had the man's entire family come back to the living room, but many of their friends, and a large portion of the little kids of the village, were crowding into the house. At one point there must have been at least 25, plus several adults.

I did my best to talk with my host, who seemed to warm up to the idea of my being there after a cup of tea. His Bazaar Hindi was rather a different commodity than my smattering of Formal-to-the-Point-of-Being- Risible Hindi, but we made it work as well as it needed to. After a while, one woman, who worked at the village school, came in, and she spoke a certain amount of English, though I think she had quite a bit of trouble with my accent. One of her first questions was whether I was from Guwahati or Calcutta. 

By this point, I still wasn't sure how far away the river at the bottom of the canyon was. I also was pretty dirty after having spent the whole day hiking with a giant trekking bag on my back, so I thought I would try to get in a swim. I tried asking my host the way to the river, but he decided that he would lead me there personally, though he didn't understand that I meant the main river at the bottom of the canyon....and that misunderstanding is in fact the only reason I blundered into Tyndrong Bridge at all.

The house I stayed in.  I took this picture on my second visit, when me and Glen Saunders came back to Tyndrong to get more pictures of the living root bridge, the few pictures I managed to take on my first expedition having not turned out very well (they were too dark, and there was no sense of scale on the bridge). Those kids in the doorway are two of my host's children, though he, like most of the men in the village, was out working in the jungle at the time. I did say "hi" to his wife though. That bag at the right hand side of the picture is full of Indian Bay Leaves, which seem to be the area's main crop during the middle of the winter. They're used in flavoring, though they also burn really and my companions on my most recent trip to Meghalaya profitably spent a large portion of our time in Nongriat burning bay leaves,  their highly flammable properties having been demonstrated to us by a mysterious intoxicated old Khasi fellow who shared our campfire for all of three minutes.

My host now started to lead me to a place where I could get a swim in. We started just behind his house, and then took a trail that led straight down from the village, into a narrow valley with a little rushing stream at the bottom. 

I just really like this tree...on the way down to Tyndrong Bridge.

It didn't take long to reach the stream. I immediately saw that the path we were on led across the watercourse by way of some sort of bridge.  But when I first saw Tyndrong Bridge, I wasn't immediately sure that it was made from roots that had been trained across the stream from the opposite bank. From some angles, the bridge looks like it's just made of wood and bamboo poles. Also, I had been specifically told that there were no living root bridges beyond Mynteng. But, as I got closer, I saw that the bridge did indeed consist of several large roots that had unmistakably been trained across the watercourse. The actual flooring of the bridge was made of bamboo, and there was only a railing on one side. The bridge appeared to have been damaged at some time, perhaps by a flash flood that had removed one side of it, or perhaps there had been some accident when the thing was initially being grown, and the other support never fully came into its own.

Me crossing Tyndrong Bridge. Photo by Glen Saunders (with a camera owned by Erin Potter).  Though the bridge is missing a large part, it's still significantly more sturdy than most of the bridges near Nongriat. The rather odd root on the right side of the picture may once have been part of the missing support.

The view from the opposite side. Photo by Glen Saunders. From this angle, the bamboo poles rather decrease the aesthetic appeal of the bridge, but, then again, if they weren't there it would be much harder to walk on. Unlike most of the other living root bridges I've seen, this one has yet to become a tourist attraction. Next to the living root bridge is a small wire suspension bridge, which I think was an attempt to phase the living root bridge out. But the wire bridge is now ruined, and the living root bridge is once again the main way across the stream. The railing on the right side of this picture has a bunch of gashes in it, some of them quite deep, where people have been hitting it with machetes. When my host led me here the first time, he barely even looked towards the bridge, and seemed to find my interest in it somewhat strange. I think that for him a living root bridge is a totally commonplace object.

A view looking up at the tree whose roots were harnessed to form the bridge. Most of the rubber trees that are used in the construction of living root bridges have multiple trunks, and vastly more branches. 

Glen Saunders stands mightily upon the span. I don't think that Tyndrong bridge is by any means the most beautiful of living root bridges, but it is one of the more unusual. Judging by the thickness of the roots, it's safe to assume that the bridge is well over 150 years, and may be as old as 250. I wasn't equipped to do any precise measurements,  but the two larger roots that make up the side railings are in the vicinity of two feet thick, which means they've been there growing thicker for quite some time. The bridge may not be the oldest (known) living root bridges, but it's certainly one of the older was probably laying across that stream when Abraham Lincoln was president, when the Tai-ping's were rampaging across southern China and the later Mughals were still tottering on in Delhi. 

Glen, facing the other way now. Perhaps even more unusual than it's age is the fact that Tyndrong Bridge seems to have been designed differently from any of the other living root bridges that I've clapped eyes on (which is most of them by this point). To begin with, on the side which is still intact, it has two large supports, as opposed to what one usually sees which is a single railing. Assuming that the missing side of the bridge was the same as the surviving one, Tyndrong Bridge may have had five primary roots instead of the usual three. Also, on Tyndrong Bridge there are practically none of the smaller intertwined roots which on most living bridges make up a large part of the structure and take a major portion of the stresses that the bridges need to handle. In virtually all other root bridges the secondary roots are a vital part of the overall design, but here they're almost entirely absent.  It's interesting to speculate how one would have walked across the bridge when the other side wasn't damaged: Without the secondary roots, it would be harder to make a floor for the bridge. Though the bamboo poles that are there now look a little ad-hoc, the bridge may have always had an artificial walkway. But what can definitely be said about the design of Tyndrong Bridge is that it is abnormal for its simplicity. What exactly this means I'm not sure. Perhaps it is actually older than all the other known living root bridges, and represents an earlier, more primitive way of making them.  Or, maybe the people of Tyndrong all those generations ago saw other living root bridges and then decided to make their own,  and the difference in design is a cultural matter. Or, maybe, the tree itself is just a slightly different variety of Rubber Tree. Or, maybe, for some reason, it was just easier to do it this way in this case....or, hell, maybe it was aliens. 

Some local ladies having just crossed the bridge. On the second expedition, when Glen and I went there. It's still in use, though where this path leads, other than north along the eastern wall of the Great Western Canyon, is unknown to me. I walked along this path for a few minutes one morning, and though I didn't see any more living root bridges, the jungle there was darker and greener than anything on the other side of Tyndrong. If indeed there are lots of other living root bridges in the Khasi Hills waiting to be revealed to the outside world, this path would be a good place to start looking. 

When I first came to bridge, I didn't stay very long. My host immediately started leading me upstream in search of a suitably deep swimming hole. There was no path, only boulders with water running under them and greyish rock walls close on either side. The only way up was to climb. Suddenly, as the fact that I seemed to have discovered a living root bridge unknown to the outside world slowly sunk in, I found myself climbing precariously from hand hold to hand hold up slippery boulders into a jungle canyon that in all likelihood no other outsider had ever laid eyes on (now that's a sentence). As it was the end of October, the rainy season was long gone, and the Khasi Hills were drying out. Finding a pool deep enough to swim in required risking life and least for me. My host appeared unbothered by the dangers of the place. In fact, he led me up into the canyon barefoot. 

My host in Tyndrong...A jungle man indeed. 

A waterfall in the stream above Tyndrong Bridge. Though my host didn't seem to find much interesting in the living root bridge, he went through fairly great pains to show me this waterfall, which is certainly worth seeking out. He seemed to really enjoy the I recall, we rested here for a little while and had a longish conversation about the relative merits of Nongriat and Tyndrong in Bazaar Hindi. 

We did ultimately find a suitable swimming hole, and I did get a little bit cleaner. However, there was another trial right next to it, and as it turned out our life and death adventure up the watercourse wasn't really necessary...though we did see the big waterfall pictured above, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.

After that, we went back to his house for dinner. There really wasn't much for me to do in Tyndrong after dark but sit around on the floor and have awkward could do worse.

My host's baby reminded me of my niece. 

My hosts mother (I think, but I'm not sure...which is embarrassing...maybe his mother in-law).

We had what constitutes a typical poor Khasi's normal meal: a plate of white rice with a little bit of salt and a small cube of pork fat. My host had a little bit of whiskey and afterwards got rather more talkative, though, honestly, now that he wasn't carefully picking his words I had no idea what the hell he was saying for about 70% of the time. Still, he seemed to be enjoying himself. 

Over the course of the following days I went on from Tyndrong and explored far into the Great Western Canyon, though I think that in the end I did little more than scratch the surface of the place. My experience just in Tyndrong showed me that, though the world is coming to Cherrapunjee and Nongriat, the larger part of the Khasi Hills are virtually unexplored by outsiders, and yet these untouristed regions are as beautiful, if not more so, than those which are receiving most of the attention these days. Given that there are parts of Northeast India vastly more remote than the Khasi Hills, I think it's safe to say that most of what's worth seeing in that region remains unknown. 

I suspect that in the canyons of Meghalaya there are many more living root bridges than the world knows about.

My host and the newest member of his family. By this point, he was smiling all the time and looking a little less severe, though his camera face remained rather on the serious side. I was hoping that I was going to be able to say hi the second time I visited Tyndrong, but he was out, and Glen and I needed to get back to Nongriat before the sun went down. Still, I owe this man quite a bit for showing me the way to Tyndrong Bridge, even if that hadn't been where he was trying to lead me. If anyone reading this ever makes it to Tyndrong, make sure to look him up.

Starting in Nongriat, walk to Mynting-Ramdait-Tyndrong. At Tyndrong, find the large Presbyterian Church. In back of this is a large concrete water tank with a tap. Across from the tank is a blue house, badly damaged by termites. Walk behind the house. There you'll acquire a narrow path leading downhill. Keep taking the paths downhill until you come to the stream and Tyndrong Bridge. The waterfall pictured above is a little way upstream and requires a certain amount of scrambling.

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