A sacred forest, one of India’s highest waterfalls and Asia’s cleanest village are among the pit stops on a nostalgic road trip in Meghalaya
I am grinning from ear to ear and taking deep breaths. We are past city traffic and on National Highway 40, whizzing past a stretch of dhabas and small villages. Several kilometres of dusty areas pass before our eyes rest on a patch of green. I picture myself as a 10-year-old, sitting with my nose pressed to the rear-seat window of our Maruti 800.
I am on my way from Guwahati to Shillong, where I have not been for 13 years, and am brimming with nostalgia.
At my home in Dibrugarh, there is an album full of fading photographs of family trips to Shillong, all taken with a point-and-shoot Yashica camera. In one, I am wearing a red frock and leaning against a railing at Shillong Peak, Meghalaya’s highest point, with a bird’s-eye view of the town behind me. In another, our entire family, wrapped in bright sweaters and shawls, is posing in front of Elephant Falls, a three-level waterfall about 12km from Shillong. Stories about the scenic drive and freezing winters float around the house every time the old albums are dusted. A Barbie-doll set I bought from Police Bazar in Shillong might be packed away in a box now, but I had considered it a proud possession well into my teens.
My family moved from Jorhat to Dibrugarh, in Upper Assam, in 2002. My sister went away to college the next year, and I to boarding school the year after. I had not been to Shillong since.
I am expecting the roads and landscape to look familiar, and the memories to come back to me instantly. They don’t. Instead, new images and perspectives take shape. I begin to truly experience Meghalaya on road for the very first time.
I was there as part of an assignment for a travel start-up and had spent 20 days surrounded by the eastern Himalayas. I had travelled to Sikkim before being joined in Darjeeling by the company founder for the journey to Meghalaya. It was to be the last state we would visit before heading back to Mumbai.
We start our journey from Uzan Bazar in Guwahati. After we’ve been on the road for more than 3 hours, the Umiam Lake comes into view. We park our car at a viewpoint on the highway just as it begins to drizzle. The clear blue water of the lake blends perfectly with the green rolling hills that seem to extend their sleepy arms into the water.
A worn signboard reads, “Welcome to Shillong." I smile and take a quick picture. We drive uphill through tall pinewoods and two small villages before the Shillong that I remember begins to unfold slowly. We turn on to a road that winds past Ward’s Lake, a scenic picnic spot, and leads us to Polo Bazar. From there, a turn towards Buddhist Temple Road leads us to Travellers Bed & Breakfast, a three-storey building with a large compound—our home for the next four days.
We step out of our car and greet our host, Eric Suting. He’s a thin, young man, perhaps in his early 30s. Having led many groups of travellers into both touristy and remote corners of Meghalaya, Suting knows more about its culture, politics and economics than I had expected him to.
We stroll across the crowded Police Bazar, bargaining with local vendors over the prices of skinny jeans, leather boots and chequered shirts. We taste local chicken and fish curry in Trattoria, a restaurant where benches and tables replace the usual dining tables and a board out front lists the dishes available.
We drive past sleepy villages and patches of farm for half an hour. Men walk by with large bamboo baskets, full of fruits and vegetables, strapped around their heads and hanging down their backs. A detour down the valley takes us to a picture-postcard village. Tin-roofed houses lie scattered at the foot of a hill, and a vast green field is dotted with grazing sheep and horses. The scene is completed by maize fields, little children playing by a narrow stream and a sprawling farmhouse.
We walk by the maize fields, stealing glances at the children who giggle at us from the other end. We reach the stream, pull off our shoes and dip our feet in the cold water, slipping and laughing as we make our way across a rock path laid out for travellers.
Walking through the sacred grove, crushing the dry orange leaves on the wet ground and carefully stepping over fallen moss-laden timber trees, I am transported into a magical world.
It begins raining. Hesitantly, we hit the road again. It is the monsoon time, and we follow the signs leading us to the “wettest place on earth": Sohra, or Cherrapunjee, as it is popularly known—though neighbouring Mawsynram may contest that. Half an hour into the drive from Mawphlang, we notice an interesting pattern. Small ponds, some by the road and others in the middle of fields, are fringed by anglers. Around some of these ponds, we notice an encouraging audience.
Curious, we ask Lung about the fascination with ponds. He tells us that angling is a recreational activity as well as one of the most popular sports in Meghalaya. Locals often get together to place bets on the number of fish that will be caught. Angling competitions are organized by private groups and the government during local festivals. The cash prizes, we are told, can be as high as tens of lakhs of rupees.
Chewing on this bit of trivia, we make a short halt at a viewpoint near the Duwan Singh Syiem Bridge, named after a 19th century ruler of Sohra. It’s a customary halt en route to the falls, Lung tells us. Deep gorges drop down one end of the road, and the Mawkdok Dympep valley, which extends all the way to Sohra for the next 20-30km, comes into view. Fog comes and goes as we step out with our cameras and decide to warm our hands with cups of hot tea bought from an elderly woman. The wooded mountains seem to be rising and falling in a neat succession as far as my eyes can see. There are local tourists all around us. Some feast on a hot bowl of Maggi noodles or a cob of corn. Others try on the colourful silk and woollen hats displayed at a stall. I wonder if I had been here as a child. Memory fails me.
While Sohra was still the wettest place on earth in 2014, according to the World Meteorological Organization, deforestation has been a problem. The government and the locals have been making efforts to promote sustainable tourism and afforestation.
We take a steep flight of stairs to a viewpoint that everyone else seems to be avoiding. The steps spiral down sharply before ending abruptly, as if the people who built it abandoned the project midway. The waterfall lies really far away, and it is a while before I hear the water furiously hit rock bottom and see it form a clear blue pool before flowing on gently as a stream. This place does not feel like a tourist haunt but like a discovery, and I hold on to the sight and the thought for a while.
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