Luxury experiences in a rich man’s house, magical living root bridges, Meghalaya – the shockingly different India

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Living root bridge

06.11

A Guwahati MAPWe arrive at 4:20 a.m. at Guwahati’s railway station. The sun hasn’t risen yet and the weather is cool. We leave behind us the broken roads of West Bengal, the egg and beet rolls and the men wearing blue striped skirts. Assam State welcomes us with humid tea plantations and people with Asian features. Sadly we won’t have time to see much because traveling next to the border promises to be slow and extreme and our visas will expire soon.

Assam is famous for its black tea, which is exported all over the world and with its extremist groups, communists and strange tribes. The situation in the north states is pretty insecure, but Guwahati is safe.

We walk on the still deserted streets and we find a football field hidden in a narrow street. We sleep there till 9 despite the curious children and the people from the neighborhood who all the time are coming to look at us.

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Man from Assam with the typical blue checked skirt

The rest of the day we try to wire money for our permit for crossing the border with Myanmar. After we enter several banks it turns out we can’t send money outside of India because we don’t have an account in an Indian bank. After a few hours we panic because we have to wire the money as soon as possible.

Trying to buy dollars for Myanmar also turns out to be impossible. The package with our stuff from Delhi will not come to Guwahati on time. Things look pretty screwed. We catch a rickshaw to our couchsurfing.org at the south part of the city, but the driver leaves us a few kilometers after the place we had to get off. The lack of sleep during these last few days, the dirt we are covered with and the hours of walking with the heavy rucksacks drive us on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We get on another rickshaw and go back.

Our host owns a huge school and after they accommodate us we feel a little calmer. Then we take a shower and drink tea and we feel reborn. In the evening we are invited at a party in the enormous house of our host where we meet five more foreigners. The house has a big garden with a huge barbecue inside. Guests are treated to quality western alcohol. The host’s name is Krish. He is president of the local motor club and there are 15-20 people from it at the party. The nice atmosphere and the pleasant conversations with the people erase the negative emotions from the day. We go to bed full of positive vibes.

07-08.11

On the next morning all our problems are solved as if with a magic wand. Our host Krish offers us to help with the money transfer, we exchange money, send a package with souvenirs to Bulgaria and are told that the other package, the one we expect to arrive from Delhi, will be here on Monday so we decide to stay here and wait for it. With this we are finished with all the bureaucracy for at least a month ahead.

We visit the central part of the city next. There are a couple of interesting temples but one is on an island in the middle of Brahmaputra River and we can’t find a cheap boat to get there and the other is on top of a hill. After a day of running between offices we decide we are too tired to climb to it and decide to go home instead.

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Island in Brahmaputra River, Guwahati

We move on the third floor of Krish’s house, which looks like a palace. We are alone on the entire floor and have a kitchen, several bathrooms, terraces and two bedrooms entirely at our disposal. The other foreigners had left and freed it. The day after is Sunday and we eat and celebrate all day. The table is full of food on breakfast, lunch and dinner and there are at least 6-7 meals every time. The servant is bringing in and taking out dishes non-stop. You just mention certain food and immediately it appears on the table. Mandira, Krish’s wife, surprises us with Bulgarian cuisine – filled peppers with rice and tarator (yoghurt, sliced cucumbers, oil, garlic, salt and water) which she prepared by herself (we have discussed the recipes beforehand though).

We spend quality time at their house and I can say this is the most luxurious home we have been at so far. I don’t want to say we prefer this kind of experiences, but we are happy to get to know different kinds of people and their way of life,

09.11

Yesterday we planned to leave early in the morning, but because of the terrible traffic jams we managed to get out of town at sunset. We catch two buses to the circumference and then a shabby jeep takes us to Jorabad which is 5-6 km. away. We walk for half an hour till we get out of town. There are very long queues of trucks and it takes us quite a lot of time to find the right fork. We decide to continue hitchhiking in the night and see where the force takes us 🙂

We wait for 20 min. and a truck stops. It goes directly to Shillong – the capital of Meghalaya, which is 90 km. from Guwahati. The driver and his assistant have Asian features and behave strangely. They act in weird ways all the time and we are tense. The driver is chewing betel non-stop and rinses his mouth with water from time to time. Then he draws half his body out of the window while driving like mad on the winding road in the dark. He stays like this for at least half a minute and then goes back.

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Betel nuts

 

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More betel nuts

Then he starts searching something in his car while driving, later he puts on a sweater still driving without even decreasing the speed. Every time he wants to shift gears his hand sways as a pendulum almost touching me. He has shivers from the betel and one time sneezed so loudly I jumped half a meter in the air. All this is combined with a strange loud music.

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The tastiest bananas ever – small with seeds

We enter Meghalaya. The feeling and everything is so different from the rest of India that one thinks he/she has entered a different country. The road winds through endless green hills. We see people wrapped in blankets in the dark, small poky houses and nothing that even resembles India. It becomes very cold. There is some strange feeling of serenity in the air.

We have heard that Meghalaya is inhabited by several tribes that speak sino-burmese languages. Most of the people here are Christians and the rest follow their original pagan cults. The social structure is a kind of Matriarchate. Until recently a special permit was needed to visit this state as well as the neighboring Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, but nowadays the permit is no longer needed. Because these states are geographically isolated and not visited by many Indians or foreigners the local and tribal cultures are well preserved here. We are impatient to immerse in this new world of adventures.

We stop at a restaurant on the road for dinner. Wooden hut, a few benches, aluminum pot on the fire and the owners of the restaurant who are all women. In India you will never see women working in restaurants or owning a business, but here in Meghalaya the situation is totally upside down. All the restaurants, hotels and shops are managed by women. We couldn’t understand till the end where men are and what are they doing.

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First restaurant upon entering Meghalaya

While we eat rice with some strange vegetables the driver flirts with the boss’s little sister in a very arrogant and open way. In the meantime the other sister sways joyously a big wad of money in her hand so obviously this seems normal to her. We come from the traditional parts of India and there this would’ve be really scandalous. We roll our eyes and continue eating the rice meal.

(MAP)We pass through Shillong without stopping and barely manage to convince the driver to not leave us in the center of the city but outside of it. He is going in another direction and we don’t want to spend time in Shillong. Our next destination is Cherrapunji – the rainiest place on earth. It is located in the southern parts of Meghalaya next to the border with Bangladesh, which is 50 km away.

At 10 p.m. the truck driver stops at a fork in the middle of nowhere and then leaves. We notice a sign saying Elephant waterfalls 450 m. and we take the asphalt road leading to them. We approach the place and see a metal lattice and some buildings. We decide to enter the nearby forest. The temperature is around 7-8 degrees Celsius (44-46 Fahrenheit) and we are all shaking, but we don’t have any warm clothes. Mr. Shushtari puts all his t-shirts on, I put on all my clothes and wrap myself in the wool shawl my brother gave me upon leaving. All night long we can’t sleep and because of the cold we are going out to pee often, though we haven’t drunk almost any water.

10.11

We expected to wake up in a tropical forest, but to our surprise we find ourselves in a pine forest with blackberries. The town we come from – Guwahati, was all in palm trees, bananas and fern and the sudden change petrified us. We pack our bags and go to see the waterfalls, but there is an entrance fee which is above our budget so we don’t enter. We head to the nearby village and we go to a wooden hut to eat breakfast. The owner is still with her nightgown, wears a blanket over her shoulder as a dress, her hair is shaggy, but she has put a bright red lipstick. She serves us paratha (thin bread) with green leafy vegetables.

We walk to the end of the village. Everything here charms us. There are no rickshaws, motors and bikes. The air is crispy and there are pine trees everywhere. The towns and villages are calm and silent. We feel like we are in a distant forgotten world. This reminds us of the atmosphere in some of the remote Bulgarian villages in the beginning of the summer.

(MAP)Three short hitchhikes later we reach Cherrapunji a.k.a. Sohra. The whole region is inhabited by the khasi tribe. All the people we see seem very cordial and welcoming. Most of them speak English and communication is easy. The town is small and is kind of asleep too. There is no Internet in the whole town and after desperately searching for an Internet café where it might be a connection we ask a boy to use his phone for a minute because we have an important message to send.

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The main bazaar at Cherrapunji

 

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Local khasi women

Cherrapunji itself is not very distinguishable. There are a few Presbyterian churches and a crowded bazaar. What attracts tourists here are the bridges made of the living roots of trees. The village where these bridges can be seen is a few hours away and can be reached only on foot.

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Houses at Cherrapunji

 

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Christian cemetery

We buy some food for the next few days and head to the bridges. Our plan is to stay close to Nohkalikai falls and then continue on a less known route to the villages. It is getting dark when we leave and while we are walking a car with two locals stops by and they offer to take us. They leave us at the iron gate and go back – really nice people.

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The gate is open, we enter inside, walk for some minutes more and pitch our tent. The night is cold again, but we have bought some warm clothes from a second hand shop at the bazaar and this time we sleep well.

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Camping in the grass (do you see the tent?)

11-12.11

We wake up and the first thing we do is run to the edge of the gigantic plateau we are on. The waterfall is incredibly beautiful and underneath it we see a sky-blue pool. The vegetation on the plateau itself is just yellowish grass, but below its edge starts a thick tropical jungle.

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Nohkalikai falls

Living bridges

We reach the edge of the plateau, but we don’t see a path. A huge abyss covered in verdure is in front of us. We see a boy who mows grass and he shows us a narrow pathway hidden behind a stone lookout. Stairs made of flat stones wind down to the valley passing through a fabulous forest. Fern, palms, tropical trees and giant spiders sway above our heads. There is nobody and the silence is broken just by the cacophony of stridulating insects. The stairs are so many and so steep that after two hours of descending our legs shake uncontrollably. The last hour of descending is painful.

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The path in the jungle

We reach the bottom of the valley and we find ourselves on a concrete path leading to the village. We turn aside a small hidden track that takes us to two beautiful sky-blue pools surrounded by impeccable white stones. Among the stones we see a sand alluvium perfect for pitching a tent.

On the next day we make a few walks around the amazing forest. The track leading to the pools is so hidden among bushes that none comes here. On the main road though we meet several locals from the khasi tribe. They walk barefooted in the jungle (though they put their flip-flops on when they enter the village) and everyone wears a bucket full of “booty” – wild oranges, bamboo sticks, herbs and leaves, roots and many other things. They are quite different from the city people and seem more reserved.

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The first living root bridge we saw

We walk on a pathway we encounter and the first bridge appears before us. Giant tropical trees with heavy sometimes 10 m. long roots are turned into bridges by the locals. The root bridges withstand several months of heavy rains without being damaged in the slightest way. Generation after generation people here weaved the roots creating beautiful functional structures. This wonder of nature combined with people’s skills and imagination leaves us speechless and makes us feel like in a fairy-tale. We pass on the bridge.

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Living root bridge

 

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And another one

These kind of root bridges can be seen only in some villages in certain areas of Meghalaya state, India. We recommend the documentary movie form the Human Planet series, episode 7, Rivers Friend or Foe where this phenomenon is described in detail.

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The double-decker bridge

Nongriat Village is known for its double-decker bridge and is quite popular among the backpackers. Though the enthusiasts ready to climb up and down the 1500 stairs to the asphalt road of Tyrna Village are not so much.

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The guest-house in Nongriat

The bridge is really impressive, but the village is nothing special. The locals charge tourists 10 rupees (15 euro cents) per person because in their words the bridge needs maintenance?!

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Soccer in the jungle

We charge our phone at the tourist house of the village. The manager seemed not so happy that we are staying at a tent and said this is not allowed. We don’t pay much attention to her words and go back to our pool in the dark.

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The blue pools

 

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Camping at the blue pools

 

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Blue pool days

 

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Fun at the blue pools

13.11

We can barely move because of the stiffness and slowly and painfully we head to Tyrna Village on the concrete path. They try to ask us for money on the bridge, but we tell them we came yesterday and we are now leaving. They don’t want to argue with us. After 40 min. we reach another bridge and I decide to pay and go see it. There is no one else and I feel very mystically.

The path ends with 1000 steep concrete stairs that really exhaust us. This walk is quite popular and we meet many tourists and youngsters who come to climb the stairs as a form of training. The other path, the one we came from, is more picturesque and secluded. It is longer and harder too, but it is worth trying.

Finally we climb to a beautiful small church with a statue of Don Bosco – the missionary who brought Christianity here. We hitchhike an ambulance back to Cherrapunji and then we start the uneasy task of finding vegetarian food. The local cuisine is mainly with meat and they even sell beef legally. We find a barrack where they serve us white rice with several small boiled potatoes cooked with bitter cucumbers. The Meghalaya specialties are definitely not winning our hearts for now.

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Church of Don Bosco

After the last stair climb we are limping and walking is painful. We drag our feet helplessly and climb a hill with a view to Cherrapunji. It is getting dark at 5 p.m. here so at 6 p.m. we are already in our sleeping bags.

After spending two days in the warm jungle we have forgotten the cold in the hills and we tremble all night. On top of this I have a sinusitis from the cold I got at Guwahati and slept all night with a hot stone on my forehead.

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A river on the way

 

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A house in the jungle

14.11

We wake up early in the morning and lymphatic fluids mixed with blood are running from my nose. We relax till noon, cook pan-cakes and prepare tea. There are pupils passing by and all of them greet us cordially. No one comes to bother us or ask us questions though our tent could be seen from all the near by houses. The mentality and the level of education of the people here is quite different from those of all the other regions in India we have been to.

The first person who stops us when we start hitchhiking has a very long nail on his pinky painted in pink (pun not intended) and a ring with a giant red stone (obviously fake) on his other finger. He takes us 7 km. further. We buy strange looking local vegetables – something red with the form of a pear and with thorns. The people from the next car leave us at a big fork. We sit at a local restaurant to eat the typical vegetarian Meghalaya meal – white rice with salty potatoes. The only thing we like in this dish is its price – 20 euro cents per portion. The third car brings us back to the capital Shillong where I want to buy nose drops and then we plan to head to Silchar. When we ask the people to leave us at a pharmacy they enthusiastically tell us they deliver medicine and take out a bag full of pills and small bottles. They give us nose drops, cough syrup and pain killers. They don’t want us to pay them.

Then they take us around Shillong and show us the main bazaar. Later they leave us at the road to Silchar. We see a “Body shop” (famous cosmetics brand) here which surprises us, but even more shocking are the girls who wear tight jeans, high heels, bright red lipstick and fashionable hair-cuts. This liberality flabbergasts us. On the streets we see rappers, suits, eccentrics and various other fashion followers. The girls speak cheerfully at a westerns style cafes. Though its modern apperance and people the city looks like being in a parallel reality of a kind.

We catch a bus to go out of it, but this is not as easy as it sounds. We are used to stopping the buses at any place on the road, but here they just don’t stop so we start looking for a bus stop. After we find it we try to explain to the bus drivers where we want to go but they don’t understand us and respectively don’t take us. Finally we manage to get on a bus full of luggage, bags with vegetables and tribal people wrapped in blankets. We don’t even ask where the bus is going assuming it will leave the city at some point. We are right.

A girl in the bus speaks some English and translates to the driver we want to get off at a certain fork when we go out of the city. This calms down the ticket seller who had panicked because he didn’t know where we were going. The bus climbs some hills in the city. Shillong turns out to be quite big. Here the cold and the humidity are unbearable make our bodies shake. We get off 10 km. outside the city on the road to Silchar.

It is getting dark, but we continue hitchhiking. A car takes us to Jowai, 50 km. away. Before we enter the town we ask the driver to leave us at a nearby forest, but he refuses because he is worried about our safety. Luckily we see a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere and he leaves us there. The people at the hotel are really kind and allow us to pitch our tent in the back yard.

15.11

We start hitchhiking at 9:30 a.m. hoping to reach Silchar today. There are 200 km. to it and people warned us travelling is slow. A truck takes us to another city 30 km. away from Silchar and we are happy because private car usually travel from one village to another and we have to change cars often. Like this we will lay down in the truck without worrying. The driver is nice and he travels alone, without a companion. We maintain good velocity and the road is OK. Soon we enter East Jaintia Hills. We pass by some Godforsaken villages with houses with rusty sheet iron roofs. The houses are either falling apart or locked. There is something really lonely in this area.

In the afternoon the scenery changes – pine forests make room to thick jungles and betel palms. The road passes next to the border with Bangladesh. The region is pretty dangerous because drugs are being trafficked here, but we are passing transit so we are not worried. Here we see the most impudent corruption scheme ever. Every 20-30 km. there is a police post. The policemen stop every truck and ask the drivers for 100 rupees (1,50 euro) though everything with the truck is OK.

Obviously nobody wants to contradict the policemen and all the drivers pay. Our obviously knows this and each time prepares the money in advance. Everything is done officially without any secrecy as if it is obligatory. Some posts are located in the villages and the racketeering is seen by everybody. For 150 km. the driver payed 700-800 rupees (around 12,50 euro) which for India is a big sum.

We often stop for document check where you don’t pay anything (?!). Because of these billion checks ques form and it seems really ineffective to us to wait for the same check in the same state five different times.

At the final leg of the journey the road becomes terrible – huge pot-holes, many curves and narrower lanes. We drive slowly and hours pass by without covering much of a distance.

In the late afternoon we pass the boundary with Assam and everything changes radically. The hills become vast valleys, the jungles is replaced by tea plantations and rice fields. The people wrapped in blankets disappear and there are no more churches. Instead we start seeing Hindu temples, mosques, women dressed in saris and men wearing checked skirts. The silent and clean villages make room to noisy, crowded towns filled with thousands of small shops, rickshaws and bicycles. I nearly start crying seeing all this again. At least the weather is warm…

All the distance we travel together with a fellow truck driver and it turns out his truck is going to Silchar. We hop on it. It is getting dark, but all we see are houses, ponds and rice fields. We don’t see a proper place to get down and finally we enter the city. The driver is a 19 year old buy who drives like a real professional. He stops us 3 km. before the center of the city. We start walking, but we can’t see any place remotely appropriate for pitching the tent. We become a little bit desperate and ask whether at a temple we encounter whether we can stay. They refuse. Then we quarrel a little bit with Mr. Shushtari, he enters the first house we see and asks the people inside whether they know where we can set a bivouac. They become worried and two man lead us to the back side of the house. There we see a sannyasa gaudiya vishnav (who belongs to Krishna Consciousness) wearing glasses and with an air of intelligence who welcomes us warmly. He takes a look at our passports and leads us to a room with bathroom – we are magically saved again! Later the nice people bring us dinner and we sleep for 8 hours l

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