Thursday, 16 February 2012

Magic and Middle Earth in Meghalaya

When it comes to blogging about my North East trip, I have to admit to having, in management speak, gone for the low-hanging fruit first. The Kamakhya Mandir and the Wankhar Museum were both great experiences in their own right, but the reason they appeared first here is mainly that they felt a good deal more manageable, photo- and text-wise. The unquestioned highlight of the trip, though, demands a good deal more uploading and composing time, so I've been shamefully putting off putting in the work. But I can't put it off any longer. 

Cherrapunjee is a town in Meghalaya, just north of Bangladesh. The area around it is fascinating for its geography and its culture, as well as its amazing beauty. The hills of Meghalaya rise abruptly from the Bangladesh plains, meaning that the low clouds of the annual monsoon dump an awful lot of their contents here. It's officially the wettest place on Earth, and in 1860-61 received 905 inches of rainfall - more than 150% of what London gets in an average year. In monsoon periods the landscape must be indescribably dramatic as the rivers swell and clouds break over the mountain tops. January, though, is the driest month, so I got to enjoy an altogether calmer experience (though I would love to experience the other side of it some time). Normally the location affords amazing views over the plains of Bangaldesh - but sadly while I was there conditions were too hazy to see so far. Motivation to go back!

With its dramatic scenery, pristine villages straggled along mountain ridges, peaceful atmosphere, pure air, and people whose heritage and culture owes as much to South East Asia as it does to India, you couldn't get much more different from flat, chaotic, polluted, Hindi-belt Delhi. It does feel like coming to another country. Once you leave the villages in their high defensive positions, though, and clamber down into the valleys, it feels like a whole other world. Specifically, one from a fantasy novel. Cherrapunjee is famous for its living root bridges - painstakingly created by villagers out of the roots of the rubber trees that cling to the sides of the river gorges. Each takes decades to cultivate, but once mature they provide a surprisingly solid pathway over what must, in the wet season, be quite treacherous rapids. They're extraordinary - it's hard to believe they are actually real. I kept expecting Frodo Baggins to appear over the horizon.

The hills here are astonishingly fertile. As we climbed down on the way to visit the root bridges, we passed pineapples, papaya, coffee, betel nuts, bay trees, lemons, oranges and bananas. The crops are harvested by the local villagers, who trek up and down the hundreds of stone steps several times a day, carrying heavy burdens on the way up. Considering that once down and once up nearly killed me - and I was carrying a small backpack and a camera - that really demands respect.

I stayed at the marvelous Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, where I had the warmest of welcomes including finding myself dancing with total strangers to a local band (who did a creditable performance of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in amongst various local numbers) barely an hour after arriving. They provided guides down to the root bridges, who made me feel thoroughly old and unfit (though to be fair, going up and down 2,800 rough-hewn steps in a day would make most people struggle a bit, I think).

Anyway, here are some photos of the area. Hope you enjoy them. If you ever get the chance to visit, it is well worth a detour from the standard tourist trails of India.

The villages of the area sit among gorgeous, lush vegetation

Wire bridge over a river. In the wet season the water rises nearly to the base of the bridge - hard to imagine when it looks so peaceful. This "modern" bridge felt a lot more precarious than the traditional root bridges pictured below!

The water in the rivers is amazingly blue at this time of year

The "double decker" root bridge. They look like they should sway crazily when you step on them but they don't budge an inch.

Steps down to the double decker bridge

Village woman on her way to do her washing

My guide, Kupar, and a friend

Cuddling a kitten always makes the world seem a better place....

...especially when this is the view.

Lemons stacked up on the porch. This was the house of a local family who had given over their porch space to be a makeshift store selling refreshments where visitors could stop for a cup of chai. It was such a lovely relaxing place to stop for a while, even with Cartoon Network on the TV in the living room!

Natural swimming pool near the double decker bridge. Most of the rocks visible are underwater during the monsoon, and swimming is out of the question. But in January, it's perfect for a dip - especially for sweaty red-faced westerners who've just huffed and puffed their way down a couple of thousand stone steps.

Me on the double decker bridge. 

Villagers washing clothes in the river. It looked like hard work, but it sure as hell beats the launderette on Albert Square.

The house where we stopped for drinks and kittens.

Kupar contemplating.

Happy as Larry. The water was fantastic - cold and clear, just how I like it. Outdoor swimming is one of the purest natural pleasures you can get, and this is one of the best places to do it I've ever come across.

Kupar making short work of a bridge. I was rather less confident.

Steps up to one of the root bridges. Just can't get hobbits out of my head.

Brooms lined up on the roof of a village house.

Kupar beginning the hike back up to the ridge. Needless to say he managed this rather more quickly than me.

Kupar resting. Honestly. He needed to rest. He wasn't just waiting for me to be able to breathe again.

Tyrna village. It was striking how well-kept the villages in this part of India are, despite the fact that it's far from being one of the wealthier parts of the country.

Hard at work in Tyrna village.

One thing Meghalaya has in common with the rest of India: photogenic kids.

This was about as clear a view of the mountains as I got, sadly.

The Ummunoi root bridge.

I liked the shape these lines of washing made, like the spokes of a wheel or a close up of a fan.

 The good life.

Running to keep up.

Sunset at Laitkynsew village.

Scales in the window of the local store-cum-cafe, Laitkynsew village.

A smoky final evening in Laitkynsew village.


Isa said...

Great post, and lovely pictures! Cherrapunjee (or Sohra, the local name) is always worth visiting. Glad you enjoyed your trip there.


Chris said...

I know I should call it Sohra really, but Cherrapunjee is such a beautiful name! I loved it there and am hoping to go back again to experience it during the monsoon!

carvaka said...

i am liking your north-east coverage very much.

Emily said...

Wow. I love your photos. Especially the lemons resting. The colors in that one are really striking. I'm putting this on my list of places to visit in India!

Chris said...

I'm glad you like the lemons, even though I wasn't quite satisfied with how the photo came out! You really should try to visit if you can, it is very much worth it. It's about a six hour drive from Guwahati airport.