North East India: A step closer to paradise

Tripoto
15th Dec 2018

The enchanting Garo Hills on the way to Shillong from Guwahati

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

Traveling to the North-East is something that always generates a lot of excitement from people when you tell them about your recent journey there or even your upcoming plans. However, there is little denying the fact that correctly recalling the names of all the 'Seven Sister States' for an average Joe in India is still a far fetched expectation. Maybe I too belonged to this group at some point in time, but one trip to this part of the country changed all that. Never have I ever felt the kind of completeness and satisfaction at the end of a journey, the kind that I felt on my first trip to the North East.

Encompassing the best of dense forests, ancient monasteries, snow-capped mountains, pristine valleys, glistening lakes, and cascading waterfalls, every bit of North East India feels like magic, a place from Middle Earth that the best of the best artists got together to create. A place that takes you one step closer to heaven, it is a dream, and not just because the usual urban rush is largely absent as compared to the rest of India, but so much more.

Due to its distance from the mainland, this region is still well away from being a beaten tourist track. The relaxed pace of life, the refreshing greenery, and the perennial rains are alluring to even the speediest of travelers, while the warm-hearted locals motivate you to slow down, take a deep breath and take it all in. Birds sing to you from the depths of lush tropical forests filling the wide valleys between the lofty hills; hundreds of waterfalls, big and small, burble in those forests; and fresh Himalayan air nip your noses as you cross those sky-high mountain passes. Can there be anything better in this world than this?!

If you enjoy straying off the well-trodden paths and into nature, are thrilled by the possibility of an adventure, or want to explore a new part of India you haven’t seen before, North East is the direction you should be headed.

Day 1

Also known as the Gateway to the North East, it is of no surprise that our escapade began from Guwahati, the capital of Assam. It was the end of our final semester exams in December 2017, and the internships were still about a week to go. So, four of us from the same batch decided to make the most of this time and head to a destination not much traveled. Fortunately, one of us was from Guwahati, and she lovingly invited us to her place from where we could head down south to one of the most beautiful states in the North-East, Meghalaya.

Guwahati, at first glance, would seem like any other urban stretch. However, the low-lying hills, the vast stretches of green, and the mighty Brahmaputra river flowing through it make it stand out. No other major city in the country can boast of a river so vast that it almost makes a landlocked city look like a coastal one. No matter what time of the year you visit Guwahati, the Brahmaputra never fails to enthrall you, whether it be a lazy sleeping giant during the dry months or a roaring and ruthless monster during the monsoons. We witnessed a slightly calm Brahmaputra during that time of the year, and the moment we had a glimpse of it, we knew we had to take a boat ride across it.

Brahmaputra River from Peacock Island

Photo of Guwahati, Assam, India by Soudipan Maity

Luckily, our native friend's mother was more than delighted to accompany us to the Umananda Temple, a Shiva temple located at the Peacock Island in the middle of river Brahmaputra right across Guwahati. The journey to the island on a regular ferry in itself was an experience that made our whole trip worthwhile, a hundred times over. The view of the gorgeous river from the top of the hillock where the temple was located left us with sheer awe.

On the way to the Umananda Temple

Photo of Umananda Temple, Peacock Island, Baruah Souk, North Guwahati, Guwahati, Assam, India by Soudipan Maity

Boats arriving and departing from the jetty on Peacock Island

Photo of Umananda Temple, Peacock Island, Baruah Souk, North Guwahati, Guwahati, Assam, India by Soudipan Maity

Boats in the Brahmaputra

Photo of Umananda Temple, Peacock Island, Baruah Souk, North Guwahati, Guwahati, Assam, India by Soudipan Maity

A lighthouse in the middle of the river

Photo of Umananda Temple, Peacock Island, Baruah Souk, North Guwahati, Guwahati, Assam, India by Soudipan Maity
Day 2

The next day we headed off to Shillong, and our first stop was Umiam Lake, also known as the Barapani Lake, around 80 odd kilometers from Guwahati. A large reservoir, dotted with a few islets in the middle and surrounded by forest-covered hillocks on the banks, Umiam Lake, is a popular picnic spot for the people of Shillong looking to spend a day away from the hustle bustle. With numerous resorts and eateries surrounding it and a nicely maintained family park right next to the lake on one side, we made sure to spend some time there and re-energize ourselves before we continue our journey. Although there were options to do boating on the lake, we were a bit hesitant to embark on it right away and rather decided to take a stroll around the park instead. There was a small studio inside the park premises where a nice, warm-hearted lady was dressing up the tourists in the colloquial Khasi attire in return for a nominal fee. All my friends were delighted to see that and took turns in getting dressed up for a little piece of memory to take away from this day and I became the one to photograph the special occasion.

Umiam Lake

Photo of Umiam Lake, Meghalaya by Soudipan Maity

My friends dressed up in the Khasi attire

Photo of Umiam Lake, Meghalaya by Soudipan Maity

After a short drive from Umiam Lake, we were finally in Shillong, also known as 'Scotland of the East'. Up until now, in every picture I came across of the city, it was portrayed as a place located high on the hills, covered in clouds, and drenched by frequent rainfalls, and Shillong did not disappoint. After a rather long wait being stuck in a traffic jam while entering the city, we finally reached around 2 PM and headed straight to our guesthouse to get some rest. One of my friends met up with an old mate of hers who escorted us to a lavish restaurant nearby for a sumptuous lunch. Later, in the evening, we explored the adjoining areas of the city and picked up some souvenirs and winter wear from the Police Bazaar, a Mecca for wholesale goods in the fashion capital of North East.

Day 3

The next day, we were on the road again and headed towards Cherrapunji having started early in the morning. Often been credited as being the wettest place on Earth, only matched by another place in the vicinity called Mawsynram, Cherrapunji still holds the record for the most rainfall in a calendar month and a year. The accreditation seemed truly appropriate as even though we were there right in the dry winters, it felt like the middle of monsoons. We could only wonder what would happen during the actual monsoons when the clouds would burst open. I guess we have to find that out some other time! But the local opinion was that monsoon isn't an ideal time for tourists.

We were hoping to make Cherrapunji our base for exploring the rest of Meghalaya, but we were already under severe time constraints. So, we planned to make the full use of the only day we were there and head back to Shillong that evening. On the way to Cherrapunji, we stopped at a food shack by the main road that ran through the middle of the gorgeous Khasi hills with deep valleys on one side. The sun was just starting to come out of the shelter of the high hills covered with dense forests. The cool mountain air refreshed our body and mind, and we took a moment there to take it all in.

A bridge passing through a gorge in the Khasi hills

Photo of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

Khasi Hills

Photo of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

After an hour of driving through the rugged and muddy roads perched on the hills in a zig-zag fashion, we finally reached the village of Tyrna which was as far as our car would go. Next up on the agenda for the day was the hike to the awe-inspiring Double Decker Root Bridge in the village of Nongriat. The trek didn't seem so arduous at first, but as soon as our guide briefed us that the trail had a continuous descent of 3000 steps, we knew it was not going to be an easy task. The temperatures soared as we went further down on the steps via the Nongthymmai and Mynteng villages. We had to shed a few layers of winter clothing which we dawned in the early morning. Soon, the sceneries that we came across during the hike blew our minds away. Walking through the overwhelming wilderness, crossing some living root bridges and swinging suspension bridges, and the slow murmuring of the fast flowing streams down in the jungle below - it was undoubtedly one of the most picturesque hikes I've ever taken.

A mountain stream in Cherrapunjee

Photo of Tyrna, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

One of the many freshwater streams in the wilderness

Photo of Tyrna, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

The trail to Nongriat from Tyrna

Photo of Tyrna, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

After an exhausting hike, we finally reached Nongriat and headed straight to the Double Decker Living Root Bridge. Oh boy, were we thrilled to see it! We came to know that the bridge, although naturally formed by the amalgamation of the aerial roots of two gigantic rubber fig trees on either bank, was handmade to take shape as such to facilitate the local villagers during the monsoon, when the lower deck becomes submerged in the water. Truly, it is a living spectacle, and here I was, looking straight at it! Being an off-monsoon period, the water was flowing at a mild pace over boulders of all shapes and sizes sitting on the river bed, and some ultramarine blue pools had formed on the bed. We took a break there and had some refreshments from the nearby shack while dipping our tired feet in the pools below.

A walk through the double-decker living root bridge

Photo of Nongriat, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

Double Decker Living Root Bridge

Photo of Nongriat, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

The second half of our hike started next. Our destination? Rainbow Falls. Gradually, the cemented steps were replaced with jagged steps carved out of mud and rocks, and the trail became narrower and steeper, with several more of these picturesque living root bridges falling on the way.

A tired me continuing to follow the trail to Rainbow Falls

Photo of Rainbow Falls, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

Finally, after a hike of almost 4000 steps more, what awaited us at the end was a sight worth all the efforts made on this strenuous hike. Seeing a gigantic fall, almost about a 100 meters high, splashing its clear blue water on a huge rock and an ultramarine pool down below, left our jaws wide open. We finally were there at the Rainbow Falls, our final destination of the day. The stream was quite shallow, and therefore, it was possible to climb down to the river bed with some necessary caution. I joined one friend on the steep descent, which did scare me a little bit. But, the view that it gave us from there made the descent truly rewarding. After spending some time there in the lively environment of birds chirping and the waterfall thundering, we headed back to Nongriat and then to Tyrna without further delay, since darkness sets relatively early there and there were no street lights there to guide us through. The return journey wore us out completely, and we could only manage to get back to where we started long after dusk. However, the sense of adventure that the hike gave us was something that we wouldn't have missed for the world.

Rainbow Falls

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

Some wild flowers lying on the path

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

The view of the falls from below

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

One of the many living root bridges on the trail

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity
Day 4

Eventually, the following day became a recuperation day for us. We had to ditch our earlier plan of traveling to a few more locations in Cherrapunji and possibly Dawki near the Bangladesh border because of the intensely tiring hike the previous day. So, we rather prepared a list of places situated in the outskirts of Shillong that could be visited in a day and headed out soon after.

Shillong is full of waterfalls and waterbodies of all sizes. From the touristy Wards lake to the Sweet Falls and the Bishop-Beacon Falls, these natural wonders make up for a large part of the city's tourist attractions. We decided to go to the Elephant Falls, which is a staple for everyone visiting Shillong. Unlike the name might suggest, the waterfall isn't of elephantine proportions, but rather the name came from a piece of stone near the falls that resembled an elephant which unfortunately was destroyed by an earthquake long ago. But the name hasn't changed.

Elephant Falls is a cascade of several falls that finally drops into a small lake. The three-stage drop of the falls can be covered in steps which go all the way down alongside the falls, with the final drop just below a footbridge that runs across the width of the falls. Adorned by the lush greenery of the Khasi Hills, the falls make for a lovely walk for people of all ages with the sound of the gushing and falling water in the background.

Elephant Falls

Photo of Elephant Falls, Upper Shillong, Shillong, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

The next stop was the Shillong Peak, the highest point of Shillong, around 10 km from the city offering awesome perspectives of it. The top itself is not that steep but instead has a gradual slope with a broad and level top. Since it is located inside the premises of an Indian Air Force radar station, as per the security protocol, all vehicles are scrutinized at the entrance, and proper permits are issued by the authorities before entering the area. With pine trees scattered all around, the panoramic view of the city from the peak was sublime.

The city of Shillong as seen from Shillong Peak

Photo of Shillong Peak, Laitkor, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

Deep in the Ecuadorian wilderness is a swing hanging from a giant tree’s skinny branches atop a precarious perch beside a treehouse, which is also known as the Swing at the End of the World. While there isn't any swing of such grandeur at any such perilous location in India, there certainly is a canyon that quite resembles the same.

Situated in the East Khasi Hills of Shillong, Laitlum Canyon is a little-explored location in Meghalaya. The name literally translates to ‘end of hills’, and it does seem to end here, where the time comes to a standstill. Once we reached Laitlum after some offroading on uneven patches away from the main streets, all we could see were breathtaking gorges and steep winding stairways that snake their way down to the lush green valley below. No doubt, the slopes of Laitlum are also called the amphitheater of Meghalaya. The scenery changed colour every moment as clouds kept rolling by and the sun kept playing hide and seek behind it, just like an orchestra.

The gorgeous Laitlum canyon

Photo of Laitlum, Meghalaya, India by Soudipan Maity

Unending as far as one can see, the undulating hills were painted in a multitude of hues, from earthy browns and leafy greens to blushing reds. It certainly is one of the best-unexplored spots in the world that still has been able to retain its sanctity. We were lucky to be there on a fine sunny day and could witness some pristine views, since most of the time, the canyon stays engulfed in a fog that gets thicker as the day progresses.

A near vertical slope of one section of the canyon

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

A majestic view

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

The wind, as fresh, cold, and calm as it gets, refreshed our soul and rejuvenated us while we sat down on the grass enjoying the glorious view in front and sipped a hot cup of tea. The awe-inspiring vistas of this hidden canyon made us fall in love with Meghalaya all over again.

A wild flower seen in the tall grasses atop the canyon

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

Undulating hills that stretch till the horizon

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

A place where time stands still

Photo of North East India: A step closer to paradise by Soudipan Maity

After Laitlum, we headed back to Shillong and had a delectable lunch before our return leg to Guwahati later that evening. All in all, it was the journey of a lifetime, spent with people who matter the most, in a place that eventually gave me a fine glimpse of what paradise might look. I am already counting my days when I could be back there once again, and continue from where I left off.

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