Wild romance with nature...
The love affair begins in the flight to Guwahati as your gaze is transfixed at the snowy outline of the Himalayan peaks in the far distance. You ignore the silent protest your neck makes from being subject to a weirdly obtuse angle. Its the only way you can successfully trace the entire length and width of that unbelievably massive waterbody miles below you. No, being called a river just doesn’t do her justice, you conclude decisively. Brahmaputra is in a different league altogether.
The rose-colored lenses don’t come off for a moment of the 4-hour drive to Shillong. A light drizzle, an idyllic mountain road, a comfortably wide, four-lane curving smoothly through generously packed forestry all the way. Stop keeping count of the flora and fauna…there are hundreds. As a huge cantonment area and stream of traffic approaches, you know the city is near. Focus on its inimitable character…profusion of purple bougainvillaea, quaint houses with slanting roofs, hedged front gardens and pine-tree lined roads. Meghalaya’s capital has some lovely elements, but more than that, its your base for exploring the vast and verdant East Khasi hills. So tee off into the greens without further ado!
Row a boat
Roll down your car windows and let your hair get impossibly entangled in that pure, fresh mountain breeze. Draw deep breaths, fill your lungs. It’s an addiction…you can’t take your eyes off the shroud of vibrant green that enveloping you. Miles of surprisingly impeccable roads snaking along vast, flat plains, undulating valleys, deep canyons and broad plateaus, the drive is rife with variety. Catch the quiet villages as they slip by, watching locals sit in companionable silence. Notice the randomly scattered monoliths…symbols of tribute to the dead. Observe the tombstones and crosses on tops of small hillock and locate old churches somewhere nearby.
Crossing dozens of seemingly deserted villages hidden in the thick forest cover, the now-narrow road affords enticing peeks of the Umngot River and the Bangladesh plain. Halt at the little town of Dawki, where enthusiastic boat-hawkers gang up, offering their best deals. Here a suspension bridge over Umngot river connects India and Bangladesh. You can’t take your eyes off the turquoise-emerald shimmering waters dotted with slim fishing boats, even as you gingerly negotiate the rocky, makeshift path down to the shore. Step onto one of the boats, grab an oar. Float ethereally over that stunning, transparent water, allow yourself to be amazed by those colors. Glide past the gigantic rocks glistening with delicate trickles, the smooth stones gleaming under the river’s surface and the sun dancing on the waves. And just be. Three-hour drive? Worth every micro-second.
Walk over roots
At Riwai village, trek a rocky terrain through the thick forest in search of a fascinating natural wonder…a living root bridge! Locals have indigenously moulded aerial roots of this rubber tree such that they have grown to form a bridge over the stream flowing underneath. Hundreds of intricately entwined and tangled roots! No rope, just mud and stones inserted into gaps for sturdiness. Messy, but good enough to hold upto 50 people. Click away, but no touching please! A lovely waterfall gurgles over flat rock-slabs studded with natural cavities…like stone flooring in a man-made pool. Linger. Hear the sounds of the water. Envy the villagers' natural habitat.
2 kilometers away, be a guest at Asia’s cleanest village, Mawlynnong. No ‘show village’, its for real! With just 90 families and a flood of visitors. Revel in the simplicity of the image…traditional bamboo-wooden houses, paved walkways, even a picturesque church. Pretty gardens overflowing with flowers, butterflies and birds. meticulous plant arrangements, trimmed hedges, neat backyards, conical bamboo waste baskets at every few meters. Chat with friendly, smiling locals…know how the high cleanliness standards started after an outbreak of cholera more than a century ago, and turned into an enduring lifestyle. Sample authentic food at one of the dozens of eateries or explore a home stay. Buy a straw souvenir.
In the height of the monsoons, one would expect to get drenched in the wettest place on earth at any time of the year. But in Sohra, more popularly Cherrapunji ('land of oranges’), rains are becoming less debilitating and waterfalls scantier due to deforestation. Not all is lost, though. You can still gloat over the region's eye-candy. Lush, green meadows, interspersed with rocky, stone terrain. Squeaky clean landscape, laundered by constant spells of rain. Sleepy villages dotting endless farmlands. Tin-roofed houses tinged with colorful wildflowers in purple, pink, red and yellow. Lazily grazing sheep and cows and children playing with mini bullock carts. Think about the matri-linear society of the region as you see a group of sarong-clad Khasi women walk by.
And did I mention the ‘all-the-time, anytime’ clouds that Meghalaya (abode of the clouds) is loved for? How can you resist an inevitable walk in the clouds? Feel the coolness in the air and the caress on your cheeks? Dreamy mode on…this is as true as it gets! Before you head to the crowning glory of Cherrapunji, Nohkalikai Falls, India’s tallest plunge waterfall. Disappointed by the thick cover of mist and clouds? Have patience…it will clear in minutes, as unpredictably as it appears, slowly revealing her in all her majesty. Dropping from a sheer cliff 1115 feet high, the falls foam softly into a clear turquoise pool, before flowing on into a gentle stream far below. Thrill, awe, love, wonder…and a myriad other uplifting emotions will run through your veins, despite the tragic legend about a local woman who jumped off the cliff, that give the falls its name.
Mandatory stop at Barapani or Umiam Lake. A large, clear blue lake, dotted with small grassy islands, and bordered by pine-covered hillocks, is an easy 20 kilometers short of Shillong. Opt for a boat ride or a walk along the banks. But better still, check into Ri Kinjai, a 45-acre resort, your passport to ‘serenity by the lake’. The cottages are inspired by Khasi architecture and rooms have balconies with views you can only imagine. Interiors styled with bamboo and thatch straw, indigenous musical instruments, local artefacts, plates of pine cones, natural wood branches and local wall hangings will add to the calm. Witness a surreal sunrise over Umiam Lake at 4.00 am, let your camera capture the ever-changing blues, mauves, greys, pinks of the sky and the lake. Chase the clouds…fluffy, floating, misty clouds that traverse the mountains in the distance and transform the hues of the glassy waters.
Then, invest your morning in a nature trail. Catch the reflection of tree branches in rain water puddles. Ponder on the delicacy of dewdrops on leaves. Stroll through the pine forest. Gather fallen pine cones to take back home. Smell the fragrance, inhale the freshness. Feel the softness of the sun bless your skin. And breathe!
As you leave Meghalaya, the one image that will stick in your mind like a screensaver, will be of intense green fed by water. And an acute awareness that water is the driving force of this region, and indeed the lives of its people, in more ways than one, in its multiple avatars…wilful falls, sparkling rivers, gurgling streams, placid lakes, mystic mist and of course, the all-pervasive clouds.
Itchy feet, yes?