Cherrapunjee is the first place in India (on this trip), which has made me go WOW! It is also the first place where I thought my trip would be over.
To get there was a right old effort. From Ravongala, I took a shared jeep back to Siliguri, where I asked myself the question, ‘what am I doing here?’ Where before it had seemed fairly pleasant compared to Kolkata, now it was a noisy, dirty and pollution riddled mess. I wanted to go back to lovely Sikkim. But instead I hung around for four hours waiting for a night bus to take me further into the North East to a city called Shillong. The night bus was a typical cheap affair with windows that wouldn’t close and seats which were far to close to another.
After a poor nights sleep, I was awoken at 5am and put onto another bus. After finally arriving in the morning in Shillong, I then walked around for an hour trying to find the jeep stand for Cherrapunjee. That proved to be a hard task with everyone being sure that it was in the complete opposite direction to the next person. Eventually, I found it and to my amazement it was almost full. A huge surprise considering the time of day. There I also met Geordie and Alba from Spain, who owned their own bee keeping business. With the bees asleep, they could travel for the winter and leave Alva’s Dad in charge of the house! They had pretty much been making the same journey as me, but always on a different bus, seeing each other only ever in the distance! After another couple of hours we arrived in Cherrapunjee around thirty two hours after I had left Ravongala.
Cherrapunjee is a small village, which stretches for a quite a long way. People speak a completely different language called Khasi and it is another very different are of India. Whilst I would spend some time in Cherrapunjee later, the first item on the agenda was to visit the root bridges. In Ethiopia, Bill had raved about them and I wondered how good a bridge could possibly be, but recommendations from fellow travellers are like gold dust and it was with that in mind that I had made such an effort to get here.
The bridges themselves are not in Cherrapunjee, but rather in the jungle a distance away. So after a nights stay: Geordie, Alba and me decided to head for the village of Nongriat. We were joined by Mouhid from Kolkata, who incredibly had worked as a call centre operator for BT. There is a good chance that someone reading this blog has spoken to the lovely Mouhid and probably cursed him plenty of times as well. I will though vouch for him totally. He was a great guy!
We boarded a packed to the rafters bus and headed half an hour down the road to another pretty village called Mawshamok. We then hiked with an overnight bag to Tyrna, before starting a descent to the bridges, some 2000 steps below. It actually didn’t take to long and after a brief detour to visit a local husband and wife who had many bee hives in their garden, we arrived at the so called ‘long bridge’ and it was quite a sight.
Not long ago the villagers decided that they would cut them all down as they can now build better bridges, however, fortunately they were talked out of it and these wonderful creations are still there to be seen and indeed crossed.
The problem, and indeed benefit, with this area is that it is not very well travelled. We had a hand drawn map from our hostel to go on and that seemed to suggest that we carried on after the bridge and so we did, following more steps up until the jungle. After a long hard up hill we soon lost the steps and began following a small path, which winded its way along the top. At one point, the path gave way. My ankle rolled, clicked and then I plummeted down the bank. I got lucky as in some places I would have gone a long way, but I came to a stop fairly quickly. My first thought, however, was one of Nepal. I tentatively put weight on my ankle and goodness knows how, but it felt ok. After a little scramble, Geordie pulled me the rest of the way up and disaster had been averted. Not long after that, the path vanished completely and we were left facing the reality that we had not gone the right way.
Then came that magical moment, which made me both want to throttle Mouhid and at the same time shake his hand and thank him for one of those special travelling moments. Alba, had just managed to get a GPS signal, which suggested we had indeed gone totally the wrong way, when Mouhid said:
“I have another map if it is helpful.”
He then pulled out a dossier of information, which contained numerous maps, all of which would have told us at any time that we should not have gone the way we ended up going! No one was hurting more than him, however, as the uphill had almost killed him. We agreed to follow the new map in future and faced the fact that we would have to go back on the two hours we had just done.
Mouhid looked distraught. The poor guy was on his knees. But not half as distraught as when Geordie found a new path. We took a silent vote and decided that Mouhid’s map would be ignored and there would be no going back, but instead we’d follow the new path as it had to lead somewhere! After all we weren’t really lost in the jungle. We felt confident that we could find our way back to the first village. We just couldn’t face that terrible path back.
The new path wasn’t hugely successful either. But it was rather beautiful in the jungle with the many sounds of the birds and monkeys. The monkeys had been with us for a while, but then they started to sound more like humans and when shouting hello, they replied in kind. People! We broke from the path, which had vanished and began scaling the mountain, swinging from tree to tree, in search of the voices. We continued to shout and someone kept responding. And then I found him.
A man with blood red teeth, no shoes, a ripped t-shirt and a machete in the middle of the jungle. A more uncomfortable sight, one could not image. But what was I to do? With a smile, I said a big hello and prayed that I had not found one of India’s escaped serial killers. As it was, he was our saviour. Leaving his friend to continue to chop wood, he walked us down to the path and then all the way to Nongriat and refused to take anything in return. It was fascinating watching him interact with Mouhid. Despite both being Indian, they had no language in common and their culture was very different. It was the equivalent of me meeting someone from Liverpool.
Upon getting to our home stay in the village consisting of about five houses, we looked out over the jungle appreciating what a mess we had gotten ourselves into and what a thoroughly great adventure we had had!
Nongriat was amazing. The jungle setting was incredible for starters. The home stay was also excellent with a range of games including Karom.
There we met Tamara, who I had briefly visited a monastery with in Pelling, and Anna and Zak who I had talked to whilst waiting for a jeep in Yuksom. With both I had joked that we would probably bump into each other in Cherrapunjee. Other than Gil and an Israeli couple, the entire travelling community of Sikkim now rondervouxed in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. It made it a highly sociable time in a magnificent location.
Just down from the home stay was ‘the famous’ double decker bridge. And a couple of other bridges, one with roots:
The next day we walked to the rainbow falls, which as you can see from the pictures was stunning.
The water was freezing, but we managed a swim and I actually began to feel a little clean! It was another special sight in a very special place. It is both a little sad and absolutely wonderful that this whole area gets only a sentence in any travel books.
Before leaving Nongriat, I was introduced to this little guy:
I’m still not entirely sure I believe it is real, but both my hosts and the Internet seem to suggest that it is. I let it walk over my hands for a silly amount of time. There can be few greater examples of adaptation.
The next day, I said goodbye to the others, who had decided to walk the quicker way back. I instead decided to walk the long way back up over the mountain to visit Nohkalikai Falls. Being all uphill the walk was very tough, however, I made it in good time. Upon reaching the top, I was greeted by many Indian day trippers on a tour of the various sights. There a few took my picture, which was a bit of disaster considering I was dripping head to toe in sweat.
From there it was another hour and a half back to my hostel in Cherrapunjee. It was a lovely walk though, with all the children running out of their homes to say hello.
The next day, I had intended on not moving. Instead I met Rohan, who was born in India, but was now very much American. He convinced me to visit a cave 3km away. It was a great choice. Whilst the main cave was ok, it was the creatively named, ‘dark cave’, which was great fun. Hidden away with no signposts, it was indeed a cave with no lights. Head torch on, we made our way through the cave, crawling through small gaps, hoping that it led somewhere and indeed it did.
That was it for the Cherrapunjee. The next day, I took a shared jeep to Shillong and then boarded a fifteen hour overnight bus back to Siliguri where I crossed the border into Nepal. Despite India having a terrible reputation for their immigration officers, it is perhaps evidence of how few tourists make it out here, that I was able to have a very friendly chat with the one who stamped my passport. Nepal’s immigration officers, were even more friendly. No bag searches, no questions, just a walk over a bridge and a couple of forms to fill out and then I was on my way. I have never encountered such an easy border crossing.