Thursday 26 March 2015

The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya

Living Root Bridges - to me the name itself is awe inspiring. Needless to say, it landed in my bucket list the first time I heard about it. It was quite amusing though that I came to know about these 'man-made natural wonders' from a remote corner of India through a documentary on BBC. It tells about the lack of publicity and awareness in our own country - which in a way isn't completely undesirable.

Meghalaya - the 'Abode of Clouds' sits in the north east corner of India along with its six other sister states - Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland - the seven sister states as they are collectively known as. This part of India is endowed with a treasure of unspoilt natural beauty and being largely unexplored by the industrialisation and development, they remain pristine. As the name suggests, Meghalaya has its fair share of rainfall. Mawsynram, near Cherrapunji actually is the wettest place in the world receiving an average annual rainfall of about 1200 cms through the monsoon months. When it rains here, it pours incessantly for days. This brings to life the countless streams crisscrossing the region. The until-now dormant waterfalls start plummeting from the cliffs of the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills, thus adding magic to the exquisite scenery. It is a treasure trove for nature lovers.
However, with the rains and the ferocious streams gushing through the hills, life can reach a standstill for the inhabitants. Through the centuries, the indigenous Khasi tribes of the region have found an innovative way of working around the problem, and that too only by using the power of nature in their favour. They weave natural bridges across the streams. Using the roots of the local rubber fig trees, they intertwine them with wood and rocks and the strong roots of the trees hold on to them building a robust structure. The bridges are normally built with four trees, two on each side of the stream. The older the trees grow, the stronger the bridge gets.  Every member of the tribe is involved in this test of patience. It can take up to 15 years to weave a bridge, complete with its side rails, but is worth the effort as some of them are said to last for over 500 years. This we were told by the local Khasi people as we visited Meghalaya on a short trip in December 2012. Since then a lot may have changed. I am sharing our experience from almost two and half years back.

Being winter, the streams were running low and the waterfalls were mostly dry. Even the famed Nohkalikai (pictured above) was a mere shadow of itself. However, the dense forests covering the hills were still green, and the dry weather ensured we could walk down to the 'double-decker bridges' as they are popularly known as. But first we had a less adventurous glimpse of this fascinating work of man and nature as we were entering Mawlynnong.

Mawlynnong is reputed to be Asia's cleanest village. With it's appeal of tree houses and sky view bridges, it is a popular tourist destination - on the itinerary of every tour operator in the area. There are a few living root bridges in the area as well which are easy to visit. Though they still require some amount of walking and hence require a basic level of fitness. The first glimpse itself was fascinating, especially with the sunbeams working their magic through the leaves. It wasn't difficult to imagine how inviting the calm water in the natural pools would be in the summer months. We walked around the bridge and even under it to catch the details.
We were staying at the Sai Mika in Cherrapunji, a resort just in the outskirts of the main town centre, Sohra. With its stone cottages and fireplace, it has a rustic charm to it. After a day of sight-seeing, we were to leave the day after. I still wanted to visit the 'double-decker root bridges' on the river Umshiang but was not confident whether I would be able to make the 6 kms trip back through the 3500 steps and close to a kilometre of uphills and downhills. We were told that it would take about 5 hours and we did not have the time either. Moreover I was looking for company as I could not give in to my father's enthusiasm considering his age. Matters were worsened by an evening visit to the Ramkrishna Mission. In every frightening detail we were told stories about how the indigenous tribes had captured tourists for human sacrifices. I was advised to stay in the safety of my home and forget about visiting the bridge, especially being a girl. This was enough to trigger all alarm bells with my mother and no discussion on the topic was entertained. It wasn't a pleasant evening back at the resort. When the resort owner heard about the story he was furious and said that the only tragedy that ever happened was to a girl who went swimming in the natural pools and had an accident. The tribal people are friendly and helpful. He said that if I wanted to go I could join in a group scheduled to leave early next morning. Eventually, our driver for the trip, Hemen, who had also become a good friend through the days, offered to accompany me if I still wanted to go. Though he had not visited the bridge before, his knowledge of the local area and language would definitely be helpful.

Next morning we left for the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort as my father wanted to visit the place or that is what he said. About 15 kms from Sohra, this is the base for many trekking routes for the adventure loving travelers along with the option of other adventure sports and activities. He also told me that the group supposed to be leaving in the morning had not left yet. En-route we stopped at Tyrna, the village from where the stairs lead to Nongriat and the Umshiang double decker bridges. My father suggested taking a look at the stairs. As we reached, he asked us to see how far we could go, actually suggesting I should go along to the bridge. It was already 10am and we had to leave Cherrapunji latest by 4pm. So Hemen and myself trotted down the stairs as my parents waited by the car. My mother looked concerned but she had started to appreciate it wasn't as unsafe as we were told.

The stairs indeed were unending. For most parts, they were well made concrete steps but sometimes were made up by stepping stones which could be tricky to negotiate during the monsoons. The stairs connected the villages and was a regular route for the locals. We started off racing downhill which though is less demanding, but soon our legs started to tremble by the repetitive exertion. And with that came the concerning thought of tracing back this same path on the way up. It was going to be hard work. The path branched off, the one on the left said Nongriat and the other pointed to the longest living root bridge. We made ourselves a couple of walking sticks from those lying around and followed the path to Nongriat.
We had started off from Tyrna going down the hill to the river. Once we crossed the river, we had to climb up the next hill and down it again to a second river. Crossing this, the final uphill would take us to Nongriat. In the picture below, taken from Tyrna hill, Nongriat is the village vaguely visible in the distance in the centre of the picture just below the wedge in the hill.
As we started to move away from Tyrna, the scenery started to change. The forests got denser and the scenery wilder. The rivers had the bluest of waters flowing through the rocks in graceful waterfalls. We had to cross them on wire footbridges, which for me was a terrifying experience as every step made the bridge wobble. Watched in awe as a local boy balanced his load on his head and walked unperturbed on the seemingly fragile bridge.
We had lost mobile connection and I was having second thoughts on whether we should turn back fearing my parents would be worrying by now. But Hemen pushed me on.
It wasn't a bad decision after all since only a a few more minutes and we were climbing up the final steps to the village. We had ran most of the way and had made it to Nongriat in an hour. The first thing I did was to make a call to my parents using the phone of a local. Only a BSNL connection apparently worked in the area. They sounded relieved. Feeling much better I then walked up to the bridges.
They indeed were an extraordinary sight. It wasn't just the intertwined hanging roots that held my attention. It was the whole surrounding. The calm and green forest with the light filtering through, sparkling on the clear water of the emerald natural pools. The birds were chirping all around us. It was mesmerising.
According to the locals, this bridge over the Umshiang river used to be a normal single bridge as well. However, it turned out to be too low and used to be submerged during the monsoons. Hence the need of a higher second bridge and it's ascent to uniqueness. I dipped my feet in the cold water of the natural pools and walked up and down the bridges in never ending circles. It was a rest well earned and we needed the energy to walk back. A girl came about and collected Rs 10 from us as a ticket price. The bridges were in use by the locals and we were tourists. We saw a couple of westerners washing their clothes in the natural pools. They were staying in the village. It was a good alternative that we could think of on a next visit. We lingered on for about half an hour before we started back on our route.
The stairs indeed were daunting on the way back and we had 3 kms of it. Very unlike me Hemen was a mountain goat. He offered to carry my camera, but no one carried my load. I decided to stick to a rhythm - after every 50 steps I earn a half minute rest. And it actually worked. We soon reached the point where the direction showed us the way to the longest living root bridge. Walked up and found a bridge built in two stages.I wasn't sure if this was the one the sign directed to, but we did not have time to investigate.
Starting from Nongriat it had taken us an hour and a half to get back to Tyrna. Considering we were told it would take us 5 hours for the trip, this wasn't a mean achievement. We had done it in 3 hours including the break. We came up to the village church and I said a small prayer of thanks. I could see my parents in the distance, waiting patiently for us. They had given up three hours in waiting because I was so intent on seeing something. I couldn't have done this without their support. The local children came running down as they saw me with a camera and asked for a photograph.
We walked back to the car, a huge grin on our faces and a very relieved look on my parents.

Trivia: as of December 2012
A good level of fitness is required to visit the Umshiang Double Decker bridge and the 4-5 hours is a standard guideline. I had just about started on regular hill walking and hence could manage to make it quicker even though struggling every step of it. Moreover we were in a hurry and that egged us on.

Taking a guide is a must. Once on the stairs it is quite easy to reach Nongriat. However, my father said that another group who arrived after us never found the stairs and went on a completely different path down to the river and came back disappointed. Also, in case anyone gets into difficulty, local knowledge is helpful along with bridging the language barrier.

Carry enough water as packaged water is not available. It is a demanding route.
Maggi and tea is available in Nongriat.

Only BSNL mobile network works in the region.

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Sunday 8 March 2015

On Hadrian's wall

Built in 122 century AD, the Roman defense wall runs from coast to coast in northern England and has been declared as a UNESCO Heritage site. Stretching for 117.5 Kms. it is possible to walk the wall on the path following alongside. However, since this was not possible for me, I had to find what was the best alternate way to visit the wall. A few searches on the net and everyone was unanimous, the 2.5 miles stretch from Housesteads to Steel Riggs is the best part of the wall. So when my friend said he would like to walk the Hadrian's wall, I joined in with this plan.

In summer, it is much easier to reach the wall. An aptly named AD122 bus provides a drop-off service to the picturesque towns alongside the wall. However, we were travelling in November. So apart from driving, the only option was either to walk/cycle the 10 miles or to take a taxi.
We started around 9am from Newcastle upon Tyne. The train took just over an hour to reach Haltwhistle. We had already called up Diamond taxis the evening before and made a reservation and our taxi was waiting at the station. It dropped us off at the Housesteads Roman Fort visitor centre. The driver asked us to give him a call when we were ready to be picked up. The only problem was, with Lady Gaga's performance in Newcastle that evening, we might have to wait slightly longer to cope with the rush. The drop to Housesteads cost us £15.

We were greeted by friendly faces at the visitor centre, and after a hot drink we started on the short walk up to the wall. We were not visiting the Housesteads fort though so walked past it. If time permitted, we would be going to the Vindolanda fort instead as suggested at the visitor centre. It would provide a more interesting visit, we were told.
I was surprised that the path we followed actually took us on the wall. The experience was indeed very thrilling, to walk on a piece of history. The weather was gloomy and the path wet and slippery from the recent rains. It had actually been pouring when we had reached Newcastle last evening and we had thought the trip will have to be called off. The path however soon got off the wall and went alongside instead.
We crossed Milecastle 37 - milecastle being a fortification at a much smaller scale built at every Roman mile, measured slightly shorter than the modern day mile. The numbers increased sequentially from east to west.
The clouds had gradually started to clear in the distance. By the time we crossed the Milecastle 38, it had turned into a pleasant day. The path followed the hilly terrain thus making its claim as the most picturesque and interesting part of the whole walk. We met a few walkers as the day got brighter and also a few who were walking the wall.
The Sycamore gap soon appeared. Though miles away from anywhere the real Robin Hood would have set his foot on, this place was made famous by the Kevin Costner starrer Robin Hood and prince of thieves - I looked up this clip from YouTube -
Crossing the Milecastle 39 we had reached Steel Riggs, the end of our planned walk. We had taken almost three hours to walk the less than three miles due to our innumerable breaks. The open views had been beautiful and we had been chatting a lot with fellow walkers as well. From Steel Riggs, we followed the road and walked down to the Twice Brewed pub for a refreshing drink and a hefty lunch.
The taxi picked us up at 3:30pm and took us back to Haltwhistle, this time charging only £10. As the short November day ended, we were back on our way to Newcastle.

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Monday 2 March 2015

Sittong - Orange is the colour

Chatakpur was amazing. After the uplifting experience of being in the cradle of nature and sharing time with the ever welcoming locals, the holiday spirit was now winding down. We were only a couple of days away from returning home, and I was less than a week away from leaving home again. The heart was heavy.

Day 8 - Destination Sittong

Our first stop was at Mongpu, a place brought to fame by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as one of his many residences where his creativity flowed. A short trek from Chatakpur can take you to Mongpu, but we decided to take the more conventional way. Though the first sight of the house was impressive, as the caretaker took us in, we realised the place was actually falling to pieces. For some reason Visva Bharati refused to own the property and the government isn’t keen to help either despite promises. It was a daring but futile effort on the part of the caretaker, Mr Shishir Rahut, that the place still manages to exist. It survives on donations. When we visited, electricity had been disconnected for non-payments. The priceless photographs were fading into oblivion. The lack of funds bore its sign everywhere, the place gradually withering away despite the effort of a select few. The house was in picturesque location but the story left us depressed. Here is the one of the songs that was composed here by Kabiguru, the Malatilata still hanging on to the building Oyi Malatilata dole - Sagar Sen
The oranges started to appear, first a few trees, as we reached the river Riyang. The old bridge is incapable of taking on vehicles and the new bridge is under construction. Until then, the vehicles have to drive on the rocky river bed through the gushing stream. In monsoon months, the vehicles stop on this side of the river. Tourists cross the footbridge and vehicles from the home stays wait for them on the other side for the final few kilometres on the hills. The hills rise steeply here and are prone to landslides. As we climbed on much of the roads had disappeared. It was a bumpy and dusty ride. The oranges by now were everywhere. Kids with basket full of oranges supported on their head walked past. We had arrived in orange country.

Sittong is a Lepcha village famous for its Darjeeling oranges, reportedly, the best quality. It is located in a crescent valley, the mountains towering up on one side. Chatakpur vaguely visibly on the top. From the watchtower in Chatakpur, we had seen Sittong low down in the valley and here we were. In the winter months the area literally turns orange and this is no exaggeration. When we arrived, many of the orchards had been sold and the fruits plucked, but even with what remained, we were awestruck. We were booked in at the home stay of  Titas Lepcha, quite modern by all standards. It had all the facilities that could qualify it for at least a 2 star hotel, yet the owner and his wife tried their best to add that personal touch.

All of us were tired by now, so even though after lunch we went out for a walk, we were soon back in our rooms. We made it an early night.

Day 9 - The land of oranges 

With no sunrise to wake up to, it was a much later start than usual for me. My brother, his wife and daughter were already out for bird hunting - with cameras and binoculars. I had a lazy breakfast sitting in the sun, chatting with my parents. At 1200m it was much warmer here and the sun felt glorious. A 4 wheel drive Mahindra jeep was waiting for us. We would be going for a trip around the area.

It wasn't long before we realised why we needed a 4 wheel drive. The roads, if what they could be called, were steep and rocky as they curved very quickly and sharply up on to the hills. Sometimes the sharp turns could not be made in one go and our young driver had to reverse in the steep gradient giving us some heart stopping moments.

We were soon in orange orchards and made a stop. Oranges were everywhere, not only on the trees, but on the ground, on the roads, inside and over bushes, rooftops. It was fun walking in the terraced gardens, under fruit laden trees, picking up the better looking ones from amongst the hundreds spread on the soft ground, tasting them and stocking up the rest. Maybe because he noticed we were not plucking any from the trees as instructed, the orchard owner came along and plucked a whole large bagful and gave it to us for free. We were laden with oranges as we got back in the jeep and moved on.
Our next stop was at a camping ground, which the tourists in the area said Latpanchar, but the locals had a different name which I cannot remember. It ended with a ‘dhura’. According to the locals, Latpanchar was the village on the other side of the hill. The views were fabulous as the Teesta meandered below the hills. Kanchenjungha was still glistening in the background. We had climbed up to 1800m through the steep roads and it felt like being in the mountains again, but the sun was much stronger. We met a camping group who had brought over a bunch of school kids. The kids were out trekking with their supervisors. The group leader was waiting for them at the camp. He turned out to be a common friend.
As we started back we met the large group of happy young faces walking up the road. Looked like they had a good day. Our next stop was at the Mana tea estate. My dream of clicking a photograph of the Kanchenjungha with the tea gardens in the foreground finally came true!
Sittong had a century old bamboo church which no longer exists and has now been replaced by a more modern building. We were too tired and wanted to get back to our rooms. The church visit was skipped. The evening was lazy with a lot of small talk and heated debates over cups of tea and pakoras. We were leaving for Siliguri the next day, the trip finally coming to an end.

Day 10 - On the way back

Woke up early next morning and went on a walk down to the village with my father. It was difficult to walk on the steep and rocky road waiting for tarmac. An elderly man was fumbling along and my dad picked up a conversation with him. What he said was that previously the oranges grew in large numbers in these lower grounds as well but lately they have stopped. The trees look sick and the natural fertilisers are no longer helping them. They do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides. The nutrients from the soil have been sucked dry and the gardens are now moving higher up in the hills. In these low grounds, in the shadow of the high mountains, there was barely any sunlight for the trees either.

We left for Siliguri after a late breakfast, but not before Titas and his wife, gave us a symbolic traditional farewell. It was very touching. Unfortunately, I do not have the photographs as by now I was starting to shut down, the camera was well packed in.
It was a long drive through very busy roads, going past the once picturesque Kalijhora, now ravaged by the construction of the dam. Though we were now on proper roads, the traffic was slow moving. The windows had to be kept rolled up to stop the dust, a lot of road repairs was in progress. Eventually, we reached Siliguri just about when dusk was setting in, unwittingly booked in the pricey Mainak hotel for a night’s stay. Keeping our bags and refreshing with some good Darjeeling tea, we went out for some shopping - to buy local tea and artisan products. Alam, who is from Siliguri, had brought along his toddler daughter as well. We had our food together, before he dropped us at our hotel and went back home. He would be picking us up next morning to take us to the airport.

Day 11 - The return

It took just over half an hour to reach Bagdogra. Alam was very quiet through the drive. As we said our goodbyes, he eventually could not stop his tears. Goodbyes are always painful. It was a wonderful eleven days we spent here and he was always with us, even when he was not driving. He was not just our driver for the trip, but much more, a bond that was built six years ago and only grew stronger.

As the Jet airways flight took off, it turned south and the snow clad Himalayan range appeared. We saw Kanchenjungha in its full glory for one last time before it disappeared behind us....till the next time, hopefully not too far away.

Here is an approximate route of the trip. Google map does not have the local roads updated, so doesn't give the actual path we took, especially the ones to Chatakpur and to Sittong.

So that brings me to the end of this trip report, the previous posts in links below
Family trip to North Bengal - Part I - Forests and Mountains
Family trip to North Bengal - Part II - A tryst with Kanchenjungha
Family trip to North Bengal - Part III - Chatakpur

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