Photos of spectacular Meghalaya mountain views captured our imaginations when we visited my family in November last year. At that point we had both quit our jobs and weren’t yet sure what we’d do after our Norway escapade. We were looking for inspiration on the Internet and came across a page about best places to see off the beaten track in India. Up to that point I knew that India had a ‘chicken head’ – the cluster of states in the north east connected to the rest of India only by a narrow strip of land and that these states were supposed to be pretty but that was about it. I’m so glad we came across that website (the name of which I sadly don’t remember) as Assam and Meghalaya did not disappoint.
We left the busy and dusty Kolkata at 6am on a plane full of mosquitos. Ironically the little security tags that got attached to our hand luggage advertised mosquito deterrent, cheerily telling us that mosquitoes don’t fly at 30000 feet (but we’d need the spray when we land). The stewardesses sprayed citronella around the cabin and that, together with the pressure seemed to do the trick. An hour and a half later we landed in Guwahati, the gateway to the North-eastern states.
There are several ways to get to Shillong (the capital city of Meghalaya). You could take a bus, a sumo (although it might be fun to catch a piggy back ride from a Japanese wrestler, in this context a sumo is a jeep on which tourists can book seats), a taxi or Uber, an occasional plane and perhaps the most exciting option: a helicopter. So despite our better judgement and advice from people smarter than us we opted to go for the short helicopter flight.
The helicopter was orange and white with big black blades. It looked reasonably modern and in good shape, which was reassuring. Meghalaya State Tourism Department who operate the helicopters on the Guwahati-Shillong route replaced their fleet a few years ago, but even so helicopter safety in India isn’t great. We climbed into the helicopter and sat in the back row. There were two pilots and four more passengers besides us. We were told to put on our seat belts and then the door was shut. First slowly, then gradually increasing in speed the blades began to turn, and turn, and turn. It seemed the helicopter was warming up before the flight. After more than five minutes of the blades spinning at high speed the helicopter began to move. Not upwards like I expected, but along the ground to the take-off strip. Once there, the blades continued to spin, until eventually we began to rise. The helicopter rose and leaned forward, going upwards in a diagonal direction. We watched the people and building below us grow smaller and smaller until they disappeared behind the clouds. Once the helicopter reached the desired height it straightened up. For the next 20 minutes we didn’t see much as we flew through the milky clouds. The noise the helicopter makes is loud and rhythmic and not as bad as we anticipated when we saw the massive noise-cancelling earphones given out to the other passengers (I’m still unsure why they didn’t have enough of these for all of us). As we began our descent, the lush green of the Meghalaya mountain emerged in front of our eyes. It was like landing in a different India to the one we’ve been travelling for the past 5 weeks or so.
Despite the coolness of Shillong we were soon hot and bothered from our search for a hotel room. The budget area near the Police Bazaar bus stand was all full, so we ended up overpaying for a lowly rated hotel. A far better option might have been to stay nearby the site of our first excursion – the amazing bridges formed entirely from tree roots at Cherrapunji.
I’m not sure if anything quite like these bridges exists anywhere else in the world, and seeing the very best of them involves not inconsiderable effort. Having already found our way to Shillong we had to acquire a taxi and driver for the day to take us to Tyrna, a 2 hour drive just past the town of Cherrapunji. Sumos also make their way as far as Cherrapunji and may be an economic option for those travelling alone or in a pair. Once the taxi ride through the beautiful greenhills of Meghalaya is completed there is still the matter of some 3500 steps to climb down. On the way you are rewarded with stunning views of the valley, scenic but precarious looking wire bridges and an early detour allows you to see the “Long Root Bridge”. The real payoff though is at the bottom of the valley, another single root bridge is followed by the reality-defying double decker root bridge. These bridges have been grown rather than built. Over decades roots have been encouraged outwards and twisted and fused together until a sturdy bridge crossing the river is left.
After numerous photos of the beautiful bridges we rather enviously took leave of the solo British backpacker who joined us on the descent – he was set to stay in far nicer surroundings at one of the guesthouses at the bottom. We began the arduous trek back up 3500 stairs and made it back to our taxi just in time to avoid the incoming storm which granted us a mildly terrifying journey back to Shillong.
On our next day in Shillong was dedicated to shopping and we spent most of the day in North-east India’s largest open street baazar. We initially thought we came to the wrong place as from outside the market doesn’t look like much, but once you enter it’s like a Tardis, expanding in all directions. There are aisles dedicated to everything imaginable: all sorts of food items, live animals, handmade knifes with wooden handles, local wild honey, woollen scarfs, embroidered bags, kitchen utensils, leather jackets and other clothes, alcohol, cosmetics and so on. It’s easy to lose track of time and the amount of lovely items acquired.
Our last day in Shillong started on an adventurous note – we zip-wired across a stunning mountain valley. It was exhilarating. The four zip wires stretch some 100-200 meters across the valley at great height. As you zoom across, your shadow appears tiny far below you, not that you spend much time contemplating the height, as you’re too distracted by the breathtaking views all around you and the fact that very soon you’ll need to put your gloved hand down the wire in an attempt to brake before reaching the landing platform. Luckily you get to have 3 more goes to take it all in.
As zip wiring took much shorter than we thought our friendly taxi driver suggested we go to Elephant Falls (which Prime Minister Modi recommends as a must see in India) and the picturesque Shillong Peak. The Elephant Falls were nice enough but not as impressive as we expected – they likely look much grander during the monsoon season. After seeing some of the great poses the indian tourists were doing we couldn’t resist a little photoshoot of our own at the bottom.
The Shillong Peak offered wonderful views of Shillong city. The Peak is in fact inside a military zone, so we had to hand in our passports to gain access. Once we reached the viewing platform we were greeted by a group of army men who wanted to take some selfies with us, which we of course agreed to. This time round we thought it would be cool to also get some selfies with them on our phone.
Once we finished at the Peak we headed for the very interesting Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures. Sadly we didn’t leave quite enough time to give justice to the museum and only managed to see about half of the exhibitions/thematic floors of the museum. At the end, when the museum was closing a kind lady who came around to tell us it’s time to go asked us if we seen the Skywalk. As we didn’t she said we definitely should and she took us to the roof and opened the already closed Skywalk specially for us. I’m really grateful as the sun was just setting and Shillong looked beautiful in the pink hue from the museum’s caged path around it’s undulating roof.
While in Meghalaya we met some pretty interesting people. We were taken from the airport where the helicopter landed into Shillong by a local man, his little son Sam and their American priest friend who just came in from Imphal. Getting there from Myanmar by crossing the supposedly closed overland border. The two men’s churches had a partnership going on and the American man and some of his friends who were still travelling in from San Francisco were coming to talk at the Shillong church. The night after we decided on an quick drink in a bar and were approached by a group of local lads, with very creative names (Leonardo Manson and Bonjovi amongst others). They all came from Shillong but now mostly lived and worked elsewhere and were in town for a get together and catch up. We had a great evening chatting to our new friends.