Friday, November 25, 2011

Day 9 - Cheerapunjee - Shillong

The Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort is built on the mountains facing the Bangladeshi plains of Sylhet. So while Shillong, Kaziranga and Nagaland were freezing, the temperatures at Cheerapunjee were extremely pleasant. The warm air from the plains rises up the mountain and the cool air flows down to the plains resulting in lovely weather during the winter months. However, the true beauty of Meghalaya is experienced during the monsoons when the heavens pour down and waterfalls peek out from around every curve of the mountainous roads.

We had set our alarm for 5:30am, so we could visit one of the living root bridges in the morning. Brajesh's alarm was set for 15 minutes before mine (we take it in turns to wake up earlier in the mornings when traveling with only one washroom). However, even when he was all dressed and ready for breakfast, I still hadn't woken up and he woke me up thinking I had forgotten to set my alarm. He went outside into the dining room while I headed to brush my teeth and found no-one in the dining room or kitchen, even though we had requested 6am breakfast, so he headed out for a walk in the garden.

About 10 minutes later, my alarm began to ring. It was only then that we figured out that his phone (on which he set his alarm) had latched on to the Bangladesh signal and had automatically updated time to Bangladesh, which is half an hour ahead. Poor guy! This trip has been physically exhausting and 30 minutes of sleep does make a huge difference to our day.

Mr Dennis Rayen who runs the Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort is the man responsible for popularising the living root bridges of Meghalaya. The Indian Rubber Tree - Ficus Elastica - is native to Meghalaya. Its roots are guided (through hollow bamboo tubes) over 20-25 years to form living bridges. These bridges can then be used for upto 500 years. These bridges are completely natural, extremely strong and can withstand the constant rainfall they are subjected to in the wettest place on earth.

There are quite a few living root bridges around the Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort and keeping to his theme of employment generation, Mr Rayen has a team of young local boys who can guide you to any of them. Mr Rayen chatted with us about our fitness levels and pre-existing medical conditions and given my bad knee, he advised us to visit the Umkar bridge.

The Umkar bridge is slightly damaged and hence partly under reconstruction and entails a 1.5 hour trek over relatively flat surface. The other root bridge had a descent of 1400feet and the double decker living root bridge has a descent of 2400feet. But they both offer an opportunity to bathe in mountain streams before ascending again.

Mr Rayen sent Alan to accompany us and we eagerly set out to view one of the natural wonders of the world. When we visited, 80% of the road was in its natural state but 20% of the road was being developed under NREGA (National Rural Employment Generation Scheme)

The path was densely wooded in various shades of dark green, only interrupted by multi colored giant spiders whose webs seemed to be holding trees together.

It was quite an experience to actually walk on a living root bridge, technology for which was developed centuries before concrete was even invented. These bridges have helped villagers across the ages, cross deep ravines, swollen rivers and walk across waterfalls. They must also be the earliest examples of generations building long-lasting infratstructure for future generations.

After trekking back to our car, we drove to a couple of scenic view points around the area under Alan's guidance before heading back to Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort for lunch. Today too we tried some Khasi specialities including a powerful dry fish chutney and dhal with local green leafy vegetables.

The menu at Cheerapunjee Holiday Resort is quite varied and all they ask is that you order meals an hour in advance to allow them enough time to prepare everything fresh.

Much as we would have loved to indulge in a post-lunch siesta, it was now time to head back to Shillong with fingers crossed hoping to avoid the worst of the traffic. But before that, on a friends suggestion, we stopped for a short break at the Ramakrishna mission in Cheerapunjee. The mission runs a wonderful school here and they have curated an educative museum centered around the local culture and myths. Photography however wasn't allowed inside the museum.

Once we reached Shillong, we realised we had made good time and stoped to peek inside the All Saints Cathedral with its charming stained glass interiors. The church was originally erected in 1876 and still has a large congregation.

Right next door to the Church, was a small hall advertising a North East India Travel & Tourism fair. Since time was on our side and we are always eager to discover more places to visit in the region, we popped in for a look see. Our Khasi guide from yesterday, Ishuk was there manning an Indian tourism stall as their North East representative. We did not learn much more, but had our pictures taken by quite a few stall owners. We were initially puzzled by this and then figured that we were the only "tourists" and non-travel & tourism operators to have visited the exhibition. "We" were their ideal target audience, & unfortunately for them we were also the only 2 to turn up.

From here, we headed back to Tripura Castle for the night. This time we were given a bigger room that was exposed to the howling wind from 3 sides. The wind chill rendered the soiltary room heater useless, but requests for an additional room heater were immediately turned down as being "unreasonable" We were however handed a hot water bottle each at 11pm that night.

The service staff at the restaurant at Tripura Castle is friendly, but the room service staff is extremely curt to "non-foreign" guests. The management in their office does their best to look constantly busy and is not helpful either. Personally I would recommend the RiKynjai Resort over Tripura Castle anyday.

The prospect of being in our own bed tomorrow is so comforting, that I will hold onto that thought to get me through the chilly night.

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