Driving out of Guwahati which has the main airport access for the States of Assam and Meghalaya in North Eastern India, it is the median strip on the highway that forms the border between the two States.
This is the road that will take us to the village of Cherrapunjee, famous for the living root bridges that are scattered in the dense bushland around it. Oh, and its also notorious for being the wettest place on earth – a title that it vies for with the nearby village of Mawsynram.
The whole northeastern region sits above Bangladesh. Locals joke that it is a one-hour flight from Kolkata to Guwahati and a 48 hour drive. Both because you have go around Bangladesh which takes a while, and because the roads are really bad. The area is bordered by Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Bhutan and close by is Nepal and Tibet.
Living Root Bridges
The bridges are handmade from the aerial roots of a type of rubber tree. They take about 15 years to become stable and after that they could last as long as the trees supporting the bridge survives which could be more than 100 years.
The access point for the bridge is the village of Mawlynnong, outside Cherrapunjee, we drive there and go the rest of the way on foot. From the top of the path and back again should take approx. six hours depending on your level of fitness.
I thought I was fit but I’ve never been much good at stairs. I almost expired by the time I got back to the top. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that no one else was going to get me out of there and I’d ruled out rescue by helicopter because it is too eccentric. My crossfit friends will probably jog it.
I didn’t count it but the literature says that there are 3,500 steps down and the same back up again. I’d guess its about 3km of steps each way. And humid. Not hot. There are shops selling water along the way.
That’s the bad news, the good news is that this path takes you to the longest living bridge and the double decker plus a couple of others and two or three cable bridges as well. First stop is the longest living bridge, after that the double decker bridge is another 2km each way. It hurts even writing the words.
Wettest place on Earth
The views around Cherrapunjee are across rugged hills made more spectacular by the fogs that descend when it rains which seems to be almost every day. Not surprisingly, it has been called ‘Scotland of the East’.
In regard to the rain, Cherrapunjee has recently lost its title of ‘the wettest place on earth’ to Mawsynram which is just up the road. But still seems to be quite proud of the title and probably has high hopes of re-gaining the title. What this means in numbers is an average annual rainfall of 11,800mm. My home town of Perth, Western Australia has an average annual rainfall of around 800mm. If you want to imagine 11,800, Google the average rainfall of a place you know well and then compare it. For most people it will be mind boggling.
The monsoon season lasts from June to September and the streams that flow through the state’s deep valleys become strong, rain-fed torrents. The rivers are impossible to cross by foot during the monsoon and make the living root bridges important.
Perhaps not surprisingly with all the mountains and the rain, Meghalaya also has the highest plunge waterfall in India – Nohkalikai Falls, plus a number of other scenic waterfalls to visit including the Nohsngithiang, or ‘seven sisters’ Falls named after the seven separate streams.
The capital city of Meghalaya is Shillong, which is a hill station visited by the British as a respite from the heat in Kolkata. As its name suggests it is hilly and it is a station. Only kidding – there is some wonderful old architecture that I would describe as ‘hill station’. Large verandahs, bungalow style and with shuttered windows.
The Police Bazar is worth a visit in the evening. It is in the centre of the city and is the place to go to either eat street food or stop at one of the restaurants or bars along the pedestrian area.
Wards Lake is inside the botanical gardens which is a serene, green space in the older quarter. Outside the city is Umiam Lake, a man-made reservoir with a variety of water activities from kayaking, a sedate cruise or jetskiing. We arrive at 2 minutes after 5pm, I kid you not, and were told that under no circumstances could we enter. Bah humbug.
Elephant Falls are located just outside Shillong. Not as spectacular as Nohkalikai or the Nohsngithiang Falls, but easier to get to and with more tourists.
A quirk of the Meghalaya is that society is traditionally matriarchal. The local businesses are owned by women. I’m not sure if this makes society genuinely more equal, or if it means that women still do all the work but they get recognised for it ?
One place that I didn’t get to was Dawki. It is on the border with Bangladesh and the attraction was because I’d seen photos of a river where the water was so transparent that boats seem to be floating on air. Also you can go fishing the river with Bangladesh on one side and India on the other. Who do the fish belong to?
Another place that I didn’t get to see was Kaziranga National Park. It is a national park in the state of Assam (Guwaharti) and is a sanctuary for one-horned rhinoceroses that are native to India and is a World Heritage listed site. Apparently there are elephants as well, but we missed it by about two weeks because it was shut to the public for the monsoon season.
Further afield –
With the knowledge that I have now I would stay in the north east of India for three weeks rather than three days. Also in this region are Darjeeling – a hill station with the Himalayas as backdrop; Tiwary, where it snows and from here even Bhutan is a hop step and a jump.
Access – the main access point for Shillong and Cherrapunjee is Guwaharti, which has a decent sized airport. From Guwaharti we had pre-arranged a car and a driver and he stayed with us for three days.
The best time to visit would be at the end of the monsoon when all the rivers would be full and the waterfalls at their best. March / April / May is also fine but coming out the dry (ish) season.
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