My program afforded only a day to cover the must visit locations outside Shillong. Factoring in the early sunset in these parts of India, a 7 am start was decided the previous day with Francis, my guide, and executed to perfection. Shillong is a colonial town and that is what draws the crowd in. But, the ‘Wow Factor’ actually happens once the city is behind you. 20 kms beyond Shillong, on the way to Cherapunjee, the sights on either side of the road can easily disturb your attention, and this can lead to nasty surprises. I understand that recently a car swerved on to the wrong side of the road, hit a truck and just vanished in to the dark recesses of a ravenous gorge. Neither man nor machine can reach such places. One can drive safely and sensibly and still enjoy the sights.
Mawlynnong, in the East Khasi Hills District, boasts of the cleanest village in India. En route to the village, I made a stopover at the Customs Preventive Post at Pynursla. Das, the Superintendent, Customs treated me to Tea and boiled sweet potato. The village looked prosperous and busy. Das mentioned that the villagers mostly trade with the Bangladesh markets, legally and illegally, and such money is flaunted. Apparently the climate of Pynursla is steady through the year and it is a pleasant place to live. One has to battle some bad stretches of road before reaching Mawlynnong. The nip is replaced by hot weather too. The village is spic and span and absolutely clean. The level of civic awareness is very high; there are posters at various locations explaining the correct method of garbage disposal. Children are indoctrinated through the school curriculum and by observing how their parents and teachers ‘walk the talk’. Children of the village looked extremely happy – maybe, a clean environment produces happy people. There are many vantage locations in the village from where the Bangladesh plains can be easily seen. The village has a Machan, which is approached by a bamboo ‘ladder–bridge’. The ladder-bridge is under repair and I did not have the stomach to use the one under ‘construction’. I am told that the view of Bangladesh is fantastic from this point. The terrain in the village, as is to be expected in a hilly State, is extremely challenging for a 108 kg, unfit, 52 year old. Francis, my guide, was in no mood to hear any excuses from me and hence, I could only stop stomping around the village once Francis was convinced that another step would mean a burst lung. ‘Ha La I Trep’ is a restaurant at the entrance to the village that promises “Rice ‘N’ Tea and All Kinds of Cool Drink”. The walk and stomp had made me hungry. The lady in charge of the restaurant mentioned that she has fish and chicken curry. I asked for a portion of both with two portions of rice, dal and veg curry. It is one of the most wonderful meals I have had in some time. Notwithstanding the fact that the stomach was eager for a proper meal, the fish (Khaba Rohu) and chicken (local variety) preparations were very good. The fish either comes from across the border at Dawki or is brought from Shillong.
A short distance from Mawlynnong is a root bridge at Riwai Village. The sign board ‘entices’ people with a distance of 400 m written on it. It certainly must be 400m as the crow flies! The route is steep and requires strong legs and uncontaminated lungs to do the stretch. Despite being deficient in both, I ragged myself to it and back through sheer will power. At one stage I thought that I will have to lie down and take rest. That’s how unfit I am. The root bridge is fascinating. The roots of living trees are ‘directed’ by the Khasis to grow in a particular manner so as to web them into a bridge across a stream. At the root bridge I met a few people from Tamil Nadu; three of them were railway officers. After a short conversation and a few pictures I hastened, as fast as my legs and lungs would permit, to the car to head for Cherapunjee.
The next destination was the Mawsmai Caves. It is a very popular with domestic tourists. It is a 150 meter long stoopy walk through limestone deposits, which are not as well marketed as the Borra Caves in Arakku. Loud and boorish visitors spoil the atmosphere further. Mawsmai also has Khasi monoliths, which are normally overlooked in the hurry to visit the Caves. The monoliths are in plenty in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. They are memorials for heroes – the flat ones are for the women and the vertical ones are for men. Cherapunjee has a Catholic Shrine, which is well maintained and photography is prohibited. Going by the number of pews in the Shrine, one can imagine the overwhelming number of parishoners. Churches can be seen everywhere in Meghalaya.
The return to Shillong was interspersed with umpteen stoppages on the way to take in the magnificent views and capture some digitally. The hills are being ‘cut’ to widen the NH40. From a distance the ‘cut’ hills look as if, like its residents, the hills of Meghalaya have fallen for the bad habit of ‘kwai’. The city of Shillong is extremely challenged for infrastructure. The serpentine vehicle queues in Shillong would put to shame some large cities. Shillong is getting ‘concretised’ and it is spoiling the colonial charm of the city. The City Fathers will have to come up with a solution soon and implement it without any delay.