Trip to Cherrapunji – Romance in the Clouds

I got a call from a friend the night before we headed out and i didn’t take it seriously as so many plans had failed before and it could have been just a spur of the moment thing. The next morning at 7, my doorbell rang. I had just started sleeping(it was a Saturday morning) when i opened the door to find my friends in full adventure gear smiling ear to ear. Dazed, confused and excited, I grabbed my stuff, said goodbye to my cat, and my long awaited trip to Cherrapunjee or, the Living root bridge in particular, was finally happening! We cramped ourselves, five of us, in one car and you could feel the testosterone levels of five super excited guys shooting through the small vehicle. The first few hours of a road trip are indeed the most intense!

Now, one of the best part, as ive heard multiple times, about a Cherra trip is the journey and I was not disappointed. We went from Shillong so it was just about a two and a half hour drive; but due to the aforementioned beauty of the landscape that was just everywhere, we might have took about an extra hour or so stopping and taking pictures whenever we could. The meandering road took us through magnificient cliff faces, rolling hillocks and dense forests and rivers. It was like one huge Nat Geo documentary in 3D. If Meghalaya is called the ‘Scotland of the East’, then Cherrapunjee is the Loch Ness. It felt as if we were entering another mystical realm and I couldnt care less about the report that was due on Monday!

It was about 3 in the afternoon when we reached Cherra and we headed straight to Eco Park, which was built around a high plunge waterfall. And lucky for us, the sun was out, which was a rarity in those parts. The Khasi monoliths, beautiful waterfall, the Bangladesh plains in the backdrop and the all round natural beauty of the place makes this park a must visit. On our way back to town, I had one of the best natural showers of my life! It was drizzling a little like it always does and just by the side of the road was this very scenic stream, crystal clear water, mountains in the distance. It looked like it was taken right out of a colouring book. And the amazing part was, it was just beside the road! We were not letting the moment slip so we stripped down and submerged ourselves in the bounty that nature had offered us. And we were satisfied.

We checked in to our hotel at nightfall and in the spirit of true adventure and roadtrips, we all decided to stay in one room. It was an affordable one but no compromises whatsoever. Whatever they lacked in facilities & amenities they more than made up for it in hospitality and Cherrapunjee is littered with little safe havens like these. There were two separate beds and a bunk bed. We had a hearty dinner which we ourselves made, and we just couldnt stop talking about the epic day we just had and we knew the real adventure was only beginning.

The next day we checked out of our hotel at around 9 in the morning(although 8 was the plan) and headed out again, still half asleep only to find out in a few hours that the place we were heading was the stuff of dreams! So i guess we went prepared. With the piece of handwritten map given to us by the hotel manager, we traversed the dense morning fog stopping at every crossroad, just to be sure. It was a short drive to the ‘base camp’ of the trek awaiting us and we arrived in no time, with the help of our superior map reading skills. And yes, none of us had actually been to the living root bridges and to say we went under-prepared would be an understatement. There were local guides that could be hired and a bamboo walking stick that will set you back by 20 Rs. So that was pretty much it. I almost hesitated but buying that bamboo assistant would be one of the greatest and most meaningful purchases id ever make! So, to get to the double decker living root bridge, we had to climb down some 3500 steps, cross a river, trek through the thick forest to a village called Nongriat, where the double bridge was, all the while bearing the incessant rain/drizzle. And we had to make our way back. It was about 3kms one-way, but the terrain and altitude changes made it more daunting. I personally recommend you take atleast a week physical exercise so as not to put too much strain on your muscles. I didnt know any of these as we head down the concrete steps that did not seem to end so as we climbed down, all i could think about was the way up.

The steps got more vertical as we moved down the mountain and we reached our first pitstop after about 45 mins of stepping down, literally. It was a village in the foothill of the mountain we were descending. There was a single root bridge there and we were estatic when we finally got to cross a living root bridge. So apparently these natural root bridges are actually man made and they are scattered all over East Khasi Hills and the neighbouring districts though the double decker, our destination, is the most well known and documented. That first bridge sighting gave us much needed momentum and we continued on our journey. We started our descend quite early so that gave us ample time to take pictures and rest along the way; although excitement didnt really permit us to take advantage. One notable thing about the whole trek was the diversity of the ethnicity of the trekkers we met along the way. Some were from Maharashtra, Jharkhand, South India, neighbouring states of Assam, Manipur and we even met a few Europeans and an Aussie! The whole mystical vibe of the bridges along with the challenging trekking experience makes this one hell of an adventure Mecca for trekkers and travellers alike; which probably explains the diversity to some extent.

So finally we came to the very foothill of the mountain and before us lay a long and veiny steel cable(rope) bridge, the first of three that we needed to cross and this is not for the faint hearted. It was relatively safe but the sound and sight of water rushing down crashing against irregular and super huge boulders just beneath you can be a little intimidating, even for a grown man i must admit. With the first bridge conquered, we strived on and at this point, we were starting to run on our reserves. Our unfit legs were still wobbling from the descend when we were faced with not one, but two bridges, similar to the first one. These two bridges were sort of connected and that made for another challenge altogether. Crossing these steel cable bridges took quite a bit of time as you had to do it one after another to prevent it from swaying, which would happen if two inexperienced crossers crossed it together. With that done, we now had to start climbing some more as we neared our destination. Id have to say those last few steps were the hardest now as we were now pretty exhausted. Excitement was still there though and we were roughly over an hour in to our little adventure. As we ascended on to Nongriat village, we could feel the strain on our legs and the incessant rain made it a little more daunting as it would normally be, i thought. But truth be told, I was exhausted. A few more steps and turns and finally we could see the signboard by the side of the path that read what we were hoping to read for the last one and a half hours. The feeling was indescribable and that was what we were hoping for and more.

A mere admittance fee of 10 Rs. Was the only thing standing between us and a UNESCO world heritage site that we had spent the whole morning trying to reach. I would empty my whole wallet to see it at this point, and when we actually did, it was awesome. One of the greatest feats of bio-engineering was right there in front of us and the only thing we could do or thought we could was take pictures, and lots of it. Legend has it that these root bridges are several hundred years old and were more sturdy than i imagined they would be. We were the first to descend so there weren’t many visitors/trekkers except for the ones who spent the night in one of the many home stays at Nongriat. The village itself was worth exploring and the friendly natives there, who could all speak English incidentally, gave us much needed enthusiasm for our long way back. After we’ve had our fill of the bridge/bridges and something to eat, we gave ourselves a little break and started our daunting trek back as we had to make it back to Shillong the same day. It was not a race against time for us but exhaustion was the bigger threat.

We picked up our pace and reached the steel cable bridges in no time. Notably, we had sort of got the hang of it and we didn’t spend much time in getting across it like the first time. When we reached the foothill village, on the other side of the river, we had barely trekked 30 mins; but in our heads we all knew the way up the first hill, the 3500 step ascend would pose the harshest challenge. I too knew i had to dig deep to get over this enormous hurdle. We rested for a bit and with time on our side, we started again. As already mentioned, it wasn’t just the number of steps but the terrain and the steep slopes that started to wear us out first. We took it one step at a time, literally. But we were starting to feel the arduous path take its toll. We had to take a break every ten minutes or so, or risk getting blacked out. Although it was hard as hell, the backdrop scenery as we ascended the mountain was simply breathtaking. The numerous waterfalls that had been invisible during our descent due to heavy fog and mist were now visible in all their glory. It started to dawn on me that this trip was more than just a trekking experience to the living root bridges. It was about reaching deep and finding the limits of your personal physical endurance. And by god, i had to dig deep.

After about a little over an hour, we could hear the church bells that we heard when we first started out. The sound of those bells ringing could not have been more beautiful and couldn’t have come at a better time. A few of our friends had gone before us and our exhausted faces must have been quite a scene as they had a good time roasting us for it! Completing that trek and reaching the top was the greatest single physical endurance achievement of my life till date. If i had known the nature of the trek beforehand, i might have probably chicken-ed out and talked my way out of it. But ignorance helped me achieve something that i will be proud of and an adventure to last a lifetime. It was totally worth it in the end. Every step, every wobble of the muscles, every drop of sweat that led to this was worth it. To our surprise we clocked a better speed than average so that was also another sort of achievement i guess. As we headed back, we didn’t feel excitement anymore. It was more about satisfaction and a sense of achievement which engulfed all of us. Yes, we were proud of ourselves. That goes without mention; and what we did was no mean feat. People often gave up after the first bridge but we went all the way. The living root bridge was now conquered. As a friend put it, this would be a story we we’ll be telling for ages. This was something for our history books.

On our way back we stopped by a few other attractions but nothing could compare to our tryst with the living bridges. I believe we all need this sort of experience at some point in our lives; to push ourselves and see what we are really capable of and evaluate the limits of our physical and mental capabilities. This trek for me was the one. And as far as life changing adventures are concerned, the sleepy village of Nongriat and the living root bridges will always be my first love.