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Going ‘off-piste’ in the North-East Tribal-states

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We’ve already experienced many different sides of India, and around Darjeeling and in Sikkim had found the culture to be very different to the more ‘Indian’ India of the plains. But we were keen to head further into territory often untouched by tourists and travellers in the tribal states of the North-East. We had been told by a number of people before we planned this trip that making the effort to head that way would provide a unique experience.

Since we have arranged to be in Nepal for our volunteering stint in early November, we were slightly limited in the time we had, additionally most of the “seven sisters” states require special written permission to access them. Given this we couldn’t go too wild with our exploring the region (tempted though we were by the guide book’s description that “few places on earth might as well be blank spaces on the map but in far NE India there is true unexplored territory…”). So we restricted ourselves to Assam, home to the world’s largest concentration of one-horned rhinos (and of course tea plantations), and Meghalaya, part of which is the statistical wettest place on earth (though I’m sure some back in Manchester may have something to say about that…), where a crumple of cliffs mark the end of India and its waterfalls become the rivers of Bangladesh.

To reach there from the lovely Sikkim we had to re-trace our steps through the rather dull junction town of Silliguri, where we spent a boring night in a grotty but cheap hotel, ahead of our morning train out to the Eastern gateway city of Guwahati. Our train left fairly on-time which was a bonus, and the 8-hour journey passed largely without issue though our carriage had rather more cockroaches than we would’ve liked; especially when one fell from above onto Tereska’s neck and in her panic was flicked onto Rachel’s lap, that was fun…(!)
So the Cockroach Express arrived into Guwahati only an hour later than scheduled (and as we’ve said previously, this is unremarkable for India Rail) and we found a place to stay without much trouble. It wasn’t the greatest but it was on the cheap side and was comfortable enough (our room had ants but this was nothing after the cockroaches and rats we had just been sat with) plus it had wi-fi which we had not had for a few days. We had a full day exploring Guwahati which was has some nice spots but was not particularly interesting. There are a couple of pleasant parks including one with a lake where we watched the local rowing club training, we saw a spot of cricket and took a 5-minute ferry journey to Peacock Island, which enjoys the acclaim of being the world’s smallest inhabited river island, (it is at most 200 square meters).

However we were most looking forward to some relaxing times after all the travelling, and cockroaches and the like, and so arranged ourselves 3 days in a Jungle Retreat resort a few Kms outside the city. At the Brahmaputra Jungle Resort we had a mini-holiday (What? Travelling is hard work!!) staying in another jungle hut (though this time with electricity, sky tv and room service), a lush infinity pool with views out the jungle valleys, and evening card games over a beer or two. There was some activity also, including early morning trekking around a nearby tea plantation to spot local wildlife (mostly monkeys :-) and a jeep-safari at a wildlife sanctuary to spot one-horned rhinos and chums. The safari was really great and we saw wild rhinos, elephants and many exotic birds (oh, and cows, but we’re a little bored of those!) Tess mostly enjoyed the experience except the moment of jumping from the back of the jeep to go for a closer look at a pair of rhinos, when the jeep rolled backwards and she stepped back into a big fresh pile of poo, (probably cow but let’s say it was rhino to make it more exotic…)

From there we squished into yet another share-jeep (though in these parts they are called Sumos) to Shillong, the capital of the Meghalaya state. We were grumpy on arrival as the final 10 Kms into Shillong had taken 1.5 hours due to horrendous traffic, though finding a nice hotel room and wandering the interesting streets a while cheered us a little. However, we were keen to get out of there towards Cherrapunjee, a small village 60km away from Shillong, as we’d heard of its waterfalls and views out over Bangladesh which sounded v interesting indeed. We found the easiest way to do this, given the limited time we had, was with an organised bus from the tourist office, which for 300 Rps each would take us the key sights to be seen much cheaper than a taxi and easier than trying to do ourselves (as the sights are dotted around Cherrapunjee a few Kms in each direction). Sights ticked off though, we weren’t for heading straight back to Shillong with the dull Indian tourists we had thus far spent the day with, so we asked the driver to leave us in the village of Cherrapunjee and set about finding a place to stay.

We weren’t sure how much of a good idea this was at the time, as the place was small with not a lot apparent to do, nor many places to stay, but we had heard of good walking trails around and felt we’d like to experience a bit of rural tribal life. We certainly didn’t regret our decision. We ended up having one of the best experiences yet of our travels. Had we gone straight back on that coach we would only have been looking through the window of this place. Instead we got to really experience it…

Some have described Cherrapunjee and the surrounding villages as being like Middle Earth (as in Lord of the Rings) and having stopped to spend a little time there it is an understandable description. The people are charming, the atmosphere laid back, and the scenery bizarrely somewhere between the Welsh seaside & Yorkshire Dales but with the occasional palm tree and the distinctive hue of an Indian sunset… A sign for backpacker accommodation caught our eye and we stuck out heads in to see if there were any beds available and were immediately charmed by the owner Heprit, who took us for tea (they don’t call it chai in these parts, he did tell us the local Kassi word for it, but we forgot already) and chatted about walks we could do around there, where we come from etc and was a genuinely top bloke. His place was a proper laid back traveller spot, with simple beds in shared rooms and a music/internet room next door where locals and visitors alike listen to or play music and video games, smoke, chat and sip the local brew moonshine - fermented rice wine. We shared a room that night with a Canadian girl named Lexie who we had good chats with about travel experiences and plans while Rach played some guitar and talked dreadlocks with Heprit who was just learning about both and also tried a local delicacy - caterpillars (Tess politely declined). We agreed to trek together the following day since we all wanted to discover the area’s famous root bridges. The next day turned out to be one of those days we dreamed of when we thought about travelling and exploring the world…

Heprit arranged for his chum to give us a lift the 15kms to the start of a trail into the nearby jungle valleys for a nominal fee of 40Rps (40p). His friend delivers newspapers and milk to people in the surrounding area so this was rather fun, Tess did comment en route that she felt as though we were in the 80s game Paperboy, as he popped papers/milk on people’s front walls, beeping as we passed. He dropped us where the road ends and the true jungle villages began, we started our descent of 2000-odd steps into the valley beneath the waterfalls through the loveliest village huts imaginable. It was like a world from another time or place, and definitely looked more Amazonian than Indian.

At the bottom we were amazed by the pre-historic feel of the area. The Kasi people (that’s the local tribe) have trained tree roots over many years to form bridges over the rivers. The area was almost totally deserted, we bumped into just a handful of Indian tourists along the trail (plus one rather plump South African lady who was really struggling with the steps but going for it all the same) and then only the smiling village dwellers. We found a great spot, under a couple of long root bridges, in which to have a swim in crystal clear waters with only a few amazingly colourful butterflies, spiders and river snakes for company (Rach and Lexie were very happy exploring deep pools and waterfalls that required swimming under rocks to reach, until they saw the snake – a quick retreat to shallower depths followed!). We had a dry-out out on the gigantic rocks, taking in the unique scenery and refuelling with biscuits, then decided to carry on our walk to the double-decker route bridge we’d heard about. Again, this did not disappoint (see photos).

Another cooling swim later, it was time for us to head back – Lexie was staying on in the tiny village in the valley, as she had more time than us, so we said our goodbyes and started the fairly strenuous climb back (via a lovely chai hut – you’ve probably noticed that chai features a lot in our travels– having a chai is like having a cuppa back home – it is suitable for all occasions, whether it’s breakfast time, stopping for a break, killing time on trains or platforms, meeting new people, warming up, cooling down….). It was an incredibly sweaty climb up the 2000+ steps back, (there is no breeze in the valleys!), and it was such a pity the natural pools to swim in were only at the bottom not the top. We were going to hitch back as advised by Heprit, but the only car around when we surfaced was a taxi so we just paid the guy (who looked about 14) to drive us back to base at Cherrupunjee, where we collected our stuff and said farewell to the lovely Heprit. We jumped into another Sumo for the return journey to the Shillong hotel where we had left our big bags, and got a good night’s sleep in ahead of our epic 2-day journey to Nepal.

Posted by TessAndRach 09:08 Tagged backpacker

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