Scotland of the East!
Photos: K.J. Srinivasan
Shillong This city, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, leaves you spellbound, says Mangala Ramamoorthy
Nature at its best The Shivalinga cave
It’s such an unassuming place that you will feel humbled being there. Meghalaya has innumerable ‘heavens on earth’ yet it doesn’t go bragging. You wonder why this State doesn’t get its deserved attention, while places no
t half-as-stunning find admirers. It hasn’t yet broken into a rash of commercial activities, and its beauty will remain at least for a while.
Meghalaya is divided into Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills. Most of the tourist destinations, including Shillong and Cherrapunjee, come under Khasi hills. The latter two are not so accessible and are primarily forest and tribal areas.
Excited about what we would get to see, we landed at the “under maintenance” Guwahati airport one fine morning. We spotted the prepaid car counter and settled for a taxi to take us to Shillong at a cost of Rs.1,200. The friendly driver, Raju, informed us that the journey will take a little more than four hours. Having already booked the hotel room at one of the decent hotels in Shillong city in advance was assuring.
A view from the Bangladesh viewpoint
Half way through, we stopped at one of the highway drive-ins to satisfy our hunger pangs before continuing our way upwards. The special deluxe room was small but hygienic. It had a T.V. and a fan, which we knew we will never use. Hot water was available in the taps throughout. Breathtaking view of the foggy mountains from the hotel window made up for any misgivings.
All tourist spots in and around Shillong close by 5 p.m., so we knew it was of no use going to any specific place. We decided to freshen up, grab something at the hotel restaurant and set out to discover the nearby bazaar. Police Bazaar is a hub for all commercial activities and is the largest shopping area located at the centre of the city.
Our first stop was the Meghalaya Tourism office, which is at a walking distance from the market circle. After enquiries, we booked ourselves into a mini bus to Cherapunjee (56 kms from Shillong) for the day after.
An overall view of Police Bazaar
For the local city tour, we decided to hire a taxi for Rs.400. The Shillong peak, the highest point in the city, gives a picturesque view of the city below. Waterfalls and caves are something you cannot miss in Meghalaya. It is home to some of the largest and deepest caves in Asia. Every mountain will have at least a stream flowing down it, and the numbers double during the monsoon.
We got to see three falls – Elephant falls, Spread Eagle Falls and Sweet falls. The first two are huge cascading falls, and the third, a pencil-thin free fall. Every hill station has a lake, so does this one. Perfect for evening walks and picnic, one can do boating at Ward’s lake. The golf course, one of the largest in the country, botanical garden, Lady Hydari Park, State Museum and Don Bosco Centre are other halt points. Brookside mansion in Rilbong area, where Rabindranath Tagore spent some time, is another place to check out.
Sauntering around the bazaar, we discovered two inconspicuous joints near the tourism office – one South Indian and another Bengali – that serve good food at reasonable rates.
Next day, the bus (with 12 other tourists) started at 9 a.m. from the tourism office. In an hour’s time, we made an impromptu stop at Fog Valley. The place lives up to its name. There was so much fog that we couldn’t see even the bridge we were standing on. After a cup of warm tea, some biscuits and a photo-clicking session, we started again. Strong wind and harsh rain welcomed us to Sohra. I recalled from my school books that Cherapunjee, locally and officially known as Sohra, is the wettest place on earth. A “light drizzle” to the locals seems like a deluge to us. Visibility was low.
The top view of Elephant falls.
The bus came to a halt and the guide told us to take half an hour to go around Ramakrishna Mission, one of the oldest in the country. The sheer effort that has gone into building such an organisation under such harsh conditions was inspiring. Noh-Kalkai and Noh-Sngithiang are the two free falls we got to see. The former is the highest in the state. Our next stop was the Bangladesh viewpoint, where you get the aerial view of the lush green farms of the neighbouring country and an enticing waterfall.
Closer to lunch time, the Mawsmai cave was our halt. The 150-metre long, just half metre in height, the interior of the cave is well lit by lamps and you can squeeze your way through it but be ready to get drenched as there’s water pouring from the roof. After having lunch at the local restaurant, we headed for the last spot for the day – Thangkharang Park, home to the invisible falls that run through the park and abruptly disappear.
The first thing we did after heading back late in the evening, was to book our trip to Mawsynram, another fascinating district 56 km away at Rs. 350 per person. There are just two spots to be seen here: the huge cave with a giant stalagmite formation in the shape of a Shivalinga and Jakrem hot springs. But the district is so untouched by human presence and so exquisite that the journey becomes more exciting than the destination.
The Sumo car first took us through rough terrain, narrow roads, deep valleys, lush fields and gushing rivers to the cave. The thought of walking down the 50-60 narrow steps was scary at first, but as we began the climb, it turned exciting. There’s nothing more to see other than the Shivalinga. We went back the same route and headed towards the hot springs. We were warned that we would have to walk down 150 metres downhill to reach the point where we had to cross a tiny river, to make it to the spring. We had braved our way to it, only to find that we could not cross the river due to high current. With a heavy heart we headed back to Shillong, but happy that the trip was indeed thrilling.
As we made our way to the Guwahati airport to catch our flight early next morning, the driver got us talking about the famous Kamakhya temple and the different scenic locations in Assam. And I found myself making my next travel plan.
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