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Shillong and Cherrapunji, India: An unforgettable trek

By Amrita Katara Chandnani 5 September 2020

Header image courtesy of Vidhi Dedhia

We were three girls, out on an adventure. Our friends and families had raised a million concerns regarding our safety. “You are going alone? Just you girls?” they exclaimed. My instant retort to that had been, “We are three of us… How does that make us alone?” But they never got it. The presence of a male friend was mandatory, according to Indian society, but I was ready to strap on my seat belt—and there was no looking back from here.

We decided to visit three of the Seven Sister States in Northeast India. Fun fact: Even though these states are sure to take your breath away with their virgin beauty, in India, only a handful of people know about the diversity that they have to offer. And so, they remain fairly unexplored. We had chosen the road less travelled, quite literally, which meant we had to first arrange for an Inner Line Permit. Even though these states fall into the jurisdiction of the Indian subcontinent, all Indians need a permit to enter one of them—Arunachal Pradesh. So we knew we had an adventure waiting for us to unravel. This is my story, amidst the deepest valleys and highest peaks in the northeastern states of India.

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We took the flight from Mumbai to Guwahati. And that’s where my story really begins. We hired a taxi that looked like a wreck from the outside, but the minute we stepped into it, it felt like we had been transported into the world of a crazy reggae-slash-heavy metal music lover.

“Dada, we want a taxi to Hotel Ambarish Residency,” I muttered, hoping the taxi driver would take us to our destination safely. “Yes, sister. ₹500. My name Elvis,” the driver said in a single breath laced with a thick Indian accent, albeit with a reassuring smile. Our hotel had all the comforts of the new world, set in a city that took you back in time. But we were there just for a night, to recuperate and set out the next day to begin our rendezvous with this magical land.

Our next stop was the capital of rock music in India, also known as the Scotland of the East—Shillong. As I looked out of my window, taking in the view, I felt the landscape fill my heart to the brim with a quiet contentment. I couldn’t stop smiling. Pine trees and cherry blossoms littered the topography.

We were surrounded by misty hills, crisp mountain air, and Khasi women working tediously yet meticulously on various road-building projects. We asked our driver why women were doing the work of men. He laughed and reported, “Women in Northeast India are known for their hard work. They are the heads of their families and turn the wheels of fortune.” Knowing this bit of trivia made me smile involuntarily as I thought—we were in a land run by women and—ironically—the patriarchal Indian society had warned us about travelling without a male chaperone to this magical land.

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By Amrita Katara Chandnani 5 September 2020
By Amrita Katara Chandnani 5 September 2020

We spent two days in Shillong, basking in the cool winter sun, walking up and down the slopey terrain. A pale blue cathedral welcomed us with its soothing architecture. We walked through Hyadri Park and peddled through the waters at Umaim Lake. But for me, the highlight of Shillong was the Elephant Falls. I have a weakness for waterfalls and this one enchanted me with its beauty. A flurry of tourists thronged around it as we carefully walked down the carved stone steps into the depths of the falls. Along the way, we treated ourselves to the famous momos (steamed filled dumplings) with a variety of fillings, Indian-style chow mein, and bamboo shoot soup.

And just like that, it was time to travel to our next destination—Cherrapunji. I remember learning about this place in my geography lessons in primary school. It is notable as the wettest place on earth, receiving the highest amount of rain throughout the year. We drove through tufts of clouds all the way from Shillong to Cherrapunji, fogging the winding hilly road as we made our way to the lazy Coniferous Resort. After all, it lies in the state of Meghalaya—which literally translates to “the Land of the Clouds.” The affable staff guided us to our rooms and warned us about the shortage of electricity in the region.

On asking them about the places to visit, we were told about the Mawsmai Cave, the Double-decker Root Living Bridge, Mawlynnong—a UNESCO World Heritage site and the cleanest village in Asia located in the East Khasi Hills—and the treacherous Rainbow Falls.

The idea of all of these places intrigued the three of us and so, we decided to visit them all. It would be a hectic trip of one and a half days, but we couldn’t have come all the way and not ticked these experiences off our bucket lists. As forewarned, the electricity outage played out as we sipped on our hot-and-sour soups but the slight drizzle on the lawn outside our cottage made up for it.

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Those one-and-a-half days consisted of probably the most memorable moments of my life. Whether it was climbing through the spooky Mawsmai Cave or walking around the impeccable Mawlynnong village, my mind soaked in the mesmerising nature around me. But Cherrapunji would remain incomplete without my experience at the Rainbow Falls trek.

We left early the next morning to start on the Living Root Bridge trek. After walking through the bridge of creaking roots, we finally saw a board that pointed towards the Rainbow Falls. “Now that we are here, let’s just go ahead,” said my friend. And we all agreed. But we had ignored the cautionary advice given by all those who knew we were attempting this hike—this was our first mistake. We had no ropes, no torches, no idea about where we were going, no guides along the way, no human contact, and no signboards beyond a point. The scene was set with the makings of a classic horror movie. A felled tree lay in the middle of nowhere. We were lost. Tired. Hungry. And the woods around us were coming alive with the sights and sounds of other beings. We called our hotel but there was no connection. The cautionary voice of the hotel manager echoed in my head, “The Rainbow Falls are one of the deadliest treks in our area. We have stopped recommending it to our guests.”

I felt like I was in the middle of a Goosebumps novel. We started walking further, our feet heavy, and finally, we heard the sound of rushing water. The Rainbow Falls were near. After climbing what seemed like a mountain of yellow stone boulders, we saw it. Right in front of us. The natural swimming pool beneath was filling up. I had never set eyes on water that was this blue. It shone as it caught the sunlight on its surface. And I gasped as I realised from where the trek got its name.

What thrilled us the most was that a group of people were sitting by the pool. Some were swimming in those pristine waters. And we… we were just happy to be in the company of other humans. We went back the same way we came. But the main attraction for us on our way back were bottles of freshly extracted honey. By now, I had gotten used to my mind being blown. But this was something else. Beehives were everywhere, groomed to produce the rich golden elixir. The honey had a slight sting to it and I had never tasted anything as delicious.

That day, as we climbed up 2,000 steps to end the trek, our bags heavy with the honey bottles, I felt my heart swimming in anxiety. I realised I was acrophobic for the first time in my life. The steps were surrounded on both sides by an abyss. The valleys were deep and far-reaching. We were losing sunlight and there were no railings on either side, with only the hills for company. I slept that night with the feeling of falling into the valley and woke up feeling giddy.

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Amrita was born and brought up in the city of dreams—Mumbai—before she moved to Hong Kong. Magic is her life’s mantra. Which is why, you get no points for guessing that she’s a die-hard Potterhead. She loves manoeuvring through the bylanes of alien cities in search of delectable delicacies and blogging about them. She also has a palate for short stories and often writes tales inspired around the food she eats. Amrita has contributed to Condé Nast India in the past as a Copy Editor and Writer. And now, she’s on the quest to discover Hong Kong, one bite at a time.

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