The Shyok river snakes through the Nubra Valley near the town of Khardung in Ladakh.
In July 2012, a fellow traveler and I employed a horseman from the village of Darcha in Lahaul and walked up to the village of Padum in Zanskar. I’ll recount the episode in more detail in future posts because it was an eventful, adventurous journey with emotional upheavals and strange encounters but the principal focus of this post (and the one after) would be the pictures I managed to capture of the landscapes and some of its people.
While there is a motorable road that swings by the trail today, in 2012, the only way to traverse the high pass of Shingo La and cross into Zanskar, perhaps the remotest corner of India, was to walk. The first 4 days leading up to the pass were a pure wilderness where the only signs of habitation were the ramshackle tea-tents put up at the campsites. The walk up was a brutal slog, with perilous stream crossings, precipitous scree slopes and the temptation to turn back and call off the hike to go back and chill in the comfy German Bakeries of Manali grew with every step, an urge we were glad we didn’t succumb to when we reached the pass.
Shingo la, at 5091 meters (16, 701 feet) was an airless wilderness, an amphitheater of sorts where one was surrounded by the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range on one side and the jagged spurs of the Zanskar mountains on the other. There was a dainty, partially frozen lake, shimmering blue and turquoise at the foot of the pass. It was a gloriously beautiful scene and we would have lingered far longer than we did if we weren’t gasping for air and didn’t have to walk 5 more hours down to the campsite in the valley below.
It never rained during the 2 and a half days I spent in Mawsynram but it is known to be the wettest place on earth because of a long monsoon season during which it receives a mind-boggling average of 11,800 mm of rain every year. It’s a fairly big village about 60 odd kilometres from Shillong, a typically beautiful ride through rolling hills and high clouds. The village itself isn’t particularly pretty with concrete houses galore but step outside of it and hidden groves, alluring knolls and obscure little caves are just a little hike away.
We had booked a room at Emily & Sankrita’s Homestay through Airbnb and this beautiful cottage is perhaps the only comfortable place to stay in the vicinity. Sankrita’s friendly hospitality and delectable cooking is reason enough to make the journey here. We gorged ourselves on Jadoh (rice cooked in pork fat/blood), pork intestines in salty broth, pork salad, dry pork intestines sliced into small pieces, another preparation of pork served in a delicious broth and some chicken. We were also served some vegetarian dishes to go with these meaty delights like rajma, mashed potatoes, squash and carrots which were done so well that they would have been a perfectly satisfactory meal in themselves.
To burn all the calories we had consumed, we had to get some exercise. So Sankrita arranged for a local boy named Biang to take us on a gentle trek around the hills. The path wound down to a rivulet winding through rocky pools and then up and over into the airy hills. It was a quintessentially wild Khasi landscape with bald, bulbous hills punctuated by thick, forested groves. We reached a point at the top of one hill which was crowned with a pair of Khasi monoliths and dolmens, memorial stones erected to honour the spirits of the ancestors.
We then wound our way down a narrow trail deep inside a forested grove bisected by a dainty little stream. The trail here was slippery and we had to cut our way through the thick foliage to get back up to the main trail at the top of another hill. From here there was a stunning view of the forests below with a beautiful stream winding its way through white, curvy beaches at the edges of the jungle.
Our final stop was a limestone cave formation called Krem Dam. Meghalaya Tourism appears to have big plans for the place because they were constructing a staircase to enable less hardy tourists to reach this spot more comfortably. We had to sidestep the construction site to scramble our way down to the stream which runs down the cave. It was an impressive sight and a bit of a struggle for less sure-footed people like myself and S to get to. Biang, who was springing over rocks like it was a garden stroll, wanted us to follow him and have a look inside. But we had a hard time just balancing ourselves on the slippery knife-edge of the rocks we were standing on, so hopping over them like Biang wasn’t ever an option.
After the cave, both of us were tired and hungry. Biang wanted us to see another (in his opinion) unmissable cave nearby which apparently had a naturally-formed Shivling but neither of us were too keen. This exercise was exhausting and rejuvenating enough and all we wanted to do was go back to Sankrita’s house and eat more food.
Mawsynram was also memorable to me for one other incident. After the late lunch, Biang took us on a walk to a “sunset point”. On the way, I slipped on a loose slab of rock and hurt my left arm. It was already badly fractured a few years ago in a terrible accident in Laos and two metal plates had been holding the bones together since then. We ran immediately to the Primary Health Care Center and I had a few anxious moments as I was waiting for the doctor to arrive at seeing the soft tissue on the injured section swelling up. But thankfully, there was no fracture. After getting back to our room, Sankrita came up to give me a bottle of a local tribal ointment which she said would help my wound heal quickly. I never used the ointment but hey, it’s the thought that counts and I’ll always be grateful to Sankrita for showing concern.
Mawlynnong, a peaceful little village of 80 odd households tucked away deep in the Khasi Hills might seem like an unlikely candidate for mass tourism when you go there and look at it but as of 2018, it’s among the most visited spots in Meghalaya. The reason people come here in droves is because of a splendid marketing campaign advertising the place on the one hand as “God’s Own Garden” and on the other as the “Cleanest Village in Asia”. While the latter moniker may sound gimmicky and the claim appears a bit of a stretch, the people of the village have earned their right to it by keeping their surroundings commendably clean over many generations.
I wish I could say something nice about the room we stayed in though. We had to trawl through online forums and have a local contact named Embor book a room for us because all the places we called appeared to have been booked out by a big South Indian film crew that had set up camp in the village. While Embor was highly efficient in arranging a good driver to take us in and out of the place, the homestay was a disappointment. The room cost 2000 Rs., which was somewhat outrageous for what it was. There was a tiny living area, another cramped, musty bedroom and a bathroom with a squat toilet. The man running the homestay told us he had given the room we had originally booked (allegedly nicer and furnished with a western commode) to a family that checked in before us. We had booked for two nights but the room was so crummy that we chose to spend just one. It was a pity because that gave us very little time to explore the village at leisure.
To cater to the tourists who make their way here on day trips from Shillong, some “attractions” have been devised. So there’s a “Balancing Rock” (essentially one big rock on top of a tiny rock that looks like its levitating in the air) and a “Sky View Point” which is a bamboo ramp leading to an elevated platform that delivers views of the Bangladesh plains in the distance. These views are considerably better in other parts of the Khasi Hills, most notably Cherrapunjee, but the one from Mawlynnong is nothing to sneeze at. Having arrived here late in the evening from Dawki, we could only catch the dawn view which was very good.
By far the best thing we did was to walk 2 kms to the village of Riwai where a flight of stony steps leads down to a stream above which hangs one of Meghalaya’s famed living root bridges. I have been to half a dozen bridges in the Khasi Hills and this was the easiest to get to. It might be the reason why it’s among the top draws for day-trippers from Shillong. We avoided the crowds by leaving at the crack of dawn and the only company we had was another group of people taking in the scenery quietly while we watched bands of butterflies flitting about and little fishes and tadpoles swimming underneath the crystal clear waters.
So having spent just a night and a few daytime hours in Mawlynnong, do I have the urge to come back here? Probably not. Life is too short, the journey is a bit too tedious and there are far better spots to idle in the Khasi Hills. But I’ll say this, if the accommodation had worked out and the film crew hadn’t taken over the place, I could easily have spent a couple of days lounging around its brooks and groves.