Around Shillong – Umiam lake and Shillong Peak

Anyone who’s been to the North-Eastern parts of India might have noticed one strange phenomenon, that the sun sets early and in a lot of places, as early as 4.30 pm. So while we were lazily finishing a leisurely meal at Café Shillong, still invigorated by previous night’s Steve Vai gig, we realised it was 3.30 and if we didn’t get out and do something immediately, the day might well and truly be over.

We hailed a taxi and went straight to the prettiest place around Shillong, the Umiam lake. This mass of hydropower water, about 20 kms from the city, is an unmistakable sight when you’re transiting from Shillong to Guwahati but it’s worth going there for its own sake. Since we were a bit late, we could only hit a couple of viewpoints. The first, on the way to the lake shore, is from an elevated platform that gives you a panoramic view of the entire landscape.

By far, the better view of the lake is from the viewing platform near the Orchid Lake Resort. The place charges a nominal fee to non-guests and what you get for the little money you spend is a marvelous, unobstructed view of the shimmering waters and the tree-laden hills around. There’s a water-sports corner where the more active tourists can take a ride in the still waters. In a way, we were fortunate to have started so late because we were just in time to see the sun down and for the orange-yellow sunset colours to deepen and dissipate in the clouds radiating over the hills.

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A few days later, we were making our way back from Mawsynram to Shillong and on the way, we did a detour off the highway to Shillong Peak. The turn-off to the peak begins about 10 kms before Shillong on the Cherrapunjee/Mawsynram road and if you have some time to spare, it might be worth the foray because at close to 2000 meters above sea-level, it is the highest point in all of Meghalaya.

The peak also houses an Indian Air Force Base and security is predictably tight. We had to furnish our IDs and one of us had to leave it at the gate in exchange for an entry permit before going inside. You aren’t allowed to get off or take any pictures on the way to the peak. But once you’re there, you can put your tourist hat on and whip out your camera because the tourist circus is well and truly in show.

There are two observation towers and one of them is equipped with a telescope if you want to take a closer look at the city. Shops selling trinkets, clothes and snacks are clustered together for the benefit of those who might want to do some shopping. There are booths where you can put on Khasi costumes for 50 Rs. and get your pictures taken.

We chose to go to the tower without the telescope because there was nobody there. The bird’s eye view of the city from here through the tall pines was both magnificent and somewhat distressing. You could see the extent of ugly urban agglomeration eating into the forested hills around. Nevertheless, like all sweeping landscapes, it was a pretty impressive peek at the city.

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Mawsynram

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mawlynnong

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.

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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.

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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.

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Dawki

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On the way from Shillong to Mawlynnong aka “the cleanest village in Asia” as its known in tourist parlance, we made a longish detour through the settlement of Dawki.  It lies on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border crossing on the southern edge of Meghalaya but the reason a lot of us casual tourists come here is not to enter Bangladesh but to float in the clear waters of the Umgnot river on the fishing boats idling on the riverbanks. I had been to Dawki back in 2010 and while the place has been well and truly discovered now, it was still pretty quiet with just a handful of tourists for company.

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On my previous trip, I had two sunny days to enjoy the setting and the crystal clear waters all the way to the hamlet of Shnongpdeng which is a handy base to explore this area with a few homestays offering basic food and accommodation. This time around, it was cloudy and rainy and while the lack of sunlight meant you couldn’t see all the way to the bottom of the river-bed, it was still beautiful to be on the river.

In a way, I liked the fact that I got to see the place in different conditions than before even if it meant getting my clothes and the camera drenched. My lenses went all misty on me for the shot below but I quite like this foggy, grainy image of the fishermen in Dawki working in the drizzle on the turquoise waters of the Umgnot river.

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There have been proposals since time immemorial to demolish the 86 year old suspension bridge that you see in the shot below to build a new, sturdy one that could support the coal economy of the region more efficiently. Call it bureaucratic lethargy or lack of political will but they haven’t been able to get it done yet. So for now, people like myself who like their architecture more old-fashioned and aesthetically pleasing can still gawk at the old structure that connects the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and provides overland access to Bangladesh.

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The boat rides on the Dawki river take you to a wide sand-bank where, if it weren’t for the rainy weather, I could imagine myself sitting for hours on end reading a book and staring at the misty mountains beyond. I looked wistfully at a couple of guys setting tents on the sand and wished I had come here with more time on hand. It is as tranquil a setting as one could imagine.

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Cherrapunjee #4 – Mines, meadows and a jaw-dropping view over the Bangladesh plains

Just a little beyond the view of Nohkalikai Falls is this gobsmackingly beautiful wilderness of rolling hills, dainty meadows and if you’re lucky, double-decker clouds in the sky. It’s better than it sounds because none of the crowds that flock to see the falls on package tours ever make it to this place and we had the entire landscape to ourselves. Certainly a highlight of my trip here.

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One of the defining features of the Khasi and Jaintia landscape these days is the ugly gash of mining that’s cutting up the hills. It’s an unavoidable sight no matter where you go here. The mining money is big and it’s one of the reasons the Khasi Hills have the best roads in all of North-East India bringing some prosperity to a few of its denizens.

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We were fortunate to find a last-minute reservation at the spectacularly located and busy Kutmadan Resort in the outskirts of Cherrapunjee. It was quite late by the time we finished wandering the meadows around Nohkalikai and chose to skip a trip to the Mawsmai Caves. It was a wise call because the view across the edge of the Khasi cliffs down to the watery Bangladesh plains was just jaw-droppingly beautiful. The Resort itself comes highly recommended because while it’s on the pricier side, if you’re in a small group, the price evens out and the rooms are huge and well-appointed. Our room had a living area with a fireplace which was bigger than some hotel rooms I’ve seen and another spacious bedroom area. It goes without saying that the views from the place are worth the price of admission in itself.

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Gour PE #3 – The mango groves, Chika mosque and Gumti Darwaza

Kids ought to be playing with toys and not selling them. This is not a perfect picture by any means (it’s somewhat out of focus and not exposed perfectly) but it’s a moment that moved me. It’s heartbreaking to see kids working around these tourist sites when they should be playing and going to school.
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The ancient landscape of Gaur is peppered with mango groves. They probably look more beautiful in summer when they are in full bloom.
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It was a school picnic on one of the days I went to Gour and the little brats were all over the place running around, screaming, livening up the sombre landscape of the ancient capital
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This imposing Mughal era brick and stone gateway called Lukochuri Darwaza is said to have been built in 1655 AD by Shah Shuja, the brother of Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb.
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The Chika Mosque (aka Bat mosque), built possibly in the 15th century could have served to house the tomb of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad. It fell into ruin centuries ago and was taken over by colonies of bats.
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The Gumti gateway, built by Alauddin Hussian Shah in 1512 AD, still retains some of the colourful cornice decorations around its walls. It’s a small, unimposing, yet beautiful building to stare at for a few minutes.
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Here I distract the kids with my big camera while they parade around the walls of the Chika Masjid
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Gour #1 – The Boro Shona Mosque

A few kilometers south of Malda and Ramkeli, close to the Bangladesh border, one finds the ruins of the ancient seat of power at Gour. It’s not a particularly difficult place to get to – autorickshaws from the WBTDC Hotel in Malda charge a quite reasonable 400 Rs. for a full day trip to the monuments here.

Although its early history is unclear (it is said have been an important cultural center during the Pala dynasty and the Senas before them but there isn’t a lot of archaeological evidence that points to either), Gour came into historical prominence with the Sultans of Bengal who made it their capital for over 3 centuries from the 12th century AD.

The Boro Shona Masjid (The Big Golden Mosque) is also known as the Baroduari Masjid aka the 12 door mosque (though the structure only has 11) was commissioned by the then Sultan of Bengal Alauddin Shah and built by his son Nusrat Shah in 1521 after his death. Alauddin Shah became Sultan after he ended the brief rule of the Abyssinian Habshi synasty by overthrowing then ruler Muzaffar Shah. This mosque, the largest of all monuments in the Gour area, is supposed to have been his masterpiece. While much of it lies in ruin, its scale and architectural excellence is still imposing. It’s walls were once gilded in gold (giving the mosque its original title) and was built to commemorate the 15th century Sufi saint Nur Qutb e-Alam. Some of the doorways still serve as gateways to get in and out of what is now a peaceful, bucolic village.

The first three pictures are of the Dakhil Darwaza, the magnificent gateway which serves to provide access to what was once a fortified citadel.

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