Tag Archives: Northeast Trek

A valley frozen in time- Dzukou

Rolling hills that has many faces to call it BEST described… Every description depends on who saw it during which time of the year. I was heading to this valley in early winter, 1st week of December to be precise. That’s when the days are warm and nights are cold, but there is no snowfall.

So, as planned my friend and I set foot to see a valley that borders the states of Nagaland and Manipur. ‘It’s a magical place’ is the only thing we had heard. I had done enough research about getting there from Nagaland side and learnt that there are two routes with different difficulty levels. One starts from Jakhama village and the other is through Vishema village. Since we had hired a trek guide, we decided to take the route recommended by her. Initially, not knowing what terrain we would be trekking through, we had carried our large backpacks with all the stuff for our fortnight long trip in Nagaland. But then, our guide asked us to carry just thermals and enough water. “Food and blankets can be bought at the peak” we were told. Anyway, additionally we carried our sleeping bags and some food since we had to utilize what we had carried all the way from Bangalore 😛 We left our luggage at our guide’s house in Jakhama and took a short taxi ride to the start point of the trek. (Watch the video below)

We started to climb up from Jakhama by around 11.30.a.m. and the path was unassumingly steep. The entire trail was encompassed in a thick canopy of trees through which the sun rays could hardly penetrate. Although we were climbing at peak noon, it felt as if it was post sunset. The heat generated by the body while burning the calories seemed insufficient to warm us up. The trail only got steeper at almost 80deg gradient and we kept thanking our guide for telling us to leave our excess luggage at the base. Then suddenly, the forests opened to the blue skies… Before our eyes could adjust to the bright light, we were staring at our first glimpse of the valley. I was at a loss of breath. Not because of the tiring climb or the cold winds that was making it difficult for me stand on my feet, but because I was transported to a different world by the setting sun which had engulfed the green valley. I don’t know if I can express that feeling rightly with words, to simply put it: I was SPELLBOUND!

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The first view of the valley

It was a short walk further from there. The trail along the cliff with the green hills appearing one after the other and the sky changing its shade with every second, kept us going until we had finally made it to the guest house for the night’s stay. At 4.30.p.m., when we reached there, it just got dark with the last ray of white light. But the sky continued to mesmerize us as it turned from red to black, in between illuminating the silhouettes of the surrounding hills. I had started to freeze and shiver by this time as the temperatures dropped to single digits. But I did not want to move from there as I stared at what was the clearest night’s sky I had seen in a long while. So many stars twinkled over the Dzukou valley! As reality started to hit me hard, I had started to get cramps in my feet and had to hurriedly go and warm myself with the thermals and the firewood that was lit to cook food in the kitchen.

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As the night passed, the temperatures dropped further. Our thermals and sleeping bags didn’t seem enough and we borrowed additional blankets to help ourselves in the large hall which had just walls, a roof and a wooden floor to sleep on. I could barely sleep through the cold night. Although awake, I was waiting for the alarm to ring at 05.00.a.m. We were supposed to head out to see the Dzukou valley…

At 05.00.am. I was the first one to get up and step out for the hike down to the valley. The morning light was still dim, and I felt the earth below my feet crackle. It did not take me too long to realize that all the grass on which I was walking and the entire valley that surrounded me was frozen. The temperatures had dropped below zero and the frozen valley at a distance looked splendid! Soon, the others joined me, and we walked down the valley to witness what is supposed to be the main reason for our trek to Dzukou. The sunrise! We walked past what the locals call as the cave and walked over a frozen stream. We clenched bits of frozen waterfalls along the way too… And when the sun rose above and shone over the valley- It looked surreal. It seemed like the phrase ‘Frozen in time’ was framed after someone saw this place. The frozen dew drops reflected the lights of the rising sun and the sight was beyond my ability to describe. What I was experiencing from within was a sense of emptiness, accomplishment, happiness- well a medley of emotions. There has been NO place I had been to more beautiful than this, no I’m not exaggerating.

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A frozen pond in Dzukou at Sunrise

The entire valley has a peculiar kind of bamboo grass which gives it its green color. The same valley looks as if it is covered in red/ pink during monsoon. That’s when the lilies, endemic to Dzukou valley bloom. And come during the peak of winter: The entire valley is painted white in snow. This is a photo my guide had shared with me of how the valley looked just 10 days after we returned. The valley does not fail to mesmerize people irrespective of the season they come. Well, after spending a good amount of time, we returned to the guest house, packed up to head back to Kohima, for the hornbill festival.

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The sky on our way to Vishema

By now, we were a big team of trekkers and backpackers who had all bonded over at the guest house and together we decided to take the Vishema route for our return. It was a brilliant decision, I guess! Had we taken the same route for our return; we would have missed the magical sky behind the forest canopy. The sky seemed surreal with every turn in the trail. The valley too looked magical at every corner. It was flat land that we were walking on mostly, apart from a short trail of very steep rocks to slide down from, until we finally arrived at the base. A pre-booked Sumo was waiting to pick us back to Kohima. I want to bluntly end this post because this place is something better experienced than written about.

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The view point from the guest house. Top: After snowfall; Below: before snowfall

About the trek in short:

  • I believe what one calls difficult or easy largely depends on individual’s fitness level and trekking experience. According to me, the distance to the peak is short and could be done in 1-1.5hrs if it was me alone. But it was the first hike EVER for my friend and it took us around 4hours to reach the guest house at the peak.
  • Although people feel Vishema route is easier onwards, in my opinion- we made a good decision by walking the Jakhama route while going up. Since it is steep, climbing would be slow but the distance is shorter. In contrary, if we took Jakhama route to climb down, the gradient would put enormous strain on our knees which is why I suggest taking the Vishema route for the descent.
  • Cooked (basic & hygienic) food and potable running water is available at the top, so apart from energy bars for your walk, avoid carrying unwanted luggage.

The coldest place with the warmest hospitality- Pfutsero

This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the north eastern state of Nagaland in India, specifically covering Dimapur- Kohima– Phek districts of the state during the Hornbill festival.

More often than always, the stories we carry back from our travel are about the people we meet and less about the places we see. Our definition of whether our trip is good or bad is defined by the way we are made to feel by the people we come across. My experience in Pfutsero too has been one of those, where the warmth of the people made me fall in love with Nagaland. All I knew about Pfutsero was that it is the largest town in Phek district, and it is the highest inhabited place in the state of Nagaland. High altitude also means that it is the coldest place in the entire state. Having very little information available on the internet only meant that the place is still off the radar of mainstream tourism. This is what got me inquisitive and itched me to visit Pfutsero which would give ample scope to explore and experience something so raw and unknown to the outside world.

From the day I arrived at Nagaland, I had started to talk to a lot of people to get information about getting from Kohima to Pfutseru. With lack of clear information and high cost of travel, I had almost dropped the plan until the end of my 10-day trip in the state. One last try at finding a cheaper travel to Pfutsero, landed me in a small grocery store at Kezekie taxi stand in Kohima. My friend and I realised that we were at the right place. The courteous owner of the store guided us with all the required information and got our seats booked in the shared taxi that plied from Kohima to Pfutsero the next morning.

My itinerary to explore Phek district:

Day 1: Leave from Kohima to Pfutsero (shared taxi), visit Glory peak (Frozen lake trek if time permits), explore Pfutsero town (Night’s stay at the tourist lodge)
Day 2: Chida lake/ Lowho, Lazami village (spirited stone), Kami village view point, return to Kohima.

Video of the view from Glory peak

The Details:

As instructed, we had reached Kezekie by 07.00.am. the following morning to be assured of a seat. But thanks to the traffic, it was 10.30.a.m. by the time we left Kohima. However, there was one ambiguity before leaving for Pfutsero- We hadn’t booked a hotel at Pfutsero for our stay yet. Despite several failed attempts of calling the mini-tourist lodge at Pfutsero, their phone continued to remain switched off. But my friend and I were up for some adventure and decided to travel without a confirmed stay, go there and find one.

Phek district is inhabited by the members of the Chakesang tribes in majority. With the friendliness of the grocery store owner, we had already started to feel the positive vibes of the place we were going to. She had given the contact information of her family who lives in Kezakeno, another village in Phek. She had not just shared the contact info, in fact forced us to stay with her family. We were feeling grateful and partially sorted in the eventuality of not finding a hotel at Pfutsero.

Day 1:

There were both good roads and no roads, all adding up to a patchy drive to Pfutsero. Apart from the mountainous roads that seemed charming outside, the people with whom we shared our drive made our trip indeed a memorable one. One of them helped us to contact the tourist lodge and confirmed our stay at Pfutsero even before we reached. I had clearly started to feel overwhelmed with the hospitality of the people in this part of the country where the locals wanted to make all visitors feel at home. Almost everyone whom we got talking to, was excited to invite us over for a meal with them. Finally, it was 02.00.p.m. when we reached Pfutsero and a cup of hot tea was what we relished at our co-passenger’s house before checking-in at the tourist lodge. A colourful garden welcomed us into her wooden house that was perched on the slope of the hill. Its windows opened out into a majestic view of the entire town and overlooked a lake surrounded by green lawn. The dreamy house seemed to be no less than out of a Bollywood flick. We soon bid her a warm goodbye and headed to the tourist lodge, freshened up and proceeded to the target destination, before the sun called it a day!

Glory peak is the highest point in Pfutsero. A short taxi ride of 3kms through an under-construction road, jaw-dropping view of the surrounding valleys and a climb on a watch tower got us to the top of the town. Mt. Saramati is the highest peak in Nagaland and Mt. Everest needs no introduction. On a clear, bright afternoon, both the mountains can be seen from Glory peak. Since, we had reached there before sunset, the distant mountains were partially hidden by the haze and hence we could get a clear view of only Mt. Saramati. Nevertheless, the 360deg view of verdant hills from the glory peak was something to die for.

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View from Glory peak, Pfutsero

For those who have an additional day at hand, a day hike to the frozen lake from the glory peak is highly recommended by the locals. We decided to explore the town a little bit, before it was dark. A hike down the peak was fun as the staircase leading to the town passed through thick forests, strange creepers and colourful butterflies. We spent time exploring the town until sunset. It seemed dusty with poor roads. Apart from a few local snacks, we couldn’t find anything interesting. However, there is one souvenir shop run by an NGO that supports local artisans. One can buy some traditional Chakesang tribal jewellery, textile and food products as souvenirs from here.

The dropping Pfutsero temperature had started to numb our fingers and we decided to head back to the lodge. The lodge is situated on top of a hill and the setting sun looked glorious from the corridor. After wearing my thermals and gloves, I decided to take a stroll around the lodge. It is located adjacent to defence property and that gave me a sense of confidence to venture alone after dark. All the people from the neighbourhood were busy in decorating a nearby church for Christmas. They got me talking to them and eventually I joined them in their chore of setting up the wreaths and light bulbs. It was a fun evening until I decided to head back for the warmth of my room. The lodge was a HUGE property, but we were only two girls staying there that night. Although it was a little scary at the first thought to be the only guests, we were soon occupied in long conversation with the caretaker family of the property living in the same building, later to be joined by the owners. The conversation covered a range of topics and ran into the night. Given the lesser crowd of the cliched tourists, company of comforting hosts and warm conversations, we couldn’t have asked for a safer and a better place to be!

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Top: Sunset view from Tourist lodge corridor, Pfutsero; Below: Sunrise view from Tourist lodge room, Pfutsero

Day 2:

The comfort of the heater, cosy blankets and carpeted floors let us sleep like logs, unaware of the freezing sub-zero Pfutsero temperature outside. We were woken up by the alarm next morning, only to be mind-blown by the view of the rising sun over the clouds from our balcony. We packed up and prepared to leave as that was our last day in Nagaland and we had to make it to Dimapur for the night’s train. Meanwhile, we had booked a personal taxi for our return, since we wanted to explore Kezakeno on our way back.

The first stop was at- Chida lake. Locally called as Lowho, this off-road destination is a favourite hangout among the locals who come here for games like fishing and boating. Some enjoy a trekking trail from glory peak to Chida along the Kapamedzu range as well. There is a Border Security Force camp at Chida and hence, it is also referred as Chida Post at times. Since we had reached very early, we were the only tourists there and the place looked absolutely calm and serene.

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Lowho lake at Chida, Kezakeno

From there, we headed to Lazami village. This tiny village is of very high historical importance as it is the site from where the various Naga tribes are believed to have migrated to different parts of the state. A veteran from the village was excited to narrate the legend of Tsotawo, the spirited stone in the village. We were warmly invited by almost every person in this village into their house. We finally settled down at a little traditional house for breakfast and a large cup of tea. We carried back love in the form of guavas and local walnuts given by our hosts from this village. Seeing so much affection in these hills was a wonderful feeling that cannot be expressed, for which a city soul in me would want to come back again.

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The spirit stone

While continuing our journey from there, we did have a stop at Kami village view point to admire the terraced paddy fields of Lekhromi village, the view looked magnificent under the oblique rays of the early sun.

Making our way through the maddening traffic jam of Kohima is for another story to be written about, some other day! Thus, ended our 2 days of amazement and overwhelming hospitality in the Land of the Chakesang Nagas- Phek district.

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Terraced farms at Lekhromi village, Phek

Fact file:

Must eats:

  • Pfutsero is famous for its organic farming and terrace cultivation. We bought fruits (some known and some new) from the local shops that we could eat once we were back in our room.
  • One would find a lot of bakeries in the town selling local cookies and muffins. Sticky rice cake, banana cake and banana chips are few of the things I recommend.
  • Getting around:
  • Daily shared taxis ply between Kohima and Pfutsero. There are limited seats and the taxis leave immediately when filled. The taxi leaves Pfutsero around 6.00.a.m to Kohima and the same returns to Pfutsero on the same day on a first-cum-first serve basis. So, if one is not early enough to get a seat, he will have to hire a full taxi for him/herself or stay back until the next morning to share it. A one-way shared taxi seat costs 300Rs. Per head and a personal taxi would cost 5-6000rs. irrespective of whether it is a 1 or a 2-way journey.
  • Within Pfutsero, most places are at walkable distances. But internal taxis are available for local commute. Talk to one of the shopkeepers in the town and they must be able to help in finding one.
  • Stay:
  • A very well-maintained tourist lodge and a government run mini lodge are available at a very affordable price.
  • There are a few homestays available for a more local experience.

Visiting Asia’s first green village- Khonoma

This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the north eastern state of Nagaland in India, specifically covering Dimapur- Kohima- Phek districts of the state during the Hornbill festival.

Before planning my visit to Nagaland, I had followed a few bloggers who had posted encaptivating photos of what they called the ‘Greenest village in India’. My friend and I had our stay booked at a homestay in this little-known village and were supposed to head there on the first day of our arrival in Nagaland. It was past noon by the time our shared taxi from Dimapur reached Kohima and the temperature had started to drop. Khonoma village, our destination was 20kms away and we stood on the highway, clueless about how we were supposed to get there. The connectivity through public transportation across Nagaland is something that needs the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, without being able to find an honest taxi driver among all those who were quoting higher than what I had read about, we had started to feel stranded.

We finally managed to get a taxi and the courteous driver ensured our ride on the roadless path was comfortable and entertaining. On our request, the best Nagamese songs from his playlist were streamed and he made humble efforts to explain the meaning of each song and its relevance in Naga culture. It was a long ride considering that we took over an hour to cover the short distance. In Nagaland, each district is inhabited by a particular Tribe in majority and each village represents a particular clan within the tribe. Every tribe has its own language and surprisingly, each village has its own dialect which another clan might struggle to understand. ‘Khonoma is inhabited by the Kuthotsu clan of the Angami Tribe’, we were told.

A village tour of Khonoma

On reaching Khonoma, we registered our entry at the tourism office from where we took directions to our homestay. As a first impression, it felt like it was just another settlement on the hills, something similar to my hometown. But as I began to walk towards the homestay along the narrow lanes and past the tourism office- a new world started to unfold. The entire village is built on a slope, overlooking the paddy fields. The slope makes it a requirement to climb winding stairs to get from one house to another, from one street to another. As you do this, you will not just pass by umpteen number of morungs but also walk through gardens full of colourful flowers and traditional Angami Naga gates. All this, while you are being mind-blown by the gorgeous view of the never-ending terraced fields of paddy and vegetables. If not the same, I bet this is far better and untouched than the terraced farms of Bali that has flooded the Instagram feeds. The guava trees around every corner of the village and the widely covered creepers of the Chayote squash added a vibrant hue of green to the entire valley. The extremely warm and obliging villagers allowed me to pluck a few guavas that tasted like nectar. Those were definitely the best guavas I had in my life till date. We then walked down the streets to our homestay, a cozy simple house that stood overlooking the terraced fields. Since we had little time before sunset (The sun sets by 04.00.p.m.), we dropped our luggage, freshened up quickly and ventured out to explore the village and make the most of the daylight.

Naga Heritage museum at Khonoma

As we strolled around the lanes, we were intrigued by the several morungs and the traditional Angami houses that we passed by. Morungs are Naga structures that are comparable to Gurukuls of olden days. The elders of the village would pass on their knowledge about life skills and tradition to the younger generations here, usually in the evenings after finishing their day’s chores. Although the Morung system is slowly passing into oblivion in modern days, Khonoma is one of the few places where these structures are conserved in their entirety. Every Morung and house had animal skulls (ranging from one to hundreds in number) hanging around their roofs and walls. We were quite fascinated with the collection that ranged from Mithuns and mountains goats to boars and other cattle. As we stood there, watching a few women who were busy with their job of de-husking paddy with a large pestle and stone, we were greeted by them with warm smiles to have a cup of tea in their house. I instantly accepted their invitation, jumping into the idea of seeing how a traditional Angami Naga house looked like inside.

The different skulls inside a traditional Naga house

Basic mud-smeared walls with knitted bamboo doors and their wooden roofs adorned with hundreds of skulls all around. “These skulls are prized possessions that represent the heroics of our ancestors. The Nagas are primarily hunters and our forefathers saved up the skulls of all their kills. The larger the collection, higher was his societal stature until the government brought a ban on hunting. Given the history of Nagas being head-hunters before the coming of missionaries, don’t be surprised if you bump into human skulls in some of the remote villages elsewhere”, explained a member of that house. Although the other members in that family couldn’t speak English or Hindi, they continued to smile at us for as long as we were there. However, communication is never a problem in Nagaland with almost 90% being proficient in either English or Hindi.

We visited the Naga heritage museum and then walked up to a small hill where the church stands at a vantage point, outside the village entrance, overlooking the entire hill range. From there, we walked back to the village and climbed up a few stairs to reach the highest point of the village. The setting sun let the hills in the background cast their shadow on the undulating green paddy terrace. The view of the range of hills and the entire village from there was a sight to behold for which, we had lost our senses and not to the dropping temperatures that had started to numb our skin 😃 After the sun had called it a day behind the hills, we munched on some local snacks like sticky rice roti, pakora at a café at the village entrance. We grabbed a few packets of Puffed sticky rice and Naga chilli smeared channa from a small shop before heading to the homestay. We hurried up to warm ourselves in the comfort of our homestay’s kitchen where firewood was setup to cook the night’s supper. Sips of hot tea and long conversations with our Angami host and other guests culminated with a delicious Angami meal that comprised of boiled vegetables and steamed rice with vegetable stew- all grown organically in our host’s backyard. The country chicken curry was a bonus for the non-vegetarian in me 😊

The plan for the next morning was to catch the sunrise from the paddy fields by walking along the stream that flowed down the valley. However, the freezing temperature made it impossible for us to get out of our cozy layers of blankets. The plan that had to follow our breakfast was a visit to Dzuleke, a quaint little village located 10kms away. It consists of merely 32 houses and the residents are also from Kuthotsu clan who decided to move out from Khonoma to a more secluded place when the land on the outskirts were open for new settlements. Today, it is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages that is promoted by the state’s tourism board and accessible only by foot or one’s own vehicle. Since a one-way ride was costing us 1500Rs., we dropped our plan of a day trip to Dzuleke.

There is one NST bus (Nagaland State Transport) that connects Khonoma to Kohima every morning. But the state is largely shut on a Sunday and it is an important note to consider if you are planning your travel/stay in Nagaland. After the day got a bit warmer, we packed our bags and headed out in a personal taxi to our next destination- Naga heritage village at Kisama, the main arena of the Hornbill festival.

Meanwhile, some interesting things I found in this village:

  1. Large bird feathers are made into a garland and hung high around the farms. “It is just for decoration purpose”, I was told on asking what it signified.
  2. There a large stone erected which signifies the previous rift between the Nagas and the Indians on the mainland (It is quite an interesting read how the Nagas fought the Indian army)

Stone Pulling Ceremony with the Angami Nagas

Stone pulling Ceremony is an annual traditional event held across the Angami villages to commemorate a certain important day. It takes place in one village per year on a rotational basis. So that way, it takes about 5 to 10 years by the time this ceremony reoccurs in a particular village. This event is usually timed around the Hornbill festival as there will be people from across Nagaland and outside visiting Kohima (The region where the Angami tribe is a majority).

The stone referred here is a large monolith that weighs several tons and the size and shape is not fixed. It is at the villagers’ liberty to pick the monolith they want to use for the occasion and can be either quarried from the village itself or bought from somewhere else depending on the resources. The large stone slab is then placed on a sled that is made of tree trunks and pulled using thick entwined vines from the forest. Thousands of Angami Naga men pull the large monolith over a few kilometers to finally errect it upright, engrave the details of the event and mark the day.

This year, the stone pulling ceremony was held at Mima village. It was organised to commemorate the 75th anniversary of christianity in the village. The monolith was symbolized for forgiveness, friendship and peace to the enmities that the village had with various villages before the coming of the gospel to Mima village.

The typical stone pulling ceremony (Click here to watch the complete video) is solemnised by the pastor from the village’s church with recitals from the Angami bible before the start. It is then followed by firing a round of shots from the muzzle loaded guns in the air. The captain stands on the slab and shouts Angami cheers through a loudspeaker to motivate the pullers. While all the strong and younger men folk of the village join hands to pull the stone, The eldest two men of the clan walk, leading the tribe. The women get dressed in their traditional attire and walk with a khophi (an utility basket woven with bamboo or cane) hung on their back and they stay around as a mark of support to the pullers. A few of these women carry cotton in containers made of dried bottle guard and walk ahead of the pullers as a part of the tradition. And yet, the remaining women go around distributing gruel made of ‘Job’s tears or Chinese pearl barley’ to all the passersby and the participants from their traditional Aluminium pots. It is served in bamboo cups that are carried in the baskets hung around their foreheads. The gruel provides an instant boost of carbohydrates for the toiling men in the hot sun.

In a Christian majority state, the tribal traditions are still thriving. It was a different experience watching the entire village dressed in their ethnic best and gathering to pull the stone uphill from the starting point to its destination. I somehow drew parallels with the chariot pulling tradition of the Puri Jagannath and several other temples of South India.

Isn’t it true that we all somehow follow the same way of life, only with different names for our faith and the process we follow to achieve it?

Hiking up Assam’s highest point- Hapeo peak

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the places in a self-drive car hired at Guwahati. We had arrived at Haflong, the only hill station in the state of Assam following a mis-adventurous trip. (Click here to know the details)

This trek to the highest point in Assam happened by chance, as a backup after the original plan for the day had failed. We were told that the hill isn’t yet popular in a typical tourist’s circuit. Apart from the local tribal folk who like to party atop the hill, hardly 4 to 5 trekkers come here from outside the district and the state to climb this hill each year. Having said that, we wanted to reach Hapeo peak, the highest point in the state of Assam for sunrise. However, due to the clouds that had hovered that morning, we decided to snooze for a little longer before going ahead with the plan.

There are totally 13 native tribes in Dima Hasao district of Assam state and each tribe has its own village. A local NGO called spectrum is working towards the empowerment of the local tribal communities through promotion of tourism in the district. They helped us in getting this event organized. We were driven in their 4WD vehicle from Haflong to a village called N.Liekung. N.Liekung village belonged to the Kuki tribes and the required permits from the village head was arranged by Spectrum. A local guide was assigned to take us through this off-beat wilderness to scale the highest point in Assam. I would like to present my trek in essentially three parts.

Part 1: The Ascent

After a small stop in front of the holy Cross at the prayer area of the Kukis, we began our ascent towards the peak. For the three of us, all seasoned trekkers doing this trip together, the climb to Hapeo peak wasn’t a very difficult one as compared to what we had done back in the Southern India. But what made it seem difficult was the high grass that had grown tall enough to cover the entire stretch. Since the trek is not frequented with people, the grass on the path is not worn out as much as in the popular trekking trails. Hence, the way up was something through which we had to FIND the trekking trail. Based on the ease of finding the trail, I would split the trail into three portions:

  • A well traceable path with steps laid. However, at some places, the stairs have been lost amid the thickets. We had to cut the grass and bushes in order to find our way. The stretch was full of high grass with occasionally placed animal traps which our guide who walked ahead, would carefully move aside and make way for us.
  • This was the only flat area with some grassland vegetation for a stretch of around 500mts.This was the only place apart from the highway, from where we could actually see the peak that we were apparently scaling up!
  • The last part passes through thick jungle, with a canopy of trees that allowed very less sunlight to penetrate. Varieties of innocent looking wild mushrooms had bloomed at several patches, but we were warned not to pick any of them as they could actually be lethal with allergens or venom. We were accompanied by strange sounds and cries of migratory birds around.
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The only grassland in Hapeo trek

As we climbed up while chatting up with our Kuki guide, he enlightened us with their tribal customs, culture and showed us a few videos on his phone of their traditional dances, festivals ceremonies and the like. Our guide jokingly told us how his fellow folks are named in the tribe. The names may not mean anything and just anything random that sounds nice goes as a name. He was thus randomly called after a ‘Song that was Sung’ (I’m sorry, I don’t want to give out his name). But the tradition is, that the maternal grandfather selects a name for the granddaughter and the paternal grandmother picks a name for the grandson and vice-versa. It is a patrilineal system of inheritance.

Part 2: Reaching the Top

Suddenly, the darkness of the jungle had turned into snow white of the clouds. Before we could realise, we had reached the top already and we had barely taken us two hours. We were told that one could see the entire district of Dima Hasao from up there. But, we were greeted with thick fog and clouds upon arrival. We spent some time soaking in nature’s beauty and waited for the clouds to clear so that we could catch a glimpse of the beautiful view.

For the benefit of potential trekkers, there is just one small shelter with a bench atop the hill and nothing apart from yourself there! Our guide mentioned to us about a patch of land measuring about 2×2 feet, right behind the bench where a natural and strong magnetic force is believed to exist, due to which none of the mobile phones work in that spot. Yes, we tested the phenomenon too. Although all our phones had FULL network, we were unable to place any calls. But none of us had any scientific reasoning for what he told.

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A view of Dima Hasao district from Hapeo peak

In the next fifteen minutes, the clouds had slowly started to clear. We spotted the railway bridge at Lumding onto the right side of the horizon. This rail line is the longest and highest in the Silchar route. Our guide pointed towards another hill onto our left, through which the longest railway tunnel (around 3.5kms long) in the North-east passes. The Silchar-Lumding railway route has been featured in several tourism websites and has been one of the scenic stretches in the country. As the weather slowly worsened and began to drizzle, we decided to start our descent.

Part 3: The Descent

When we had just started to climb down and we received a call from the NGO. We were told to return to the base of the hill ASAP as an alert for a cyclone had been issued by the meterological department and heavy rains were expected in this region in the next few hours. But, it had started to pour cats and dogs within no time. The fastest pace we could catch was by rolling down the hill. With all the rain, thick grass covered path and steep gradient, just a steady walk itself was a struggle as we descended on the slippery trail. There was nothing enroute to take shelter from the rain. But, waiting at any place made no sense because the pounding rains would continue for the entire day or even two. It made more sense to simply continue to walk down as we were already drenched till our bones.

We were back at the base by 11.00.a.m. and thus ended our trek to the highest point in the state of Assam. We were invited over to our guide’s house to dry ourselves up and have a cup of hot tea. We thanked him much and bid adieu with a warm heart to this lesser known corner of the world!

A walk in God’s own garden- Mawlynnong

“The Soul of India is in its villages”.

-Gandhiji

Sometimes, it is not about the place.. It is about the people that brings you closer.. And that’s precisely my take on this little quaint village called Mawlynnong.. After a refreshing drive through some breathtaking views and best roads of India, we had alighted at ‘God’s Own garden’ nestled deep in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya. Although it is being largely promoted by the Meghalaya Tourism Department(MTD) as Asia’s cleanest village after being awarded so by the ‘Discover India Magazine’ in 2003, I feel it holds a different charm in it with the warmest people I have met so far!

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the state of Meghalaya visiting Shillong – Smit – Cherrapunjee – Mawlynnong – Dawki – Ribhoi- Shillong.

Tourists flock to this place in large numbers just because they have heard about it in MTD handouts. These senseless creatures litter the place extensively with chocolate wrappers, chips sachets etc. all strewn around this supposedly cleanest village they have come to see.. But, the humble villagers watch on with a smile and pick up these wastes themselves and put them in the cane trash bins places visibly infront of every household in the village, thus keeping up to its reputation of being clean!

Things to see in Mawlynnong:

• Inside Mawlynnong village: The old church, floating stone, the water shed and the Bangladesh view point.
• 1 kilometer away: Riwai village (Living root-bridge)

The Details:

I walked around the laid back lanes of the village exploring the old church, the floating stone and the water shed maintained by the villagers. The flowers lining the fences of each household added myriad hues to the green village and grey of the cloudy sky.. I climbed up the skywalk laid up with bamboo and cane that threw up a nice view overlooking the plains of Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh view point at Mawlynnong
The Skyview bridge at Mawlynnong

Finally, I settled down at a locally run restaurant for a cup of chai to beat the chills of the cloudy weather. I caught up on a conversation with a pretty Khasi lady draped in her Asiangyake (the traditional dress of the Khasi women also called Dhara). While she helped me to memorise a few words in her dialect, I learnt about the Khasi culture and customs. Being a matrilineal society, women are respected and are given the preference to choose her husband-to-be. It is considered a bad omen, if a man proposes to a woman.

While she was attending to other customers at the restaurant, I called out for ‘Oikong’ (Khasi alternative for addressing ‘Didi’ in other parts of northern India) to help me with some Soh (Khasi for fruit). “Ohhhh” A voice filled with humility came in response… She then sat down with me and prepared a plate of pineapple seasoned with salt and flakes of the ‘Bhut Jholokias’ (the spiciest chilli in the world). It was one of the best snack I had in years!

I then walked down to the playground where some local kids were playing. They seemed excited to meet me, talk in English and pose for a few candid photos. It was a warm and a very pleasant evening for me. There is nothing in particular in this village to see or do.. Yet, the nomad in me strongly intended to stay there for an extra day. There are homestays that are available where the warmth of the Khasi hospitality can be experienced.

Kids playing on the lanes of Mawlynnong

I would recommend an early morning walk to Riwai village that helps you avoid the chaotic tourists who flock in later during the day. At a distance of about 1km before Mawlynnong, is the most easily accessible living root bridge and hence, a lot of visitors throng down. So after a nice walk, savouring a nice Khasi breakfast and lemon tea, it was time to pack bags to head out to my next destination- Dawki: the last village of Meghalaya on the Indian border!

The church at Mawlynnong
The church at Mawlynnong

Request to tourists:

Please remember that the sole reason that you are at Mawlynnong is to see how ‘Asia’s cleanest village’ looks like. How on earth will you ever feel like littering such a place? Do you want to see if you can take off the ‘Cleanest’ tag from the place? Or do you want to just prove that you are only an uncultured educated rich person who could afford enough money to tour the North-east India? Ask yourself… Be sensible and responsible!

Gateway to the abode of clouds- RiBhoi

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the state of Meghalaya visiting Shillong – Smit – Cherrapunjee – Mawlynnong – Dawki – Ribhoi- Shillong.

A long winding highway up the hill from Guwahati leads to Meghalaya: Abode of the clouds. And up there, one will be greeted by blue waters of a calm lake flanking the road on the right with no sign boards indicating the arrival at Ri Bhoi district. With no major landmark to explore for a typical tourist, this small distrct is full of fables and legends. If you’re someone interested in fairy tales, I highly recommend you to take a local person with you and follow my trail.

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The Umiam lake from NH40

The Umiam Lake or Barapani has been gracefully present there in a serene backdrop of green hills of the state. There is no passerby who doesn’t stop for at least a minute to capture the beauty of this place! This is a man-made lake formed due to the construction of a reservoir across the Umiam river. Today, this reservoir is one of the main sources of potable water to Shillong. For people looking for a leisure trip, one can go for boat rides in the clear waters of the lake. It is also called as the ‘water of tears’ named after a legend which talks about two sisters who were travelling to heaven. It is beleived that one of the sisters slipped from the hills and died, the other sister cried out of grief and her tears are said to have trickled down and formed the lake!

We had read about this place called ‘Lum Sohpetbneng’ close to Umiam and asked our driver if he could take us there. Although he himself had never been there earlier, he readily agreed to take us there. ‘Lum Sohpetbneng’ is a sacred grove of pine trees where a golden ladder is believed to have existed which connected Heaven and Earth. Although there is a motorable road, the place looked eerily deserted with absolutely NO ONE until the peak. We kind of got lost with several deviations in the route but since we were in the middle of the forest, we decided to reach the destination before we gave up. We wanted to know how the ladder looked like that connected God and Man. Finally, we arrived there… Only a dilapidated structure what appeared like some prayer hall and an under-construction structure was there, which our driver told us was a place where an annual fair is held with a large congregation of Hindus.

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An epitaph at Lum Sohpetbneng

A few steps away from the concrete structure, our driver took us to a neglected patch of land under an old withering tree. He pointed at a rock and told us, “See, these massive footprints here? It is of the humans who tried to climb heaven. Back in the days, humans used to be massive in size. One day, God realized that heaven was getting full and so he cut-off the ladder which laid right here, where this tree is now growing.” Although the shape of a feet with heels and toes were demarked clearly in the footprints, it is interesting to know how we grow up with fables without understanding the scientific logic behind.

There isn’t much to do on the peak apart from a good view of the Umiam Lake on one side and the Jaintia hills, Shillong airport, the Asian highway on the other. We drove back to Shillong.

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A view of Umiam lake from Lum Sohpetbneng

I personally would not recommend this trip if you are on a packed schedule. But if you are an explorer, interested in studying religion and culture, I would advise you to go there with a person familiar and knowledgeable about the place. A deviation from Umiam Lake can help one to explore the Diengiei Peak, where a crater formed by an extinct volcano exists. Dwarksuid is yet another place we gave a miss on the Umroi Bhoilymbong road where a rocky lake exists and is believed to be ‘Devil’s doorway’ because of the dark colored rocks surrounding the lake.

Closing remarks: Being the first scenic spot while entering Meghalaya through NH40, Umiam Lake is a good stop-over to watch the sunset and chill with friends on the banks. There, you can flip your arms open and let Meghalaya breathe some life into you before you head over for a wonderful trip ahead!

Treading the living root bridges- Nongriat

As kids, we always imagined fairies with wings flying amidst colourful gardens, rope like creepers hanging across the forest thickets, rainbows emerging on the tranquil sky. Do you agree when I say this is how most of the animated movies depict fairy tales ? Nestled deep in the rich forests of Meghalaya; with NO exaggeration, that’s how I would describe this village called Nongriat!

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the state of Meghalaya visiting Shillong – Smit – Cherrapunjee – Mawlynnong – Dawki – Ribhoi- Shillong.

A pleasant drive through the breathtakingly beautiful valleys and naturally formed creepy high limestone walls brought us to a village called Tyrna in Cherrapunjee. That’s where the tarmac ends and our car had to be parked. Further, we trekked down to the Nongriat village: where the ‘Umshiang bridge’ or popularly called ‘the double decker root bridge’ exists. One needs to climb over 2500 steps each way, so that this piece of marvel can be seen at close quarters. Root bridges are created by inter-weaving the roots of the rubber tree by the tribal folks who live in the deep forests of Meghalaya for their local commute across the bloated rivers during monsoon. A bridge fit for usage can take a minimum of a couple of decades and it only gets stronger with age. There are several such living root bridges across Meghalaya and most of them continue to be untouched by the tourists due to their remoteness. We were here, to tread on some of the most popular living root-bridges of Meghalaya.

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The route to Tyrna village

Although, there is a well laid out path of stairs all the way, we thought it was wiser to have a localite who would enrich us with the facts and figures that we wouldn’t get to learn otherwise. At Tyrna, we met a Khasi villager from Nongriat who agreed upon to guide us through our trek. We passed through several sacred groves and areca farms belonging to the villagers. After decending about 1000 steps, a small deviation to the right indicated the way to Nongthymmai village. We took this deviation to reach the ‘Ritymmen root bridge’ a single bridge and another old one next to it which has taken its toll due to the negligence by the localites. Our hearts were jumping with joy at the first experience of treading on a living root bridge, that we had only read about until then… I decided to throw my shoes away for a while and enjoy the feeling of walking barefoot on the bridge.

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The Rythimmen bridge at Nongthymmai village

After spending some time, we decided to continue the trek and our new friend cum guide, continued to enlighten us about the rich traditions and culture of the Khasis. We stopped by for a quick breakfast at a straw hut selling 2-minute noodles and lemon tea. Further, a short climb of stairs continued only to be awestruck by the marvel of indigenous engineering: The double decker root bridge, the main motivation for us to trek this far. It was like fantasy out of a fairytale: creepers hanging across a little waterfall, fed by a pristine river in the middle of nowhere! It was tempting to get our feet wet as we watched a few tourists who had stayed in the Khasi homes around the root-bridge over the previous night and enjoying their swim in the cold waters. However, spending some time admiring this piece of absolute marvel, we decided to move ahead, towards our next mission: Rainbow falls!

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Entry bridge to Nongriat village

Nature’s best kept secrets are those which are untouched due to their remoteness. Rainbow waterfalls being one of those. The small number of tourists who make it till the double decker bridge seemed to have had disappeared there onwards. The tiring path ahead was going to be tiring, we were told. But, nothing comes easy.

I was doing this trip post monsoon (October to be precise) and that’s when the caterpillar larvae take wings! Like winged fairies, we were greeted and accompanied by butterflies of all colours, shapes and sizes all along the stretch from Umshiang bridge (the local name for the double-decker bridge) till the rainbow falls. We had to be extremely cautious while walking, clear the way for ourselves with a stick, lest accidentally step on these little winged beauties. The path was so full of butterflies, that it cannot be expressed with words and the joy can only be experienced. Truly, in every sense: I was Alice, walking in wonderland!

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Another root bridge enroute to Rainbow falls

It was a walk of nearly 2hours through the thickets of the sacred forests and crossing at least 5 other root bridges and a couple of metal rope bridges that were laid across the deep river that flowed down with its seductive clear blue waters. After the brisk climb, we had finally arrived at the place where a hidden jewel of nature unfolded itself, from amid the greens…

We stood there in AWE….. the green trees and bushes had opened up to display a canvas with milky white waters gracefully tumbling down into a pool of turquoise blue and a hundred fairies flying around us. A dozen spectrums added to this heavenly scenery! On a clear sunny day, there could be 50-100 spectrums around the waterfall, giving the place its name: Rainbow falls! We enjoyed a couple of hours in calm just by sitting beside the naturally formed swimming pool as we were the only people in this fairyland and restoring our lost bond with nature that was shared long ago.

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The Rainbow falls

As described by our guide, camping at the Mawsmai caves (2hours trek further) and climbing up the hill to be greeted by the Nohkalikai waterfalls, the highest waterfall in India would have been a complete story! Unfortunately, we hadn’t known much about the enchanting beauty of this trek before embarking on it and had no preparations now, to have it extended further. So now, it was well past afternoon and distance that required to be walked back was long. The sun sets early in this part of India and that meant that we had very less time of daylight left. During our return, we stopped by at another hut near the Umshiang bridge for a late lunch where we relished a simple Khasi meal of rice and bitter lime curry.

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A metal rope bridge near Rainbow falls

The walk back from there onwards was taxing and it is a very steep climb up the 2500 odd stairs.. I stopped several times at the little homes and stalls put up by the villagers on the way to keep myself hydrated with the local energy drinks and fruit juices. I cannot forget the way our guide cum friend Denzil kept motivating me to complete the stretch. He kept reducing the count of steps by hundreds so that I would climb faster with the intention of reaching the top ASAP. Finally, I was back at Tyrna, even while there was sufficient sunlight for us to drive back to Cherrapunjee.

A small deviation from Tyrna will lead one to ‘Ummunoi root bridge’ in the Laitkynsew village, one of the oldest bridges in the viscinity. It has been truly a very refreshing way to explore ‘the abode of the clouds- Meghalaya’.

Conclusion remarks:

  • For all trekking enthusiasts, a two day trek covering Laitkynsew, Nongriat, Mawsmai and Nohkalikai is highly recommended.
  • Although, we missed to trek up to the Nohkalikai falls, we made sure that we camped overnight at a spot facing this waterfall and caught the view of the sun rising over the Nohkalikai waterfalls!

Tripping in Scotland of the east- Shillong

This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had planned to visit Shillong – Smit – Cherrapunjee – Mawlynnong – Dawki – Ribhoi- Shillong during my weeklong stay in Meghalaya.

The planned solo trip started when I boarded the BLR- GAU bound flight to Guwahati. An argument over having to pay an additional Rs.50 per head for turning the A/C on for 1 passenger’s need in a shared taxi from Guwahati airport ended when the drive uphill pulled-off at Police Bazaar in Shillong at 3.00.p.m. While the streets were bustling with the weekenders finding their way out of the hill state, an acquaintance who had offered to let me stay at her place was waiting for my arrival. Thus started my weeklong backpacking trip at Meghalaya and my first day at the capital town, Shillong.

On my first ever solo trip, it being my first day in an unknown city and having very little time with daylight left (The sun sets early in the North-eastern part of India), I decided not to move too far from my friend’s house and eventually cause trouble to people in finding me. I dumped my luggage at the house and started to explore the city by foot.

My Itinerary for Shillong:

Day 1: Arrive at Shillong by 03.00.p.m., Walk around the residential lanes, Shopping at Police Bazaar
Day 2: Golf course, drive to the outskirts (Laitlung valley), local city tour, Elephant falls, Shillong peak & Sweet falls
Day 3: Proceed with the next day’s itinerary

The Details:

The first day went pretty well where I tagged along with another solo-traveler and together we were able to explore the markets, street food and have a fine conversation about travel & music- we kind of struck similar chords. We shopped for woolens, thermals and shoes at dirt cheap prices on the streets of police bazaar. We tasted a lot of local fruits and even picked up some ‘Bhoot Jhalokias, world’s spiciest chilly as mementoes to our relatives.

While we were walking through the narrow residential lanes of the city, we learned about the architecture of the buildings here. Shillong falls under the red belt for earthquakes. Hence, the houses are constructed with light-weight roofs- usually a combination of hay and metal sheet. Also, the houses are usually constructed a few feet above the ground with insulating materials to keep them warm during the winters. Although, a few buildings seemed to have been constructed of concrete, I was told that the walls were mud smeared and if a hole was made with a slightly large nail, the sand from within would ooze out and eventually collapse the wall. This was to protect the people from earthquake & chilly winters together. Pork forms a major part of Khasi cuisine and that made us eat a lot of it (chops, barbequed, fried etc.) since pork goes into almost all dishes. All in all, my landing on the first day in the North-eastern India as a solo traveler went rather well without seeming so lost!

Day 2 can be broadly divided into 3 parts:

  1. Taxi ride to the outskirts (Smit & Laitlung valley)
  2. Walk around the city
  3. Taxi ride to the cantonment area (Shillong peak & Sweet falls)

An early morning walk down the road from my friend’s house lead to the Golf course- The largest, oldest, wettest and the toughest to play in Asia. Green pastures have been scientifically proven to have a soothing effect on human mind and it was nothing different to expect from this golf course. I walked back up to the Police Bazaar and hired a taxi thereon to Smit.

Part 1: Taxi ride to the outskirts (Smit & Laitlung valley)

The drive of 25kms was refreshing as I passed through potato farms and scenic Khasi villages on the way. After a small stopover, we drove to Laitlung valley- about 5kms further. The beauty of the valley with 360 degree greenery and fresh air cleansed my mind off half my worries and tension. The villagers I met on my way enriched me with the simplicity and content of life. After a good walk down and up the beautiful valley of Mawkeynrew, my tummy had started to call out for me. I savoured the plantains offered to me by the villagers and sat down with a few school kids who were excited to catch up for a conversation with a foreigner in English! I managed to get breakfast at one of the stalls where a simple plate of noodles was served with a heavy dose of warmth and humility. (Click here to read more on this visit to Laitlung valley)

Part 2: Local city tour

After reaching back to Shillong, I enquired with a few taxis to show me around local sightseeing places. For a backpacking budget that I had, the taxi charges seemed to be expensive. Hence, I decided to explore the city by foot with support from my best friend: Google maps. With a little bit of browsing, I listed down many places, all located within a radius of 5 kilometers. Depending on what one’s interest lies in, it is possible to find something for everyone in this little hillstation.

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The Ward’s lake at Shillong

Things to see in Shillong include:

• For the museum bums: Air force museum (at Upper Shillong), Forest museum (Inside Lady Hydari park), Rhino heritage museum, Zoological museum, Anthropological museum (at Mawsbuit/ahead of Happy Valley), Botanical museum, Arunachal museum, State museum, Don-Bosco centre of culture (At Mawlai).
• For the water & nature lovers: Shillong peak, the Wards lake, Bishop Beadon falls, Spread eagle falls (also called as Sati or Umkaliar falls), Crinoline falls and Elephant falls.
• For the spirituality seekers: There are a large number of Cathedrals and churches where you can attend the Sunday mass with hymns melodiously sung in the Khasi language.

Part 3: Taxi ride to the cantonment area (Shillong peak & Sweet falls)

By sunset time, I realized that I had done several rounds of the same roads and had checked off very few places. And that’s when I decided to take a taxi and visit the farthest of the city’s sightseeing landmark. I was heading towards the highest point of the hill station: Shillong peak. However, the road taken towards the peak was blocked by the Indian air-force staff due to security reasons. So, that’s when my driver offered an alternate plan for me to spend the remaining evening. I nodded to his idea and sat back as he drove through the ‘Happy Valley’ and the army cantonment area at Mawsbuit to show me the most beautiful of all places around Shillong: the Sweet falls.

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Sweet falls

Being tucked away from the city crowd and having limited access to people due to the army area, this place was very serene, clean and beautiful. However, apart from a couple of riders who had dropped over for a drink, the place seemed to be very secluded. Since this was my “first” solo backpacking trip, I wasn’t feeling great about being in a less-crowded place like this one. So, I went back to the taxi and decided to be driven back to the city area.

Just then, I had a surprise waiting for me inside my taxi. My driver fallen sick and seemed to be partially unconscious. He was struggling to respond when I tried to talk to him. I suspected that his sugar levels had dropped and quickly gave him some toffees from my bag. After letting him rest in the car for a while, he seemed to come back to normalcy (at least enough conscious to be able to drive the car out of the deserted area). He then dropped me back to the city and bid me farewell.

After a short shopping break at the Police bazaar market, I headed to MTDC (Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation) office where I thought I would be able to plan my next day’s itinerary… and what happened next is history.!!

Closing Remarks:

• It’s a safe and a friendly city for the solo travelers.
• Time required for covering all places in the city- 1.5 days

Must dos:

  • For the music buffs: Attend the Shillong Weekender NH7 music festival
  • For the cultural buffs: Attend the Nongkrehm festival of the Khasi tribes at Smit
  • For the foodies: Try Khasi cuisine at the many restaurants and give it a try for street food post 6.00.p.m across the city.
  • For the shopaholics: lots of amazing winter wears, shoes and boots at dirt cheap prices across the city!