Cherrapunjee: A Drive in the Clouds

As I set off on my morning walk, the sky is a dark, thunderous gray that threatens to crash at any moment. I slow down as I see the banks of the River Brahmaputra now in full monsoon glory. As I stand there looking at the river, I feel the all-too-familiar itch to drive off in the rain. My husband, daughter and I have done this many times, in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and in Kerala, Karnataka , Goa, West Bengal and Sikkim. Nothing is more exhilarating than a long drive in the rain, interspersed with steaming cups of tea, each appealing to the unique flavor of that region.

Cherrapunjee (photo by pinning shadows)
 

Now that we live in Guwahati, what better way to celebrate the monsoon than to drive to Sohra, better known to the rest of the world as Cherrapunjee, one of the wettest places on earth? And so we embark on this exciting ride. Living on the outskirts of Guwahati, as we do, has its perks, and we manage to meander around town and get onto the NH40, known locally as Guwahati-Shillong Road or GS Road, pretty quickly. At 9th mile, so called because of the distance from the heart of the city, we throw coins into the Ganesh Mandir which is next to the highway and pray for a safe journey. It is believed that if you pray here, Ganesha will watch over you on your journey. With that ritual behind us, we sit back in our chairs and look forward to a good holiday.

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The rain is a drizzle, and as we sail on, my daughter Shyama and I keep reading the nameplates of shops and factories. We love this stretch of road – Assam on the left, Meghalaya on the right, though it’s the same rainy, dense foliage on both sides. Petrol pumps line the highway and we stop at our favorite NRL or Numaligarh Refinery on the right as fuel is cheaper in Meghalaya. We sail through Nongpoh, a small town in Meghalaya. It is about 50 km from Guwahati and it is quite a popular halfway stop for travelers on this route. We stop at Sweetday Café in Saiden, a few miles away. We’re not particularly hungry, but don’t want to miss out on their delicious momos, which we seek out on every trip to Shillong.

Duwan Sing Syiem View Point Dympep (Photo door PP Yoonus)
Duwan Sing Syiem View Point Dympep (Photo door PP Yoonus)
 

Soon we are on our way again and the rain turns into a heavy downpour as we enter Shillong. Dark clouds and more rain see us off the next morning. We drive out of Shillong, past the military area, on lazy winding roads, past tiny hamlets as pretty as a picture. Streams run parallel to this road and form natural pools along the route. We occasionally pass a vehicle, but otherwise we pretty much have the road to ourselves. We exchange smiles of joy as a cloud moves our way and slowly drives through. We return to our seats to watch it float away. It’s an exciting journey from here as we move into the cloud after the cloud. “Welcome to the abode of clouds,” they all seem to say.

A bridge across two worlds

About halfway through Sohra is the Duwan Sing Syiem Bridge , which is almost like a bridge between two worlds. Before us is the deep Mawkdok valley, bounded by two rows of endless hills that seem to stretch on forever. The view is breathtaking and my daughter thinks it’s an ideal shooting location for those “James Bond” type movies. Even if we drink a cup of tea from one of the many stalls here, the fog rolls in and visibility is reduced to a few meters.

As we drive up the winding road, I shudder to think what would happen if someone missed a curve in the road. We reach the town of Sohra and take a diversion to Nohkalikai waterfalls. With an estimated height of about 1,100 feet, it is the tallest single-drop waterfall in India. After gasping at its beauty, we wait for the fog to clear, sipping on some more tea from one of the stalls along the viewpoint. After what seems like an eternity, we get a veiled glimpse of running water emerging from lush green foliage and plunging straight down. It’s a beautiful sight, but in peak monsoon you have to be really lucky to get a good view. As we head back, the drizzle slowly turns into a heavy downpour.

Nohkalikai Falls (Foto door Rishav999)
Nohkalikai Falls (Foto door Rishav999)
 

We drive past Sohra, passing the road to Mawsmai Caves , which we have to skip in the rain. Mawsmai is one of several limestone caves in the region. Formed over the years due to incessant rainfall and the presence of large limestone deposits, the caves have the most amazing stalagmite and stalactite formations. Krem Mawmluhin Mawmluh, 12 km from Cherrapunjee Resort, and Krem Umshyrpi in Mawlong, 14 km from the resort, are among the many caves in the region that are popular with caving enthusiasts from all over the world. Near the Mawsmai caves, you will find ancient Khasi monoliths erected in memory of their ancestors. However, we cannot stop at any of these places and continue to Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, where we plan to stop. After a short stop for lunch at Saitsohpen, a hamlet 3 km from Sohra, we are on our way again. Signboards pointing the way to Cherrapunjee Resort pop up every now and then, as if to reassure us that we are on the right track .

Located on the outskirts of Laitkynsew village The Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort is about 18 km from the town of Sohra. It goes slowly as we take a diversion just past Mawmluh village, 10 km before the resort. The road is narrow and winding, with a deep valley on one side. I look down and all I can see is a deep abyss shrouded in fog and I quickly avert my eyes. You could so easily drive off to nowhere. Fortunately, the rain gods take a break, but the fog remains heavy. This is a road that should definitely not be taken in the dark. Messages from Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort are painted on the rocks along the road. “I’ll go with you in the rain,” someone says. “Romance in the rain,” says another. Every sign seems to tell us we’re almost there. As we round a bend, we can see water falling onto the road like a natural shower. We go down and carefully test the water. It is freezing. A few more kilometers and we reach the resort.

Mawsmai (Photo by Ppyoonus)
Mawsmai (Photo by Ppyoonus)
 

We arrive at the resort to a warm welcome from the owner Denis Rayen and his team – all girls – dressed in the traditional Jainsen costume of the Khasi people. The girls are all from the village. The resort has a ‘home away from home’ appearance, with a large hall that serves as the reception cum dining room. All six rooms of the resort will be open. We check into our rooms, which are cozy and comfortable, relax with hot tea and snacks, and sit back and watch the rain. When the fog lifts and the rain stops, we’re treated to stunning views of the hills, valleys, and waterfalls nearby, not to mention drifting clouds. We can even see the plains of Bangladesh. As darkness sets in, I talk to Denis and his wife Carmelia, who have run this resort for the past eight years. Denis passionately follows rainfall patterns and is a repository of information about the region. He tells us that the previous day had seen the highest amount of rainfall this season. We couldn’t have picked a better time to experience Cherrapunjee rain.

Roots over the Umunoi River

We make plans to go to “living root bridges” in the morning. Denis tells us how in ancient times the Khasi people used the roots of Indian rubber trees that grow on the banks of rivers to create natural bridges. Over the years, these bridges have become stronger and are still used daily by the locals. The nearest bridge is 3 km away, over the Umunoi River, and the trek can take about 3-4 hours. The Double Decker Bridge , so named because it has two levels, over the Umshiang, is a 10km trek away from Nongriat villageand takes 8-9 hours from the resort. But it still flows when we get up and we have to cancel our plans for the trek. When things calm down, we grab our raincoats and umbrellas and head through the village of Laitkynsew, stopping to admire the spectacular views of hills, waterfalls and drifting clouds, with wildflowers and butterflies adding to the pretty picture. We walk through the village and on until the road ends at Nongwar village.

Further on, the country abruptly falls into Bangladesh. Children returning from school stop to say hello and want to be photographed. When the rain threatens to subside, we head back to the resort. The rest of the evening is spent listening to village boys sing traditional Khasi songs. The next morning we walked the road back home, seeing more rain than we expected. Denis and Carmelia see us off with chocolates and warm smiles. On the way we stop at the Mawsmai Caves . “A real cave, like in the adventure books and movies!” Says my awe-inspiring daughter. Of course it is lit, but wet and dripping at this time of year. As we drive off, I look back and promise to return soon.

Cherrapunji (Foto door Spingle_Creations)
Cherrapunji (Foto door Spingle_Creations)
 

ROUTE Guwahati-Nongpoh (50 km) – Bara Paani (35 km) – Shillong (18 km) – Mawkdok (24 km) – Sohra-town / Cherrapunjee (28 km) – Laitkynsew-dorp (18 km) – Sohra-town (18 km) – Mawkdok (28 km) – Shillong (24 km) – Bar Paani (18 km) – Nongpoh (35 km) – Guwahati (50 km).

THE GUWAHATI TO SHILLONG DRIVE NH40 (Guwahati-Shillong Road) is in good condition, and many tea stalls and gas pumps are located on this highway. It’s a straight drive, along scenic routes with winding roads climbing up to Shillong. Nongpoh, the halfway stop, is known for its pickles and has a number of restaurants, gas pumps, tire repair shops and gas stations. A few miles away is the Sweetday Café , which offers good food and clean restrooms.

Umiam Lake in Bara Paani (85 km from Guwahati) is an interesting stop on this road. Moorings next door have good facilities. Check out Colonial Shillong (Golf Course, Shillong Club , Raj Bhavan, etc.) before shopping at the local market for traditional Khasi items. Meghalaya Handicrafts, Khadi Gramodyog and Purbashree are good for handlooms and handicrafts. Buy rainwear at Police Bazaar in the heart of the city. The market has restaurants serving Chinese and Indian food, which you can find in most of the restaurants along the route.

Cherrapunji (Foto door Spingle_Creations)
Cherrapunji (Foto door Spingle_Creations)
 

S ridge to Sohra Sohra Roadtakes you through spectacular countryside and offers the added appeal of driving through clouds. The road is narrow and winding, but traffic is sparse. Drive carefully past Mawkdok as heavy fog can reduce visibility to very low levels. Avoid driving late at night and at night. From Sohra you need to take a diversion to Nohkalikai Falls; look for the signboard as you enter Sohra town. Return to the highway and continue for Nohsngithiang and Kynrem waterfalls, Mawsmai Caves, Khasi monoliths, living root bridges and the Double Decker Bridge. Gas pumps and repair shops can be found along this stretch at regular intervals. For those who plan to stay at Cherrapunjee Resort for a few days, Saitsohpen, 3 km from Sohra, is

TRIP FACTS

While driving in the monsoon has its own thrill, you could also plan this trip during the drier months between October and March. The sky will be much clearer, but the only downside is that the falls are not that full and some of them even dry up. During the monsoon, it is advisable to use fog lights. A four-wheel drive is not really necessary. Most taxis that follow this route are the smaller Maruti 800s and Altos. Don’t forget to pack your hiking/trekking boots, caps, jackets, raincoats and umbrellas. During the winter months you need warm clothes.

Shillong (photo by sarit2006)
Shillong (photo by sarit2006)
 

Shillong has a high vehicle density, perhaps second only to Mumbai, and as such you will find no shortage of gas pumps and garages along the route. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the drive is the highly disciplined traffic in and around Shillong, a big change from most other parts of the country. It is better to bring some food and water for the ride beyond Shillong. Teashops are plentiful, but snacks are limited to crisps, cake and boiled eggs.

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