I’d first heard about the Living Root Bridges of Cherrapunji on Atlas Obscura‘s website and tucked that little nugget of awesome away in the back of my mind for when I finally made it to India. It’s one of those places that folks either haven’t heard of, or know of it and desperately want to go. Kind of like a really, really badly kept secret. Joe was of the former group and an American chick I met very briefly in Varanasi, Jessica, was of the latter. You assume that because it’s in the north east and the Lonely Planet merely gloss over it as a foot note that it’d be difficult to access and really expensive to stay there but it turned out that the opposite was true. It’s a piece of piss, especially since most of the north eastern states have done away with the permits you used to have to get.
So, here’s your step-by-step guide to getting to Cherrapunji:
1. Book an overnight train from New Jalpaiguri to Guwahati. A late one so you have to wait half your fucking life for it. Bring a deck of cards. Oh, and some rum.
2. Board the train and throw the bloke in your berth off. There are two ways of doing this. There is Joe’s approach where he gently and apologetically shakes the dude awake and, still apologising, asks him to move as this is his berth. This will result in you having to stand around whilst the dude sleepily takes his time to fuck off. Or there’s my approach which I learned from watching Indians claim their berth; Shake the guy awake in a semi-violent fashion before barking, “My seat!” at him which will result in a mildly terrified man scrambling off your allocated bed whilst he apologises. It probably helps to have a stapled face that triggers nightmares if you’re going to use this approach.
3. Promptly pass out. Because rum.
4. Alight at Guwahati and, on the advice of some bloke you met on the train, make your way to platform 7 where in keeping with India-wide tradition you won’t have to find a Sumo because the Sumo will find you. Or at least some bloke will accost you and lead you to the Sumo which is pretty much the same thing. A Sumo, by the way, isn’t an overweight Japanese bloke in a nappy that barely covers his genitals. It’s a 4WD Tata vehicle but the word is generally used to describe any shared 4WD taxi.
5. Part with ₹170 for the journey to Shillong and spend the ensuing three hours crammed into a hot, tiny space with ten other people. Or eleven, depending on whether the driver can still operate the vehicle with a grown man practically sat on his lap or not.
6. Once in Shillong, you will probably need to have a word with the men in the Sumo because they’ll be trying to plan your trip in Assamese. By this point we’d made your plans to head straight to Cherrapunji absolutely clear but they wanted to find us a hotel in Shillong on account of the fact they were convinced that there wouldn’t be a Sumo to Cherrapunji at this hour and even if there was there’d be nowhere for us to stay once we got there. I knew that there was a cheap place to stay and that there was a Sumo because the internet told me and everyone knows the internet doesn’t lie. And seriously, guys. As well placed as your intentions may be, don’t try to plan our shit in a language we don’t understand.
7. Adopt the tried and tested method I often use to locate shit in India whereby you wander through the streets saying, “Cherrapunji Sumo stand?” to everyone you see and follow their vague hand signals until they become less vague and someone points at a carpark packed full of yellow 4WDs waiting to take folks to various parts of Meghalaya.
8. Locate the stand with “Sohra” scrawled above it in paint on account of Sohra being what Cherrapunji is actually called, but it’s not as fun to say so we pointedly ignored this small fact.
9. Hand over ₹70 for the privilege of shoehorning yourself and all of your luggage into another Sumo where you will be spending the next hour or so of your life.
10. Arrive at the bazaar in Cherrapunji, get out and start walking before realising that you got off way too early and actually have exactly zero idea where you are. Don’t worry though, there’ll be hoards of friendly locals who’ll know exactly where you’re heading before you even ask and will point you in the right direction. By The Way is run by a local bloke called Heprit and chances are, if there are foreigners wandering through town wearing backpacks that’s where they’re heading. It’s not the only place to stay in Cherrapunji but at ₹250 a night for a dorm bed it’s definitely the cheapest.
Talking of locals though, if you thought the people of Varanasi were fond of their paan wait until you get here. Everyone looks like they’ve just ripped someone’s throat out with their teeth and here’s a fun fact; there is no subtle way to try and remove red spittle off your cheek whilst receiving directions from a habitual paan chewer. True story.
Heprit is a total legend though. We eventually made it down to Lower Cherrapunji and checked into the hostel. He sorted us out with a hand drawn map of the surrounding area and a list of useful words and phrases in Khasi, the local language which is written in Roman letters as opposed to indecipherable script because apparently they never used to have a written language until some Welsh bloke called Thomas Jones showed up. They’d tried to write it down with the script used in Bangladesh but the sounds weren’t right and it turned out Roman letters fit perfectly, so this Presbyterian missionary gave them their written language and you can pretty much forget all that Hindi you learned. No one uses it at all, not even a little bit. Joe had a basic grasp of Hindi and he tried to default to it but he might as well have been speaking Hungarian. To be fair, there’s a pretty good level of English around these parts anyway.
Khublei is the word I tried to learn first because it means “thank you” and I always try and learn that. It’s polite. In most of India though, when you try and say thank you which in Hindi is dhanyavad no one acknowledges you at all and you start to wonder if you’re saying it right. Thank you just isn’t a thing here. But screw you, India. I will learn to say it in all of your languages anyway because that’s basically the extent of my language skills.
So. Cherrapunji then. Before heading into the valley to put these root bridges into our eyeholes we figured we’d spend a day exploring the town on account of the fact there’s a surprising amount of cool shit to see and do here. We only got half of it done though, mainly because of the sheer amount of walking involved. We headed up to some caves via a couple of view points that were meant to overlook waterfalls but water doesn’t tend to fall during the dry season, not even in a town that used to be in the Guinness Book of Records for having more rainfall than anywhere else in the world. They’re rather proud of this title even though somewhere else is now officially the wettest place. They casually overlook this fact and still use it in all of their marketing because when you’ve got a gimmick you might as well run with it. The views were still pretty awesome though. Once you make it to the caves you’re offered a choice of walking routes; a rugged trail or a pleasant walk. Hmm. Well as much as we all love a rugged trail we opted for the easy stroll where unnecessarily loud music blasted from speakers for no discernible reason. Maybe this was why the walk was considered pleasant?
Once we were in the caves armed with torches we’d had the foresight to bring, we turned down the offer of a guide and the three of us started to make our way into the dark. I’m not gonna lie to you, guys, I freaked out a little bit. I’m not used to caves that aren’t well lit throughout and don’t have safety rails everywhere you look. I became convinced we were going to get horribly lost. I thought we’d already ventured miles into the cave. That fucking movie about the women who went pot holing and got killed by cave creatures glued itself to my brain and wouldn’t fuck off. I said I didn’t want to go any further, but I was equally scared at the thought of having to sit there on my own with my shitty Bolivian head torch that probably needed new batteries, so bless Joe and Jessica, they walked me back to the electric lights. Soooo we weren’t miles underground at all. Probably about 60 seconds in. I admit it, I’m a pussy, it’s not that I’m scared of the dark, I’m scared of what my imagination can convince me is in the dark. And when a larger group went in with a guide we followed them against Jessica’s better judgment, she didn’t want to have to walk back with me again if I freaked out. I promised to be a brave little soldier and we made our way to the end and back, and all without me having a minor breakdown and wanting my mum.
It’s a nice enough cave. Very… cavey… and they’ve obviously spent a lot of money trying to make the place more tourist friendly on the outside with faux-wood hand rails and proper paving and a pond with a stone fish that didn’t spout water so much as drool it like it’d drank way too much tequila and had lost the ability to swallow or form words. And don’t forget the random speakers playing music loud enough for the semi-deaf to enjoy. These weren’t the caves I wanted to visit, I wanted to go to Mawsamai Caves but there’d be no time to make it all the way back there before they closed so after a pretty awful feed at a restaurant at the bazaar, Jessica headed back on her own and me and Joe swung by the Don Bosco shrine and a couple of graveyards on the way back to the hostel. It seems like a pretty Christian place around here. I think a lot of different missionaries rocked up and left their mark over the ages and not just ol’ Tommy J, the father of the Khasi language. They don’t call him Tommy J. I totes just made that up. They just call him Thomas Jones but Heprit did call him the father of his written language which is fair enough really.
Oh, and one Khasi word which is well easy to remember, even if you’re an ignorant English fucktard like me with an inability to grasp any language beyond ordering a beer; Heprit told us that the word for “hot” is “shit”. He finds this hilarious. Me and Heprit clearly share a sense of humour.
Cherrapunji (Sohra), Meghalaya, India
Stayed at: By The Way