So these living root bridges we’d come to see are actually located in a valley which is easily accessible from Cherrapunji. You can do it in a day and domestic tourists from Shillong do indeed do this, but we’d heard you should really spend a night or two down there to get the most out of it. Heprit will let you keep most of your shit at his place, he’ll call ahead to the only homestay in the valley and book you a bed, and he’ll flag down the 9am (which in India means anywhere between 9 and 9.30) bus for you and make sure the guys know where to let you off. He really is a one stop purveyor of awesomeness. So, armed with his hand drawn map we jumped on the bus for the 12km ride to Mawshamok, alighted and found a cafe to grab a quick feed. I use the term “cafe” loosely, it was more of a shack that sold food which consisted of rice, gravy and some manner of unidentifiable cooked flesh which suited me but it seemed like the vegetarian option for Joe and Jessica involved them simply picking the bits of carcass out of the gravy. Joe was not a happy hippy.
We were heading to a village in the valley called Nongriat which as it turn out is fucking gorgeous. As in, I don’t have the words to describe how incredibly stunning it is without resorting to clichés. It’s also at the bottom of about 3000 steps so it’d want to be beautiful to offset the fact that your calf muscles now hate you and want to leave you for someone who spends more time sitting down, and I say “about” 3000 steps on account of the fact I lost count around 2500. Brain doesn’t do big numbers. You also have to cross a series of shaky, high suspension bridges that look like something someone threw together with some bits of wood and wire they found lying around. If the mere thought of heights makes your sphincter slacken you might want to reconsider that little jaunt to the valley you had planned. It’s so worth it though, and just when you think you took a wrong turn somewhere you come to Serene Homestay, also simply known as Byron’s on account of the fact that’s the name of the bloke who owns it. His is the only actual homestay but if you rock up and he’s got no space, he’ll probably rope in a family member to sort you out with a room or a shed or some manner of roof anyway.
Job number one though? Swimming. It’s more than a little bit sweaty down in the valley and when you’ve just spent half your life walking down, then up, then down some steps again all you want to do is submerge yourself in one of the impossibly blue pools you saw on the way in. The challenge was to find a pool that wasn’t full of domestic tourists because chicks simply can’t strip down to swim wear in India, unless it’s Goa or Varkala or Om Beach. Cleveland though, he knew exactly where to take us where we’d have the pool to ourselves. He’s some manner of relative of Byron’s and he was going to work in a hotel for pittance until Byron offered him a better paid job at the homestay. Some of it’s hard work, he walks up to the nearest town to buy supplies and carries them down on his back and he does general day to day shit such as laundry, but apart from that he spends his time hanging out in the swimming pools and chatting to tourists in terrible English. He’s the kind of bloke you take an instant liking to.
Guys. These pools. Cleveland lead us off the footpath to a swimming hole where we were literally the only ones there. They’re all set amongst huge boulders and I can only imagine what they’re like at the end of the monsoon season. Even now with no rainfall they’re deep enough to swim in and they’re the perfect temperature to cool off without sending your nipples into complete shock. The only downside is the fact you’ll emerge from the water covered in a film of laundry powder and grease. Locals use the water for all of their washing needs because let’s face it, ain’t no one gonna cart a washing machine all the way down here. It’s the only way to get stuff clean but it’s still a habitat. Fish still live here and they eat the fish, it can’t be good for the eco system. It’s probably fine during the monsoon where the water is constantly renewed but right now it just leaves the water contaminated. But that wasn’t going to stop us frolicking in it until we went wrinkly, it was way too enticing.
These root bridges though. They’re actually everywhere, local tribes have been training the roots of banyan trees for longer than anyone can remember. They were never meant to be a tourist attraction, they’re a legit way to get across the river that runs through the valley and probably storms through it during the rainy season. What’s incredible about these bad boys is as grow older they just get stronger, as opposed to anything in the West which will go utterly tits-up the day after the warranty expires. The most famous root bridge is the double decker which is really close to Byron’s place and it’s also right next to a popular swimming pool which we just bypassed on the way to our private pond. By the time we got back, everyone had buggered off and once again we had the place to ourselves in order to repeatedly photograph the bridge from every bastard angle.
I’ve never seen anything so fantastic and photogenic in my whole life, I shit you not. We spent a while here, chilling and taking photos, I couldn’t get over the fact that these twisted mass of roots were over 160 years old. It’s beautiful. Even if it does look like it’d come alive at any minute and consume you and your bones would become part of the tree and your soul would haunt the region forever… yeah nah, I should probably stop watching horror movies.
Of course there’s a stall selling drinks and snacks and there’s a woman who I think is called Dil who sells… something… I don’t even know what it is (Edit: I have since discovered that this earthly wonder is bhel puri) but Joe bought a packet, and by “packet” I mean “newspaper cone”. She’s basically chilling there surrounded by all these ingredients which she throws together to order in a bucket and mixes it up. It’s a puffed rice base then I don’t even know what she adds. Onions, coriander, chilli powder, lemon juice, fuck knows what else. I tried a bit and several of my tastebuds went on strike because they couldn’t cope with the sheer awesomeness of it. It’s tangy and spicy and all of those flavours I love so much and would eat metric crap tonnes of if I didn’t think it’d strip my stomach lining in minutes. I made a vow to locate and consume as much of this stuff during the remainder of my trip. I don’t have a clue what it’s called though. I just know it’s conjured from joy.
So Byron’s is a cool place to stay. Considering he’s cornered the market his prices are ridiculously reasonable. There are little shacks and you can eat at if you wanted to live off instant noodles and hey, I won’t judge if you do, I spent many years living off instant noodles until I moved to Brighton and turned into a pretentious foodie. But it’s lovely to eat with the other backpackers in the evening and you’re welcome to stuff as much as you want into your facehole. They just lay out the food and you help yourself, and they keep it coming until you’re satisfied, and all for ₹130. A bed is ₹300. He’ll pack you a chowmein lunch to take away so you can spend the day hiking and swimming for ₹80. You know how when something seems too good to be true it often isn’t? In this case it is. It’s actually totally true. And Byron himself is one of the most chilled out guys you could ever hope to meet, he just rolls with life. He’s an animist which is basically the belief that nature is god and you just can’t ever imagine him getting angry. He asked Jessica if he could have a nip of her whiskey “for my digestion” because his wife had thrown his bottle of booze away. “She doesn’t want me to die early,” he explained, “and I’m ok with that.” He’s also very, very proud of the local water which he served us in jugs with dinner. He says you won’t find purer water anywhere else and everyone can safely drink it. I thought of the film of crap that covered us when we emerged from the pool earlier. Yeeeaaahhh… I’ll stick to the bottled water, thanks mate.
The people of Nongriat make their money selling bay leaves. You’ll see big sacks everywhere totally packed full of the buggers but they can pretty much look after themselves down there. Byron explained that everything they sell they can just go into the forest and pick. There are plenty of different fruit trees and he said that before the fruit becomes ripe, to them they are vegetables. They just cook them up and eat them as savoury food. There are wooden boxes everywhere too, each home seems to have their own and they’re full of bees for honey. They’ve got their shit proper sorted down here.
Dude, I wish so much that I could have stayed longer here but my Indian visa was coming to an end and anyway, I had to get to Kathmandu to meet my sister. Me, Joe, Jessica and another bloke we’d met called Sam spent some hours hiking around the valley, up and down steps, swimming in pools and checking out the various root bridges. It’s like some kind of paradise. You could spend weeks down here, once you’re here you never want to leave and not only because leaving would involve walking back up the 3000 steps you came down to get here. I could only stay for two nights. Gutted. Utterly gutted.
Tell you what though, all those steps every day, your muscles will absolutely despise you. I ached so much I was hobbling but fear not, because I was hanging with hippies and hanging with hippies is educational. I’d heard of Tiger Balm before but I never really knew what it was used for and apparently, smearing my calfs with the red stuff would help with the pain. I had my doubts. I’m always hugely skeptical of non-Western remedies, but bugger me backwards if this shit didn’t work! And I was told that the white stuff was good for headaches and insect bites. Every day’s a school day.
The others were hanging around for longer than me and on my last morning we headed to Rainbow Falls to hang out before I had to leave. There are two ways out of Nongriat. One is to go back the way you came, back up the 3000 steps then catch a bus back to Cherrapunji, or there’s the back way where you walk all the way back to town with the option to stop at this waterfall on the way. This seemed doable on Heprit’s hand drawn map but Byron told me the reality was different. Basically, you come to a fork in the trail where the right fork leads to Cherrapunji and the left to Rainbow Falls. Great. But from the fork to the falls was a good hour uphill, then I’d have to head back to the fork to take the right path to town unless I hired a guide to take me a short cut through the bushes to pick up the trail I needed thus giving me an extra hour at the falls. That worked for me. What no bastard tells you though is that the staircase up the back way was created by the devil himself with the abject suffering of mankind in mind. I’d said goodbye to Joe, Jessica and Sam, and Byron’s father-in-law lead me part of the way up the steps before shaking my hand and leaving. Fair enough, I was struggling. But how far could it be, right?
I mean… right…?
Oh god. It was the worst thing ever. I climbed up and up and up, fending off these huge, bizarre, genetically modified looking black and white mosquitoes hell bent on stealing all of my blood and replacing it with misery and disease. I decided I was probably in hell. I’d probably drowned somewhere, or fallen off a cliff and I was dead and I’d done something bad enough to really piss off the deities and now I was condemned to walk up these steps for the rest of eternity. There were millions of steps. Millions. They didn’t give up, and apparently swearing a lot and sitting down on a rock and crying doesn’t in any way reduce the number of fucking steps you have to climb. I had no idea if I’d missed a turning, or how much further I had to go. I couldn’t see an end to it and every time I turned a corner thinking, “This has to be it,” I was faced with more steps. I seriously wondered if I was going to make it before the sun set and to be honest that was all that kept me going and going because I didn’t want to be stuck here in the dark with my head torch of dubious quality.
Eventually though it’s has to end. It has to. And it did. I emerged at the top to a barren landscape with absolutely zero clue as to where the actual fuck I was. I weighed up my options. I could either curl up in the foetal position and weep until someone found me and took me home, or choose a direction and hope it was the right one. I looked left. Right. Left. Right. I eyed up the ground for a suitable spot to throw myself down in a strop. Then I dried my eyes and started walking to the left. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I finally found people! I bounded up to a wary looking woman and asked her, “Cherrapunji?” She waved in the vague direction of home and mumbled something in what I assumed to be Khasi through red-stained teeth, and off I went, walking until I found the bazaar, just as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Thank. Fuck. For. That. I collapsed in a taxi, didn’t even try to haggle the ridiculous price he quoted me and headed back to Heprit’s for the night.
Apart from the horror that was leaving Nongriat the back way, this is honestly one of my favourite places on this trip. I could throw hyperboles at it all day and it still wouldn’t be adequate. I’d love to come back here in a September during a future trip and I hope that in that time it doesn’t become a tourist hell trap. I hope Heprit and Byron keep running their amazing places just as they are, I hope roads aren’t built into the valley and it remains as peaceful as it is right now and only reachable on foot. It’s so, so perfect just the way it is and I can’t wait to return one day and spend as long as I want.
Nongriat, Nr. Cherrapunji, Meghalaya, India
Stayed at: Serene Homestay