[This post was first published in March 2018 on Nomadic Thunker]
As someone who has something of a repute of being a solo traveler, I am no newbie to group travel. Both have offered me the opportunity to meet new people and occasionally, forge excellent friendships. Traveling to Meghalaya with ChaloHoppo in early 2017— and not merely receive inputs from them for my itinerary like in Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh — worked out similarly.
A little more than a year later, I can still vividly recall all our banter-packed conversations! That first evening, when my friend and I met Nishant (aka @ChaloHoppoGuy) and Shirin in Shillong, I realised we’d all taken to being as politically incorrect as we could be to break the ice among ourselves, by nicknaming the food we were devouring at the local Kong shops with the most unthinkable, unimaginable and most importantly, unmentionable of names on our way to Sohra. If you love what you’re eating (which we did) but you’re cackling away almost breathlessly (which we were too), there can be no greater predicament!
Arrival in Meghalaya
Meghalaya has gone down in the archives of my earthling existence as the 29th Indian state I set foot into a few days prior to completing my 29th revolution around the Sun. After our adventuresome time in Nagaland, we shortened our stay by taking the first available mode of transport out of the state at the first opportunity we got — a ~18-hour bus journey to Shillong.
We had a little more than 48 hours in the capital city of Meghalaya until we would join our only guided tour of this entire trip through India’s northeast. In hindsight, this was also the most comfortable leg of our journey — what with us not having to hop on and off public transport or even think about our itinerary. It was all being taken care of, courtesy ChaloHoppo.
Our first evening as the Fantastic Four brought us to Sohra after dusk. We had been nibbling along the way from must-do Dylan’s to the aforementioned local Khasi eateries — sometimes to placate the hunger but mostly to sample and savour something new. Between settling in our room (read: dumping our bags in one corner and ourselves in another) and awaiting the arrival of dinner, we busied ourselves with the many unsuccessful attempts at sustaining the fireplace’s fire. What was designed to be smoke-less turned out to be otherwise. So we chose to err on the side of not invoking a hazard our way on our very first evening as a unit!
That morning, Sohra revealed herself to me. Stepping out of our room into a verandah-meets-balcony like area I pinched myself into submission. What I was seeing, was what lay right before me. Like kids straight out of Enid Blyton’s creation, we spent our morning wandering and wondering — having zero communication among ourselves. Our unit had started to make known its similarities!
Over breakfast, with some floofs for company, we went over the ‘itinerary’ for the day. Those air quotes signify that though there was a plan, the one we’d looked at while signing up for this trip, it wasn’t one set in stone. We did a lot of turning the ‘itinerary’ on its head. Our first stopover for the day was the Arwah-Lumshynna Caves.
Our second night was going to be at the village homestay in Nongriat — otherwise known as the home to the famed double-decker living roots bridge. At Tyrna, which is the base village from where the trek comprising of 3000+ steps commences, we met Wesley Majaw — our guide and a local resident for the next two days — and geared with an overnight bag (while leaving the remainder of our baggage behind), we began our trek. At every point, we had Wesley pointing at flora and fauna, telling us what-was-what and with every step forward we continued going deeper into a world that was unlike the one I had been inhabiting.
My jaw dropped when we arrived at our first living root bridge. Walking on it, feeling its surface with my bare hands, I could sense a faint connection — with the ancients, the wise, the omniscient. These natural bridges came into existence a little less than 200 years ago to address the need to travel from one village to another over swollen rivers and gushing waterfalls that would gobble everything in its pathway. These rubber tree aerial roots have since served as the lifeline.
As you’re mostly trekking downhill with a few inclines along the route, it’s your knees, ankles, heels and toes that remind you of your mortality. On your trek back to Tyrna, your lungs assume the same role!
The double-decker living root bridge is something I had until that late afternoon only seen Photoshopped ‘grams of. But to finally be in the same realm as her and behold her against the rays of the setting Sun had to be scripted by an omnipotent being!
Now, our camping quarters for the two nights weren’t something any of us had seen coming. Yet at that moment when we had the choice to storm out or treat it like an experience, we chose the latter!
Day Two in Nongriat was spent further exploring the natural world and her secret as well as not so secret hideouts, natural pools and spotting living organisms that school-books had overlooked!
Out and away from the rainforests and back to the familiar mechanized existence, we made our way to Shnongpdeng near yet another Instagram-made-famous point of interest, River Dawki. Rains in the region a few days ago made me a bit more skeptical about just how translucent clear the waters truly are and how much is the function of a filter.
That evening we camped by the river in our fluorescent green tents, chatting but mostly cackling and then trying to look out for shooting stars.
The next morning we channeled our dormant survival instincts through an attempt at preparing chai and Maggie on an open ‘chulha’! Let’s say our dormant instincts are going to be in need of a lot more resuscitating. Thankfully breakfast did make its way to us!
That lazy morning was then spent zip-lining across the river, only to jump off the rock into the icy cold waters and swim its breadth back to the other end (yes, we had life-jackets and no, I don’t know how to swim but yes, I still swam) to canoe across the length of the river until we were hungry enough to want to get ourselves some food!
Laitlum Canyon and the village of Smit
Our final stop as a unit was a few kilometres away from Shillong. We spent two evenings of what I like to term pickled-time-away-from-the-maddening-crowd.
Poor weather conditions continued to follow us everywhere we went, including at Laitlum. So we couldn’t view the valley in its splendour.
But then this interaction added a different hue.
And of course, in the spirit of deciding on the ‘itinerary’ in the moment and against our collective better judgement, we decided to drop in to visit the hype that is Asia’s Cleanest Village — Mawlynnong.
True to my own hunch, the entire set-up is a very manicured experience, to say the least! P.S.: You may skip it/choose not to include it in your itinerary.
Where solo travel requires nerve (even after the first time), group travel requires a value-match (every single time). Because to ensure your co-travelers are like-minded souls (not to be confused with being compliant) is to know the organization/agency you’re ultimately paying for that experience!
What has helped me (and I have undertaken trips with five different travel companies ever since I began traveling on my own) is this: If being culturally and environmentally respectful does not feature in a travel company’s order of things, the odds of me traveling with them are slim. In the event that I do, (owing to insufficient diligence on my part) I will not be their repeat client. Nor recommend them to anyone I know!
And in case I need to clarify — not just after this recount of Meghalaya but also Mechuka and Dambuk in Arunachal Pradesh and Unakoti in Tripura — then yes, ChaloHoppo can be bookmarked as your go-to for all your journeys into northeast India!
This is NOT a sponsored post.
No part of my trip was sponsored either — not by my parents, not by a fairy godmother. Nor a unicorn either!
In December 2018, I travelled to Meghalaya for a second time. You’ll find that account here