When I set out on my morning walk, the sky is a dark thunderous grey, threatening to swoop down on me any minute. I slow down as I reach the banks of the Brahmaputra River, surging now in its full monsoon glory. Standing there, watching the river, I can feel the all-too-familiar itch to drive away into the rain. My husband, my daughter and I have done this many times, in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and across Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, West Bengal and Sikkim. There’s nothing more thrilling than a long drive in the rain, interspersed with steaming cups of tea, each invoking the unique flavour of that particular region.
Now that we live in Guwahati, what better way to celebrate the monsoon than to drive up to Sohra, better known to the rest of the world as Cherrapunjee, one of the wettest places on earth? And thus we start out on this exciting drive. Living on the outskirts of Guwahati, as we do, has its advantages, and we manage to skirt around town and get onto NH40, known locally as Guwahati-Shillong Road or GS Road, pretty quickly. At 9th Mile, so called because of its distance from the heart of the city, we toss coins into the Ganesh Mandir that stands beside the highway, and pray for a safe journey. It’s believed that if you pray here, Ganesha will watch over you during your journey. That ritual over with, we sit back in our seats, looking forward to a good holiday.
The rain is a drizzle, and as we cruise along, my daughter Shyama and I stay busy reading the name boards of shops and factories. We love this stretch of road – Assam to the left, Meghalaya to the right, though it’s the same rain-washed, dense foliage on either side. Petrol pumps line the highway and we stop at our favourite one – NRL or Numaligarh Refinery to the right, as fuel is cheaper in Meghalaya. We cruise through Nongpoh, a small town in Meghalaya. It’s about 50 km from Guwahati, and is quite a popular midway halt for travellers on this route. We stop at Sweetday Café in Saiden, a few kilometres down the road. We are not really hungry, but don’t want to miss out on their delicious momos, which we dig into on every trip to Shillong.
Soon we are back on the road and the rain turns into a heavy downpour as we drive into Shillong. Dark clouds and more rain see us off the next morning. We drive out of Shillong, past the military area, down lazy winding roads, passing tiny hamlets as pretty as a picture. Streams run parallel to this road, forming natural pools along the way. We pass the occasional vehicle but otherwise have the road pretty much to ourselves.We exchange smiles of glee as a cloud comes our way, and drive slowly through it. We turn back in our seats to watch it float away. From here on, it’s an exhilarating journey as we move into cloud after cloud. ‘Welcome to the abode of clouds’, they all seem to say.
A bridge spanning two worlds
About halfway to Sohra stands 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 never-ending 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 as we stand there sipping tea from one of the many stalls here, the mist comes rolling in, and visibility is reduced to a few metres.
As we drive up the winding road, I shudder to think of what would happen if someone missed a curve on the road. We reach Sohra town and take a diversion to Nohkalikai Falls. With an estimated height of around 1,100 ft, it’s the highest single-drop waterfall in India. After gasping at its beauty, we wait for the mist to clear, meanwhile sipping on some more tea from one of the stalls lining the viewpoint. After what seems like an eternity, we get a veiled glimpse of gushing waters emerging from lush green foliage, crashing straight down. It’s a magnificent sight, but in peak monsoon time, you’ve to be really lucky to get a good view. As we head back, the drizzle slowly turns into a heavy downpour.
We drive past Sohra town, pass the road to Mawsmai Caves, which we have to skip in the rain. Mawsmai is one of the many limestone caves found in the region. Formed over the years as a result of incessant rainfall and the presence of large deposits of limestone, the caves have the most amazing stalagmite and stalactite formations. Krem Mawmluh in 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 across the world. Near Mawsmai Caves, you’ll find ancient Khasi monoliths erected in memory of their ancestors. We cannot stop at any of these places, however, and proceed to Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, where we plan to halt. After a brief stop for lunch at Saitsohpen, a hamlet 3 km from Sohra, we are again on our way. Signboards pointing the way to Cherrapunjee Resort pop up every now and then, as if to assure us we are on the right track.
Situated on the edge of Laitkynsew village, Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort is approximately 18 km from Sohra town. The going gets slow as we take a diversion just beyond 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 mist and I quickly avert my eyes. You could so easily drive off into nowhere. Fortunately, the rain gods take a break, but the mist remains heavy. This is one road that’s definitely not to be taken after dark. Messages from Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort are painted on the rocks all along the road. “I will walk with you in the rain,” says one. “Romance in the rain,” says another. Each sign seems to be telling us that we are almost there. As we round a bend, we can see water cascading right onto the road like a natural shower. We get down and test the water gingerly. It’s freezing. A few more kilometres and we reach the resort. This is probably the only travel destination I have reached without having to stop and ask for directions.
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 the six guest rooms at the resort open into it. We check into our rooms, which are cosy and comfortable, relax with hot tea and snacks, and sit back and watch the rain. When the mist lifts and the rain stops, we are treated to amazing views of the hills, valleys and waterfalls around, not to forget floating clouds. We can even see the plains of Bangladesh. As darkness sets in, I chat with Denis and his wife Carmelia, who have been running this resort for the past eight years. Denis follows rainfall patterns passionately, and is a storehouse 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 chosen a better time to experience the Cherrapunjee rain.
Roots over the Umunoi River
We make plans to trek down to see ‘living root bridges’ in the morning. Denis tells us how in ancient times, the Khasi people guided the roots of Indian rubber trees growing on the banks of rivers to create natural bridges. Over the years, these bridges have grown in strength and are still used by the local people everyday. The nearest such bridge is 3 km away, over the Umunoi River, and the trek can take about 3-4 hrs. The Double Decker Bridge, so named because it has two levels, over the Umshiang, is a 10-km trek away from Nongriat village and takes 8-9 hrs from the resort. But it’s still pouring when we wake up and we have to cancel our plans for the trek. When there’s a brief lull in the rain, we grab our raincoats and umbrellas and head out for a walk through Laitkynsew village, stopping to admire the spectacular view of hills, waterfalls and floating clouds, with wild flowers and butterflies adding to the pretty picture. Through the village and beyond, we walk until the road ends at Nongwar village.
Ahead, the land drops abruptly into Bangladesh. Children returning from school stop to say hello and want to be photographed. As the rain threatens to come down, we head back to the resort. The rest of the evening is spent listening to village boys singing traditional Khasi songs. The next morning, we hit the road back home, having seen more rain than we had bargained for. Denis and Carmelia see us off with chocolates and warm smiles. En route, we stop at the Mawsmai Caves. “A real cave, like in the adventure books and movies!” says my awestruck daughter. Of course, this one is lit up, but wet and dripping at this time of the year. As we drive away, I look back and promise to return soon.
THE ROUTE Guwahati-Nongpoh (50 km)-Bara Paani (35 km)-Shillong (18 km)-Mawkdok (24 km)-Sohra town/ Cherrapunjee (28 km)-Laitkynsew village (18 km)-Sohra town (18 km)-Mawkdok (28 km)-Shillong (24 km)-Bara Paani (18 km)- Nongpoh (35 km)-Guwahati (50 km).
THE DRIVE GUWAHATI TO SHILLONG NH40 (Guwahati- Shillong Road) is in good condition, and many tea stalls and petrol pumps line this highway. It’s a straight drive, along scenic routes with winding roads that climb up to Shillong. Nongpoh, a midway halt, is famous for its pickles and has a couple of restaurants, petrol pumps, puncture repair shops and service stations. A few kilometres ahead is Sweetday Café, which offers good food and clean toilets.
Umiam Lake in Bara Paani (85 km from Guwahati) is an interesting stop on this road. Resorts adjacent to it 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 rain gear at Police Bazaar in the heart of the town. The market has restaurants that serve Chinese and Indian food, which is what you’ll find in most restaurants along the route.
Shillong to Sohra Sohra Road takes you through spectacular countryside and offers the added attraction of driving through clouds. The road is narrow and winding, but traffic is sparse. Drive carefully beyond Mawkdok as heavy mist can reduce visibility to very low levels. Avoid late evening and night driving. From Sohra, you’ll have to take a diversion to Nohkalikai Falls; look for the signboard as you enter Sohra town. Come back to the highway and proceed further for the Nohsngithiang and Kynrem waterfalls, Mawsmai Caves, Khasi monoliths, living root bridges and the Double Decker Bridge. Petrol pumps and repair shops are to be found at frequent intervals on this stretch. For those planning to stay at Cherrapunjee Resort for a few days, Saitsohpen, 3 km from Sohra town, will be the last point for fuel and repairs.
While driving in the monsoon has its own thrill, you could also plan this trip during the drier months between October and March. The skies will be much clearer, but the only drawback then is that the waterfalls will not be so full and some of them even dry up. During the monsoon, it’s advisable to use fog lights. A 4-wheel drive is not really necessary. Most of the taxis that ply this route are the smaller Maruti 800s and Altos. Don’t forget to pack your walking/ trekking shoes, caps, jackets, raincoats and umbrellas. During the winter months, you’ll need warm clothes.
Shillong has a high vehicle density, second only to Mumbai perhaps, and as such you will find no shortage of petrol pumps and garages along the route. Perhaps the nicest part of the drive is the highly disciplined traffic in and around Shillong, a big change from most other parts of the country. It’s better to carry some food and water for the drive beyond Shillong. While teashops are to be found in abundance, snacks are limited to chips, cake and boiled eggs.
About the author:
Poornima Anand loves to travel and along with her family has driven across many parts of the country. She believes that the best way to explore places is to travel by road.