Sunday, April 22, 2018

Fragments of Megalaya ....


.... a.k.a.  concreting the jungle.

Something was wrong. Apparent the moment we exited the airport at Guwahati. We’d flown to India’s north-east corner, east and north of Bangladesh, south of Bhutan and China, west of Burma. 

The air was thick and dirty, something we’re all too used to from life in Delhi. We’re trying to get away from that.

Still Guwahati is in Assam, and only 150m above sea level (even though it’s 700km upstream from the Bay of Bengal). And we’re heading south for the heights of Meghalaya. Surely, as the road climbs, the air will clear.


They call it ‘mist’, and tell us it hangs in the air for the four ‘winter’ months of the year. But there’s not much ‘winter’ or ‘summer’ in Meghalaya – the average daily temperature in the mountains varies between 11 and 21 C over the course of the year. The ‘mist’ is apparent in the 4 months when there’s little rain. 

Locals scoff when I suggest that perhaps the rain washes the air clean the rest of the year.

Along with the exhaust and the dust kicked up by traffic on the climb, large roadside recycling centres burn off everything that isn’t recycled. At one stop, where I'm told that the smoke is from back-burning to prevent forest fires (at the end of the dry season? land-clearing perhaps), large pieces of ash that look like incompletely burned book pages flutter down from the sky to lie scattered on the ground around us.

Post-harvest burn-off, piles of vegetation are raked together and set alight. Even where the road is surrounded by forest, the ‘mist’ persists.

And – the local speciality – cement factories. Side by side, cement factories. And quarries,limestone quarries, feeding the cement factories. And rock crushers, turning stone into aggregate to combine with the cement to make concrete. In between the roadside cement factories, a hospital specialising in cancer treatment. Nice.

Along with limestone, Meghalaya is also rich in coal. More on that later.

Having started from home before sunrise, by sunset we’re high in the mountains, deep in the forest. Soon after dark, we arrive at our accommodation.


Cherapunjee Holiday Resort


In the hills behind Shillong, Meghalaya’s state capital and traffic jam extraordinaire, lies the district of Cherapunjee. Renowned as the ‘wettest place on earth’, all that water has left the mountains steep and forested. Meghalaya means ‘abode of the clouds’. 

Legend has it, the Cherapunjee Holiday Resort is the outcome of a series of unlikely accidents. First, an American tourist so grateful for assistance he received from a young south Indian man, sent him a cheque for five thousand dollars with instructions to use the sum to do something with his life. Second, that same south Indian man fell for a girl from India’s north-east, and followed her to Meghalaya, where his remittance enabled him to establish the resort.

A strange and wonderful place, staffed with small local women, piously Christian and particular, and particularly so when their south Indian male is absent, as he frequently is. Meghalaya was overrun by proselytising Christians in the nineteenth century, and today only ten percent of the population persist with their indigenous animism. The ersatz nuns of the resort are teetotallers too – take your own beverages and don’t try drinking them on the premises while the boss is away, unless in the privacy of your room. Bar that small fault, the absence of functional coffee, and perhaps the occasional basic failure to communicate, a stay here is a joy, really. Great views, great people, nice rooms, and access to the best the region has to offer.

Treasures of the forest


In Cherapunji annual rainfall can exceed 12,000mm. Rivers cut deep valleys. 

Famously, on the valley floors, locals have trained tree roots to span watery chasms with ‘living bridges’, even when the rivers are running wild. We’d like to see that. The only way in is on foot.

The drop from the lowest point of the ridge-line road to the valley floor is about 900 metres. On the small concrete steps of the paths the locals have built, that’s between six and nine thousand steps. And that’s just getting in and out – with nothing flat even at the valley floor, all movement necessarily entails going up or down to go along and across. The steps suit the feet of smaller folk than I – only my heel comes to rest as I descend. And I don’t have the courage to try to take more than a step at a time, given the small target and steep stairway. (At the end of the day, climbing out, I can take them two, three, at a time, stepping on the ball of my foot, toes jammed against the rise.)

Unlike us, the locals are very pleased with the concrete steps. Until a few years ago, the paths were simply cut into the forest floor, a real challenge during the eight months of heavy rain. The concrete paths facilitate much better access to market for the forest produce they gather– betel nut, wild pepper, bay leaves, and more for local consumption.

The bridges all have a qualifier, ‘oldest’, ‘longest’, ‘double-decker’, and they look great. The roots of a fig tree are trained along cables. They’re watered and fed with nutrients to encourage growth, until eventually, roots from both sides enmesh and envelope each other and their guiding cables. The most established, hundreds of years old, have all but engorged their trainers, while other bridges are still partly, mostly, nearly entirely artificial in construct.

While I’m a little disappointed by the shortage of visible large fauna, the wealth of butterflies, in both form and number, goes some way to make up for this. Pause anywhere for more than a few moments and the forest begins to flutter as leaf-like shapes of numerous hues and designs take flight.

The most distant point on this network of paths and bridges is the Rainbow Falls, and we really have to cajole our guide to take us there. The last kilometre is beyond the end of the concrete, and the feel of earth and rock beneath feet is good. Workers continue the laborious task of standing on a wooden platform resting on still wet concrete and/or formwork of the last completed step, to set the formwork and pour for the next.

The spectacular falls are their own reward. Fresh, cold, clean water plummets 55m to slam into the pool below. Tens of young Indians who’ve made the trek pass up the opportunity to swim – something our increasingly unenthusiastic guide insists is dangerous. The air temperature is not hot, perhaps 25 C, and the water temperature far lower, so it’s a pretty brief swim – no leaping off rocks for the boys – before we drape across rocks to dry.

Then the long trudge back – two and a half hours back to the car, including eight thousand excruciating steps up at the end. 

Back at the resort after sundown, good news. The manager is back, and has a few cans of beer he’d stashed away for some special guests (tour operators) who don’t want them. So they’re ours! Much more holidayesque.




Meghalaya’s limestone deposits are good for more than just the construction industry (and associated air pollution). Millions of years of intense rainfall has cut deep into the rock, creating not only the fantastic valleyed landscapes, but extensive cave systems. At the end of the (relatively) dry season at least some of these are accessible. 

Caving in India, you must be mad. We must be….

At Mawmluh, something like seven kilometres of limestone caves extend under the limestone quarry of a cement factory. Guides from a government-approved local club dress us in overalls and gumboots, before making us walk more than a kilometre to the caves’ entrance. With blisters already, I’m wondering why we didn’t just wear shoes, and carry the gumboots. On the way, they point out the low narrow entryways to wildcat coal mines, and we pass some desolate locals, sorting stolen coal and hauling it in sacks to a truck waiting up on the quarry access road. The guide tells me this earns them a lot more money than farming, though the risks are high and fatalities commonplace. 

Death by collapsed mine as a prelude to caving. Nice, the fear factor. A factor amplified by the slightly dodgy and relatively hardcore way in which we’re doing this. The first steps are the hardest, physically and mentally, squeezing through vegetation into a narrow gap in the gully wall, and descending, fingers leading, torch light darting with each turn of the head.

Perhaps fifty metres down, we hit the main tunnel, an underground river (fortunately for us, more of an underground stream), and turn to follow the cave towards the source. It’s big, and most of the time we attend the placement of our feet, only occasionally having to duck or manoeuvre around sharp, jagged, jutting rock formations.

At the ‘Goldfish Pond’, we edge around the cave wall, in the shallowest parts of the pond, towards a climb out perhaps a metre and a half above the water. The water comes to our waists, filling the gumboots and making climbing a real chore. Why are we wearing gumboots, if they’re a) difficult to walk in and b) filling with water anyway, I inquire. Laughter is the response to that unresolved, uncomfortable, impractical mystery.

The next section, the ‘Swiss Cheese’, is fascinating. Water has gouged through the rock at different levels, leaving more ‘hole’ than ‘cheese’. From stone bridges we look down into layers and networks of stone below. 

We cross paths with a German family, and head up towards the ‘Christmas Canyon’ where the cave becomes very tight and we lack the will to squeeze through and on. 

Instead, backtracking and up a different route, we come to rest in the ‘Hanging Garden’, above the wet season flood line, where stalactites and stalagmites abound. While resting we kill the torchlight and spend a few minutes in the utter dark.

Several hours have passed before we clamber up and out. We’ve walked a few kilometres underground, and are now pretty comfortable with the sub terran (my feet dissent). Even so, exiting into sky and sunlight, and life abundant, brings relief and a sense of accomplishment.


Extraction and Exploitation


We set off for a swimming hole on the Wah Umiam river, on the flatland near the border with Bangladesh. The swimming hole is a dud – the water moving way too slow, too much garbage, the river bottom thick with algae feeding on agricultural (and human) runoff. Pass.

Abundantly in evidence along the watercourse, as indeed everywhere accessible in Meghalaya, is resource extraction. At the riverside, women shovel sand (for concrete) into bags and carry it away. Boys punt canoes across the stream and dive into the shallows, lifting and loading rounded stones of 10-15 kgs until the canoe is filled, then punting them back to the village. 

From the village, tractors haul trailers up the rough road to a somewhat larger village where the trailers are loaded into waiting trucks and hauled away, in some cases via stone-crushing facilities, to the construction industry. Turning a public resource to private profit, cream for the corrupt elite, undermining the livelihoods of the unwary locals.

Meghalaya is rich with natural resources, and where they’re extractable, they’re exploited. Limestone begets cement factories, at the cost of hilltops, air quality, water quality, anywhere with easy access to infrastructure. The region’s ancient cultures and great natural beauty are increasingly tenuous. Want to visit? Come sooner rather than later.
Why do people do these things? Why do they steal the stones from the river, the sand from the riverbank. Why do they wildcat mine, with often fatal consequences, the seams of coal that lie atop and within the limestone deposits? Lack of education, lack of alternative opportunity, exploitation pure and simple, ugly and deadly.

One of the region’s more traditional, less destructive products is bay leaves. The trees grow both wild and in plantations. Locals gather the leaves and pack them into big hessian bags weighing 40-100kg each. Dragged to the roadside, they’re sold for approximately AUD 0.30/kg. A sample Australian supermarket price of AUD 3.00 / 10g reveals a mark-up just shy of 100,000%.

Much easier and profitable to steal limestone, sand or coal and surreptitiously slip into the chain of exploitation.

We encountered a different kind of exploitation at Mawlynnong. Touted in 2005 as ‘the cleanest village in India’, a reputation misguided stories in Indian and western media have only exaggerated, it’s a tourist trap, principally for mainstream Indians visiting their own ‘exotic east’. Negotiating the village carpark has more in common with the traffic in India’s cities, than with what NPR describes as a ‘mini-Shangri-La’. In village stalls, locals sell mass-produced tourist trinkets. In the background, men from India’s big cities monitor sales, an extension of the network of tour operators who bring the busloads of tourists. The power structure in this village belies the traditional matrilineage of the indigenes glowingly described in the NYT. Overlooking all, a grotesque and incomplete concrete church.

The tourists are perplexed: ‘It’s clean, but so what?’ says one. They walk up and down a few hundred metres of paths between picturesque gardens and take photos of the locals and their homes like it’s a zoo. Then back to negotiate the carpark, and after that a drive of several hours to their hotels and resorts. Facilities and social structure in the village simply cannot cope with the daily influx.

We had been sold a night in a traditional thatched hut. But the house we were allocated, like most, like all the homestays, was concrete and sheet metal. And our host’s attitude, perhaps chafing at his status as exhibit A, was unbearably exploitative and callous – we might as well have been river sand, or rocks, or lumps of coal.

We spent the night on a bay leaf farm instead, in a concrete house. Why couldn’t we stay in a traditional house? The thatched houses last only a couple of years, whereas a concrete house lasts for decades, and given the price of filched sand and rock, makes economic sense. It was peaceful, amongst the trees, with hosts who treated us like humans. And in the morning, away, before the traffic of incoming hordes jammed the only exit road.


Fancy Hotel


Meghalaya week concluded with a couple of days at an up-market boutique hotel – Ri Kynjai – on Umiam Lake, at the very head of the same river we passed on swimming in a hundred kilometres downstream and four hour drive away. 

The man-made lake serves a hydro scheme, and right at the end of the dry season, the water level is way down, though torrential rain during our time at the hotel raises it a metre or so. 

On our first evening, nature made a spectacle of the lake. A massive storm whipped through the trees, crazing the sky and sending things crashing and tumbling, dumping centimetres of rain so quickly that a few seconds without cover was to be drenched. As night set in, a lightning storm passed over, with bolts hitting ridges across and islands in the lake, a few hundred metres away.

With the storm passed, the tearing clouds revealed a full moon, throwing the lake’s surface into stark contrast against the dark forest and black ridges themselves silhouette against the sky.

The hotel is very cool, built into the steep slope above and with fantastic views over the lake. Ten
over-sized rooms sitting atop the common areas are accessed from a hall built for giants. Five ‘cottages’ rise on stilts above their roof. When full, which it often is, the hotel accommodates fewer than fifty guests. The ambience, the aspect, walking through the conifers, sitting on the verandah as the world spits and sparks, adds up to a relaxing experience.

It’s Good Friday. We walk up the road from the hotel to the nearest village, where it’s Catholic v. Presbyterian in a battle of the dutiful. Carloads of novices and novitiates heading for one or other service, local girls in long black dresses, everyone running late, crossing paths, chasing presentable children in all directions, clutching hymn books and bibles, hymns already in the air.

And another great storm brewing above, turning the air electric with anticipation.

We make it back to the hotel moments before the heavens open to disgorge the waters and receive the wonderstruck gaze of the reverent.


The road home is paved with a) gold, b) good intentions, c) concrete


With hours to spare on our last day, we try Guwahati for a meal, a shop, and a cruise along the banks of the Brahmaputra. A massive river, kilometres wide, makes the Ganges look a mere stream, a tributary.

Time to reflect on concrete, the good, the bad, the ugly. How long will it be before the forests are cleared such that the rivers clog, the tree bridges succumb, the air quality shifts from merely unhealthy to hazardous? Today, clear water runs through the forest streams and rivers, over the cataracts and falls, but the water on the plains below is filthy. The forests are pure, but the infrastructure running through them is overwhelmed and development is suffocating and misshapen, and spilling out over the natural wonderland.

See Meghalaya, sooner rather than later. Or there may be nothing left but a concrete plain, filthy, air unbreathable, water dirty, and commerce and culture in servitude to outside interests.



Thanks to Nexxtop India Tours for help organising this break.

1 comment:

  1. Cheers for sharing your thoughts and feelings and experiences.
    You got me there 😊
    Best Wishes,