We made friends with Matthias and Emilie (the French couple) and decided to follow their plan of going to Schillong on the bus. They also lacked a guidebook to the area, which we all found amusing. Northeast India certainly felt more adventurous than anywhere we had been considering the political problems, the absence of train service, and the very different appearance to what comes to mind for ‘India’. And here we were with no maps, no phrases in the local languages, and unreliable internet access. We had been looking at a magazine oriented to Indian travelers that I had picked up at an Imphal hotel. There was an article that mentioned several sights near Schillong, and we laughed with M and E at our lack of preparation and we hoped for the best!
We steeled ourselves for another long, bumpy night on a bus turning sharp corners at unpredictable intervals. We switched buses at one point and continued the journey. Hours before daybreak, hours before our 8am anticipated arrival time, we pulled into a gas station and parked. Schillong? We asked the driver. He said yes, then kindly allowed us to sleep on the bus for a few hours. We were cold and used all of our warmest clothes. Later, the sun came up and we packed, hailed a taxi, and went in search of a hotel. We found one near the police bazaar area and later my family moved to one on the main street of the bazaar. We went to a tourist agency and rented a taxi, still joining forces with M and E. Over two days, the driver ended up becoming a friend as he drove us to sights and later invited us to tea with his extended family (below).
The mountains were covered in trees and the air was fresh and cool. IAs we got higher we could see some quarries and signs for gravel and cement companies. Some of the mountains were gashed by quarries. People worked with hand tools, sometimes crushing rock with another rock. People looked Asian and everyone was working. People carried things on their heads, often in a handmade basket with head strap. We saw many terraced farms, beautiful on the hillsides.
Later we stopped to see the famous Seven Sisters, but the view was obscured by fog and we couldn’t see any of them (photo below)! Apparently this is not a good time of year for viewing, though the photos we saw look gorgeous.
All of the tourists were regional, many in saris and one family we met was from Bangladesh. We were very near the border of Bangladesh and could see it at times on the distance. Many people spoke English and we enjoyed talking with them.
We learned a little of the Khasi people of this area, an indigenous group we saw working and living as we drove up and down the mountain roads. They are Christian, as is the vast majority of northeast India, though they have some interesting animist beliefs and practices that have endured. Occasionally, in the unformed areas, we would see protruding weathered stones in groups of three or four. I asked our driver and learned they are called monoliths. I later learned they have to do with commemorating the dead, and are sometimes the scene of animal sacrifice.
We spent a second day on another road trip, this time to a living root bridge. We drive in a different direction,again up mountains with quarries and terraced farmland. We arrived at a parking lot and hiked a small way to the bridge. It really was amazing.
The technique is to slowly train the roots into an interconnecting net as they grow. The bridge was strong enough to support stones to make a path, and all the people crossing the river. There are other, longer ones on the area but since they are a 7-8 hour hike, we decided not to see them. We spent time at the bridge, again with many Indian tourists, and the kids enjoyed the river. Mr. Fantastic and I decided to follow signs to a viewing point, as much as to walk through the local villages as anything else. The paths went through little gardens and groups of mud brick houses. The paths went through little gardens and groups of mud brick houses. We climbed quite a bit up the paths, trying to stay on the correct one. At the end, we found the viewpoint, a surprising bamboo structure jutting out over a cliff.
Again the view was misty, but the handmade bamboo platform was itself a sight to see. There was a short walkway, on which looking down was exciting, then a viewing deck. There were the mountains, green in the cool mist and stretching out in the distance. The builder of the structure was on hand to identify himself, accept compliments, and collect a small fee. We enjoyed the place then headed back to the root bridge.
It is kind of a sad thing, but Asia has such a litter problem that a clean village is an attraction. We had lunch at “the cleanest village in Asia”, a charming small cluster of houses, restaurants, and home stays well hidden back on a single lane road through farms and fields. We saw an active broom grass industry where people were drying a certain kind of grass to be made into brooms.
There was so much of this going on we speculated that the area must supply most of India! Anyway, we had a nice lunch and walked around the trash-free village a little before calling it a day. That evening, we had tea with the driver and his family. He has two daughters, his wife, and his father living with him, and all spoke English and were very welcoming. His wife is working on a large outdoor concert, similar to Lollapalooza, called ‘Bliss’ to be held in the area, the first of its kind here. They each speak English, Hindi, and their local languages, which differ from each other. We were to see this again and again. India may be one nation, but there is a tribal quality not far from the surface, especially in the northeast with its many languages and cultures, even within one state. We were in Meghalaya state, but we knew of the Khasi, and now we were hearing of two other language groups as we had tea in the family’s modern kitchen.
We started heading towards Darjeeling the next day, but first we spent the morning at Shillong’s museum of indigenous people. I really enjoyed this place. It had a spiraling structure, going up seven stories to the very rooftop, which had a walkway and great views of the city. Inside were displays on the many indigenous people of the area, including languages, clothing, tools, religions, and history. It brings to mind the diversity that is said to have existed in the USA before Europeans came, and I wonder if indigenous American tribes had survived it might look like this. We saw photographs on the lower floor from earlier times in the area. There were wide rings in women’s nostrils, primitive houses and agriculture, men with spears, all black and white photos. The people looked Asian more than Indian, in fact the museum reminded me of primitive artifacts we had seen in Thailand. I had been so ignorant of this part of the world; I hadn’t even realized it was a part of India. And now here was my introduction to the country, a gentle introduction by land as I saw gradual changes from Myanmar, and from Thailand before that. After the museum, we went for a trip on the minivan for the third day in a row, but this time leaving Shillong for Gawahati.