“It’s a freakish 3500 stairs one way down to this village. Would I be able to do it? Would my lazy
,fat friends be able to do it? What if they start cursing me for turning their relaxing trip to a nightmare? And what about the way back up? More 3500 stairs!! Is medical help there inside the jungles? And restrooms? Is it worth the pain? Dose it make any sense?” – I was rather dubious about the whole idea of trekking down to Nongriat, a remote village in the East Khasi Hill District of Meghalaya. Dubious because this trek is different from any other trek that I have done,for reasons I am soon going to unfold.
In Sanskrit, Meghalaya translates to “abode of clouds” which is perfect, as this North East state is the wettest region of India. Deep down in the dense subtropical forests of this state, grows the famous “Living Root Bridge” – a unique creation of human and nature.
These bridges are centuries old, crafted by the local Khasi people and strengthened by nature. The aerial roots of Rubber Fig Trees on opposite sides of a stream are intertwined and woven together carefully by hand. It takes around 15 to 20 years for a root bridge to grow and become sturdy enough to bear human weight. It is not only an excellent natural marvel, but the only means for villagers to cross the turbulent rivers during monsoon.
There are around 6 root bridges in Meghalaya, the one in Mawlynnong being the oldest and the most famous. But the one in Nongriat is the most magnificent – the “Double Decker root bridge”. But the only way to reach here is by trekking down 3500 stairs. Around 1000 steps further from here, is the majestic Rainbow waterfall. Few people know of this place and fewer have the grit to get there. And that’s why it started making perfect sense to me – a pretty village amidst lush forests, seclusion from civilization, rare natural wonders,crystal blue waters and yes, no crowd!
I nervously shared the plan in the “Meghalaya Calling” WhatsApp group. I made sure I disclosed the finer details related to the trekking at the end. And then added some motivation like – ” Come on!We are dancers! How different will trekking be! People trek both ways in a single day.We will be lucky to get a night’s rest and start next day.”
Soon, the chat was flooded with ‘shocked’ and ‘teary’ smileys.Thankfully, nobody left the group.
We reached Tyrna village from Cherrapunji at around 9 in the morning. The starting point is a spot on top of a hill where you will find young boys offering to guide for some 800 bucks. It is also the parking area for reserved vehicles. Teddy, a chap in his early teens almost convinced us that he was the best guide there.We had planned not to hire a guide (you don’t really need a guide on this trek).But we agreed on Teddy because he had a bluetooth speaker with an excellent playlist and he seemed like someone who would keep the spirits high.
With a lot of both anxiety and excitement, and also a bamboo stick for support, we embarked upon what seemed like an endless rocky stairway.
The descent was smooth in the beginning, the stairs not so steep.The beauty all around was hard to miss – rich greenery, strange flowers, butterflies dancing on the leaves and the sun blinking at us through the canopies. As we went deeper into the thicket, the earthy smell grew stronger and the screeching of the insects became louder.The stairs got smaller, forcing us to slow down and be extra careful while placing our foot.
We met a few people who were on their return trek from the village, their clothes damp with sweat and faces red with exhaustion.With our legs already wobbly, the thought of climbing up nearly paralyzed us.After around 1500 steps, there is a clear signboard showing the diversion towards the Single Root bridge.Elated at this unexpected reward, we hastened towards that way, briefly ignoring our sore calves.For the first few minutes we just kept staring at this incredible natural formation of long twisted roots.
It was hard to believe that something so organic, devoid of brick or metal, was capable of supporting so much weight and helping in something as vital as transportation.
We crossed the bridge one at a time, carefully holding the roots on both sides.It swayed a bit when we were around the mid point, which was scary, especially if you look down.We spent some time here taking pictures and laughing at how each of us reacted when the bridge started swinging.After this much-needed break,we resumed our journey.
Teddy managed to keep us motivated by playing ‘Believer’. Most of the time he would hop down the stairs, glance back at us and giggle shyly in his own amusement. We dawdled behind him, resting more frequently.
We crossed 3 more bridges on our way – not root bridges, 2 of them were neatly entangled, loose iron rods and woods. These were narrower,longer and more unstable. I found the gap between the rods too wide for my small feet and cleverly placed them laterally for better balance.Nonetheless, these bridges swayed dangerously, so we held on tightly to the side rods till we reached towards the end.
This is a small time-lapse of the dangling bridge. Notice Teddy’s effortlessness while we struggle.
We watched small kids cross swiftly with their heavy school bags. Their daily hardship for something so basic like education.For a while, we felt both amazed and disconcerted. The rest of the stairs, we tried to cover without much grumbling.
Soon,we could see the first signs of human settlement.
There are two homestays in Nongriat, both providing basic amenities – Serene Homestay (run by Byron and his family) and the Village Guest House(run by Challi and his team).
We had already booked our stay with Byron.So we waddled up the last few steps, our legs craving for some respite. Byron’s eldest daughter showed us our rooms and acquainted us with the other necessities. We discerned that the homestay was not very old, some rooms still under construction. It is built on the slope of a hill, the stairs to the Double Decker Bridge running right across its premises.
Just as we hopped onto our beds, Teddy came to tell us that we better eat something and start for Rainbow Falls, lest it gets dark while returning. We savored the brief moment of relaxation as our Maggi got prepared.
We devoured the soupy strips, our hunger exceeding our physical pain for the first time.Yeah! Maggi is a savior in every corner of the world!
The Double Decker bridge was surprisingly just behind the homestay, hardly 50 steps. We crossed this famous spot without stopping as we had decided to come there in the morning, when we would have it all to ourselves. Even a passing glance at this place left us mesmerized.
We continued with renewed zeal, this time unsure if we would make it back in time. Well-ordered stairs gave way to broken rocks merely arranged in succession to form a track. Teddy pointed his home to us, some hundred steps down. Some villagers hurried by, with sacks of bay leaves on their backs. Soon we realized that bay trees were all around us,even the rocks were strewn with bay leaves. Teddy told us this forest produced very good quality bay and cardamom. These are sold in other villages around Cherrapunjee.
After crossing 2 more bridges we came to a spot where the waters had formed a beautiful natural pool surrounded by boulders. The main waterfall was another 20 minutes from here. We had two choices from here – miss Rainbow Falls to spend sufficient time in this lovely pool or trek till the waterfall and return really quick. Very grudgingly, we decided not to trek further. Yes, we came that far and missed Rainbow Falls! We were that exhausted! Moreover, the thought of keeping ourselves immersed in this natural jacuzzi was too tempting.
We slowly went deeper, carefully chose some boulders to lean back and there we laid, legs spreading out under the clear waters, eyes feasting on the rare natural setting. Not that we didn’t regret missing Rainbow Falls, but we absolutely fell in love with this place.
We swam around,splashed water at each other,took dips in the chilled water and gaped at the strange colors of the stones beneath. It was a perfect place to relax our minds and soothe our sore muscles.
It was starting to get dark, so we returned, shivering in drenched clothes and said our goodbyes to Teddy.
Dinner was prepared by Byron himself.I still remember that rustic flavor of spinach!
Byron has 6 children.His wife and eldest daughter help him manage guests. It is admirable how they have created this little haven for tourists,providing enough for the simple urban needs,yet preserving the charm of the woods.
That night we sat on the open balcony and chatted for a long time, each trying to catch up with the happenings in others’ lives. I have been missing my friends terribly since I moved to Hyderabad. Sitting in the dimness of the moonlight, I totally cherished these long conversations.
After 5 hours of deep sleep we woke up to a motley of twitters. The pain in my legs had become unbearable, I had no control on them while walking. I was worried the uphill trek would be too torturous. I applied Volini on all my leg muscles, knowing it wouldn’t help much and staggered towards the Double Decker root bridge.
This place was an extraordinary piece of nature, the double root bridges over a light,melodious river whose waters were as clear as glass. The bridge was named after this river – Umshiang.
The small waterfall right across it, the pretty fish in the stream, the hills forming a gentle enclosure – it seemed like nature has fondly selected each of them to adorn it’s masterpiece. I wish it was monsoon and I could lie in those fresh waters while it drizzled. Such bliss!
But we did relish with our feet dipped in them,our skin softly nibbled by these small fishes.
We then started for that dreadful thing that we each had at the back of our minds all this time – climbing up those 3500 stairs. I did overestimate my limits because this part gave me one of the most excruciating pain I have ever voluntarily subjected myself to. We dragged ourselves with many stops, sometimes every 10 steps. Our bamboo sticks proved invaluable throughout this trek, helping us pull ourselves up. Every time we thought we were near the end, another spiral set of stairs appeared. Nobody cared for photos this time :P.
In 1.5 hours we reached the top, crawling up the last few hundred stairs.
Our driver Vinod waved at us with a bright smile, we too were glad to see him. We rested a while at the coffee stall before we started for our next destination – Dawki.
The trek to Nongriat is one of the most challenging things I did in recent times, after rafting in the freezing waters of Teesta last year. Yes, it is extremely arduous but the vibe and the raw beauty of this place is worth every sore muscle. I do not know whether it’s a good idea to stay for one night in the village, because our pain doubled the next day morning. I think it’s best to stay for 2 or 3 days if you are staying at all. That way you won’t miss Rainbow Falls like we did and your legs would get some useful rest. Moreover, this place honestly deserves longer than one night to be adored fully.
How to reach:
Tyrna village,the starting point of the stairs is around 20 kms from Cherrapunjee. Buses and shared taxis are available at regular intervals from Cherrapunjee to Tyrna. You can also try hitchhiking. 😛 Reserved vehicles are charged parking fees at Tyrna.
Where to stay:
Serene Homestay was perfect for us. It offers enough for a decent stay. Do not expect anything fancy. We booked a dorm with 5 beds(Rs.300 each bed) and 2 double bed rooms (Rs.1000 each room).
Food is charged separately according to fixed rates. There are no attached washrooms in any of the rooms. They are outside in each floor and maintained hygienically. Enjoy the delicious food, play with the kids, befriend some fellow tourists and be merry.
Contact: Byron Nongbri
What to carry:
Travel as light as possible. Carry an extra set of clothing for the pools, preferably those which dry easily. Carry a towel,bug repellents and a pain relief spray besides the daily use items. A raincoat and a waterproof pouch for your camera are musts during the monsoons. Wear comfortable trekking shoes and light clothes that allow your body to breathe.
Try to plan this trek towards the end of your trip, so that you don’t limp around for the rest of the days. Lastly, bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm! And don’t give up!