Shillong to Sohra: growth and decay

Five years ago The Lotus, The Family and I were in a car traveling between Shillong and Sohra. Raju assured us that it was not a long drive. So we took our time to stop and look at anything we found interesting. It was a nice day; sunny sometimes, but the mists which give Meghalaya its name kept creeping up on us.

Shillong seemed charming and picturesque. Jammed-up traffic filled most roads, but next to them plants seemed to take over everything. We wondered how long a bulldozer has to be left to itself before it is hidden by bushes. Megahalaya seemed so very laid back, in spite of traffic woes.

The road to Sohra was full of other charming sights, like this cabin with sagging walls. The sunlight which broke through the trees lit up some wonderful weathered wood. Raju did not mind stopping at every whim. I got quite a few interesting photos that day.

When we stopped for a chai, the shop fit exactly into my mental picture of what it should look like. Sloppily painted wood was showing its age. Inside the shop bright clothes hung on a line which passed over the open fire. Perhaps they were drying there. Stainless steel utensils gleamed in the light.

Elsewhere we found a newly built cabin. It had brick and mortar walls. The window was already broken and completely boarded up. The roof was made of thin metal sheets. It looked as if someone had started wrapping a box in foil and stopped before completing the job.

We stopped at the Mawkdok Dympep valley and climbed up a slope on one side of the road to find a nice meadow, full of flowers and sun. Beyond it we saw a pong, a newly constructed tank to hold water for irrigation (featured photo). We sat down on the meadow and enjoyed the sun for a while. When clouds rolled in, we got up to leave.

After detours to Dein Thlen and Nohkalikai waterfalls, we entered Sohra. The roads were even narrower than in Shillong, but the load of traffic was less. We saw a rusted hulk of a jeep by the road. We were in civilization again.

Sohra market

If there’s one thing you will see in a market in the northeast, it is chilis. Not the variety that can be safely grilled and eaten, but the things that look like a parrot’s beak: red and dangerously sharp. The main market of Sohra lived up to expectation. Walking between the cramped aisles I came to a stall which held an enormous heap of chilis and nothing else. Another time The Family would have picked up a good quantity to take home, but she gave it a pass.

This time around we didn’t have time to go back to the market, so I dug up some of the photos I have from our visit five years ago. I didn’t know it then, but Sohra is famous for its oranges. A large square-footage of the market was given over to them. The oranges are flavourful. The women selling them were in tribal-style dress, the shawl tied across the body so that it can be used as a back pack, as well as raised into a hood to cover the head.

Being able to cover the head at short notice is clearly important in one of the rainiest parts of the world. Outside the market a young boy sat guard next to his family’s shopping bags and umbrella. He couldn’t make up his mind whether I was trying something funny. The center of Sohra was not full of tourists then.

A new hope

I’ve written again and again about the destruction of the beautiful land of Meghalaya, this week and before. I’d said already that I have no stake in the place, no livelihood to maintain; I was only a tourist. I did not have to balance a desire for a good life against preserving the land. But the people of this place reached a new balance. This is a post about a small victory in sustainable living, and the opportunity for a breathing space.

When I traveled from Shillong to Sohra five years ago, I saw open quarrying of the limestone hills everywhere. For decades schoolbooks had proclaimed Sohra as the rainiest place on earth, but its place had recently been taken by points in other continents. The reason was not hard to guess. Large-scale deforestation was evident, and now the ground was being cut away from under their feet. Rivers were being polluted not only by ground up limestone, but by other chemicals mixed into it.

On our way to see the Seven Sisters waterfall then we stood aghast in front of another quarry. A hill was being eaten away, leaving something looking like an apple core. This was what the place looked like then. The scene was like something out of Mordor. This image stayed with me for years: a horrifying vision of development gone mad.

Greed for limestone, an ingredient of cement, brought the British here in the first place, and seeded this disaster. Five years ago I talked to people and everyone was in despair. But fortunately, I was not the only one who noticed this destruction. Locally, in Meghalaya, a movement sprang up to demand that the quarrying be regulated. Mountainsides are still cut away for limestone, but the industry is now controlled. Sohra’s cement factory seemed to be shut (featured photo; credit The Family). The apple-core-hill, as I call it, remains as it was five years ago (new photo above). The land still looks desolate, but it hasn’t disappeared in the five years that passed between my two visits.

But new times bring new challenges. I stopped the Rath of the Clan to take my “after” photo of the before-and-after pair. Across the road was this other hill. The Family and my nieces climbed up it as I took photos. There is now a graveyard on top. The community that uses it has newly settled across this landscape. You can see a sign of the development in the second photo of the apple-core-hill: power-lines cross this area now, bringing electricity to the new blocks of houses. Human growth also brings problems of deforestation, but it is a slower problem. It gives us time to talk and discover ways to minimize damage. At least the hills now remain. There is a small hope for improvement, but it is a new hope.

Life in Sohra, remembered

Five years ago we spent a single night in Sohra, and regretted that we hadn’t planned a longer stay. The town was a small and charming place, and the single hotel was a traditional cottage perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking a village and a valley below that. A walk to the nearest living bridge would take us through the village.

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When engineered structures are living objects, it was appropriate that the place was teeming with life. In one night I probably saw more species of moths, beetles, and other insects than I remembered seeing in the rest of my life. The most interesting was the stick insect, the first I’d ever seen. I had a hard time figuring out where the third pair of legs of this insect was. Note how often a moth has a substantially smaller insect nearby. I wished I had a microscope attachment to look at these millimeter sized living creatures. The insects that I photographed were strange and beautiful. I’m sure that stranger and equally beautiful things would emerge if we could zoom into these smaller beings.

The post has the word “remembered”, because I went back now to a place I was enchanted by. There is construction all across Sohra. I saw no moths this time around. This ties in with a recent report of a worldwide decline in insects. It is shocking because Meghalaya is at the edge of one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. A decline in insect population drives a collapse in plants, and animals higher in the food chain.

Forbidden Shillong

I’d expected Shillong to be charming, lively, always open and welcoming. Imagine my surprise at the closed doors. It wasn’t even 10 in the evening when I passed the shuttered doors of this small neighbourhood chai shop. I could see lights on inside, so there was hope. But I didn’t want to push my luck, so I didn’t knock.

The whole line of shops was shuttered! Part of the story has to do with the single time zone across the country. In Shillong, markets open in the morning at a time when it is still dark in Mumbai. But seriously, where was swinging Shillong? We had to search a bit, but then we discovered that eateries and bars are full of people, although the roads are dark and seem lonely. It looks like Shillong is at war, dousing lights against air raids, while people secretly spend their time partying. One could set an atmospheric locked-room mystery in this town.

But forbidden things appear when you look. This gate looked very stern. I almost saluted as I passed it.

Ecology destroyed for an “Eco Park”

In Sohra one morning five years ago, The Family went off on a trek down a steep slope to see a living root bridge. I gave up on that walk quickly and asked Raju to suggest an alternative. He suggested a short drive to a point where there was a good view of Bangladesh. We parked on the road, and then followed a narrow track through overgrown bushes and around a thicket of trees to reach the edge of a cliff.

The Shillong plateau fell into the plains of Bangladesh below us. There was a sturdy fence at the edge of the cliff. Raju and I leaned on it and looked down at the enchanting landscape of the country of shifting waters. British imperialism had created a disaster here, and, in ebbing, left a permanent scar in the form of borders which cut off both Raju and me from our ancestral homes. Neither of us knew Bangladesh as anything more than grandmothers’ tales and old songs, genocide in a generation-old war, and tales of floods and natural calamities. It was a typical early winter morning in Sohra, overcast and foggy one moment, clear ten minutes later. In the hazy distance we could see a braiding of rivers, and no sign of humanity except for forests cleared for agriculture.

Before we left I spotted several species of butterflies. The common sailer (Neptis hylas, featured photo) was everywhere in this area, as were several species of tigers. I took my first photo of a red lacewing, Cethosia biblis, here (photo above). I did not realize then that the part I paid little attention to, the trees and the tumble of bushes, would not be here when I came back. My only record of that ecosystem full of butterflies, insects, and the birds which feed on them, are the few photos where the vegetation is the background.

Five years later, after some of the clan had left for the same trek that took The Family away that long-ago morning, the rest of us piled into the Rath of the Clan and the driver took us to an “Eco Park”. This was exactly the same place. The vegetation had been totally cleared. Now there was a large parking lot full of vehicles, a gate and tickets to see a leveled field of bare earth at the edge of which was the same fence where Raju and I had stood and tried to spot villages in Bangladesh. There was a desultory attempt to make a garden here with marigold and rose bushes. There were no trees, no butterflies, no birds, but an amazingly large number of humans and shops.

A fellow blogger who grew up in Shillong has been shadowing the blogs of my trip through Meghalaya, and, through her comments, adding a very welcome perspective. In one of her comments she said that she hoped that Meghalaya would follow Sikkim in developing tourism, not Darjeeling. Unfortunately, this “Eco park” was Darjeeling transplanted to Sohra, destroying precisely what people earlier came here to see. Five years ago, as we walked back to the car, Raju pointed out to me an underground stream which you could see through an opening in the rocks. He recommended the water for its taste and coolness. The opening was now covered with an iron grille, and the rocks around it were littered with empty packaging, the detritus of civilization.

Mawsmai caves

The southern part of the Shillong plateau is largely made of limestone. The intense rainfall in this region has carved huge cave systems into these rocks. The plateau of Meghalaya is full of these caves, from the 24 kilometer long monsters to the touristy maze of the caves we visited near Sohra.

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Half the clan was off on a long trek down to yet another living root bridge, while I and the other equally jaded people rode the Rath of the Clan to Mawsmai village. In the five years since I was here last, a veritable strip mall has sprung up outside the caves and the Khasi sacred grove. My new phone was much better at taking photos of the ill-lit interior than my top-of-the-line bridge camera of half a decade ago. These photos of the grotesque and tortured shapes of the rocks in ambient light are brought to you by the consumer electronics revolution.

In the last few years much has been written about the danger that illegal limestone quarrying poses to the caves, and the rapid dying off of life that is adapted to these caves. Part of the response has been to encourage more tourism to the caves. While this may put pressure on the illegal miners to stop, it is not clear that it helps the lifeforms in the caves. During our short walk in the Mawsmai caves we saw many tourists and no non-human animals.

Likai’s Leap

Evening was falling when we reached Nohkalikai waterfall five years ago. Thick clouds had descended over the waterfall. When we walked up to it all we could hear was the thunder of water in India’s tallest waterfall. The 340 meter drop would have been a wonderful sight, but the sound was impressive enough. We had tea in a stall nearby and waited for the fog to lift. I kept my hand in by taking photos of a work gang tarring the road. Later I would read the tragic legend of Likai, gory enough to rival Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The fog did not lift, and we never managed to go back. Sometimes the journey is all you have.

To market, to market! Jiggety jig!

I couldn’t think of leaving Shillong without looking in at the Laitumkhrah market. So, on the day we were to drive to Sohra I dashed into the municipal market after breakfast. It was early yet, and the market was not yet buzzing. I could have spent a good hour there chatting with the shopkeepers about the produce, but the Clan was getting ready to leave, and I did not want to hold them up. So I sped through the place with my phone in hand and a smile on my face.

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There were no exotic vegetables; almost everything that I saw here was what I would see in Mumbai, but infinitely more fresh. I think the morning’s supply had arrived and had been stacked up for display. The lady selling tea outside the market was doing good business; I saw several of the people in various stalls had glasses of chai in their hands. It was cold, and the steaming chai was very tempting. The fish stalls had some action; people were already here buying fish. I didn’t see the dried fish that you find in Bengal and parts of the north-east. One stall was open for meat, and it seemed to have finished most of its stock. When I walked out of the market I missed a wonderful shot: meat was piled into a navy blue hatchback. The contrast of the red meat and the shiny blue of the car was fabulous. But just as I raised my phone for a shot, the owner closed the door. This was probably a restaurant getting its supply of meat for the day.

I’d managed to take a photographic inventory of the vegetables on display. Banana flowers, spring onions, an interesting flat bean, large chilis which are perfect for stuffing and grilling, karela, lots of leaves and roots. Everything looked much fresher than the freshest produce we see in Mumbai. If The Family had come with me she would have been heartbroken at the thought of not being able to take some of this back with us. Outside the market were fruit stalls. Again there were no unexpected fruits. I eyed the oranges, but we were going to Sohra. “Carrying oranges to Sohra” is the Meghalaya equivalent of the English saying “carrying coal to Newcastle.”

There were two shops outside that caught my eye: Hollywood Tailors was a little more apt than Volga Mistan Bhandar. This political balancing act from the last century ignores the fact that Russia probably never saw the sweets that you can get in Shillong.

The last shop in the market was a Kong’s shop: a local restaurant. It was already open for the morning’s tea. Whenever I see these places I feel like going in and sitting down for a meal. I’ve had wonderful jadoh (a Khasi speciality, ja=rice and doh=meat) whenever I’ve had a lunch at a place like this. But it was too soon after breakfast, and time to say goodbye to Shillong.

Mawkdok Dympep Valley

I had wonderful memories of the Shillong Sohra road from our visit five years back, when we stopped wherever we wanted, and occasionally even took long detours to look at interesting things. I knew that on a trip with twenty people it would not be possible to do everything, but I did want to stop at what I remembered as the most beautiful sight of all: a view down the long Mawdok Dympep valley. It was still a superb view. I wouldn’t mind living in that house that someone is building there now, except that there will soon be a whole village around it, blocking the gorgeous view.

Five years ago we’d stopped here at a time when monsoon storms had not completely dissipated. I found this photo from that time: the valley was clear when we looked down it at first, but clouds came swirling through it in no time. In minutes the valley had filled with fog, giving me this wonderful shot. This time around I think I had an even better shot, with the golden sun slanting down through clouds in the late afternoon. It was different, and I was happy to have seen both views of the valley.

Now there is a bridge which spans the gorge and it is said that the view from the bridge is spectacular. We didn’t have time to do that. Near where we stopped a zip-line had started up, and several of the Clan tried it out. I didn’t, but I could believe that the view from the zip-line would be fabulous.