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.

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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.

The Road to Sohra

Shillong was a British creation, but Sohra (called Cherrapunjee by the British) was a tribal capital. The road between these two towns is probably the best traveled in Meghalaya. As we trundled along on the Rath of the Clan, The Family got a window seat, and therefore the best opportunity to photograph the lovely countryside we were passing. I’d got one photo of this countryside the previous day when we’d passed for a while along this road.

The land is flat, mostly full of low growth. The hillsides, when they are not being quarried for limestone, are full of trees. This makes me believe that the plateau must have been wooded till recent times. The fact that there are Khasi sacred groves in plenty on the tableland also indicates that there were more forests in the near past. There are small houses, with colourful doors, which look nice, partly because they stand in this still-beautiful landscape. I was to notice deforestation later on, so I guess this enchanting land is changing fairly quickly. If you want to see Meghalaya before it becomes fully urbanized, visit soon.

I knew from our earlier trip that there were many things to see along this road. Five years ago we’d visited all the places we’d seen on a map at the side of the road. How many of them would we be able to visit this time?

Elephant Falls

A little way out of Shillong, on the Shillong-Sohra highway, you come to Elephant Falls. Among the many waterfalls of Meghalaya, this is the one which is most easily accessible from Shillong. As a result, when we reached the waterfall one morning, it was crowded. A board near the entrance told us that the Khasi name for the waterfall translates to Three Step Waterfall, which is a very apt description. The English name referred to a stone which is said to have resembled an elephant. Since this rock was destroyed in the earthquake of 1897 CE, there is no telling what it may have looked like to modern eyes.

It was a short walk from the car park to the first stage of the waterfall. This is a considerable drop. The flow was pretty meager in winter, as you can see in the photo above. The channel is pretty wide, though. So I guess during, and just after, the monsoon, this will be a pretty impressive falls. The photo was taken from a big rock face around which the stream runs after the drop. Steps cut into the drop lead down to the second stage. Before taking the steps down, the clan gathered for a long round of taking photos of each other. Only when everyone was convinced that each of us had been photographed by everyone else (this takes a long time when there are almost twenty people involved), did we move towards the steps.

The second stage is the shortest fall. The photo that you see above was taken from a bridge which leads across the stream after the second stage of the fall. Both the times that I’ve been here, the pool was a deep green in colour because of the overhanging trees and other plants. There are pretty impressive ferns here, as you can see from the photo. The featured photo was made from the bridge looking down towards the third stage. The rock here is granite; you have to travel a little further south to get into the part of the Shillong plateau which is made of limestone.

This seems like the highest fall. Steps are cut into the rock face next to it, and some concrete has been poured recently over the stone to make smoother steps. It was very crowded on the day we were there, and I was happy with the stout guard rails on the side of the stairs. I stopped part of the way down to take the photo that you see above. Most of the action was below. The steps lead down to the pool at the bottom of the fall. The deepest part is off limits, as a rope across the area warns you. But the edge of the pool is full of people taking photos. This is not the most impressive fall that I’ve seen, but it has wonderful greenery around it in all seasons. The first time that I had gone to this place there were very few people, and the place had an air of soothing calmness. I thought it was worth stopping here on our way to Sohra.

Back at the car park we had time to explore the veritable mall that had sprung up in the years since I was here last. Chai and jalebi was welcome, but I was looking for something more substantial. Niece Mbili said a pork sandwich would be welcome. We explored nearby stalls and found one which said pork roll on the menu. We ordered two, and waited a long while for them to be prepared. That was a good sign, I thought. The Family came in to investigate what we were doing, and then others came by. Eventually we got piping hot, fresh and juicy, pork rolls. “Heaven”, said Niece Mbili and then we munched our paratha and meat in blissful silence.

Light fails at the border

The distance between Shillong and Dawki is 82 kilometers. Although these are narrow and winding roads, with several choke points where the traffic crawls, most cars would be able to do this run in about three hours or a little more. After starting from Shillong just before 9 in the morning, The Rath of the Clan reached Dawki as the sun was setting. Dawki is the gateway through which a large fraction of the India-Bangladesh trade passes, since it sits on the Shillong-Sylhet highway. It is also a place where every tourist to Meghalaya wants to come. The result is that the narrow highway was completely jammed. Our driver wisely decided to stay far from the jam. We got off the bus and walked between unmoving trucks to get to what we wanted to see.

The Goyain river makes a sharp bend here, and, according to the map I’d seen, all of the river belongs to Bangladesh. The Umngot river falls into the Goyain at the bend, and this river, as well as the bridge over it is in India. In fact, the northern bank of the Goyain belongs to India, as does Dawki town which lies on the far side of the bend, and across the bridge over Umngot. In the photo above, you can see trucks lined up after the bridge, waiting to pass through Dawki town and the border checkpost beyond it. The boats drawn up on the bank belong to Indian boatmen who take tourists for a ride on the river.

The Family and I hurried along to rough stairs cut into the cliff between the road and the river. This was immensely crowded and I was a little apprehensive about coming back up after the light faded even more. While planning this trip, The Family and I had thought of spending a quiet new year’s eve by ourselves in Dawki after the rest of the clan left. My idea was to spend a day boating on the Umngot and driving to the many waterfalls which make the leap from the Shillong plateau down to the plains of Bangladesh. But The Leafless was set on driving here with the rest of the clan, so we changed our plans. Unfortunately, we would have only half an hour at this place before it became dark. We climbed down and looked at the famous bridge over which so much of the Bangladesh trade passes (photo above).

Did we want a boat ride? The rest of the clan had joined us by now, and we had a conference where eventually it was decided that we don’t. It was a nice place for a conference; I got a few good photos here. The river comes from the right, turns around at the bridge and flows down towards the center of the frame. The far bank on the left is in India, and there is a barely visible channel between that and the far bank on the right, which is in Bangladesh. This “bank” is actually an island, chor in the local languages.

The special geology of Meghalaya is apparent here. The Shillong plateau falls suddenly into the plains of Bangladesh, at a line of fracture called the Dawki fault. This part of the plateau is mainly clay and limestone, with very little visible igneous rock. I took a last photo of leaky boats settling into the water before turning to go. These boats are easy to build, and require constant bailing. As long as the wood is kept painted, they are usable. Lack of paint means that the boat has been given to the wind and water.

The climb up to the road was now even more crowded with people coming down for a last look at the river before it became completely dark. Inexpensive internal tourism is clearly booming. I hope that this means that reasonable hotels will be available at a lower price in future. Join me in a moment of hope, Indian travel bloggers.

Lookout point

The Rath of the Clan stopped at a place that the driver called a “viewpoint”. It was once a bend in the road overlooking a long valley. The view (featured photo) was very nice. The stop was now a jumble of shops and restaurants and a concrete structure enclosing the rock that you had to climb in order to get the best view. There was a ticket office and a minimal entry charge to see the view. The clan immediately dispersed, and a few of us went straight for the view. These rolling hills covered with forests are what Meghalaya was famous for once. The big brown scab that you see in the middle of the photo looked like yet another tourist resort being built. Note how much larger it is than the open fields of the village behind it.

When I looked away from the valley, I could see something interesting. The hills did not jut out of the line of the horizon. Quite to the contrary, the horizon looked flat. The impression of folds, hills and valleys, is formed by a process quite different from that which formed the Himalayas. The Shillong plateau is a flat slab of stone pushed up by the collision of continental plates. The hills and valleys are carved by water flowing over this land for several million years. The volume of water is intense, since this is among the wettest places on the planet. But the land is still rising, so over the last ten million years or so, erosion has not managed to keep pace with the uplifting of the plateau. In fact, in the Shillong earthquake of 1897, the plateau is said to have risen by 11 meters.

Behind us this plateau was being systematically cut down. Someone had put out their washing to dry on a line just above the quarry, probably the workers. All along the route we had seen limestone hills being quarried. The British annexation of this land was driven by greed for this limestone, necessary to the then new building industry. Since then the construction boom has increased the demand for limestone, and the locals here are stuck in a vicious economic cycle which makes them cut away the ground beneath their feet. The picturesque south eastern part of the plateau is largely made of sedimentary limestone, and we would see more evidence of quarrying during our trip.

I gravitated to a restaurant which was serving tea and found part of the clan already inside. Between long queues at the toilet, finding the best place for selfies, and sitting down for a chat, the clan seemed to move at a geologically slow pace. Several cousins and nieces joined me for tea while I waited. I had time for many cups of strong and sweet tea, and also enough time to line up the cups so that I could take photos. By late morning we were done and on the move again.

Gobsmacked by extreme weather

As I read the news about the weak polar vortex which is responsible for the abnormal, and abnormally long, cold weather as far south as Mumbai, I was reminded of the time when the tail end of the world’s most extreme weather hit me in the face, and I didn’t recognize it till later. A few years ago we visited Meghalaya at the end of the monsoon and decided to drive down from Shillong to Mawsynram. The village of Mawsynram is known to every Indian from their school days, since it is supposed to be the rainiest place on earth. It usually receives between 11 and 12 meters (yes, that’s meters; 430 to 470 inches if you prefer) of rain a year In 1985 it received 26 meters of rain (over 1000 inches) of rain.

The monsoon was just over in the rest of the country, but we’d seen storms and heavy rain while flying in to Shillong. I asked The Family, “What’s there to see apart from the village?” We consulted Raju, who was driving us, the web, and the hotel, and found a couple of cave systems and waterfalls. Meghalaya is famous for caves and waterfalls; although they are everywhere, the more famous ones are worth seeing. The recommendations were enough to tip me over into going along with The Family’s plan.

A heavy mist descended as we drove along the Shillong-Mawsynram road. The surface was pretty bad too (at least then) so between the mist and the road, Raju had to slow down quite a bit. We stopped a bit at a Khasi sacred grove to look at monoliths raised to the memories of ancestors, but after that the mist began to get heavier. Usually we could see a little way beyond the edge of the road (that’s how we spotted the group of cows having their mid-morning snack). Now and then we would hit a pocket which was fairly clear, like the stream in the photo above.

By the time we got to the Mawjymbuin caves it was well past the normal time for lunch and we were enveloped in very thick mist. The caves are meant to be open all day, but the person who mans the gate and collects tickets was not at his place. We walked in hoping to see him on the way out and realized that the mist had cut off all light inside the cave. We could vaguely see exotic shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, but there definitely wasn’t enough light to negotiate the slippery rocks. We walked around the caves outside, looking at the pools of water large enough to serve as swimming pools. A light drizzle had begun, and we came out. There was only one restaurant nearby, and it could serve jadoh, Khasi for rice and meat, or ja with eggs.

I looked out of a window at the back of the hut, and saw that we were at the side of a small stream. The fog was too dense to make out clearly what was on the other side. It looked like a wooded slope. As I took the photo, The Family discovered a wonderful sight out of another window: a spider’s web on which the mist was condensing. We had our meal, and a good strong chai. The lady who served us food suggested another cave system which wasn’t too far. Raju knew of it, but said he preferred not to drive in this light. We paid up, thanked the lady, and left. It was a wasted day as far as tourism went, we thought as we left. Over the years The Family and I came to realize that it was not. In the rainiest place on earth getting heavy cloud cover and a drizzle when the rest of the country was bone dry was exactly what we should have recognized as a great experience. Fortunately, we had photos which could jog our memories.

I hadn’t worried about the rains in Megahalaya for years, but recently, while I tried to read some papers on the geology of the Himalayas, I came across an image which explains this well. You see that Meghalaya lies on the so-called Shillong plateau, a 1-2 kilometers high plateau that juts out of the surrounding lowlands. When moisture-bearing winds come off the Bay of Bengal and sweep up north, this is the first rise that they hit. The Bay of Bengal is a warm sea, so the air over it moist even outside the monsoon. Only during cold winters does the moisture content of the air over the bay drop to a point where the southern parts of Meghalaya (land of the clouds in Sanskrit) is not full of megh. Several places on this plateau are among the rainiest parts of the world for this simple reason.