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.

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Street art of Shillong

I had quick glimpses of street art as the Rath of the Clan trundled around Shillong. My impression was that it had a better developed guerilla aesthetics than anything I see in Mumbai. The figure in the featured image holds a placard which says “Eat my shit.” When I saw this I wished I had the time to seek out other examples of local street art.

Unfortunately the hectic schedule of a relaxed family holiday left no time for such individual pursuits. I passed a long mural against human trafficking on one wall. I’ve seen similar messages in other places, so I believe it is not guerilla art. I hope someone local makes the effort to document this newly burgeoning scene. It certainly wasn’t noticeable five years ago.

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.

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.

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. This is a very apt description of this layered beauty. 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.

Around Shillong

The thing I usually enjoy about traveling is talking to people who see the world differently and seeing the world they have built around themselves. I was a little apprehensive about traveling with my clan of cousins and nieces: would we be sitting somewhere chatting all the time? That’s a lovely way to spend time, but then why not go to nice beach resort and stay there? To my surprise, traveling with the clan turned out to be very interesting. I was surrounded by chatter and Instagram at all times. But also, everyone was happy to take in the kinds of things others wanted to do. This meant that the number of things we could each do was smaller than what each of us might have wanted to do on our own. What we gained was that we did things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. So here is my view of Shillong; please add a soundtrack of constant ribbing and laughter, and conversations about what to do next.

I love these little local restaurants of Shillong. The food you get is simple: rice and meat, ja and doh. The Family is not into tiny roadside eateries. Niece Moja was on a keto diet and refusing all rice, but Niece Mbili was game for anything, including jadoh. I’d tried jadoh snam (jadoh cooked in blood) on my previous trip to Meghalaya, but this time around I didn’t get to try it again. These small restaurants are clean, very crowded at lunch time, and invariably serve jadoh. We passed the place you see in the photo above at a time when service hadn’t started. Momos are a big draw too, but to my experience it is treated as a snack and you need to go to different places to get them. Usually a cart piled with steamers will be waiting at the exact spot where the urge for a momo or two comes over you. What a coincidence!

This century old building, now turned into a hotel was the most distinctive Assam style house that I saw. This beautiful style uses some brick and mortar, but also a lot of wood and always has corrugated metal roofs. The chimney sticking out of the roofline in this connects to an old fireplace. Hotels have switched to electrical heating these days, fortunately, but a century ago a blazing fire would have kept you warm in a draughty place like this.

In the evenings these little restaurants in Shillong attract their regular clientele. They seem very special to this part of the country: serving up a small selection of food, mainly momos, and tea, they fill a social niche which cafes do elsewhere. We noticed groups of young people gathering at these places quite often. I liked the look of this place as we passed: bright colours, a mural on the wall, seating along the sides, the kitchen right behind the counter.

Shillong peak was inaccessible on the one day we could actually make up our mind to go there. Not a problem for us. We stopped for chai at a roadside restaurant and found a good view. This must be well-known, because a large friendly signboard told us that we were standing at Lumpdeng View Point. Shillong looked warm and welcoming in the late morning sunlight. From here we could see that the Assam style houses have not given up the good fight against the concrete monsters. Perhaps the monsters will win in the end, but perhaps heritage conservation movements will kick in to preserve some neighbourhoods before that cancerous growth kills the town.

Oranges, chilis, and pink boots

The Rath of the Clan refused to budge from the parking place that it had found at the restaurant where we had lunch. So we decided to spend the last bit of the daylight hour walking around Shillong’s Police Bazaar. This crowded market was full of people and turned out to be quite a cheerful place. My attention was, as always, drawn to the fresh produce rather than the cheap factory made clothes heaped on the stalls of the bazaar.

There are very few of the picturesque old buildings left here, in the prime commercial location in Shillong. Among the many unlovely concrete piles I found one of the last remnants of the old style buildings that a long-time Shillong resident told me is called “Assam style”. Niece Mbili is studying to be an architect, and I stood with her, lost in admiration for this once-beautiful structure made in wood and corrugated metal sheets. Wood is not sustainable building material any longer, but this looked like it would be a wonderful place if only someone took care of it.

I loved the tangle of wires overhead so much that I climbed above them to take a photo from above. You can see the haphazard concrete buildings which have replaced the Assam-style houses that must have once lined these roads. Photos from the 1940s, 50s and 60s show these low houses and very few people, at least to our modern eyes. Today the narrow roads are filled with fashionably dressed urban young, tribal and non-tribal, looking to pick up something inexpensive. From this vantage I spotted the Gupta Restaurant where I had a nice pre-dinner snack.

But back to oranges. I’d missed this wonderful corner with the winter’s oranges and kiwi, so this photo comes from The Family’s camera (this post has a mixture of photos from the two of us). A couple of years ago, I saw kiwi orchards in nearby Arunachal Pradesh, and thought that the fruit had been imported recently. But now that I know that the Kiwi originates in China, I guess it must have come to this part of the country fairly long ago. Everything on display in these stalls is local: kiwis, bananas and oranges, certainly, but also the beautiful cane baskets. The Family thought it was good I hadn’t noticed them, because I might have tried to bring some of them back with me as cabin baggage. Maybe. Maybe packed with oranges!

This lady did exactly that: packed one of those woven conical baskets with oranges. The large oranges in the basket were very sweet, but the smaller ones (slightly more green) had a better flavour. I didn’t try the apples. Don’t miss that heap of pink boots in the background. I’ve never seen so many pink boots together before. This must be special to Shillong.

You can tell The Family’s photos in this post by her concentration on the person rather than the produce. I’d passed the stall with the chilis but not paid much attention to the lady selling them. In retrospect, maybe I should have paid more attention to the people. Meghalaya has a mixture of ethnicities, and I could have learnt more about the state by looking and talking. At the very least I would have seen these pink jackets which go with those pink boots. Maybe I would have also taken a closer look at the loofahs behind her.

It was less than a week after the winter solstice, and the days were short. The light faded very quickly in Shillong at this time. The bazaar took on a very festive look with the fairy lights complementing lit up signboards. Our Rath driver (should he be called a charioteer?) had phoned in his decision to move, and we had to leave just when the evening’s crowds began to pour in.

A small snack before dinner

Traveling is not easy. There are these large markets in every town that you visit. It takes time to walk through them, and you might be far from the nearest restaurant when you realize that it has been a long time since lunch. That is when a Guptaji’s becomes handy. Walking around Shillong’s Police Bazaar with the clan, those of us who were less inclined to shop gravitated easily towards an attractive hole in the wall which promised chats.

This is exactly the kind of fried indulgence that we wouldn’t allow ourselves every day. But this was the first day of Christmas, and I was sure that my true love would not grudge me a plate of samosas (maybe samosha, to keep with the local style), accompanied by some chai, and a follow-up plate of tikki with chole, some more chai, and then some sweets. By the time the shoppers were back we were ready for a second round. How lucky to find a Guptaji’s here. We might have starved otherwise. Dinner’s still a few hours off.

Family holdings

Four of us were dawdling in Mawlai. When I’m with nieces then every few steps seems to be an Instagrammable opportunity. Our progress down the lane towards our Clan Bus was very slow. While they Instasnapped their stream of consciousness, I began to push my camera through every closed gate I could see to take photos of the houses behind them.

These were really picturesque houses. many built in the old style with slanted corrugated metal roofs. Meghalaya builds against the monsoon. After all, Shillong is only 61 kilometers from Mawsynram, which is the wettest place on earth. Mawsynram gets 11.8 meters of rain a year. Shillong gets 3.3 meters of rain a year, which is substantially larger than what Mumbai gets. So I wasn’t surprised to see the pitched roofs.

I was also not surprised to see the verandahs. These were placed where you could drip off excess water if you got drenched in rain before reaching your house. Also, it would be great to sit on one of these verandahs with a steaming cup of chai watching the rain. The houses were very similar to the style that I’d seen in Kerala, which is another place which gets heavy monsoon rains.

As we were busy photographing the houses and exclaiming over the well-maintained garden each had, a lady who’d been tending the garden came out to talk to us (you can see her in the featured photo). After asking us the usual questions (where were we from, what were we doing there, was this our first trip to Shillong) she started telling us about the houses. It turned out that she and her sisters owned three of them. The others were owned by other grand-daughters of her grandmother. Halfway through this description it dawned on me that among the Khasis property is held by women, and passes from mother to daughter. When I threw a question about her brothers into the conversation, it sank without a ripple. She wished the best of luck to the nieces as we left.