Pedaling Through The Northeast

Pedaling Through The Northeast
On the way to Shongpdeng, with Bangladesh in the background, Photo Credit: Puneet K. Paliwal

A bicycle, a camera and the adventure of a lifetime

Puneet K. Paliwal
February 04 , 2019
09 Min Read

A solo cycling trip in the Northeast—I’d always imagined myself doing something crazy like this. But as I didn’t have a bicycle, I never thought it would ever happen. Even when Trek asked me to test their Marlin 7 mountain bike.

I had no experience in long-distance cycling. So they offered me one-on-one training to understand the bicycle, and taught me how to fix it if it broke down in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, it seemed the universe was conspiring to make my insane fantasy real. Now the only question that remained was: where was I going?

I booked a flight to Guwahati, still undecided on my exact route. I had three options from Assam: to Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh), to Bhutan, or to Meghalaya. I packed everything I needed: from a sleeping bag to a tent, laptop, camera, clothes and other essential stuff; I’d even spent days downloading music and creating playlists for the journey. And, of course, the bicycle.

The Marlin 7 is easy to dismantle. It comes with a quick-release mechanism that removes the wheels from the frames without needing any tools, while the handlebar is easily removed by loosening four screws. The super lightweight Alpha Silver aluminium frame, the wheels and handlebar fit snugly into a box—a total of 14 kilograms.

By the time I arrive in Guwahati, my heart is set on Meghalaya. After a brief stop, I put my bicycle together, rearrange all my stuff in panniers and a backpack, and set off on my great adventure.

TEETHING TROUBLES

Stopping for a break in the forests of Upper Shillong

 

The first leg of my tour takes me from Guwahati to Shillong. But it isn’t a good start. Trucks and cars whizz past at 90 to 120 kilometres per hour and giant factories belch smoke along the busy highway. For a moment, I regret not waiting another year and heading for the Himalaya. But, before I know it, I’ve done 40 kilometres and am riding along the Assam–Meghalaya border.

My first stop of the day is at a small eatery by the highway, run by three Khasi sisters. Inside, a sign proclaims “No beef” next to a portrait of Mother Teresa. My appearance arouses curiosity among the other patrons—they check out my bicycle and wonder what I’m doing here. When I tell them, they all laugh. “No, no, you can’t make it to Shillong like that—it’s too far and too risky,” one guy says. He offers to take me and my cycle all the way there in his jeep and I am seriously considering it. Before I can decide, one of the restaurant owners steps in. “You can do it,” she says. “If you’ve made it this far, you can go another 60 kilometres.” I decide to take her word for it.

But then, I haven’t taken the altitude into account. I will be gaining more than 1,200 metres, with 25 kilograms of luggage to haul. Also, the sun sets almost two hours earlier in many parts here. As I inch my way along slowly, I wonder how long this is going to take me.

Progress is slow but steady. The 27-speed Marlin 7 is smooth, even the 60- to 70-degree uphill turns where motorists struggle. My weight and that of my luggage are well distributed and, for the first time, I relax as darkness and silence descend on the highway. There are no streetlights and I can see neither turnings nor road signs. The traffic has fallen off and it is peaceful.

At 8pm I still have another 20 kilometres left, and nowhere to go but ahead. Finally, I pull up at Isabella Hostel in Shillong, after 12 hours on the road, shattered and dehydrated. My first day of my first solo, long-distance cycling trip is over, and I have travelled 100 kilometres. 

NO PAIN, NO GAIN

Blue Lagoon is a picturesque trek from Nongriat

 

After giving myself a rest day in Shillong, I set off towards Nongriat, some 65 kilometres away. The highlight of this leg is my first bicycle crash. I go steeply uphill for five kilometres to arrive at Upper Shillong. The ever-changing landscape and effortless pedalling lulls me into distraction. I’m flying downhill, the wind in my hair and music in my ears. I have no power to prevent what happens next.

I lose my balance and in the split second before I crash, I think that this is the end of my trip. The momentum of the crash makes the bicycle careen away from me. A few scratches but we’re unharmed. My heart is pounding and the adrenaline rush is making me warm.

As I get up and get ready to move on, someone shouts at me from a moving car, “No pain, no gain!”

I yell back: “Yeah.”

I want to make it to Tyrna, a small village in the East Khasi Hills, before sunset. From here Nongriat will be a three-kilometre trek, on foot, that is. It is a steep downhill ride in rocky terrain to reach Tyrna and I have to be very careful. I have butterflies in my tummy—a little tentative because I’m afraid of losing control. It is a test for the Marlin 7 as well, but the bicycle doesn’t skid, the front and rear hydraulic discs keeping it stable when I press the brakes. I feel no slipping or jerking, thanks to the RockShox front suspension.

I park my bicycle at a house in Tyrna. The residents are happy to keep it for me till I return from Nongriat. I am reluctant to part with it, but unless I plan to hoist it on my shoulders and trek through a dense forest, there is no other option.

BED TEA WITH A FOREST VIEW

The terrifying bamboo bridges of Wahkhen

Three days later, though, we are reunited. I am happy to see the bicycle—I realise it’s not just my trip, it’s ours. I decide to give it a name, Kali, because it’s black. Being on a bicycle is liberating—you can go anywhere anytime, and it’s free. I decide on Wahkhen as my next destination. My aim is to do the Mawryngkhang trek, which takes you over unique bamboo bridges built by locals over deep gorges to the legendary King of Stones. It is known as the scariest trek in Meghalaya—with good reason. 

Kali and I enjoy the lush green countryside. When we spot colourful snakes, frogs and chameleons dead on the highway, we stop to bury as many as we can. Sixty-four kilometres later, we reach Wahkhen, late but safe. There is no accommodation available, since tourists don’t usually stop here. There is a language barrier and I struggle to sign to the villagers that I need a place to stay for the night. Eventually, Bollywood is my saviour. I meet a 15-year-old who loves Hindi movies, and he knows enough Hindi to allow Kali and me to bed down in the tea shop. Waking up the next morning is surreal—in the middle of a forest, in a tea shop, a new meaning to bed tea.

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

A church in Nongriat village

 

It is Sunday and the entire village is headed to the most surreal church imaginable, under a huge piece of blue sky and on a vast bed of green. Meghalaya is predominantly Christian, the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes introduced to the religion by the British in the 18th century. Families, dressed in their best, spill out of their tiny wooden houses, and gather on the winding roads. What a day it is to be out—kids come running to admire Kali (while the Khasi girls check me out). All this would have been impossible had I not been on a bicycle. I am convinced now that cycling through Meghalaya is the best decision I have ever taken.

The further we go, the more we want to explore all the way to the India- Bangladesh border at Shnongpdeng, 69 kilometres away. We cross Dawki and arrive at the border, stopping for some selfies with the border guards. Shnongpdeng village, another eight kilometres away, is first approached on a busy highway where heavily loaded trucks ply between India and Bangladesh.

Once we leave the highway and take the road going down to the village, we find ourselves in a tropical forest with palm-sized butterflies, massive spiders, and juicy pineapples. I can’t resist picking the last for the ride.

After checking into a small homestay, I walk down to the banks of the Dawki and sit there till night falls, covering the forest in starlight. I know our trip is over—there is nowhere further to go—but I can’t bear the thought of saying goodbye. 

Kali and I will spend the next couple of days here before we pedal back to Shillong. From there we will go to Guwahati to catch the flight back to Delhi. But I know that I will be doing this again soon. Serendip, maybe?

THE INFORMATION

GETTING THERE

  • There is no direct air or rail connectivity to Meghalaya, so you have to go via Guwahati. (If you are going on a bicycle tour and are carrying your bicycle, I would suggest an Air India flight because of the 25kg check-in baggage allowance you get.)

WHERE TO STAY

  • SHILLONG Isabella Hostel is a good option. Book in advance. (INR 400 per bed per night; +91- 8014204496, Mimi aunty)
  • NONGRIAT Serene Homestay (INR 300 per bed per night; +91-9477870423, Byron)
  • SHNONGPDENG Halatong Tourist Homestay (INR 800 per night; +91-873109653)

It is best to book in advance and online (check booking.com).

WHAT TO SEE & DO

  • In Shnongpdeng, go trekking. Kayaking in the Dawki River is another option. There is also a trek to a secret waterfall.
  • In Nongriat, easy treks take you to Rainbow Falls and Blue Lagoon.
  • In Shillong, go church hopping on Sunday, and check out some cool cafés for live music. Do try Khasi and Mizo food.

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