Dread pooled at the base of my stomach. I wouldn’t call myself claustrophobic, but the aversion to enclosed spaces, coupled with a fear of the dark, made my insides turn. But as they say, the more you try to run away from something the more it will come after you. I was standing right at the mouth of the cave, contemplating whether it was too late to chicken out. For someone who’s constantly ridiculed for her inability to walk straight on a flat surface, it was ironic that I found myself at the forefront of several outdoor pursuits.
So, here I was fighting all odds (read: a painstakingly conservative family), enduring a long flight, with a fate you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. You guessed it, I was stuck in the middle seat. Jabbed in the midriff by duelling strangers, I was entangled in an armrest war. having to hurdle over your seatmate to get to the restroom wasn’t ideal either. But despite these obstacles, I made it to Guwahati. Just to be on the road again, enroute to Shillong for what seemed like a lifetime. Not that I was complaining.
Since there aren’t any direct flights from Delhi to Shillong, Guwahati was our best bet. An incredible stretch of road connected the Assamese city to Meghalaya. The blissful highway was a corner carver’s delight. We zigzagged through windswept valleys, bluffs and plains, almost in a dream-like stupor... until the motion sickness kicked in. I managed to dodge that bullet, but my car-mates weren’t so lucky. Kailash, our driver, was patience personified, constantly accommodating our demands to halt the car every few kilometres.
I was headed for what adrenaline junkies would call ‘flirting with danger’. They tend to have a flair for the dramatic, so my inexperienced mind didn’t take it too seriously. After all, ground zero was mystical Meghalaya, a peaceful land whose name literally translates to ‘abode of clouds’. home to Mawsynram and Cherrapunji, two of the wettest places on earth, the rain seemed to leave room for little else. Gilbert, our guide, told us it had poured for two days straight just before our arrival. But I was determined to witness this so-called mysticism in all its glory with my ride of choice: a hot-air balloon journey, kicking off at 5.30 in the morning.
Subject to certain weather conditions, these rides are extremely popular in western India, especially in Rajasthan. And with the first edition of the Meghalayan Age Festival, a state-wide event, these balloons were set to make their debut in the Northeast.
Though just a hop-in and hop-out of the basket at the face of it, the 15-minute ride was when words like ‘serenity’ and ‘tranquillity’ gained real meaning. With a bird’s-eye view of the lush landscape, I was, quite literally, at the top of the world. The balloon loomed over the colorful morning glow, and we glided past tiny villages and rural bazaars. But it was the landing that made more of an impact, enough to make me feel like a celebrity. As we descended, hordes of cheering villagers huddled around us, and the balloon’s skirt and crown was quickly tethered and held down by the crowd. You’d think nothing could beat the view of the pristine vistas I had just witnessed, but the warm welcome, back on land, left me overwhelmed.
Soon enough, my nervous excitement took over. I set out to witness the most extraordinary fusion of art and science in the form of ancient caves. As told by our man Friday, Teddy, a professional caver with nearly 25 years of experience, the cave systems of Meghalaya, much like the whole state itself, were shrouded in mystery. I couldn’t help but wonder about the secrets they might hold. As we were suited up to enter the cave, Teddy gave a little heads-up on what we might encounter, and all the possible worst-case scenarios. he cross-checked our safety gear one last time. Suit, check. Boots, check. Helmet, check. Headlight, check.
Vertical climbs, pools of water, and a trail through stalagmites and stalactites later, I was under the impression that I was prepared for it all. But boy, was I wrong. What awaited us at the Krem Rupasor cave was all of this, but with an eerie darkness. Bats fluttered out of narrow crevices, their high-pitched shrieks piercing through the silence.
I could feel my heart beat faster than ever, and my palms were sweating every time I extended my arm to cling on to the nearest wall. An added fear to top it all? Accidentally touching a spider that might call these dark passages home.
These gorges were home to peculiar formations made of water, sandstone and limestone. Tiny droplets, dripping down too vigorously to form stalagmites, was what made cave pearls, one of the most precious things found inside the cave. Surrounding a nucleus of sand or dirt, these are small orbs of calcite polished to perfection.
We made our way through a narrow cavity, squeezing ourselves between two giant rocks and even resorting to crawling when the need arose. As we explored the uneven limestone terrain inside, it wasn’t the ruggedness, but the damp smell that made us uneasy. Deeper in the cave, we were enveloped in a ghostly silence—only by then, it had become strangely comfortable.
Apart from the caves, Meghalaya is also known for its rare bioengineering wonders. Mawlynnong village’s living root bridges are a testament to this intimate collaboration with nature.
Made with the live roots of rubber trees, the forefathers of the Khasi tribe were the original architects of these living bridges. The roots are directed to enter the trunk of betel plants so that they grow in a particular direction. These roots strengthen over a period of time, and become fully functional over 15 years. The bridges were built to facilitate travel over the fast-flowing streams across the lower slopes of the Khasi and Jaintia hills. One hour east of Mawlynnong was the border town of Dawki. There are very few places that truly calm your soul and this small town, just a stone’s throw away from the Bangladesh border, fit the bill perfectly. Adding another hour on the road, I found myself in front of one of the semi-hidden gems of the Northeast: the Krang Suri Falls.
Tucked away in the West Jaintia hills, its charming beauty and zenlike ambience was perhaps the most magical thing I had ever laid my eyes on. Cut off from the tourist circuit, its shimmering blue waters remain unaltered by human activities. I was tempted to dip my feet in the greenish-blue plunge pool, but I knew better than that. Any such mindless action to tarnish its beauty would have been utterly foolish.
In a span of just 48 hours, I had seen and fallen in love with the pristine waters, misty clouds, rugged caves and living root bridges of this hilly state. While boarding my flight back to Delhi, all I was left with was a wistful smile.
Kolkata has the only direct flights to shillong. however, shillong is connected by National highway 6 (3hrs/99km) to Guwahati in Assam. Multiple airlines, including Air Asia, Air india, indigo, spiceJet and vistara offer flights to Guwahati from major Indian cities. the nearest railhead to shillong is Guwahati Railway station (GHY).
Where to stay
I suggest giving glamping a try. With 50 luxury tents, the Meghalayan Age Festival took great advantage of the surrounding landscape. the private natural retreat was a nice escape from the bustle of city life. Alternatively, you can opt for one of the resorts in shillong, like Ri Kynjai in ri Bhoi (from Rs 10,500 per night; +91-9862420300; email@example.com).
What to See and Do
>Trek through Laitlum Canyon in shillong. It’s open throughout the year, but don’t try hiking during the monsoon. It isn’t for beginners and must not be attempted during the rains.
>Visit limestone caves. You can expect stalactite and stalagmite formations, calcium ponds and flooded passageways.
>Explore Lewduh market to pick up souvenirs like shawls and bamboo tableware.
>Head to nartiang village, home to an intriguing complex of stone monoliths.