Surrounded by rolling hills, the British fondly dubbed Shillong as the ‘Scotland of the East’. The narrow winding roads of the city are filled with Maruti 800s that violate almost every traffic law. Taking a big vehicle to Shillong is a mistake every visitor promptly regrets. The saving grace, however, is that the temperature drops drastically once you have entered this mountainous state. So, even though the wait to reach its capital city might seem endless, let the waft of cool breeze in, while you soak in the amazing views of the surrounds.

As is the case with most Northeastern towns, the society of Shillong is highly anglicized. The city still appears to bask in the British legacy as is evinced from its culture and architecture.

Swapan Nayak
Raj Bhavan, official residence of Meghalaya’s governor
Raj Bhavan, official residence of Meghalaya’s governor

History

Formerly a small village, Shillong was made the civil station of the Khasi and Jaintia hills in 1864. Due to its strategic location between the Surma Valley and the Brahmaputra river, Shillong was declared the summer capital of Eastern Bengal and Assam in 1874.

This decision was also taken because the climate of Shillong was much cooler than the temperatures prevailing in tropical India. It served as the capital of undivided Assam till 1972, when Meghalaya was carved out as a full-fledged state during reorganization by the government.

ORIENTATION

The nearest airport is at Umroi, located 30km north of Shillong. However, the Guwahati Airport, in Borjhar, is 118km from Shillong, and is the most convenient way to reach the city from the rest of India. There are no rail lines in Meghalaya and the nearest railhead is in Guwahati, 128km north of Shillong.

Taxis are available for travelling in and around Shillong. However, a great way to explore this crowded city is to set out on foot. Much of the city’s streets go uphill, so walking around tends to get a bit tiring, but is fun nonetheless.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation (Tel: 0364-2226220) arranges customised day tours by taxi and bus for sighteeing for ₹2,800/ two people ₹400/ per head respectively

Swapan Nayak
The scenic horseshoe-shaped Ward’s Lake
The scenic horseshoe-shaped Ward’s Lake

Police Bazaar

Lying in the heart of the city, this bustling market is one of the main attractions of Shillong. Though there are no malls and grand complexes here, clusters of shops selling the most eclectic clothing, electronic goods, and fresh fruits, make up for the lack of it. These shops also sell exquisite artefacts and handicrafts made by local tribes, which make for great souvenirs. Another attraction is that prices are contingent on barg-aining skills. Though some shops have fixed prices, most others agree to a huge rebate.

Ward’s Lake

Locally known as Nan-Polok, this horseshoe-shaped lake is amongst the landmark sites of Shillong. Ward’s Lake is situated about a kilometre away from the centre of the city, near the Raj Bhawan. Even in a place as scenic as Shillong, the Ward’s Lake makes for a spectacular sight, complete with isles and bridges. The lake also offers boating facilities. The lake’s shimmering waters bustle with numerous visitors paddling their boats, irrespective of the season.

You can buy packets of puffed rice and popcorn available on site to feed the colourful fish in the lake. However, you might have to jostle for space on the bridge to feed them, as it is as popular an activity as the boat rides. Alternatively, you can take a walk along the winding pathways that meander around green mounds and charming flower beds surrounding the lake.

Lady Hydari Park

If you fall in love with Ward’s Lake and end up seeking a similar site, then head to Lady Hydari Park, located just behind the Shillong Civil Hospital. Lady Hydari, wife of erstwhile governor of Assam, commissioned this park, which also houses a small zoo, aviary, deer park and a museum. There are no other zoos in the city. The park is remarkable for its well-manicured lawns. Stretching for over a kilometre. It is filled with rhododendrons, roses and an abundance of other colourful flowers, as well as drooping willow trees.

Sanjay Rawat
Pedestrians crossing a busy street in Shillong
Pedestrians crossing a busy street in Shillong

Adjacent to the Lady Hydari Park, but still tucked away in the woods, is the breathtaking 13-m high Crinoline Falls. At the foot of the falls is a naturally forming swimming pool. The waterfall is quite popular amongst tourists and photography enthusiasts. A restaurant nearby offers a variety of delicious food items.

Spread Eagle Falls

Spread Eagle Falls derives its name from its unique shape of an eagle spreading its wings. Locally known as Umkaliar and Sati Falls, this waterfall lies in the Shillong Cantonment area, on the outskirts of the city. Spread Eagle, like most other attractions in Shillong, is a spectacle of surreal natural beauty. However, do mind your step here, as the rock edges tend to get slippery and the walk can easily become somewhat treacherous.

Laitlum Canyons

A treat for adventure enthusiasts, Laitlum Canyons is a largely unexplored destination in Shillong. The place is a 45-minute drive from the city. Needless to say, the beauty of this place will leave you spellbound. A trek to the summit will reward you with a panoramic view of Shillong, surrounded by lush hills and bamboo plantations. The best time to visit the canyon is around noon, when the sun reaches its peak and the mist gradually clears up. It is a long trek up and might not be suitable for everyone, but the splendid views are worth the effort. Keep your camera handy, as every sight will beg you to take a shot.

Tip Wear comfortable clothes and sturdy shoes as this is a long trek

Vivek Das
Attractive interiors, Ri Kynjai Resort
Attractive interiors, Ri Kynjai Resort

Shillong Golf Course

Set up in 1989, the Shillong Golf Course is the third-oldest of its kind in India. The golf course was originally a nine-hole course and was later converted into an 18-hole one. Perched at an elevation of 1,585m and surrounded by pine groves and rhododendron trees, the course not just boasts remarkable natural beauty, but is also rather challenging to play. Located close to the Botanical Gardens, the course has earned the moniker ‘Gleneagle of the East’. A regal golf club overlooks the sprawling course.

Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures

This three-in-one institution comprises a museum, a research centre and a publication centre for preserving and promoting the rich cultural heritage of the northeastern states of India. The museum has a unique structure – the seven-storey high hexagonal building rises to form a flame, signifying the unity of cultures. The centre’s seven floors are devoted to each of the seven sisters of the Northeast. The 17 galleries here display cultural artefacts, such as weapons, costumes and ornaments, musical instruments, as well as paintings from these states. The expansive library contains 10,000 volumes of literature. Try the museum’s Sky Walk, for sweeping views of Shillong.

Timings 9.00am–5.30pm summer; 9.00am–4.30pm winter Closed Sundays W dbcic.org

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

The Orchid Lake Resort (Tel: 0364- 2570258; Tariff: ₹2,250–4,495), situated on the banks of Umiam Lake in Barapani, is a great place to get away from the city. Run by the Tourism Department, the resort has 27 rooms, a restaurant and bar, organises sightseeing and boat rides. Ri Kynjai Resort (Cell: 09862420300-01; Tariff: ₹7,000–12,000 is a beautiful boutique property near Umiam Lake.

Vivek Das
Traditional Khasi boat roofs at Ri Kynjai Resort
Traditional Khasi boat roofs at Ri Kynjai Resort

Hotel Pinewood (Tel: 2223116/ 46; Tariff: ₹2,800–10,000) was built in the 1920s on the pattern of an English country home. Run by Meghalaya Tourism, it is a few minutes’ walk from the Ward’s Lake. The hotel has a golf course and a billiards room. Royal Heritage-Tripura Castle (Tel: 2501111/ 49; Tariff: ₹4,500–9,000) was the private residence of the Tripura royal family.

The veteran Hotel Polo Towers (Tel: 2222341-42; Tariff: ₹5,950– 10,950), situated near the Polo Grounds, has 51 rooms. Hotel Centre Point (Tel: 2220480, 2229839; Tariff: ₹3,000–7,500), situated in Police Bazaar, has 31 rooms and its own restaurant and bar. Hotel Alpine Continental (Tel: 2220991, 2223617; Tariff: ₹4,366–6,292), located opposite Congress Bhavan near the Police Bazaar, has 31 rooms with room service, a restaurant and bar. The Shillong Club (Tel: 2225497; Tariff: ₹2,500–4,500) takes in guests on prior notice. It has 21 rooms on offer, a bar (for members only), restaurant and various indoor sports facilities such as billiards, table tennis and snooker.

AROUND SHILLONG

Smit (14km)

Situated toward the south of Shillong, Smit might appear to be an unusual choice on a travel itinerary. However, a visit to this village makes for an enlightening experience for those looking to learn about the culture and lifestyle of the Khasi tribe of Shillong. Locals dressed in colourful traditional attire against the backdrop of barren meadows is the quintessential sight in this area. These vast brown expanses of land are occasionally broken by beautiful gorges and waterfalls.

Swapan Nayak
Boating on Umiam Lake
Boating on Umiam Lake

Once you have reached Smit, the best way to explore the area is on foot. The most popular attraction here is a house that is believed to be around a hundred years old. A brilliant example of Khasi-style architecture, the house was built without using any metallic nails.

The Nongkrem festival, held in November, is celebrated with much fanfare in the village. During this festival, traditional dances and songs are performed in honour of Goddess Ka Blei Synshar. The Nongkrem dance is performed in front of this house.

Shillong Peak (10km)

The highest point in Shillong, this peak offers magnificent views of the city. The drive to the peak is a visual treat in itself, with coniferous trees lining the way leading to the peak. The black-and-white iron rods erected along the perimeter of the peak serve as a protective shield from the steep drop beyond. On a sunny day, it is possible to see as far as the Bangladesh plains from here. Although the place tends to get very crowded at times, the stunning views it offers must not be missed.

There are tiny shops selling a range of souvenirs and woollens near the peak. Cups of tea, Maggi and bread-omelette are easily available here.

Elephant Falls (12km)

Originally named ‘Ka Kshaid Lai Pateng Khohsiew’ or the Three Steps Waterfalls by the Khasis, these falls lie a little away from the city. They were later named Elephant Falls by the British after a nearby rock that resembled the shape of an elephant; the rock was, however, destroyed in the massive 1897 earthquake. Elephant Falls is accompanied by two smaller falls – Wei Iaplam Falls and Wir Phang Falls.

Mawphlang Sacred Forest (24km)

Also known as Law Lyngdoh, the Mawphlang Sacred Forest is a lush forest considered holy by the locals in keeping with their religious beliefs, and has been preserved in the same fashion since the ancient times. Having rightly earned the moniker of ‘Nature’s Own Museum’, it is filled with exotic species of orchids and ferns. A thick carpet of humus, which has accumulated over the centuries, carpets the forest floor.

Tip Do not pluck any leaf or flower as the forest is held as very sacred by the locals

Umiam Lake (17km)

This enormous artificial lake is a favoured picnic spot around Shillong. Locals come here to spend a day away from the mundane city life. Also known as Barapani, it stretches around the Umiam Hydroelectric Project.

Set amidst sylvan hills that stretch till the horizon, Umiam is a paradise for angling enthusiasts and bird-watchers, with numerous species of migratory birds flying down here during the winters. The lake also offers water sports such as water skiing, cycling, and row boating. When the water recedes during winters, a concrete road vanishing into the water re-emerges and you could walk across.

Jowai (63km)

The little town of Jowai isbest known for the raucous festival of Behdienkhlam, held in the month of July. The four-day festival is believed to beh (chase away) khlam (illness) with tabut (elaborately decorated wooden totems).

The festival sees traditional dance performances, accompanied by drums and pipes. The women are engaged in cooking elaborate feasts to be offered to the spirits of the ancestors. The festival ends with a game of datla-wakora, which is a form of football played with a wooden ball.

The modest CTC Orchid Inn (Cell: 09856003662, 09863600078; Tariff: ₹1,200–1,800 for a room, ₹2,160 for a cottage) is a good stay option here.

Inputs by Shreya Sarkar

FAST FACTS

When to go All year round. However, December to February can be very cold, and June to August very wet

Tourist Offices

The Directorate of Tourism,  3rd Secretariat Nokrek Building,  Lower Lachumiere, Shillong, Tel: 0364-2226054,2502166, 2500736, W megtourism.gov.in

Tourist Information Centre, Police Bazaar, Shillong, Tel: 2226220, STD code 0364

GETTING THERE

State Meghalaya

Location This city sits on the Shillong Plateau in the eastern side of the state

Distance 100km S of Guwahati

Route from Guwahati NH40 via Jorabat, Byrnihat, Umling, Nongpoh, Umsning, Umbir and Mawlai-Mawiong

Air Shillong’s Umroi Airport (32km/ 1hr) is connected by Air India to Kol­kata. Taxi to town is about ₹600, bus ₹100 per head. However, Guwahati Airport (128km/ 3hrs) is better con­nected to other cities. Taxi costs ₹1,500 (Indica) and ₹3,500 (Innova). Share taxi to Shillong costs ₹300 per head

Rail Nearest railhead: Guwahati is well-connected to all major cities of India. Meghalaya Transport Corpora­tion (Tel: 0364- 2223200) bus services (3.5hrs/ ₹250 per head) operating from 6.00am–5.00pm, are coordinated with train arrivals and departures at Guwa­hati. Shared taxi is ₹300 per head

Road From Guwahati take NH37 and NH40 via Dispur, Jorabat, Barnihaat, Nongpoh and Umiam Taxi Local running charges are ₹18/ 25 per km (Contact: Khasi Hills Tourist Taxi Stand, Police Bazar, Shillong; Cell 09863023694) Bus MTC bus to Shillong available from Guwahati ISBT Helicopter This service can be availed of from Guwahati to Shillong (20mins) and vice versa and again from Shillog to Tura (1hr) (Contact Meghalaya Heli­copter Service Cell: 09859021473)