Saturday, April 7, 2018

Meghalaya Trip: March 2018 - Part-1 : Shillong-Mawjymbuin Cave-Mawsynram-Mawphlang

I have been travelling and trekking in India almost every year since 1984. But trips to North-East Indian states were not in my wish list in the early years of my travelling as most of this region were facing insurgencies. Also, infrastructures for tourism were not as developed as in most part of the rest of India. It was a chance opportunity in December 2011 when my friend suggested a visit to Nagaland on the eve of Hornbill festival that changed my hesitancy in visiting North-East India. The rich cultural display presented by all the seven sister states of North-East India during the festival impressed me so much that I decided to cover all the North-East states in the remaining period of my active travelling. The visit to Nagaland was followed by a visit to Tripura after the conclusion of the Hornbill festival. I visited Sikkim in November 2014.

I had in my wish list to visit Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram in that order in a year or two as I grow old, it would become difficult to withstand a long and tiring road travels. In September 2017, my daughter had requested me to prepare an itinerary for their proposed family visit to Meghalaya during the Christmas vacation. However, she postponed this  trip in favour of a trip to a Southern state. 

Having taken a lot of time in preparing the itinerary for a trip to Meghalaya, an idea came to me as to why not we (myself and my wife) make a visit to Meghalaya. My brother-in-law and his wife had earlier shown their interest in joining us for the trips to the places they have not so far covered. The only time that suited my brother-in-law and his wife was the last week of March 2018. The itinerary covered a round trip from Shillong to East and West Khasi Hills,West Jaintia Hills and back. 
Our broad itinerary of 8-days trip to Meghalaya on Google Map.

We booked the Indigo flight to Guwahati some time in October 2017. Hotel/Home stay bookings for Shillong, Mawphlang, Cherrapunjee and Shnongpdeng were completed by January 2018. The only hotel booking which I kept open was for our last day as we were not sure whether we would stay in Shillong or Jowai. 

Since March-end 2018 was not considered as busy tourist season for Meghalaya, I thought of hiring the car/SUV on the day we reach Shillong. Sometime in February 2018, I realised that due to a long week-end holidays (March 29 - April 1), there was a possibility of tourists' influx especially from the neighbouring States. In the circumstances, finalsing a dedicated driver in advance for all the 8 days of trip would make sense. On, a travel website for India,   Pradeep Modak was highly recommended for the trips in Meghalaya. I contacted him and discussed  my proposed itinerary with him. He quoted Rs.4000/- per day (all inclusive) and he would drive his own car Chevrolet Sail, a Sedan. I did not bargain for the price as I found it to be reasonable.

Our Indigo flight to Guwahati left Mumbai on time and landed at Guwahati International airport 20 minutes early at 10.00 a.m. Pradeep Modak was already waiting outside the airport at Axis Bank's ATM. After exchanging pleasantries, we commenced our road journey to Shillong at around 10.30 a.m. The road journey was smooth as there was not much of a traffic. An unique feature of our drive from Guwahati to Shillong was that broadly between Brynihat and Jorabat, NH-6 passed through both Assam and Meghalaya States. The road divider itself was the boundary between these two States with left two lanes of the road in Assam and the right two lanes in Meghalaya. 

We stopped for lunch at Jiva Veg restaurant near Nongpoh. We ordered for steamed momos, rotis, mixed vegetables and ended with coconut milk mixed with pineapple juice. All the food items we ordered were excellent in taste.  
Jiva Veg Restaurant at Nongpoh on Guwahati-Shillong highway where we had lunch break.

Coconut milk mixed with pineapple juice at Jiva Veg Restaurant.

1. Umiam Lake: On the way to Shillong we stopped at the viewing point on the highway to have a glimpse of Umiam Lake which is located about 15 kms before Shillong. Locals call this lake as Barapani. This is a reservoir  created by constructing a dam on River Umiam as a backwater of an irrigation dam. The water is not potable now due to heavy silts from the surrounding hills. So the lake is used for irrigation purpose and for water sports activities.

I did not observe much of the activities in the lake despite being a Sunday. A lone motor boat was seen with tourists. The reason which I came to know later was that being Sunday, most of the boatmen and the workers do not work on Sundays and on holidays like Good Fridays, Christmas and the New Year. Even most of the shops  and restaurants were closed.

Due to cloudy weather with haze, we could not get a clear picture of hills as background for Umiam Lake. Still it was  worth to have a photo session with Umiam Lake in the background which most tourists seemed to do so.
Umiam Lake, locally known as Barapani. For boating, one has to get down at the place on the right.

Exactly after one week, we passed through Umiam Lake while driving to Guwahati airport. Still, the haze over the lake continued. But pictures did come out somewhat better than that of the last week. We also observed that there was a Lake House at the opposite shore of the lake. The Lake House is available for the overnight stay. It seems interesting to stay in this cottage in the midst of the lake.
Umiam Lake in the morning.

Lake House in the midst of Umiam Lake. It is available for the overnight stay.

2. Golf Course: By the time we reached Shillong's famous golf course, the weather had turned completely cloudy. Being Sunday, the locals came here in large numbers in their traditional Khasi dress though the younger  were seen best in their western dresses. We walked towards the Golf Club where there was not much of a crowd being far away from the road side. after about 15 minutes of a leisure walk, a few drops of rains made us to briskly walk back towards our car parked on the road. We reached our hotel, Kaizun Bread & Breakfast and checked in at around 4.00 p.m. We could not go out and walk towards Ward Lake - a mere 10 minutes walk from the our hotel as it had started raining. 

Sunday crowd on Golf Course in Shillong. 

The 18 holes golf course in Shillong 

Since almost all the restaurants in the vicinity of the hotel were closed being Sunday, the hotel staff had telephoned in the morning that they could provide us home made dinner which I at once agreed. The staff did provide a good vegetarian dinner consisted of rice, dal, mixed vegetables, curd, salad and papad besides some sort of a chutney made from tomatoes. 

1. Don Bosco Museum : After finishing our complimentary breakfast at our hotel, we commenced our journey around 9.00 a.m. Our first destination of the day was Don Bosco Museum which was about 5 kms from our hotel. We reached at the opening time of the Museum, viz. 9.30 a.m.

A guide from the Musuem accompanied us up to the stair case and advised us to begin the tour from ground floor and then climb each floor to see the displays. He also guided as to where Rest Rooms were located at the each floor. At the top floor, there was a tea/coffee stall with some refreshments. And finally, he guided us to visit the Sky Walk on the terrace to have a view of Shillong. There are couple of volunteers available on each floor to guide the visitors. The entry fee is Rs.100/- per head and is worth it.
Spiral stair cases leading to the 7th (top) floor of Don Bosco Museum. Each floor has display rooms.

The name of the museum - Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures - itself gives what to expect from the museum. The museum is a place for the display of indigenous cultures of North-East India. Each floor has 2-3 galleries for displaying the exhibits. For example, there are galleries for Agriculture, land & people, basket making, fishing, musical instruments, religion, languages etc. In short, the museum is the window for the various facets of North-East India. There is a mini theatre which show a 10 minutes' video  depicting the North-East India.  

It took us more than 2 hours to complete the tour of the museum. After having tea on the 6th floor, we went to the 7th floor terrace to take a Sky Walk to get a 360 degree view of Shillong. There is an elevator available for going down to ground floor from the 6th floor. On the ground floor, there is a shop selling the products such as handicrafts made up by bamboo products, dresses, mementos etc. There is also a cafeteria on the basement.

I would rate Don Bosco Museum 'a must visit place' in Shillong. 

Maa Durga made from bamboo products.

Depiction of the Seven Sacraments of Christianity.

Baskets for fishing.

Fishing traps.

Various shapes of baskets made from bamboo products.

Bows and arrows.

Handicraft made from bamboo products.

The presentation here are based on a Khasi mythology. The bamboo spiral ladder shows the link between earth and heaven.

View of Shillong from the Sky Walk on the terrace of Don Bosco Museum.

Don Bosco Church seen from the Sky Walk.

2. Sweet Waterfall : This was not among my list of places to be visited in Shillong. It was Pradeep Modak, the owner-driver, who suggested the visit to Sweet Waterfall instead of Butter Fly Museum. I reluctantly agreed assuming that we can fit in the visit to the Butter Fly Museum later in the day.

The distance between Don Bosco Museum and Sweet Waterfall is about 10 kms. But it took about an hour  to reach Sweet Waterfall View Point thanks to the 'famous' traffic jam of Shillong. After descending a few cemented steps, we reached the View Point. Fortunately, the Waterfall was good even in  non-monsoon period. The fall was almost perpendicular to form a pond. I saw a board prohibiting trekking to the base of the waterfall. 

A closer look at the start of the Waterfall (through my camera on a maximum zoom) shows that the water actually flows from a cave and take an immediate plunge. 

We all found the visit to this waterfall worthwhile.
Sweet Waterfalls.

The water flows from the cave (top) to form a perpendicular fall.

Sweet waterfall makes a pond.

3. Laitlum Canyon Ridge : It was already 2.00 p.m. and we had not taken our lunch as there was nothing available in around Sweet Waterfall. On our way to Laitlum Canyon, we found a small restaurant which agreed to make a vegetarian lunch for us  with rotis, vegetables, rice and  dal. It took more than an hour to finish our lunch. In North-East, the sun sets in around 5.30 p.m. in March and with almost daily evening rains, the sight-seeing time is further curtailed. 

The distance between Sweet Waterfall and Laitlum Canyon Ridge  was about 20 kms and it took us about an hour to reach the place in around 4.30 p.m by which time the heavy rain had set in. We could not come out of the car even though all of us had carried our umbrellas/raincoats. Since the rain did not stop, we had to come out of the car and run towards a tea shop to wear the rain gears. While myself and my brother-in-law walked towards the ridge with umbrella and raincoat, the temperature had suddenly dropped to so much that we all required jackets which was kept in the boot of the car. In that process, we lost about half an hour by which time rain had subsided. The net result was that we could not clearly see the valley and the canyons first due to light mist and then to the haze. 
Laitlum Canyon Ridge. It started raining. For about 20 minutes we had to take a shelter in a tea shop.

After the rain, sun comes out of the cloud cover.

A village seen from the Laitlum Canyon table top.

Laitlum Canyons table top.

Sun is about to set in over the hills as we end the day's tour of Shillong.

After spending about 30 minutes on the Laitlum Ridge, we started our return journey with an intention of spending sometime in Ward Lake in the evening from where we could walk back to our hotel. But due to traffic jam in Shillong, we were late for Ward Lake as it closes at 6.00 p.m. So, our car dropped us at hotel around 6.30 p.m.

I guess, on a clear day without the haze looming over the mountains and the valley, a visit to Laitlum Canyon Ridge would be interesting as the views from the ridge are awesome even under the adverse weather.  

It was an hectic day which began at 9.00 a.m. and ended at 6.30 p.m. So we were not in a mood to go out for dinner. We ordered the Vegetarian dinner through the staff of our hotel with usual stuffs. The quantity of the food was so much that we had to leave almost half of the quantity of rice and mixed vegetable/dal.  

1. Ward Lake: Pradeep was to pick us from the hotel at 9.00 p.m. However, he was delayed as his car wash ahead of a long trip out of Shillong could not be completed on time due to power outage. He suggested that we may consider walking down to see the Ward Lake from outside since it was closed on Tuesday.  He would pick us up from the Ward Lake ticket counter. It took about 10 minutes to reach the Ward Lake. From the gate of the lake, we saw  a few people already inside the lake.  But they turned out to be the locals who had monthly passes for jogging inside the lake.

Ward Lake appears to be a picnic spot for the locals. One can take a long walk in the vicinity of the lake which have flower beds around the jogging track. Besides, one can also visit the Botanical Garden attached to the Ward Lake.

I took a few pictures of the Ward Lake from the outside and then waited for Pradeep to pick us up. It had already started drizzling and we had taken shelter at the ticket counter. Eventually, Pradeep arrived at the gate and we went back to the hotel to pick our baggage to be loaded in the car.
Ward Lake seen from outside as it was closed for tourists on every Tuesday.

Ward Lake Boat House.

One of the flower beds around the jogging track in Ward Lake.

2. Elephant Waterfalls: After the check out, we commenced our journey. It turned out to be another hectic day. Our first stop was the Elephant Waterfalls which was located at a distance of about 12 kms from out hotel. By the time we reached at the road end to the waterfalls, it has started raining. For the first time since yesterday, we felt that we had really come to a tourist spot as the place was crowded with tourists. With rains, the place looked like a monsoon picnic spot. 

Elephant Waterfalls are a three-step waterfalls which can be reached by a steep  descend on about 180 steps. The descend to Level-1 waterfall is easy. It is the remaining two waterfalls - Level-2 and Level-3 where the descends become steep. Level-2 waterfall is small among the three waterfalls. The level-3 waterfall looked more spectacular than the earlier two waterfalls. It is at this waterfall that maximum photo session takes place and we were no exception.
Elephant Falls - Level-1.

Elephant Falls - Level-2.

Elephant Falls - Level-3.

3. Mawphlang Dam View Point: The visit to Mawphlang Dam View Point was not on my wish list. However, Pradeep took us here without revealing as to where he was taking us. After a drive of about 20 kms from the Elephant Waterfalls, we reached a dead-end of the road. A board on the gate revealed that it was something to do with the Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme. Still it was not clear to us as to why Pradeep had brought us here. It was only when he accompanied us on a 2-feet wide cemented path at the edge of the valley side, we came to know that he was taking us to a view point to see the Mawphlang Dam reservoir. 

The dam is constructed on the River Umiew. The location is the most ideal for construction of the dam as the river flows between the two tall hills making the place a good catchment area. It is a scenic place even during the non-monsoon period.
Mawphlang Dam reservoir which provides drinking water to Greater Shillong.

Tourist Spots we wished to see in Shillongg but skipped
1.The Shillong Peak: Since the weather was cloudy and hazy followed by rains, we felt that it would be a waste of time to make a visit to Shillong Peak. Also, the area falls under the Army and there is a security check for the each tourist before entering the viewing point. This process also takes time as during rush hours there is a big queue. Anyway, we had a 360 degree view of Shillong from the Sky Walk of Don Bosco Museum though view may not be as spectacular as that from Shillong Peak.
2.Ward Lake : We had planned to spend the Monday evening at Ward Lake and Botanical Garden which was in the vicinity of our hotel stay. However, due to rains at Laitlum Canyons, our return to Shillong was delayed. We reached Shillong only after the closing time of Ward Lake (5.30 p.m). The next day (Tuesday) was a weekly closing day for Ward Lake. 
3. Butter Fly Museum: We could not visit on our day of arrival in Shillong as being Sunday, the museum was closed. The next day, due to short of time at our disposal, we skipped this museum in favour of Sweet waterfalls.

4. The Sacred Forest, Mawphlang: Now onward, all our destinations during remainder of the trip would be out of  Greater Shillong. The Sacred Forest (also called The Sacred Groove) lies about 10 kms from Mawphlang Dam View Point and about 1 km from Mawphlang village. It took about 30 minutes to reach the road end to Khasi Heritage Village. The Sacred Forest lies opposite to the Heritage Village. In between, there is a vast meadow, a part of which has been converted into a Football ground.

There are about 6 guides available, all of them belong to Lyndoh  clan, which  own the Sacred Forest. The guides have the rotational system to take the visitors to the forest. The guide charges are fixed at Rs.300/- for half tour to the Sacred Forest. There are two types of forest tours available. The full tour involves a round  walk of about 2 hours which involves some climbs and stream crossing. The half tour takes about 40 to 60 minutes depending upon the interest of the visitors in listening from the guide the legends behind the Sacred Forest. We opted for the half tour.

The Sacred Forest is spread over 80 hectares. The Lyndoh clan treats this forest as the abode of deities. Khasi people believes that a village has no existence without a sacred groove. A basic rule of the Sacred Forest is that nothing can be taken out of the forest - not even the dried leaves. When we entered the forest, we observed that we were actually walking  on the layer of dried leaves. There are trunks of trees lying in the forest for years.  Lyndoh clan believes that  If one takes anything from the forest, the person would fall ill resulting even the death.

The guide told us that there were over 400 species of tress, some of them the rare ones. There are birds and mammals inside the forest. The Sacred Forest also serves as the place for religious ceremonies. There are many ritual stones fixed in the forest over the years. These ritual stones are visited from coronation of the kings to other ceremonies like blessings, thanks giving etc.
Khasi Heritage Village, Mawphlang. We did not visit this place as we had already seen some glimpses of Khasi cultures in Don Bosco Museum.

A vast meadow with a football ground. Sacred Forest in the background.

Entrance to the Sacred Forest.

Rhododendron flowers inside Sacred forest. 

The ritual stones inside Sacred Forest.

Returning from the Sacred Forest.

We returned from the Sacred Forest at around 1.00 p.m. Pradeep had already organised from the local dabha some Khasi snacks and bread rolls for us. We tasted some of them. One of the items tasted like onion pakoda. The another one tasted like the rice pancake with a dash of sugar. These were supplemented by out own stock of Theplas ( Methi Rotis) which we had carried for our emergency need - especially for vegetarians. With these we skipped our lunch.
Assorted Khasi snacks other than the bread rolls. 

5. Mawsynram and Mawjymbuin Cave: After the completion of the half tour of the Sacred Forest, we had planned to check in Maple Pine Farm Home Stay, which was about 1 km from the Sacred Forest or 15 minutes walk. The visit to Mawjymbuin Cave, Mawsynram and Mawlynbgna was planned for the next day. With time at our disposal, Pradeep suggested to complete the visits to Mawjymbuin Cave and Mawsynram today itself and we could still reach Maple Pine before the sunset.

We embarked on our 36 km journey to Mawjymbuin Cave. On the way, I could see a few of the scenic points. Since we were to return from the same route, I did not prompt Pradeep to stop the car. It took about an hour to reach the gate of the Cave where there was a ticket booth. Entry fee was 10/- per head. After a descend of of about 30 steps, we reached the mouth of the cave. 

At the entrance itself, there was a natural Shivling on which the water was dripping from a conical rock on the ceiling of the cave. Beyond the Shivling, the cave is full of rocks. Since no guide was available on the site, we were not sure whether we can move further inside the cave. What I got to know later was that after about 50 metres of walk over the rocks, one can take the side routes close to the cave walls which are filled  with flowing water. 
Mawjymbuin Cave entrance on the left.

Mawjymbuin Cave. It is about 4 metre of height and about 40 metres wide.

Natural Shivling with water dripping from the conical shaped rock from the above.

The ceiling of the Cave.

These accumulation of rocks and stones needs to be crossed to explore the cave further.

View from the cave.

A 3-km drive from Mawjymbuin Cave towards the south direction brought us to Mawsynam village which has now become famous as the wettest place on earth. The annual average rainfall in Mawsynram is 12000mm (about 475 inches). There is not much to see in Mawsynram village except for a couple of scenic hill ranges.

With this, our day's sight-seeing schedule was over. We started our journey back to Mawphlang at around 4.30 p.m. In the next one hour, we were at the road end to Maple Pine Farm Home Stay. 
The rain gauge at Mawsynram village,

Hill ranges seen from Mawsynram village.

View from the car as we drive from Mawsynam towards Mawphlang.

MaplePine Farm Home Stay, Mawphlang.

From the road, we were to walk another 500m on a cemented path and cross the stream over the bridge to reach the Maple Pine. Unfortunately, mobile connection was not working to call on Mr. James Perry, the owner to send someone to carry our 4 baggages. Pradeep helped us in carrying the baggages.   

The farms surrounding MaplePine Home Stay.

The twin cabin in MaplePine where we stayed. The Owner's Alsatian dog  seems to be doing his guard duties.

After settling down in our twin cabins, we had tea/coffee in the dinning room and gave the order for dinner which would be served at 8.00 p.m. Before booking  Maple Pine Home Stay, I was aware that this place was not the usual bed & breakfast or resort type stay. Still, I went ahead of booking this place taking the women folk into confidence. What prompted me to book this place was its rural setting, surrounded from all sides by hills and a stream flowing by the side of the property. At the same time, it was not fa away from the main road and Mawphlang village.

The next day's scheduled sight-seeing visit to Mawlyngbna was changed to Mawphanlur. I will dwell upon this change in  Part-2 of the Blog.


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