Day 7 – Winding down the Shillong trip

All good things must come to an end

All bad things must come to an end

And so must our vacation. But not before we go …. shopping!

Police Bazar

Is nothing short of a nightmare on Saturday evenings. It is explicable since Sunday is mass, most of the shops are closed and Saturday thus becomes the only weekly holiday for shopping. Police Bazaar, also known as Bara Bazaar, was our destination of choice for our last minute shopping.

I guess shopping in your holiday destination is another trait that I find hard to understand the motives for. I am more of a sights-and-sounds person than shopping – call me a typical camera-toting tourist.

We picked up some nice cane & bamboo gifts for family, friends & ourselves at Megha Emporium right at the Police Bazaar roundabout.

Collection of Naga shawls at Megha Emporium

Then we decided to brave the crowd and dived into the bylanes for more shopping. It was a sea of heads and there was considerable jostling for street space!

Sea of heads in Police Bazaar

Amongst shops selling t-shirts, bags & other trinkets, there are some vendors even selling rabbits at INR 600/- per creature. Though one of them promptly quoted INR 1500/- when he noticed a “camera-toting tourist”! The kids obviously wanted one J

Jaguar

Back at the cottage, there was a 1947 Jaguar brought out and I used the opportunity to take some nice up-close pictures. This might be about as close as I might ever get to a real Jag J

And here is an close-up view:

Reflecting on the trip

This is probably a post in itself so am not getting into a lot of details here:

  • Did we enjoy this trip? Absolutely.
  • Will we return to North-East India? Of course.
  • Will we return to Shillong? Definitely.
  • Will we do it in the next 12 months? No!
  • Do I have recommendations for other travellers to this region? Tons of it. Will detail in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
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Day 7 – Winding down the Shillong trip

Day 6 – Visiting the Sacred Forest & pushing our luck

Today was our scheduled trip to Cherrapunjee & Sohra, the rainiest places on earth and also check out the famed waterfalls & caves in the state of Meghalaya. Unfortunately none of that was going to happen on this trip given the kiddo’s health. So we got the luxury of a really late start to the day with the kids relishing bread slices and mashed rice.

The family re-bonding time we had yesterday was apparently enough for everyone, nobody wanted more of it! So we hooked onto the Cottage WiFi and streamed Golmaal Returns on Youtube. FWIW, the movie not a shade as good as the 1st movie or the 3rd one. Anyway, it was good to keep the kids busy.

Today again, we had the pleasure of a home cooked lunch at Aerodene with another fabulous salad and some mind-blowing Khichdi. We took a break from the movie and after lunch headed straight back to the movie.

At around 230pm we realized that the kids were feeling better so a short ride out of town wouldn’t be a bad thing after all. We woke up the driver, who was getting used to our lazy pace just fine.

Driving to Mawphlang

We headed out of the cottage at 2:45pm to the much revered and highly rated Sacred Forest in the village of Mawphlang. The road out of Shillong is the same that goes to Shillong Peak and Elephant falls. The only difference is that instead of turning left towards Dawki side, you hang a right instead. The drive from Shillong to Mawphalng takes no more than an hour assuming no traffic jam.

Unfortunately for us the driver didn’t know the way all the way to the Sacred Forest, so about 80% of the way there he stopped by to enquire for the way. That’s when we had our first experience with the challenge languages pose – nobody we encouraged knew Hindi or English and we ended up relying on the Maps apps on my phone, which suggested taking a U-turn. We happily played along for 30 mins following the Here Maps directions and reached nowhere. Finally, I had the driver pull over and ask 2 folks, who appeared to know English, for directions. They confirmed my fears, we were 30 mins off the path and had to head back to Mawngap.

Upon reaching Mawngap, we immediately identified it as the place where we had taken a U-turn and followed the directions kindly provided by HERE Maps!

Anyway, back on the right trail, we headed straight for another kilometre and we were at Mawphlang village. The directions to the “Sacred Forest” are prominent and if you stick to the road it basically terminates at the Forest entrance gate.

Sacred Forest

The entrance to the forest area is gated and has nice meadows, a football stadium and picturesque rolling hills:

Meadow in front of the Sacred Forest

As luck would have it, the entrance to the forest is only 9am to 430pm and we had just missed the window as we pulled into the “parking lot”. Conveniently enough, the parking lot attendant, who is also manning the entrance gate to the park, agreed to give us a guided tour of the forest – by doubling up as a guide. We really appreciated his gesture since without him we would have no way to explore the forest – it is really a jungle!

First thing you will notice about the Sacred Forest is how neatly it is carved out in the middle of meadows. Then you’ll realize the winds are howling and blowing you over if you aren’t already frozen. This in early-May, imagine how it would be in peak winter Dec-Jan-Feb. I don’t know if it snows in Mawphlang, but without that the winter is going to be bone-chilling.

 

The Sacred Forest seems to have suddenly taken root on the meadow

Inside the forest there is a nice walking trail created with stones but given that we were late. And even though it was only around 4:35pm, the Sun sets fast in the forest due to the thick forest cover. So with our “guide” we went off the trail. Below are some of the interesting things he showed us.

Warning: all the errors below are mine and not to be attributed to our guide since we had a tough time understanding his accent.

Cobra plant

Yes you heard that right, there is a plant which really looks like a cobra has raised its hood in striking position. Here is a quick pic to eliminate another thousand words in this post:

The Cobra Plant

Rudraksh tree

3-faced Rudraksh here, 4-faced in Cherrapunjee and 5-faced in Nepal. Driver saw the fruit and immediately said we make pickles out of this, this can’t be rudraksh. So the guide started peeling the fruit and indeed there was a Rudraskh.

A Rudraksh fruit and dried out Rudraksh seeds

Normally, this would have excited our South Indians genes to engage in a mad fruit hunt, but we desisted and collected only 3 fruits! After coming back to the cottage, we observed one of our co-travellers had laid out their Rudraksh collection for drying J


One of our co-travellers had laid out their Rudraksh collection for drying

Herbs for your cuts & bruises

Our guide was truly since in that he wouldn’t allow us to escape from the Sacred Forest without us seeing everything that should be seen. So the next stop was a herbal tree which is used to heal cuts & bruises. You grind these leaves into a paste and apply it on the wound.

One for your cuts & bruises

The “Vicks” tree

This was by far our favourite on this jaunt – you crush the leaves of this tree and it lets out a Vicks Vaporub like smell. Apparently, the leaf is a big part of the Vicks composition. Aside, did you know that Vicks Vaporub is an Ayurveda medicine?

Cure for Cancer

Yes there is even a tree that yields compounds that help treat cancer. The guide was mentioning that the leaves from that tree go for INR 4,500/- per kilogram!

At this point, I was wondering if he was generally pointing at trees and assigning ailments that they cure, I asked him as much and he was so deeply offended saying that he’ll die the moment he steps out of the forest if he lied about it. I immediately chose to believe him!

The King, Queen, their Children and the King’s seat

This is the part I understood the least due to his accent. Long ago there was a king who ruled the forest and the following monoliths inside the Sacred Forest represent the King, Queen and their 100 Children.

Here is the King’s seat, is our beloved guide giving us a pose of how the King himself dealt with his subjects.

The King’s Seat

Right next to the King’s seat is a temple that is immensely powerful. Some mad tourist kicked these rocks once and in 2 hours he was dead due to inexplicable reasons. Again, not my words!


Temple inside the Sacred Forest

Finally, we’d had enough so we departed from the Forest and spent some time frolicking in the meadow outside, despite the freezing winds.

An unexpected Cultural Festival

On our way to the Forest, we saw this small football field that had many flags of a red cock fluttering high, made me wonder what’s the deal, since it didn’t appear to be a political party’ symbol. So on our return I wanted to stop and take a few pictures. Our driver mentioned that before the advent of Christianity in the North-East region, the locals used to worship the Cock.

The Cock

So when we stopped at the ground on our way back, I was indeed surprised to see that there was a cultural festival going on with kids participating in traditional costumes. It was a very colourful affair with little boys running around with swords & shields and girls nicely dressed up in colourful gowns & long hair.

Boys dressed up in warrior costume at the village cultural festival

And that’s how the Girls were decked up

With that done we resumed our drive back to the cottage and unlike our onward journey we made it back to the cottage in an hour, to find the rest of the group already back from Cherrapunjee.

Thankfully both the kids’ held up well through this 4 hour trip and there was no drama later that night either. Whew!

And with that we were on the last day of our vacation. Truth be told, I wanted to get out of Shillong not because I was bored, I would’ve loved to stay on for another week, just that it’s no fun pushing your luck with kids’ health.

Day 6 – Visiting the Sacred Forest & pushing our luck

Day 5 – Tragic twist

Remember the Domino’s pizza we ordered for dinner yesterday? Well that ensured we had a VERY early start to the day. At 1am in the morning, one of the kids was up vomiting the pizza and then followed the dysentery attack. This wasn’t something we were prepared for, though we had taken necessary precautions – avoided eating at unknown places, drinking only bottled water etc. I was praying that the situation improves in an hour but within 30 mins it went from bad to worse as even water & emergency medication was vomited out. I instantly knew this was the end of our plans for rest of the vacation and in fact, the vacation came to a grinding halt.

At 2pm, I woke up the driver, the cottage security and the cottage owners to determine the closest hospital with emergency facility – a quick Local search showed 5 hospitals in 1km radius with Woodland Hospital being the closest at 300 meters. That was the one they also picked and we headed out. Meanwhile, the weather had turned very windy, with temperature touching 15C. We wrapped up the kid and headed straight to the Emergency.

Again, Sharlene and folks at Aerodene were caring enough to send their son & the cook right behind us, in case any emergency assistance was required. I was already sold on Aerodene but this to me was really going the extra mile.

Woodland Hospital

The Emergency was tiny but functional, staffed by 1 Nurse and 1 Doctor at that hour. A quick check-up revealed that this was probably indigestion caused by Dominos. The Doctor, not so kindly, mentioned that this wasn’t the first case of indigestion he has seen coming from Dominos Shillong!

His reasoning, which made sense, was that in a small city like Shillong fast-food joints don’t have high inventory turn-over rate, ending up with sub-standard food. He advised visiting local food joints that are crowded, serve hot food, are well rated and thus have higher inventory turn-over. Alas, it was a trifle last to change our decision. I was also ruing the fact that the rest of the group had gone out to Café Shillong for a hot meal.

One Neomit injection was promptly delivered to stop the vomiting and a course of antibiotics (Bacigyl) was prescribed to control the indigestion. The hospital also has a 24hr pharmacy where I went over to procure the medicines and just then the Doctor came over to add 1 medicine he had forgotten (Zinconia). We got that too and headed back to the cottage. Finally at 3:30am, we all got back in bed, worrying when the next attack would come. Fortunately, it didn’t come rest of the night.

BTW Woodland hospital, Shillong doesn’t seem to have a website, for me to link, but a quick Bing Search yields a bunch of results including this post on www.antya.com. Apparently, the hospital is amongst the oldest private hospitals in the city

Call it a cruel joke that Dominos is advertising on the website that has a review of Woodland Hospital

Day 5 – at Aerodene Cottage

Waking up at 7am, it was evident that we aren’t going anywhere today. The rest of the group hung around for a bit even as the kiddo continued to earn frequent visitor miles with the John. Eventually the rest of the group headed out to Lady Hydari Park, Shillong Peak and Sacred Forest as we stayed back at the cottage.

It probably was a good idea to stay back – this was the first day in the entire trip thus far that we as a family were together! Otherwise the kids would be playing out together, mothers in tow behind them and the husbands busy by themselves or clicking photographs. Today, was a complete contrast. We remained holed up in our room, seldom venturing out. I started reading a book (more about that in a separate post), caught up on blog posting since I was running behind schedule by 2 days.

Now, lunch is not part of the deal at the Cottage so we were a bit concerned how to manage through the day. Again, Sharlene stepped in and extended luncheon service for us and what a spread it was – salad, dal, chole, rice & aloo-bhindi vegetable. This was by far the best meal at the cottage this whole week. My favourite was the salad since it had garden fresh crisp lettuce served will pepper & vinaigrette sauce.

Having spent the whole day indoors, I stepped out to the Aerodene garden and observed this bunch of dried up mushrooms on the tree, what a contrast from the fresh mushrooms we saw at Mawlynnong yesterday

Dried up mushrooms on a tree in the Aerodene garden

Towards the evening, we decided to take a second opinion and went back to Woodland Hospital.

Back to Woodland Hospital

Turns out the Emergency room is in a separate building from the rest of the hospital, so we switched building and went up to the OPD Consultation rooms. There was a Paediatric doctor visiting that evening – Dr Pankaj Jain. We were already feeling relieved and signed up for appointment number 3. Turned out to be patient number 6, as 3 patients came in with reports – possibly at the Doctor’s request.

Anyway, the Doctor repeated a few assessments and confirmed that the medication was spot-on. He converted one medicine from SOS to a daily dose for next 5 days (Zinconia) and assured us that tomorrow things would be settled!

The Doctor also said that water-led stomach infections are quite common in Shillong especially for visiting tourists.

Since none of my posts are complete without pictures, here is a sightings from today:

Get Well Medicos – opens 930am, is 200m from Aerodene cottage

Dinner & close out

We had an early dinner with kiddo having a light curd-rice meal and everyone slept off by 10pm. I continued with my book and made few edits to the blog, including adding Tags to all the posts. As I start blogging more regularly, I will need to learn how to be more proficient, effective & regular in my posts. Right now, all my posts are quite long (with/without) the pictures and that’s taking a lot of writing time. Anyway, that’s a separate post in itself!

Day 5 – Tragic twist

Day 4 – Mawlynong & Natural Root Bridge

Another day, another early start and today is finally going to be a wonderful sunny day. Looking back at the forecast that was served up the day before we departed, the weather has been favourable and we’ve avoided rain all along – thankfully.

Today the cook reverted to bread, butter, omelette combination for breakfast and I felt this was a safe option considering that we’re out on a long drive today.

We got out at 9:25 after threatening the drivers to leave sometime between 8-9am. After yesterday’s experience where we didn’t make good use of our time, I intended for a slightly aggressive schedule for today, but to no avail as we started out late. Our primary destination was to be Mawlynnong on the Dawki side of the state, which is on NH-40, continuing straight into Bangladesh.

Since we were going to a reasonably remote place, it was clear that we either had to pack lunch from the cottage or pick up something before leaving Shillong city or starve!

Fortunately for us, Rukma & Sharlene at Aerodene are well versed with needs of travellers in the region and they helped identify a contact who was willing to cook up a veggie lunch for the group. In hindsight that was perfect, else we’d have starved – none of the shops served food that looked edible.

Driving Dawki side

The road out of Shillong to Dawki and Cherrapunjee is the same until you get to a fork where you have to pick one of the two destinations. Today we went Dawki side. The hill ride continues regardless of which leg you pick. Being a hill drive, I had to be vigil and keep an eye on the driver & the road to make sure he drove safely. Again, we continued onward in an entourage of 4 cars. As we exited the city, the traffic cleared out and the entourage was able to maintain a healthy pace.

After about an hour’s drive we made our first stretch stop and we saw the first wisps of cloud blowing across our path – the kids really got excited and everyone wanted to get out of the car.

Mommy – see those wonderful clouds down there

The fun of driving through the clouds turned into a nightmare in about 2 kilometres as the clouds completely engulfed the road, reducing visibility to 4-5 meters. Visibility was barely enough to track hazard lights of the car in the front. Our driver, thankfully, never braved being 1st in the entourage and followed the other “brave leaders” through the day.

Holy $#!%! Mommy save us from the Clouds!

And then we got to Pynursla, and the clouds disappeared in a hurry – it was magical that on one side of the town was thick cloud cover and the other side had near perfect visibility. I must also add that there was no precipitation even as we drove through the clouds.

Along the way we saw many small settlements, wondering how people lived here and was professions they undertook, we didn’t pass any farm lands at all – coming from South India, that’s the only measure of livelihood for settlements.

After about 60 kilometres on NH-40, we followed the “Mawlynnong 18kms” signs and took a right. And that’s when the road deteriorated. These 18kms took us nearly an hour to wrap, quite stressful on the car, suspension and travellers. Glad to report that nobody emptied their bowels inside our car!

Mawlynnong

The drivers took us directly to Riwai village to trek down to the Natural Root Bridge, but having reached the venue at 1:15pm, the need of the hour was lunch! We drove another 2kms to reach Mawlynnong village and at the main parking lot we met with Henry who walked us to the restaurant for our mid-day meals.

I cannot tell you how thankful we were to the folks at Aerodene who helped us with this, else all 15 of us would’ve starved and probably survived on tea. Anyway, Henry guided us to a hut, where the living room had been converted into a dining area with a table for 8. We scooped up the rice, piled on the dal onto our plates and some folks used the spoons/forks, while others used their fingers. My favourite part of the meal was the pickle, which resembled a Mexican salsa sauce that added flavour to the yellow dal. Aside, I bet I’ve eaten more Dal Chawal this week than in the past 5 years combined – am not a big fan of Dal Chawal. Once the lunch was over, someone came up with the bright idea of having tea at the same “restaurant” so we go that also out of the way. The entire meal package set us back by INR 1070/-, again very reasonable given that 15 people ate their fill.

Post meals we started exploring the Mawlynnong village and the sun was out now, blazing down in fact and we had started sweating like we were in Chennai! So there was added pressure from kids to get done with the village tour quickly.

You may not know this, but Mawlynnong has the distinction of being Asia’s cleanest village and was covered by the BBC. With only 82 houses in the village, the village council takes deep interest in maintaining the green cover and imposes fines on anyone found littering. We also observed that all litter bins are bamboo baskets, not just in Mawlynnong, but across most of the state.

Here are some interesting pictures I captured at the village

A nice gooey earthworm

We ran into a bunch of kids from the village all poring over a small pond with an elder keeping an eye on them. In about 2 minutes there was a huge commotion in that group as all of them jumped right into the pond and started splashing around. I was perplexed since the pond was too small for all them and as we walked over it became clear that they were catching fishes in that pond and transferring them to another pond right next to it – using their bare hands!

The fishes wouldn’t be able to it on their own since the two ponds were separated by a wall. It was quite a sight as they would all target a single fish and eventually one of them would catch it and throw it to the next pond, even as the fish splashed. The whole activity had our kids retort, “They are having so much fun”. Makes you wonder what is the definition of “fun” for kids – they are equally happy with Angry Birds on their phones and at ease in a dirty pond catching fishes. For kids, there does indeed seem to be a universal definition of fun!

After seeing through the transfer of all the fishes, we resumed our walk through the village and encountered many interesting trees & plants, including a few Bitter Orange trees (Narthangai anyone?) which immediately had the Tam Brahms go ooh! J

A pepper plant

As we left Mawlynnong village, our driver Ali, advised us to check out the tree house at the edge of the Mawlynnong villages. The climb was easy and definitely worth all the effort, even though the kids struggled to get to the higher levels and one of them was howling all the way up & down – possibly scared of heights.

Again, there is the usual INR 20/- ticket per adult but thankfully no “camera charges”.

View from the Tree house in Mawlynnong

I was surprised to see a cathedral so far deep in the state and pondered on the spread of religion & language; for instance, the lady collecting the fare spoke fluent English, but couldn’t converse in Hindi. From the Tree house, Brahmaputra River and the Bangladesh border are visible to the naked eye, but you should have a powerful zoom lens and clear skies to capture the sight.

Riwai Village and Natural root bridge

We drove back 2kms to Riwai village so we could trek down to the famed Natural Root Bridge. The story is that there is a bridge formed by a tree’s natural roots, which as so strong and long that they cross over a whole river. And there are two of them in Meghalaya, one in Mawlynnong (Riwai village) that has 1 level and one in Cherrapunjee which has 2 levels. The Cherrapunjee one is a whole day trek down & back up, so we’re definitely not going to cover that this trip. So the urge to explore the Riwai Bridge was high.

When we reached the rest of the gang had already started their descent and hence we enjoyed a clear unobstructed descend over the 250-odd steps we had to take to get to the Natural Roots.

The descent down to the Natural Root Bridge

We also encountered a wonderful collection of mushrooms on the tree just before we started the descent.

Wild mushrooms on a tree

Natural Root Bridge

After about 15 minutes and 250 steps we reached a gushing river front and right there was a magnificent bridge grown naturally from a tree’s roots. I was expecting a frail structure but this one appeared strong. So strong that the bridge had soil & rocks placed on it for people to walk across without stepping into the sludge. This place is quite wet due to the rains and all the greenery immediately made sense.

I have seen many natural wonders but this one is very unique. Makes me wonder, how the roots gained hold on the other side of the river?

How did the roots gain hold on the other side of the river?

My current hypothesis is that the tree had a small stream gushing through one of its roots (limbs) and over a few thousand years, including effects of global warming and increased precipitation in the region, the river slowly grew in strength and flow. But the rate of the river’s growth hasn’t yet outpaced the rate of tree growth. Thereby enabling the roots to form a natural bridge.

Looking at the above picture you may think that the river flow is negligible, nothing could be farther from the truth. The river is racing downstream and one of the co-passengers tried getting in and was washed downstream by almost 7m before he found footing again! Here is an upstream view and indicative of the river’s descent to right underneath the bridge.

Upstream view from under the root bridge

As I navigated my path to the river to take the above shot, my co-passengers experienced what a combination of rock, water & algae can do. Yes you got it right, slippery slopes and faster transportation into the river itself besides algae imprints on clothes and some bruises. At right below the rock we found an unexpected guest.

Unexpected guests hiding in rock crevices

We noticed that the sky had turned darker and a huge downpour was in the offing so we packed up and started our ascent at 3:45pm, reaching the parking lot at 4pm. And at 4:10 we started our return drive to Shillong city, reaching at 6:25, which wasn’t as bad as in the morning– making fewer stops helped!

And since the kids were tired of Dal Chawal everyone decided to step out dinner, except us. We were lazy and instead ordered pizza from Dominos. A VERY BAD IDEA in hindsight and one that has ended our vacation! L

Stay tuned for more drama.

Day 4 – Mawlynong & Natural Root Bridge

Day 3 – Umiam Lake & Elephant Falls

Waking up before 7am is now becoming a habit and in the sit-out it is nice & sunny today. In fact when the Sun is out, Shillong and the whole area really shines. In fact, the more time I spend here the more the weather reminds me of Seattle; it is rainy for the most part and when it is sunny it is fabulous. Then there is the Green cover everywhere you look, tons of trails, hiking spots and overall an outdoor haven.

Today was a “pahadi” breakfast i.e. Paranthas & Aloo Bhaaji, Curd & Pickle on the side – perfect start! And just as we got into the car, the Sun disappeared L

Umiam Lake

We decided to act brave and got out at 945, heading to Umiam Lake, which is actually a natural reservoir.

A hazy view of the waterfront at Umiam Lake

The similarity with Seattle continued – Umiam Lake resembles Deception Pass in geographical layout.

Water Sports to Watered-down Sports

We were told there are quite a few Water Sport options at the lake, so some of us were excited and packed additional set of clothes, towels etc. Kids were planning whether they would go water skiing or speed boating, while someone wanted to go on water scooter rides.

Unfortunately, the only “water sport” there was a 5 min speed boat ride and the other option was a “bus boat” ride.

All our “water sports” anchored firmly to the lake shore

To keep the kids in good spirits, we quickly agreed that everyone will go out on speed boat rides. And with organized “water sport” activities behind us, we had to quickly formulate new home-grown water sport activities that kept the kids busy. These included highly-complex and physically challenging activities like “throw stone in the water” and “skipping stones”. And as you would expect, this was a HUGE hit with the kids. They almost emptied the entire trail of stones by pelting them all into the lake! The speed ride itself was right at the end of the trip J

One of the kids indulging in other “water sport” activities

A typical tourist would spend no more than an hour at the lake given that there is (almost) nothing to do apart from a speed boat ride. In our case, the gang of 15, could stay busy until 1:30pm. All of us were quite shocked that we even managed to spend so much time doing nothing – almost feeling guilty of being on such a lazy vacation!

Then it was time for lunch for which we headed over to Orchid Lake Resort, which is inside the Umiam Lake park premises

Orchid Lake Resort

Now, the lead driver for the entourage had categorically told us to order food before we went into the lake. At that time, it didn’t make any sense since we wanted the food to be hot and freshly prepared. We also knew this meant that the kitchen will take extra time to serve up our preferred dishes. What happened next is unusual.

We reached the restaurant for food and realized that this restaurant was run by the Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC)! So while the food would be tasty, there was no guarantees about cleanliness of the kitchen or how much time it would take to get served. Our order was the safe – Dal, Rice, Aloo Jeera and one family braved it by opting for Noodles & French Fries.

The restaurant does afford a nice view of the lake and here is one such view:

Trick photo from the restaurant at Orchid Lake Resort overlooking the Umiam lake

About 15 minutes after the order I noticed there was a large TV where “Taking of Pelham 123” was playing. I’ve always admired Denzel Washington’s acting so seeing him & John Travolta in a thriller was quite gripping. I lost myself in the movie, even as the kids made paper planes of the table mats! About 30 minutes later, the plates arrived with the food following in due course.

By that time, we were so hungry that our hunger had died of starvation!

The food itself was good and the waiter clarified that it were the Roti & Aloo Jeera that were taking time, Rice and Dal were readily available. The Dal refill arrived quickly too but the Aloo Jeera arrived disguised as a Cauliflower-Carrot dish!

Again, we were well past complaining so everything on the table continued to disappear into people’s bellies.

The entire meal set us back by INR 1300/- comprising 30 rotis, 2 enormous rice servings, 2 aloo jeera, 2 dal, 1 cauliflower-carrot dish & some bottles of water.

With that downed, we headed back to the car at 3pm, having spent 5 hours at a 1 hour destination.

Our next stop for the day was Shillong Peak, but we learnt that the peak closes at 4pm due to Defence area security requirements. So the next destination shifted to Elephant Falls, about 1 km further ahead from Shillong Peak.

Elephant falls

We departed at 3pm and reached 3:45pm. Again, we had to get past the “how many cameras” discussion at the entrance to the facility

The entrance to Elephant Falls

From my web research I knew that this was one of many waterfalls in the region so our expectations weren’t very high since we knew the best one was yet to come. The car parked in the parking lot, we initiated our descent to the fall.

The fall itself is setup across 3 levels – unimaginatively called First Falls, Second Falls & Third Falls. The First falls are a 40-50 step descent, the Second another 40-50 and the Third Falls have about 80 steps. On our way back up, I counted 170-odd steps all the way up. It wasn’t tiring even with a backpack; all the kids managed the ascent on their own.

Long exposure shot of the First Falls

One thing I’ll probably never understand is the behaviour of crowds at such picturesque joints, despite there being about 25 people at the Third Falls, people were jostling to take pictures of their dear ones in front of the falls. It got to a point where we had to wait for them to finish before we could proceed and in couple of cases, request them to get out of the frame, so we could get clean shots.

 

A long exposure shot of the Third Falls

After trekking up the 170 steps, we had an opportunity to disguise as locals, some of us indulged in dressing themselves up in local Khasi outfits, whilst the rest were quite happy taking pictures. We also used this time to load up on our evening Tea and grabbed a grilled Corn with lime + salt + masala, quite a treat that.

We left Elephant Falls at 6pm and got back to the room at 7pm, to relax and dine. Just then I learnt that I had to refill medicines and paid a visit to a nearby pharmacy. Two of us used this opportunity to walk down to a market and discover few highly rated shops & eateries – discovered Café Shillong & Munchies, rated #1 & #2 respectively on TripAdvisor

I must add that Shillong has a great music scene and the Shillong Music Festival is highly rated.

That’s it for the day, day 4 report to follow soon.

Day 3 – Umiam Lake & Elephant Falls

Day 2 – Shillong City, Don Bosco Museum, City Dhaba & Ward’s Lake

Our first day in Shillong and we were all so excited, we awoke at 6:45; to be truthful excitement wasn’t the only reason – 8am to10am everyday there is scheduled power cut so those wanting hot water for bath would have to be bathed by 8am J

It was quite cold and we already had the room heater whirring, which was good. Outdoors it was even colder, not a sign of the Sun and there was a remote chance of a washed out holiday! But by the time we reached breakfast, the Sun was starting to play peek-a-boo.

Breakfast was tried-and-tested Bread, Butter & Omelette, with the only offbeat item on the menu being Corn, served off-the-cob, with butter & salt. And we topped off the breakfast with Tea. After the simple meal, we stepped out to the porch and the rain had reduced to a drizzle.

Raindrop on the Peach tree in the cottage garden

Rain, Rain and … Water shortage!

Talking about rain with Sharlene yesterday, I learnt that these are passing Spring showers, so aren’t quite as heavy and usually occur early morning or in the evening. In monsoon, the rains are quite heavy and apparently go on for weeks at end with no stop. Last year there was on downpour that went on for 2 weeks!

Yet there is severe water shortage in the city, I figure this is a common problem across other hill stations in India. From my discussions, I gather that this is a combination of government apathy and lack of rain water harvesting. Some independent households have adopted RWH but then they are the sole beneficiaries; fortunately our cottage is one such household. Yet the water quality is great, it’s sweet!

Friendly reminder on the water situation in the room

Don Bosco museum

Our first stop of the day was the Don Bosco museum, came much recommended as the place to get a good understanding of the North-East. Personally, am not a big fan of museums in Indian since they display more rules than artefacts!

This museum didn’t seem to be different initially; there was a designate usher who insisted that we pay the “camera fee” before taking any pictures. And as expected, the “camera fee” is different for point-and-shoot, camera-phones, SLR cameras and video cameras. I quizzed the lady at the counter, why are SLRs discriminated – the response was a smile. I didn’t even bother asking why camera phones weren’t counted as video cameras!

The museum itself is huge – 7 floors huge – with a peculiar looking entrance, which reminds me the DLF building on the Delhi–Gurgaon NH8 highway

The façade of the Don Bosco museum

While driving to the museum, we tried to recollect names of the 5 states in the North-East, until the kid mentioned that it’s actually 7 states that are collectively referred to as “7 sisters”. So me & S promptly started enumerating the 7 states, after 5 minutes of fuddling around, we embarrassingly gave up – not being able to name the 7th state!

I’ve seen comedy shows in the US, where they ask candid questions to hapless Americans in downtown NY, some of the answers were bordering dumb. That’s exactly how I felt when I couldn’t name the “7 sisters”. Once in the museum, the usher called out “7 sisters and a brother”! I was shocked to learn that there are indeed 8 states in the North-East! These are:

  • 7 sisters: Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram
  • 1 brother: Sikkim

Overall, the museum has done a very good job collating everything ranging from topology, origins, tribes, genealogy & evolution of the 7 states. Each floor covers one of these facets, with added coverage on the advent of Christianity in the region.

A vertigo view of the Don Bosco museum

I am unclear as to how Christianity entered & became mainstream in the region; considering this is the Don Bosco museum, I chose to ignore that section entirely, instead concentrating on the other rooms. I found the sections on warfare, agrarian & musical instruments quite informative.

A quiver (in the bokeh) and the arrows in foreground

The “top floor” of the museum is a Skywalk, quite interestingly done too – they’ve railed the roof and made a nice walk way to get to the highest point of the building and get a nice panoramic view of the city.

Panoramic view from atop the Don Bosco Museum (skywalk)

For a museum-hater like me, this museum is an exception as I learnt a few things. If you are a first-time visitor to the North-East of India, I highly recommend including Don Bosco Museum in your agenda.

City Family Hut

After the museum we had to pick a nice place for lunch and the City Family Hut Dhaba came recommended. This was apparently the only place where our group of 15 could find seating. The restaurant is nicely tucked away in Police Bazaar (aka Bara bazaar), with the most obnoxious of entrance routes that I have seen in a very long time. Coming from Bangalore, am used to one-ways and weird rules but this one beat them all. The police has blocked right turn on a roundabout, so anyone wanting to take a right turn has to drive straight into Police Bazaar, take 3 right turns to arrive back exactly at the same roundabout where now you’re allowed to take a left and proceed towards your destination!

The drive from Don Bosco to City Family Hut Dhaba took us about 30 minutes and we were famished when we arrived. Thankfully they quickly assembled a table for 15 and we ordered the usual Dal, Roti, Rice and for added excitement someone suggested veg momos. For a self-confessed foodie, I’ve never tried momos, so when the waiter asked me fried or steamed, I quickly passed the question to fellow diners.

Easily mistaken for a bed-and-breakfast in Zurich, this is the City Family Hut Dhaba!

The restaurant is nicely done up with artistic use of food items at the entrance. To actively ward away bad wishes and such. The restaurant also has a wishing well and a dedicated person doling out balloons to kids. The best part was that the same person was giving out chocolate to all kids who finished their food!

Garlic & Red Chilli danglers at the entrance to ward off “bad eyes”

We ordered for 2 veg deluxe thali, 2 portions of veg steamed momos, 5 butter naan, 2 masala naan, 1 veg jaipuri, 2 dal makhani, 2 yellow dal, 2 raita & 1 veg biryani, which set us back by ~INR 2800/- including tips. Note that this is 8 adults & 7 kids eating their fill.

The food quality is definitely good and we’ll be visiting this place again during our stay in Shillong.

After a filling meal we set out to Umiam which is a large natural reservoir about 1 hour drive from the restaurant. And we arrived in less than 5 minutes, which was baffling, as we looked out the window, we’re arrived at Ward’s Lake! Turns out that Umiam (aka Bara Pani), closes at 3:00pm, so it made no sense to head out so late. This claim made no sense to me, but Ward’s was always on the agenda so we agreed to the switch and halted at Ward’s Lake.

Ward’s Lake …

… is very nice! Just add it to your agenda.

View of bridge across Ward’s Lake from the Boat house

It a wide open lake in the middle of town, has a nice walking, jogging track. Boating is 100/- for a 4-seater, paddle boat for 30 mins. If you aren’t in great physical shape then 30 mins is about the maximum that your Quads will hold up for!

Nicely, both ends of the lake have been cordoned off to provision as Lotus Ponds, which look very pretty indeed. Makes for great photo ops and worthwhile going to lake’s end just for this purpose.

Lotus pond on south side of Ward’s Lake

After the boating affair, we took the kids on the walking path around the park. We saw the Lotus Pond on the South side once again and then turned back to visit the North side of the lake. The lake itself is neatly divided in the middle by a wooden bridge, filled with people feeding puff rice to the fishes.

The kids had a great time running around the park, climbing trees – I am so glad we went to Ward’s Lake with 3 hours in hand. Can easily spend 6 hours there, doing nothing but bonding with kids.

Now, back on the North side there is a nice water fountain and this day the wind was blowing across the lake towards the North, so when you stand on that side of the fountain you have a whole lot of spray – i.e. more fun for the kids!

And right below the water fountain are two LARGE speakers, possibly to be used as a PA system. On this day though, they were playing Scorpions! I heard them play:

  • Is there anybody out there
  • Rhythm of love
  • Winds of Change

IMHO – it was freaking awesome!

We ended the park visit by feeding the fishes puffed rice, there were some fat fishes in the lake. It was cute to see the geese notice that it was “feeding time” and they promptly made their way to the bridge!

Bangalore so sorely misses such a fabulous hang out – I bet Ulsoor lake area can be developed to this scale & quality.

Close out

We finally left the part at 530, arriving back at the cottage for some nice tea. It was a good day, look forward to a dal, roti dinner topped with some Curd rice!

Oh and the Wi-Fi is now working, so I can write up and file my blog posts.

Day 2 – Shillong City, Don Bosco Museum, City Dhaba & Ward’s Lake

Day 1 – Arriving into Shillong & the Aerodone Cottage

And finally D day arrived and we’re up at 3:30am to catch the 7:50am flight. While this makes no sense to the business traveller in me, it is entirely sensible for the family traveller. To put things in contrast, I’ve got a mathematical deduction to determine what time I, the business traveller, should awaken given the take-off time and per that calculation our wake up time should have been 5:20am and yet here I was awake a full 2 hours ahead!

Of course, having to fill water bottles, pack the kids’ toothbrush and the totally unique Colgate Spiderman toothpaste is of utmost importance, there is nothing worse than to be away on a holiday with that one thing that cannot be purchased locally! Surprisingly the kids awaken at first call, something that never happens on a weekday – there are some funnies here since the kid retorts that they have never looked out the window at 4:30am. At 5:05am the taxi arrives and in 15 mins we’re out the door.

NASA Taxi

I notice that the cab was branded NASA Taxi Service, unfortunately no connection whatsoever with NASA.gov, not even a legal document detailing the liberal borrowing of the NASA title J

The driver was a sweet chap, who helped lift our 36kgs suitcases. The funnest part of the airport drive was when the kids would start hollering every-time we passed an underpass on the Outer Ring Road, it’s not since my childhood train ride that I’ve hollered & yodelled! It was so freaking funny that even the driver was giggling away.

Per my calculation we were to reach the airport at 6:20am and that’s about when we got in as well. Getting into the terminal building was a pain as some passengers showed up without any ID proof, held us up – and later to my amazement, we met the gentlemen at security check! And since I’d done a web check-in, we walked straight to the Indigo baggage drop counter, where, as usual, were a family checking in their baggage and getting the boarding passes. Oh and then there was a young man travelling with his mother, who insisted on jumping the queue of 1 (me) so he could board faster. After 10 mins, managed to drop the baggage and proceed to security check & boarding. Happened to meet one of the acquaintance families at the boarding gate, by which time both the kids were ready to sleep again!

Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport

To my amazement, the Guwahati airport is an International Airport with a customs clearance section that has 2 tables. And even as we were collecting our baggage, we had an International flight land! I have never seen a more efficient customs clearance unit in operation. Since we were waiting for our taxis to arrive, we saw the entire airport clear out with only security & airline ground staff in view.

This was our first experience of the dreaded traffic jam in the North-East. I found it baffling that Guwahati can experience traffic jams. With each passing day I’m more convinced that the unrest and uncivility on roads is reflective of the society at large. A full 1 hour after the flight landed we got into the car and headed out towards Guwahati city.

Hugecar Rentals

My tryst with interestingly named car companies continued into this trip with the local cab company, aptly titled, Huge Car Rentals. They must be popular in this area since a Bing search quickly reveals that they serve Guwahati area. Anyway they served us with a very regular looking Tata Indigo, which didn’t burst at the seams as we squeezed in all our bags. If you need to get a car for local use in Guwahati or the North-East feel free to reach them at info@hugecarrentals.com or raise Naushad (9435108482).

Our friend for the next few days was a cheerful, betel chewing Ali. He immediately earned extra brownie points from all of us by cueing up Fevicol Se, which (unfortunately) is a huge favourite with the kids!

Driving from Guwahati to Shillong

Despite landing on time and collecting our baggage, we still had to wait for the taxies to arrive and it took them a full 45 minutes to reach the airport. Thereby ensuring that we left only at 12 noon, this was the first of many delays caused by the drivers – but frankly we didn’t mind since this was a fun trip and we didn’t have a list of touristy to-dos to check-off!

The first 30 mins of the drive, I couldn’t help but notice the slush on the road side, caused by the downpour earlier in the day. The downpour had continued as we waited for the taxi. The first green patch was at the Gauhati University and the rumble strips on the road were heartless! I noticed that the city was Gauhati and not Guwahati! I could easily tell that that this place was hot, humid and in the rainy season, very much like Kerala. This hypothesis was repeatedly reconfirmed through rest of the trip, except for the missing coconut trees and coconut by products in all dishes.

Makhan Bhog at Byrnihaat

Having started the day early and surviving on home cooked sandwiches & idlis, our stomach kept reminding us that it needed food. So by 1:00pm having been on the road for a bit, we had to make our first stop. Per my research on the web, there were a few places mid-way at NongPoh but that was still quite some way away. Thankfully, Sharlene had recommended a restaurant called Makhan Bhog at Byrnihaat and just as I was calling up fellow travellers asking them for where was Byrnihaat, I passed the Army Command office board mentioning that we had arrived. A few kilometres after that was the restaurant, in a half complete building, with an empty parking lot and as we stepped in, we realized we were the first guests and the 12 of us were possibly inaugurating the lunch!

With great trepidation we ordered yellow dal, dal makhani, naan, roti & rice and 15 minutes later when the food arrived, we were relieved that it was not only up to mark, it was good. So good that it compared favourably to North Indian restaurants in Bangalore. The food flowed as repeats of everything were ordered and the whole bill came in ~1800/-, which included a decent tip amount reflective of our satisfaction. The only thing that we didn’t quite feel satisfied about was the bottled water served, was a brand called “Prime”, immediately prompting the little one to talk about “Optimus Prime” – yes we’d watched Transformers the day prior to our departure J

The uninviting exterior to Makhan Bhog – for lunch

By the time we left the restaurant it was 2:15pm and we took down the restaurant’s number, confirmed that they opens at 9am so we can dig in for breakfast on our way back to the airport!

Continuing the journey to Shillong

This was the fun part of the journey as kids went back to sleep and I kept vigil on the driver so he doesn’t drive rash. Another topic for separate blog post – my extreme discomfort with chauffeured cars.

For now, am pleased to report that Ali was kind and since this was an entourage of 3 cars, everyone mindless followed Munna, the lead driver. And at no point did they cross 60kmph, every time they tried the NHAI would promptly interfere i.e. NH40 is still under construction, should be ready in about 6 months. It is already a complicated route considering that it is hilly terrain and in typical NHAI fashion, they construct both lanes in parallel with switch overs, which are very bumpy!

I also noticed many houses built on Bamboo stilts. I was surprised to see that the stilts were merely 1-1.5 ft high, I was expecting houses-on-stilts to be way above ground! The kids promptly reminded us what they learnt in school about the need for houses on stilts (heavy rains & dealing with silting).

Unfortunately I couldn’t grab a nice picture of a house on stilts, will grab one and update post later.

Around 3:30pm we reached Nongpoh and I let out a huge sigh of relief that I didn’t stick to my plan of having lunch at Nongpoh! I was fascinated by a football stadium in the middle of the town. Can visualize weekend football matches between 2 teams with roaring supporters on both sides.

Reaching Shillong

We finally neared Shillong around 4:00pm and the way we spotted it was the Traffic jams! One of the blog posts had the traveller rant about how much time was wasted in the traffic jams in the city of Shillong. I was amazed that such a thing is even possible in a hill station. But alas this is quite true, especially on weekends when trucks are allowed to ply through the day unlike weekdays when they aren’t allowed 8am to 8pm in the city. The other thing I noticed was that many of the taxies were Maruti Suzuki 800s, with very hot-headed drivers. One of them deliberately stopped in front of our car as we were finishing an over taking manoeuvre!

Land of lakes & water – not!

We passed the Umiam reservoir on the right side as we were driving into Shillong. It was quite a sight – a huge natural reservoir. And combined with my web research about the area, which yielded many waterfalls, I figured that water shouldn’t be a problem here both in quantity and quality. I probably couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

View of Uniam reservoir from Guwahati – Shillong highway

Aerodene

Finally, we reached our abode for the next few days – Aerodene cottage. This is an old bungalow, build to an old Assami design, which has its roots in Chinese style of construction. The wooden flooring, Victorian taps and pastel shaded walls, instantly reminded me of Taj Land’s End in Bandra, Mumbai. The owner is the charming Sharlene Das, who has taken particular interest in our trip and provides us with regular insight.

The approach road from the city to Aerodene is unique, from the middle of the city the transition to Aerodene is abrupt and when driving you are arrive suddenly to the picturesque cottage.

The cottage might be quaint but is very functional, has more amenities that you might expect – such as a shared Wi-Fi connection for guest, yoga classes and such.

Entrance to Aerodene cottage

Day 1 evening we spent time in the garden in frivolous chit-chat since the weather was nice. But as the evening progressed the weather turned from pleasant to cold, the mercury dropping in front of us by a good 5 degrees, which is when we decided to shift indoors and indulge in the homely Dal, Roti, and Rice dinner.

Definitely excited about tomorrow and will have more to share on this trip.

Day 1 – Arriving into Shillong & the Aerodone Cottage