A Trek to the Double Decker Root Bridge of Cherrapunjee
“It’s better if you take a cab,” suggested the young American tourist, “unless of course, you want to trek another five kilometers,” she added with a smile. She was reading a paperback in the faint glow of the bonfire. Back from a grueling trek to the double-decker, living root bridge that evening, she said her limbs ached and that she had sought the services of a masseur. “Make sure you swim in the stream,” she insisted enthusiastically. “Its water is so pure.” She stressed on the ‘s-o-o’ making it sound like a long vowel. The late evening sky was studded with stars matching the twinkling lights of the Bangladesh plains. Nestled on the edge of a highland, our resort overlooked the Sylhet district of Bangladesh. After getting a lowdown on the trek from the young American, whose name I forgot to ask, I couldn’t wait for the trek to begin.
My husband and I heeded to her advice and booked a cab that was to drive us to the spot from where the trek to the root bridge began. We wanted to conserve all our energies for the trek. Not that I am an avid trekker, but a chance viewing of a BBC documentary on the double-decker, living root bridge of Cherrapunjee introduced me to this living wonder of the world. Prior to this, I had not even known that such a thing existed.
The next morning we began the trek at quarter past six. Our guide Evelyn, a local guy, provided us with two robust sticks, one each for me and my husband. I knew its usage for I had watched it in the documentary. But I did not know its utility, not until I myself used the sticks. The late November sun was yet to shine and the morning air was still chilly. We started climbing down the steps, navigating through a small village first. Pots of marigold in canary, orange and copper- brown lined the steps. This is the easier part of the trek, with the steps nicely levelled and iron railings on the sides to hold on to. It took a descent of 400 steps to cover the village. From here the climb down becomes vertiginous and it is here that I realized the utility of the sturdy stick. My limbs had already begun to tremble from the continuous descent. The stick helped me to navigate down the steep descent. Before climbing down a step, I transferred my body weight on to the stick so I didn’t trip on. It is not just the number of steps that is so overwhelming and intimidating, it is also their character- steep, serpentine and vertiginous. The first 900 steps is a sort of a milestone. There is a concrete bench where we decided to rest a bit. It is from here that our guide showed us the hamlet of Nongriat where the bridge was located. Interestingly Nongriat was on a hill opposite to the one where we were standing and a river gurgled down between the two. “How are we to reach that hill?” my curiosity knew no end. “You will see,” smiled Evelyn, who insisted we call him Evy. As we were still resting, we met three young boys, freshly scrubbed, wearing their school uniform. After a brief conversation with Evy in the local language, they resumed their climb. Upon enquiring I learned that they came all the way from Nongriat village. This is how they commute to school. And here I was huffing and puffing after doing a mere 900 steps. Needless to say, it was an astonishing piece of information for an out-and-out city-bred like me. Even a simple visit to the doctor meant climbing up those steps.
The sun had risen up the sky and the chill in the air was replaced by humidity. I got rid of my pull-over. I must mention here that one needs to carry an adequate amount of drinking water. One cannot expect to get clean drinking water on the way. As we resumed our journey, Evy narrated to us the history behind the architectural wonder that the living root bridge is. Apparently, these bridges take ten to fifteen years before they become fully functional. But once well formed, their lifespan is estimated to be a whopping 500 to 600 years. Numerous streams and rivers meander down the lower reaches of the southern slopes of Khasi and Jaintia Hills. In order to make these water bodies navigable, the early war-Khasis had adopted a species of the Indian Rubber tree to serve their need for bridges. I listened to Evy’s tales intently but with every descent, I started to feel dizzy from the excessive steepness. To cut down on the dizziness, I decided to avoid looking ahead. Instead took one step at a time. On our right was the majestic facade of the Shillong Plateau. A vertical, ribbon-like whiteness seemed to trickle down this façade. Evy informed us that it was the Dainthlen Falls. Around November, the month we visited, the falls lose their gush since almost all these waterfalls are fed with rainwater that generously showers this part of the world during the monsoon. “You should come visit Cherapunjee in the beginning of October,” advised Evy. “This side,” he panned his hand towards the plateau “will be awash in milky- white falls.”
After doing about 1900 steps, one can go straight and do another 100 steps to reach the single- decker living root bridge. However, we decided to give this one a miss and turned left towards our destination. Here again, we meandered through another village. I should rather call it a settlement of about 60-70 people may be. Their living conditions were rudimentary as if the settlers were yet to see the days of civilisation. But therein lay the charm of their living perhaps. Even in that hostile topography, most houses had a make-shift kitchen garden. Daintily built honey- collecting beehives too lined the steps. Such enterprising locals! These steps were different from the earlier vertiginous ones. These were made in a hurry, perhaps perfunctorily, stone chips and slabs laid to give them a step-like appearance. However here the steps went both up and down randomly. And we trundled along them with stick in tow. The dense bushes on either side were home to myriad butterflies- bronze, cobalt-blue, ash, striped, dotted, we found them in various shapes and sizes. After climbing up a few stairs through dense, green undergrowth we reached two iron suspension bridges, spaced in a short distance from each other. The second bridge was bigger and longer than the earlier one. It is a suspension bridge, swayed everytime me or my husband or Evy stepped on to it. We took turns to cross it one at a time. I held on to the iron railings to balance my body weight and placed my feet carefully so it did not slip through the horizontal rods. But what really caught my attention was the water under the bridge- an opaque turquoise. Evy was quick to point out that the water is of the river that ran between the two hills that had made me curious just a while earlier.
As soon as one enters the Nongriat village, one cannot miss the two homestays that stand at the mouth of the entrance to the root bridge. Even from their exterior, one gets the idea that these are very elementary. But if wants to rest after the tiring trek, these are the only options. It was 9:15 when we reached the double-decker bridge. The initial feeling upon reaching the bridge is “Wow we made through the gruelling trek.” There is a natural pool under the bridge. I sat on the banks and dipped my aching heels in the cool water. It is the aura of the place that is so spectacular. The far-from-maddening- crowd ambience, the heat and dust-exempted atmosphere- everything adds to the tranquil charm of the place. Even time stood still there. The roots, buttress-like, twined and twirled to form this architectural wonder. I sat there wondering how many generations have trodden down the bridge, may be 5, may be 15, maybe more. The architecture of the bridge was testimony to the fact that humans CAN live in complete harmony with Nature. We had our breakfast there- egg and cheese sandwich packed by the hotel staff. Littering in and around the area is heavily penalized. We spent a good hour in this dream-like place.
During our return trek, we again met the three schoolboys. They were returning after writing their exams. Every day is an exam for these boys. What we call ‘trek’ they call ‘commute.’ C’est la vie. Such is life.
That evening I wanted to relate my experience to the American tourist. But was sad to learn that she had left that afternoon. Like her, I too had to seek the masseur’s service that evening. I wondered about the 3 school boys. The following morning too would be another exam for them, in fact for all those, settled along the 3500 steps.
Fact File: Nongriat is located approximately 5 kilometers from Cherrapunjee. It is important to mention here that Cherrapunjee, though a small town, is spread across a large area. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere.
Going there: The closest airport is in Shillong which is at a distance of 54 km from Cherrapunjee. Tourist taxis are easily available from the Shillong airport. One can also fly to Guwahati and then hire a taxi from there.
Seasons: The best time to visit Cherrapunjee is October, immediately after the monsoons retreat. Trekking during the monsoon is a risky affair when the stairs get slippery.
Stay: Hotel Polo Orchid has a beautiful location facing the Seven Sisters Falls in the Shillong Plateau. The other option, which wouldn’t create a hole in your pocket, is the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort. There’s nothing luxurious about this resort, but the warmth and hospitality of the staff is something to cherish.
Good to know: Contrary to our perception, locals are extremely friendly and are mostly English speaking. A word of caution though for the trek. Climbing 3500 steps down and then up is a backbreaking job. Anybody who has any kind of ailment should strictly avoid this trek. If one falls ill mid-way, there is nothing or no one to carry him/ her to safety.
Cover Photo By Kuntal Nandi
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