Road trip in Meghalaya: Plan your best self-driving holiday in the abode of the clouds

Epic road trips across India's North East: Experience nature's bounty and man-made delights in Meghalaya

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One of the many outcomes of the collision between the Indian tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate about 25 million years ago was the formation of the mighty Himalayan range. Another was the creation of a trough that filled up with silt over the years and is now Assam. Sitting at the edge of the Indian plate is the state of Meghalaya. Its rocky landscape and weather-beaten plateaus have a remarkable resemblance to the western ghats that run all the way down to Kerala.

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meghalaya Unpredictable Shillong weather — clear and cloudy skies could happen on the same day

Day 1: From Guwahati Airport, Assam, to Shillong, Meghalaya

Guwahati is the gateway to many towns and cities of the northeast. We exited the airport and headed straight to Shillong. The road from the airport to the border between Assam and Meghalaya skirts Guwahati town and so we missed most of the day time rush hour traffic. For some part of the journey, the houses to the left side of the highway are in Assam, while the houses on the right side of the highway are in Meghalaya. 

The drive up the hills after you enter Meghalaya is almost entirely on a well-maintained four-lane highway. As you get closer to Shillong, the road narrows down back to a two laner with heavier traffic. The great thing though, is that everyone respects the traffic rules and hardly anyone uses the horn. Peaceful. 

We reached the hotel just around sun set, which gave us enough time to freshen up and then stroll around town and get a taste of the evening life in Shillong. The town has many cafés and bars, markets and road side shops — all of which add to its charm. 

Distance: 100km in about three hours

Terrain: Plains at the start and hilly after entering Meghalaya

Road condition: Good, high traffic as you enter Shillong

Food notes: Grab a bit at the midway restaurant in Nongpoh

Temperature: Warm in Assam and progressively cooler as you reach Shillong

shnongpden meghalaya A picturesque bridge in Shnongpdeng, about 90km off Meghalaya's capital Shillong via Dawki

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Day 2: Mawlongbna for canyoning and night in Cherrapunji

We woke up early, had a hearty breakfast, and then set out on the three-hour journey to Mawlongbna, a town close to Mawsynram. It was going to be a day of adventure sport. Our guides greeted us at Mawlongbna and briefed us on all the formalities of canyoning and zip lining along with the safety protocol. We were all excited about canyoning and for most of us, it was the first time we had ever done something like this.

shillong meghalaya The busy Police Bazaar market is ideal for picking up souvenirs

We headed to the river with our life vests on and ready to jump right in and that’s exactly what we did. The activity started in a rock pool. We jumped in, the cold water had us gasping, we splashed around till our bodies adjusted to the water temperature, and then swam the short distance to the first sight of the river bed. For the next one hour, we crawled on smooth rocks, slid down a waterfall, jumped into a few more rock pools, swam short distances before we reached the end. Our guides were really helpful, especially for those of us who just managed to keep our heads above the water.

Buoyed by our earlier activities, most of us, barring a few who were not so enthusiastic about being suspended in the air on a cable, moved on to our next activity — ziplining. We got into the harness and protective gear and flew over land at a reasonably high speed! It is a thrilling sport that needs some guts.

We unwound by a lake for a few hours and after a lovely hot lunch served to us by the village folk, we finally had to say our goodbyes and head on to Cherrapunji where we were spending the night. The drive was rather uneventful, with most of us snoozing off after the excitement of the day.

Distance: 70km in about three hours to Mawlongbna; 80km in two hours to Cherrapunji

Terrain: Hilly all the way

Road condition: Good for the most part

Food notes: A good breakfast before leaving and lunch at Mawlongbna 

Must do: Canyoning and zip lining

Temperature: Cool during the day and a tad nippy at night

meghalaya tea garden Tea gardens in the lower regions of Meghalaya

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Day 3: Explore Cherrapunji

Wind and water have for years eroded the plateau .Today, Cherrapunji looks like a land of hills and valleys but the tops of all these hills are perfectly flat, proving that at one time, it was a plateau. We spent the day exploring the many waterfalls and caves of Cherrapunji. Some of the waterfalls had multiple levels, some had very steep drops, some tumbled down the mountain spraying mist far and wide.

Watching the clouds move around the skies and enveloping the hill tops was a sight to see, especially for those who love raw images of nature.

Dinner was served cliffside. A fitting way to end the expedition . It is thrilling to be at the edge of the cliff, enjoying your dinner, but not being able to see the incredible fall that lies just ahead of you!

Terrain: Hilly all the way through

Road condition: Good

Food notes: A good breakfast before leaving 

Must do: Carry your camera to capture the beautiful hills, clouds and waterfalls as you drive around

Temperature: Cool during the day and a tad nippy at night

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Day 4: The Double Decker Living Root Bridge Hike

Today was a testing day. We drove for an hour towards the border with Bangladesh, descending quite rapidly and feeling the heat. We were going to the living root bridge set in the forests of Meghalaya.

We reached Tyrna village, the starting point of our hike. We met our guide, a smart and very knowledgeable man! He explained the technique of descending and ascending the steps. The trick is to keep a slow and steady pace and to pause your movement at a very specific point of each step. The hike for the day entailed climbing down, yes, we began with climbing down, 3,500 steps cut into the mountain. The walk down was a breeze, we crossed a few small villages along the way, and stopped for water and tea a couple of times. On our way down we saw a local porter with a basket of goods on his back, climbing up with great ease! It is a way of life here.

Nongriat village, our destination, is where the majestic double decker root bridge is. We waded into the rock pool. Over 150 years old, and built by people from the village at a time when rains meant they could not cross over to the other side of the valley. Though it was built by them, it was not for themselves, but for the next generation. We saw some tourists staying at homestays in the village but they were trekking further up to the Rainbow Falls—Meghalaya's best kept secret.

The walk back was another experience which is going to be etched in our minds for a long time to come. We had to climb up the 3,500 steps. We followed our guide’s instructions and it made a huge difference! The kids had it the easiest—almost running their way up the steps, leaving us huffing and puffing way behind. But it was still quite a tough climb and we were quite relieved when we saw the last few steps. 

Distance: 20km in one hour

Terrain: Hilly 

Road condition: Good

Food notes: A heavy breakfast is a great idea

Temperature: Hot during the day, and cold once it is dark

ADVISORY:  This is a tough walk, and while most of us were easily able to complete it, if you have injuries, it is advisable to sit this one out. It is going to be a long day of hiking, so we suggest ensuring that you are adequately hydrated the entire day. 

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meghalaya waterfall Pray for clear skies to see the Seven Sisters WaterFall in Sohra

Day 5: Shillong and then onwards to Umiam Lake

A day of rest after a hectic schedule. We were all quite sore from the intense workout yesterday and so a lazy start to the day was much appreciated. A nice breakfast at the hotel before heading on to Shillong was a good way to start the day.

The drive to Shillong is scenic, you get to see the valleys and table tops very clearly in the morning. Entering Shillong city took a little longer than we had expected because of traffic — we headed straight to the markets to walk around and explore the place. 

The market is bustling with people selling their wares—everything from handmade stuff to Burmese and Chinese made souvenirs. 

We went to the Don Bosco Museum, a seven-storied structure that has everything you need to know about all the states in the northeast. Some of our group decided to stay back in the cafés and spend their time listening to a live band thrill the crowd.

We headed to our final destination for the night—a luxurious hotel on the lake side. Dinner was by the lake, with the moonlight reflecting off the water.

Distance: 60km in about two hours to Shillong; 25km in one hour to Umiam lake Shillong; 25km in one hour to Umiam lake

Terrain: Hilly all the way

Road condition: Good

Food notes: Try the cafés in Shillong for a nice lazy brunch 

Must do: Visit the Don Bosco Museum in Shillong to get a good overview of the entire northeast of India

Temperature: Cool during the day and a tad nippy at night

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Day 6: Lake side relaxation

Our final day was set aside for everyone to relax and unwind after the fun and adventures of the past few days. We had nothing planned for the day except to rest, relax and unwind with some walks in the wooded areas nearby as an option for those who still needed that little bit more! A couple of us jumped into a canoe and explored the vast Umiam Lake. The evening was the last opportunity for all of us to experience traditional Khasi food and prepare for the journey back home the next day. 

General travel advisory

* While Shillong has its own airport, we always recommend using Guwahati as the point of entry because of unpredictable weather. This adds two hours to the drive, but there is more certainty regarding the landing

* Meghalaya has some of the best and most scenic roads in the northeast. So even though you will be covering large distances on many days, you are more likely to feel frustrated with the traffic entering and exiting Shillong than with the actual journey itself

* You will be on the road for hours on many days, so make sure you carry comfortable clothes, and a small bag to carry your warm clothes and things you need to access regularly in the car

* You must carry all your toiletries, cosmetics, medicines and other specific personal effects with you as you might not find them in Meghalaya

* You must carry layered warm clothes. It will be warm and sunny during the day and bitterly cold in the higher altitudes

* We recommend doing this road trip in the months of September, October or November

Highlights of the trip

Cherrapunji/ Sohra: Once the capital of the region, Cherrapunji is one of the world’s wettest areas and receives over 450 inches of rainfall each year. Because of its distinct geographic Cherrapunji has many waterfalls, and cloud-covered hill tops 

Double Decker Living Root Bridge: A bridge formed by guiding the roots of a rubber tree across the river Umshyiang. Over 150 years old, this bridge is strong, sturdy and has benefitted generations. Over the years, the locals have built a second level using the roots of the same tree, and hence the name, double decker. At present, a third layer is being attempted. It takes roughly 70 years for the roots to be strong enough to hold the weight of the people who use it

Mawlongbna: Close to Mawsynram, a town that competes with Cherrapunji for being the wettest place on Earth, Mawlongbna is a village that has an interesting set of water activities to try out. Canyoning, where you get to walk along the river bed for a little over a kilometre — crawling over the rocks at some point, swimming across short distances, sliding down a small waterfall and jumping into huge rock pools

Shillong: Made the capital city of the region during the British rule from the year 1874, Shillong has all the charm of an old city with much of the facilities of a new city. The undulating landscape is dotted with pine trees, steep roads, sharp curves and lovely wooden cottages

Contact:  

India Trail Kohima, Nagaland

Call: 98867 70070; 87876 77636; 

email:  rohan.Abraham@IndiaTrail.Org; 

website: www.IndiaTrail.Org

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