Even though I’m from Jammu and have a lot of family members and friends working in Kashmir, it hasn’t been a place I cared enough to visit. Last time I was there in 1999, I had to cut short my stay after Kargil war started. Since then, I never really gave any attention to the place except for the usual stuff it’s infamous for. But recently. me and wifey made a quick trip to Srinagar to meet some family members working there. This post is a travelogue of this trip. I am not sure if it can be called a travelogue or not, but I expect it to have a lot more rants than usual.  I didn’t take my camera with me on this trip, so all the pictures are from wife’s cellphone.

To begin with, the flight and our arrival in to Srinagar were uneventful. As we drove to the main city where we were staying, I noticed a lot of security personnel on the roads. It was a mix of CRPF, J&K Police and surprisingly BSF in some places.  There was construction of some flyover going on in middle of the city and the road was pretty much non-existent forcing us to take a detour. After a bit of rest, family took the wifey out for some sightseeing.  Their original plan was to take us to Kheer Bhawani temple. It is a pretty important temple for now displaced Kashmiri Pandits as well as other Hindus too. I had no wish to visit the temple, so I refused and preferred to read something or watch cricket match. But there was some stone pelting going on in Ganderbal area and some other localities on the way which forced a plan change and family took wifey to Chashme Shahi and a shikara ride on Dal lake.
Botanical garden

Botanical garden

Next day, we hired a local car and visited Shankaracharya Temple first. The road leading up to the temple on hill top is very picturesque and green. There were a lot of brown eagles with white spots in the tree canopy as well as road which raced the car for some distance. Theres a security check point at base of stairs leading up to the temple and you can’t take cameras and phones beside this point. There are roughly 200 steps made of stone. Even though my last trip was almost 18 years back, I was a little surprised to see the changes. The open ground in front of temple was gone and covered by some tin and wood huts built by CRPF unit deployed there. The Dal lake near base of hill was much smaller, dirtier and full of weeds, a lot worse than what I remembered. Later on, I could smell the stinking water of the lake when we got near it.  This once beautiful and huge lake is dying fast and the people as usual are too stupid to stop. Another annoying thing was that the muslim dominated J&K government was trying to rename the hill to Takht-e-Suleiman. The turds are already renaming many places in Kashmir to muslim names like Anantnaag to Islamabad and so on.
Nishat Baag

Nishat Baag

From Shankaracharya Temple, we drove to Botanical Garden near Chashme Shahi. There’s a small lake with some boats and a nice garden around it.We had some tea and snacks there before moving on to  Nishat Baag, which is one of the better places in Srinagar city. There were only a few tourists, mostly Bengalis and a few Gujaratis who usually travel in big groups. As we walked around , the gardeners working there kept offering us flower seeds. We bought some but I have little hope of them doing well in Delhi’s weather. The garden itself is big with running water and fountains which work more or less. There are some huge and centuries old Chinar trees in the garden and all around the valley.
Our next stop was Harban which has garden and a lake for sightseeing. Last time I visited it, the lake was completely dry and the garden looked half dead. This time there was some water in the lake but the area seemed to be much smaller. Garden was green with some water flowing through, massive chinar trees and nice flowers. We didn’t stay there for long and stopped at Shalimar. Our driver didn’t want to stay there for long as a lot of stone pelting incidents happen in the area.  While on road, I could see a lot of walls with pro-ISIS and anti-India slogans including a wall of Shalimar Baag. We had our lunch of Kashmiri Masala Dosa, Cheese Dosa, too salty Maggi noodles and some kehwa in a “Vegetarian” roadside restaurant in front of Shalimar Baag. The eatery even had Jain and “Half Jain” food for sale.  Since everyone in the group was vegetarian except me and all other nearby shops were closed, we had few other options.
Shalimar Baag is nice by itself, but it was noting really special after we had visited 3 other similar gardens. The water channels and fountains needed cleaning but was done in a half assed way. We stayed there for about 20 minutes and left to visit Hari Parbat. It is a old fort and has a temple, gurudwara and a mosque. The temple was looted and vandalised by muslims a few years back, like dozens of other temples in muslim majority Kashmir and idol damaged. It was repaired and family along with some Hindu co-workers arrange bhandara and puja there whenever possible. But we had to turn back as the road was blocked due to some more stone pelting going on in the area.
Walnut blossoms

Walnut blossoms

So we decided to go back home through Old Srinagar. Driver drove much faster than usual because he feared more stone pelting following end of muslim prayers. Next day he claimed that his relatives had caught one stone pelter who attacked their vehicle just outside Srinagar. According to the driver, the stone pelter turned out to be a Kashmiri policeman who was organising stone pelting in the locality. According to him Abdullah owned National Conference party was behind most such stone pelting incidents and were using policemen loyal to them in Kashmiri police to organise stone pelting and to incite the mobs. Considering what junior Abdullah has been saying on this issue, the conspiracy theory seems quite credible.
Old Srinagar seemed to be a depressing ugly place unlike most other such older parts of a city. There were some old abandoned houses which belonged to Kashmiri Hindus forced to leave Kashmir due to violence by Kashmiri muslims. Some such houses were encroached upon by probably neighbours and random shops. Nearing our place, we saw some shops in the market which had sustained damage from stone pelters.
Panaroma shot of a farm

Panaroma shot of a farm

We were planning an early start next morning but found it impossible to sleep till late night. It was mostly due to 3 nearby mosques near our place competing with each other to see which one could make more noise. Each started it’s loudspeakers near 8:30 pm and kept playing the noise they call prayer well past midnight. I forgot to mention it earlier, but this was a very consistent experience throughout our stay. There was no single locality during our stay in Kashmir where one couldn’t hear some noise from more than one mosque. Most of it was in Kashmiri which we didn’t understand, but atleast one near Harwan was in Urdu. The preacher seemed to be non-Kashmiri and was rambling on about injustice done to muslims since beginning of time and the usual “islam khatrey mein hai” crap. Another thing was even school going girls wearing hijab and some other dress almost like burqa, but not covering face. Don’t  know what they call them. It was never like this.
Stuff like this gives an outsider an idea how mosques were used to scare and intimidate Kashmiri Hindus to leave their homes when exodus happened. It is probably even worse now.
We started for Pahalgam next morning around 75 km from Srinagar. We also considered Gulmarg, but decided that Pahalgam would be a better choice. On the way, we stopped at a kehwa shop in Pampore. Women managed to spend a more than decent sum of money on saffron, honey and quite a few other things.
Our next stop was Martand temple which everyone called Mattan temple to my consternation. It is constructed over a fresh water spring and has a specie of medium sized fish in large numbers.  There was a sign board prohibiting feeding fish anything apart from a special feed being sold by a shop there. Hindu priests from this village used to travel all over the state and did some religious work and horoscope creation kind of work in far off places. Now Hindus are almost gone and there are only a few Sikh families living there. There was a Sikh religious ceremony going on in temple garden when we were there.
Just after rain stopped

Just after rain stopped

We then drove alongside Lidder river towards Pahalgam on a road with beautiful scenery. Some river rafting is arranged on this river but the starting point had only 3-4 tourists sitting in the rafts. There was an area with a number of big tourist resorts lined up but all were empty as tourists were keeping away. On the way driver told us about some movies which were shot in the area and seemed quite proud of it for some reason. Just before reaching main Pahalgam town he informed us that the car will not go any further because the local unions don’t allow it. There is hardly anything to see or do in Pahalgam town itself and the few points nearby which are worth seeing are a few km away. We like to hike and wanted to see those places as they seemed to be bit better than just walking around the shabby town but were not sure about the idea.
Near end of

Near end of “hiking” route in Pahalgam

As soon as we got off the car, the mule owners swarmed around us. I had no intention of riding any mule but the mule owners were very persistent, annoying and pain in the ass. I was more interested in walking to a few places of interest. But wifey was wearing some girly shoes not suitable for walking long distances, so in the end we got one mule and it’s handler to show us the way with understanding that wifey may ride it if it was difficult for her to walk. Rest of the family stayed in the town. I wish I had remembered names of the places we saw on this hike, but it was more or less a waste of time. The trail was wide as a road, full of mud due to too many mules walking on it and stank due to their crap everywhere. Another mule handler kept following us for 20-25 minutes trying to convince us to hire him to and turned back only after some getting abuse.  Wifey got on the mule we had hired a few minutes of hiking because of all the mud. I had my hiking shoes on so it was not much of a problem for me.
There was an old shikargaah of Dogra Kings on the way, a rough road led right up to it. Our first stop was a small but beautiful meadow. It had entry fee of Rs 20 and some tea shops.When we arrived, there were atleast 50 mules on the gate already. There were also a few locals with goats, rabbits, kashmiri dresses which tourists pose with for pictures. While we were there, it started raining and we had some kehwa, tea and pakoda in one of the tea shops. It was a beautiful place but experience was somewhat spoiled by the above mentioned locals and lots of children begging.  Our next stop was a point on  a ridge with couple of smaller snack shops where we had to stay a bit longer amount of time due to another heavy rain shower.  We had forgotten to bring our jackets and the rain made it very cold. Nearby mountain peaks also got a bit of snow. After rain stopped, we went downhill and made a stop at a stream going downstream which everybody was trying to pass of as a waterfall. The downhill trail was very slippery and muddy due to rains and mules destroying whatever grip the soil on hill offered.  More kashmiri locals came up to rent their goats, take pictures and similar useless services, so we left rather quickly.  Very few tourists progressed further from that 1st stop at the meadow, so the trail was mostly empty.
Panaroma shot, meadow in Pahalgam

Another panaroma shot, meadow in Pahalgam

From there, we walked back to the parking through the village. On the way we were again accosted by very annoying children from village who asked us for money and even watches. If they behave like this with Indians, I can only imagine their behaviour with foreigners. The walk back was on a level road and the mule just trotted on a steady pace, so I was left far behind.  The views and weather were quite nice through a wooded area. Perhaps the word in such places travels fast. On the way, I must have come across atleast a dozen mule owners who must have asked the same thing in different words “Paidal hi aa gaya sahaib” ! A few also asked me to hire their mules for  the rest of a km long hike.  Preparations for Amarnath yatra had started already and I noticed some para-military units assigned for the security of pilgrimage setting up camps. Sad to see that Indian Hindus have to be guarded so heavily inside India from muslim terrorists and mobs.
After reaching the parking area, came to know that the other women had spent all the cash which was not a small amount shopping. After we paid mule handler some extra money as tip, the owner started bothering us for a tip too. Utterly shameless bunch of people. Total duration of the hike was  4 hours, give or take a few minutes and cost of hiring a mule for whole circuit was Rs 3000.
We started our drive back to Srinagar immediately but made a stop at house of a colleague of family near Pampore.  They were very nice and hospitable people and made us feel quite welcome in their home. Elder of the family served in Jammu region during his working years and was a little nostalgic telling us of his experiences there. Ride back to the Srinagar was uneventful and we reached there around 8:30 pm without any incident.
There’s not much to write about after this apart from usual noise from nearby mosques and the long security checks at Srinagar airport.
TL;DR for people who are planning a Kashmir trip:
Q: Is the place beautiful ?
A: A lot of beautiful places, but man made places are badly maintained and natural places poorly preserved.
Q: Is it safe ?
A: Few days before we confirmed tickets, some tourist vehicles were attacked and tourists received injuries. Another tourist vehicle owned by our driver’s family was attacked similarly while we were there. A terrorist attack happened in Anantnag almost the same time we were driving through it.  We could’t visit a few places because of stone pelting and curfews. All these incidents happened in different parts of the valley. There is very little danger from terrorist attacks though.
Q: How are people ?
A: If you know them personally, very hospitable and welcoming. But if you are a prospective customer, then majority of kashmiri tourism businesses are extremely conniving and annoying. Before you say, “it’s like this everywhere”, NO it’s not as bad as in kashmir.
Q: Is Kashmir worth visiting ?
A: Maybe, if you are willing to take risks like those mentioned above. If you really want to visit Kashmir, don’t do it during Amarnath yatra season. Everything will be very over-priced and in short supply.

 

This is going to be a long post as I wish to end this travelogue.

We started drive to Cherrapunji (East Khasi Hills) next morning and stopped at Elephant Falls on the way. It was probably a great place some time back, but now it’s a typical touristy spot swarming with people who get tired even while walking down 12-14 steps. Most of the place is covered with concrete and pathways over the stream. That time the place was full of aunties wearing pungent perfumes, pot-bellied uncles, ugly whining children and selfie sessions everywhere.

Elephant waterfall

Elephant waterfall

We left asap and hit the road. On the way, we drove though another very foggy town and then stopped at Wahkaba waterfall. It had a large number of tourists too but since the place was bigger, it didn’t annoy me that much. The base of waterfall was about 80-90 meters below and there was no way of reaching there. The views of forested valley below were pretty nice. Along the road, a few workers were digging up a small hill. I first thought that those were caves. So when wifey was having something to eat in a shop nearby I walked over to check. Turned out yet another hill being dug up and destroyed by construction mafia for earth and rocks. Pretty disappointing. Then I saw one moron tourist pissing right in to one of the streams which led to waterfall. That idiot had asked me about directions 10 minutes before.  I hope he reads it and is ashamed of it.

View of cloud covered hills on way to Cherrapunji

View of cloud covered hills on way to Cherrapunji

While we were on the road, it kept on raining almost all the time. When it wasn’t raining then it was cloudy or foggy, whatever you can call it. We stopped 2-3 times along the way to take pictures of the views. You see clouds all the while on mountains, but Meghalaya was more than just living up to it’s name. After driving for about 5 hours, we reached our destination. Guide was waiting for us 2-3 km from hotel and got in to the car with us. He was a college pass out but looked much younger.
We reached our hotel shortly Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort in Laitkynsew village. If you read about the property online or on their premises or any of probably dozens of signboards in 5-6 km stretch, you can be excused for thinking that the hotel owners made the living root bridges themselves. Never saw someone trying to take credit for anything else in such a way. When we tried to check in the lady on reception insisted that we show our marriage certificate. I was very angry and asked something like what if I arrived with a man and said that we were a homosexual couple. Would you have given a room then ? She was evasive and just kept parroting lines to the effect that it’s management policy and so on. Wifey had pictures of our wedding on the phone and thankfully that was enough for them to accept as proof of our married status. It was an expensive hotel and the rooms were not worth the money at even half price.

A Hidden Waterfall

A Hidden Waterfall

After leaving the luggage in our room, we left with guide to explore Latikynsew and adjacent Nongwar villages. It was a small, quiet and clean village but with a lot more cats than dogs. Most people were either at work or probably taking an afternoon siesta. The houses were mostly newish and made of concrete, thought there were a lot of old fashioned houses made of bamboo, wood, betel nut leaves and other natural stuff too. There were a few small one room eating joints on the road but most were either empty or had only 1-2 clients smoking or drinking tea. Again, the number of churches in such a small village was surprising. According to the guide, there were 250 households in the village and 3 churches in operation with another one under construction. And these were fairly big buildings, not small cottage like structures that one would expect. It’ll be interesting to see who is paying for all this.

Huge butterflies in village

Huge butterflies in village

We stopped at a point along the road where someone had constructed a resting shed or maybe a gazebo like structure, call it whatever you think is right. It looked over  Bangladesh plains. Most of Indian side was hilly and had dense tree cover. Bangladeshi side was mostly flat and had much fewer trees. The memorial plate on the shed indicated that it was built in memory of people who did something in 1940s .I asked the guide to read it for us. The local Khasi and Garo languages don’t have any script and everything is written in Roman script, probably made popular by missionaries. It is hard enough to read Hindi written in English alphabet. Imagine trying to make sense of words like Latikynsew, Mawlynnong and similar tongue twisters.
The way locals pronounced it sounded nothing like how it was spelled. It is one shitty script and not suited to represent any other language.

View of India Bangladesh border

View of India Bangladesh border

We walked further through the village and reached edge of the forest. Some government department had built a viewing area with a good vantage point few years back with a road leading up to it from a different direction. The road was overgrown with knee high grass though. While we were entering the area, the guide almost stepped over a black snake which vanished in 2 seconds in the dense undergrowth. The views of forested hills and rivers flowing through it was pretty awesome. It was quite hot and humid though so staying in sun was impossible. We sat there for a while and rested before starting to walk back. Shortly after wifey started to feel severe itching all over her body. It was funny till she snapped at me for laughing. Thankfully there was a primary health center on our way back and it was properly staffed. The doctor gave her an injection which gave immediate relief and wrote down a prescription for a lotion. The only medical shop was closed though and the owner’s family informed that it’d open in evening. We reached hotel a few minutes before sunset and guide went back to his village. After some time, I took off to get that lotion which doctor had prescribed and also to get something to eat from the food joints we had seen earlier. Wifey stayed back and said that she’d rather eat in hotel.

A fashionable local child

A fashionable local child

By the time I reached the village road, it started raining heavily and electricity went out. Thankfully chemist shop was open and they had the lotion, but little else except from a few generic counter top medicines for sale. The eating joints we had seen during day time seemed a bit more busier and I entered 4 of those. In every single place no one could understand me or I could understand them properly. The one place where I could understand anything had only some unusual pig dish. I already had my fill of pork for a month and didn’t want to eat more pork, so walked back to hotel.
Upon reaching back, wifey informed that we had to place our dinner order within next 10 minutes otherwise the hotel kitchen will close down. The only was to place the order was go to reception itself because there were no phones in the room. We couldn’t go outside to eat because the gates were locked down after dark too. So we had to walk from our room to reception area under pouring rain to ask for dinner which took about an hour to prepare for 2 dishes. I had ordered some local dish with rice and chicken, wifey asked for some daal and vegetable. What we got was almost inedible. Even I could’ve prepared better tasting food with tyre rubber and starch. Talking about food, the owners also have a restaurant Orange Roots on way to Cherrapunji. They serve so called unlimited thaalis for Rs 200 or more in which you have to pay upto Rs 60 for second serving of most of vegetables. Even more papad cost Rs 5 or 10. They have done a lot of publicity but run the business like a typical thieving money-lender lala shown in old Indian movies. While we were eating, 4 local men walked in and started a small song and dance performance. They mostly sang english and bollywood stuff and 1-2 local songs Since we were still eating at the time and it was raining heavily outside, we stayed in the hall. Next morning while checking out, we found they had charged us Rs 100 extra which was mentioned in a separate slip, not the real bill. We were never informed that there would be charge for it and it was off the books too. If you’ll have my opinion, avoid both these places.

A steel rope bridge

A steel rope bridge

If we had any plans about staying further in that hotel, that put a lid on it. Next morning, we checked out and started our journey towards the living root bridges. The car took us to the starting point to a village from where 3000 steps take you to the first of the living root bridges in Nongriat village which most people visit if short on time. The steps were not exactly even and most of the time too small for me in my hiking boots. Even though we were carrying only small backpacks, the humidity was very tiring and we started getting shaky legs after an hour or so. The first root bridge was near a few houses but off the main path, Though we had seen the pictures and videos of bridges, seeing them for the first time and touching them was an incredible experience. There is a lot of information about these bridges on internet but most miss some small facts like the villagers now use steel wires, bamboo and stones too to make these bridges. We saw 6-7 such bridges and most of them were sturdy, narrow and stable to walk upon. But the first or maybe 2nd one, was still not ready for use and was off main track. I didn’t realise it then and reached the other side only to see a web of roots in air instead of a way down. There were also some steel rope bridges on the way, but they were quite unsteady. For the floor, there were just 4-5 steel ropes put together with metal straps or wires. In some bridges, the ropes were broken too. The rivers below were swollen and walking on a shaking bridge with a heavy DSLR around the neck was a bit unnerving for the first few steps. But got used to it after some time. From that point onwards, I waited for others to completely cross the bridge before I stepped on to take the pictures. We took one rest stop at a small stall run by a local woman. She was selling local lime juice made from some big green local lime and packaged snacks. I wondered if they could live comfortably even if she managed to sell all her stock in a single day. The whole stuff would have cost just about Rs 250-300 at max. But even this doesn’t stop them from being too religious. Majority of businesses and shops stay closed on Sundays almost everywhere in Meghalaya. And Sundays in Shillong as well as other smaller places have most number of tourists coming in from neighbouring states.

Picture taken form a living root bridge

Picture taken form a living root bridge

Guide told us that the water in streams is mostly clear and there are some natural pools too when it’s not raining. But at that time, the rivers were so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself speak standing on the bridges. We reached the famous double decker root bridge area after a while. It is situated in a small village and some people have converted their homes in to guest-house or homestay kind of places.
The guide found one room for us in a guest-house apparently run by some local cooperative society for Rs 400, I think. It was not much, beds were small with thin mattress and not so clean bedsheets, But it was enough for the price and I was not complaining. The view of a sheer rockface with 5 waterfalls in front and the root bridge about a 80-100 meters away was enough for us. The attendant prepared some tea and biscuits for us. There was still some time left for the day and we asked the guide if we could visit Rainbow Falls. He said yes and we left immediately.

Double Decker Living Root Bridge

Double Decker Living Root Bridge

We entered the jungle after walking for a few minutes on a small trail. It was raining intermittently since morning and path was slippery with mud and water all over. So we had to be really careful while walking. On the way, we saw numerous types of butterflies spiders, frogs, crabs and other insects. But apart from a giant squirrel, that too when climbing down the stairs, no other animal. On the way, we had to cross a few streams and got our shoes completely wet while crossing one of those. The guide was wearing sandals so it was not a problem for him. But I’d rather wear shoes in a jungle like that. We also crossed 2-3 more steel rope and living root bridges on the way. The trail on the way has a diversion which leads to Cherrapunji, supposedly a 4 hours hike. But our destination, the Rainbow falls took us about 2 hours. We could hear the waterfall long before we reached it. There was a slight drizzle going on at that time and we suddenly broke through the plant cover face to face with waterfall. The main trail ended there about 35-40 meters from the base but there was a treacherous way of going further down for about 20 meters more . As I climbed down gingerly, the spray from the waterfall grew so strong that I was completely drenched from head to toe in seconds. I had a raincover for the camera, but couldn’t take many pictures due to the amount of water just washing over me. It was hard enough keeping eyes open too. The rainbow waterfall gets it’s name due to the rainbows it forms, not very imaginative. But we didn’t see any rainbow at that time. The water fell on a huge rock on the base from a height of about 15-18 meters There’s another waterfall just above it but was not visible from where we were.

Rainbow waterfall

Rainbow waterfall

A stream of seemingly clear water was joining the bigger stream and I used it to fill up filter water and clean myself a bit. We started back for guesthouse after 40-45 minutes of enjoying the view. The hike back was uneventful apart from a few near falls due to slippery ground. We were fairly tired and completely drenched from head to toe. Surprisingly the village had electricity supply, but the fans didn’t run very fast. By this time, I had used all the clothes I had brought with me. After this we were supposed to go directly to Shimla for something and I needed to keep atleast one clean pair of clothing for the stay there. But wifey had no such problem as she had packed enough for trip worth 3 weeks instead of 10 days and was pretty happy making fun of me. Thankfully, I found one extra pair of shorts in the bag and that helped a bit. We put our wet clothes to dry out on the plastic chair under the fan but it was not a very hopeful cause.
There was still some minutes of daylight left, so I walked out to explore the village. Most houses were made of bamboo, cane etc and some of concrete. There was no apparent design or pattern and the houses were just scattered all over the hillside. Some one was playing Michael Learns To Rock songs in one of the houses, probably a tourist or maybe a local. We saw only one foreign tourist during our stay there. Though there was one senior government official staying in the same guesthouse as ours. We spent some time talking about each other’s experiences and how he got interested in traveling quite late in his life.

View from steel rope bridge

View from steel rope bridge

Next morning, we packed up  as best we could and started the hike back. We were both wearing water-proof jackets and guide was just carrying an umbrella. By the time we reached back, we were both completely drenched from the sweat while the guide was completely dry. The driver was waiting for us in the parking area at the end of walkway. We paid the guide, thanked him for his help and started back. We had some thoughts about going on to see Seven Sisters Waterfall but we had seen so many already and decided against it. Stayed for a night in Shillong again before catching the flight from Guwahati. Spent the next day and night traveling from there to Shimla but that’s not an interesting enough to write down. So ending this Meghalaya travelogue here. If I have some time, I’ll create an extra post with some more pictures next.

The End.

Dinner was fried chicken, potatoes, daal with rice. After serving us dinner, the caretaker went to his home for the night. The closest inhabited house in the village was about 150 meters away and the village was pretty quiet and had only a few lights on. So it was a pretty nice, quiet place. A lot of stars became visible few minutes later and we spent quiet a bit of time listening to the sound of river, nocturnal insects  and doing a bit of star gazing.  The beds were not not great but we slept comfortably. We packed up or stuff and started the drive early. We had planned to visit a place call Rikynjai, which was supposed to be a drive of about 4 hours according to Google Map. We called the only hotel there and made reservations. It was quite a bit more expensive then what I am usually willing to pay for a hotel, but it was supposed to be for just 1-2 nights.

Bridge leading over the river, missing a lot of wooden planks.

Bridge leading over the river, missing a lot of wooden planks.

At that time, the location of the hotel on Google Maps was shown somewhere near a small town called Nongstoin (West Khasi Hills) and we made the journey accordingly. Nongstoin turned out to be a small crappy town but the worse part was that the Google Maps was wrong yet again. The actual location of our planned destination was near Shillong, about a 100 km away. Now as I check it, the location has been updated to the actual coordinates. But at that time, we felt pretty annoyed. We thought about spending the night in Nongstoin and then move on to Shillong and Cherrapunji. There were no hotels and the only state run guest house was big but wifey didn’t like it.  So we started looking for some other place to stay.
Saw it on a pear tree outside our room in Rombagre

Saw it on a pear tree outside our room in Rombagre

We made some calls to the tourist department and they told us about 1 hotel 30-35 km away, Someone from the hotel was nearby and he said that he could meet and take us there as the actual location of hotel was on top of a hill in a wooded area with just a trail going there, But he couldn’t meet us and we never saw the landmark he told us to watch for on the way. So we had no choice at the time except to reach Shillong for the night. We reached there and I was pretty annoyed at everyone. Atleast the hotel there had hot running water, electricity and other utilities which worked properly. Hotel didn’t have dinner ready, so we went out to have something to eat and see the city.
Waterfall near Nognstoin

Waterfall near Nognstoin

 Compared to humid  West Garo Hills area, Shillong was comparatively cooler. We walked around looking for a place to eat. I was looking for local cuisine, but majority pf the restaurants just had the usual Chinese, south-Indian, north-Indian kind of stuff. There were a few signboards for bars but all were closed down after imposition of prohibition. People in villages were brewing their own booze (something like a fruit wine called bicchhi) and drinking it clandestinely and I suppose alcohol was available in black market in cities too. After a bit of walk, we found a small Naga food joint. The menu was rather limited and consisted mostly of 3-4 fish, pork and vegetable dishes with rice in different combinations. Wifey didn’t eat anything there though. I also bought a bottle of Naga chilli pickle from there. Only way I can eat it is by pouring 3-4 drops of the brine/oil in a large plate of rice. Eating the actual chilli makes whole mouth go numb and ass on fire next morning. Anyone reading this is welcome to to taste it.
Rolling green hills on way to Shillong from Tura

Rolling green hills on way to Shillong from Tura

We spent another day there and but didn’t like the Shillong city that much. If anything, parts of it like Police Bazar looked more like Mumbai rather than a charming hill city. It’s expanding too much, hills are being dug out, trees vanishing and ugly concrete buildings and shacks popping up everywhere, Traffic is as bad as any other big city but the drivers there don’t overtake in a jam or slow traffic as impatient idiots in rest of India do. It’s mostly because the roads are only double laned and overtaking in jam is a sure way of making thee situation even worse. So people actually follow the rules and don’t make it worse. Unfortunately rest of India lacks this basic common sense.
One interesting thing about the traffic in Shillong is the local taxis. These are mostly small cars like Maruti-800, Zen, Alto type and ply inside city limits. Normally 5 adults can sit in such a car in an uncomfortable cramped way. But these taxis regularly carry 10-12 people. Even the drivers seat has a passenger sharing it and 2-3 on the other one. Back seat will have 4-7 passengers more. How more people don’t die in such an arrangement and cars don’t breakdown in middle of street will remain a mystery. They’re pretty cheap though. Rs 10 -30 (maybe) for most local journeys per person and Rs 100 if you want the whole for yourself. We paid 100 whenever we needed it. Only one taxi driver tried to charge more during our stay there.
Laitlum Canyons

Laitlum Canyons

Next day, we visited Laitlum Canyons, a few km outside Shillong city limits and an interesting place which reminded me of Silent Hill. Once we passed the parking, everything was covered in fog with visibility of 4-5 meters at best. The place was essentially just a grass covered hill with fog everywhere. A slight drizzle and strong wind could do nothing to increase visibility.  A paved path went downwards but we didn’t feel like taking it at the time with rain and low visibility. There are pictures on internet which show the place without any fog and mist, but we liked it better this way. Some locals were gathering grass and digging up earth to presumably to plant something.
On the way back there by a old wood and grass building which was the residence of a local king. Driver asked if we wanted to see it but we drove to the Air Force museum. It was a smaller museum than Goa’s Naval Aviation Museum with the usual Hunter, Mig-21 and some other planes like trainers, transports in one section. Other section had an old Mi-4 helicopter, SAM and scale models of various planes on display. The indoor section had some stuff about history of the place, wars, local war heroes and the usual bombs, missiles etc. But the most impressive thing was a fully armed Jaguar on display on the main road outside air force station.
Iskra Trainer, Air Force Museum Shillong

Iskra Trainer, Air Force Museum Shillong

 In evening, we were searching again for some place to eat and entered one Maniupri restaurant in top floor of an old house. It was owned and operated by an artist family. At that time, they had a very limited menu. So i asked for some salad and one more dish which looked like a yellow, dry barfi but was spicy and salty. The salad was mostly cabbage along with some other veggies, spices but had something really with a strong smell and flavour., so I asked them what was in it. They said it was dried fish. Normally wifey will always take 1-39 bites out of whatever vegetarian stuff I’m eating but luckily for her, that time she had not. Previous night, she had ordered a vegetarian chop-suey in a Chinese place. After a long wait, waiter brought the bowl with a a huge omelet on  top which she didn’t like at all. Perks of being a vegetarian in a non-vegetarian place. :)
Our next stop was Cherrapunji and we were most interested in visiting  living root bridges. We searched for hotels and in finalised one in Laitkynsew. Upon asking, they shared phone number of a local guide and reserved a room for us. We called the guide but wifey did most of the talking as I couldn’t understand much of what he said. He lived nearby hotel and we fixed up a meeting point on the way.
More in next post.
More in next post.

Meghalaya was a place me and wifey both wanted to visit since a long time. Not many people visit north-eastern India but it is quite a beautiful place and not as crowded or commercialised as rest of tourist destinations in India, though it is getting there, Our trip lasted for 9 days during last week of June and 1st week of July, during the peak monsoon season. It was significantly hotter than what we had expected, but worth it. As with most of our travel plans, the itinerary we followed was a lot different than the one we “planned”.
Our flight departed at around 5 am and we were out of Guwahati airport by 7:30 am. We met our driver there and started the long road drive towards Tura in West Garo Hills. We had booked a car for the duration of our trip. The driver was from Assam and had been only to Shillong, Cherrapunji side because according to him, nobody else visited anyplace else. He tried his best to get us to change our plans by saying that there are militants everywhere, it’s like Wrong Turn movie and so on. Being from Jammu, such kind of talk only annoys me and I just asked him to keep quiet and follow the plan which he did more or less. We stopped at one road side dhaba some where in Assam for a late breakfast. They had paranthas available and we ordered 3. But a single parantha there used more than 2 times the flour than we’re used to and we struggled to finish one each. They also served some mixed vegetable, which I don’t remember.

Meghalaya - Guesthouse dog

Little dog at the guesthouse

The drive was long and unremarkable apart from the fact that Meghalaya had a lot more greenery and general cleanliness than Assam. Now as I am writing this, Assam is reeling under floods. When one sees how the people have destroyed forest land, blocked off water channels and constructed over wetlands, it’s only obvious that the place will go under water like clockwork, but I digress. We took a comparatively long route of highway 127B and reached our guesthouse in Tura late afternoon. The guesthouse was nothing really fancy but adequate. After some rest, we took a walk but there wasn’t much to see. Lack of sleep previous night and long drive had tired us and we had an early dinner before going to sleep. Wifey is a vegetarian so she just asked for the usual daal, while the owner prepared a local fish dish for me.

Pelga Falls, Meghalaya

Pelga waterall

Next morning, we called the state tourism office and asked for some advice. They promised to arrange a local guide for us.
In the meanwhile, we asked the driver to take us to Pelga Falls. We were following Google Maps which proved to be entirely useless in showing directions and the driver was even more useless. In the end we ended up on a dirt track a few km outside the town that the locals claimed led to Pelga Falls. We could barely understand them and driver’s comprehension was hardly any better.
Me and wifey started walking but started sweating profusely very soon. The weather wasn’t that hot, but very humid. Most of the time, we were walking under shade of trees but that just protected from sunshine. There were a few small houses made of bamboo and cane every few meters on the way but very few people and no tourists. There were some auto-rickshaws plying on the route though. Most of the houses had goats, chicken and some pigs walking or lying around.

Bamboo bridge on Pelga falls

Bamboo bridge

We reached Pelga Falls after walking for 35-40 minutes and found a small bamboo cane bridge a few meters upstream. A few workers were doing some repair work on it.. The stream was flooded and the water made a lot of noise even though the height was only 16-17 feet. I went on the bridge to see what was on the other side but quickly had doubts about my decision. It shook under my weight and for most of middle part the hand rails were quite below my reach making it tough to hold the camera and walk at same time. Later on this bridge was just one of many such shaky bridges we crossed, but I hadn’t expected this so soon. Anyhow, workers on other side of bridge were busy installed a bamboo ladder and there was no way to climb down from there forcing me to come back.

Our accommodation in Rombagre

Our accommodation in Rombagre

We saw some children coming back from school and a few locals and all were pretty friendly and curious even though language was an issue. They could understand only a bit of Hindi and even less English and their pronunciation was quite hard to understand. While we were driving back, the officer from Meghalaya tourism called us to inform that they had arranged guides for us. They arranged to have them meet us in Tura while we had lunch. The guides were two young men probably still in college and could communicate only a bit better than the villagers. We decided to visit the tourism office to get a better idea anyway. The officer we were talking to on phone was really helpful but her information also got us to change our plans of visiting a wildlife sanctuary nearby and 2-3 other places we had shortlisted. She was a gazetted rank officer and it’s very rare to see government officials of her level being so courteous and helpful like her. We decided to plan our stay in West Garo Hills according to brochures, maps and other verbal information she gave us. She even called some hotels and people on our behalf.

Katta Beel Lake, Meghalaya

Katta Beel

We planned to visit Katta Beel lake which was marked as 70 km on the map same day and move on to some other place next day. The two guides joined us even though only one was needed as we were their first ever clients.
Interrupting the story here to say that DO NOT TRUST TOURIST MAPS OR GOOGLE MAPS, BROCHURES AND EVEN THE DIRECTIONS PROVIDED BY LOCALS. Everything is wrong. Brochures and tourist department people said 60 km, but it was atleast 20-25 km further away.
Most of the roads were in good condition apart from a few stretches every now and then. Surprisingly, there were a lot of wooden bridges which were being phased out with concrete and steel bridges, but it was surprising for us to see such old bridges. Along the way, we passed some villages and most people were dressed simply in local attire and at first glance looked still not that affected or changed by outer world. But one thing that I noticed that day and rest of our stay there was that there were a lot more churches than schools. Almost every village had one or more huge churches but fewer and smaller schools. Even the guesthouse we were staying in had a huge church right in front and a 6-7 room school next to it. There was a “big” college on the same street and even that seemed smaller than that church. Seemed to be one kind of religious and social backwardness replaced by one imposed by foreigners.

Snake fishing

Coming back to the topic, it took us more than three hours to reach Katta Beel, a small lake right next to India-Bangladesh border. Apparently it was dug up by a king in 7th or 9th century. It’s not a bad place, but not worth the long drive. While we were going back, a local asked us to go a bit further and visit some ancient fort and temple. The road went along the border and we entered the Bangladeshi territory for a few meters but couldn’t find the place. The sun was fading the the fence closing in 40-45 minutes so we chose to go back rather than search more.

Next morning, we left Tura with intention of stopping at Rombagre or Chandigre. Found Rombagre first which was a drive of around 90-100 minutes. There was also on Selbagre Gibbon reserve which we saw on the way, but didn’t really feel like going there as we wanted to confirm a place to spend the night firts. It’s a very small village with just a single inspection bungalow (IB) for accommodation. It was on other side of the river and only way to cross it was via a suspension bridge made of steel and wood. The steel structure looked sturdy enough but the quite a few planks for the walkway were either missing or cracked. The caretaker was not there and we asked locals who pointed us to his house. After 20-25 minutes, he came half running and unlocked a room for us. While we were waiting for him to arrive, I climbed up a pathway on a nearby hill to the village there. It was a pretty place with bamboo houses, huge trees, large courtyards and various pet animals. IB was on other side, just outside main village. Contrary to what we were expecting, the room had running water sourced from a small stream. The village had electricity but not the IB. But that was fine with us. After putting away our luggage, we drove 3-4 km further to a waterfall. A trail went on further but the caretaker said that the bridge broke a few weeks back and we couldn’t go there. We stopped at a small village where a NGO was operating a shelter for endangered gibbons and other primates.Apparently some jerks capture these primates and keep them as pets or sell off. This NGO rescues such animals before releasing them in to wild. Normally I don’t care for NGOs, but they seem to be doing good work in hard conditions.

Hoolock gibbon

Hoolock gibbon

On the way, there was a small market going on along the road and a platform constructed above a pool in river from where people can feed the fish. A snake was lying on rocks trying to catch something for lunch, but most fish seemed too big for it. After we reached back to Rombagre, care taker went off to cook dinner while we cooled off in the river. There were quite a few fishes there too and I fed them some of the snacks we were carrying, much to wifey’s annoyance. We watched some local kids playing football till it started getting dark and we walked back to our room for dinner. More in next post.

This is going to be a short entry about our trip to Kasol in first week of May 2016. I still haven’t finished writing two more travelogues, so thought of finishing up the shorter ones first.
This time we had wifey’s cousin and her husband for company. Lets call them SS and AM. After the last trip with one other cousin (ACB from Spiti trip), I was somewhat wary of traveling with other people who have no idea about how we like to travel. It’s also because the Spiti trip “scared” ACB so much that he has sworn off almost all trips with us which involve walking for more than 1 hour in a day. Can’t say that I blame him. But Kasol was supposed to be a place to relax and just wander around and the plans were made with all four of us going there for 4-5 days.

first day in Kasol

But as with our every other trip, almost all the logistics were left to last minute and we had to do some last minute calls to get a hotel. Since the trip was supposed to be a relaxing one, a comparatively better hotel was essential. The place I booked actually turned out to be so bad that I created a Tripadvisor account just to write a long review against it. More on that maybe later.
Anyhow the trip began with a bus ride till Kullu from where we took a taxi from near airport. The taxi drivers there did their best to convince us to take all 4 of us in a small Alto car because it was the turn of that taxi at the taxi-stand. We insisted and got a bigger Maruti van though after a bit of stubbornness. The ride to Kasol from Kullu was uneventful but bumpy for most part. We found our hotel Deep Forest (don’t go there, ever.) and hoped to get some rest and hot breakfast before making plans for the day. The 2 room cottage that I had booked for Rs 6000 per day turned out to be an absolute disaster and I have written a fairly long review on this Tripadvisor link. Whoever reads this must boycott this place.

Route to Graahan

 

After a cold shower and some barely edible breakfast, rest of the folks stayed in for some sleep, while I picked up my camera and went on a walk around the town. Spending 20-25 minutes there made me realise  that I was not going to like that place much. Lots of college kids or young people from nearby cities on a break kind of crowd were everywhere. Then there were pilgrims to Manikaran Gurudwara passing through who make a mess in the town quite often. I finished walking around most of the town in about 30-35 minutes and ended up back near the hotel. A trail started from there going upstream alongside river. Since there was nothing better to do, I started walking in that direction. The wooded area nearby had some people resting and talking and further up there was a small campsite and a stone hut. I went past it along the trail alongside river following 2-3 water pipes. They went on further till the trail ended. I actually went further up till they path ended and had to retrace my steps back to the hut. Another rocky path from there went up the hill so I took that. After spending so much time in concrete filled hot cities, any place with trees, running water and nature was a relief. So I kept walking on the trail. There were some people working on a small clearing near the river, probably planting vegetables but I didn’t go there to ask.

View from the trail

View from the trail

The path was nice with thick tree cover all over and a lots of birds, insects and spider webs. After climbing downhill on other side, the path was relatively flat and much easier to walk on. I had seen no body else on the trail till now apart from the people mentioned earlier, so when I came across the first person coming from other direction I asked him about where the path led to. He said Graahan which I misheard as Graan which is Dogri for village. I asked him again name of the place and got the same answer and him looking at me with a confused expression. I thanked him and moved on and found two men carrying some heavy load on their backs walking in same direction as myself. It was them that I understood that village itself is called Graahan and was about 2-3 hours walk away. Adjusting according to pahadi time, it meant about 3 hours and 30 minutes more for me. So visiting the place was not possible considering I had company. If I was alone like my some other trips, then I could’ve gone there, but not that time. The time was just a few minutes before noon and I thought of walking a bit further before heading back. There was a small wooden bridge further up ahead over shallow stream. I rested there and had a drink of cold water. There were a few goats just across the bridge and a shepherd dog sleeping. I found the shepherd and asked him about the duration of walk village ahead. He answered the same, 2-3 hours walk. The man I had met 45 minutes before had said the same thing. So much for asking directions from pahadi people.

Shephard lady

He then started asking me about how is AAP doing in Delhi ? I was taken aback and asked what he meant exactly. He answered that he is reading so much about the good work being done by AAP in newspapers and was curious about it. He looked quite surprised that the “articles” he was reading were ads not news and had a lightbulb moment. I had little desire to talk about that ass Kanjriwaal and his chandaal party and had a bit of small talk with him. For someone who spent most of his time in jungle, he seemed to be quite aware of things going around in the world, mostly by radio and newspapers, I think.

View from a bridge

There was no cellphone coverage and it stayed that way till the stone hut. I arrived back to the hotel at around 1 pm. Rest of people were awake and we decided to look for a new hotel and have lunch. AM had short listed a few restaurants from Tripadvisor and surprisingly they turned out to be quite good. We first visited a place called Jim Morrison Cafe and had a long leisurely lunch. Me and wifey love these kind of places where you sit on ground and service is slow. I told them about the trail and village up ahead and they seemed excited about it. It was decided that we’d walk to Graahan early next morning and come back by evening. We then walked around the town looking for a new hotel and finalised one right next to the one where we were staying. Actually the hotel we actually ended up with was finalised next day, but that’s not that important. Anyhow, to make long story short, we planned to leave early morning and come back by evening after hiking till Graahan, a total of 16 km.

This plant is used as cattle feed

This plant is used as cattle feed

But as happens in all my vacations, we woke up late, spent too much time on checking out and breakfast and started our hike at noon. I didn’t want to spend another minute in Kasol, so I was just thankful that we could manage to leave at last. The walk was supposed to be pretty uneventful. Altitude is not that high, 8 km is not such a long distance, scenery is nice and the participants not that old. But it turned out that I had not made myself amply clear. I realised too late that SS and Am had little idea about what trouble they had gotten themselves in to. They had probably expected a long leisurely walk through a wooded area but it was a quite a bit of challenge for them as they had very little experience. But they kept on walking without complaining. It was only after walking for about 3 hours that we had a discussion about going further up or going back, SS said that we should walk on further as we had already walked for so long and we could spend the night in some guest house there. I was only too happy to accept. There was a small issue about our luggage in the hotel and we had told them that we’d be back at night, but we decided to do something about that later. So we started walking with Graahan in mind. Going back to Kasol same day was out of question.

An old house in Graahan village

An old house in Graahan village

 

We met quite a few people from village as well as some foreign tourists walking on the route which was mostly just a trail going upstream along the river. SS and AM were quite tired after walking for 4 hours and we had to stop frequently. We stopped at one point from where we could see some house in the village at top of a mountain before making the final approach. That turned out to be the most tiring section but we managed to finish it and reached outskirts. We were still outside the village when owner of a guesthouse invited us to his place to check it out. Looking at how rest of the group was doing, I decided to check that out first and found it to be fairly good. Rest of the people soon joined up and chose to stay there rather than walk further up to main village. So we dropped our stuff, took off our shoes and asked for something to eat and drink. AM was pretty tired and started napping.

Children even here know fancy ways to pose for camera

Children even here know fancy ways to pose for camera

After some time, me and wifey took off to explore the village on our own. Unlike other places, it was pretty old fashioned with most houses made of wood and stone , narrow streets and poor cleanliness. A local dog took upon the duty of following us around and kept on getting in fights with other dogs. There wasn’t much to see in village at the time as it was getting pretty dark, so we headed back once it started drizzling. On the way, I noticed something glowing like a firefly , but went I went closer, it turned out to be some kind of brown scaly worm with an illuminated bottom. I had never seen anything like this and was pretty excited. Tried to take a few pictures but didn’t get any good ones due to rain and darkness. While coming back, we met uncle of the guesthouse’s owner who walked with us back to the guesthouse. We went to sleep soon after having dinner.

The glowing insect

The glowing insect

Next morning, AM decided to stay back and rest while me, wifey and SS walked up the trail leading to Sar Pass. We were told that there were a few waterfalls on the route. We found first one without much trouble and spent almost a hour there. Wifey and SS then wanted to go back but I dragged them along to the 2nd one. They reluctantly followed till the point we could hear the waterfall, but then sat down like stubborn mules refusing to go any further. I was told that I was free to do whatever I want while they sit down and chat which was fine by me. The next waterfall was even more impressive albeit a bit more difficult to reach. I went on further but getting to base or top of waterfall was almost impossible due to flow of water. The trail went on further ahead and looked quite challenging but we were not going any further. I reached back to the two women and we started walking back to the guest house. Before leaving in morning, we were trying to call our hotel but all of their phone numbers were wrong or not working. There was no cell phone coverage. So we had to use a WLL (wireless in local loop) phone from the guesthouse which had to be taken to a specific point uphill where it could catch some signals. But nothing worked. After lunch and some rest, all 4 of us walked to the village, found a cafe and had some tea and snacks. Initially, we had planned to stay in Graahan only for a few hours, but ended up liking it so much that we spent 2 nights there.

A friendly puppy

A friendly puppy

Next morning we started our walk back to Kasol same way we had come up. The walk was pretty uneventful apart from a large group of hikers (45-50 people) starting their journey towards the Sar Pass. Once at hotel, we found our luggage as it is and hotel owner pretty chill about it. There isn’t anything interesting to write about after this as it’s all the general touristy stuff of going to a bunch of restaurants and places. SS and AM visited Manikaran Gurudwara next day while me and wifey had a long lazy breakfast  before heading back to Delhi.

The second bigger waterfall

The second bigger waterfall

Just to end this post, few points about Kasol. These are not particularly nice about the place or the people who visit there:

1) Majority of local Indian tourists as well as pilgrims passing through are assholes of first order. They’ll litter, smoke, drink anywhere they want and never clean up after themselves. “Pilgrims” coming back from Manikaran gurdwara can be seen getting drunk on their way back in Kasol.
2) Most of people visit Kasol just to smoke pot and drugs are easily available. I don’t condemn or condone it in anyway, but almost every other person you make an eye contact for more than 1 second will try to sell you some drugs.
3) Local shopkeepers do their best to fleece tourists and everything is sold 10-40% above MRP. Supposedly because Kasol is a remote place even with a metaled road. Funnily, Graahan which doesn’t have any road, had the same prices.
4) Kasol was a destination for foreigners and laidback tourists who like to enjoy the nature in peace , but now most of them have moved to other places because of harassment by local tourists. The sexually frustrated Punjab Haryana (and perhaps others too) crowd do their best to make everyone else as miserable as possible in every way possible. A local business owner told us a story about how a bunch of Punjabis were harassing some Israeli women and then ran away after a beating.
5) Kasol these days is a lot like a smaller version of New Manali. Crowded, ugly, unplanned construction, no care about natural beauty of place and full of annoying, obnoxious people. Few days back people were outraging about a cafe not allowing local Indians to enter their premises. Now I know that the cafe management was absolutely justified.