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.
Ever since I bought a camera, batteries have been an issue specially while traveling. A fully charged DSLR battery is enough for up to 1000 photos or more if used properly. But in places without electricity like when camping and cold weather, battery charge is an issue. I found out during my last trip to Lahaul Spiti that batteries lose their charge in cold weather much faster even when not in use and specially with long exposure shots. So I’ve been looking for a way to charging DSLR batteries while traveling without access to electric supply. There is some information on internet, but nothing really useful. Most people just prefer carrying 3-4 extra batteries or a complicated setup of wires and adapters for the purpose..
But I found 2 gadgets which make camera battery charging much easier with minimal amount of work and expense required. So there is no cutting, joining wires or similar work, just simple plug and play.
1) First is a portable solar panel easily available from a number of online retailers. I bought a 21 W capacity panel like this. These panels have 1 or 2 USB ports for output and weigh less than half a KG. Mine came with 4 carabiners and has 4 slots which makes it easy to just sling across the backpack or any surface. The USB slots are inside a pocket which is pretty handy of storing cables and charger or to keep them away from sun while charging. There are multiple type with different capacities and weight, but it’ll be preferable to get one with maximum wattage possible. It seems to be water resistant and strong. While hiking, it can be just attached to the rucksack and charge batteries while you walk. It will probably be useful on some DIY projects in home too.
2) 2nd is a DC input charger for the camera battery. Canon and Nikon DSLRs both have different batteries and will have different chargers. Mine is Nikon D7100 with EN-EL15 battery and I got EN-EL15 DC charger. Most Canon DSLRs will use LP-E8 batteries and these chargers will work LP-E8 DC charger. None of the chargers available are manufactured by camera companies themselves and the build quality is not great. Atleast the one I got is Chinese made and looks like one. But it’s working while it works. It has slots for two batteries as visible in picture below, but I’ve used only one till now. While charging the display shows a level and blue backlight. For some reason, it fluctuates while connected to solar panel and stable if connected to a phone charger, but charging seems fine either way.
These chargers use DC as their input supply unlike the normal chargers which use AC. If you have a normal phone charger or a power bank, these battery chargers will work with those too. If you’re willing to carry a high capacity power bank like these with you, you can use the setup to charge your batteries even at night. There are also some solar power banks available with an attached solar panel. But it’s another KG or so of additional weight with lower capacity.
Next step is just to plug the USB cable of charger in to the USB slot of panel and place it in sun. As I’m writing this, this setup charged my Nikon EN-EL15 battery from 60% to 100% in 150 minutes. But it took 3 hours yesterday to charge the battery from 20% to 62%. So even with good amount of sunlight, there seem to be some fluctuations. It’s also a good charger for other gadgets like phones, tablets etc. My 4 years + old Samsung tablet gets fully charged in 70-80 minutes with this panel.
The pictures below is the charging setup in action. Taken by a phone camera in very bright sun , so not very clear but good enough for the purpose. The red LED inside pocket lights up whenever the panels are exposed to sun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.