Bangladesh Slideshow

14 February, 2008

Travelogue: Serene Shillong

Desperate to get away from the tedium of routine life, we thought of quite a few possible destinations. It had to be within easy traveling distance - we could only afford to get away for a maximum of four days (couldn't bear the thought of being away from the puppy for longer than that!), and had to be affordable so as not to result in bankruptcy. In the end we settled on Shillong, the capital of the northeastern Indian province of Meghalaya.

Known as the Scotland of the East, Shillong lies on the eastern part of the state. Situated at an altitude of 4,990 feet above sea level, the city stretches for about 6 km on an elevated expanse. It is situated on a plateau bound on the north by the Umiam gorge, on the northwest by the great mass of the Diengiei Hills that rise up to a height of 6,077 ft., and on the northeast by the hills of the Assam valley. The city derives its name from “Leishyllong” - the Superpower or God who is believed to reside on Shillong peak overlooking the city.

Upon crossing the border at Tamabil (the Bangladesh border town in Sylhet), we rented a Tata Sumo jeep from Dawki (the Indian border town) for Shillong at Rs.1000. The jeep comfortably seats 7 people and their luggage. The road climbed steadily up, the temperature took a welcome drop, and then became quite chilly. Fortunately, we had our jackets out and on they went. The road wound its way through impossibly tall betel nut trees, deep gorges, limestone mountains, coal mines, scattered tribal dwellings and evergreen forests. The going was quite bad in a few places as road works were on, with massive chunks of marble and limestone in use. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking! From a lush canopy of trees we emerged into blinding sunlight reflecting off gurgling brooks The mountains kept changing color as we went on climbing - here they were of pure white stone, just a few miles away they turned dusky pink, then a greenish grey and then different shades of blue. I am not a rock collector, but had I been, the diversity would have had me in total ecstasy.

The forecast had warned us that the first day would be a little cloudy, with some precipitation, and true enough, around noon, passing through a small town, we were climbing through CLOUDS! Not mist, not fog but real clouds! I kept winding down the window for a feel of a piece of the sky on my face. Of course, it was quite cold and we were traveling at 60 km/hr, so after 10 seconds or so my face would start to get numb and I had to reluctantly draw my head back in and roll up the window again. We reached Shillong at 130pm, and the taxi dropped us off at town square, as agreed. We had emailed a few hotels and everyone had rooms available, so we decided to look at a few hotels in Police Bazzar. In the end we settled on ‘The Grace’, situated on Jail Road, a two minute walk from the zero-point of Shillong. Our room was spacious, with a sitting area and windows overlooking the street, and the spotlessly clean bathroom had running hot water (not the sort where a running room boy brings it in a bucket!) It cost Rs 900 per night. We could have stayed for Rs 450, but personally I prefer a comfortable room to come back to at the end of a long day.

After a quick shower we headed out for lunch. Good food is plentiful and reasonably priced in Shillong, and the street food (chow mein, veg momo, pepper fry, aloo tikki) is finger-licking delicious! On average, it cost us Rs. 300 per person per day to eat, and we ate quite well. Shillong is full of Bengali restaurants, and the food is very cheap. Of course, the cooking style is West Bengal-Bengali rather than Bangladeshi-Bengali, but it is similar enough to qualify as home-cooking. There are authentic Chinese restaurants, pizzerias and even a kebab place. Most of the better hotels also have good restaurants.

Stomachs full, we exchanged dollars and with our pockets flush, did a recon of the town center. Getting around in Shillong is easy as one can practically walk around the whole city (it's only 10.36 square km). Police Bazzar is the main shopping district of Shillong and has everything from pricey, exclusive boutiques to makeshift stalls with their ware spread on the streets - selling everything from Chinese sandals to exotic orchids to luscious strawberries to shawls and handbags. For handicrafts, cane work, hand-woven shawls and orange flower honey, there are various state emporia like Meghalaya Handicrafts, Khadi Gramodyog and Purbashree. I am a compulsive shopper (as the readers of my blog well know) and confronted with such variety, I was in heaven! Only the outrageous tourist prices brought me down to earth. I would have browsed endlessly but unfortunately all shops wrap up their trade - literally 7-ish. There really isn’t much to do after that except have dinner and watch tv in the hotel room.

The next morning, we left on the Cherrapunjee tour at 8.00am. Also known as Sohra, the town is situated in one of the rainiest rain-belts in the world, 1,300 meters above sea level. It's a pleasant drive through winding mountain roads. We passed a number of small waterfalls (they would all swell in the coming months with the monsoon rains) and numerous coal mines on the way, and the undulating terrain of tall pine conifers was such a welcome change for eyes used to concrete jungles of Dhaka. The weather proved mercurial, sunny one minute and dark clouds threatening rain the next. The temperature also rose and fell dramatically.

A little further down the road from the Ram Krishna Mission to the Nohkalikai Falls, we were awed by a series of giant pillars or megaliths that had been erected. Such megaliths are a common sight in different parts of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and are usually erected to commemorate great deeds or to honor dead chieftains. We were quite amused when our guide told us that the larger vertical pillars represented male members, the females are represented by smaller, horizontal pieces. I winced mentally, thinking that even in this matrilineal society, where inheritance passes from mother to the youngest daughter, men are held in higher esteem, even in death.

We were taken through the Mawsmai Caves - limestone caves, and it was an eerie experience to crawl through the stalagmites and stalagtites, with tons and tons of solid rock all around, shiver shiver! We visited the Seven Sister Falls, and the massive stone (almost a mountain really) called Khoh RamHah from where you can get a glimpse into Bangladesh. There is also a Cherrapunjee resort where people stay and go for a guided trekking (easy but long) to the "root tree bridge" village (overnight stay at Cherrapunjee is required). It is a fascinating bridge which is basically a network of tree roots on both sides of two hills to connect two villages. We unfortunately couldn't do this because of our time constrraint.

For getting around town, we were advised to negotiate with taxis, and on our second day we found a driver who spoke excellent English (our Hindi is so pathetic as near non-existent!) to take us around the city . We went to Shillong Peak (10 kms from the city, 1965 meters above sea level, which offers a panoramic view of the scenic country side, and is also the highest point in the State) , Elephant falls (a mountain stream that descends through two successive falls set in dells of fern covered rocks), Ward Lake (which has a charming winding walkway in the midst of flowerbeds bursting with color), Lady Hydari's Park (which has a small museum, a small zoo, an aviary, and a deer park among the tall cedars and pines), Bara pani (a large lake formed after a hydroelectric dam was built across a stream). Car hire turned out to be pretty cheap compared to Bangladesh and the drivers do not usually ask too much to start with (the old story of supply exceeding demand). I am always eager to find out about the socio-economic conditions of the general people wherever I go, and engaged the driver in long conversations. He had studied upto class XII, the car was his own, he lived in a 3-room rented house with his wife and two small children, and managed to save money for their education. He was interested in visiting Bangladesh and Cox's Bazar, and asked if it was true it was the longest beach in the world. I also extolled on the virtues of St.Martin's island (even though I've never been there!) and the Sunderbans, tooting the eco-tourism horn for my country.

After coming back from the sightseeing trip, we went shopping. I went a bit overboard (yeah, so what else is new, you ask). I won't bore you with the details of my shopping, but will admit we had to buy a big bag. Well, our two small (read, tiny!) suitcases were already full with all the winter clothes we had to bring with us! And I also bought a dozen orchids, carrying them with trepidition, lest the border men refuse them entry into Bangladesh. On our way back, we made an early start, and as we wound down in the morning sun through conifer forests, I kept lamenting how I would love to have a pine tree of my own. The driver (the same one from our sightseeing trip of the day before) took pity on me and stopped the car - there were infant pines growing amidst the towering ones, and we dug out a few and put them in a small plastic bag along with some soil. I have made many a purchase in my life, but the tiny pines made me the happiest ever. The saying is true after all: the good things in life don't cost money! (Okay, now please don't spoil it by saying the Shillong trip itself cost money.)

We reached the border around noon, and were back on board a Dhaka-bound bus by 3pm, leaving the exotic capital of Meghalaya far behind, but carrying small pieces of it in memory, and of course, in the form of my acquisitions!

A few travel tips: before you reach the border at Tamabil, make sure your travel tax is paid and you have the money receipt with you. There is no bank at the border and you have to travel 12 km backwards to Jaintapur to find the nearest bank. Eat a heavy breakfast before leaving Sylhet for Tamabil. The next meal is likely to be past midday. And the mountain air quickly brings pangs of hunger. The Tamabil-Dawki border is a relatively quiet one, and they only process about 20 people on an average day. Since Dawki is a quiet border, all good taxis get nabbed by the early birds. Aim to cross the border by 11am at the latest. The roads for the most part are pretty steep and winding and I recommend you prepare well if any of you suffer from motion sickness. There are no money changers en route, so make sure you have at least Rs 1500 with you. And in Shillong, only the State Bank of India (main branch, opposite Shillong Club) encashes foreign currency, and their working hours are 10am-4pm, Monday to Friday, and 10am-2pm on Saturday. Remember the 30 minute time difference. Hotels in Shillong often have windowless rooms - known as standard rooms. If possible, look over the room in person before taking it.

One last word of caution: Shillong is subject to vagaries of the monsoon. The monsoons arrive in June and it rains almost non-stop until the end of August. The downpour often results in landslides and road blockades. The climate is hot and humid during summers but quite cold during winters. October-November and March-April are the best months to visit.

16 comments:

Janifar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janifar said...

Hello….:)Can u plz tell me, what was the total cost/person per day? Does it cost more than or less than tk. 25000/person if we want to accommodate inexpensively ??? Please advise as we, me & my husband, are planning to visit in January ’09. Thank you very much --------Jenny, Dhaka, Banani.

Shahnaz said...

We spent around 400 US dollars for the two of us, but that was a year ago. If you need further details please email me at dhakadweller@gmail.com

salim said...

Hello Shahnaz,
Can you tell me how much did you pay to the taxi for your dsy tour, per day ? What time did your bus leave Dhaka and aht time dis you reach Sylet.
Thx...
Salim

Mamun said...

Hi, nice blog. I have query regarding shillong:

1. How long (in days) it will take to visit most of the sight in shillong?
2. In your blog, you have metioned that bring Rs 1500, is it BDT or Rupi?
3. Can we exchange BDT in Dawki border?

Arup said...

Fantastic travel account...keep writing!!!

amitsinha said...

Hi Good Blog,

I am planning to visit Shillong but also want to visit Kaziranga and Cherapunji along with it in 4 N 5 D , is it possible and how much will it cost for a couple there (stay,food,travel etc )
Regards,
Amit
http://amitsinha69.blogspot.com

kranthi P said...
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Baldeo Yadav said...
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dimpy roy said...

It was nice trip. Shillong is such a nice place to visit. Shillong is called the Scotland of the East because of the rolling hills and meadows which are quite reminiscent of Scotland. It retains its old world colonial charm, while offering ample modern amenities. Explore best 26 hotels in Shillong also.