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On cloud nine

It was a moment of decision. The rest of the group had vanished into the gaping maw of the Mawsmai Caves. Did I dare to follow them into the darkness where I might be assaulted by countless creepy crawlies? After a full minute of thought I found myself in the cave, almost on all fours at one stage and wondering what the next turn would bring.

I hadn’t actually planned to go burrowing into the bowels of the earth when I set off on the journey to Shillong and Cherrapunjee. But I believe that the hills are at their beautiful best during monsoons. So when the opportunity came to visit Shillong and Sohra, the former rain capital of the world (still known to most as Cherrapunjee), I had to grab it.

Our first stop on the way was, of course, Guwahati on a hot Saturday afternoon, when the town was abuzz with activity. We made use of our brief stop by heading straight to the Don Bosco Institute, a huge building on the slopes of a hill next to the mighty Brahmaputra. A not so frugal lunch later at their at their canteen, we headed off to Meghalaya’s capital.

There’s one curiosity on the road to Shillong that I can never get over. One side of the highway is Assam and when you cross over you’re in Meghalaya. The journey is exhilarating to say the least and as the road winds up the hills, you stare in awe at the cloud covered green mountains. Little gurgling streams flow by as you make your way up the Khasi Hills. An added attraction are the roadside shops that sell local fruits and pickles of all kinds. Just stop and have your fill.

An inevitable stop on the way to Shillong is the Umiam Lake, popularly known as Bara Pani Lake. ‘Um’ means water in Khasi. The lake which was originally marshland, was dug out on the orders of Pandit Nehru soon after Independence. It also houses a hydro-electric plant.

We reached Shillong in the evening, when the hill town was preparing to call it a day. It had been a tiring journey, and the itinerary for the next day was packed. But we couldn’t resist walking about near the hotel after a very late dinner. The town was almost asleep and we were the only ones walking on the deserted roads. All around, the twinkling lights of the houses on the hills seemed to merge with the twinkling stars. A small nullah made little gurgling noises as we crossed a bridge and headed back to our hotel. It was hauntingly beautiful.

On a lazy Sunday morning, when most of Shillong was at the churches for Mass, our little party made its way to the Don Bosco Museum, one of the attractions of Shillong that the Church has been building for quite some time. The 7-storey museum has put together a huge collection of tribal artefacts and is making an effort to preserve the tribal culture of the Northeast.

Touring the place took quite some time, and we were getting late for Cherrapunjee, so we rushed off for a quick lunch, followed by some delicious desserts from a local bakery. But first we had to see the sights of Shillong. We started at the golf course and then made a quick stop at Elephant Falls, one of Shillong’s numerous waterfalls. It’s known as Kshaid Lai Pa Teng in Khasi which means Three Steps Waterfalls as the water falls into three steps.

The ride from Shillong to Cherrapunjee, near the Indo-Bangladesh border, is perhaps one of the best in the country. As you go up, it starts getting lonelier. Little roadside houses and small shops gave way to huge blocks of rocks and small graveyards, giving the place an eerie feeling.

Clouds keep you company throughout. The view changes with every turn and the clouds seem to come closer and closer to you, floating right by the car at times.

Cherrapunjee is a small sleepy hamlet, with a cluster of pretty houses almost bundled together. Of course, there are some signs of civilisation — there are Tata Sky antennas popping out from many terraces. A huge Ramakrishna Mission stands tall on one sombre mountain, while there is a church at the other end of the town.

There is a viewpoint for tourists like all hill stations, but Cherrapunjee hardly needs one. For there is a view at every stop you take. There are lush green hills, deep gorges, and clouds floating by. It is breathtakingly beautiful.

Mawsmai Caves was our first stop as there weren’t many daylight hours left. These limestone caves are well-lit. Even then, there are places which are almost completely dark and you have to crouch in order to progress.

At the view point you can see the plains of Bangladesh. The place was quite exotic, and seemed to be quite a favourite hangout zone for the locals as well. It was time to head back to Bara Pani Lake, where we were stopping for the night.

The Siloam Guest House, run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, is on the banks of the lake, calm and quiet. It is spread over a sprawling 14-acre pine forest at an altitude of 3,500ft Next morning I was up early, if only to take photos of the wide expanse whose calm waters changed colours every minute in the morning.

Bara Pani is spread over 5sq km and is quite a favourite among picnickers and anglers. The lake is about 20km from Shillong.

We had packed to leave, but not before taking a boat ride across the lake. Splendid weekend over, it was time to head home.

Ready reckoner

When to go: Anytime of the year is a good time to visit Shillong. But it is stunningly beautiful during the monsoons (June to September), provided you can put up with torrential showers.

Where to stay: There are numerous hotels and resorts to suit all budgets.

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