Cloud ice cream

A walk in the clouds: Taking in the picture perfect, rain-soaked Khasi-Jaintia Hills. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Cherrapunji was one of the first hill-stations built by the British in the Northeast — but many newcomers found the weather oppressive. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Top crop: A Khasi girl waits for customers at her pineapple shop on the Guwahati-Shillong road. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Top crop: The chiselled megaliths of Cherrapunji. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Must holidays always involve clear blue skies and sunscreen, rather than shades of grey and gumboots? Ask the clouds in Cherrapunji

It’s a name that almost every Indian can rattle out — even if prodded out of a deep sleep at 3am.

A bit like Sachin Tendulkar or Shah Rukh Khan. But then, like cricket and Bollywood, the monsoons are a great Indian obsession. And when it comes to rain, Cherrapunji is the evergreen superstar.

Cherrapunji is the rainiest place on Planet Earth. But although it figures in countless Geography fill-in-the-blanks, it has never been a big travel destination. Perhaps because Meghalaya and the Northeast are considered inaccessible. Perhaps because holidays usually involve clear blue skies and sunscreen, rather than shades of grey and gumboots.

This year, however, we were compelled to travel during a single week in July. We Googled. We asked friends. We consulted travel magazines. But it was soon apparent that our choices were limited to sunstrokes in the sizzling North or depression at the side of a drippy poolside. Or, of course, we could choose adventure and chase the monsoon all the way to its wettest destination.

So it was that, armed with raincoats and mosquito repellant, we flew through miles of bumpy monsoon clouds to Guwahati. My three daughters had been dreading the five-hour drive to Cherrapunji, but when they discovered that our driver Bah Arky shared their tastes in music they cheered up. And we were soon ascending the emerald slopes of Meghalaya — the abode of the clouds — in the unlikely company of Pitbull and Taylor Swift.

Outside the windows, the views were charming. Red hills mantled in exuberant greenery — gigantic bamboos and unruly banana trees, lacy ferns and frivolous creepers. Along the highway were sudden clusters of picturesque stalls, with women in traditional checked Khasi shawls selling heaps of pineapples, jackfruit, bananas and bottles of bamboo pickles. And an occasional village, with its bamboo-fenced houses perched precariously on the hillside, beauty parlours, ladies’ tailors and music schools. In short, all the things that make Meghalaya a pop music and fashion hub in India.

We drove through light drizzles and watery sunlight — and my daughters gazed longingly at neighbouring hills shrouded in swirling mists. “Do you think we’ll drive through clouds?” they asked hopefully, before squabbling about whether it was possible to eat cloud ice cream.

My twins, Nisha and Naima, who’ve just completed a Class II project on the weather, wanted to know if Cherrapunji was still the wettest place on earth. “We learnt that it’s Mawsynram,” they announced. Mawsynram is a town 16km from Cherrapunji, and the locals take the annual competition very seriously. “Some years Mawsynram gets more rain, and some years Cherrapunji gets more rain,” explained Bah Arky, before indulging in some nostalgia over his soaking Cherrapunji childhood. “We used to get rain for 13 days and 13 nights. We’d go to school with wet uniforms and come home with wet uniforms. But no longer. Though sometimes we still get seven days and seven nights of rain.”

Indeed, many locals sigh over the wet-old-days. But still, Cherrapunji gets a whopping annual average of 11,000mm. Last year, it crossed 13,000 mm. (Which is more than five times the rain Mumbai gets, 15 times the rain Delhi gets and about eight times the rain Chennai gets.)

But what happens to this vast volume of water? We got our answer as we drove along the East Khasi Hills and passed Lower Cherrapunji — an unlovely cluster of restaurants, backpackers’ digs and permanently incomplete structures — and into the dense jungles and bowls of mountains. Everywhere were fast and furious streams of water. Little rivulets gushed across the road. The mountains were streaked with bright, white cascades tumbling down the steep slopes and into the sorrowful, flooded plains of Bangladesh. From every direction came the roar of water rushing past rock.

This rather ominous roar has greeted visitors to these gentle hills for centuries. Cherrapunji was one of the first hill-stations built by the British in the Northeast — but many newcomers found the weather oppressive. The first person to measure and broadcast the extraordinary rainfall was a Mr Yule. He noted that in August 1841, the town witnessed an incredible 22 feet of rain and that “during five successive days, 30 inches fell every 24 hours”.

Very soon, Cherrapunji became a holy destination for meteorologists and their rain gauges — fascinated not just by the perennial rains, but also by the local customs. As burial in the sodden ground was impossible during the monsoon, the Khasis used to embalm their dead in honey till conditions improved.

In 1990, British writer Alexander Frater wrote a compelling travelogue called Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage through India. In that he followed the monsoon from Kerala to Mumbai to Delhi and finally Cherrapunji. In his book, he described the majestic sight that greeted him when he arrived — “Plumes of white water sheeted off the green cliff, vanished into a cloud and reappeared in a foaming burn that went plunging down to nourish the tropical fruit gardens and top up the Bangladeshi floods.”

This was exactly our view from Cherrapunjee Resorts — standing on a high shelf overlooking the silvery, waterlogged fields of Bangladesh and hills wreathed in pewter clouds. The hotel was enthusiastic, friendly and clearly very proud of the rain. The dining area was covered with informative charts and statistics. But equally, the hotel staff — and all those living in this extraordinary corner of the world — were engaged in a constant battle with rust and mold and slush and insects. It was lucky then, that sitting in a musty room was not part of our Cherrapunji itinerary.

The next morning, after steaming bowls of porridge and fat pancakes, we headed out for our grand adventure — a trek to the famous double-decker root bridge across the bloated Umshiang river. Six kilometres sounded doable even to an exercise-phobe-who-wears-sneakers-once-in-three-years like me, and we were full of excitement and cheer when we jumped out of the car near the blue-and-white church of Tyrna.

Our guide, Pat, pointed the way and soon we were in a ridiculously fertile jungle, alive with ‘broomstick plants’, sweet-smelling bays, purple blooms and slender betelnut trees with funky hairdos — clearly the fashionistas of the jungle. But 10 minutes later, I knew I was in trouble. We had barely crossed the clucking hens and foaming-with-toothpaste villagers of Lumsophie and already I was panting. Pat cheerfully informed us that our descent to the double-root bridge involved 3,600 slippery stone steps cut into the hillside. “The way back is much more difficult because it’s uphill,” he said blithely, before rushing ahead with my frisky, surefooted daughters, leaving me and my mutterings to my amused husband.

Over the next two spellbinding hours we climbed down the footpath — meeting one tourist and, at most, 10 villagers. We smelt crushed bay leaves, giggled over the furry grey caterpillars, followed the vivid purple butterflies, and crossed two narrow, swingy metal bridges that spanned torrential streams. Eventually we crossed a small root bridge — a knobbly, mossy affair out of a fairytale. But then, everything on that magical morning reminded us of Snow White’s forest.

Pristine and lush though the jungle was, I was grateful when we reached the double-decker root bridge. My daughters and husband paddled in the Umshiang waterfall, while I gazed at the moss-and creeper-covered bridge. For hundreds of years, the Khasis have used the strong, distinctive roots of the rubber trees to weave bridges across waterfalls and rivers. And it seemed incredible that this sturdy, 200-year-old double-decker bridge had been fashioned from the roots of a single tree.

We took pictures, ate chocolates and I worried about the trek back to Tyrna. But not even my most fervent prayers caused a cable car to materialise. So my daughters frolicked up the 3,600 steps and asked if they could take a detour to catch a cloud — while I glared and lumbered painfully behind them. “Thank god it wasn’t raining,” my husband said when he finally chivvied me up the last flight of stairs.

“But appa,” my older daughter Aaliya wailed, “we’ve come here for the rain. We can hardly miss it.”

That evening, while we were wolfing down a delicious Khasi dinner — including the famous jadoh rice, a black pork dish and a delicious chicken roast with heaps of onions — Cherrapunji finally decided to live up to stereotype. Without warning, the rains start banging down on the roof. There was a ripple of excitement in the dining room. A young couple unpacked stiff, new plastic pants and jackets and prepared to face the elements. Another group slurped steaming tomato soup on the rather slushy, drippy porch. And the rain thrummed on and on through the night.

The next morning, we woke up in a cotton-wool world. An obliging cloud had parked itself right over our heads, isolating us from reality. And as we drove away from Cherrapunji, our final views were of discombobulated bamboo fronds, witchy branches, mysterious paths leading to nowhere, and strange signboards peeking out of the thick whiteness, bearing mystifying messages: “Dumping of Coal on the Passing of Places is Prohibited”.

During the drive to Shillong, Bah Arky played a song by local rappers called K-Bloodz. Along the way we stood in the spray of the Kynrem Falls and gazed at the flat, wet plains of Bangladesh from the Pillar Rock. But the most magical part of that drive was our game of hide-and-seek with the clouds.

The mists stayed with us almost all the way to Shillong — a bustling city full of music and churches, cherry blossom trees and five-inch heels. Here we stayed at the charming Aerodene Cottage, sampled the wares of the little bakeries, went boating on Ward’s Lake and attended a jazz evening.

But, back in Mumbai, it is the secretive mists and lush jungles of Cherrapunji to which I return in my dreams.

TRAVEL LOG

REACH

Guwahati is the closest airport and largest railhead. From there you can hire a car to Cherrapunji. Buses to Shillong and Cherrapunji are also available. Hail black-and-yellow taxis to get around Shillong and for day trips. In Cherrapunji, your hotel should be able to organise vehicles for short distances.

STAY

Cherrapunji For basic accommodation, super food and great views, try Cherrapunjee Resorts. They are also good with organising treks (from ₹2,230; >cherrapunjee.com). Or you could stay at the traditional accommodation of Sai-IMika Park (from ₹2,000; saimikapark.com). Shillong Ri Kinjai, a boutique hotel with traditional architecture on the banks of the stunning Umiam Lake (about 20km from the city) is a great, if expensive option (from ₹7,000; >rikynjai.com). Else try the Aerodene Cottage, a lovely old-style bungalow in a central location (₹2,700; >aerodene.in).

EAT

Most restaurants in Cherrapunji look quite grotty, but the Cherrapunji Café on the Cherrapunji-Shillong Road is a nice place to stop for coffee and a meal (though half the items on the menu were not available when we visited). In Shillong, seek out Sugarise for pastries, Déjà vu for Chinese, Munchies for burgers and Café Shillong for music, steaks and ice cream soda.

( Shabnam Minwalla is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of "The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street")

Published on July 25, 2014

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