The Living Root Bridges of Cherrapunjee

The last 500 steps were a daze. Our shirts could have yielded a bucket of water if squeezed, and our calf muscles felt like a thousand pins were being pricked into them. We were panting for breath, and taking even more step was a task.

If you think you have stumbled upon some literary fiction, you are mistaken. That’s us, a few days back. Ok, let’s put things in perspective!


 

“You are going all the way to Cherrapunjee to cross some bridges ?” (Our friends were shocked at our upcoming travel plans.)

“No, just one in particular.”

“So what’s the name of this bridge ?”

“Um…it doesn’t have one actually.”

“You gotta be kidding us” was the kind of expression that greeted us, anywhere and everywhere we discussed this.

Most of our friends thought that we were out of our minds. Can’t blame them really. It was not a very well known travel destination. In fact information on the net was sparse. But ever since we had seen pictures of the Cherrapunjee root bridges, we were hooked. It had been declared as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. We knew this had to be our next mission.

So what’s so unique about a bridge?

We have all heard of bridges being made of concrete, wires, bamboo and the stuff. But these particular ones, are actually made of living roots of trees. The bridges grow in length and strength over time- as the roots grip some structure like bamboo shoots, betel tree trunks and extend further across the ravines. It may take as much as 15 years for a bridge to form. But a fully formed one lasts for a few  centuries ! And people can easily cross over to the other side, over the gushing water bodies below.

Location

Such bridges can only be found in the north eastern parts of India, particularly in the state of Meghalaya in and around  Cherrapunjee. They have been discovered near the villages of Tynrong,  Nongriat, Nongthymmai, Laitkynsew and Mawlynnong. Of them, the one at Nongriat is the only one with a double decker structure ! And that was the one we were after.

Planning

Such treks needed detailed planning. We needed to get the timing right. Monsoons are the perfect time to be there, as the springs swell up from the rains and are a treat to watch.

We also needed to up a notch our fitness levels.  We had heard the trek was going to be an arduous one, hence had made it a point to work out regularly ever since our tickets were booked ! And by work out, we mean taking long brisk walks. Building biceps wasn’t going to help! It was the calf muscles we were after.

Getting there :

Cherrapunjee is approximately 60 Kms from Shillong (2hours by road) and around 150 Kms from Guwahati (3.5 Hours by road). Guwahati is well connected by flights to most major cities of India. Shillong has very limited flights (there’s a direct flight from Kolkata).

Where to stay :

Since we didn’t have the typical sightseeing in mind, instead of staying in Shillong which most people do, we decided to make Cherrapunjee our base camp! It was late in the afternoon one day, in the month of August, when we arrived there.

We had booked rooms at the Cherrapunjee holiday resort, a small homestay run by a local couple. These guys are in fact the ones who had been responsible for putting these bridges on the tourist map. They had themselves explored the terrain and realized that it had much to offer for nature enthusiasts.

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Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort at Laitkynsew

They had made all the arrangements for our trek the next morning. A small group had returned that evening, and we were eager to catch up on how their experience had been. We got some insights into the Do’s and Don’ts!

So here’s what they told us :

Things to carry on the trek :

  1. Drinking water. Lots of it.
  2. Lunch packs
  3. A camera, obviously
  4. A sturdy but light backpack to hold them all. A good branded one was recommended.
  5. Good shoes, with comfortable soles, as there would be intense walking through rugged terrain.
  6. A change of clothes. And some swimwear. Why ? Even we had the same question. “Let that be a surprise,” we were told!

 

What to expect :

This was going to be an altogether different experience. “Go with an open mind, and if you love treks through hilly terrain, you won’t be disappointed.
And do  make it a point to visit the double decker bridge,” they told us, as most people are exhausted by the time they reach the single one at Nongthymmai village and decide to come back.

We needed a good night’s sleep, so we turned in for the night early. The excitement of what lay ahead didn’t permit us to sleep soundly, but the adrenaline was enough to keep us going for the day we told ourselves !

 

The trek :

It was 7 o’ clock in the morning when we set out, along with our guide. He makes 3-4 trips every week, with tourists. No wonder he hadn’t a speck of fat in his body!

Had we any experience in trekking ? He asked us.

Our answer was written on our faces.

“Oh! Don’t worry, its going to be cakewalk. ”

A 7000 step cakewalk we told ourselves! That was the number of steps we needed to cover from the starting point till the end (a distance of approximately ten kilometers).

A car dropped us at Tyrna village, which was the starting point of the trek.  We were raring to go. The first part of the journey consisted of going down a thousand steps  to the single decker root bridge called Ritymmen (yes the bridges had names, after all!), near the Nongthymmai village. At 100 feet, it was the longest living root bridge.

The only problem was, the road was quite narrow, and had steep ravines on one side. So anyone suffering from fear of heights should keep away from this trip. I don’t usually get vertigo, but frankly speaking, there were a moment or two when my heart missed a beat as I stared down at the deep valley between the mountains we were climbing down. Another thought that scared us – this climb down meant we had to climb up the same road on our way back- and it was going to be quite a task.

It took us around an hour to reach the first bridge, with numerous stopovers on the way to satiate our  photo pangs. The landscape round wasn’t something we see very often- most of it was uncharted territory. Signs of human habitation was at a minimum, the concrete steps being the sole reminder that someone had been there before us. There was a railing at the sides too, but it was missing in most places, and somehow we didn’t have enough trust in it.

So we had to put down our steps very carefully – the steps barely permitted more than a pair of feet, so even giving way to people coming up was a delicate task.

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The road consisted mostly of rocky terrain

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After an hour of dedicated trekking, we crossed the Nongthymmai village and were on the steps of the first root bridge, and we were awestruck. It was indeed a spectacle. A bridge made entirely of tree roots, with the water gushing down below made us skeptical if we really wanted to step on it, but at the same time we couldn’t help but feel for ourselves how these things felt!

Sensing our dilemma, our guide told us it was strong enough to hold forty people!

And indeed when we put in our first steps on the bridge we realized that these roots were  far stronger than any wooden bridge we had come across. In fact unlike wood which rots over time, these roots strengthen over time, as they grow further. The locals usually place bamboo shoots or betel trunks to facilitate the formation of roots in the right direction.

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The single decker root bridge at Nongthymmai Village

Our guide was pretty eager to capture our moments on the bridge with the lens, and in the blink of an eye he had descended on to the steep rocks below to get that perfect shot. We needed both our hands to hold tightly to the sides and balance ourselves, so we were happy someone was doing the photography part for us!

After we had had enough of exploring the bridge, we had to turn back fr the next part of our journey, to the double decker bridge.

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The road was demarcated by handwritten sign boards 

Were we tired ? Asked our guide.

“Of course not! “

“How many more steps to the double decker bridge ?”, We asked.

“2500. Only. Don’t worry. One hour”, came the prompt reply.

Gosh! We exclaimed! Though we weren’t tired, the thought of having to climb back all the steps we had descended so far wasn’t an alluring one.

The next part of the journey didn’t involve a lot of climbing, but it had its moments and a few other bridges !

 

The steps were now made of rocks, strewn unevenly to provide some hard surface in the otherwise wet soil. It had rained heavily last night, but a few hours of sunshine in the morning had dried up the soil substantially.

Very soon we reached a long narrow bridge, made of three steel wires as it’s floor- suspended from two wires stuck to rocks on either side of the mountains. The wires were rusted at places, and our hearts missed a few beats.

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A steel wire bridge over the gushing waters. Pic Courtesy- our ever enthusiastic guide
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Halfway through this bridge started shaking like crazy, and so did we !

So far we had only seen such things in the western movies, where you had desperate people going on treasure hunts! Indiana Jones, you had company!

The steel wire bridge was a horror, to say the least. As we set our foot on it, the thing felt far from sturdy. Look down, and you are in for a shock. The water flowing violently a hundred feet below your feet, hitting hard against big boulders is enough to send chills down your spine. The mere thought of a sharp fall was enough to send doubts in our mind whether we really needed to do this!

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Crossing the wire bridges was a perilous task !

And if you have small feet, step carefully. You don’t want your feet to get caught in between those wires. I couldn’t help but shake things up a little- a little pushing on the railings made the bridge shake furiously.

“Stop it, my partner told me.”

She looked like she would faint any moment. We didn’t want any accidents. So I concentrated on holding her hand instead and taking her across.

We crossed three steel bridges, and around 2500 steps, till we reached  another small root bridge. By this time the root bridges felt like the strongest things in town, and we crossed it smartly, and we even managed to pose for some nice shots, with all the oh-so-scary expressions!

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The trek had numerous bridges like these !

We passed two homestays on the way. They consisted mostly of two rooms and a kitchen, with the toilets outside. The ones who didn’t have enough stamina to make both the to and fro journey could  spend the night here. And they came really cheap, hardly 400 bucks a night. But we weren’t too impressed with the rooms, and anyway our plan was to return to our hotel at night.

We did stop for a cup of tea and some chips. We met some people who had come all the way from Europe to see this wonder. And we thought an Europe trip was the ultimate in natural wonders !

After a hundred more steps, we reached a clearing. From there we could see what we had come all the way for. The double decker root bridge! We exclaimed in joy, there was the spectacle that had made all our exhaustion disappear in a matter of seconds.

We were literally running towards it, when we realized the ground was wet, and we needed to be careful. A few more steps and we knew why we needed a change of clothes.

There was a huge pool ahead, filled with water gushing down from the mountains above, and we could see people actually swimming in it! The water had a pristine blue color to it, may be due to the plankton and algae at the bed. The water was cold, but after the initial shock gets over, nothing better to rejuvenate our tired souls!

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Ummshiang – The double Decker root bridge, with the natural pool below

After the swim, we sat in the edge, keeping our feet in the water. And guess what! We were treated to a natural pedicure- courtesy the Garra Roufa fishes that abound in this water. Yes this are the same ones that are used in the oh-so-costly pedicure treatments in the salons! Our feet indeed felt soft and clean once we took them out of the water. Free pedicure for tired feet, they should advertise somewhere !

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Pedicure in progress 

We had our lunch sitting beside the fountain. It was one of the best meals of our lives. We took time to enjoy the silence around, such tranquility is seldom found in the places we are used to living. Sitting quietly, hearing the sound of water flowing by, birds chirping in the trees, leaves bristling in the wind- oh! This was straight out of some dream.

All our tiredness had evaporated.

 

There were small changing rooms on the side of the pool, and we could change into something dry.

We crossed the spring to the other side, but not before posing right in the middle of the fountain for some shots! We had to be careful though- the force of the water tended to dislodge our feet.

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There was a narrow trail on the other side which led to another root bridge ahead. Climbing that was a precarious task, and we had to manouever our way through loose rocks. The wanderer spirit had gripped us hard, and we threw fear to the winds!

We crossed that one too, but it was a dead end. “The trek ends here”, our guide told us.

We didn’t want it to come to an end, but….it was 2 o’clock and we decided to set out for the return journey. We wanted to have adequate time on hands so that we didn’t have to scale those steps at night.

The next hour was an easy ride- it was all downhill.

We crossed the steel bridges again, but this time it wasn’t  that scary. We were getting used to the nuances of the trek it seemed.

But in our reverie we had forgotten about the fact that we needed to climb back those steep steps that we had taken down. We needed to use our energies judiciously. We fancied out walking sticks from the tree trunks. Using those meant less strain on our knees. Thousand steps, and we were already doubting If we could make it back that day. We had exhausted our water, and most of our energies.

The last 500 steps were a daze. Our shirts could have yielded a bucket of water if squeezed, and our calf muscles felt like a thousand pins were being pricked into them. We were literally panting for breath. Somehow in the end, we managed to reach the starting point. God, were we tired !!

Back at the hotel, we had a nice warm bath, before eating like we had been starved for the past few days!

Lots of people were waiting at the dining room to hear our story. It was the weekend and three groups had come in. But somehow none of them wanted to make that final climb to Nongriat.

“You won’t know what you will miss”, we told them.

They just asked us one question- “What made you endure the gruelling trek ?”

Well, “Exhaustion is temporary. The pleasure you get out of it is permanent. And the pleasure when it comes to things like these, is unparalleled !”

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Archya, is trying his hand at prescribing medicines; and when he is not, he takes time off to pen down his thoughts on his travels that has taken him to all parts of the country.

For his other articles on Blong…Shong, Click Here

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23 thoughts on “The Living Root Bridges of Cherrapunjee

  1. Archya da, this is such a lovely account of your trek! And those photographs are pretty too! Thanks for getting a new item in that already overflowing bucket list of mine!

    Liked by 1 person

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