Nelson Nongbri had helpfully made me a rough map of the network of trails west of Nongriat. It looked basic, but good enough. I’ve worked from worse. Looking back, I really didn’t know a damn thing about what I was getting myself into. This would be the first time I had left the safety of the Nongriat tourist zone. But Nelson had said that it was possible to get to the village of Tynrong in a few hours, that it was right next to a big river, and that it was a good hike. He also advised me to stay the night in the village. I’d have to work that out with the villagers, who I assumed I wouldn’t be able to verbally communicate with.
“But you make some hand gestures,” said Nelson. “Smile and be polite, and they’ll let you stay. It’s not a problem. They’ll like you. Just be nice, that’s what matters.”
Wiser words have never been spoken.
It occurred to me then to ask Nelson a question I had been thinking about for a while.
“Are there any more living root bridges in that area, or anywhere outside of Nongriat?”
“I only know that there’s one in Mynteng village. I think, once, there were living root bridges in a village called Thieddieng, though I don’t know if there are now. They might have disappeared. I don’t know. I haven’t been there in forty years. But the clans who settled this valley came from around Thieddieng. They were chased here after they lost a war, and they brought with them the art of making living root bridges. Tynrong, Mawsahew, that side, were all founded by different clans, so I don’t think you’ll find any there…but there’s only one way to find out!”
“Here, let me put some more things on the map.”
He took the map and hastily added a few faint squiggles to it, though I wasn’t sure if the new (or even the old) squiggles were trails, rivers, or roads.
“Do you need me to write you a note? So they know who you are, that you want to stay there?” It sounded like a good idea to me. My Khasi at the time was limited to ‘Khublei’ (thank you), and several swear words a friend from Sohra had bestowed upon me. The former would probably be useful, and the latter might get a few laughs, but only in very select company. On the whole I felt woefully linguistically underprepared.
After a moment, Nelson shook his head. “No, no, you don’t need that. Hand gestures will work. Just keep doing them again and again.” Nelson then proceeded to do a ‘hand gesture’ hand gesture, which was something like imitating a chicken. “They’ll know what you mean eventually. And that’s how we learn. And learning is why we travel.”
More wise words.
After heartily thanking the ever hospitable and good-natured Lord Nelson and then buying enough candy bars and potato chips to subsist in the wilderness for, I estimated, five days, I set off from Nongriat. Leaving the ease of the tourist facilities behind, I lumbered into the jungle with all my belongings stuffed into a giant trekking bag which felt (and has always felt) like it weighed a good 70 pounds. Sometimes it seems silly to bring so much stuff, but then again, how do you pack for the unknown? Skimping on reserves of food, on emergency medical supplies, on backup electronics, and especially on water, can lighten the load by a whole lot, but, from experience, it’s always better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it. If it’s heavy, get used to it.
On the first stretch of the trek to Tynrong, between Nongriat and a village called Mynteng, I was accompanied by another tourist, a man from Australia who had just finished a mountaineering expedition in Tajikistan and had been running around in Central Asia for a while. The fellow had awoken a few days before to find that he had suddenly lost the lower left quadrant of his vision due to an eye infection. This partial loss of sight didn’t seem to especially bother him, yet he thought (and expressed politely) that my going alone to villages in the jungle was nuts. Assuming this quarter-blind Australian mountaineer knew a thing or two about being nuts, I wondered just how big a risk I was taking.
The trail from Nongriat to Mynteng starts behind Nongriat’s small Catholic chapel. An ancient walkway constructed from grey stone slabs, the well-worn route heads south over a surprisingly even (for Riwar) incline, clinging to the side of a jungle-clad escarpment. Below, echoing up through the verdure of the slopes, one can hear the ever-rushing waters of several rivers as they noisily merge and begin their short, tumultuous, cascade towards the much larger River Umiam, which in turn empties into the plains of Bangladesh after only a few short miles.
The jungle here is thick, and mostly uninterrupted by fields, but while it may at first appear wild, it is under surprisingly heavy cultivation. In this part of Riwar much of the agriculture that makes up a village’s livelihood is done by harvesting crops that are grown in a scattered, semi-natural state. Many of these have been planted out in the forest and left largely to their own devices except at the time when they need to be collected. Other items to be harvested might occur naturally in the forest, though these are certainly encouraged and protected by the locals, sometimes at the expense of other, less immediately valuable, native species. Either way, the villagers’ work lies in the jungle and so the jungle here is neither fully wild, nor is it completely tamed, but lies somewhere in-between.
Certainly, the jungle by the side of the trail between Nongriat and Mynteng is put to good use. Here, one can find several large Jackfruit trees. These are good not only for their fruit, which can be made into dozens of preparations, but also for their wood, which is exceptionally strong and resilient to decomposition in the face of the warm moist monsoon. In June, when the fruit is ripe, it emits a sweet pungent odor which can alert one to the presence of a jackfruit tree well before said tree has come into view. The occasional smallish areca palm also grows beside the trail, though these are few and far between, Nongriat’s main areca palm cultivating zone lying at a slightly lower altitude on the other side of the village. A few huge litchi trees have also made a precarious home here. These can be easily identified; even months out of season, there will always be plenty of seeds and old, hardened, litchi skins littering the jungle floor around their bases. In season, recently fallen litchi fruit make for a welcome feast. Several large ficus elastica trees, the same species from which the living root bridges are formed, stabilize sections of the unstable slope above and below the path with their endless tangles of snake-like roots.
Hundreds of fragrant Indian bay leaf trees grow all throughout the nearby jungle. These make up a large part of the region’s economy, the evidence for this being the huge, wonderful smelling burlap sacks often seen lying next to the trails, each one stuffed with enough bay leaves to flavor an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of curry. The sacks are so big that they look like the locals should be riding in them rather than carrying them, and are so tightly packed with bay leaves laboriously plucked from the jungle that the produce within is as dense and solid as a rock. Any walk through the jungle during the bay leaf gathering season includes a sighting of a Khasi high up in some far-off tree, collecting more bay leaves to add to the day’s haul. Mixed in with the harvested crops are hundreds of other tropical and sub-tropical plant species. Every palm, leaf, and tree is known to have some special property that makes it useful to the villagers. One kind of palm tree might be otherwise useless, but its leaves may be good rain gear, while a certain kind of wood might make poor building material but be good for starting a fire during the monsoon when all the other wood in Riwar is soggy and unusable. If you get a War Khasi started on the uses of the plants on his or her village’s land, be prepared for an on-the-spot crash course on foraging and wilderness survival techniques. The impressive skills involved in the creation of living root bridges are simply one of the hundreds of ways in which the people of Riwar make the jungle work for them.
Heading south, my concerned, visually impaired Australian colleague and I reached the small village of Mynteng after a short time. Here, after a surreal mid-village farewell overseen by a legion of puzzled children, we parted ways, the eccentric Australian turning left to go visit a couple of small living root bridges and then return to Nongriat.
My path took me to the right, the next objective being the village of Ramdait, from where I would make another turn to reach Tynrong. A few minutes beyond Mynteng, the path leads over a rocky mountain stream, one of the many rivulets making their way down to the Umiam. Even in dry weather, this is too wide to ford without getting your feet wet, and would be impossible to cross without a bridge during the monsoon. A living root bridge once spanned this gap. I’m told that this disappeared about fifteen years ago due to a flood or a fire, though sad remnants of it can be seen to this day. A replacement steel bridge was built recently, though at the time I still had to ford the stream.
With wet feet, I started up the opposite side of the river, the trail now turning sharply to the west and rising in altitude over a sudden, brutal, incline. Not in the best of shape, breathing hard, sweating, my bag felt heavier with each step. The jungle here was thick enough that I couldn’t see far in any direction. Without being able to view distant features of the land, it was impossible to gauge how high I had come or how much progress I was making. The trail seemed endless.
Then, as I slowly struggled up the path, I heard footsteps in the jungle behind me, somewhere down the slope. I turned around. Out from the undergrowth far below came a wrinkled old woman, her face to the ground, her whole body bent over with a great bundle of wood at her back. Thinking nothing of it, I turned around and continued up the trail. But after a short time, I heard footsteps right behind me, and turning around once more, found myself face to face with the old lady. She was much stronger than she looked.
“Shano?” (“Where are you going?”) she asked.
“Uh…Tynrong?” I replied.
The lady pointed up the trail.
“Uh, Ramdait, then … Tynrong? Ramdait-Tynrong?”
The lady laughed, then shook her head ‘Yes,’ and walked right passed me. My midtwenties self didn’t stand a chance of keeping up with this wrinkly wood-burdened 70-year-old.
The one advantage of paths that lead up incredibly steep inclines is that progress is made on them quickly, even if it’s at the expense of valuable calories. The rough stretch between Mynteng and Ramdait doesn’t last long, though once it begins to even out the path has climbed a solid 750 feet.
The trail comes to a clearing, which is also an intersection. One way, which is usually overgrown, leads straight down to the left, though I’m told that this trail is largely abandoned, having serviced a once important route which is only occasionally traveled upon these days. Another trail continues uphill, though over a much gentler slope than what’s come before and through thinner jungle.
Taking the uphill path, I could now see a great flat-topped mountain towering above me to the south. The upper reaches of the vast feature, great black rocky cliffs, were too steep for any significant vegetation. Directly out of the stone, cascading down into the jungle in glittering falls, issued white rivers originating somewhere deep within the massive limestone plateau.
Gradually, the incline of the path grew gentler, and then the jungle opened up onto a football field, the surest sign in Riwar that one is approaching a village (they don’t play cricket in Meghalaya). Up a few minutes’ walk from the field, small buildings appeared, and I knew I had reached Ramdait.
Ramdait is a tiny settlement. I would venture that it consists of at most thirty houses compactly arranged on a slope. The village’s primary thoroughfare heads straight up towards the top of the mountain to the south, while a smaller trail leads west.
As luck would have it, the tough-as-nails senior citizen who had passed me in the jungle was now sitting on her front porch. When she saw me huffing and puffing up through the village she laughed, though I wasn’t offended. It’s no use taking yourself too seriously when you insist on being the one sweaty foreigner in the jungle. If people think you’re funny, get used to it.
Still, despite my apparent ridiculousness, the woman invited me for tea and some much needed water and gifted me with several oranges her family had grown out in front of their house. She also pointed out which path I should follow to reach Tynrong. I thanked her profusely with many an overly formal ‘Khublei Shibun,’ and continued on my way. She looked a bit concerned when I left. I wonder if she knows I survived.
Beyond Ramdait, the incline of the trail slowly lessens, until it flattens out entirely. This is the highest point of the trek between Nongriat and Tynrong, and from here on it’s all downhill, though the descent begins gradually.
Ahead, I began to hear a rushing stream. Rounding a bend, I came unexpectedly on a high waterfall, which flowed through a steep cutting worn in the side of a limestone wall by a stream that originated somewhere high up on the plateau. No one else was around. I had the entire waterfall to myself.
I know that when some people visit Meghalaya, having come from the loftier mountains of India, Nepal, or Bhutan, they’re disappointed that the Khasi Hills don’t quite possess the grandeur of the higher ranges of the Himalayas. And it’s true: as deep and difficult and vast as the canyons of the Khasi Hills are, they’re no match for the sheer magnitude of Earth’s greatest mountain range. Meghalaya is not a big place, and there simply are no vistas in all the world that quite compare to the endless views one gets across the country of the snow peaks, not even those over the canyons of Riwar.
But the true beauty of the Khasi Hills resides not in their endless views, even if these are undeniably grand in their own right, but in the small, unexpected wonders tucked deep within the forested gorges; in the hidden clear-water pools, the tiny settlements of no more than ten houses, and the living root bridges so ancient the paths they were meant to serve have long since faded away. It’s easy to visit Darjeeling and see what makes the Himalayas so incredible; on a clear morning, the gleaming snow peaks will stretch from horizon to horizon, and all you’ll have to do is glance north to be awestruck. But in coming to Meghalaya, the reward is in places like the waterfall west of Ramdait; small, intimate, perfect settings that take blood, sweat, and sometimes even peril to come to, all of which are an absurdly low price for the privilege of simply being there.
Reaching the waterfall in the middle of the day, I decided to stop for a while and go for a swim. As this was during the dry season, the waterfall was relatively narrow, a ribbon of white water that emptied into the most perfectly circular plunge pool I have ever seen. The stream emerges from the other side of this little lake and then continues over flat stone for maybe a hundred feet before it drops away again in yet another fall, the trail from Ramdait crossing the small shelf of land between the two cascades.
Venturing into the pool, I found that the water was far deeper than the fifteen feet or so I could dive to. Over the years, I’ve never been able to guess how far down the water goes. While every time I’ve visited, the stream feeding the pool was small and benign, the great floods during the monsoon which yearly gouge down deeper into the limestone must be incredible to see. But the first time I reached the falls, the flow of the stream was so gentle that the mirror-like surface of the water was barely disturbed, and in it I could see the reflection of the cascade seeming to fall upwards against gravity. Countless blue and yellow butterflies, some airborne over the lake, others crowding together in colorful flocks to mineral-laden seeps issuing from the side of the limestone, appeared both above and in the water. The pool itself was full of life. Hundreds of large bright-yellow tadpoles swam in schools of several dozen while frogs clung to the stone at the edges of the pond. Reaching into the water, it was possible to grab small shrimp with my bare hands. I briefly mused about catching a few, putting them in a one-liter container I had with me, and then cooking them up later that night, though I ultimately decided this would be a waste of time, and of a container.
Places like that can suck you in. I could have spent days there. But in the end, after perhaps an hour of swimming and dawdling, I decided to push on to Tynrong, which I assumed was not far. I picked up my things and headed deeper into a region I knew almost nothing about.
So far, Nelson’s map had served me well. I was reasonably sure I wasn’t lost. Ahead, I knew that I should be coming to a ‘T’ intersection. The trail forming the top of the T, at least as it appeared on Nelson’s map, would lead me to a village called Mawsahew if I turned right, or uphill, or to Tynrong if I went in the opposite direction.
I made the left, and started down a steep staircase, the path leading me through an area of thick, lonesome jungle. The air became heavier and more moisture laden. The soil, which had a distinct reddish hue, was deeper than it was around Nongriat, and so the forest was strikingly green even by the high standards of Riwar. The stones the trail was made from were ancient, with deep grooves worn into the front of each step by centuries of footfalls as Khasis from Tynrong and other remote villages walked up and down them laden with unimaginable weights of produce on its way to the nearest market.
I still thought I was on course. My map indicated that Tynrong was next to a large river, and my trail was leading me downhill. Then disaster struck: I came to an intersection. It was definitely not on the map. One trail went right, over flat ground, another, left, into a small valley, and the last led straight forward. In the center of the crossroads was a small square enclosure made from overgrown blocks of grey masonry. Inside was an object like a table, with a large circular slab of rock supported about a foot and a half above the ground by roughhewn stone pillars. The rocks of the enclosure, like those which made the trail, had clearly been there for ages, though I could not so much as guess at their significance. They were as much a mystery to me as which path I should choose.
The enclosure did, however, give me a place to rest a few minutes and ponder my next move. I thought that maybe someone would come by who I could ask directions from (this is known as Riwar GPS). But nobody did. After sitting alone in the forest in a state of mild unease for what felt like half an hour, I finally decided I could waste no more time, and so resolved to take the path straight ahead, which here looked to be the most well-established of the three.
Pressing on from the enclosure, the trail started out wide and clear, but as I continued, the jungle pressed in on either side, and I wondered if I had made a mistake. Once, this had been a major path. The stones that it was formed from were large, and a great deal of effort must have been expended in dragging them where they were now arranged. But as I walked, the stones were increasingly covered with ferns, and then creepers, and then whole bushes that I had to push aside. I began to notice large fully intact spider webs across the path, a sure indication that nobody had gone through there for at least a day. Finally, the stones disappeared beneath the undergrowth, and the trail was only discernable as a narrow gap between bushes. Yet, as faint as it had become, it was still leading vaguely in the direction I thought I needed to go. In retrospect, I should have trusted my instincts and turned around the moment I judged the trail to be derelict, but back then, I still had a lot to learn about trekking.
Now, with the green closing in like a cocoon and my happy adventure turning into something altogether more alarming, I heard the last thing I would expect to be issuing from the remote forested hills: a cheesy thumping techno bassline. Surely, this meant civilization, or at least villagization, was near. But there was a problem: the bassline seemed to be coming from somewhere not far off. It could not be from the Tynrong Nelson had described to me. I knew that the Umiam, the only large river in the vicinity, was still at least a thousand feet below.
I was of two minds now, one wanting to allow myself to be drawn through the jungle towards the inexplicable 90s synth beat, and the other, to continue on the path which I still assumed led to my objective. But as I was pondering my course of action, I saw a thin old man coming up the trail. Sweaty, carrying a locally made long-handled knife called a dao, his clothes in terrible condition, he looked like he had been out in the forest for hours. Walking along, he had his head down to the ground, and appeared to be thinking very deeply about something. This meant that he didn’t know I was there until he was right on top of me. I distinctly recall that the man gasped when he looked up and saw a lost and confused giant American standing in front of him amidst the bushes and spider webs.
Shocked and amused, looking like he didn’t quite believe what he was seeing, the man tried to talk to me, and this occasioned a good five minutes of broken communications in (debatably) six different languages. I could ask which way to go easily in English, kind of in Hindi, and barely in Sohra Khasi. The man could easily respond in Tynrong and Sohra Khasi, kind of in Hindi, and barely in Assamese and Bengali. He had no idea what I wanted or why I was there, and at first I had no idea how to tell him, so we were reduced to throwing our respective linguistic spaghetti noodles at each other until something stuck, all with a pounding techno accompaniment.
And yet, I don’t remember this being at all frustrating. The man, who looked something like a Southeast Asian Clint Eastwood, seemed to find this encounter hilarious, and myself thoroughly ridiculous. I can’t say I blame him. I felt a smidge ridiculous. We ultimately established that the one language where our speaking abilities best matched (or were correspondingly awful) was Hindi, and in this medium he managed to point me towards Tynrong, which, it turned out, was in fact the source of the bassline. I knew then that Nelson’s map was inaccurate. Then again, it still got me where I meant to go. It just forced me to take the scenic route. No hard feelings.
Clint then said farewell, whereupon he walked some distance ahead and then disappeared into the forest. I never saw him again.
Following small trails through the jungle, I navigated in the general direction of what I now knew to be Tynrong, led onwards by a beacon of cheesy synth. Ahead, I saw a clearing, and then caught a glimpse of a large cross on top of Tynrong’s Presbyterian church. Emerging from the trees, I came at the village from an odd direction, entering it from the side and not via its main thoroughfare, coming up behind several houses. It felt almost as though I had snuck up on the settlement, which hadn’t been my intention.
The village was beautiful. It was also nothing like what Nelson had described. Areca palms dotted small yards around mostly wooden, square, Assamese-style houses. The Umiam was still far off, at the bottom of a vast canyon to the west, a good hour’s walk away. Though I was in the village, I still couldn’t locate where exactly the techno was coming from. I never did.
So, there I was. In Tynrong. Alone.
I couldn’t remain unnoticed for long. Most of the menfolk were still out working in the jungle, but there were dozens of children about. From them, I instantly learned that Pharengs were a rare sight in Tynrong. At first, the sounds of children playing could be heard across the village. Clusters of them ran to and fro. But then one small, laughing, Khasi kiddie-cluster came bounding down a nearby trail. Seeing me, the children all stopped in their tracks and fell silent, developing expressions of sheer terror. They then slowly back peddled up the path, never taking their eyes off the bizarre uninvited paleface. After retreating to what they calculated was a safe distance, they turned around and scampered off screaming. Other kiddie clusters were nearby, playing games, climbing trees, or teasing each other, but when they caught wind of the first group’s distress, their attention was shifted to the strange Phareng, and they had roughly the same reaction. The process of multiple simultaneous scamperings led to the merger of several once distinct kiddie-clusters, I suppose to find safety in numbers, and these macrokiddie-clusters in turn merged with others. This both spread the news of my being there and led to the consolidation of every child in the village into a veritable galaxy of mystified youth. It was only when a truly vast cloud of children had coalesced that they developed the courage to gawk at me in horror and fascination from halfway across the village.
The few adults around could not ignore this turn of events for long. However, those I came in contact with had no idea what I was doing there, and quite reasonably assumed that we could not communicate. Mostly, they pretended to ignore me as I walked by (and then stared at me from behind my back). Ignored by scattered adults and goggled at from afar by a village’s worth of children, it was an odd half hour wandering the trails of Tynrong. I tried several times to ask for either the village teacher, or for the headman, but not knowing the Khasi words for either of these posts at the time, my questions were in vain.
With the day fading fast, I began to wonder if Nelson’s ideas about visiting other villages, like his map, were a tad inaccurate. But then I happened to bump into a wiry fellow by the name of Pynbait, who had just come back from working in the jungle and was slightly less shy than his neighbors. He didn’t know any English, but he spoke what he described as ‘Bazaar Hindi’ (which in his case consisted of random bits of Hindi and Bengali arranged at will). His smattering of Indo-Aryan vocab was marginally more extensive than Clint’s, and about on par with mine.
At first, he thought I was simply a horribly lost tourist from Nongriat (a case could be made) and took pity on me. I think regarding me as just a silly Phareng who needed looking after, he reluctantly decided then and there that I was his responsibility. In Hindi I was able to get across to him that I wanted (and at this late hour of the day, needed) to stay the night in Tynrong. He informed me gravely that there was no hotel in the village, that it was a place where only poor people lived, and that the only thing I’d get to eat was rice. To this I could only respond that I really didn’t mind sleeping on a floor, and that my only options at this point were eating rice in poor Tynrong or going hungry in the jungle.
Pynbait smiled at my predicament, the first time I had seen anybody over three feet tall grin in Tynrong, and then invited me to stay with his family that night, providing the village headman, who was not there at the time, signed off on it. The two of us walked to his home, and now that the ice between us was melting, the shy legion of kids grew slightly bolder, the lot of them following us towards the house (though only slowly, and at a distance). When Pynbait and I entered his home, the cloud of minors hung about out front, curious, but still worried by me. Sitting inside, whenever I looked out the window I would see a wall of kids, though if I made eye contact with any of them, they would all yelp and scatter.
Pynbait’s house was humble. It was not a traditional, oval-shaped wood, bamboo, and thatch Khasi structure (there being none of those left in Tynrong) but was instead built after the fashion of old Assamese buildings. The house was square, with one floor, and was mostly wooden except for the roof which was made of corrugated metal. The outside was painted a bright shade of blue, which would have looked rather cheery had the paint not been old and peeling. The interior of the house was divided into two rooms, with a living room taking up about three quarters of the floor space. Behind, there was a small, cluttered, kitchen. Under the house was a crawlspace where two big fat pigs lived.
Every plank in the building had been gnawed on by termites. I was told that the wood the house was made from was of a cheap variety, and that Pynbait didn’t have the money to replace it. A few of the floorboards had been so chewed up that they were only about half as wide as they had been when they were first laid down. This meant that, no matter where one happened to be in the living room, it was possible to look down through the gaps in the floorboards and see what the pigs were up to.
For a while, Pynbait and I sat around on his floor talking. Slowly, he warmed up to the idea of conversing with an unexpected foreigner, and grew increasingly loquacious, his bazaar Hindi gradually transitioning to proper Hindi (which was better than mine) the more comfortable he became. I learned that despite being only in his late twenties, he had something like seven kids, though they were all either hiding in the kitchen or hanging around outside.
Seeing that Pynbait had invited me into his house and no harm had come to him, a single young Khasi then tentatively entered the living room and proceeded to stare at the giant Phareng from the safety of a corner. This pathfinding act of courage caused several other children to follow the first’s lead, and once a bridgehead had been established inside the building, the entire under-fifteen population of Tynrong commenced trying to squeeze through the front door (and the windows, and the kitchen). Pynbait took all of this in stride. He was used to having his house full of his neighbors’ kids.
But finally, the density of children became simply ridiculous. I wondered if the house in its decayed state could take the structural stresses of being packed with dozens of wriggling little people, or if it would eventually burst, strewing Tynrong with a confetti of wood splinters and giggling minors. Communicating with Pynbait was tricky at the best of times, but to work around the added difficulty of talking over a chorus of chatty fascinated young folk was impossible, so finally the two of us decided to clear out the children, Pynbait running at them with a stick, and me charging them with an umbrella. This sent them screaming into the village (and some all the way into the jungle) and allowed the two of us to talk uninterrupted for a little while.
But the cloud of curious youngsters eventually reformed, and it went through the same process of first sending in a reconnaissance force and then gradually drifting back into the house. Fortunately, it could just as easily be driven back outside with the stick and umbrella technique. Pynbait and I resolved to simply repeat this maneuver every twenty minutes or so.
Pynbait’s adult neighbors also started showing up and asking about me. One of these was a lady who taught at the village’s school. She spoke a little English, and through her I learned that the headman and village council had all been briefed on my visit and were fine with it. This had been done via phone, as both the headman and the village secretary had been out that day.
I think this was a relief to Pynbait, who up until that moment was not quite sure if his sheltering a Phareng was against the village government’s wishes. Through the translating medium of the teacher, I was able to tell the story of how I had heard of and then reached Tynrong in some detail. The moment I brought up Nongriat, the subject of discussion immediately shifted to the newly developed tourism industry in that village. I detected a note of annoyance; I think the people of Tynrong, not without reason, found it a bit unfair that at the time almost every single tourist that visited the region went to the same village
The good people of Nongriat have done the world a great service by making the most of what they have. But it still rankles their neighbors a bit. Once he got onto the subject of Nongriat, Pynbait went into a long disquisition as to why Tynrong was just as beautiful, if not more so. To illustrate his case, Pynbait mentioned that, just like Nongriat, Tynrong has a river. This, I assumed, was the large river Nelson had mentioned, and which I had expected to find next to the village. I asked Pynbait if he would give me directions to it, as after my long day I was filthy and felt like taking a swim.
Instead, Pynbait offered to take me there himself. He also decided, out of the blue, to pick up my giant trekking bag, which he felt I should bring with me for some reason. The bag was half the size he was, and extremely heavy. Often, folks in the hills offer to carry my stuff, but this is one of the few places where I can’t stand to accept local hospitality. I’ve never liked the idea of someone else hauling my dirty laundry and hastily packed superfluities, but he was well out the door before I could stop him, and we had gone some distance down a hill by the time I managed to convince him to stop and allow me to carry the bag myself.
No longer encumbered, Pynbait led on at an increased rate, though not in the direction I had thought we would be going. Nelson had said Tynrong was next to the Umiam, which was due west of us, but we were heading north, into a narrow valley just below the village. In only a short time, I began to hear a stream below, and could see that the opposite slope was not far away. We were close to the water when I saw what at first glance looked like a recently constructed bamboo bridge. Here, Pynbait turned to the right, where a faint trail led to the stream.
We clambered down to the stones of the riverbed. In front of us was a small waterfall, which Pynbait was walking towards. I started to follow him, but then I turned around, and gasped. All at once, I realized I was looking at something that should not have been there. What had at first looked like a bamboo bridge was nothing of the sort. It was a living root bridge.
I called up to Pynbait to stop, and then deposited my huge trekking bag on a stone and excitedly went over to investigate the root bridge. It was ancient; that much I could tell. The structure consisted of a few very thick, very strong, ficus elastica roots. These must have been in the same position for many decades, perhaps even several centuries, to have grown to such prodigious widths. Using these, admittedly, very fuzzy metrics, I reasoned that the bridge must have been of a similar stage of maturity to the larger and more well-known structures in Nongriat. Even there, the exact ages of the older living root bridges are a matter of conjecture. 500 years is an estimate often thrown out, but, as nearly as I can tell, this is a mere bit of tourist-feed; a readymade morsel of wisdom guides trot out when they anticipate a visitor’s question but also know that the true answer, ‘I don’t know,’ won’t suffice.
However old the bridge was, it had seen better days. Though the surviving roots were still strong, half of the bridge looked like it had been removed sometime in the past, probably due to a flood. A railing, made from a thick, still-living root, was present on one side of the bridge but not the other. The reason the structure had not looked like a root bridge from above was because the floor of the span had been covered in bamboo poles, which made it easier to cross in its damaged state. Both the roots that made up the bridge and the tree the structure was generated from were badly scarred by hundreds of hacks taken out of them by machetes. I would only learn several years later that these scars, which are common on ficus elastica plants across Riwar, are made to harvest the milky white latex which is found inside the trees. When an incision is made anywhere on the plant, over the next few days, a small quantity of the sticky substance will bleed out of the wound. This can then be collected for use in animal traps or to be sold at local markets, where I’m told it fetches a high price.
Even though the bridge was badly damaged, I was thrilled to have stumbled upon it. Perhaps the structure wasn’t as scenic as those in Nongriat, but what its previously unsuspected existence suggested was that, contrary to all information available at the time, there must have been many other living root bridges across the Khasi Hills that were undocumented. It meant that the incredible phenomenon that had made Nongriat famous was in no way unique to that village, and that the Khasi Hills were hiding an incredible secret.
I took as many pictures of the bridge as I could, though the light was fading. Pynbait thought my interest in the matter was very strange. He then asked me a question I would hear countless times over the coming years: ‘Don’t you have root bridges in your country?’ (of course, the question was asked in Bazaar Hindi, and had to be repeated ten times before I got it.)
However amazing the feat of botanical engineering might have struck me, to Pynbait it was just a piece of infrastructure. It was useful but not interesting. In Tynrong, they had made the root bridge out of simple hardheaded practicality. It got them across the river.
The day had one last surprise. After taking plenty of photos of the bridge, I followed Pynbait as he led me up the stream-bed. According to him, there was a nice swimming hole somewhere up the steep course of the rivulet. Here, I thought I might possibly be able to obtain a state of semi-cleanliness. However, we could only reach this by climbing a fair distance up the stream, over several small waterfalls. My elevated mood after making what seemed like a true discovery now quickly came back down to Earth as I was confronted with a series of short, dangerous, pitches up rock faces, the climbs made significantly more difficult by my trekking bag, which I didn’t even need. I think Pynbait had insisted that I bring it along due to a miscommunication. It was nobody’s fault, though I couldn’t help being unhappy about it.
Still, we survived.
That night, we came back to Pynbait’s house and I had dinner with his family. My plate consisted of a heaping mound of plain white rice, along with a little bit of salt and two cubes of pork fat with the skin still on them. That may not sound like a feast, but I was ravenous, and more than thankful for the meal. As I ate, I thought back on the long train of happy accidents that had led me there. Even though, to my knowledge (and there remains a chance I’m mistaken) I was the first tourist to visit the living root bridge in Tynrong, I couldn’t exactly count this as an achievement. I was only there out of sheer lunkheaded happenstance. Coincidence begot coincidence, and now here’s a book about it.
That night, Pynbait and I had a nip of whiskey. My host was of the opinion, as he explained laboriously in Bazaar Hindi, that moderation in all things was the key to happiness, so we both had only a single capful. As it turned out, his moderation was more potent than mine. I likely had about twice as much body mass as he did, so his cap went twice as far towards intoxication. Buzzed, he talked more freely now, often transitioning entirely into Khasi.
I must admit, I spent much of the night not having the slightest idea what he was on about. Then I fell into a deep sleep on the floor, lulled into unconsciousness by the music of the pigs under the boards.
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