The next morning, the trek began. 

After one last meal in Ranikor with Biplab and his family, I hefted my great backpack and started down the road.

The day’s objective, Mawlongbah village, wasn’t that far away as the crow flies, which was a good thing as I had decided not to push too hard just as I was starting out. My backpack, despite all efforts to shed weight in Sohra, still felt incredibly heavy, and it was going to take time to develop my uphill muscles.

The road that I followed led from Ranikor and wound gently up into the high country to the east of town. It took me lazily higher, curving around the sides of little valleys and through a relatively tame jungle that buzzed with insects and was regularly interrupted by small roadside settlements. Though it was only early February, the lowland air had grown warm; one could feel that in a few weeks’ time it would be unbearably hot. But for the moment, it was fine weather to be out walking in.

I made my way up into the hills at a moderately brisk pace. The road was paved, its surface dark and shiny. If the whole walk was as easy as the first hour, I’d be across the Southern Khasi Hills in a few days.

The air had become almost chilly with the increasing altitude, and crisp like on an autumn morning. Now the Kynshi river fell far away to my right. The incline of the road had been so gentle that I barely felt like I was gaining altitude, yet I was already looking down on the snaking blue waters at the bottom of a great jungle-flanked valley. 

The road made a sharp turn towards the east. From the bend, I could see down to where the Kynshi left the hills and poured into the plains of Bangladesh, becoming a wide, sandy, meandering stream as it crawled towards the misty horizon. Not long after the bend, there was a recent-looking concrete stairway leading off to the left, uphill through rolling, grass-covered slopes. So far, having walked only a few hours, I’d risen a gentle 300 meters. Up the stairs there was a much steeper 150-meter ascent to Mawlongbah. But with the wind blowing through the fields, and the view of Bangladesh growing ever wider and more magnificent each step up I took, the climb, though tiring, was enjoyable. In no time, corrugated metal roofs appeared uphill, rising over the grassy slopes, while the faint sound of children’s voices was carried on the win. I had already reached Mawlongbah, with most of the afternoon to spare.

The walk to Mawlongbah had been easy. But sometimes it’s not the walking that’s the hard part when crossing large distances on foot in the Khasi Hills. A challenge just as great as navigating the difficult terrain is navigating the local culture. Khasi villages have their own unique set of rules, and learning them is vital.

Arriving unannounced at a remote settlement unused to tourism and then finding a place to stay, something to eat, and a reliable source of information, means making an appeal to the village government and hoping they won’t decide to kick you out. Thus, my very first task upon entering Mawlongbah was to locate someone with whom I could communicate, and who might be able to point me in the right direction. You might think that all this would entail was saying “hello” to any person I bumped into and starting a conversation. But Mawlongbah wasn’t the sort of place where people immediately open up to strangers.

After only a few minutes wandering around inside the village, I concluded that I had reached a place where outsiders, at least from beyond the boundaries of Meghalaya, almost never visited. It was not that Mawlongbah was especially cut off from the world in a purely geographical sense. The foot path connecting the village to the road was only, maybe, two kilometers long. The houses, churches, community halls, and schools were constructed using plenty of reinforced concrete, which meant that Mawlongbah was sufficiently prosperous and linked to Meghalaya’s road infrastructure that its people did not need to entirely rely on locally sourced materials to build with. Perhaps it wasn’t a cosmopolitan place, but it wasn’t the middle of nowhere either.

It was the first souls I met in the village who cued me to just how rarely the good people of Mawlongbah interacted with Pharengs (the catch-all term Khasis use for Europeans). As I walked among the cheerfully painted non-traditional concrete homes, five or six kids came running around a corner, eagerly engaged in a truly age-old game which has been played everywhere from Ancient Greece to Edo period Japan to pre-Columbian North America: Hoop-and-Pole. Khasi kids, through years of practice and dedication, tend to be expert hoop rollers. They take great pride in rolling their metallic rings vast distances over many seemingly hoop-defying obstacles. In the not-unlikely event that Hoop Rolling becomes an Olympic sport, I fully expect Khasi youths to dominate.

And when the Mawlongbah hoop rollers ran around the corner and saw me, they came to a sudden, horrified, stop, and let their hoop-guiding sticks clatter to the ground. Their hoops all spun past me and away down a hill, metallically ringing through the village. Before I could so much as open my mouth, the whole lot of hoop rollers ran off in terror.

Clearly, Pharengs were not often glimpsed in Mawlongbah.

For a while, the only people I met were terrified children who ran off to the opposite side of the village and fearfully peeped at me from under cover. In their defense, I’m sure huge, pale, sweaty, mildly frustrated me made for a curious and sinister sight. Virtually all the adults in the village were gone. This was because it was the middle of the day: the time when most farmers in the Khasi Hills are out working in their fields or in the jungle.

And so I kept wandering and wandering through the mostly empty village. In times like these it’s always tempting to consider walking out into the jungle, finding a water source, and setting up camp. Since it was a warm cloudless day, this would have been an enjoyable way to spend the evening. But for my purposes, the problem with this course of action (beyond the fact that one should always ask permission from local village councils to camp on their land), is that if I were to always stay alone in the jungle, I wouldn’t learn all that much about the area. Actually meeting the people of the villages, even though this can be exhausting and confusing, gives one access to huge swathes of highly valuable local information which can’t be dredged up any other way.

Walking up and down the snaking concrete pathways between the houses of Mawlongbah, I still hadn’t run into a single adult. But then I heard a voice, calling from some distance away:

“Hellooo!” it said.

I looked in the direction it had come from and saw an old grandpa with blackened, betel-nut stained teeth, leaning out of a window and waving to me from many houses away. But when I tried to engage him in conversation in English or Hindi, all he did was repeat: “Hellooo!”  

This being the situation, I decided to roll out some of my proudly acquired Khasi vocab.

“Rangbahshnong?” I called out to him. This is the Khasi word for a village headman. The Rangbahshnong is the chief executive of the village council, or Durbarshnong, the real law in a place like Mawlongbah. You want the Rangbahshnong on your side.

The grandpa just stood there in the far-off window, looking a little confused. Perhaps he didn’t hear me?

“Rangbahshnong?” I repeated.


“Hello!” I called back.


“Uh, Secretaryshnong?” I asked.

The Secretaryshnong is the guy who handles the paperwork/organizational matters in a given village, who is often selected for the post because he happens to be well educated.

The old man heard me, but still just leaned thoughtfully in the window.

“Hellooo!” he called out, finally.



I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with this.

“Nonghikai?!” I asked, even though I suspected the answer would, again, be “Hellooo.”

The word ‘Nonghikai’ literally means ‘village teacher.’ There is often more than one teacher in a village, and it’s a fair bet that they’ll know English.

There was another long silence. I was considering just waving and moving on when the man yelled out:


“Haoid!” I replied, which is the Khasi word for ‘Yes.’ Finally, progress.

“Teeachaaar?” the old man repeated.


“Teeachaaar!” he urgently pointed next to me.


I looked where he was pointing. A young woman was standing right by my side looking bemused.

“Where do you go?” she asked.

The ‘teeachaaar’ (who, incidentally, happened to be the mother of one of the shocked hoop-rollers) informed me that most of the village council would not be home until late that afternoon. Still, she pointed me to a house on the eastern side of the village and said: “My relative lives in that house. Maybe you can go there?”

I walked over to the house. Standing in front was a group of men who had just returned from their work in the surrounding countryside. They had carried vast bundles of a kind of grass used for making brooms down from their fields above the village and had stacked them in the front yard.

The teacher’s relative was a man named Massar. He was neither Rangbahshnong, Secretaryshnong, or Nonghikai. He was only the Assistant-Secretaryshnong. But since that was still a position of power, I asked him:

“Would it be possible for me to stay one night in this village?”

“You want to stay here?” he replied with amazement.

“If possible.”

“Yes, you may stay at my house, but…you are the first.”

“The first what?”

“The first tourist to come to this village. Why would you come to Mawlongbah? There is nothing here.”

“Well, I started in Ranikor, and I’m trying to walk to Nongnah…and then to Jarain, in the West Jaintia Hills.”

“You will walk all the way to the Jaintia Hills?”


“Why would you do this?”

“You see more if you go on foot.”

“Ah. Only a Phareng will do this.”

You might be surprised to learn that this type of travel involves a lot of sitting around watching WWE.

Having landed in Massar’s house, I was immediately introduced to his family, and his extended family, and their families, and their extended families. They were all coming anyway because Massar had the only satellite T.V. in the vicinity. And when Khasi villagers watch T.V., two out of three times, they tune into bizarre American wrestling. Don’t ask me how this particular item became America’s top cultural export to Meghalaya.

Relaxing to Roman Reigns pretending to beat people up as I had milk tea, biscuits, and betel nut, while at intervals being interrogated about ‘my village’ (by which was meant ‘The U.S.A.’) was a strange but not altogether unagreeable way to pass the time. But as the afternoon bled away, I slowly pressed Massar for more information.

Over the course of the evening, it became clear to me why no other tourist had ventured to Mawlongbah. It’s the sort of place that travelers have no reason to visit because its average in almost every way. That isn’t a mark against it. I learned just as much in aggressively normal Mawlongbah as I did in any of the more unusual villages I passed through over the course of my long walk. To have even a moderately clear perception of another culture, you have to have some concept of what’s typical. In the sense that Times Square doesn’t represent all of the U.S., the tourist hubs of Meghalaya don’t represent the whole of the Khasi world.

In the evening, Massar introduced me to an ex-village secretary who was able to clear up a few historical questions I had about the settlement. I was told that the people currently living in Mawlongbah were descended from the clans of Nongnah. The two villages are now situated on opposite sides of a large limestone plateau, but many of the surnames are the same. Likewise, the dialect spoken in Mawlongbah, while slightly different from that of Nongnah, is nonetheless still extremely close.

According to the ex-village secretary, sometime well after the turn of the 20th century, farmers from Nongnah established a camp in the sloping fields to the south of that village, next to a huge black boulder. This was done so that they could spend the night nearer to their crops, and therefore loose less productivity commuting between their homes and their fields. At first, the camp consisted of little more than a handful of small, temporary, thatch and bamboo huts, which weren’t occupied year-round. There was no electricity, and nothing that could be called a government. It was simply an agricultural outpost of Nongnah.

Over the years, the farmers who used the camp started to spend more and more time there, living near the big black stone for weeks, months, or even whole seasons. They began bringing their wives and children, and the little huts grew larger and more permanent. Instead of thatch and bamboo, the farmers began to incorporate wood or even stone into the structures.

Gradually, the year-round population of the settlement expanded, until finally the people living there decided that it was high time they establish their own government. They then created a village council and elected a headman, and Shnong Mawlongbah, which translates to “Big Stone Village,” was born.

I enquired, both in Mawlongbah and later in Nongnah, whether any objection was raised to Mawlongbah breaking away, but I found no trace of any dispute. Apparently, the ancestors of the people who founded the original camp already owned the land, so the decision to create an independent settlement away from Nongnah didn’t involve any trampling of land rights.

Later, Mawlongbah moved again, several kilometers to the south. This was only in the 1980s or 90s, when the road I had walked on earlier in the day was first built. The villagers wanted to be closer to the road so that they could more easily move their crops to markets further appeal in Meghalaya. Thus, the original site of Big Rock Village was abandoned, though the name was retained when the people from the old site moved down to the village’s current location.

The houses in present day Mawlongbah are not old. They are not representative of traditional Khasi architecture. The trails that lead into the settlement are easy to walk on and newly paved, and the tidily unexceptional village church was built in the 1990s. The story of Big Stone Village is, perhaps, undramatic. But that shouldn’t dim the achievements of its people, who carved out a new home on the slopes of a wild mountain in southern Meghalaya with their bare hands.

As far as I can tell, the story of Mawlongbah is similar to that of a great many villages in the Khasi Hills which have developed the way they have to allow their people to access and sell their crops more conveniently; to make better lives for themselves, and for the generations to follow.

The next thing to do was to get some sense of how to trek from Mawlongba to Nongnah. It turned out that Massar walked between the settlements from time to time, still having relatives over in the other village, so now at least I knew it was possible.

“But will you know the way when you try to walk there?” he asked me in a doubtful tone of voice.

“I think so. And if I get lost, there’s always this,” I said, holding up my smartphone. “And if I get really lost, I have food and a sleeping bag in my backpack.”

This comment led to a lengthy discussion among the various members of Massar’s clan about my trekking bag. Specifically, about how heavy it was and how strong/courageous/insane/pitiable I was to be lugging it all over Meghalaya. Then most of Massar’s extended family took the opportunity to be photographed wearing the giant backpack, which was generally about the size they were.

But once the trekking bag comedy died down, Massar continued regarding the trail to Nongnah: “Please don’t spend the night in the jungle. In the jungle, there is, like, a bad belief living there,” he said cryptically.

“A bad belief?”

“How to say in English? Like, rituals you must perform…sacred groves…and one old lady…she needs you to do some rituals…very dangerous beliefs…”

I was just as intrigued by this as I was puzzled. But Massar wasn’t able to put whatever it was that was bothering him into words (at least in English). There seemed to be something supernatural lurking up on the hillsides above Mawlongbah. I think by “belief” he meant something more like “superstition.”

“Just, when you walk to Nongnah, walk fast,” he continued. “Go straight there. If the path is turning, going here and there, if there are many many small small paths there on the mountain, only follow the bigger path, OK?”

“Sounds simple enough.”

I awoke before dawn the next morning. There’s no point trying to sleep late in a Khasi village. The cocks are usually crowing by 4, and the kids are almost always making a racket by 7. But it was good to be up early, as I was eager to take the next big step of my long walk across the Khasi World.

Still, ruminating on the hours ahead, there was much to be apprehensive about. It was impossible to gauge just how difficult walking from Mawlongbah to Nongnah would be. The distance, at only around eight kilometers measured in a straight line, was by no means huge. However, getting to Nongnah would entail climbing up and over a large, unsettled, limestone plateau. I’d have to ascend numerous steep ridges and navigate over great swathes of grassland. The trail that led to Nongnah would almost certainly be twisting and circuitous. I was sure to make the occasional wrong turn. And then, once I had trekked to the other side of the plateau, I had only the vaguest idea of what I’d find in Nongnah.

The sooner I got moving, the better.

Therefore, I wound up sitting on Massar’s floor and watching a good hours’ worth of WWE followed by a big chunk of the film The Scorpion King with Dwain “The Rock” Johnson.

This wasn’t really what I was in the mood for, but Massar insisted that we have breakfast together at his house before I set out, and cooking a meal from scratch takes a while when all you have to heat it with is wood from the jungle. Being in a bit of a hurry, I could have jumped out the door and relied on my own supplies for breakfast somewhere up the trail. But that, of course, would be terrible backpacker diplomacy.

News of a trekking Phareng travels fast in the Khasi Hills, but news of a trekking Phareng asshole travels even faster.

Finally, well into The Scorpion King,Massar brought out some tea and white rice, along with a bit of daal; a modest meal, no doubt, though not a bad one to hike on.

“Will you be able to find your way?” he asked.

“I think so. Like you said, I should just take the bigger path, right?”

“Yes,” though Massar looked rather troubled as he gazed at the screen while quietly sipping his tea.

“Do you know anyone in Nongnah?” he asked.

“No. I’ve never been there before.”

More thoughtful silence from Massar as The Rock led his ethnically diverse band of warriors to victory on the T.V.

“Maybe I should show you the way?” Massar said finally.

I was afraid he was going to make this offer. Despite the probability of some route finding, I had been looking forward to hiking alone, at my own pace. Also, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of disrupting Massar’s workday.

“That’s nice of you, but I think I can find the way.”

“Ah…yes. Maybe. But you may also get lost. There is much grass up there.”

“But don’t you have work in the fields?”

“Yes, but you are going to Nongnah. My fields are on the path.”

Massar had made up his mind. I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

Before setting out, I fixed myself a cup of Nescafe instant coffee.

Standing in the sun outside of Massar’s house, I poured a liberal dose of powder into a collapsible rubber drinking cup and then mixed in a little bit of water, creating a thick, sugarless, high-caffeine coffee-mud.

Massar watched this process intently.

“What is that?” he asked.

“Coffee. I’m addicted to it.”

“Is it tasty?”

“Nooo….do you want to try?”

Massar’s expression was not that of someone who desired to partake.


“It’s really not very good,” I said, reading his expression and not wanting to put him through an unpleasant experience. “It’s quite horrible, actually. You could put some sugar in it, but it’s not much better that way.”

“If you don’t like it, then why do you drink it?”

“I get headaches if I don’t.”

“So, it’s like a drug?”

“It’s like betel nut. It’s not a great habit, but I’m addicted.”

“Ah, yes. Drugs: a worldwide problem. Is it from America?”

“No. Guwahati.”

Hearing that the coffee was not an exotic import clearly made him less interested in it. He stared at my concoction doubtfully.

“Let me get a cup,” he said, glumly.

“You don’t have to. It’s really not good.”

“Just wait.”

He went into his house and then came back out about a minute later with a little white porcelain teacup.

“Here,” he said, proffering the teacup. “Pour.”

“All right. You asked for it.”

I shook a medium scoop of the coffee powder into the teacup, then poured in some water and stirred.

Massar looked down at the coffee, clearly none-too excited about drinking it. Then he quickly lifted the cup to his lips like it had a shot of whiskey in it. But he didn’t swallow.

Massar lowered the cup, his mouth full of coffee, his expression most unhappy.

“How is it?” I asked.

Massar turned to the side, and, as politely as he could, dribbled the coffee out of his mouth.

“Terrible,” said he.

Now we left Mawlongbah and started uphill, accompanied by two of Massar’s younger relatives. The trail went up briefly along a jungle-clad slope and then came out on a huge wind-swept meadow of waste-high broom grass. This ended some distance ahead in another grass-covered hill, out of which protruded the occasional great black limestone boulder. The further hill abruptly rose from the meadow perhaps 150 meters and appeared to have a flat top which looked to be the summit of the whole massif and the highest point in the area.

But to get there, we first had to make our way through the broom grass.

Broom grass, also known by the scientific name thysanolaena, is one of the most ubiquitous crops found throughout large swathes of the southern Khasi Hills. Certainly, none of the other plants harvested in large quantities in the region, such as areca palms, pineapples, bay leaves, yams, or jackfruit, so completely dominate the landscapes they are grown in. In those vast fields above Mawlongbah, practically nothing but thysanolaena grows.

The species can be found wild throughout much of South and Southeast Asia. In the Khasi Hills, it was known since time immemorial, though up until recently it was only present in small quantities. A hardy species, the grass naturally establishes itself on steep, nutrient-poor slopes, such as riverbanks or places where landslides have recently occurred, which most other plants aren’t tough enough to colonize. As odd as it seems when one looks out over whole mountains covered in the stuff, traditionally Khasis didn’t use broom grass (except, occasionally, as animal feed). In the traditional shifting-cultivation system of old, thysanolaena played almost no part.

But then, well into the second half of the twentieth century, word got to the highland farmers that the grass could easily fetch a high price in Shillong. It turned out that the yellow inflorescences at the top of each stem were perfect for making brooms. Of course, a single field such as the one Massar and I walked through that day would probably be sufficient to meet the broom needs of most of southern Meghalaya. Therefore, the grass cultivated in a place like Mawlongbah is shipped outside of the state by middlemen operating in Shillong, and the finished brooms wind up all over India (and occasionally, I’ve been told, even further afield).

Thus, when it’s stated that the Khasis are subsistence farmers it’s only partially true. In a place like Mawlongbah, the people still produce quite a bit of their own food (they raise their own chickens, plant their own yams, pluck their own mint, etc.) But it is primarily with the profits they make from selling cash crops like broom grass that they, for example, buy the white rice which is the staple of their diet and can’t be grown in the village.

Part of this shift has been a result of government policy. Forest officials saw broom grass as a superior alternative to slash and burn agriculture, which involves setting fire to huge swathes of jungle and leaving great patches of hill country completely stripped of vegetation for long periods of time. The practice was perhaps not quite so environmentally damaging in the past, when the population of the region was a fraction of what it is now. But as the villages grew, the forests shrank.

The problems with slash-and-burn agriculture are many. Not only is the natural environment badly degraded (read: burnt to a crisp), but it also creates a very direct hazard. When the steep ground of the Khasi Hills is completely denuded of vegetation it becomes unstable and prone to landslides. However, it was found that thysanolaena was able to colonize fields that had been burnt-out by shifting cultivation and rendered unusable for most other forms of agriculture, and, furthermore, that the roots of the grass helped stabilize the soil.

Also, at least for a while, growing the grass made business sense. Even with state taxes on forest products and the huge cut the middlemen took, the growers were making large profits. But this hasn’t been without its drawbacks. For one, villages that used to largely grow their own foods now rely on edibles imported from elsewhere. With slash-and-burn, the crops being produced were mainly for the grower’s own consumption, or for sale in local markets. But the shift to cash cropping has led to an odd, yet not atypical, situation where locally produced food has become more expensive than imported food.

The economic case for growing thysanolaena has also weakened of late. In Mawlongba, where almost every family is engaged in broom-grass harvesting to some degree, the wellbeing of the whole village is now tied inextricably to the price of a single crop. For the first few decades that the plant was being harvested in large amounts in Meghalaya, the profits that it brought in only grew; but I’m told that in recent years things have been rockier. The market may well have been saturated. And, given that the broom grass needs to be exported, events in the wider Indian marketplace now have a direct impact on the people of remote villages in the Khasi Hills. At the time of my walk, the price of broom grass was in a slump, and everywhere I went where thysanolaena was the dominant crop there was a cloud of economic anxiety.

I’ve also been told that the rosy picture that is sometimes painted of the environmental benefits of the crop is somewhat exaggerated. For example, the stability of a slope that has gone from slash-and-burn devastation to broom-grass coverage may have improved, but it is still nowhere near as secure as a slope that has retained its natural forest cover.

So, in the long run, will broom grass prove to have been a net-benefit for the people of the Khasi Hills? Only time will tell. During my walk, the locals generally seemed pretty down on the crop, but since then the government has lifted some of the regulations on the export of the product, lowering taxes and allowing the farmers to realize higher profits. Still, having whole villages which once harvested a huge range of crops shift over to growing nothing but broom grass doesn’t strike me as sustainable in the long term.

In the end, just how many brooms does the world need?

The way forward took us over the great sunbathed meadow of high grass and towards the next, steep, rise. My companions had all disappeared beneath the waves of the thysanolaena sea, though I could still hear their voices wafting up out of the depths. As for me, my head barely rose above the innumerable proto-broom tufts that swayed and shimmered in the wind. However one might view the ecological impact of the proliferation of thysanolaena plantations in the Khasi Hills, it’s hard to deny that they make for an attractive sight. 

As we walked on through the endless grass, the trail became harder to follow as it began to meander and divide. Massar’s advice of the day before, to simply ‘follow the bigger path,’ seemed rather less useful now. I thought that I could probably have gotten at least this far on my own, but it was impossible to say what the trail would do when it hit the rise ahead. 

A great black shape protruded above the grass in the distance. At first this appeared to be no more than a moderate-sized rock, but then the two kids who had come with us emerged from the depths of the grass and climbed up onto the stone, their bodies like insects on the top of what I now realized was a giant boulder. This stood amidst the meadow in solitary splendor, a great isolated chunk of ancient sun-blackened limestone that had probably rolled down from the hill in front of us thousands of years ago.

Massar pointed to this.

“This is our village stone.”

“You mean, the ‘big stone’ in ‘Big Stone Village?’

He laughed.

“Yes, here is where our village used to be.”

But as we walked towards the great stone, there was no sign of former Mawlongbah. While the old village site might have only been abandoned in the 1980s or early 90s, all traces of it had long since disappeared underneath the broom grass.

The great rock looked like it would make for a good place to rest for a while, so Massar and I climbed up onto it. Then the village secretary pointed to the hill in front of us, which we would soon be climbing.

“Do you know about this hill?” he asked.

“What about it?”

“There is a lady up there.”

“A lady?”

“Yes,” Massar thought for a moment, trying hard to figure out how to explain what was on his mind.

“She lives there,” he said, finally.


“I don’t know about this.”

“Who is she?”

Massar thought.

“She is, like, very ancient. It is our beliefs.”

“Does she have a house up there?”

Massar laughed, and then translated what I had said to the kids. They laughed too. I was mightily confused.

“Ha ha. No, she is not, like, a person.”


“She’s very powerful.”

“Wait. Is she a spirit?”

Massar again fell into thought.

“Yes, maybe, or a lady God. I don’t know much. I’m not the best one to explain. She lives in a cave. When you get to Nongnah, they will tell you.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“But she is very dangerous. You do one thing wrong, spill the blood of the wrong chicken, and then you are, like…cursed.”

“And we’re going to where this dangerous spirit woman lives?”

“Yes, we have to climb her mountain to get to Nongnah.”

“Well, lead the way.”

The trail almost disappeared beyond the site of old Mawlongbah, but still we headed directly into the side of the limestone hill. The grass there had grown tall and hadn’t been harvested for a long time. My head was well below the surface of the Thysanolaena sea, and it was impossible to see ahead, though I could feel the ground beneath me slanting upwards sharply. This was the first real test of my lungs during the great trek. My calves and thighs began to ache, and in the heat of the morning I was soon bathed in sweat.

But the advantage of a steep slope is that you ascend quickly. The meadow of Old Big Rock Village fell away, and then I could see beyond the edges of it, a vast distance out to the west, to the now far off Kynshi river a thousand meters below, and to the south, where the endless misty plains of Bangladesh merged with the sky.

I wasn’t sure to what extent there even was a path anymore. Fortunately, wherever Massar and his relatives went, they forced down the broom grass in front of themselves, creating furrows that were easy to follow. I had to admit that, if this truly was the route from Mawlongbah to Nongnah, I never would have found it on my own. The paths that Google Maps showed so clearly must have been visible because the satellite photographs were taken at a different time of year.

When we came up over the side of the slope we found ourselves in a strange undulating limestone country. The land still rose, gradually, though it was also pocketed with odd sudden dips and ridges, as though the earth was sinking into itself. The unusual topography was of a sort that one only gets with limestone. The dips were not the result of surface water erosion, but of subsistence. Underground streams were breaking the mountain down from the inside.

Now my companions navigated with less certainty than down in the meadow. This was because we had come across the border between the land controlled by the two villages. People only rarely make the journey between Mawlongbah and Nongnah on foot, especially given that the settlements exploit different road hubs to get their produce to market, so the steep borderlands are not often visited. Though Massar’s clan had originally come from Nongnah all those decades ago, he and his young relatives were now essentially in a foreign land.

After a few more hours walking in the limestone, Massar found that more of the day had bled away getting to Nongnah than he had anticipated, which might have been because he hadn’t factored in how slow I would be with my huge backpack. Regretfully, he had to turn around and get some work done back down on the hill. But he showed me the way forward, which now was impossible to miss: It was a wide path, much of it paved with smooth concrete. It’s surprising upkeep was explained by the fact that it was meant to serve tourists looking for Krem Mawtynhiang: a large cave next to Nongnah, which at the time was the village’s primary claim to fame.

Even though I suspected that Massar, like most Khasi villagers, would not take any money, I offered to pay him for his time. Unsurprisingly, he vehemently refused this. But when I offered to give him a U.S. dollar as a keepsake, he accepted it gladly. Even though it was technically worth much less than what I had offered to pay him in rupees, I gather not much U.S. currency makes its way to the Southwest Khasi Hills. Dollar in hand, animatedly discussing the bill with his two young relatives, Massar turned around and headed back to his fields.

Looking down the concrete path, I could see that not far ahead the land fell away again into a deep gorge.

Nongnah was close.

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