The next morning Professor walked with me as far as the start of the trail to the plateau-top settlement of Ngunraw. He claimed that he would have tagged along with me all the way to the other village had his leg not been injured, but given that the path was supposed to be easy to follow, this didn’t seem necessary.

The path to Ngunraw began at a stony overlook at the top of a high black cliff. Here, several trails from various parts of Nongnah had snaked across the dry limestone tableland and converged at the edge of the precipice. From the overlook a wide stone staircase plunged straight down into the canyon of the Lyngon River. Though they would spread out far and wide across the slopes below, many a farmer’s day would begin here. Major routes through the jungle to the north of Nongnah were few, so farmers accessing their land would start out on the larger path and then veer off to the side into the deeper jungle via faint tracks of their own making, into little green patches of the world only they knew.

When we reached the edge of the canyon, Professor had a last-minute bit of advice to impart:

“When you reach a river or a stream, if you’re going alone…because you are a foreigner, you have to be careful. You should not swim and all, because something might happen to you. Something a little scary. Just don’t go in deep water. OK?”

 “I’m a fine swimmer…”

“But, still, that is no longer Nongnah’s land down there by the river, so even I am scared to go there. For us Khasi people, it’s like…different. There in the deep water, you might find some spiritual.”


“Like a ghoul or a ghost. We call them ‘basa.’ A kind of spiritual. You want to avoid that! Hehe.”

For all of Professor’s cosmopolitan exposure, he failed to evince even the slightest doubt in the existence of supernatural entities in the nearby jungle.

“But don’t worry,” he continued reassuringly. “It’ll be fine. Just don’t swim in deep water. But you can bathe in the stream. They don’t mind that. And before drinking water, remember to insert a knife first. OK? Make sure it is upstream, insert knife, and drink water. It’ll be fine. No spiritual will touch you if you do that.”

“Wait.” said I. “Why should I put a knife in the water?”

“To, like, scare those bad spirituals! To show them you are the boss. Hehe.”

“So, if I just take my knife, and put it in the stream above where I want to take water from, any evil spirits that are in the water won’t bother me?”

“Yes, as long as you put a piece of metal in. Any piece of metal will do, but a knife is best. As long as you do this, those spirituals won’t bother you, and you won’t get, like, stomach paining, or any sickness from drinking that water. But make sure to put the knife in before you drink! It’s, like, a little hard to believe for outsiders. But make sure to do that! And If you have any problem, please call me! Don’t feel shy! I will always answer my phone! Don’t feel shy!”

I assured him that I would call if I ran afoul of river spirits or was otherwise unsure how to appease them, though it took him many repetitions of his instructions to be satisfied that I had gotten the message. Then, following a final warning and handshake, he gave me a last friendly, if concerned, look, and started limping back to his house.

Now I went to the edge of the cliff. There, the steep staircase of bare stones plunged over the side.

Stepping over the edge of the cliff, I left the dry, almost barren country of the Nongnah shelf and rounded a corner into an entirely different, greener, steeper, world.

It was nothing but steps all the way down to the Lyngon. Khasi paths are rarely blessed with energy saving switchbacks. Instead, they take the shortest route possible, i.e., as close to a straight line as the trail builders can manage, vast inclines and brutal slopes be dammed. A walk six hundred meters down on this sort of path is a walk six hundred meters straight down.

There’s no way to train for this kind of hiking. In my largely flat homeland of Delaware, U.S.A., where a forty-meter prominence is a giant hill, there is no terrain where one can consistently use anything like the combination of muscles employed here. The closest one could come, I suppose, would be to go up and down stairs in a big building over and over and over again, day after day, month after month. But even that wouldn’t truly prepare one for the peculiar physics involved in a proper Khasi Hills trek. The steps in a building are uniform. The ones on a traditional Khasi trail tend to be composed of whatever stones the makers of the path, however many decades or centuries ago, could pull out of the nearby hillsides. The rocks, thousands of which have been lugged through the once trackless jungle, vary greatly in size and shape, while the angle of the ground beneath them changes constantly. Also, the stones of a traditional Khasi path are often loose. These factors combine to turn each and every step into a unique physical maneuver.  

Going down these paths is often more taxing than going up them, not due to the calories burnt, but due to the sheer mental exhaustion that comes with continuously feeling like one is just on the cusp of falling hundreds of meters to one’s doom. Going up, you’re more firmly attached to the ground.

Also, as brutal as a long climb can be, going down is harder on the knees. I began to feel a burning in my thighs and a wobbliness in my legs after descending only a few minutes. Even though the shade was only deepening the further down into the jungle I went, the air was getting rapidly warmer. The atmosphere thickened with every step. Not long after beginning the descent, I was sweating buckets and my legs had turned to rubber. But the Lyngon was still far below.

There’s a way in which the first few really hard stretches of a long trek are also the most dangerous. My muscles weren’t used to this yet. Rushing down this path would have been a recipe for a knee injury. Pushing myself too hard would risk an early, painful, avoidable, end to the trek.

Thankfully, there was no hurry. Since I had no idea what awaited me in Ngunraw, I felt no need to rush towards it.

Down, down, down into the thickening air I went. On a path as steep as this one, you’ll be looking at your feet most of the time to avoid a much faster than planned descent. But if you do happen to look forward, you’ll be able to gaze out over the tops of the trees that grow out of the slope below. When I started out that morning, I could see above the forest canopy, all the way to Ngunraw on the other side of the valley. But after only a few minutes of walking downhill, the village was high above me, and the green slopes that led down from it quickly grew closer and closer as they fell to the Lyngon. The jungle only grew darker as I progressed. I saw no one on the Nongnah side of the valley. My only companions were the small flies which followed me all the way down.

I passed through the occasional pineapple, areca palm, or orange plantation as I descended, and there were litchi and jackfruit trees next to the trail which had likely been put there on purpose generations ago. But the jungle was unsuitable for largescale shifting cultivation or broom grass. The unstable slopes are simply too steep, too rocky, and too full of dangerous ‘basas.’ An attempt to strip away the jungle here would result in simultaneous physical and spiritual destruction.

The world around me only grew greener as I descended. The insects, which were silent at the higher, colder, altitudes (there had even been a tiny bit of frost in Nongnah the night before), burst noisily to life. Rivulets began to tumble down the slope to the right of the path, the trickling water adding to the sounds of the living jungle. Undoubtedly, these were the very streams that Professor insisted were infested with ‘spirituals.’ I could see how someone might think this: At times the sounds of the rivulets could almost be mistaken for voices.

Climbing further and further down into the ever-louder jungle, far from either Nongnah or Ngunraw, I started to feel less alone.

The steepest part of a Khasi Hills trail is often directly above a river, where the watercourse has most recently bitten down into the raw bedrock. Such was the case with the path through the Lyngon valley. The way suddenly became so steep that I wondered for a moment if I had taken a wrong turn. The hearty path-builders of old seemed to have given up on putting stairs on this particular stretch of the route. There was nothing but a vertical incline of loose gravel, interrupted only by the occasional incongruous spiny pineapple plant. If this was still the trail, the planters had situated their fruit directly in the path of descending pedestrians.

Retaining my balance here while walking upright simply wasn’t an option. I found myself sliding on my rear-end down to the Lyngon River. Yes, it was undignified, but it did get me down quickly.

At the bottom of the almost-vertical stretch, the stairs reemerged. Then the path bent to the right and dropped into a narrow declivity thick with palms and ferns. This was the rut created by the same rivulet that had been flowing to the side of the trail for the past three hundred meters of elevation. The water was clear and cool and looked good to drink, but the little vale also seemed like the perfect place for one of Professor’s ‘spirituals’ to haunt.

But water is water.

Standing next to the stream, I contemplated what Professor had told me 550 meters above. As he said: “It’s, like, a little hard to believe for outsiders.” I’m pretty sure that putting a knife in the water to scare away any lingering ‘spirituals’ wouldn’t actually prevent me from getting sick. Nonetheless, he had taken such care to warn me that it somehow just felt wrong not to spend the fifteen seconds required to follow his advice. Also, God forbid I did happen to get sick after drinking the water and not putting the knife in, Professor would suspect I had ignored him.

Anyway, I also used my water filter. Between the filter for micro-organisms and the knife for ‘basas’, I felt like I was being pretty responsible.

Beyond the rivulet, the stairs climbed a few meters out of the green vale and then plunged down once again. But they did not have much further to go. As I came around a bend, the sound of the waters of the Lyngon rang out loud and clear. Then, suddenly, the pre-historic looking stone trail turned into a much less picturesque 21st century concrete walkway leading up to rusty steel cables. I had come to the banks of the Lyngon and had reached the metal bridge which crossed the bottom of the canyon.

It being the very middle of the dry season, the Lyngon below was a modest river, often disappearing between great boulders of granite, limestone, and various riverine conglomerates composed of thousands of colorful water-rounded stones. Up and down the river were cold blue pools where rocky shelves descended into the depths.

From the bridge, I climbed down onto a rock by the side of the river and had a long and lonely lunch, encountering neither soul nor spirit. From there, it was a tiring uphill slog all the way to the top of the Ngunraw Plateau.          

Months later, long after returning to the U.S., I received a mysterious message on WhatsApp. Massar from Mawlongbah sent me a blurry, highly zoomed-in picture of a distant Phareng down in a deep valley, crossing a rusty metal bridge.

After he sent the picture, Massar messaged me: “Is it you?”

I looked closely but couldn’t tell if it was me or not. The person had a big green trekking bag and was clearly a Phareng, but the photo was just too blurry.

“I’m not sure,” I replied.

“It must be you,” he insisted in his next text. “That is the Lyngon river near Nongnah. I don’t think any other tourist has gone there.” A few minutes later he cryptically added: “Many people have seen this photo.”

“Who took it?” I asked.

“My relative’s friend.”

And after a few seconds, Massar added:

“He thinks it is a ghost.”

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