The next morning dawned grey and sullen. A flat dark cloud ceiling hung over Nongnah and all the West Khasi Hills. The wind was up, and it smelled like rain.
My target for that evening was Balat, a small border town situated where the Umngi river empties into Bangladesh. From there, I hoped to push back up east into the hills over the course of the next few days, towards the village of Mawpdai, where shaky intelligence gathered over the years indicated a faint possibility of living architecture.
Getting to Balat would mean a longer day’s trek than any of those I had taken thus far. Still, on Google Maps it looked like a relatively easy walk; at the nearby village of Mawpud, a settlement a little over three hundred meters below Nongnah, a road snaked down to the plains of Bengal at a modest incline. Compared to walking into and out of the valley of the Lyngon twice in two days, a long, slow, entirely downhill amble towards Bangladesh should have been downright relaxing.
Still, Balat was about sixteen kilometers away in a straight line, meaning that I realistically had at least twenty to cover before I found a bed for the night. This was not a huge distance, but enough of one to merit starting out as early as possible.
“No need to worry,” said Professor. “It’s easy only. Just walk downhill, and there will be no problem!”
Now it was finally time to bid farewell to Nongnah. Few places in the Khasi Hills (and, by extension, the world), are at once so interesting, so beautiful, and yet so obscure. It would no doubt have been fruitful to have spent more time there and in the surrounding villages.
But Jarain was still far off. With a final farewell to my host and his family, I started off on the next stage of the great trek. I hope to return to Nongnah someday. I wonder what Professor will have done with the place.
By the afternoon I was ambling along a quiet, unfinished road downhill from the little settlement of Mawpud. Areca Palm plantations interspersed with stretches of largely unaltered jungle made up the view to either side. And then, through gaps in the trees to the left, I was able to see out over a wide valley with a great river at the bottom: the gorge of the Umngi. Below was an expanse of swift smooth water with only a few kilometers to go until it slowed and began to meander in the placid muddy flatlands of Bangladesh.
The sun remained hidden behind dark clouds, and there was no wind. In the grey light and the close, ever-warming air, the jungle seemed murky and somber. It was hard to tell how much further I had to walk: the GPS on my phone was not giving me accurate readings, probably due to the ever-rising canyon walls.
And then a new issue crept up on me. I noticed it all at once, though the disaster in the making must have been getting steadily worse for quite some time.
My feet hurt.
When I tell people, especially other travelers, that I walk alone from village to village in the Khasi Hills, they often ask: “Aren’t you afraid of getting attacked by insurgents? Or robbed by the locals? Or mauled by a bear? Won’t you feel silly if you contract Malaria?”
Those things are worth considering. Occasionally, the shit really does hit the fan. But, more often than not, it’s the little things that get you; the tiny cuts in just the right places; the emergency food that’s gone bad and moldy; the travel companion who seemed solid but turns out totally unreliable; the map that’s only slightly inaccurate, just enough to get you horribly, dangerously, lost.
Sandal bite falls neatly into the category of mundane but significant problems. The ruptured blisters on my feet weren’t yet crippling, but if I didn’t act fast the already bleeding wounds could open further and easily get infected. At best, they’d slow me down over the next few days. At worst, the whole trek might be in jeopardy.
Something needed to be done. I went over into a betel nut plantation and then spent the next half hour disinfecting and bandaging my feet. Then I dug my closed-toe shoes and socks out of my trekking bag. I hadn’t worn these on the trek yet, but I had my reasons. Socks can be a major bother: they make for another item to carry, and in warm, humid, climates, usually aren’t necessary, though are almost always moist. There’s nothing quite like opening up a huge trekking bag and finding that everything inside smells like wet stinky socks. And if you’re wearing soggy socks all the time, your chances of getting foot fungus go up exponentially. Really, a good, solid, comfortable pair of sandals are absolutely the best thing for hiking in the Khasi Hills. I thought I had such a pair. Turns out I didn’t. Now I had lost a big chunk of time (and either foot) because of that mistake.
Bandaged and enclosed in shoes, my feet felt somewhat better. But they were in no shape to walk much further.
I realized at this point that I wasn’t going to make Balat before nightfall. It was still a good three or four hours away at my current rate of travel, and given the condition of my feet, it was probably best that I stop walking as soon as possible.
That left one option: to sleep in the jungle.
With the light fading fast, my task was to find a campsite that a: was out of eyesight of the road (I didn’t know who or what might be travelling it at night) b: had a good source of water, and c: had large enough trees to set up the camping hammock I had brought with me.
I knew from satellite imagery that there was a fairly wide tributary of the Umngi not too far ahead. My plan was to reach this, hike well up the streambed, and then find a flat area in the jungle far enough from the river that flash-flooding wouldn’t be an issue, but close enough that I wouldn’t have to walk too far to fill my water bottles in the morning.
It all seemed pretty simple.
I came to the riverbed, and, as planned, started upstream, painfully hobbling over the rocks. Water would not be an issue. The stream, though low, had plenty for my purposes. The problem was that I had found myself in a canyon with few places to put up a hammock. The trees that covered the slopes were thorny, scrubby plants with thin stems, just the sort that cling to life in rocky soils. They either wouldn’t take my weight, were growing too closely together, or were located right next to steep, unstable, slopes; places where I would not want to be sleeping if there was any chance of a rainstorm.
This led to quite a bit of wandering around next to the stream as darkness settled over the jungle and the weird noises of distant nocturnal animals started up. In retrospect, perhaps a betel nut plantation would have made a better campsite, but it was too late now.
As it turned out, the only place I could find with the right sort of vegetation was where a trail had already been blazed through. Locals, it seemed, were moving through this area with some regularity, even though I hadn’t seen anybody that evening and there were no villages nearby.
Looking at cached satellite imagery on my phone, I saw that the stream I had chosen to camp near drained a vast amphitheater covered in thick jungle. The amphitheater rose well over a thousand meters above me, practically to the summit of Chow Pao’s mountain. Its slopes were sheer and inaccessible, which meant that they could be home to animals that had been extirpated from other, more densely populated, parts of the Khasi Hills.
And along with the animals would almost certainly be poachers. It’s illegal to hunt any of the big game one still occasionally encounters in Southern Meghalaya’s jungles. Monkeys, leopards, bears, even deer, are all protected. That doesn’t stop the poachers though. They just hunt at night. And it’s generally not a good idea to surprise armed people engaged in illegal activity after sunset.
Maybe it wasn’t the best campsite. But I wasn’t going anywhere that night. I busily got to work in the last shreds of the dusk setting up my hammock next to the trail, stringing the cloth between two small palm trees that were just barely large enough to take my weight. This was much closer to the path than I would have preferred, but there weren’t any better options; the trail had been blazed right where the land was flattest.
I worked fast, looking forward to getting a fire going and some food in me. But then, after a few minutes, I heard something I had dearly hoped not to. Two voices were coming up the trail: a man and a boy, by the sound of them. “Uh oh,” thought I. Whoever these folks were, I’m sure the last thing they were expecting to see was a random Phareng camping in the middle of their jungle. In all likelihood they would be friendly. But you can never be completely sure how people are going to act when they’re surprised.
I stood still next to the hammock and waited for the people to approach, trying to appear as calm and unthreatening as possible. They were further away than I thought. They must have been coming down the riverbed, talking loudly with their voices echoed and amplified by the rocky slopes. Then I began to see them coming towards me up the trail, though in the murk of the evening they appeared as little more than shadows between the trees. They kept talking and showed no sign that they had seen me. Closer and closer they came, until they were only a few feet away.
“Good evening,” said I.
Both Khasis hushed. But they kept walking. Neither said a word to me, looked in my direction, or acknowledged my presence in any way.
They just silently walked on into the night.
“Well,” thought I, “that was odd.”
Assuming those two mysterious fellows would be the last people I would see that night, I headed back to the streambed and had a moonlit dinner of cold rice and fish, courtesy of Professor’s mom. The air had grown cool and pleasant, and now that I had food in me, I could think clearly again.
Since my feet were so messed up, I’d endeavor not to walk too far the next morning. Balat, unfortunately, was a place I would never see. Instead, I would cross the Umngi and press on a few easy kilometers in the direction of Mawpdai village.
Now I went back to my campsite, gathered wood, started a fire, and wrote in my journal, feeling much better about the world in general.
I crawled into my hammock as the embers of the fire started to die and the darkness of the forest closed in. It was comfortable, but I did not fall asleep.
Once I went silent, the jungle came to life. Animals in the bushes and in the leaves, which hadn’t made a sound while I worked next to the fire, started noisily moving around in the night outside.
I’ve always gotten the impression that animals in the Khasi Hills, respecting the carnivorous inclinations of the locals, have become exceedingly shy around people. This means that jungles which seem almost eerily silent during the day are not necessarily devoid of large animal life; they’re just occupied by exceptionally furtive creatures.
Trying to sleep proved this theory. The dark jungle of the deep night was much louder than the twilight jungle of the evening. As I laid perfectly still in the hammock, creatures crashed through the underbrush not far from me. Several times I sat up and shined my flashlight out into the trees. Nothing. Silence. But a few minutes after I laid back down, the creatures in the blackness resumed their noisy unseen activities.
Reclining in the hammock in the pitch-black jungle, my mind wandered. It didn’t help that I had spent much of the last few days journeying through the world of vernacular Khasi animism. Opening my eyes to the sight of one of Professor’s multi-colored ‘cartoon ghosts’ peering over the side of the hammock seemed increasingly plausible as the night progressed.
Suddenly, sometime after 11 pm, the jungle went silent. Then I heard it again: voices coming down the riverbed. There were more of them this time, and they sounded gruff, and possibly inebriated. Perhaps it was mostly my mind playing tricks on me, but I had the distinct impression that I did not want to make these people’s acquaintance.
I poked my head out of the hammock and began to see streaks of bright blue LED light in the distance, flickering through the trees, accompanied by laughing, drunken, voices. The lights only got brighter, now illuminating patches of vegetation near me, the beams rapidly rising and falling. The people coming down the streambed were jumping across the rocks as they went.
The lights were now almost shining into my campsite. The voices sounded like they were just around the next bend. I got out of the hammock, and once again stood there trying to look as pleasant and unthreatening as possible. I wondered if the night was about to take a very strange turn. A flashlight beam sliced through the night, and briefly lit up the trees in front of me.
But then the lights faded, and the voices receded into the distance.
They hadn’t turned onto the trail, but instead went straight down the riverbed. I never learned who they were.
Now I turned around and went back to bed. Fading off into oblivion, the scrabbling animals in the darkness didn’t seem quite so menacing anymore.
A few hours later, and I again sensed light through my closed eyelids. But it was gone almost as soon as it appeared. Still half in dream, I noticed that the jungle was silent once again. Then the light returned. For an instant I panicked as I imagined that someone was shining an LED flashlight at my hammock.
I opened my eyes. Blackness. I lifted my head up and looked into the jungle. It was dark one moment, and then the next the forest was bathed in a ghostly white pallor. A low rumble echoed through the darkness. A thunderstorm was coming. What terrible luck that the first time it rained on my trek was also the first time that I had chosen to sleep outdoors.
I knew, intellectually, that I was secure. I had strung a tarp above the hammock, and all the gear in my pack was stowed inside several layers of waterproofing.
But as the storm blew in, sleep was not a possibility.
Finally, the first big droplets of rain smacked down onto the tarp. But the water rolled off to the sides.
So far so good.
Then the storm hit full blast. The wind kicked up, and heavy rain cascaded down onto the tarp, forcing it towards the ground. Every time the world lit up with lightning the tarp would become transparent, and I would see rivers pouring down to either side, along with the increasing number of leaves and twigs that were collecting up there. I was warm and dry for now, but I suspected I wouldn’t be for much longer.
This was one of the periodic mid-winter to early-spring storms that strike the Khasi Hills. They usually don’t last long, but they can be strong and bring cold air with them. Large hail is common. I wondered how the tarp would do against big chunks of solid ice. It was hard to feel optimistic as the wind blew stronger and colder and the sounds of thunder followed quicker on the lightning bolts.
After about thirty minutes, the rain slacked off. The temperature rose, and insects started chirping again. The thunder moved off to the north.
My hammock was still dry. The tarp had done its job.
I nodded off to the sound of a light drizzle and got maybe four hours of sleep.
I walked on the next morning in an exhausted daze, but at least my feet didn’t hurt. Inclement weather and mysterious voices in the jungle notwithstanding, it had been the right decision to stop early the previous night and give my wounds some time to heal.
Ahead, I could see the first few houses of the roadside village of Umpung, and beyond it an endless haze of misty brown fields stretching on into Bangladesh.
After filling a few bottles at a stream and having a cup of bitter, unpleasant, (and therefore highly effective) Nescafe to help me wake up, it was time to re-cross the road bridge over the Umngi. It was only about a week before that I had ridden this way in the Sumo from Shillong, not having the slightest idea what the West Khasi Hills would have in store. It felt like a year ago that the driver had hit the gas over the beautiful concrete bridge to make some time.
But now I could walk across the bridge at my own pace. Despite the heavy weather, the river was crystal clear. It would still be a few months until the real rains came and turned the Umngi into a brown, muddy, lethal, torrent. I could see huge fish swimming lazily around in the depths amongst the colorful rounded stones and boulders of the river bottom. The Umngi, so far, had been spared the sad fate of the Ranikor River.
Shortly after crossing the Umngi I stopped at a roadside tea shop. My hope was to find some locally baked muffins, a common snack in that sort of joint. Sadly, all they had were little factory-made packaged cakes of negligible caloric value. I made up for the lack of nutrition in these by buying four packages of them and eating two in the shop itself. I also ordered two cups of tea, more for the sugar than the caffeine.
As I sat sipping my warm beverage a local fellow came over and struck up a conversation with me.
“You are crazy,” said he when he learned what I was up to and how far I had yet to go. “Aren’t you afraid that some people might come in a group with knives and take all your things and murder you?”
“Well, among other things.”
“You are very brave.”
“Not so sure about that.”
“You are. Because, you know, there are robbers here. Mafia kinds of people. Kidnappers. Dangerous people.”
“Two years back, around the junction of the road to Ranikor and the road to Balat. It used to be very dangerous there. It was those mafia people’s territory. Many robberies and kidnappings. It is maybe less now, but there may still be dangerous people around.”
“Who was doing the kidnapping? Militants?”
“We don’t know. Maybe GNLA.”
The GNLA, or Garo National Liberation Army, is one of the last remnants of active militancy in the region. Their objective is to carve a new Garo majority state out of Western Meghalaya. What they have actually achieved has been a simmering campaign of low-level annoyance and extortion, most of it adversely affecting the very Garo villagers whose liberation they presume to desire. They’ve often allied themselves with even less illustrious Northeast Indian militant outfits/narcotics gangs, many of whom have entirely different stated objectives and political philosophies. Other than a few ambushes and the occasional bomb and grenade attack, their preferred activity has been to kidnap innocent civilians and demand ransoms. They also kill the occasional cop, though not many.
“But I thought they all surrendered?” I asked, having read an article to that effect in the Shillong Times the previous year.
“Yes…maybe. But only some of them. When they say ‘surrender’ it does not mean they go away. They are not dead. They might still be around and causing problems.”
I thanked my friend for the information. You learn something every day.
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