The paths that lead away from Thieddieng either go straight up or straight down, and the ones that head down all lead, sooner or later, to the Umiam.

Stumbling out of a thicket of uncultivated near-vertical jungle, having done nothing but sharply descend along dodgy paths for the last few hours, I came to a flat space covered in pineapple plants. There was a sudden drop off just ahead, the final step down to the River of Tears. Pushing on a little further, I came to a tall concrete piling that marked the western end of a long bridge made of steel cables.

The metal bridges in the remote parts of Meghalaya tend to be narrow, precarious, and poorly maintained. When you walk out onto them, the vibrations of your footsteps carry rapidly up and down the cables, causing the structures to wobble violently. Unlike root bridges, the metal spans quickly degrade in the savage monsoon rains. This makes them extremely dangerous if they are not regularly inspected and repaired.

But there are things to be said in favor of metal bridges. With steel and concrete it’s possible to build a significant span over a large river in relatively short order. Root bridges, on the other hand, rarely stretch more than 50 meters, and those that do took many a long decade to become functional and safe. The living bridges don’t rust, though.

The other thing that metal bridges have going for them is that they tend to be found in some of the most magnificent locations in southern Meghalaya: across the floors of the vast chasms that the region’s largest rivers have carved. To walk endlessly down over painful slopes and then finally come to the bottom of the gorge you’ve been struggling through is one of the greatest joys of trekking in the Khasi Hills. I’ve found that even alone, exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry, going out onto one of the long metal bridges and feeling the cool canyon air being borne down into Bangladesh serves as a reminder of why I put myself through so much trouble to walk across these beautiful, intimidating, valleys to begin with.

Standing in the center of the bridge across the Umiam, I could see the vast ridges climbing up and up to Mawsynram in the west, while to the east rose the green slopes occupied by Mawphu and Umblai villages. Far above these, the limestone rim of the gorge was just barely visible in the evening mist. Once I got there, it was only a few flat kilometers of walking to Sohra and a couple of days of sorely needed rest. But from the very lowest level of the giant canyon the chilly tablelands above seemed as inaccessible as the tops of clouds. Getting down to the river, if not exactly easy, had been quick. Getting back up would be another matter.

Under the bridge, deep blue pools alternated with house-sized boulders and white, noisy, rapids. Here the Umiam sliced through hard bedrock hundreds of millions of years old. Yet most of the stones in the riverbed were younger than this, having been brought down from every stratum of rock in the gorge above by a combination of swift flowing water and landslides. Vast chunks of granite mingled with intricately eroded limestone, soft shattered sandstone debris, and weird conglomerates in which thousands of colorful water-smoothed rocks had been cemented together. Each eddy, side-rivulet, and monsoon-excavated stony pothole told its own story. Every little detail of the bed of the River of Tears was a miracle of natural beauty.

It took some effort to pull myself away from the bridge and start the slow sweaty trudge up into Nongsteng.

I had been to Nongsteng before, back in 2016. But for some reason I’d remembered the bottom of the village as being quite close to the bridge over the Umiam. Now, exhausted and struggling up an ancient stone stairway, I realized that my memories were far from accurate. It was still several hundred meters uphill to the village. But even when I reached it, the day’s physical hardships would be far from over.

No settlement that I know of in Meghalaya is more brutally vertiginous than Nongsteng. Parts of the village might as well be stuck to the side of a cliff. The floor of one house is often above the roof of the house next to it. Even the stairway that leads along the spine of the village is ridiculously sheer. As you ascend it, the next few steps are generally at eye-level. Since one’s neighbors are rarely at the same altitude, conversations in Nongsteng are usually conducted with one’s head craned way back, or way forward.

As I slowly climbed up through the jungle to this steepest of Khasi villages, I saw an old woman resting next to the path ahead. She had a great basket on her back full to the brim with bright orange Areca Nuts, while in her hands she held a small bamboo tube in which she was slowly grinding something with a wooden plunger.

This was a macabre sight one often witnesses in the Khasi Hills. Kwai, much as advertised in public service announcements, rots your teeth something awful, but old Khasis, despite having frequently lost their teeth to their addictions, will go right on consuming it. Being no longer able to chew, they resort to a specifically designed tool: a little bamboo kwai crusher such as the lady was using to grind the nuts into an easily ingestible powder. This allows a person to keep eating kwai right up to the last of their toothless dying days if they so desire.

When I came up to the lady, she motioned that I should sit next to her and rest for a while. Now I was close enough to see that she was indeed toothless except for a few worn down black stumps where teeth might once have been. Talking in a broken mix of Sohra Khasi, Hindi, and English, I ascertained that she was seventy years old, and had spent the whole day gathering Areca Nuts. Then she stood up, hefted her basket, hunched over, and continued her own slog up to Nongsteng.

Her mouth might have been rotten, but the rest of her certainly wasn’t. Steadily, her back bent under the weight of her huge full basket, she climbed up and up the sheer slope, having traversed that very trail thousands upon thousands of times over the course of her long life.

A normal day’s walk around Nongsteng is an intense workout. A stroll to a neighbor’s house can entail hundreds of steep, slow, plodding steps. Working in the vertical jungle day after day, season after season, decade after decade, must be hard in a way that someone who grew up with paved roads and supermarkets and air-conditioning (someone like me) can scarcely imagine.

That old lady from Nongsteng was stronger than most people a third her age with all their teeth who live in the developed world. But soon, when the roads reach every village, and constant, lifelong, backbreaking agricultural labor is no longer something which the vast majority of the Khasis of southern Meghalaya must engage in simply to survive, impossibly tough old ladies like the one I met below Nongsteng will be no more than a memory. 

Not that the people of Nongsteng desire lives of unremitting physical toil. They’ve wanted a road for quite some time. And one was built to the village over a decade ago, cut from the cool limestone heights at the eastern rim of the Umiam gorge all the way down to the sweltering jungle around the settlement. For a little while it was possible for the people of Nongsteng to access the outside world with something other than the use of their own two feet.

But the incredible steepness of the grand canyon of the Umiam posed a series of challenges that the engineers ultimately weren’t up to. The cuttings scraped out of the gorge badly weakened the slopes well up the eastern side of the valley, which resulted in landslides that covered large sections of the road. Now vastly more material is stripped from the sides of the newly destabilized slopes during the monsoon season than ever before. Intense thunderstorms and periods of heavy rain have become times of great anxiety for the people of Nongsteng as they wonder whether the sheer ridges that tower above them are about to collapse onto their village.  

The failed road project also had a significant, lamentable, effect on Nongsteng’s architectural heritage. It caused the beds of the area’s rivers to rise drastically with loose rocky debris coming out of the sides of the hills above. Some of the casualties of this were the living root bridges which once existed on a vigorous stream called the Rynseit.

There was a time when there were four living bridges on the river just south of Nongsteng. One was planted, with roots that stretched all the way across the stream, though it never grew strong enough to become functional before it was severed by debris. Two other useable living bridges existed on the stream within the last two decades. These are gone, though the sad, damaged trees that once struck across the river are still to be found at both sites, along with the metal bridges that replaced them.

This left just one surviving example of living architecture on the Rynseit, a huge, ancient structure which I had visited it in 2016. At the time, though it showed some minor signs of damage, it seemed to be in relatively good condition. But I had been informed a few years later that it too had fallen, and that living architecture was now extinct in Nongsteng.

That evening, I hoped that my source was mistaken. Returning to the site of the once grand root bridge and seeing it reduced to a few mangled stumps was not something I was looking forward to.

 But it needed to be done. 

Slowly trudging up out of the moist green jungle above the Umaim, soaked in sweat, and, for the first time on the trek, bothered by a cloud of mosquitoes, I made my entry into Nongsteng. I was well behind the old woman, who had long since disappeared up the stairway above.

My plan was to make contact with a teacher I had met back in 2016 by the name of Pyndap. The only problem: I hadn’t been able to warn him that I was coming. I tried to text him from around Mawsynram, but there hadn’t been enough Airtell signal for the messages to get through. Once I was in the Umiam gorge, my sim card was useless. So, the only thing to do was to turn up and hope for the best.

Climbing up into the village, I tried to guide myself back to Pyndap’s house by memory. Fortunately, my recollections from 2016 were quite vivid. Pyndap’s little house was off to the left of the village’s main throughfare, down a short concrete footpath.

I came to the house and knocked on Pyndap’s front door, not knowing what to expect.

“Oh! Patrick! You’re back!” said Pyndap as he opened it. 

Over breakfast the following day, after catching up on all that had happened in Nongsteng and the world in the past three years, Pyndap and I got onto the subject of the failed road project and the various infrastructural problems facing the village. When I asked him whether Nongsteng’s ropeway was functioning, his answer was as expected: It had broken down a few years ago, and nobody had come to repair it.

It was then that I remembered something I’d been meaning to enquire about for a long time.

“You know the little baskets that hang from the cables on the ropeways?” I asked.


“Do people ever ride on those? When the ropeways are operating, I mean.”

“Haha…not normally. They are not made for people to ride. Only for produce. Only kids and fools will ride them.”

“What sort of fools?”

“Well, one time, some men went up to the market in Sohra. They all got very badly drunk there. When they returned that evening, one of the men said he was too tired to walk all the way down from the top of the hill to Nongsteng. Instead, he thought it would be less tiresome just to ride down in the ropeway basket.”

I felt some sympathy for the drunken man. From personal experience, I can say that the walk to Nongsteng is as tough as any in the Khasi Hills. The path descends a kilometer over a two-kilometer distance. I wouldn’t want to walk down a 50% grade if I was tipsy. 

“So,” Pyndap continued, “the drunken man went over to the building at the top of the ropeway. He and his friends walked in and told the person that operated the ropeway that he wanted to ride in the basket. The operator told them that this was not a good idea, but the drunken man and his friends fought with the operator and pushed him aside.” All my sympathy for the drunken man evaporated. “Then the drunken man went and sat in the basket and let go of the hook that kept it from moving, and he slid down the cable.”

“Did he get back to Nongsteng?”

“No. He died.” 

“Oh. What about kids?”

“Haha, one has ridden it as well. A few years ago, some kids were playing near the basket at the bottom of the ropeway, jumping around, fighting, the way kids do. Even in your country, I think. Anyway, while playing, one of them got in the basket at that end. Now, I will tell you, kids here are never supposed to play around ropeways. If they do,” Pyndap raised his hand, “they will be beaten harshly by their parents.”

“Seems reasonable.”

“Yes. So, as the kids are playing and fighting at the bottom of the ropeway, there is the operator who is up the hill, in the building. His job is to turn on the engine when he gets a signal. The signal is when somebody at the bottom pulls the cables. I think if they pull it twice quickly, then the operator is supposed to start the engine. Well, the operator was at his post when he saw that the cables were pulled. So, he turns on the engine, and the cables start to move, and the basket is lifted up from Nongsteng.

“At first, there is nothing unusual. The engine is functioning, and the basket is lifted up above the trees. At a distance, the basket looks just like a speck. But as it got closer the operator saw that there was something in it, maybe an animal.

“Then it got closer, and the operator saw what he thought was a monkey in the basket. So now he worries that he’s turned on the whole machine and wasted a lot of petrol just for some monkey.

“But then it gets even closer, and the operator starts to feel confused. The monkey looks strange. Like it’s wearing clothes. Like it’s a human monkey!

“And then the operator is scared. That’s not a monkey, it is a person! A little boy is up in the basket, and now that basket is like…” Pyndap lifted his hand up above his head “…a long way up, and to fall, you go a long way down!

“So, the operator is panicking now. There’s nothing he can do. The basket is more than halfway to the station at the top, so reversing the cables does not make sense. He only stands still and prays.

“The basket gets even closer now, and the operator can see the little boy quite clearly. The little boy is holding on as tight as he can, and the operator can see that the boy is shaking in fear. Then, as the basket gets even nearer, the operator gets even one more shock! That boy, you see, is the operator’s son!

“Oh! Now the operator is feeling full of tension. He stands totally still as the basket rises up and up to the station. He is praying that his son does not move, because if he does, he might lose his balance and fall to earth.”

“Did he?” I asked, already resigned to this story having an unhappy ending.

“Haha! No, he made it to the top!” That was a relief. “But when he came up, his eyes were still shut, and he was holding the bars on the basket so tightly that all his knuckles were white. His father had to really try hard to pry his hands away. And even after the boy was pulled from the basket, he wouldn’t open his eyes until many hours later. And then, after his father hugs him, he is very heavily punished. But it was funny, when he went back down, that boy was bragging to all his friends. He said he meant to go up in the basket, so they all thought he was very brave. Later, I asked him what he saw when he went up in that basket. He lied and told me that he looked down into the jungle and saw lions and elephants and other animals. He’s a naughty boy. I’m sure his eyes were closed the whole time.”

“Still, I’m glad he survived!”

“Ah, but he was punished so bad, not only he, but no other child from this village will ever go up in that basket ever again. Of course, now it’s not an issue since the ropeway is broken.”

Pyndap sighed.

There was one last thing I needed to do in Nongsteng: walk down to the Rynseit and see if the village’s final living root bridge was still standing. Pyndap wasn’t sure when I asked him about it. He thought that maybe it was only damaged, but he hadn’t seen for himself, having no business in the forest to the south.

As I descended through the hot jungle, I was mentally prepared for the last living bridge in Nongsteng to be either destroyed or in poor shape, given that most of my information pointed strongly in that direction.

Much was my surprise when I reached the Rynseit and discovered that the bridge, far from being ruined, was in significantly better shape than when I first saw it in 2016. This was a great relief, for the last root bridge of Nongsteng is in my opinion the most impressive piece of living architecture west of Sohra. 

The tree from which the huge structure was generated had been first planted on a stony riverine island and then encouraged to grow outwards towards the banks, resulting in a bridge that was well over 30 meters long, the distance being covered over three separate spans. Each of these might as well have been made of reinforced concrete; they didn’t wobble in the slightest as I walked out onto them, and the roots were in places over a meter thick. While I’ve found no information as to the age of the structure, the great size and remarkable stability of the bridge indicate to me that it could be centuries old.

This may explain why it has survived. Famously, the older a living root bridge gets, the sturdier it becomes, providing the tree it is grown from remains healthy. Perhaps the bridge had already gotten so strong that it simply wasn’t heavily affected by the increased debris coming down the river.

However, to my admittedly untrained eyes there was an issue with this theory: it didn’t appear as though the root bridge was being subjected to any scouring from debris at all. So, maybe what saved it was luck rather than strength. The structure is located at a kind of step in the riverbed. Only a few meters upstream there is a small waterfall, while directly below one of the spans is another waterfall over which most of the river flows. The bridge here is suspended well above the river, and it may be that the shape of the streambed has, so far, channeled the debris in such a way as to prevent it from affecting the structure.

Before starting the next stage of the trek, I climbed down and took a short bath in a small, bitterly cold plunge pool in the Rynseit. There are few places in the world quite so captivating as the little rivers that flow beneath the tangled spans of ancient root bridges. It may be true that the gorge of The River of Tears is changing, and that large swathes of what once made it so magnificent are likely to be swept away in the coming years. But at least in that tiny place below Nongsteng, under the still-growing marvel of the last living bridge on the Rynseit, something of the grand canyon of the Umiam’s glory will survive.  

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