Cycling In Meghalaya: Of Climbs and Falls

The first part of the travelogue of cycling in Meghalaya as we started from Guwahati and rode to Shillong, Cherrapunji, Dawki and more…


Meghalaya, the abode of clouds, is a dreamy destination for people like us. Peeps who mostly spend time in the clouds. Not real clouds, but those worthless cloud computing clouds, where all your data is on some ‘cloud’ or the other.

Real clouds are what we wanted and it was time to head for a cycling adventure in this picturesque state of northeast India, with its many clouds, climbs and waterfalls.

Before a single pedal can be turned with intent, a lot of groundwork needs to be laid…

Cycling in Meghalaya

Day 0: Getting There!

The distance from Goa to Meghalaya is considerable, both in terms of time and money. Which is why it is prudent to make full use of this opportunity.

Upgrade and Ride up Grades…

The first change which needed to be made was in our legs. We didn’t have enough miles in our legs to go for a self-supported tour and the fortnight before the trip was spent accumulating as many climbing metres as we could.

The second upgrade was in Chaitra’s bicycle. Thanks to David Kumar from Bike Bros Shimla, we got some useful parts to upgrade the drivetrain without breaking the bank. The most important of which was a bigger cassette and a GRX rear derailleur. We installed a mix and match of components to get the perfect setup without spending excessively. This was only possible thanks to the David’s expertise of knowing the interoperability of various Shimano parts. Get in touch with him if you want to make smart left-field upgrades to your bike!

These upgrades needed to be installed and help came in the form of our dear friend, Pushkar Kashalikar. He took time out from his busy schedule of surfing the waves and general tomfoolery to change the parts on the bike. This magician waved his magic wand and the job was done. The wand was all he brought, as he forgot to bring any tools to install the parts!

The upgrades were done to make the Kona Rove a more climbing/ touring friendly gravel bike. While testing the bike in Goa, we found it to be a successful, as Chaitra took her PBs on all the climbing segments.

Burning Jet Fuel…

Meghalaya is far… to get there one needs to leave early. When the sun has risen in the east, but not on the west coast! Our 40 km drive to the airport was a close call, as the pre-booked cabbie almost didn’t come. Not the most auspicious of starts.

We flew from Goa to Guwahati by Air India Express and carrying our bicycles with this airline was a good experience. The staff knew what to do and we paid 2000 per bike for oversized baggage, cheaper than Indigo or Spicejet.

The flight was via Delhi. It was post-noon by the time we landed in Guwahati and what a sight it was from the plane as we descended. The mighty Brahmaputra and its massive flood plains on the one hand and the hills of Meghalaya on the other.

Public Transport FTW

We were surprised to not find a single Innova or Ertiga to fit both our bike bags. All the cabs were small sedans. That disappointment was replaced by delight, as we found an even bigger vehicle to carry our bicycles. A bus! We took the recently started AC bus service from Guwahati Airport to Khanapura, some 25 km away and paid a whopping 100 rupees per person. A steal deal in comparison to pricey cabs.

Carrying cycle inside guwahati airport bus
Bikes and Bags safely parked inside the bus

We stayed at a Cycling Monks friend’s house in Guwahati. Dipankar has been in conversation for a long time and on this trip. He, along with Junaid Parvez were instrumental in helping us plan and prepare for the ride. Dipankar graciously hosted us and we rather ungraciously reached his house on a rickshaw with out cycle precariously balanced on the roof. The fact that the rickshaw driver believed he was Vin Diesel didn’t help.

The bikes were assembled in Dipankar’s house without a fuss as there was no damage during transit. He then took us for an amazing Assamese thali where we met cyclist Rubul Deka. The dinner was a perfect preparation to start the ride… Thanks Dipankar!

Cycling in Meghalaya: Day 1: Guwahati to Shillong

The sun rises at 5ish or some similar ungodly hour of the morning. You rub your eyes, look at the clock and think it is 10, only to realise it is 10 past 5!

The first morning of a ride is never smooth. It always takes a billion years to pack your bags, find your brains and get a move on. A delicious coffee later, it was time to head out in search of clouds…

Not before we met Ringkhang Narzary a long-time friend of Cycling Monks. Always a pleasure to meet virtual names in the real world! It was also nice meeting Vikas, the owner of Spokehub. A premier cycling store of Guwahati, who are doing a wonderful job of building the racing community in the region. These boys were headed to Meghalaya in their cars, to go ride the famous David Scott Trail.

Dipankar clicking the mandatory selfie before the start of a journey

Delayed Departures… A Recurring Theme

We eventually left Guwahati at 730 catching a load of traffic in the first 7 km, before we turned off onto the Shillong highway. After that it was 4-lane highway.

What was strange about this highway, was that a perfectly good road was being dug up to be recarpeted. A waste of public money, but then the powers that be, need to get their kickbacks from somewhere!

It’s about 80-90 km to Shillong, with a bit of climbing. It is mostly a rolling climb, with only a couple of sections which are memorable. A 5 km climb before Nongpoh and the final ascent after Umiam Lake to Shillong. The rest of the road is ‘meh’. In the entire day of cycling, you just about climb 2000 metres, a trifle for the distance. It is on the other hand a good warm up for the days ahead.

cycling in meghalaya from guwahati to shillong
Sections of this lovely 4-lane road were being ripped up to be rebuilt

Dukaan Sha bad Ja

Along the way we stopped for breakfast at a tiny shanty. A tin shed propped up in front of somebody’s house to serve Sha bad Ja (Tea and Rice in Khasi). The rice is served with pork, dal and vegetable. And you are charged per piece of meat. Rather different food economics compared to anything else I have seen. There are not a lot of vegetarian options, except lovely fruit being sold along the roadside, pineapples, bananas, banana flowers, bamboo shoots and fresh-looking vegetables.

Traffic… Ain’t So Bad After All

Traffic on this road was by and large courteous, though the highway itself was boring. The only entertainment were the youngsters on their souped-up scooters, as they whizzed past through the corners.

There is visible pride of ownership in the automobiles. All the cars in Meghalaya are shining. And most cabs run oversized alloy wheels. One Celerio we saw was so jazzed up it looked a Cadillac owned by Jay-Z. Honestly, I don’t know who Jay-Z is or what a Cadillac is, but you get the drift right!

In all the traffic, the most amusing thing was that the autorickshaws were rigged with loud blaring horns, which belongs on a steam boat. While the trucks had scooter horns.

Umiam

After a long day in the sun, we reached Umiam Lake. A reservoir built to feed the water needs of Shillong and around. In the lake we spotted a bunch of sailboats and speedboats. A cool view under the glare of the burning sun.

cycling in meghalaya umiam lake
The first view of Umiam Lake

After Umiam you climb in earnest for Shillong. It is a proper 2-lane hill road with pine trees. You can’t smell the pine, because there is constant traffic. Though once again we were pleasantly surprised at how respectful the cars were towards us slow moving cyclists. A bridge near Umiam Lake was under repair and the traffic was being stopped and allowed to travel one-way only. There was no honking, cutting or other miserable road behaviour, it was a pleasure to see how well people drive in Meghalaya.

The only terrible sight, was the multitude of Sarkari babus and their cavalcades. The more insecure the government official, the more the vehicles. We won our freedom from the British a long time ago, but the government and all its tentacles, still behave like ‘rulers’.

Shillong: Scotland of the East (Allegedly)

After a long day in the saddle, we reached Shillong with our batteries drained. Well not our batteries, so much as our Garmin and Bryton batteries, which we forgot to charge, because first day blues.

cycling in meghalaya
Navigating Polite Traffic

A local saw us climbing into the city and suggested to take the ‘shortcut’ to the top. Needless to say, the shortcut was brutally steep as we made our way to Police Bazaar at the heart of Shillong. That area of Shillong is as horrendous a place to visit as The Mall in Nainital, Shimla and Manali. Avoiding these crowded places is probably the best advice I can give you.

Shillong is also where we realised that accommodation is terribly overpriced. You pay much more than the services you get. That unfortunately, is a price you pay, to travel through these gorgeous landscapes.

Dinner was at a Khasi speciality restaurant which was highly recommended. Google Maps is not highly recommended, as it took us 15 minutes walking around within 100 metres to find the place. The food lived up to the reputation and the Khasi Pork Platter was something to not just recharge your batteries, but your soul as well.

The Route

Cycling in Meghalaya: Day 2: Shillong to Sohra

After two nights of minimal sleep, it was time for a long nap in Shillong. A terrible breakfast at the hotel later, we left from this hill station at 930. And you have to climb out of Shillong. With a lot of traffic. From the very first kilometre.

Elephant Falls

The first 7 km took us the better part of an hour. Most people walk faster! To dispel the lethargy in the legs we stopped at the tourist infested Elephant Falls. The falls itself were pretty, considering the season. Meghalaya is best visited during the monsoon if you want to enjoy the waterfalls in all its glory.

Elephant Falls was a sad experience as every place was only selling water bottles. No water other than packaged water. And then these bottles are plastered along the road. The tourists are partly to blame, but so are the locals for not providing a sustainable alternative. Over the next few days, we saw that this was a recurring theme in Meghalaya.

Another eyesore in the state is the ‘paintwork’. Most people chew betel nut and you will find bright red stains everywhere. Along with signboards stating ‘500 rupee fine for spitting here’!

The first 25 km of the day was mostly climbing and then it was downhill all the way to Sohra, better known as Cherrapunji. It is popular as the place on earth with the highest rainfall, which is not entirely true. A neighbouring village Mawsynram is the actual holder of that title.

Along the way we sampled a fine tomato looking fruit. Sour as hell, usually eaten with salt. Soh Shang was good timepass to munch on while pedalling leisurely through the beautiful East Khasi Hills. Unsurprisingly it is pickled as well.

cycling in meghalaya shillong to cherrapunji
Empty roads, lovely weather, what more could you want on a bicycle ride

Tea & Pork: An Odd Combination

Tea was at another Sha bad Ja Dukaan. Here along with our tea, we enjoyed rice cakes with sugar steamed in a banana leaf and rice cake with coconut, which was a bit like sanna. There was meat also on the counter and I asked the lady, what meat was it. She said chicken, which it clearly wasn’t. On further prodding she mumbled under her breath that it was beef and pork. Then she asked if I eat the two. When I replied in the affirmative, she asked my religion!

The fun filled tea shop

Another unique shop in Meghalaya is ‘Open Shop’. That is the only signboard you will find outside these shops. For the untrained eye the shop has little attraction. But for the lover of alcohol, it is paradise. These alcohol stores for some weird reason use this rather mundane nomenclature for the sweet nectar being sold inside.

More surprising views for us outsiders were, seeing pork, chicken, fruits and vegetables all being sold at the same roadside stalls. Neither buyers nor sellers consider it a big deal.

After tea it was a fast descent all the way to the centre of Sohra. While descending only one thing went through our minds… that we need to climb this back in a couple of days! The day ended in a pretty and cozy place called Monica’s Homestay. The owners were lovely, helpful and we really loved the vibe. Pride of ownership is not just limited to cars; people take great care to make their homes look pretty.

Limestone quarries and stone crushing is big in Meghalaya

The Route

Day 3: Sohra to Double Decker Living Roots Bridge and Back

When in Sohra it rains. True to the advertisement it rained through the night. The clothes we washed didn’t dry at all. The lady of the homestay told us during the monsoons, it rains for 20 days at a time and clothes don’t dry during those months. Living with such precipitation is unthinkable for us.

The homestay was already booked for the evening, so we moved next door to the sister’s homestay. We left our luggage in the room and rode our now light and empty bicycles to Tyrna Village. Tyrna is the start point of the trek to the Double Decker Living Roots Bridge (DDLRB).

From Sohra to Tyrna it is all downhill, you never pedal, only brake! The roads are narrow and steep. To make it even riskier visibility was severely curtailed to 5-10 metres because of fog. A couple of kilometres down the road we saw an ambulance that had just overtaken us crashed into the hill with its wheels in the drain. Who do you dial when people inside an ambulance are hurt?

We had a quick breakfast of bread omelette at Tyrna, which tasted like French Toast. I saw pork chow on the menu and enquired, but the lady told us that it will take time to prepare. We left our bicycle helmets in that dhaba where I hoped to return to a lunch of pork chow…

Trek like LOTR

The trek to DDLRB starts with a steep staircase and there were a bunch of slow-moving tourists. We had to use all our manoeuvring and ‘excuse me’ skills to get through. Majority of tourists were from neighbouring Assam and far away Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Many of whom were completely unprepared in their footwear and clothing for the gruelling task ahead.

Even for us the steps were a challenge after two hardcore days of climbing. Our legs were already toast and we could feel the searing pain in every muscle as we descended. Along the trek we met a bunch of photographers, who told us they were shooting for Nat Geo. Looking at their camera equipment and their lack of physical preparation, they were either not shooting for Nat Geo. Or Nat Geo has shrunk its budgets!

Constant Change

I was visiting this place after 8 years and a lot of improvement has happened since my last trip. Now a bunch of juice shops are there along the way, useful considering the number of unprepared people who were tackling this climb. Not just juice, there was also stretcher facility provided by the locals for tourists who were unable to climb back. We even saw one auntie being stretchered up by 4 heaving and panting guys. I expected the auntie to have fainted or looking exhausted. Nope. She was smiling and waving out to others on the trail, as if she were the queen of England.

DDLRB was crowded as hell. The only saving grace was the ticket seller finally shut up a bunch of college age morons from Assam, who were walking around with a Bluetooth speaker, blasting out shitty music. Nobody wants to hear M n M hip hopping, when the real music is the whistles of the countless birds in the forest.

A sad change was the amount of litter strewn along the path. Again, both tourists and locals are to blame for the filth. The tourists for spreading the filth and the locals for allowing it to happen.

The bridge itself is a marvel of human ingenuity and nature’s strength. With two little pools, where we people bring swimming costumes to bathe. Rather than continuing along the trail to Rainbow Falls, we turned back due to paucity of time.

Athletes… Not

We were both dressed in our cycling attire and people mistook us for athletes. Their belief strengthened by the fact that my grimace while climbing looks like a smile, while Chaitra walks up the hills with her hands behind her back, as if strolling in the park. The majority of people take 2 hours 30 minutes to climb to the top, we took half that time. That is not because we are fit, but because cycling has taught us to endure…

We also visited the single root bridge which was empty, serene and a lovely place to spend time. Unfortunately, time is the one thing we didn’t have left. As we reached the top, there was a 5-year-old selling pineapple slices. With loads of confidence, short hair and a big smile, she loudly ordered everybody to buy. So, we bought! Happily, the fruit was also nice.

After a lot of walking (Lord of the Rings ishtyle) we returned to the dhaba where our helmets were stored. I was disappointed not to find any pork chow. My hard work was all in vain!

Back on the Saddle

From Tyrna Village to Sohra it is a constant climb, with 600 metres of gain in the first 9 km. Steep to say the least. This after the mouth-frothing trek we did.

More local culture we imbibed, as we realised the public toilets everywhere in Meghalaya are extremely clean. It makes travelling so much easier, especially for women. The other thing we realised was that vehicles with ML number plates will not honk behind your 5 kmph bicycle up a steep slope, no matter how inconvenienced they are. But a vehicle with AS written on the number plate will first honk incessantly behind you, before trying to run you over. Culture is visible when sitting behind the driver’s wheel…

We were fortunate to reach our homestay, without getting caught in the rain. Dinner was veg and pork thali at a typical Khasi joint. The food was good and after a challenging day, we treated ourselves to cake. It was a sponge cake with a layer of chocolate and coconut. Interesting to see that a lot of Khasi cuisine has coconut in the sweets.

Dinner was finished by 7 PM, by which time it was dark and the streets were deserted. I checked my phone multiple times, assuming it was 10. Only once we reached the homestay, did the thunderstorm start in all its glory. Chucking down buckets on the roof and leaving us delighted that we were dry!

cycling in meghalaya tyrna village
So long… and see you in the next episode of cycling in Meghalaya!

The Route

The next section of this cycling in Meghalaya travelogue will feature our journey from Sohra to Dawki to Jowai, covering a bunch of pretty falls.

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