Thursday, January 7, 2016

India - Looking for peace and quiet

Looking at our options for the last days in India, we felt we would like to see something without masses of people and we could do without the continuous blasting of horns all the time too. We had hoped to find it in Sikkim but were disappointed with the attitude there. We found it partly in West Bengal's tea capital Darjeeling. Heading east towards the Myanmar border, we made a detour towards Shillong, to have a look at the weird double deck bridge made from tree roots and found more than we had bargained for...

The problem with a GPS or paper map is that it won't tell you anything about the conditions. The only way to find out is ask a local... the problem with asking a local in India is that if you ask 5, you get 8 different answers. Even the main road from Siliguri to Guwahati was described in so many variations that we had no idea what to expect and could therefore not work out how long it would take. The answers varied from 3 hours to impossible in one day... In the end we decided to start at 5am, aim for Guwahati and stop somewhere along the way if it turned out to be indeed impossible. We did get to Guwahati in 9 hours (or an average of just over 52 km/hr using highways). We were pushing it though and were pretty exhausted when we arrived at the hotel we had booked, and which once again did not offer the promised secure parking... To be honest we are beginning to wonder why we ask this at all, or even book, as we seem to be ending up at a different place to where we booked every single time. The reason we look for secure bike parking is because we've had enough of people climbing on to our bikes for a 'selfie' when we park them in the street... I'm not joking here, that has happened many times, even when I'm standing right next to it. We found Mike's XT on the ground one morning as who-ever had climbed on it last couldn't hold it. Anyway, just 200 mtr further we found a hotel which did offer secure parking and had a much better room too.

Trying to find a hotel in Shillong proved almost impossible as there was, once again, some sort of national holiday. India is good at that, we haven't found a week yet when they didn't have something to celebrate :-) In the end we found a home-stay which could put us up. To be honest we wondered if it would be worth it, as we half expected the area to be swamped with tourists while we went there in the hope to find some nature again. Hotels are all very well but we rather camp in a tent, cook our own meals and enjoy nature. Camping wasn't an option but we bought some veggies along the way in the hope we could combine them with the noodles we still had with us from Kazakhstan(!)

Once we had left the city behind us and rode into the mountains, the ride became beautiful. Traffic wasn't that bad, the air noticeable cleaner and for the first time in weeks I could take a photo of the valley we rode through without the image being hazy from smog. Riding here made me wonder if it would perhaps be better to continue on the narrow, local roads towards the Myanmar border as the perhaps faster main roads we had the day before were mind numbing, boring and tiring at the same time. At least we had something to see now!

Shillong was to be the place where we would stock up on supplies for the coming days but a giant traffic jam made us change our minds. It's amazing how easy it is for Indians to make a giant chaos out of everything... They simply have no patience whatsoever, so they all going in and from all directions with the horns on full blast... meeting each other head-on... the ones behind them close up the gap and the result is that no-one is going anywhere. Being on bikes we could ride around most of the cars and trucks which made up this mess but it was slow going. We decided to buy our veggies in the next town as we needed nothing special anyway, only to find that all we could buy in the shops was crisps and other junkfood... Where do people get their food around here? We found out 20 km further on... when we saw a family selling their veggies by the side of the road. A 4 kg bag of spuds worked out at just 1 dollar... problem was we only wanted a handful and had no room for a 4 kg bag anyway, which caused some confusion (no doubt partly because of translation errors too). It was quite comical to see the mother and her 3 daughters debating on what to charge for a bag full of different veggies, lots of talking back and forth and then suddenly she said: 50 rupees... that's not even a dollar!

The Double Decker bridge, made from living tree roots. The only type of bridge I know of that's living and self repairing
We paid and thanked them but as we were just about to leave, they gave us more veggies for free and included cooking instructions too... or that's what we assumed, as they were all in Hindi (or so we thought). Later we found the language spoken here isn't Hindi at all. It didn't matter, she gave us a beaming smile which showed her deep red stained teeth and blessed us. Not sure for what but she meant well and that's all that matters! It's encounters like this which we had dearly missed so far and yet makes travelling so much more than just seeing the landscape. Later I realised it's somehow always the places where things are cheap that we most enjoy. Not that we enjoy them because they are cheap but that is where we meet the colourful people, the friendliness, the people that just want to help even if it's only for directions. I guess looking back that started straight away in Amritsar at the food stalls we found on the street and the small bike shop. We missed it in Dharmsala and up to Manali as it's too touristy there. In Delhi we found it in the back alleys but not at all at the 'sights'. In Agra the Taj Mahal was slightly disappointing but, again, the narrow alleys were great. For me the various tradesmen made this country the very colourful place it is too. Varanasi didn't do it for us at all, again too much geared towards tourism, while we enjoyed the bazaars of Chandigarh and Siliguri very much. Darjeeling is the odd one out as it has a mix of tourism which works really well. 

Now we were entering a very different part of India. The part known as the Scotland of the East, due to the abundant rainfall of no less than 12 metres a year. Arriving at the guest house we were stumped. For starters it was dry and once we had switched the engine off it was.... quiet! We couldn't believe it, we had finally found a place where our eardrums didn't get battered by impatient drivers. There was no open sewer smell either... surely this couldn't last? Not only could we cook our meal, we could even cook outside! The guesthouse was a simple 2 bedroom thing, which to be honest was way too expensive for what it was, but at the same time we liked being here more than in the much more luxurious place we had been the night before.

This cat was a great entertainer. She was continuously
trying to steal food from the kitchen
We had only heard of the Tree Bridges and just a vague idea of where they were. The GPS showed us how to get there and that the last part was a walkway... We had no idea though what that walkway would look like. We assumed pretty poorly maintained, but it didn't all that long on the map so... how hard could it be? Well... quite hard :-) A map doesn't show how much the track goes up and down... and also doesn't show it is in fact a concrete staircase of 3,500 steps... yep, three-thousand-five-hundred steps... one way!

This monster is in fact very tiny... just a couple of millimetres. A miniature version of a Praying Manta, his tail curled up could mean he's cranky!
This is not a shack but someone's family home
It was well worth it though, even though we both had serious cramps the day after we did the 7,000 steps! The Tree bridges are phenomenal. Officially they are known as living root bridges. Living root bridges are made from aerial roots of living Banyan fig trees. They are quite common in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya. Handmade by the people of the Shillong Plateau they take 15-25 years to complete and are made by placing pliable aerial roots on each side of the river and make them grow through Betel tree trunks. The roots will eventually attach themselves to the other side. Once completed the bridges can survive for 500 years or more as the roots are self-renewing and become stronger as they grow. At over 50 metres, the longest one is near Pynursla, the one we visited is perhaps the most famous one: The Double Decker near Nongriat Village.

The people living in these villages, far away from the madness of India's main roads, are very different from what we had found in India so far. They are almost shy, have their own language, do not speak Hindi and are surrounded by lush green forests and plenty of waterfalls. By the looks of things they live virtually the same lifestyle as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. The only concession to modern life seems to be small solar panels to charge a battery which powers lights in the evening. Riding a bike here is beautiful too...!