Mountains and Magic: Cycling Mystical Meghalaya
I have travelled extensively across the last 8 years including more than one year on my bicycle and have seen some of the most mind blowing, remote and beautiful places but there was something about Meghalaya that touched my heart in a way I wasn’t expecting.
I hope this blog post gives you a tiny idea of how much this wonderful place touched my heart and inspires you to go and visit yourself because it is truly special.
More blogs to come soon with more info on specific places in Meghalaya 🙂
A fun adventure with my partner in (slow-motion) crime
I travelled the whole state with Yesenia, a Spanish woman (and fellow feminist) that had reached out to me via Instagram when I was in Assam. We’d met up and shared Christmas and New Year together in Guwahati whilst waiting for Queenie to get fixed after our little accident when I was run over by a drunk driver. As we were both cycling towards Bangladesh, we decided to see what it would be like travelling together and opted for the scenic route rather than the primary road to Shillong.
Little did we know that it would end up being more than a two week trip because we fell so in love with the nature, the people and each other’s company. That and, well, the hills were massive and we were going S U P E R S L O W . . . haha. In my defence, I had serious gear problems following my accident when I was run over by a drunk driver in Assam!
Anyway… here are some of our highlights:
The first place that sole our hearts was Amkyrbai Lake. An undiscovered local tourist attraction located on the main road. We were struggling with the constant uphill climb on our first afternoon crossing the border from Assam and the sun was setting rapidly. Taking a break and a breath, I noticed a bamboo built archway. We didn’t have food or water but I just had a feeling it might be somewhere nice to camp. As we went to have a look around inside, we couldn’t believe our luck to find this beautiful and abandoned outdoor abyss; a lake surrounded by bamboo forests and what looked like an old market that was maybe active during high season.
We went on a mission to find a clean water source and made friends with the lady who worked there selling snacks, tea and rice. She spoke no English but the local priest from the next village helped to translate. They warned us against the wild elephants but we explained we knew the risks and were very happy here as it was just so beautiful. She gave us tea, rice and potatoes for the evening and they agreed to not tell anyone we were staying there.
It was perfect; we had toilets, a mini kitchen, a whole lake and a gorgeous bamboo forest with no one to disturb us! There was even shelter under one of the bamboo huts, obviously used during high season. We ended up staying 3 nights there and the few locals that visited didn’t bother us too much at all.
One woman, a lovely lady named Lily-Mary from a neighbouring town, even drove me 9kms to the next village to pick up supplies so we could camp there for longer. This meant we had three nights of almost private bliss where we cooked gourmet camp meals, played music and swam naked in the lake mostly undisturbed.
On the road in the East Kasi Hills
When we finally brought ourselves to leave our beloved new home, we stopped by at Lily-Mary’s house in Patharkhmah to rest the next night. The family welcomed us warmly and cooked a huge spread of the most delicious food – YUM!
Continuing up the challenging and never-ending inclines of the East Kasi Hills definitely paid off because there was an abundance of charming tiny villages, friendly locals, incredible camp spots and breathtaking mountain scenery in every direction. The roads are in great condition which make life much more palatable when you’re constantly climbing and had hardly any traffic – a biker’s dream!
Married Village to Mairang
We stumbled across another outstanding camping spot in a pine forest alongside a pristine secluded river near Maroid Village. After an extremely tough day of climbing steep mountains and hungry bellies after a dissatisfying meal of rice and salt, we helped each other to carry our bikes over a small river and up onto a glorious forest path. It was just wonderful, nobody disturbed us and we stayed two nights and three days. Time flew by, washing laundry in the river, reading books, drawing, cooking, hiking – L I V I N G – it was bliss.
From Maroid Village, we cycled towards Shillong and passed through Mairang. It was a larger town on higher ground with almost no shelter from the wind making it chilly to travel in January! When we arrived, we decided to go back 15kms or so and detour to Kyllang Rock, the second highest rock and viewpoint in the whole state and camped just opposite, it was beautiful and the journey through the local villages was special, too. After ticking that off the list, it was finally time to move onto Shillong.
I had high hopes for Shillong after hearing such wonderful things but after our wonderful small-village escapades, cycling into the city was disappointing. We looked forward to the final stretch of our journey from Guwahati being a very long descent after all the challenging climbing, but that was utterly ruined by heavy traffic forcing us to hold our brakes the whole way into town. Shillong city itself is insanely crowded and not an ideal place for bicycle travel. We did coincidentally meet up with 4 other cycle tourists, (including Xavier, who was the first ever cycle tourist I’d met back in February 2019 in Vietnam! Small world!) which was a nice surprise.
We’d heard that Elephant Falls was overrated, so we gave that one a miss, but we did get to visit Laitlum Grand Canyon with local friends, Diana and MickeyDee, which was beautiful. If you’re cycling, it’s about 22kms from the centre with some healthy rolling hills and gravel roads. At the canyon, you walk down lots of steps to get a better view. You can walk all the way down to the village (we didn’t do this) but apparently that takes a good few hours down and of course, much longer up. It was hard enough climbing back up the steps from the viewpoint! A nice day out.
When two became three
Arriving into Shillong meant we finally managed to reconnect with Jestin, who I’d met at Hornbill Festival and had decided to cycle with for some time. We all headed to Cherrapunji (locally known as Sohra) together which was where I was blown away beyond words. Honestly, I knew it was going to be beautiful there but I could not have anticipated just how spectacular it was. Picturesque and smooth mountain roads delicately winding into the valley felt even more sensational than usual as my muscles smiled to have a break from climbing in this majestic setting. We didn’t get to cycle together for too long, as Jestin headed back to meet friends in Dawki, but it was a nice experience while it lasted! 🙂
The bone crushing factory
Throughout Meghalaya we took shelter in many places including people’s homes, at a convent and of course, outside in the most spectacular nature. Although it was never usually a challenge to seek refuge with the friendly locals, we did get caught out one night when it was dark, freezing cold and we had nowhere to go, so we slept inside a bone crushing factory to keep warm – yes, me, the vegan sleeping inside the bone crushing factory – EW! But there was beauty in abundance throughout Meghalaya and within 5 minutes from wherever you find yourself, you’re guaranteed an epic nature view.
Renowned as the wettest place on Earth, it was inevitable that it would be home to breathtaking natural scenes but this region exceeded all my expectations and overtook as possibly the best place I’ve ever been. Cycling into Cherrapunji was an absolute dream! From Shillong, you climb steadily for the first 30kms or so then you have a loooong, windy, gradual downhill overlooking the most beautiful mountains and valleys – you feel like you’re flying! This place is home to spectacularly huge cliffs, rich, dense jungle and the most incredible waterfalls, even during dry season, which left me speechless and humbled. What magnified the whole experience was that no one told us!! We just didn’t expect it to be so stunningly phenomenal and were left entirely blown away. Blog post coming soon on my adventures in Nongriat, highlight of my time in Meghalaya. Keep your eyes peeled!
So Dawki was a place I’d massively built up in my head because of Jestin and all the wonderful things he’d said which had left me with expectations. For Yese and I, we found it another typical border town. Yes, there is ‘the cleanest river in Asia’ but honestly, I was more more blown away by other places in Meghalaya. Saying that, we arrived in the dark, on a Saturday night, so there were drunken men everywhere and we struggled to find a place.
The place Jestin had for us was too exposed and therefore unsafe (highlighting the struggles we face as travelling and camping as women in comparison to him) and we ended up staying inside an old church building after searching for hours at half past ten PM. We wanted to visit Shnongpdeng the next day which is a quieter (and supposedly more beautiful) town just 7kms uphill from Dawki, but Yese was violently ill and I’d severely hurt my knee so we couldn’t move anywhere. In a rush to cross the border, we had to miss it in the end. We weren’t too fussed.
One down side to the state was the food – it was not vegan friendly at all and there were quite a few occasions where I ate rice with salt when nothing else was available. Meat and fermented fish (locals call it katung) are a huge part of their diet and culture because Meghalaya is a Christian state and therefore the vegetarian culture associated with Hinduism is not prominent.
I found myself having a lot of plain, boiled veg accompanied by dal which is common in the Northeast. A wide variety of fruit was not as readily available in the rural towns but we could usually find oranges and bananas at frequent enough intervals.
NOTE: Anywhere throughout Meghalaya, but especially in remote villages, it can be particularly challenging to get food on a Sunday as everything shuts down super early.
TOP TIP: If you’re looking to cycle through Meghalaya, take opportunities at (usually weekly) market days and stock up on easy protein-rich snacks like cooked chickpeas or nuts if you’re veggie/vegan.
Click here to read more about my experience being vegan in Northeast India.
There are two prominent cultures in Meghalaya: Kasi and Garo. I travelled through the Kasi Hills and I have to say that they have such a calm and loving aura around their communities. Simple living, family orientated, and what was particularly interesting is that they live in a matrilineal society.
This means that the bloodline is traced through the Mother and the family property, inheritance and responsibility falls to the youngest daughter to take care of. She stays in the family home with the parents to look after them as they age and become more dependent.
Despite this being seen as giving better rights to women, they are nowhere near equal and the ultimate decision making always comes down to the fathers, grandfathers and uncles. Women still have the responsibility of looking after the home, husband and children, and in some places even work in the fields as well. Women are still restricted with their decision making, ability to pursue careers, freedom to travel and right of public expression in society. I’m telling you, the deeper I get into this journey, the more I realise that the real superheroes of this world are the working class women of Asia.
Something else we couldn’t help but notice was the little little size of the people! We’re not sure why, but Kasi people were tiny and Yesenia and I are both quite tall so everyone found it equally amusing that we were so tall and they were so small!
Kasi people and culture are incredibly friendly and far less invasive than other Indians in regular interactions (on the whole) and we felt that shift dramatically as we crossed the border from Assam to Meghalaya which was a welcomed and nice relief. That’s not to say that we were free of hassle throughout our journey as we still suffered unbearable attention at times and frequent selfies. The worst case was when we were invited in to stay at someone’s home after we couldn’t find a place to sleep and it had already gotten dark. There were about 50 children that all swarmed inside the house, touching and grabbing our bikes and the bags on it. They were fascinated and had never met foreigners so there were definitely no personal space boundaries but they were harmless and just excited so we didn’t mind too much!
A few shout outs/thank yous!
Ian at Pro Cycling was an absolute gem – he fixed all my ongoing problems from my accident before Christmas and I can very strongly recommend his shop if you’re visiting Shillong and your bike needs some TLC.
Diana went over and above to look after us in her beautiful and comfortable home in Shillong and we also had the privilege of hanging out with MickeyDee, two incredible connections and inspiring strong women made through Couchsurfing!
Orange Roots Restaurant was a delicious ‘pure veg’ restaurant (vegetarian but uses dairy products) that sponsored our meals on the way into Cherrapunji. Honestly, it was beyond exceptional – top quality food and eat as much as you like! Fantastic.