Shillong – what dreams are made of. Seductive lush hills coyly seeking you, serpentine roads bordered with abundant pine forests, naughty streams and large-hearted lakes, clouds hanging like permanent decorations atop… well everywhere!
Raindrops waiting to join the revelry at the slightest pretext, stunning orchids cradling exotic butterflies, heady smell of the conifers, mild strums of guitar inviting you from a distance co-existing with the omnipresent crackles of laughter and the perennial festive spirit! Homes straight out of storybooks, beautiful people with ‘warmth’ and ‘mirth’ as their middle names… one can go on and on.
This is not – yet another description of yet another town in a fairy tale book. Except for people made out of candies and molasses, everything else is real!
It is all found in Shillong!
In the areas near the border between Assam and Meghalaya, at one of the first hair-pin bends on the National Highway 40 that launches you on the gradual climb from Guwahati to Shillong, the chill in the air and change of scenery is so abrupt that locals believe Shillong is ruled by a different God.
Perched at a humble altitude of about 1500 meters above mean sea level on the ‘Shillong Plateau’ and comfortably nestled between hills, Shillong is a place that bears no resemblance to the typical hill stations of India.
For starters – a casual stroll in any part of the place is more likely to bring you face to face to everyday life than the usual sight of scores of tourists trying to crack deals with tour operators, and transport providers! The lanes and by-lanes of the city are dotted with well manicured homes of the locals and tastefully constructed government and public utility establishments, rather than unstructured mushrooming of hotels and resorts that we so commonly encounter at other hill stations.
As a traveler, this turns out to be one of the most relaxing part of being in Shillong. To enjoy it, one has to be a part of it. Far from being a place that throws up carefully designed (and commercialized) picnic spots as their top draw (remember those picture postcard books or the ‘professional’ photographers that hunt you down for a polaroid?!) It is just being in Shillong that is the biggest part of the holiday there. Of course, as one would find out, there are plenty of peaks and waterfalls for the tourists, but more importantly, there is a quaint laid-back uniqueness to the life in Shillong for the traveler that has to be enjoyed with a cup of tea in midst of clouds!
Accessing Shillong can be a bit time consuming, and therefore fun. The best method is almost always to land in Guwahati (nearest Air / Rail link) and drive or get driven to Shillong.The beautifully winding NH 40 provides quite a spectacle and a prelude to what to expect while in Shillong and around. A refreshing cuppa at Nongpoh neatly bisects the two parts of the around 3 hourclimb. The stream flowing in the opposite direction almost seems to be describing the experience ‘up there’ for you while the logs of wood on its banks offers a brush with the grim reality of deforestation.
En route one almost immediately realizes that this place is a naturalist’s delight with miles and miles of pine forests and their unmistakable scent. It is also home to a wide variety of mushrooms, orchids and various species of insects and butterflies.
About 15 kms (and half an hour) before entering Shillong one is welcomed by probably one of the biggest attractions of the place, the Umiam Lake (a.k.a. ‘Barapani’). Spread over 220 Sq Kms of catchment area, this lake is home to natural eco-systems as well as many water sports for the adventure seekers. Considering the size of Umiam Lake and the number of things one can explore here and around, it is recommended that travelers should reach Shillong and come back to Umiam with almost an entire day at hand.
As one enters Shillong the first thing one would notice is the British influence on the architecture, the striking Assam type houses with slanting roofs, dotted with large windows and beautiful lace curtains. The houses in Shillong have wooden floors and are tastefully kept.
The other almost immediate discovery is the connection with Music!
Widely considered to be the rock and blues capital of India Shillong boasts of numerous home grown bands that have created an entire generation of listeners and followers across the country.
The city holds an annual Bob Dylan festival, regularly hosts the largest rock/metal acts to arrive in the country from West, holds the record for most guitarists and drummers ever assembled and jammed together and in general lives and breathes music in all walks of life – Church choirs to street musicians, huge rock shows to music fests that have bordered on to a mania.
In Shillong music is sacred, music is religion. You hardly come across a house which does not play or listen to music. As you ramble by the streets of Shillong, you will hear music wafting from cathedrals, homes, clubs and street corners. Cabbies play not the latest bollywood numbers, but Jethro Tull and Deep Purple.
Shillong is also widely regarded as one of the fashion capitals of the country. It is not uncommon to find youngsters flaunting the latest in fashion gear on the stylish streets of this picturesque town even before the Mumbais and the Bangalores get a sniff of the same!
The Khasis (who constitute the majority in Shillong) are known for their fine and polished life style and impeccable dressing sense. It is no wonder that all other ethnicities (chiefly Bengalis, Nepalis, Marwaris and Punjabis) get easily absorbed in the same eco-system giving the place a unique colourful, cosmopolitan feel, while keeping the local flavour intact.
Time to hit the road?
One of the main things to do in Shillong is, well, just trekking through the territory! Yes, Shillong is best explored walking, whether it is the hustle-bustle of Police Bazaar, Ka Lewduh (Bara Bazaar), the largest open street market in the North-East, or the serene and blissfully quiet confines of churches. Getting an eyeful of the unique architecture of state buildings can be as enchanting as merely exploring local cuisines, momos or the lip-smacking Chinese food in the plethora of eateries that abound the place.
Outside the town one can trek and explore the forests and come to close quarters with the rich variety of flora and fauna.
Of course among the must-visit places is the Shillong peak which, at about 1965 mts above MSL is the highest point of this town. The legend goes that this is the abode of the Khasi deity ‘U Blei Shillong’— the creator and protector of the Kingdom. Shillong Peak along with the Diengiei Peak or Lum-Diengiei to its north-west and Sohpetbneng Peak or Lum-Sohpetbneng to its north-east stand in a tripod formation, standing guard to the Shillong plateau. A magnificent view of the Himalayas is also available from the peak should the sky be clear of fog.
Elephant Falls is another famous attraction located about 10 Kms outside Shillong. Near these falls, there are two smaller falls which are equally beautiful and captivating. These are the Wei Iaplam Falls and the Wir Phang Falls. A small wooden bridge makes access to these falls easy. The surrounding of the Elephant Falls are lush green and the accompanying rivulet has thick moss, lichens and ferns covering its banks.
While in the town, one simply cannot miss the Ward’s Lake (Polok’s Lake as the locals call it) as it is accessible and noticeable from virtually everywhere! This beautiful lake epitomizes the tranquility of Shillong. Located in the heart of the city and flanked by imposing establishments like Raj Bhavan, Shillong Club, State Legislative Assembly, Shillong Botanical Gardens, Ward’s Lake seems to pull all the strings to ensure that the denizens of the town breathe an air of peace and are always unhurried in their approach to life!
Teeing off or otherwise, the Shillong Golf Course is one of the spots which is not to be missed. Tall and whispering pines hold this 18-hole course which at an altitude of 4750 feet above sea-level plays host to the best in the game and also to the ubiquitous clouds! The Course is listed in the international directories of Golf Courses of repute. The wide and open course is a panoramic visual delight and is a treat for both the golfer and the non-golfer alike.
A slightly solemn flavor of this extremely chirpy and sassy place is found in the numerous beautiful Churches and Cathedrals that adorn the landscape of the town. The architecture and the hugeness of these churches is one to be marveled at. Some of them are so large that they can accommodate many thousands of worshippers at a time. Notable among these are the Shillong Cathedral, the Mawkhar Presbyterian Church, the Jaiaw Presbyterian Church, the Laitumkhrah Presbyterian Church and the All Saints’ Church.
Some other famous attractions to check out while in Shillong are the Lady Hydari Park, Shillong Botanical Garden, the Don Bosco Square and Museum, the State Central Library, the Shillong Club, Polo Grounds, the Butterfly Museum, Bishop and Beadon Falls, Sweet Falls in Happy Valley, Spread Eagle Falls in the Shillong Cantonment, Laitkor Peak, Seng Khasi Hills… the list is endless!
No visit to Shillong is complete without a sojourn to the nearby Sohra, popularly known as Cherrapunji, the wettest place on earth! About 60 Kms south of Shillong, a day long trip to Cherra is about as fulfilling as a travel to hill stations can be. It is famous for its numerous waterfalls (Noh Kalikai Falls and the Seven Sisters Falls being the most sought after), limestone caves (Mawsmai caves) and the stunning root bridge. One can get breathtaking views of the neighboring Bangladesh from many a vantage point in Cherrapunji!
It still feels inadequate to limit describing a travel to Shillong between some of the well known spots. The hills, the clouds, the forests, the pine trees, the falls, the lakes and everything else that mother-nature has so abundantly bestowed here, cry out loud to be embraced rather than ‘visited’. It is a place to be felt rather than merely touched. A travel to Shillong returns to the traveler not merely as a habit but as an addiction!
Describing Shillong can be a humbling affair, words are known to fail and the best of pens have often stumbled. A place steeped in such myriad social, cultural and geographic expressions is, as mentioned in the beginning of this note is more easily found in fairy tales. Except that, Shillong is real!