Living Root Bridges

Featured in the BBC Human Planet series, the living root bridges in North East India are truly spectacular. I found out about them after watching the series, which ran a segment on this phenomenon.

The bridges are located in the East Khasi Hills area of Meghalaya state. Getting there is a bit of a mission but the journey is well worth it.

Living Root Bridge in Mawlynnong, Meghalaya, India.

There are two key locations to see the bridges, one is Mawlynnong and the other, Nongriat. Both of which are reached from Shillong. Besides the Living Root Bridges, there is also spectacular scenery and nature, great hiking, and of course the charming and friendly Khasi people. Also in the area is Cherrapunjee (or Sohra, as it's known locally), which is infamous as being the wettest place on earth. In fact, it is this massive rainfall that indirectly leads to the building of the root bridges.

A local carrying wood across the bridge. They are not for show, they are an integral part of the 'highway' infrastructure.

To get to this area you have to either fly, or take a train, to Guwahati. If you come by train, it's the end of the line. From the station you have to take a Sumo (the brand name of the Tata jeep), as they are called, to Shillong. This is a share jeep that takes 11 people. Sometimes more. They are easy to find and my method was to walk out of the station shouting "Shillong". Rest assured, the drivers will find you. It's about 4 hours to Shillong. Tip: If you have a choice, opt for a Mahindra jeep rather than a Tata, they seem to have more elbow room!

From the airport it's a case of getting a share cab. This will be 3-4 people crammed in a car for the journey. Sumos costs 140 rupees and share cabs 300. Private hire is 1,500 rupees or more depending on your bargaining skills. Once in Shillong you need to head to Police Bazar which is the centre, and where most of the hotels are.

Don't forget to go and see the archery shooting for the lottery draw during your stay in Shillong. Details here.

Another bridge. This shot is only possible in the dry season. During the rains, this river is a raging torrent.

To get to Mawlynnong, you have to take another share jeep. These are found at the sumo stand in Bara Bazar, which is about a 15min walk from Police Bazar. Locals will point you the right way. The sumos parks on the 2nd floor of the stand next to the jeeps for Sohra. It leaves at 1pm or when it's full, which in my case was at 3.30pm! The journey is about 3 hours. Once in the village, there are numerous home stays and guest houses. They are also building a new, large guesthouse, on the outskirts of town. This is to accommodate the ever increasing numbers of Indian tourists venturing in to the un-discovered world of the North East.

Prices are relatively steep for the region. A single room is around 700 rupees and a double 1,200. A guide for the day (which is essential if you want to seek out other interesting sights in the area) runs at around 600 - 800 rupees for the day.

Even without the root bridges, the whole area is unspoilt and spectacular.

Mawlynnong (which claims to be the cleanest village in Asia) is charming and a great place to relax. The local Khasi people, who are almost all Christian, are friendly and polite. It's a little surreal to wake up to the sound of a choir singing hymns, coming from the local Church and then in the evening. hear the unmistakable sound of a football match (which is well worth watching, the standard of play is very good). The Welsh missionaries did a good job here.

To reach the nearest (and probably best looking) root bridge, you need to walk out of Mawlynnong back along the main road to the village of Riwai, which is a few kilometres. You will then see the sign to the bridge.

A young Khasi girl selling fruit to the occasional visitors to the living root bridge. Ever smiling and good natured, you will be pleased to do business with her.

Next on the agenda is a visit to Nongriat, which necessitates getting the sumo back to Shillong. It leaves at 6am most days and don't complain about being squashed in the back, there will likely be another six people hanging on the back outside, on what is, the only transport link back to town.

You could go the same day or overnight in Shillong, and return back to the Sumo stand at Bara Bazar in the morning, and taking a jeep to Sohra. These are much more frequent and the journey is shorter but be careful on the return, the last jeep leaves Sohra just before dark, at around 4.30pm.

Sohra (or Cherapunjee) is the town that is in the Guinness Book of Records as being the wettest place on earth. It was brilliant sunshine when I was there so I'll take their word for it, but I was there in the dry season!

To get to Nongriat you have two main options.

Noh-Kalikai Falls which during the monsoon season, are the primary feed of huge volumes of water to the Nongriat valley.

The choices depend on how intrepid you are: The first is to hire a taxi from the stand in Sohra and ask him to take you to Tyrna.  This will cost around 100 rupees and takes 15 mins. From the drop off point, which is the end of the road, just follow the hand made sign to 'Living Root Bridge' and off you go, walking down a couple of thousand steps and pass through Umsohphie village.
Bear in mind, if you return this way, you'll need to get the drivers phone number so that he can come back and collect you. Otherwise you might have a very long wait for a car to turn up.

The other option, is to get a taxi to take you to the falls look out point, where there is a few local shops, a viewing platform and a some other buildings. Once here, walk along the cliff top back towards Sohra until you reach the end of the barbed wire fencing that is sort of half up along the ridge. Look carefully for a pathway. They are little used now and not maintained so overgrow quickly. It's just a track at the top but will quickly turn in to path of stone steps. Then just keep heading downwards. It's a long and tough hike (especially carrying camera kit in a backpack.) You can't really get lost. As long as you are on a path and heading down, you are going to reach Nongriat. Coming back this way is a quite a haul from the valley floor to the top.

The famous double decker root bridge.

This is where you will find the famous double decker root bridge. There is a guest house in the village, which costs 2-300 rupees per night. An enterprising villager called Byron is building a new one (Nov 2012), which should be open by the spring of 2013. He and his wife Violet, run the village shop and he is also a good guide. The people in the village are lovely and there is great hiking to be done in the local area, including some caves, which I didn't visit. Try and find some locals collecting honey, and see if you can buy some from them (the ladies I came across, wouldn't take any money for letting me try some). Pure honey is wonderful and if you have the dreaded Delhi cough, it will work wonders.

Unlike Mawlynnong, there are very few Indian tourists visiting Nongriat at the moment. They tend to prefer not to do long arduous walks. However, there is talk of extending the road deeper in to the valley, which will surely open Nongriat up more.

The roots of the tree are 'trained' to grow in a specific way to form the structure of the bridge.

The bridges are formed from the roots of the Indian rubber tree, which naturally grows along the banks of the rivers, its roots snaking all over the rocks to reach water during the dry season. These trees also naturally 'pair up', intertwining with the roots of other trees to share resources. The locals realised that with careful coaxing over many years the roots could made to form almost any shape. There are even living root bridge step ladders. It takes decades to build a bridge but once complete, they just get stronger over time. It's said, the bridges can last up to 500 years.

The East Khasi Hills, are very close to Bangladesh and I'm sure there is much more to dicscover in this region. The matrilineal society of the Khasi tribe is interesting in that family property is inherited through the mothers side.

And just for good measure, here is a video of what it's like crossing one of the wire suspension bridges. Gives you a bit of feel for the area...