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...


The Shillong archery lottery

Shillong is in Meghalaya state in the North East of India. I went there on my trip to the Khasi Hills region to see the living root bridges. As a town, there is not much of interest for the foreign tourist. Indian visitors come here in ever increasing numbers, seeking out shopping, cool air and to 'discover' an area that is still fairly detached from the rest of India, but otherwise, it doesn't have too much of interest.

However, there is one curious, and rather intriguing spectacle that occurs here, and I went to find out about it.

The archers get ready for 2nd shoot of the day.

All over Shillong there are thousands of little stalls, selling lottery tickets. These ticket sellers are licensed and it seems that most people have a flutter. The principal is simple; you select a number between 1 - 100 and decide how much you want to put down, usually between five and 50 rupees. If you get the winning number, you win 60 X your stake. So you have a one in a hundred chance to win 60 rupees for each one rupee you put down.

One of the many ticket counters where you can place your bet.

Each day, first at 4pm and then again at 4.30pm, groups of archers meet at the Shillong Archery shooting ground for what must be the most unique lottery draw anywhere in the world. I spoke to many people and got a variety of accounts as to what exactly happens (as is the norm in India), but it seems that there are number of different clubs that take turns to come and shoot. At each session, 20 archers from three different clubs line up to shoot their arrows at a target. So there are 60 archers in total.

Once the word is given, they all fire in rapid succession in to the target.

An archer lines up, ready to fire in to the target.

The shooting is over quickly and finishes when a group of men lift a large hessian type cover in front of the target so that no more arrows can land in it.

This is how the target looks after they have finished shooting. The gentleman on the right was officiating proceedings.

It seemed that each club had different coloured flights on their arrows. Once the shooting was over, the crowd rushed up to inspect the result. Some think they can guess the outcome accurately and dash back to place last minute bets. A couple of elders, or officials, stood over the target while preparations were made for the next stage.

Now the business end of the event. The arrows are counted.

All arrows were removed from the target and were counted in to groups of ten. The chap in the middle is counting and bunching them up. Then each group of ten was handed to another official (seen on the left of the picture) who mounted each group of arrows in to a kind of rack.

The final act. The last arrows are thrown back in to the arena.

Finally, the counting official throws the last of the arrows, ceremoniously, back in to the centre of the field. Once the finally tally is made, the hundreds are ignored and the final winning number for the lottery is arrived at. So, for example, if a total of 318 arrows are counted. The winning number is 18.

It was a fascinating event. Although it was taken seriously everyone there was good natured and incredibly friendly. Most of them don't ever remember seeing a foreign tourist. If you are in Shillong it's well worth going down and joining in the fun. However, it is tricky to find, as most locals only seem to have a vague idea where it is. Confusingly, it's often referred to as the Polo ground, but Polo is the name of the area and it doesn't seem to refer to a ground where they play Polo!

From Police Bazar or Bara Bazar, a taxi will cost 100 IRS. The entrance is down a little side alley off the main street. If you get to the general area and can't see it just keep asking, eventually someone will point you the right way. Persevere, it's worth it.

No, I didn't win but if willpower could have made any difference I probably would have, everyone was genuinely hoping I was going to pick the winning number! They all wanted me to have a good momento of the event but it wasn't necessary.

This is the sign over the entrance.

Wild West in Spain

You may know that what are often called "Spaghetti Westerns" were actually filmed in Spain. What you might not know is that a lot of the original film sets are still there, and easy to visit.

Some of the sets, created by Sergio Leone, are open to the public complete with shows, shops, and all manner of enticements, for visitors, to re-enact their cowboy fantasies. 

A coach rides in to Fort Bravo.

Fort Bravo seems to have the most original and best preserved sets, and was used for shooting 

"The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" while the nearby Mini Hollywood (Oasys) - which was created as El Paso in "For a Few Dollars More" - is larger and more commercialised.

Strolling along main street, past the saloon, bank, and general store your mind tells you that you are in a fake western town created only for making movies. Your heart tells you, watch your back and check the dingy doorways, because Lee Van Cleef is somewhere here, watching, and waiting.

It's hard not to walk into the saloon without kicking the swing doors wide open then standing in the doorway while the music stops, and card players spin around, hands poised over their colts 45's. That's not what actually happened when I was there. I walked in, and ordered a beer. The Mexican bandit who followed me in, asked for a glass of milk. Nonetheless, if you have a good imagination, it's easy to overlook a bit of reality and stick to the script.

A bandit takes a siesta, with rifle at the ready.

A couple of times a day, the organisers put on an 'espectaculo', at both of the sites, and these shows plays out some classic scenes, with gunfights, a hanging and a few street brawls. The most impressive was a horse galloping into the main square dragging a man on a rope. There is no doubt, most of the actors know what they are doing, and all of them claim to have been in numerous movies, some in the original Leone trilogy.

The Wild West way of bringing someone to justice.

The haunting music of Eric Morricone is continually pumped out of loud speakers, although it often builds to a climax of operatic drama with nothing more going on than a horse standing around outside the bank. On the set called Oayses, or Mini Hollywood, they had an excellent 'Can Can' show complete with a musical turn by a couple playing guitars.

The Wild West wouldn't be wild without a bit of music.

Walking around the streets it's easy to feel like you are on a movie set. Which of course, you are. The difference is, no one is shouting "cut" when you finish taking a photograph, but you can shout it in your head. It adds an extra dimension to the overall feel. Or, if you really want to get right in to it, just imagine you are in the wild west of the 1,800's!

After a day in the saddle, there can only be one place to head.

Many of the performers wile away the day chatting and practising looking mean, which they are pretty good at. There is a similar feeling that you get in old gold rush towns, that one day, the good times are going to be rolling in again, and those that have waited, will be first in line for some action.

"I ain't saying much, so don't ask."

It's not just the sets/towns that you give you a familiar feeling of deja vue, the parched hills and dusty tracks in this desert region often look like a place you have visited before. Most likely you have. Hundreds of movies have been made in and around Tabernas, the dramatic yet nondescript backdrop of the desert makes a perfect location for story telling. Despite all the famous names - Once Upon a Time In The West, Patton, Lawrence of Arabia and many more - it's Sergio Leones creativity that was, and still is, the biggest influence on this area. It's a surreal experience to get out of the car and gaze across the landscape, feeling that you know the place.

No bad language, there are ladies around.

Both locations are near Tabernas, about 30kms inland from Almeria. They are easy to get to and I stayed at the excellent El Puente Hostal in Tabernas, for a few nights. It has an attached restaurant that does huge meals, just what you need after a hard day in the desert and the staff are friendly and helpful.

So if you fancy indulging in a bit of wild west fantasy, and capturing some unique images while you're at, I recommend a trip here.

There is a third location, called Western Leone, but my time ran out before I got a chance to visit that one.

The view from inside the jailhouse.

Here are a few more shots from the day.

The Badlands of the Tabernas desert. Eerie and strangely familiar.

The Badlands of the Tabernas desert. Eerie and strangely familiar.

And finally..If you fancy yourself as a bit of director, this is an ideal place to go and shoot your own home made movie!


I came across this relic while on an overland trip through South America and after doing a bit of pretend driving in the cab framed up a shot.

It’s a fascinating composition against the barren landscape. I have no idea how long it had been there or why it was abandoned but it was close to a fuel station. Many of them are left to slowly rot away, especially in Argentina and Patagonia.

Could I find it again?

Abandoned bus in Argentina


I've just recently got back from a trip to souther Spain. This is fifth visit here and it just keeps getting better and better.

There is an endless number of photography subjects but the most interesting are the grandiose buildings set against a back drop of dramatic landscapes.

Church in Ronda with white houses