Living Root Bridges and Other Stories of Nongriat in Meghalaya by Jili and Eoghan from Ireland | #OKTravel

Nongriat (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
"Jili Strychnine and Eoghan Daly from Ireland travelled through the mystic land of Nongriat in Meghalaya in the summer of 2015. Below is their travelogue with some of the stunning photographs of the region the traveller duo took during their stay."

Getting to Nongriat (and Nongthymmai):

Tyrna Village (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
To reach Nongriat, you have to first get to the small village of Tyrna, which lies about 12 km southwest of Cherrapunji, about 800m off the Sohra-Laitkynsew Rd. There’s an obvious junction where you have to turn off the main road to get to Tyrna.

Nongthymmai is a small village that you encounter en route to Nongriat, which features a beautiful living root bridge.

There is a daily local bus from Cherrapunji to Tyrna that leaves early in the morning but it doesn’t run on Sundays unfortunately. Ask around for the exact bus time. We actually needed to go on a Sunday so we just hitchhiked to Tyrna. It wasn’t long before some Indian businessmen picked us up in their car; they were apparently headed to the Bangladesh border for business purposes.

From Tyrna, just ask local people to direct you towards Nongriat as you walk through the village and eventually you should end up at the top of some concrete steps that lead down into the valley. Once you reach here, there are about 3,000 steps and 3.5km of walking between you and Nongriat. There’s no road; you simply have to walk the remaining distance.

Some sources claim that this is an extremely challenging, arduous trek but if you’re fit you probably won’t find it very challenging at all. After all, it’s downhill for most of the way. There’s another trek from Nongriat back up the valley to the Nohkalikai falls viewpoint that very few people attempt and THAT could be considered challenging by most people’s standards.

A short description of the trek to Nongriat

The concrete staircase from Tyrna village descends steeply into the valley, with lush forest cover on either side.

Beautiful wildflowers, butterflies and other wildlife abound on either side of the stairway to help you stay in high spirits during the long descent.

Local villagers also use the stairway and are often seen transporting heavy loads up and down the valley, without a word of complaint.

On the way down you might just catch a glimpse of the beautiful flowers of pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis).

The leaves of this plant are totally edible and they have a very pleasant sour taste, like apple peel, due to their oxalic acid content. Note that you shouldn't eat too many!

Other fantastic flowers we passed on the way were the beautiful pink flowers of bracted balsam (Impatiens bracteata), a plant that's mainly only found here in Meghalaya and further down towards the bottom of the valley in the shade of the forest, we found the beautiful yellow swan flower (Globba andersonii), which is a member of the ginger family. The flowers really do resemble swans!

The bridge in Nongthymmai (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
When you eventually reach the bottom of the valley, you’ll have reached the small village of Nongthymmai, where a short detour from the main trail brings you to a superb root bridge spanning a pristine river that tumbles down through a boulder-strewn river bed:

The bridge is remarkably strong and you can walk across it no problem without fear of it collapsing. Many of the living root bridges are actually built to be able to hold over 50 people at a time.

Not only are these bridges strong but they’re also far superior to artificial steel cable suspension bridges and bamboo bridges, which both weaken and deteriorate over time in this damp environment and hardly last 40-50 years.

Living root bridges on the other hand are not prone to decay from factors like rust, insects and fungi and will last for centuries and actually become stronger and more reliable over time. The result is that these natural bridges are virtually maintenance free and mechanical failure is extremely rare. They're an engineering model for mankind to aspire to in the future.

The bridges are also literally alive, like all the other elements of this ecosystem and are a fully integrated part of the forest. There is no sense of incongruence between the bridge and its surroundings, as would be the case with an ordinary man-made bridge. There is in fact hardly anything about them that seems man-made.

Living Root Bridge in Nongthymmai (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
Seamlessly blending its environment, the bridge supports mosses, epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) and an array of insects, just like any tree of the forest does. We saw ants scuttling along the bridge and it must be an excellent way for them to traverse the river and explore new territories without getting drowned.

The river that rushes beneath the bridge is also a fabulous place to take a cooling dip or a enjoy an invigorating swim upstream against the current in one of the many pools, if you don't mind some extra exercise!

We found a good pool to swim in just a little downstream of the bridge and looking back upstream at the bridge from here, we noticed there was what seemed to be a second younger root bridge that was in the process of being constructed.

The root bridges are made from the Indian rubber fig (Ficus elastica) and this species is selected for its interesting quirk of producing secondary roots from its upper trunk, which then seek to anchor themselves to a nearby object.

The process of constructing the root bridges involves channeling the young secondary roots into a hollowed out areca palm (Areca catechu) tree that is laid across the river on a supporting bamboo scaffold. The roots grow through this tunnel until they eventually attach themselves to the other side of the river.

More roots are later woven into the structure as it becomes stronger and handrails are also added. Gaps between the roots are plugged with soil, rocks and sticks. The supports eventually decay away in the wet climate, while the bridge continues to grow in strength and thickness.

Living Root Bridges (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
The entire process usually takes between 10-15 years to establish a functional living root bridge. The long time it takes to create one of these bridges is their only real downside. However, the Khasi people certainly seem to believe its worth the wait.
After soaking up Nongthymmai for a while, you have to backtrack a little to the main trail and keep heading on towards Nongriat.

The next point of interest during the trek is an encounter with a wide river, spanned by a bridge made from several rusting steel cables. There is no choice but to put your faith in this dubious looking bridge. If only it were a living root bridge, there would be nothing to fear!

As you begin to venture across the bridge, clutching at the steel cables at eye level on either side, the entire structure swings from side-to-side and bobs up and down despite your best efforts to steady it. The raging river tumbles by underneath your feet and you may find yourself praying the bridge doesn’t give out. It’s an awesome experience though and very enjoyable.

A bridge made from steel cables (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
A little further on, you come to yet another river, this one split into two channels and with not one but two suspension bridges to cross! Again it’s just a matter of taking your time and looking straight ahead if you have a fear of heights.

The river here has beautiful turquoise-coloured pools and the bed is strewn with many impressive boulders, especially in the stretch just downstream from the suspension bridge.

Once you’ve crossed this final hurdle, you’ve almost reached Nongriat. Before you continue on towards the village, pause for a brief moment to look down upon the bridge that you just crossed from the viewpoint above. It’s an opportunity for a spectacular photograph.

You now have to climb up steps for 15 minutes or so until you reach the village. Just before coming into the village, we crossed a very short root bridge, which looked incredibly sturdy:

Nongriat practicalities:

Nongriat (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
Once you arrive in Nongriat, we highly recommend you stay a night or two here, because there are more root bridges and the spectacular Rainbow waterfall to be seen by doing day hikes around the village.

As for where to say, there is Serene Homestay, where most travellers seem to stay, but this is odd because our impression of the owner was that he seemed to be a bit rude.

We advise you to stay in the community-owned resthouse on the other side of the river, reached by crossing the double-decker living root bridge. Both of these will cost around 250 rupees per person per night. There was also a third option for about 100 rupees per night in a very basic wooden home with few facilities, offered by a woman at the village.

Meals are prepared by the homestays and each morning for breakfast we usually had porridge while in the evening we had very tasty dinners, usually consisting of steamed rice, dahl, vegetables and an omelette. You can also order a few other basic foods like egg maggi (egg cooked with noodles) at a hut just below the main village. There are also a few basic shops in the village selling snacks like crisps, cake, cookies etc. but they were quite overpriced.

The double decker root bridge

Double Decker Bridge in Nongriat (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
The double decker root bridge is reached by veering towards the right beyond Serene Homestay and there’s a trail that takes you to it. You may or may not have to pay an entrance fee but probably will be asked to if you’re a foreigner.

This bridge is a truly spectacular sight to behold when you see it before your own two eyes and a marvelous playground for photographers. This is a more mature bridge than the one at Nongthymmai and like the other root bridges, orchids and other epiphytes grow from it while younger pendulous roots dangle from the larger roots that span the river.

As if two levels weren’t already impressive enough, the local people are already in the process of adding a third level to the bridge, which should be completed in another 10 years or so.

In fact, there may already exist a triple-decker living root bridge in Meghalaya. There are also known root bridges with two parallel spans, found in the west Jaintia hills near the villages of Padu and Nongbareh. There are dozens if not hundreds more living root bridges in existence than the limited few that appear on google images.

There is a small waterfall directly below the double-decker root bridge and another a short distance upstream from it. Indian tourists love to cool off here in the water so pick your times right if you want pristine photographs.

Some people just briefly visit the double-decker root bridge and then trek back to Tyrna, which is an incredible shame, because then they miss the other amazing nearby root bridge, which is found on the way to the incredible three-tiered rainbow waterfall.

The trek to rainbow waterfall

The Trek to Rainbow Waterfall (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
If you stay overnight in Nongriat, you have the perfect chance to trek to rainbow waterfall on day 2. The trek to the waterfall takes about 1.5-2 hours and begins on the far side of the double-decker root bridge where you just start following the path into the jungle.

The first point of interest on the walk lies a short distance from the village where there’s a big open field, at the end of which you again pick up the trail. You soon pass by a huge rock overhang and after this the path eventually brings you to the river, where there is yet another steel cable suspension bridge to walk (or bounce) across.

This one is really spectacular, with the lush green forest all around and the cerulean blue waters of the river below. After conquering this, there is yet another bridge that spans another channel of the same river and this second bridge is a kind of hybrid between a steel cable bridge and a living root bridge; steel cables are intertwined with the roots.

There are several small waterfalls ahead, where a small stream is tumbling down the steep valley slopes to feed into the main river.

After you make it across this rather long ‘hybrid’ bridge, you end up in a scene that’s straight out of a fairytale.

The rubber fig trees create an incredible display here, with their thick branches stretching out across the path overhead and attaching themselves to the adjacent slope.

The Rainbow Waterfall (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
You’re now on the correct side of the river to see the waterfall. You now have to continue walking upstream for quite some distance if you want to reach rainbow waterfall. As we recall, there is a sign somewhere near here that should help point you in the right direction as the trails can be a little confusing. Note that the path doesn’t cling to the riverbank the entire time and by following the trail we were forced to climb up the slope away from the river, especially as we neared the waterfall.

During the trek we spotted several varieties of colourful birds up high in the treetops and a few huge colonies of fungi just like this one:

There were also exquisitely colourful butterflies fluttering around at every twist and turn of the trail. We found one floating in a stream, which was unfortunately dead. It may have been a Danaid eggfly (Hypolimnas Missipus) with the colours washed out.

Another favourite was a female dark archduke (Lexias dirtea khasiana) laying low on the forest floor, with its magnificent spotted wings and turquoise hues.

Other butterflies we saw were the Fluffy Tit (Zeltus amasa), the Orange Staff Sergeant (Athyma cama), the Dark Blue Tiger (Tirumala septentrionis), the Orange Oakleaf (Kallima inachus), the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) and a few other varieties.

The final stretch to rainbow waterfall is actually a descent, because the trail brings you up high and away from the main river. During this final descent, you can see the three tiers of this spectacular waterfall through the trees, in all its glory.

The Rainbow Waterfall (photo: Jili and Eoghan)
The waterfall actually results from a tributary river, which tumbles down three cliffs before joining the main river. Of the three cascades, the final plunge to the main river below is the highest and the most impressive.

Upon seeing the waterfall, our hearts leapt with joy and amazement and we rushed down the trail to get to the viewpoint that appeared in the distance.

From here, as if by magic, there was an almost perfect view of the waterfall and the river valley off to the left, with no obstructions and nothing to mar that perfect shot.

We decided to descend towards the waterfall and followed the path carefully all the way down to the rocks near the foot of the waterfall. Down here, the waterfall becomes deafeningly loud and the misty spray really fogs up your camera lens and keeping it water-droplet free is very challenging indeed!

We investigated the possibility of swimming in the turquoise-coloured pool below the waterfall but decided eventually that it was too risky to try to get down into the river from here. There was no easy route down without jumping and the rocks were incredibly slippery, so much so that we wouldn’t advise anyone to walk on them.

After thoroughly enjoying our hike and visit to rainbow waterfall, we headed back to Nongriat village and stayed a final night at the homestay.

From Nongriat you don't necessarily have to return to Cherrapunji via Tyrna. If you're feeling adventurous, there's a challenging route leading up to the Nohkalikai Falls viewpoint on the plateau above.

It's a long hike that'll take you several hours and it involves about 700 metres of ascent. The route is pretty wild, with no villages and few signs of man; just you, the forest and thousands of steps; not for the faint-hearted.

We found the hike tough but very rewarding when we finally reached the top of the plateau after what seemed like an eternity. It was a surreal experience transitioning from the lush, humid green forests of the valley below to the bleak, foggy moorland of Cherrapunji. We highly recommend it if you're fit and capable.

to read Jili and Eoghan's journey to Cherrapunji, Meghalaya

About the authors

Eoghan Daly and Jili Strychnine hail from Ireland and India respectively. They are two ardent shoestring budget adventure travellers and have been travelling throughout Asia continuously for the past few years. Do visit their website for their stories, philosophy and mission.

All the photos are private properties of the individual photographers. Please don't use any image for your personal use without written consent from OK! North East.