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Singapore – Getting There

At a Glance

 

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Singapore is a stunning and beautiful island strategically located in the heart of South East Asia which also happens to be world’s only island city-state. This breath taking island is one of the most popular and busy travel destinations in South East Asia. It is not only of great commercial interest but also a booming tourist destination as it sees travelers dropping in from all around the Globe.

Singapore boosts of an interesting mix of uber modern architectural marvels as well as age old temples and traditions. Not to be fooled by the size of this tiny island, it has a lot to offer with innumerable options to choose from. It is like a parallel universe residing together all in this small city.

On one side the city skyline is clouded with tall skyscrapers and modern state of the art structures such as Marina Bay Sands, a three-towered skyscraper that is a vital part of Singapore’s horizon, Resorts World Sentosa which is home to the very famous Universal Studios theme park, and the majestic Gardens by the Bay and many more such iconic places. On the other hand there are the humble century old buildings like the elegant Raffles Hotel still standing tall more than a century after being built. This island state was a former British trading post and colony and even after independence and the blend of cultures is ingrained in all aspects of life in Singapore.

The cultural blends are strongly visible in the food scenario most prominently. Cuisines from all around the world are available. Alongside world class fine dining restaurants offering international cuisines, the street food available here is also finger licking good. Due to its vicinity with other South East Asian countries the food culture in Singapore is an amazing confluence of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences. One can escape the hustle and bustle of modernity in Singapore by visiting the very exotic Chinatown and Little India to get a flavor of the neighboring Asian countries.

How to get there

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Visa & customs:  For information on visa requirements and the Visa Free Transit Facility, you can visit and check with the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority or the Singapore Overseas Mission in your city or country. The visa application form is available for free at all Singapore overseas missions. For detailed information and requirements for entry to Singapore you can visit the Official website for Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore

By Air: Changi Airport in Singapore is one of the most busy and well connected airports in the world. It sees over 100 airlines flying to more than 250 cities around the world. Most of the well-known international airlines have their operations in Singapore. Few local airlines operate from Singapore such as the renowned Singapore Airlines and budget airlines Tiger. The airport itself is very well maintained and conferred with many awards, it boosts of modern amenities and activities for tourists and travelers making it a world-class attraction in its own way.

By Sea: Singapore is an important port of commercial interest due to its strategic location in the heart of Asia; it is one of the world’s busiest cruise centers. Several cruise operators of various kinds like luxury, premium, and contemporary types operate from here. The newest is the Marina Bay Cruise Centre in Singapore which can accommodate the largest range of cruise liners.

By Road: Singapore is also very well connected by roads; it can be easily reached from West Malaysia through a scenic ride. Two checkpoints need to be crossed before entering Singapore; one is at Tuas in the west and Woodlands in the north. They both operate 24/7 facilitating ease of reach to Singapore via road.

Getting around Singapore:  Singapore has one of the best public transport systems in South East Asia, it is fast, efficient and world class and is well connected;  enough to make reaching the various places in Singapore easy and comfortable without much hassle.

By train: MRT (mass rapid transit) system in Singapore is definitely the most efficient and fastest way to commute around the city. The Rail network is extensive and connects almost all the key attractions in the city. Tickets can be bought for single trips, for a mix of both rail and bus network one can buy the Singapore Tourist Pass, a value card which will allow unlimited travel for one day (S$10), two days (S$16) or three days (S$20). Cards are available for purchase at the Transit Link Ticket Office at the following MRT stations: City Hall, Raffles Place, Ang Mo Kio, HarbourFront, Bugis, Changi Airport, Orchard, Chinatown, Lavender and Bayfront. The MRT stations and trains are well equipped with facilities to make travel smooth for wheel chair users, visually impaired, as well as families with strollers.

By taxi: Taxis are also frequently used and a common mode of transport especially for the places not accessible by buses or trains. Cabs run on meters, although it is advisable to check with the driver because a lot of them charge based on time, location and destination of travel and might also add surcharges depending of the company the cab belongs to. Make sure to ask for a receipt at the end of the trip. Taxis can be boarded from the roadside at most places, or by queuing for any of the taxi stands found at shopping malls, hotels and tourist attractions. Cabs can also be booked by calling at a common taxi booking number, 6-DIAL CAB (6342-5222), which than routes the call to any available taxi company’s call centre.

By bus: The most economically viable mode of transport in Singapore is the bus system which is extensively connected covering all routes to places in the city. It is also a great and comfortable way to explore and see the city also because most buses are air conditioned, a very important aspect for traveling in the tropical climate of Singapore. Singapore Tourist Pass is commonly used to pay for the bus travels by using the card reader located next to the driver as your board and exit. Cash payments are also accepted but need to be exact change amount.

Singapore Visitor Centre: Three Singapore Visitor Centres in ION Orchard, Orchard or Chinatown are available in case you need help. Information on tips and recommendations to plan your itinerary, purchase tickets to attractions and tours are available here, also you can pick up locally designed souvenirs and book accommodation for your stay.

To be continued in next post ‘Must Visit Places in Singapore’

Kashmir: At the time of Curfew – Part II

Day 2: Sonmarg

I had planned a more elaborate trip to Kashmir, but upon discussions with locals and the drivers I understood that Pahalgam and Gulmarg were not a safe place to travel during the ongoing curfew since it was pretty disturbed at the moment with stonepelting still continuing. Gulmarg which is famous for the Gondola ride was closed for close to 2 months at the moment. I also had a couple of days of stay booked in Pahalgam. Considering all this I dropped my plan to go to these places and instead decided to go to Sonmarg and  stay back in Srinagar for a day longer and made a plan change to go to Jammu instead. So on my 2nd day I headed to Sonmarg in the wee hours at 4:30 am, since usually everyone is asleep at that time and it helps avoid any commotion on the road that might happen during day time. So we travelled in the dark and on empty roads and it took us around 3 hours to reach Sonmarg with a few toilet and tea breaks in between. So by 7:30 am we reached Sonmarg. The air was cold and fresh and the view was magical. The sun had risen and its warmth was so comforting. After having my breakfast at a local stall.

I understood that usually one would hire a horse and a rider to take me uphill. So after negotiating we decided on Rs 1400 for a horse ride up and down the hill. As per locals this was a very cheap rate given the low tourist footfall. And so at around 8:30 am my splendid ride began with my horse named ‘Heer’ who was just 4 years old and quite a girl, she would gallop atimes and walk on the all the possible loose edges of the hill although there were broad paved roads right beside them, almost giving me a heart attack. Apparently the horses prefer to walk on the edges I was told.Phew!!!

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A herd of sheeps grazing at the foothills
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my pretty ride for the day ‘Heer’
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Beautiful valley

I should admit that within no time I and Heer befriended each other and soon the rider let me and her take the lead on our way up. Soon I was comfortable enough to be clicking pictures and enjoying my ride. We crossed locations where the recent movie ‘Bajrangi Bhaijan’ was shoot (Bollywood movie) and few others the horse keeper named that I don’t remember now. Soon we reached the drop off point from where I climbed a bit of the hill by foot where a huge cave was formed out of stacked frozen ice. After clicking some pictures, having some tea and snacks and resting a bit, while Heer had some water to herself we headed back downhill.

Once we reached I patted my beautiful black horse and bit adieu to the rider who too was a real nice person although we didn’t talk much during our ride. By the time we were back it was around 12:00pm and lunchtime.

I was interested in having Wazwan which is Kashmiri cuisine and I did find a comfortable local restaurant serving them luckily, unlike many which were closed and serving just basic food. I ordered Rista which is basically mutton balls in spicy gravy to be had with rice. After a good and super spicy wazwan we headed back. I stopped by for a bit of shopping at a government store on the way, where I also relaxed a little and had some kashmiri tea: Kahwa which is a specialty. This too was a great place to shop and more so since the shopkeeper was very sweet.

Finally at around 6 pm I was back at my house boat and the roads had a little more people than the day before, a few more shops were open. I rested a while and decided to go out for a stroll. It was comforting to see that a few shops were selling samosas and breads, was I walked down further I came across a big hospital due to which there were vans selling biryani and fried chicken. So yes, post 6 pm life was a little better than the morning for the locals here, I also saw a park fun of kids playing and I wished that the crisis in Kashmir would end soon.

Expenses:

Srinagar to Sonmarg by car and back: Exorbitant Rs 6000, due to the curfew. Usually they charge Rs 2500.

Sonmarg horse ride uphill and down: Rs 1400 per horse, usually during normal situation its more.

Continued…

Kashmir: At the time of Curfew

I have seen Kashmir in Bollywood movies and always wondered when I would get that chance to go there. It seemed like a piece of Europe in my own country India, enormous mountains, tall pine trees, rivers running in between the valleys, blue skies, shikara rides, gorgeous looking people and so much more beauty all in one place.

So I booked my flight and hotel tickets way back in the month of May to travel to Kashmir in September. September being a busy season in Kashmir and when I had booked my tickets in May the hotels were almost getting sold out. But as my luck would have it, curfew struck Kashmir in July. All the news channels and newspapers were flooded with news about the curfew. So I waited for a few months until August to check back on the situation, unfortunately not much had changed. Came September and a few days left for me to travel to Kashmir and by then the curfew had been on more that 50 days. With uncertainty and my wish to visit Kashmir, not knowing when next I would get a chance to travel to this beautiful place I decided to go ahead with my plans. I definitely did receive a lot of ‘are you crazy to go there now?’ type statements from various people I know. And so I did go..

As a result during my time is curfew stricken Kashmir I did end up busting a few myths about how Kashmir really is during curfew..Here is a detailed account of my days in Kashmir during curfew.

Day 1:

With an anxious heart and partially worried head I finally arrived at the Srinagar airport. I was greeted with the impact of curfew the moment I landed in the Srinagar Airport. While I was waiting for my luggage to arrive I happened to get acquainted with a local woman from there living in Delhi, we started chatting and boom came the question ‘What brings you to Srinagar?’, when she heard I was there travelling for leisure, she was totally livid! How could I plan to travel to Kashmir during the curfew, my reply as usual was that my tickets were booked way in advance and I wanted to take the chance. This was just one of those many discouraging conversations that followed later during my days in Kashmir.

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view from the flight

My houseboat owner arranged for my travel to the houseboat from the airport. On my way to the houseboat I noticed that all roads were totally barren and all the shops were closed. Except for the army personals there were no other people on the roads and not even one shop was open.  I reached my house boat and was greeted by the keeper with a warm smile. After taking some rest I discussed with the hotel people on what are the places I could visit.

The Mughal Gardens:

So for my first day I visited the Mughal Gardens. There are 4 gardens which make it up to the Mughal gardens. I would say a few of the gardens were beautiful with lovely blossoms of various kinds, although don’t expect too much, I must admit I was a little disappointed by a few too. None the less all of them are well maintained and have a heritage value so these are more than just gardens and rather monuments, lets put it that way.

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At the Mughal Garden
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All the lovely flowers in the Mughal gardens

Sankaracharya temple:

Next I went to the Sankaracharya temple, it’s a beautiful climb up the hills, it’s a 800 year old temple, clean and very well maintained, due to the curfew it was ONLY me who was there at that time, there were no tourists at all. And I loved the experience to be able to take in all the beauty all by myself. I realized I had not been in so much silence in a long time. The view from the top is breathtaking, the entire Dal lake and Srinagar could be seen from above, the peace and serenity of the place is contagious, I wish they would have let me click a picture of the view, I could not click any since it is a high security zone and cameras and phones are not allowed.

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Adoring the beautiful view from the view point on the way to Shankaracharya Temple

Sunset at Dal Lake:

On my way down, I spent some time at the Dal lake. The sun was setting and it was a mesmerizing view to behold, as the sun was setting the shikaras formed a silhouette and a perfect vision to take away with me for life.

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Mesmerizing sunset at Dal Lake

Shopping:

I planned to shop a little and since most of the shops were closed, our taxi driver took me to an underground store belonging to the co-operative, I must say the place was a steal, huge collection and very reasonably priced.  I almost bought everything in the shop! It should be a must visit place for anyone who plans to go shopping. I retired to the houseboat after this, on my way back I could see a few shops were open since the curfew would usually last from 6am – 6pm. Few shops were open and for a change I could see some locals on the streets which was welcoming to see. Although my plan to dine somewhere outside failed since all the eating places were shut down. So I settled in for a homely dinner at the house boat. I did enjoy my first day in curfew stricken Kashmir.

Details:

Airport to Houseboat transfer: Rs 500

Day tour of Srinagar: Rs 1500

Continued in Part II…Coming soon!

What not to miss in Darjeeling

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Darjeeling is absolutely one of my most favorite hill stations in India, the charm of this place is elegant and gracious. In my previous post I was busy admiring this place and only had enough time to write about my first impressions once I reached Darjeeling. Now it has been a week of me staying here and I think I am finally ready to write about what are the absolute have-to-visit or have-to-do places in Darjeeling. While I sip on to my cup of tea sitting here in the valley facing CCD cafe, join me in as I pen down my personal favorites here.


Momos
Ah!!! The momos one can eat in Darjeeling is unmatched. I don’t remember ever eating such heavenly momos anywhere else. The momos are served with red hot spicy sauce and a very clear chicken soup. The best ones I found where in the small dingy road side eateries lined up on the road around the Darjeeling railway station run by local people. No! do not get skeptical by looking at these places, they might look really shabby from the outside, the places are usually clean and really tiny with just enough space for 6-8 people to fit in but it’s the food they put on your plate that will leave you wanting for more. This is where I went and then went there again for 3 consecutive days and had my itinerary permitted I would have gone there everyday.

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Glenarys
The most famous bakery in town, also known as the Glenary’s Cake Shop is located at the ground floor of a beautiful white colonial building, its a typical British colonial building and very near to the Mall road. While the Restaurant is located upstairs, the bakery is on the lower floor, go there for the yummy breakfast, rolls, pies, pizzas, pastries, fruit & rum cakes and also freshly baked breads. The view from the cafe is breath-taking. Order a pot of Darjeeling tea and it almost feels like having a cup on tea sitting on the clouds. Also lookout for the red telephone booth, a perfect selfie location

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Red telephone booth inside the cafe
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Placed in one of the corners in the cafe
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View from Glenarys bakery

The Restaurant is equally regal and beautiful, famous for its continental food, order with a glass of wine to enjoy the feel for colonial life.

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Wine for three 🙂 @Glenarys
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Restaurant in Glenarys on a casual evening

Keventers

Popular for being featured in some of the recent Bollywood movies, it is located facing the Clock tower. I have never had a sausage platter so big and so huge in my life. A foodies paradise. USP huge quantity, sausage platter for breakfast with breads and Darjeeling tea. Overlooks the clock tower. The terrace is the best place to find a table.

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The famous sausage platter
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View from the terrace in Keventers
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Look out for one of the ship shaped building from the terrace in Keventers

Mall Road

As many hill stations in India, Darjeeling too has the mall road lined up with shops selling rich authentic local handicrafts and jewellery. I bargained to buy really gorgeous jewellery and artifacts

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The usual scene from Mall Road

Toy Train

Well Toy Train is heritage and a ticket is hard to find unless booked in advance and pretty damn expensive too. My advice ditch the Toy train, take a train from Darjeeling station to Ghoom and back to get a flavor of the a train journey on the hills by the tea gardens. (Although this is my personal opinion)

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The world famous Toy Train
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Ghoom or Ghum Railway station

Mountaineering Institute & Zoo

Usually I don’t do the usual places like zoo when visiting a place, but this one is different. The Mountaineering Institute houses all the clothes and equipments used by the very first climber Tenzing Norgay and their team and also a detailed description of the route and their journey followed by them. In the Zoo specifically look out for the Red Panda lazying around.

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Himalayan Zooligical park
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The super lazy Red Panda

Rope-way ride

The  Cable Car is a must see only because it allows majestic views of the acres of the tea garden which looks like a green carpet from above. To me it seemed like a trip into a Jurassic Park scenario. We reached  here to board the cable car from Singamari which is approx. 3kms away from Darjeeling Chowk Bazaar.
The ride is about 45 minutes and on an altitude of about 7,000 ft. down to 800 ft. where the last station Singla Bazar is located.

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View from the rope way on rainy day
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The green carpets of tea garden from the rope way as can be seen below
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Into the clouds

Cup of Darjeeling Tea

And finally nothing beats having cup after cups of Darjeeling tea sitting in Darjeeling. The Mall road is lined up with tea cafe come shops like Nathmulls , Golden Tips which serves Darjeeling tea plus all forms of tea related things like cups, sets, pots etc. Look out for the tea cups with strainers with beautiful dragon paintings on it.(below pictures taken in Nathmulls)

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This is a tiny tea set, one of the many beautiful things available in the tea shops
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Alas! Darjeeling Tea


Darjeeling – My Muse

Darjeeling – My Muse

As a kid I remember waking up to the beautiful aroma of Darjeeling tea everyday along with morning chatter and my Dad sipping on to it while reading the newspaper. It is since then that ‘Darjeeling‘ has enchanted me. When I grew up, inevitably I too took to this drink as my favorite cup of tea. I had visited Darjeeling on many occasions earlier as a kid but that was more of a holiday with family. This year I am visiting Darjeeling again after 12 years, but this time it is with a different mindset, it is with the knowledge that this is the place which was the reason for my morning enchantment as a kid and continues to be, it is  with desire to see the hills that bear them.

Darjeeling is classically beautiful, it is beauty that never ages, it is evergreen  and elegant.

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Sign board on the road way up the hills

As I drove up towards Darjeeling from the Bagdogra Airport in a taxi few hours ago, the spiral hilly roads only added to my anticipation of seeing this old colonial hill city yet again, which was once the summer resort for the British during their rule in India. It is the British influence that I could immediately seen once I reached Darjeeling.

I will skip the part on where and which hotel I checked into because I will detail about my hotel & details of my stay in a following blog post as and when I travel around Darjeeling, since Darjeeling cannot be talked about in only one blog post. In this post I only want to sink into admiring this hill city right now as I stand there. I checked into my hotel a while ago, it is almost sun down now. In the same airport taxi I got dropped off at the next place I could not wait to get to, the Mall Road. Mall Road is a small stretch of road which ends with a huge open space with a stage at the very end which has an enormous live screen playing amazing music videos along side it. The place is busy with tourists and locals lazying around either sitting on the side benches or on the stairs to the stage. There are many horse keepers ready with their horses to take people for a ride around the mall road for a nominal charge. The place is so infectious as if it is inviting me to come, sit, stay and just stop for a while and take a break. Just down the road is the ‘Clock Tower’ with this huge clock standing tall in the heart of the city. It immediately reminded me of some Bollywood movies that were shot around the clock tower (latest Bollywood movie being ‘Barfi‘).

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Clock Tower in Mall Road

As I strolled past the several antique stores by the road the clouds came descending down to kiss me as if to say ‘you are welcome back’.  There is a CCD cafe right in the heart of the mall road facing the valley below.

For now I am sipping onto a lovely cup of Darjeeling tea sitting on a couch telling you all about my first few hours in Darjeeling, while I watch the clouds form a garland in the valley below and I contemplate on my itinerary for my stay of next few days in these hills whom I call ‘My Muse‘.

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Garland of clouds as clicked from the CCD cafe

 

The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya

Last year during one of my trips to Meghalaya, I happened to learn about the Living Root Bridges from one of our taxi drivers, not only did the name find my interest, but the way the taxi driver described it was equally interesting and fascinating.

So once I got back I googled and read a lot about it. The more I read the more I wanted to go visit this mysterious place. So finally after a little bit of planning I took off to this majestic place.

Meghalaya’s double-decker and single-decker root bridges are unique in the world and one of its kind. The bridges are a brilliant examples of bio-engineering. The secondary roots of the Ficus Elastica trees are entangled in such a way, done so by the Khasi people ages ago, that after many years they grow across streams or tiny rivers to form what we now see as the Living Root Bridges. These root take around 15-20 years to grow into bridges strong enough to hold many people together.

Reaching this place:

Well, to begin with this place is not the easiest to reach. Reaching Guwahati is easy, Guwahati is one of the most prominent cities in the  North-East of India, it is well connected by air, rail and bus to all major cities and also some international locations. Once you reach Guwahati, you have the option of either going to Shillong or Cherrapunji directly, we chose to go to Shillong as it is my obvious favorite place to stay. Shillong is the capital city of Meghalaya, the state where the Living Root Bridges are located. From Guwahati airport there are several options of transport. My suggestion, if you are alone or 2-3 people, take the Winger service, its basically a big traveller van, spacious and comfortable for a 3 hour journey. They charge Rs 400 per person for an air conditioned winger service. If you are a larger group, hire a car for Rs 2000. We stopped at Nongpo for tea and snacks, Nongpo again is famous for its various pickles available for sale there, we saw an abundance of pickles of various types, my favorite one was the fish & bamboo pickle. I found the rates at the restaurants not very cheap and the food not very yummy, but it works fine as a stop over. On your way we passed the Bora Pani lake, one of the largest lakes and very beautifully maintained, it is kept really clean as well. It took us a good 3-3.5 hours to reach Police Bazaar in Shillong. After a quick check in into our hotel in Police Bazaar, we took to the streets of Shillong in the evening. Police Bazaar is the main hub in Shillong and one can find several taxis and drivers standing there in the taxi stands. As soon as we approached one of the drivers we had a crowd of drivers ready to bargain. We fixed one taxi at Rs 1500 to take us to and fro from the Living Root Bridges. It was a good bargain since it was monsoon season and off season at this time of the year. Usually one can expect the hired taxis for 4 people to cost Rs 2000 – 2500.

Next day we started our journey to the Living Root Bridges at 8:00 am after breakfast. Since we were travelling in the month of August, we were greeted pleasantly by heavy rainfall and why not so, Meghalaya is after all the land of the rains. The roads were not as bad as we had assumed them to be. Apart from a few landslides on the way which caused no harm to the roads, we also came across several tiny waterfalls formed due to heavy rainfall, after which we reached Sohra. Post Sohra the road gets a little bumpy as we took a right turn which headed towards Tura village. It is not even a proper road, it is basically washed out due to heavy rainfall. In total it took us 3 hours to reach Tura, the village from where the trek to the bridges start.

At the Living Root Bridges:

When we reached, the rains had subsided, you we found a couple of shops at the beginning of the stairs going downwards, selling biscuits, chips and one could also hire a local guide if required for around Rs 500, which might be bargained to Rs 400 for a to and fro trip to the Living Root Bridges and back.

We started our trek with the local guide, who unfortunately only spoke his local language and broken English. The first few flight of stairs are properly cemented, wide stairs. As you further walked ahead the stairs start getting narrower until we reached a flight of twisted stairs taking a plunge downwards providing majestic views of the hills around with multiple natural waterfalls found during monsoon season.

Double Decker Root Bridge
On the way
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On my way downhill
Way to the Bridge

We found the local guide helpful since he voluntarily helped us carry one of our bag packs. And since it was raining non-stop there were no locals around to ask for directions, so we definitely would have got lost since the direction markings were not very proper and lets not even talk about GPS guidance.  After a certain stretch of stairs we reached a rocking hanging wire bridge, with water gushing below it, it was and absolute thrill crossing it I must say.

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Our local guide holding on to one of our backpacks 🙂
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Thats me!
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and a few more..

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Steel Hanging bridges
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Braving the hanging bridges

In total there are 2 hanging steel bridges we had to cross and a series of unpaved natural stairs to reach the magnificent Living Root Bridges. It took was 1.5 hours to reach to the bottom inclusive of considerable time we spent clicking pictures in the hanging bridges and around. We spent a good 2-3 hours there soaking in the surroundings and admiring the intelligence of these ancient people who had mastered the art of using natural resources of engineering.

On our way up we stopped by a local shop selling tea and omelette.  Although funny thing the lady did not know how to make an omelette, so we helped her make one. It took us 2 hours to climb back up the 3000 stairway.

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Small tea shop run by local people
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The local woman making the omelette finally after we taught her how to make it. YAY!

I felt this beautiful piece of bio-engineering was way under hyped and not known to a lot of people even in my own county India. I hope more people take a journey to this beautiful bridges, it is once in a life time experience for sure.

Some more snaps from my trip:

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Serene and quiet amidst nature!
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Our umbrellas taking some rest as the rain stopped
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The Root Bridges from the upper deck
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Never ending stairs
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Tiny Pineapple tree
A local place ‘Serene Homestay’, could be booked for a few nights if one intends to stay here instead of moving back to the city. This place is the only one home stay here and a pretty popular place for tourists to stay as well. Details and phone no. of the place available in the picture

 

 

 

I would recommend staying @ Review: Eee Cee Hotel