The ‘Scotland of the East’ / by David Johnstone

Into Meghalaya, North East India

Bangladesh to Meghalaya, North East India - 1st to 6th March 2018

I arrived at the border post in Tamabil, Bangladesh having previously been to neighbouring Jaflong the day before (the boulder-crushing place). It’s always exciting to cross land borders - flying from one country to the next is a somewhat staid affair and you can’t get any sense of moving through different cultures and landscapes by air. Land borders are where it’s at. 

Exiting Bangladesh

Exiting Bangladesh

After a few formalities, a rabid dog-fight and a spot of tea, I said my goodbyes to Arafat who’d accompanied me by taxi and, with it, Bangladesh. I was sad to leave both behind. Arafat is a great guy and a knowledgable guide and it was good spending time with him at his family home in Sylhet, haircut and all, and I was grateful for the stellar work he did in getting my visa extended. Bangladesh had proved a real gem, magical and undiscovered, full of warmth and curiosity, pure travel gold. But it was time to move on. 

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Arriving on the Indian side, things went without incident and I was soon in a shared car heading through Meghalaya towards it’s capital Shillong, an old British hill station. I took the journey with a Bengali family of three and it wasn’t too long before I was surprisingly being offered Bell’s and coke which I drunk with vigour. It turns out the father - his name escapes me - was a journalist, expelled from Bangladesh in the 90s but back again attempting to run for parliament. He promptly fell into an inebriated sleep, letting off silent-but-deadlies throughout. As we spun through steep mountain passes, steadily rising as the thermometer fell, it felt a long way off from the sweltering plains of Bangladesh.

I arrived in Shillong just as dusk approached. It was cold. Cold and wet. A shock to the system. I hadn’t seen rain since I’d departed the UK on Christmas Eve. Meghalaya goes by the oft-repeated nom-de-guerre, ‘The Scotland of the East’ on account that it’s mountainous and pisses it down for 8 months of the year. Spot on there. 

I’d booked the Hotel Indiana for $35 bucks a night, situated in a warren of alleys and lanes called Police Bazar in the centre of the city. Intending on spending just a couple of days here, I was fairly diffident at the lack of facilities, warm water, poor wifi and incessant noise. I wandered around, found a ‘wine shop’ (basically a barred hole-in the-wall serving warm tinned beer and local whisky - and there’s not many of these shops around either) and settled in for the night.

My plan was to get an Indian SIM card next day, explore the town then head off south to the beauty spots of Sorha/Cherrapunjee ASAP. But things didn’t quite work out like that. They never do. 

These candy-floss sellers looked how I felt

These candy-floss sellers looked how I felt

 Meghalaya goes by the oft-repeated nom-de-guerre ‘The Scotland of the East’ on account that it’s mountainous and pisses it down for 8 months of the year

 

Next day I headed to the AirTel store to pick up a SIM. No such luck. Unlike Myanmar and Bangladesh, I would have to go through several layers of pointless bureaucracy to even begin the process and it would take me several days before that happened.

To add to the frustration, there were elections in Meghalaya and with plebiscites comes problems in most developing countries so everything was shut - including the wine shop. It was time to take stock of things, breath deeply and relax in the knowledge that I have time on my side. Patience is most definitely virtuous on occasion.

My morning routine in Shillong  -  great coffee

My morning routine in Shillong - great coffee

Most of my five days in Shillong were spent reading the papers, taking a coffee, exploring the town and eating - it was pretty impossible to do anything but sleep in the hotel room. Shillong itself, or at least Police Bazar, was quaint enough with hawkers selling their wares and etching out a living with the ubiquitous jumble of badly built, ramshackle buildings sitting akwardly toe-to-toe with modern carbuncles. The people here are a mix of tribal (Garo, Jantai and Khasi) and Indian (Hindus in the main) and it did feel fairly cosmopolitan. It was also a relief to be mostly ignored, the opposite from the intense curiosity I encountered in Bangladesh (I kind of missed that too).

By the Tuesday afternoon, as the taxi picked me up to drive me south to Cherrapunjee, I was relieved to get out of there. I also had an Indian number and credit too. I’d be heading back soon enough - though not to the Hotel Indiana - as there’s no real road network in the south that traverses east or west, no rail and no airport. All road lead to and from Shillong.