A solo cycling trip in the Northeast&mdashI&rsquod always imagined myself doing something crazy like this. But as I didn&rsquot have a bicycle, I never thought it would ever happen. Even when Trek asked me to test their Marlin 7 mountain bike.
I had no experience in long-distance cycling. So they offered me one-on-one training to understand the bicycle, and taught me how to fix it if it broke down in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, it seemed the universe was conspiring to make my insane fantasy real. Now the only question that remained was where was I going
I booked a flight to Guwahati, still undecided on my exact route. I had three options from Assam to Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh), to Bhutan, or to Meghalaya. I packed everything I needed from a sleeping bag to a tent, laptop, camera, clothes and other essential stuff I&rsquod even spent days downloading music and creating playlists for the journey. And, of course, the bicycle.
The Marlin 7 is easy to dismantle. It comes with a quick-release mechanism that removes the wheels from the frames without needing any tools, while the handlebar is easily removed by loosening four screws. The super lightweight Alpha Silver aluminium frame, the wheels and handlebar fit snugly into a box&mdasha total of 14 kilograms.
By the time I arrive in Guwahati, my heart is set on Meghalaya. After a brief stop, I put my bicycle together, rearrange all my stuff in panniers and a backpack, and set off on my great adventure.
The first leg of my tour takes me from Guwahati to Shillong. But it isn&rsquot a good start. Trucks and cars whizz past at 90 to 120 kilometres per hour and giant factories belch smoke along the busy highway. For a moment, I regret not waiting another year and heading for the Himalaya. But, before I know it, I&rsquove done 40 kilometres and am riding along the Assam&ndashMeghalaya border.
My first stop of the day is at a small eatery by the highway, run by three Khasi sisters. Inside, a sign proclaims &ldquoNo beef&rdquo next to a portrait of Mother Teresa. My appearance arouses curiosity among the other patrons&mdashthey check out my bicycle and wonder what I&rsquom doing here. When I tell them, they all laugh. &ldquoNo, no, you can&rsquot make it to Shillong like that&mdashit&rsquos too far and too risky,&rdquo one guy says. He offers to take me and my cycle all the way there in his jeep and I am seriously considering it. Before I can decide, one of the restaurant owners steps in. &ldquoYou can do it,&rdquo she says. &ldquoIf you&rsquove made it this far, you can go another 60 kilometres.&rdquo I decide to take her word for it.
But then, I haven&rsquot taken the altitude into account. I will be gaining more than 1,200 metres, with 25 kilograms of luggage to haul. Also, the sun sets almost two hours earlier in many parts here. As I inch my way along slowly, I wonder how long this is going to take me.
Progress is slow but steady. The 27-speed Marlin 7 is smooth, even the 60- to 70-degree uphill turns where motorists struggle. My weight and that of my luggage are well distributed and, for the first time, I relax as darkness and silence descend on the highway. There are no streetlights and I can see neither turnings nor road signs. The traffic has fallen off and it is peaceful.
At 8pm I still have another 20 kilometres left, and nowhere to go but ahead. Finally, I pull up at Isabella Hostel in Shillong, after 12 hours on the road, shattered and dehydrated. My first day of my first solo, long-distance cycling trip is over, and I have travelled 100 kilometres.
No Pain, No Gain
After giving myself a rest day in Shillong, I set off towards Nongriat, some 65 kilometres away. The highlight of this leg is my first bicycle crash. I go steeply uphill for five kilometres to arrive at Upper Shillong. The ever-changing landscape and effortless pedalling lulls me into distraction. I&rsquom flying downhill, the wind in my hair and music in my ears. I have no power to prevent what happens next.
I lose my balance and in the split second before I crash, I think that this is the end of my trip. The momentum of the crash makes the bicycle careen away from me. A few scratches but we&rsquore unharmed. My heart is pounding and the adrenaline rush is making me warm.
As I get up and get ready to move on, someone shouts at me from a moving car, &ldquoNo pain, no gain&rdquo
I yell back &ldquoYeah.&rdquo
I want to make it to Tyrna, a small village in the East Khasi Hills, before sunset. From here Nongriat will be a three-kilometre trek, on foot, that is. It is a steep downhill ride in rocky terrain to reach Tyrna and I have to be very careful. I have butterflies in my tummy&mdasha little tentative because I&rsquom afraid of losing control. It is a test for the Marlin 7 as well, but the bicycle doesn&rsquot skid, the front and rear hydraulic discs keeping it stable when I press the brakes. I feel no slipping or jerking, thanks to the RockShox front suspension.
I park my bicycle at a house in Tyrna. The residents are happy to keep it for me till I return from Nongriat. I am reluctant to part with it, but unless I plan to hoist it on my shoulders and trek through a dense forest, there is no other option.
Bed Tea With A Forest View
Three days later, though, we are reunited. I am happy to see the bicycle&mdashI realise it&rsquos not just my trip, it&rsquos ours. I decide to give it a name, Kali, because it&rsquos black. Being on a bicycle is liberating&mdashyou can go anywhere anytime, and it&rsquos free. I decide on Wahkhen as my next destination. My aim is to do the Mawryngkhang trek, which takes you over unique bamboo bridges built by locals over deep gorges to the legendary King of Stones. It is known as the scariest trek in Meghalaya&mdashwith good reason.
Kali and I enjoy the lush green countryside. When we spot colourful snakes, frogs and chameleons dead on the highway, we stop to bury as many as we can. Sixty-four kilometres later, we reach Wahkhen, late but safe. There is no accommodation available, since tourists don&rsquot usually stop here. There is a language barrier and I struggle to sign to the villagers that I need a place to stay for the night. Eventually, Bollywood is my saviour. I meet a 15-year-old who loves Hindi movies, and he knows enough Hindi to allow Kali and me to bed down in the tea shop. Waking up the next morning is surreal&mdashin the middle of a forest, in a tea shop, a new meaning to bed tea.
Off The Beaten Track
It is Sunday and the entire village is headed to the most surreal church imaginable, under a huge piece of blue sky and on a vast bed of green. Meghalaya is predominantly Christian, the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes introduced to the religion by the British in the 18th century. Families, dressed in their best, spill out of their tiny wooden houses, and gather on the winding roads. What a day it is to be out&mdashkids come running to admire Kali (while the Khasi girls check me out). All this would have been impossible had I not been on a bicycle. I am convinced now that cycling through Meghalaya is the best decision I have ever taken.
The further we go, the more we want to explore all the way to the India- Bangladesh border at Shnongpdeng, 69 kilometres away. We cross Dawki and arrive at the border, stopping for some selfies with the border guards. Shnongpdeng village, another eight kilometres away, is first approached on a busy highway where heavily loaded trucks ply between India and Bangladesh.
Once we leave the highway and take the road going down to the village, we find ourselves in a tropical forest with palm-sized butterflies, massive spiders, and juicy pineapples. I can&rsquot resist picking the last for the ride.
After checking into a small homestay, I walk down to the banks of the Dawki and sit there till night falls, covering the forest in starlight. I know our trip is over&mdashthere is nowhere further to go&mdashbut I can&rsquot bear the thought of saying goodbye.
Kali and I will spend the next couple of days here before we pedal back to Shillong. From there we will go to Guwahati to catch the flight back to Delhi. But I know that I will be doing this again soon. Serendip, maybe
Where to Stay
SHILLONG Isabella Hostel is a good option. Book in advance. ( 91- 8014204496, Mimi aunty)
NONGRIAT Serene Homestay (91-9477870423, Byron)
SHNONGPDENG Halatong Tourist Homestay (91-873109653)
It is best to book in advance and online (check booking.com).
What to See & Do