Untraveling Hampi – Yabba-Dabba-Doo!

Untraveling Hampi
Untraveling Hampi!

I spent the last weekend (the Easter weekend), doing absolutely nothing in the humble little village of Hampi, and I can’t wait to go back! Having done my research, I traveled to Hampi prepared to be amazed by the “Land of boulders”, as it is popularly known. Once there, feeling ant-like in front of those giant, enormous, life-size, ancient boulders – here there and everywhere – where every rock, every boulder, and every ruined structure has a story to tell; Hampi took me back to my childhood days when I would be glued to my TV screen watching Fred and Wilma in their caveman outfits, riding in that tiny car with stone wheels, living in the cute little boulder’ish houses, taking pictures with the camera that had a hidden pecking ‘Da-Vinci’ bird. Is there any way to be sure Flintstones wasn’t shot in Hampi?

Hampi - The land of boulders
Hampi – The land of boulders

I won’t talk about the 500+ monuments Hampi is most famous for, because A) I’m not much of a sight-seeing person and you can easily read the zillion articles about it’s history online, and B) Hampi has much more character than just being a land of rock structures, and that’s what pulls me back! Situated in north Karnataka, a trip to Hampi – which is an overnight affair for Mumbaikars and Goans and just a 7 hour business from Bangalore – has something to offer to every traveler. Seekers of adventure may indulge in bouldering, cliff-diving, cycling on the treacherous hill-slopes, or taking a swim in the Tungabhadra (while being constantly alerted about the presence of crocodiles). It wins over off-beat travelers with its old-school charm maintained by preserving the flavor of a regular Indian village, and keeps history buffs entertained with centuries’ worth of stories. While on one hand it is a hippies’ paradise, filled with backpackers from around the globe, on the other it’s safe enough for you to travel with your family without feeling uncomfortable or out of place. If you’re bored of people suggesting Goa as a place to unwind (really guys, PLEASE be bored of Goa already!), I suggest you give Hampi a try!

Kids in Hampi posing for the shutterbugs!
Kids in Hampi posing for the shutterbugs!

Just throwing in a mythological fact here, Hampi is also known as the land of the Vanara Sena (Planet of the Apes) – a significant part of the Ramayana.

People here have very strong religious roots. The annual Rath Yatra of Hampi drew participation from each and every village in and around Hospet.
People here have very strong religious roots. The annual Rath Yatra of Hampi drew participation from each and every village in and around Hospet.

Oh, and did I mention it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Just a small, very insignificant detail.

Hampi - A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hampi – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

I made the mistake of visiting Hampi in the scorching summer heat. Be warned, it really is the worst time to visit, unless you’re chasing an easy sun-tan. You can’t cycle, sight-seeing will test all your patience, you don’t feel like eating because you just want to keep drinking lime juice ALL the time, and walking on the boulders is like walking on red hot iron. But even despite the heat, my 30 hour journey to reach Hampi due to a bus break-down, my ego-crushing attempt at cycling, and my phobia of water – I came back to Mumbai with a resolve to revisit Hampi after summers. Here’s why:

  • Read to your heart’s content – So one thing unique about Hampi is that this village has absolutely no network. And I’m not speaking about 3G, but general cellular network. Being a heritage site, Hampi can apparently not allow cellular companies to set-up mobile towers in the village, which though annoying at times, can really be a boon once you welcome the change. No calls, no msgs, no whatsapp, no twitter, no instagram! And if you’re lucky enough to be traveling alone, this means spending some genuine undisturbed quality time with books! Step into a Café, order a nice glass of banana coconut milkshake, dive into your novel and just don’t come out.
  • Perfect place for solo travelers – While meeting fellow travelers always tops my bucket-list while traveling to any place, doing so in Hampi was all the more treasured. With absolutely zero connection with the world outside this village, it’s very easy to go out of your way and join tables, or hitch rides with other backpackers. Add to that, the locals, who are so friendly and welcoming, that you won’t miss home in their presence! From a guesthouse owner who offered to let me stay for free, to a kind family that opened their home for a famished me after cycling in the heat, to people at a make-shift refugee camp who let me have lunch with them because they were so excited about seeing a solo Indian female traveler – I had the best experience with locals over my short stay.

    Goat curry with rice offered by the people at the camp set-up by villagers traveling for the Rath Yatra in Hampi.
    Goat curry with rice offered by the people at the camp set-up by villagers traveling for the Rath Yatra in Hampi.
  • Cycling trails – If, like me, you come from a city where cycling is only an activity you’ve left for the time you travel to Amsterdam – say Hello Hampi! You can go rent a cycle for a day for as cheap as Rs. 100. Full dislosure: Let me add here, the only reason I went to Hampi was because I read an itinerary that said you could cycle everyday, and despite all that excitement I failed miserably, as I couldn’t cycle to save my life. While I can blame the Hampi heat for my tragic attempt to re-ignite my love for cycling, I’m actually taking this up as a challenge. Next time I return, I’ll be fit enough to cycle around the village. Or at least I’ll try.
My rented ride parked at someone's house after I finally gave up trying to cycle
My rented ride parked at someone’s house after I finally gave up trying to cycle
    • Light on that wallet! – Rooms for Rs. 300 – 500 (will be highly hiked up during season time i.e. October onwards), cycle for Rs. 100, a plate of idli for Rs. 20, a large glass-full of mango milkshake for Rs. 90, a complete meal for under Rs. 150 – Hampi is a budget travelers heaven! If you’re traveling from Mumbai, you can take the bus for Rs. 1000 all the way to Hospet, a bus from Hospet to Hampi for Rs. 20 (or a rickshaw for Rs. 200), rent a cycle for Rs. 100 or a moped for Rs. 150 (goes up to Rs. 250 in season)­­­, cross the river by boat for Rs. 7 to the other side of Hampi, find a cheap guest-house / hut for yourself, and spend the weekend being absolutely lazy. A solo traveler can easily spend a weekend in Hampi in less than Rs. 4000, inclusive of travel; but if you really want to soak in the experience, I’d suggest you extend your trip to at least ten days!
Ancient yet modern, soaked in history, culture and travel tales – there’s a lot to see in Hampi!
  • Hippie heaven – As I mentioned earlier, Hampi is divided into two parts by a tiny lake, which can be crossed by a ferry ride which is shorter than the one between Versova and Madh Island. While on one side is the Hampi Bazaar, the Virupaksha Temple and all the possible major ruins of Hampi, the other side of the reservoir houses the quaint Anegundi village, endearingly known as the “hippie island”. You won’t see the Goa nonsense that’s usually associated to hippie’ness among Indian tourists, but a genuine, laid-back, peaceful life, underlined by the perfect co-existence of locals and backpackers. Anegundi has good roads (a singular road actually), perfect for taking your biking lessons, and view points where you can sit-back with coconut water and relish a perfect sunset. Indulge in activities like dread-lock making, lend a hand to the rural women making baskets and other handicrafts, take part in drum circles and impromptu jam sessions, or enjoy quiet evenings by the rice paddy fields. Café’s here let you smoke (not just cigarettes), and the music scene is not just playing music on speakers. It’s also common to come across foreigners who have been staying here for decades at stretch, which again speaks about how very comfortable this place really is. Meera the Belgian nun, staying here since 30 years, or the Italian baba – Ceaser – these foreigners are now Hampi locals, and so famous that travelers from across the world take appointments to meet them. Unfortunately, owing to my advance bookings, I had to stick to the bazaar side of Hampi, but my second visit will surely be an extended stay by the rice fields of Anegundi!
Trees, farms and perfect sunsets! Hampi – a land not just of boulders.

 

Notes:

  • The Land Out There organizes great weekend as well as extended backpacking trips to Hampi. If you don’t want to make the trip alone, I would highly recommend you get in touch with them!
  • Season time in Hampi is actually winters, i.e. post October, but I think monsoons here will be really beautiful. I will be basking in the glorious Himalayas this monsoon season, so I’ll give that experience a pass for this year. But if you’re looking for a monsoon escape, give Hampi a try!
  • The one guest house that stole my heart was the Shanthi Guest House, even though it’s slightly on the more expensive side.
  • The Hampi Festival, that takes place in January every year, seems to be a great time to visit this place, especially if you’re into travel photography.
  • To be honest, I didn’t make any efforts to try out the many food joints on both sides of the river. But from whatever I tried, and heard of, Mango Tree Cafe hands down wins the title for the best place to be.

 

Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!

 

A living wonder – Living Root Bridges of India!

The Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Nongriat in Cherrapunjee - Meghalaya, India.
The Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Nongriat in Cherrapunjee – Meghalaya, India.

Nestled in the North Eastern state of Meghalaya, is the humble little treasure of waterfalls called Cherrapunjee. A quick google image search of the city is enough to win you over with its incredible waterfalls and mind-blowing natural beauty.

But while the waterbodies of Cherrapunjee are the obvious attraction for tourists, I visited the city after monsoons when most of these water bodies were dry, and I still bought back memories for life! Why? Because hidden deep in the heart of Cherrapunjee, in a tiny little village of Nongriat, is a UNESCO heritage site, the single and double decker living root bridges!

Now a disclaimer before you read any further, visiting these bridges is not for the lazy/ casual tourists. It’s not a very difficult trek in the technical way, but it does need you to climb a lot of steps which will put your will-power and stamina to test, and I would not advise it for people with weak knees. But what I will promise, is once you make the resolve and go for it, all the effort will be totally worth it! Not just for the novelty of the destination, but also for the lovely sights and surprises the entire trek beholds. And the experience of walking on live root bridges that are grown – not built, is a memory that will always stay fresh in my mind, just like these bridges that grow stronger with age!

So, it was a fine Sunday morning when we started our trek from Tyrna village entrance, which was a 30-40 mins drive from our guesthouse (highly recommend this guesthouse too, warm hospitality and calm surroundings). I wish someone had warned us, but no one did, and we didn’t carry any food with us hoping to buy something on the way. But Cherrapunjee is completely cut-off on Sundays and we couldn’t find a single shop. Excited as we were, we still went ahead with the daunting trek.

Our lovely cottage at Sai Mika Resort, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya
Our lovely cottage at Sai Mika Resort, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya

Now I can possibly divide this trek into three parts: Reaching the first bridge, finding the others, crawling our way back home. Reaching the first living root bridge was comparatively the easiest, as we were going down the steps and we were all so eager to see this natural wonder that we really didn’t care about anything else. Throughout the trek, walking steeper and deeper inside the forests of Nongriat, trying to spot the elusive bridges at every turn we made, we were accompanied by interesting spotting of exotic birds and butterflies, giant spiders even, and water bodies that just take your breath away!

Giant Aragog-ish spiders enroute the living route bridges.
Giant Aragog-ish spiders enroute the living route bridges.
One of the many beautiful sights you encounter on the trek to the double-decker living root bridge.
One of the many beautiful sights you encounter on the trek to the double-decker living root bridge.

After walking for about 45 mins, we finally saw it! The longest root bridge, Ritymmen – beautiful as it was, it was also intimidating. The sheer length of the bridge and how strong it looked, with those roots all tangled up with each other to form the most trippy bridge you can expect, this is definitely a sight to behold.

The longest living root bridge - Ritymmen Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
The longest living root bridge – Ritymmen Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.

We chose to relax by the rocks near the lake here for some time, for a much needed break for photography and other important things, like giving our calf muscles some rest. After we thought we had soaked enough of the beauty in our minds, we made our way back through the same route to go find the famous double-decker bridge!

Now, if given a choice to do things differently, I would surely choose to not do this trek on a Sunday as we felt more and more demoralized each time we crossed a tea/food stall that was on a Sunday break, and we literally had to pull off the whole trek on an empty stomach, surviving only on Electral water. Enroute the double-decker bridge, we crossed a few smaller root bridges, but this time we didn’t stop for photographs, having already seen Ritymmen. But what is worth mentioning about this part of the trek, is the few steel suspension bridges over gorgeous waterbodies, which can sweep you off your feet and make you forget about the double-decker bridge and just set camp right here! Watching the pristine blue water of the lake flowing below your feet at a lightning speed, while you try walking on the bridge so many feet above, I must admit the experience can be a little nauseating and scary, but very overwhelming and adventurous at the same time.

Even though I'm not afraid of heights, walking on this bridge did make my head spin!
Even though I’m not afraid of heights, walking on this bridge did make my head spin!

After walking for what felt like 4 hours, but actually was only two, we finally finally found a food stall that was open (yayy!) Stopping for a quick maggi, we stocked up on biscuits and chips for our return trek, and just 5 mins from there was the gorgeous double-decker bridge – one of its kind the world over! We walked across both the levels of the bridge, and then took refuge by the side of the lake below, just sitting and admiring how gorgeous this place was. Unfortunately a few drunks around us were totally spoiling my moment of tranquility, so we chose to leave sooner than I would’ve liked.

Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Shot from the second level of the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Shot from the second level of the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Shot from the lower level of the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Shot from the lower level of the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.

Now it was time to go back and this has to be the worst part, and not because I wanted to stay and camp. Trekking onward to your destination is always easier as you’re excited about the adventure and experience, but the return trek is what kills you. This has to be the toughest trek I have ever done, trekking down a 2500 odd descent and back up, with around 7000 steps to cover back and forth, is no easy task. But once you complete it – there’s no happier feeling in the whole wide world!

The steps that kept magically increasing after every turn. Enroute the trek back from the living root bridges of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
The steps that kept magically increasing after every turn. Enroute the trek back from the living root bridges of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.

A little intel on the living-root bridges: These natural root bridges were such guided by the early-war Khasis to serve them for crossing massive streams. They are made from the roots of an ancient rubber tree – Ficus Elastica – that is native to the rivers and streams of North East India. They take 10-15 yrs to develop, and are so strong that some of them can carry 50+ people at one time. They are said to have a life span of around 500-600 years, and in fact, become stronger over time as they are live bridges.

 

Notes:

  • One can choose to visit the living root bridge in the village of Mawlynnong too. Now I couldn’t go there, but that place is also famous as the cleanest village in Asia. So it’s surely worth a trip! Also, for people who choose not to take the deathly trek, this one is your best bet as it’s easily accessible from the village. However, you won’t find a double-decker bridge here, that one’s only in Cherra!
  • If you’re staying at SaiMika Resort too, don’t forget to ask the manager Ataanu, to show you the secret waterfall at the back of the resort. It’s quite small, but it’s really beautiful and calming.
  • We hired a cab from Guwahati to Cherrapunjee, for Rs. 3000 per day. I wouldn’t recommend our driver, but what you can do is visit the Guwahati market in the morning from where you easily get shared cabs for Shillong. You can  then hire a car from Shillong to Cherrapunjee, as Shillong drivers are better acquainted with the place.

The entire North Eastern stretch of India is known for how well its people stay in harmony with nature, and they strive to preserve its cleanliness. If you’re traveling here, please make sure you respect their efforts, do not litter, and motivate your friends to do the same.