Human nature is sometimes funny. A few weeks ago we were craving for rough riding, tough adventure and rustic accommodation. Fifteen days and 3,500 km later (and what kind of kilometres!), we are in love with our comfy guesthouse in Shillong and — let’s admit it — quite reluctant to move out! I guess it’s temporary and given a few more days of comfort and recovery we would surely be ready to taste the rough again. Unfortunately our journey is coming to an end — Kalki has to be back in Bombay for the promotion of her latest film “Waiting” — and we decide to spend our last 2 days in Shillong, with a few excursions in the neighbourhood. No more hard-core riding! Or so we thought…
We had heard of this place some 15 km away from Shillong, where some insane characters strapped into weird 4-wheel-drive off-road vehicles, are said to be climbing impossible slopes and sailing through impossibly deep slush. Since we had acquired this new taste for slush (refer to “day 7 – Majuli Island”), it was definitely worth paying a visit.
The name of the nearby village is Smit, and that’s where we are headed first, to spend some time recording our two last days of video diaries, in a Khasi compound with this traditional and very picturesque building — a very large hut, more specifically — entirely made out of wood, including the nails (!). In this compound, the Khasi celebrate the annual “shad Nongkrem”: Ka Pomblang Nongkrem or Shad Nongkrem is the most important and elaborate festival of the Khasi in Meghalaya. This five-day long colourful festival, is held annually in November at Smit, the capital of the “Khyrem Syiemship” near Shillong. It is an occasion for thanksgiving to the all-powerful Goddess Ka Blei Synshar for a rich harvest and prosperity of the people. An important part of this festival is the Pomblang ceremony (decapitation of goats, brrr..), at which goats offered by subjects to the “Syiem” of Khyrem, are sacrificed and offerings are made to the ancestor and ancestress of the ruling clan and the deity of Shillong peak (U-Lei Shillong). The “Syiem” is the administrative head of the Hima (Khasi State). “Ka Syiem Sad”, the eldest sister of the king is the chief priest who presides over the ceremonies (I believe the Khasi social system is strongly matriarchal). A sanctification ceremony of the Tangmuri (flute) as queen of the musical instruments, form part of the ritual. After the religious rituals, on the fourth day, Khasi men and women, dressed in traditional splendour, perform the famous Nongkrem dance.
Having completed this bit of local social education and backtracking a few kilometres, we ride to the off-road place under the rain again, to meet these hard-core drivers, and they are grinning: it’s pouring! more mud! deeper slush! more happiness! Of course as soon as Kalki sees the steep track, she has one of her typical fits “Oh no way! There is NO WAY that I can drive over THAT!”. I insist and suggest that she does a tour of the track with an instructor who seems to be the local champion, Shawn. She accepts and comes back, not surprisingly, enlightened. As for myself I feel relatively comfortable with the vehicle — having owned one Willis Jeep and 2 Gypsys in succession during my hang gliding era — and Shawn’s vehicle is a highly modified Gypsy: caged cabin, reinforced suspension, huge all-terrain tires, improved clutch etc.. However what gives me the chills is the horrifying gradients that we have to go through, both on the way up and down (which is even more scary). After a little more practice time, both Kalki and me decide to do a friendly timed-race on the circuit, but of course we will have the instructor on the left seat just in case we put ourselves into some nasty situation (no, I don’t want to roll down THAT slope!). Kalki dons her helmet and starts first.
To my surprise she is no longer this meek girl, but she aggressively attacks the track, pedal on the metal like a devil (poor Shawn must be having the fright of his instructional career). In a matter of seconds, her full throttle bouncing vehicle disappears behind a hillock and we can only wait in anticipation. A couple of minutes pass on, and the rakshasi-driven car suddenly pops out from behind the hill on the return track, bouncing more madly than ever. I can’t believe my eyes (has she been cheating somewhere?) as she crosses the finish line with a final engine roar, timed at 3 minutes 45 seconds. My god, this girl is hot and boy, I am in trouble here… Utterly convinced that I cannot compete and that this is a lost cause, I somehow equip myself, sit in the monstrosity on wheels, fasten my seatbelt and hit the gas pedal. Above the engine roar my instructor, Demetrius, yells such commands as “shift into 2nd!”, “brake! brake now!”, “ease the clutch!”, “watch out for that tree, George!” etc.. And so, virtually remote-controlled by Demi who might be trying to prove his student can beat Shawn’s, I manage to handle all the obstacles, particularly that vicious offset alignement of 2 feet deep potholes filled to the brim with viscous red mud. Having survived an almost vertical downhill drop, at last appears the final straight to the finish where my helmet keeps banging the roll bars while Demi keeps yelling “hit it!, hit it!” and we cross the line. I am panting and sweating in the drizzle and my spine feels like a broken tree. Then comes the stopwatch’s result: 3 minutes 15 seconds, yeah.. unbelievable, I beat the hot girl!
Just as we are hitting back the highway while leaving Smit, we come across a group of about 15 bikers — part of the “Free Riders” group of Shillong — with whom we strike a friendly conversation. Within minutes we find ourselves invited to tag along to wherever they are headed, for a campfire on the shores of a nearby lake, Kyrdemkhla, and so we happily join the bandwagon. As it happens, a heavy downpour starts, accompanied by a thick all-pervading fog, and worse, the “nearby” lake turns out to be at least 30 km of pathetic roads away! Poor Kalki who is not wearing her weatherproof jacket gets literally wet to the bone: it looks like, we aren’t through yet with the hard-core riding, after all… Fortunately the fire is promptly started under a shed and we all dry up quickly, while singing — mostly out of tune — old songs of Bob Dylan and other hits from this era, accompanied by a sketchy guitar.
And we are finally back in Shillong late in the night, where we had been invited for dinner at the home of Fashion Designer Daniel Syiem: although late and tired, we are happy to honour him by dropping-in like wet rats. We will not regret it, for we are served scrumptious local dishes cooked by himself and friends — and lo! no question of silkworm or blood pudding today… What a wonderful hospitality again!
Read more about Daniel in tomorrow’s Day 13 post, where we will find ourselves exposed to different, modern aspects of Shillong’s culture…
JK (with Alethea’s contribution)
(to be continued…)
Do not miss the upcoming “Great Escape with Kalki”, to be aired in 8 episodes on FOX life TV Channel next August.