A trip to the Umngot river took a sudden turn.
I went over to the other side. I would have gone swimming if it wasn’t for all the water. So now I can actually add Bangladesh to the list of countries I have visited, even if I was there for a fleeting ten minutes. It was a bonus over and above what I had set out for - a boat ride on the magnificent Umngot River, flowing seamlessly between the two countries.
The nooks and corners of the river during the boat ride
The moment I saw the photos of the river in the border village of Dawki, I bookmarked it to my wish list. And as things unfolded, I was there within a month.
The sparkling green river turns Dawki into a destination instead of a mere transit point, bustling with organised chaos. Smoky cross-border trucks wade through the tiny bazaar; a few dhabas are the only places to grab a decent bite. The border security forces remain mired in their daily routine, politely posing for selfies every now and then taken by amused tourists, including me.
Borders can be strange and yet there was an air of peaceful coexistence at Dawki, an unspoken bond, where the locals and tourists from both sides come to enjoy the non-motorised boat rides.
The water looks different from every angle
The drive to Dawki
I hired a cab from Cherrapunji, a four-hour drive down Tyrna village, from where the trek to the root bridges at Nongriat starts.
Except for some bumpy roads, the drive was quite appealing as I passed through the valleys at the Mawkdok Bridge and the stately mountains harbouring virgin coniferous forests.
I had the same driver throughout, who charged me Rs.3000 for the entire route, starting at Tyrna, to Dawki and finally ending at Shillong. I thought it was a fair deal. The driver, Khem, was quite young and looked as if he had just got his license. His cousin had also tagged along for the Dawki trip. Well, more the merrier! I observed rampant quarrying of stone, sand and logs and wondered how much of it was legal.
We made some pit stops on the way and reached Dawki around afternoon.
At first, I was a little confused because the river didn’t look anything like the pictures. The aerial photos gave the illusion of boats suspended in mid-air over a sparking Umngot. In reality, it was an expanse of swathes of white sand, tributaries zigzagging through it that reminded me of river Nila in Kerala.
As I wondered if I was in the right place, the exotic part of the river surfaced, but it wasn’t until the boat ride that I would experience the true essence of the river.
By now touts were already trying to hustle me into taking boat rides. They were charging Rs.700. I wanted to check out the border and grab some lunch so I told them that I’ll be back if they offer me a better price.
The suspension bridge across the river can’t hold much
We drove across an ancient suspension bridge that had warning signs indicating its weakness – ‘One vehicle at a time’. Passing through the main market area, we arrived at the check post that was dotted with cargo trucks waiting to cross over. Khem and his cousin were there for the first time too and behaving like excited tourists.
There was an officer, Komal Singh, who was stationed right at the border and looked friendly, despite the automatic weapon slung across his shoulder. I went up to him with my best smile and enquired if I could cross the border. He said that depended on his Bangladeshi counterparts and allowed me to check with them. Even though their immediate response was negative, they eventually agreed. By being at the check post, I was technically already in Bangladesh.
With the Bangladeshi border security force officer. His Indian counterpart in the background
I strolled into another country as if it were my backyard. I understood why there were so many illegal immigrants on our side. The border was too porous and it was just too easy.
I spent my ten sacred minutes in Bangladesh walking around and trying out street food. The vendors were friendly, although I wasn’t sure about the hygiene. After trying some pickled berries, we thanked the officers and crossed back to India for lunch.
We headed back to the river where I bumped into some Indian travellers I’d met earlier at my homestay in Nongriat. I found out from them that their boat ride had only cost Rs.400. The men around heard this conversation and offered me a ride at the same price, realizing they were had.
With Bangladeshi street vendor Mohammed
The boat ride was therapeutic. The calm green waters cut through weathered rocks on either side as it flowed relentlessly. A brief spell of rapids gushed into one end of the river, while the other end branched into a riverbed of white sand. Unfortunately for the Bangladeshis, their side of the river wasn’t this exquisite, which was separated by a rope across the river’s length.
I pictured the river as a stream of crystal clear water dotted with laidback anglers and solitary fisher folk, and realized how in the larger scheme of things a border was just a reclining spot for the people of two countries.
The drive back to Shillong was chilly and we helped ourselves to some smoked pork on the way. Shillong is lovely, especially the police bazar area. The streets were littered with shops selling food, jackets, shoes and other things. I had only one night there as my flight back to Mumbai from Guwahati was the next day. Luckily, I found a decent budget hotel inside a charming colonial building.
Local band belts out during the Coldplay tribute night
I decided to go with the flow and promised myself Khasi food at Trattoria. Before dinner, I hit a shady bar at the basement of a building. Getting drunk till closing time at 11 p.m. all I had was a plate of fries for company. Happily inebriated now, I walked into Cloud9, a nightclub instead of Trattoria. Hypnotized by the faint strain of a live band playing Coldplay songs, my gut followed my feet.
As the dark of the night descended on Shillong, I was high on a combination of Rum, Cola and a couple of joints, grooving to the great music and taking in the good vibes.
I don’t remember when I passed out and for obvious reasons. Next morning I took a shared cab for Rs. 500 from Shillong to the Guwahati airport. Guwahati functioning as if it were still 1987 had a host of panicked flyers, anxious families and pissed off people waiting in queues. Despite, almost missing my flight without any fault of my own, the scurry at the airport didn’t bring my spirits down, for I had just had a wonderful time and checked off Bangladesh from my list, albeit only technically.
1. Always bargain for the boat rides
2. Walk into Bangladesh just for the heck of it
3. Carry a passport and necessary documents if you want to stay on longer than ten minutes
4. You could always persuade the boat guy to anchor somewhere for a swim
5. Catch a live act in Shillong
Act like you’re catching an international flight and reach the airport well in time.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Mohan KK
Photographs by: Mohan KK