One of the ten megapolis of the Roman empire, Jerash is Jordan’s best kept secret
Jerash or Gerasa of the antiquity is an ancient Roman city dating back 2000 years and was one of the major cities in a group of ten cities called Decapolis on the eastern frontier of the Roman empire. Many tourists skip this wonder, as sadly Jerash loses it’s place under the sun to Petra and perhaps rightfully so. But Jerash is not to be missed. Today, it is one of Jordan’s best antiquities and is one of the most well preserved & restored Roman ruin.
A breathtaking 2 day, 3,750km train journey through the rooftop of the world
“There is no possibility of building a railway which reaches Lhasa as long as Kunlun Mountains stands there.” American traveler Paul Theroux had claimed once. The Chinese proved everyone wrong years later by building the man made wonder – Qinghai Tibet railway. The Qinghai-Tibet railway begins from Xining, the capital of Qinghai province where the train enters the Tibetan plateau and traverses the rooftop of the world. Did you know that the Qinghai-Tibet railway holds 9 world records – the highest railway in the world (5072m above sea level), longest plateau railway in the world (1956 m), the highest train station in the world (5068m at Tanggula pass), highest tunnel in the world (4905m), longest plateau tunnel in the world (Fengoshuan tunnel at 1686m) amongst the others. No wonder, the Xining-Lhasa train was on my bucket list and I had researched many times over, but nothing prepared me for journey and the incredible experience that it was.
Often known as the ‘Skyroad’ or ‘Heaven road’, the train journey is incredibly scenic, crawling slowly through the permafrost plateau and the high passes. Without a doubt, the railway is an engineering feat and a man made wonder! It is unimaginable, the conditions which the construction crew must have braved to construct this! The Tibetan plateau has one of the harshest environment in the world (often known as the third pole of earth) with sub zero temperatures, high UV and low oxygen. On top of it most sections on the route are under permafrost which made it a construction challenge to not tamper with the ecological balance. With their environment first policy, the Chinese government left no stone unturned to build with care for the fragile plateau ecosystem, roping in many wildlife experts who oversaw the plan and construction. The full route to Lhasa was opened up in 2006.
I started the journey from Beijing from where one can go directly to Lhasa via a 45 hour direct journey. There is option to break the journey at Xining and then go onwards to Lhasa. I chose the second option and boarded the Beijing – Xining train at about lunchtime and we arrived in Xining the next morning. A 7 hour break and a delayed train departure later, we boarded the Xining-Lhasa train at around 8 pm at night. The train turned out to be a mini united nations conference as the fellow travellers were from all over the world with a very few locals on the train. Our fellow occupants were from Ukraine, Australia, Britain, Germany etc. The soft sleeper compartments were very comfortable with fresh linens. The dining car serves some non-veg food but as vegetarians, we had to carry our supply of cup noodles, fruits and snacks. A quick dinner later, we retired to bed. The scenic parts of the journey starts after the train crosses Golmud around 2.30 am. Not wanting to miss the beautiful scenery, I kept an alarm and rose along with the first ray of morning light. The next 10 hours passed by the window as I couldn’t peel myself away from the seat to even get up and use the washroom. The announcements over the train speaker system kept educating me on the marvel that the railway is.
After Golmud, the train slowly ascends the plateau passing through the Kunlun Mountains Pass and Tuotuohe Town which is the origin of Yangtze River. After crossing the Tanggula Mountain Pass which is the highest mountain pass at 5068m, the train crosses the Tibetan cities Ando, Nagchu, Damxung, Yangpachen and reaching Lhasa. Along the way, one can see snow clad mountains, frozen plateau land and dozens of beautiful lakes. If you look carefully, you can spot Yaks, Antelopes and other wild animals grazing peacefully. A highway to Lhasa also runs in parallel to the train track and one can spot hundreds of trucks ferrying goods to and fro from Lhasa. What mars the scenery are the electric lines and the telecom towers on an otherwise spectacular landscape.
The impact of the railway is much debated. Though all steps were taken to protect the environment during the construction and with the regular operations, the impact on the permafrost, the plateau temperature and the migration routes for wildlife is not well established. The railway was built with the intent of helping the most backward region of China i.e. Tibet to benefit from the economic activity that the connectivity and tourism would bring. It has raised standards of living in the Tibetan region for sure, but arguments exists on the rapid erosion of Tibetan culture.
On whatever side of the debate you are on, the only winning argument is that men are only limited by their imagination of what’s possible. Kunlun mountain pass still stands and has gracefully allowed the passage of millions of people to experience the spectacular Tibetan landscape.
Top tips for planning the journey:
Acclimatisation is important. One can take the Beijing Lhasa direct train which is about 45 hours. It is often advised to break the journey at Xining, rest for a day and then board the Xining Lhasa train to allow for full acclimatisation. Moreover, the scenic parts of the journey are after Xining, so it is better to save time by flying to Xining, spending a day in Qinghai province to see the Qinghai Lake and then enjoying the journey towards Lhasa. Each seat on the Xining-Lhasa train is equipped with oxygen supply in case someone develops altitude sickness.
Board the last train from Xining: Take the last train possible out of Xining as the scenic parts will then start after early morning and you can enjoy the Tibetan plateau in your waking hours. You don’t want to be taking a day train out of Xining only to sleep through the nice parts.
Book early: Trains tend to get costlier nearer to the date of the journey. Book early than two months ideally to get best prices.
Choose soft sleepers for comfort: The sleeper trains are of two types – hard sleeper with 6 berths per compartment and soft sleeper with 4 berths per compartment. There is a steep price difference and if you do mind a cramped compartment, you are better off paying extra to journey comfortably.
Bring your food: There is a pantry that serves food, mostly noodles all day. If you are vegetarian and cannot speak Chinese, it is better to bring your own food supplies as communicating with the attendants is difficult and you can’t make sure you are not eating anything that you don’t want to be eating. There is boiling hot water available through the day to cook noodles or ready to heat and eat packaged food. Bring fruits and snacks from the station as there is pretty much nothing else to do, but eat and look outside the window.
Travel light: The compartments are small and luggage storage is under the seats. There is also a overhead storage compartment. Do bring only small suitcases and backpack luggage else you will struggle with luggage storage.
Grab the alley seats in the morning: Each compartment has a door that can be locked from inside for privacy. There are foldable seats in the alley where one can sit and enjoy the view of the other side of the plateau. In the early morning, the sun rises on the left side of the train and you can sit on the alley seats to enjoy the dawn light bathing the Tibetan plateau.
“350 seediyan hai. Pehle neeche phir upar jaati hai, phir village aur bridge aata hai. Ek baar main gaya tha. Uske baad 2-3 din tak bimaar padh gaya. Seedhiyon se nafrat si ho gayi thi (It is 350 odd stairs that go down and then up to the village and the bridge. I did it once and after that , I fell in bed for 2-3 days. I hated the sight of stairs),” muttered Tapan, our driver in Cherrapunjee, once the rainiest place on this earth. From his sombre voice, it was evident that this was his attempt to discourage me from doing the trek to the village, based on his bad experience. The trek to the Living Root bridge of the Nongriat village near Cherrapunjee is not for the weak kneed or the faint hearted as I was soon about to find out.
The living root bridges of Nongriat village are one of the manmade wonders, dating back many centuries. The aerial roots of Banyan tree on opposite sides of the river are continuously twisted, given direction and woven together, till it can be shaped and strengthened into a sturdy bridge. This is the only means for the villagers to cross the raging water streams to reach the other side. There are two living root bridges in Nongriat, a single deck bridge and a double decker bridge.
Dismissing Tapan’s foreboding warning of things to come, I decided to embark upon the trek to the village the next morning. After all it was just 350 steps! What was he talking about! It couldn’t be that bad after all. After reaching the Tyrna village, the starting point on top of the mountain, I found a guide named Phil. Phil was a smiling young lad, right out of school, who was killing time and making some pocket money by offering to guide in the few months he had before he had to join college. The board at Tyrna village indicated a 3km hike to the Nongriat village and some mild alarm bells were set off in my head. 3km and 350 steps didn’t quite add up!
The path to the village is a cemented staircase in middle of a thick jungle, that first reaches the bottom of the valley and then after crossing the river, another flight of stairs upwards lands one at the village. Very casually, we walked down the flight of stairs, enjoying the beauty around. After about ½ hr of walk down the stairs, with knees beginning to become wobbly, I figured we must have actually done double of 350 steps that my driver warned me about. I asked Phil, how many steps were actually there? To my shock, he said 3500! Clearly Tapan didn’t count properly! Well, shoot me, I said. Phil smiled helplessly. How was I even going to get through it, with my knees already wobbling! Walking down was the easy part I figured. Walking up the steep and narrow flight of stairs could be a death wish! Never mind, I would crawl up. But it was a problem for later.
So we continued. The breathtaking hike through the forest was well worth it. The jungle was enveloped with clouds and the morning dew made everything look fresh and beautiful. We saw a few villagers coming up the stairs. One was a little girl in a school-dress, not more than 7-8 years, who was walking up the stairs to go to school! It was very hard to imagine that the young kids did this everyday! Just for basic things like going to school and getting a good education! Soon, we spotted two more villagers who were transporting local produce in heavy sacks strapped to their backs. To see & experience the hardships that the villagers faced day in and day out, was extremely heart wrenching. What made them go up and down the stairs every day? Why couldn’t government make more efforts for them to easily connect with the world outside, like making ropeway trolleys. But observing them gave me the impetus to complete rest of the trek without a whimper.
After the steep flight of stairs down, we arrived at a small village, from where the single root bridge can be accessed. We progressed ahead, arriving at a wobbly iron bridge at the bottom of the valley. Crossing it for the first time, gave me a good scare. While Phil languorously strolled ahead, with wind in his hair and spring in his step, here I was, sweating by litres, clutching the swaying bridge for my dear life and crawling ahead. I did not want to look down at the water stream 30 ft below, for I would have succumbed to my fear of heights and gotten fully paralysed. Miraculously, I survived, only to find another higher and longer iron bridge after a short walk ahead. History repeated itself as this also I survived. Phew!
After a short walk up on another flight of stairs, we arrived at Nongriat village. Nestled in the middle of the jungle was this quaint and clean village, freshly sprayed clean with the shower that had just started. The village is fully off the grid and hence has become a hotspot for trekkers who want to be engulfed by nature. There were a few homestays I found on the way where trekkers esp from abroad were relaxing. It is commendable what the villagers have done to encourage responsible tourism while protecting nature. They have contributed towards a community guesthouse for trekkers, have made large dustbins for collecting waste etc. They respect nature by keeping the village clean. It is a harmonious co-existence of villagers, nature & tourists. A short walk from the village, is the Living Root Bridge. The first view of the root bridge mesmerised me and made the arduous trek fully worth every drop of sweat and every ache in my body. It felt as though I had arrived in paradise. With chirping birds that began to emerge after the downpour, the double decker bridge in middle of a thick jungle, set right across a rumbling waterfall and over a gentle water stream, was a sight to behold. The double bridge was a masterpiece in itself, with intertwined roots made sturdy over centuries. The villagers are working on creating a third deck, by twisting and shaping the roots. Perhaps in a half a century, it would be fully made. The water was so clear, cool and fresh and it was enticing me for relaxing dip. I hadn’t got a change of clothes, so I just made do by sitting with my feet swaying in the water and periodically dipping my face in it. Mesmerized with the bountiful greenery around me, I thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the place amidst the slight drizzle.
Ahh, I so didn’t want to go back. It is quite natural to feel like this in middle of nature, completely off the grid, where one can unburden the stresses of daily life and try to find a rhythm between self & nature. I bumped into a foreigner who completely endorsed my sentiments. He, like me, had come for a day trek and decided to stay back after feeling enchanted by this place. My resort in Sohra doesn’t know where I am, he said very coolly. I wished I could have done the same. But I am a woman with proper plans and it would mean the rest of my trip would have gone for a toss. A small tea shop right next to the bridge was just perfect to have a cup of hot tea and steaming Maggi, before I reluctantly winded my way up.
The rains had cleared up the clouds on the way up and I could see the spectacular landscape of the valley, gasping in awe of how much we had walked. Slowly and steadily, I made my way up, not knowing what was sweat and what was rain drops on me. This time I had counted. It was 3500 stairs (app 5000 steps ) from the bridge back to the top which meant we had done 7000 stairs and total 10000 steps up and down. But it didn’t hurt one bit, for my body and mind had found a gentle rhythm to propel me further. I met an aghast Tapan at the top, for I had completed the trek in 4.5 hours which is quite an average time clocked for the trek. Thank god you didn’t tell me it will be a 7000 stairs trek, I would not have ever done it, I told him. The loss would have been only mine!
And yes, my body revolted at the sight of stairs for almost a week after that.
How to get there:
Tyrna village, the starting point of the trek is ½ hr drive away from Cherrapunjee. From there it will take a relaxed 1.5 hr walk down to the Nongriat Village and then a 2 hr walk up. Budget 4-5 hours including stops.
Where to stay:
If you want to do a day trek, stay in one of the Hotels in Cherrapunjee. However, it is recommended to stay at Nongriat village for a night or two to thoroughly experience the place. Serene homestay is a good option. Expect nothing fancy.
What to do:
Carry swimming trunks and a towel if you want to dip in the stream. If you plan to stay, walk around on other trails to nearby villages and take a dip in many waterfalls along the way. Also trek up for an hour to Rainbow Falls which is supposedly very scenic and highly recommended by all trekkers and locals alike. Chances of spotting an actual rainbow over the waterfalls are very high. It rains abruptly making the stairs slippery, so wear trekking boots and waterproof your camera and phones. Travel light.