No seatbelts allowed

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Europe’s longest ice road

I’m sitting behind the wheel of an idling car, waiting at a lonely red traffic light on an isolated strip of the Estonian coastline.

To my left is a small hut in which a gruff-looking road controller sits, peering out of a frosty window to check on the conduct of the passing vehicles. To the right is a sign that sets out the road rules for the journey ahead.

No seatbelts No driving after sunset No vehicles heavier than 2.5t No driving between 25km/h and 40km/h

They’re not your normal kind of traffic rules. On this particular road, it is forbidden to wear a seatbelt: you might have to make an unexpected and speedy exit from your car.

You can’t drive here after sunset, or with a vehicle over 2.5 tonnes. And it is strictly illegal to travel at between 25 and 40km/h (16-25mph). At those speeds, your car tyres will create dangerous vibrations that could crack the surface of the road, sending you and your vehicle to a watery grave.

The road ahead of me is made of ice. It stretches across the frozen surface of the Baltic Sea, connecting the Estonian coastline to the island of Hiiumaa. At 25km (16 miles), it is the longest ice road in Europe.


There are six official ice roads around Estonia. This past winter has been particularly harsh, allowing them to stay open for longer than usual.

Even in mid-March, with the warm spring sun beginning to melt the snow in the fields, the ice roads were still half a metre thick, enough to carry a steady stream of several hundred vehicles each day.

Travelling on the ice is part of the history and culture of the Estonian islands.

Teutonic knights thundered across the ice on horseback to conquer the isles in the 13th Century. Villages here have been constructed by pulling supplies across from the mainland. Bears, wolves and moose venture to and from the islands in search of food.

These days locals look forward to the ice-driving season as it provides a cheaper and more convenient method of travel, compared to paying for passage on a vehicle ferry.

The traffic light turns green, and timidly I drive out onto the surface of the sea.

It’s bumpy and slippery at the same time. A speed sign instructs me to drive at 70km/h (43mph), and as I accelerate the speedometer needle passes through the danger zone of 25-40km/h.

The ice surface stays firm. Perhaps the vibration warning is a myth, but I’m not willing to challenge it.

Source: BBCNews Read more about the journey

The high road: Argentina to Chile by bus

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Buses are usually just a means of getting from A to B, but the journey across the Andes from Argentina to Chile is a true adventure, showcasing magnificent scenery, rare wildlife and, at times, extreme weather

A llama herd at around 4,000 metres. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

On the upper deck of the trans-Andes bus, the gap-year backpackers from every advanced economy of the globe did not appreciate the danger we were in. Not yet. When I looked back from my seat at the front, I saw that many of them were busy with iPads and iPhones, a few were asleep and the rest were chatting.

No one was watching the digital display that recorded the outside temperature. It had been falling ever since we left behind the last human habitation, in Argentina. Now it was below zero and still dropping. Rolling sheets of ice particles were scouring the road, while the midday sky remained an imperturbable blue.

We had spent several hours winding westwards towards Chile, up into inhospitable realms, passing vast salt lakes presided over by snow-capped peaks and seeing signs of life disappear. Now there were no more vicuña and guanaco, the wild llamas of the Andes, no suri, the giant flightless bird. At 4,800m, even the golden tussock grass had given up and there was nothing, only the jagged peaks rising from a barren plain. The bus lowed, then gave a shudder as an icy blast hit it broadsides.

Crossings are often the best part of any journey, whether it’s over a border or pass, or through straits. Humans have long known that such moments require the greatest concentration, for in those crossings comes the greatest danger – and the greatest pleasure. My favourites have always been mountain passes: the modest Lake District, or the dizzying Rockies or Himalayas.

I was looking forward to my first journey over the Andes, and to this pass, from Purmamarca in Argentina to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. I was expecting something special from the 10-hour bus ride. But I had not considered that a journey over a barrier like the Andes can take a traveller over subtler barriers too – like the one that separates you from the local culture.

The woman across the aisle let out a howl of frustration: “No signal!” Along the deck, headphones were flung aside, screens tapped, phones raised. The bus kept grinding upwards and the temperature gauge settled for -10C. The sheets of ice had become storms of blinding white. Then, with a lurch, we stopped. Ahead of us a lorry was jammed into a bank of driven ice. There was no way past, and our coach could not reverse or turn around. I saw the driver, or one of his assistants, struggling through the blizzard.

Lorries struggle through icy winds. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

“There’s this girl I know on Facebook,” said someone behind me, “she was stuck for two days and then they went back to Purmamarca.”

This news caused alarm: “They shouldn’t allow the buses to go if it’s dangerous!” “I’ve got a flight to catch.”

I pulled on my boots and jacket, grabbed my camera and set off to the lower deck. On the stairs the transition from tourism to adventure travel was drawing differing responses. A few passengers were embracing the excitement, but most were grim-faced. “The toilet’s blocked.” “I’m cold.” We’d been stopped less than 10 minutes.

Fortunately for me the adventure had started a day earlier and I was already in the mood. Sometimes a trip does that: jumbling any plans and demanding that you leap from tourist to traveller. My plan had read: “Transfer by car from Salta to Purmamarca via the famous tourist attraction of Humahuaca Gorge, then take the bus across the Andes to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.” That was not exactly what had happened.

I’d driven out of Salta early the previous morning with Edgar, my guide there. We were talking about the astonishing Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in the town square.

“It’s still controversial with some people,” Edgar had said. “They don’t like their ancestors to be disturbed.”

Five centuries ago the Incas, revering the eternal sun and the restless volcanoes, had sacrificed children by leaving them to die on the top of particular mountains.

“It’s not a human sacrifice,” said Edgar. “Don’t call it that.”

Their diminutive corpses were discovered in 1999 – preserved by severe cold and depleted oxygen – and removed to Salta. In the museum the story of how they came to be on a remote, 6,700m mountaintop builds to a remarkable moment of ghastly drama, when you come face to face with one of the children. It is a moving experience, giving a glimpse into ancient times, when people believed that mountains were living beings who made war on each other. In those times the few humans who passed that way came as supplicants, filled with a sense of awe and magic.

“Some people still revere the mountains,” said Edgar. “They wanted those children to be left alone.”

Read more with a link to a great photo album

Read more with a link to a great photo album


I have done a similar trip from Calama (Chile) through San Pedro de Atacama up over two passes 4,000+ Susques and down to San Salvador de Jujuy in Argentina.

When it comes to adventure, sometimes perilous adventure, this is hard to beat.



UK’s rarest bus service

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All aboard the UK’s rarest bus service

The 113 bus from Tavistock to Dawlish in Devon takes passengers on a scenic route through Dartmoor, and runs just three times a year

Dartmoor between Princetown and Ashburton. Photograph: Alamy

If you’re planning on catching the 09.05 bus from Tavistock to Dawlish this Saturday (31 August), it might be a good idea to get to the stop in plenty of time – if you miss it, it’s a seven-month wait for the next one.

In a piece of scheduling that looks at first glance to have come straight from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Tavistock Country Bus company’s 113 service runs only on the fifth Saturday of the month and only once in each direction, and only from March to October.

However, there is a method in the apparent madness. The bus company – which started in 1981 and is staffed entirely by volunteers – is responsible for local services in Tavistock during the week, but on Saturdays between March and October it becomes much more ambitious, with Exeter, Plymouth, Torquay and even distant Truro in its sights. A service to each of these destinations is scheduled on one of the four Saturdays of every month, leaving poor Dawlish the rather less coveted fifth-Saturday slot. “‘It’s not as popular as the other four places we run to,” explains company chairman and sometime driver Douglas Humphrey.

Unsurprisingly, this coming Saturday will see the Tavistock to Dawlish bus run for only the third time this year. It’s a pity that it’s such a rare event because the route the doughty 113 takes puts it firmly in the pantheon of great British bus journeys.

From the ancient stannary (tin mining) town of Tavistock, with its fine buildings of green stone (much of it filched from the abbey when it was dissolved by Henry VIII), the bus hauls itself up on to Dartmoor. It takes in Princetown – home of the infamous Dartmoor prison and the tasty Jail Ale – and Ashburton, old enough to be in the Domesday Book but progressive enough to be the first town in Britain to elect an Official Monster Raving Loony Party councillor. Here the bus dips off the moor to visit the attractive market town of Newton Abbot, before hitting the coast by way of Teignmouth.

After two hours of pootling around some of Devon’s most eye-catching scenery, the 113 arrives in Dawlish (not to be confused with nearby Dawlish Warren) at just after 11am. The lone bus back leaves at 4.30pm, allowing passengers a leisurely five hours or so to enjoy the seaside town’s sandy beaches, tea rooms and famous black swans.

In June, when Douglas last drove this route, eight people got on at Tavistock – “though only two went all the way to Dawlish”. With the weather set fair for this weekend, there’s every chance that this total could be beaten. Which is another reason why you might want to get to the bus stop early – the 113 has only 16 seats and no standing places, and it would be an unhappy event indeed if you were the 17th in the queue …


Travel Woes


Woman finds flesh-eating bugs in ear after Peru trip

Rochelle Harris found screwworm-fly maggots in her ear after a holiday in Peru

A woman has spoken of the moment doctors discovered flesh-eating maggots in her ear after a trip to Peru.

Rochelle Harris, from Swanwick in Derbyshire, was on holiday with her boyfriend James earlier this year when she walked through a swarm of flies.

During the flight home the 27-year-old developed a severe headache, shooting pain in her face and noticed “scratching noises” in her head.

Doctors at Royal Derby Hospital found the New World Screwworm Fly larvae.

Surgeons later said the fly had hatched eggs and had then chewed a 12mm hole in her ear canal.

‘Writhing mass’ of maggots

“I was very scared. I wondered if they were in my brain,” said Ms Harris.

“I thought to myself ‘This could be very, very serious.’

‘I just wanted them out of me and now I knew what was causing the sensations and sounds it made it all the worse.”

Ms Harris’ story features on a new Discovery Channel documentary, called Bugs, Bites and Parasites which starts on Sunday and follows the work of specialists treating mysterious illnesses.

Ms Harris said she remembered walking through a swarm of flies when in Peru and a fly had got inside her ear. But once she had shooed it away she thought nothing more of it.

A surgeon who treated Ms Harris said: “We needed to fully explore inside to make sure the maggots hadn’t extended anywhere dangerous.”

During a closer inspection using a microscope and speculum he described a ‘writhing mass’ of maggots and found a family of eight large maggots.

Ms Harris has suffered no long-term effects of the encounter but says she is no longer squeamish about bugs.

New World Screw-worm Fly

  • It is also known as cochliomyia and belongs to the blowfly family
  • It thrives in hot, tropical countries
  • The larvae feed on living tissue and can cause deep, pocket-like lesions in the skin
  • This feeding can cause significant pain and damage to the host



Cochliomyia hominivorax, the New World screw-worm fly


Does your car start like this?


Then, it’s time to get a new one!

If nothing else…

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The Pope will have a positive effect on tourism to and in Argentina.

In Pope Francis’s footsteps: a Jesuit tour of Argentina

Córdoba in central Argentina is usually overlooked by tourists heading to the country’s more famous attractions. But that could be about to change, thanks to Pope Francis, whose election has shone a light on the province’s atmospheric Jesuit estancias

Entrance to church in Córdoba’s UNESCO-listed Jesuit block. Photograph: Alamy

“The pope and I once had a fight,” says Nelso, miming fisticuffs with his hands. “But that was 30 years ago. Back when we were young and I had hair!” He slaps his balding head and laughs.

Nelso Lenarduzzi, charismatic and white-whiskered, is the director of the Jesuit Museum in Argentina‘s central province of Córdoba. We’re in the middle of a tour of his exhibition – which includes Jesuit tapestries and relics from long-lost local Indian religions – when he suddenly lets slip on his heated clash with the man now known as Pope Frances.

In the early 1980s, Jorge Bergoglio, then a relatively young priest acting on behalf of his superiors, visited the museum and announced he wanted to take 30 items back to a chapel in Buenos Aires province. Nelso was horrified as the priest listed some of the museum’s most-treasured pieces, including a valuable altar.

“We didn’t actually have a fist fight,” he admits, laughing again at the idea, but strong words were exchanged and Bergoglio would not budge. “Now, at least, I can say I’ve seen him at his toughest and I know he’s no pushover.”

The Vatican’s recent selection has shone a spotlight on Argentina. Yet although Bergoglio’s Argentinian life has been largely dissected – from his football allegiances to his politics – a lot less has been made of his Jesuit connection. For those interested in finding out about the country’s Jesuit history, Córdoba is probably the best place to start. This, after all, is where the order once had a base so powerful it was seen as a serious threat to early Spanish rule.

The province of Córdoba is famed for its warm, dry climate, and green, fertile sierras. At its heart is Argentina’s second city, also called Córdoba and nicknamed La Docta (or the learned one) on account of its large student population. Since 2000, the city has also boasted Unesco world heritage status, thanks to its Jesuit block, which includes a stone church, priests’ residences and one of the oldest universities in South America (1613).

Bergoglio lived within the block for two years in the 1990s and now his bespectacled face gazes back at you all over town: on a celebratory banner outside the church, on a caricaturist’s easel on a tourist-filled pedestrian walkway, and even on the pavement as a street trader sets out papal souvenirs in the late summer sun. Back in the late 16th century, the pope’s predecessors arrived here from Europe and set about spreading their scholarly branch of the Catholic faith. They were so successful and efficient in their work that the Spaniards ultimately withdrew funding, scared that they were forming a state within a state. So, to keep the funds flowing for their evangelistic work, the Jesuits came up with plan B: the working estancia.

Alta Gracia’s Jesuit estancia Photograph: Alamy

Five examples of these estancias still stand, scattered across these central plains. My first stop was Estancia Caroya, surrounded by green fields and orange trees, 44km north of the city. Its design is typical for the era: a colonial-style mansion, built around a courtyard, with arched walkways and its own chapel. The whitewash walls and terracotta roof certainly look attractive against the cloudless blue skies, but aesthetics were not the Jesuits’ main motivation. Estancias were working farms, heavily involved in the mule trade, and each plying its own specialist trade, from wine production to making bayonets.

Only one to two Jesuits would live onsite, with labour from hundreds of African slaves.

“This is something that was not talked about for years,” says Claudio Videla, director of the Caroya estancia. “It was a dark part of history. Slaves were considered sub-human. Even after their sons were freed, the next generation was sent to their deaths when they were put in the front line [in civil and foreign conflict].”

This explains why today’s Argentina has hardly any people of African descent, compared with Brazil or Uruguay.

Jesuits also worked with local indigenous populations, who received a wage (to prevent an uprising) and completed much of their artisan work. Look up to Córdoba’s cathedral, for example, and you see angels’ faces with Indian features, rather than traditional European cherubs.

I made it to three out of the five estancias on the tourist route: Caroya; neighbouring Jesús María (where I find Nesto’s museum); and finally, 35km south-west of Córdoba city, Alta Gracia, which squats at the start of the sierras, amid miles of cornfields.

Visiting the town of Alta Gracia gave me the chance to drop in on one of Argentina’s other famous sons. In the 1940s, the Guevara family moved to the province, hoping the dry air would help cure the asthma of their oldest, Ernesto. The boy, who grew up to be known as Che, is now depicted in a bronze statue on the family home’s front porch. Rooms of the small suburban home have been turned into a mini museum, featuring family photos and various memorabilia, including his last-ever diary entry before he was executed in the Bolivia jungle. Back in the early 2000s, this tiny museum might see about 5,000 visitors a year. Then, one day in 2006, two VIP guests popped in – Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. After that much-publicised appearance, annual visitor numbers shot up to 100,000.

A statue of Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a boy at his childhood home in Alta Gracia. Photograph: Alamy

It’s the mix of high-profile visits and Unesco recognition that has given Córdoba’s tourism a real boost in recent years. Once famed only for lomito (steak) sandwiches and fernet (the bitter Italian spirit drunk here as if it were water), the province is now trying to relaunch itself to appeal to the more sophisticated traveller.


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London’s £60m white elephant


The Emirates Air Line – London’s £60m white elephant

The capital’s cable car was trumpeted as a state-of-the-art commuter link, but has failed to live up to expectations

Emirates Air Line is the UK’s first urban cable car Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Age: Eight months.

Appearance: White elephant.

Don’t you mean whizzy, state-of-the-art cable car masterminded by London mayor Boris Johnson and sponsored by the Emirates airline? I know exactly what I mean.

You are talking about the cable car across the River Thames in east London linking Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks? Yes, that’s the one.

Marvellous. I took Freddie and Jemima on it during the Olympics and they adored it. That may be the problem. It fitted perfectly with the boisterous mood of Jubolympics London and was getting up to 70,000 users a week, but numbers are now down to 16,000 and critics are starting to question its future.

Cynics! That’s what Boris reckons. “They said the Victoria Line and the Docklands Light Railway would be empty. Give it time.”

How long? At least until he’s become PM.

Why are numbers falling? Boris blames strong winds, which have led to temporary closures. But that’s just hot air. The real problem is it’s a tourist attraction rather than the commuter service he originally trumpeted, and will only be viable in peak holiday seasons.

Where are the regular users? They barely exist. The number of commuters using it has been estimated at 16. It would have been cheaper to buy them a gold-plated mini-bus.

Is it losing money? An estimated £50,000 a week.

Somebody must find it useful. It’s quite handy for anyone north of the river who wants to go to Tesco Express in Greenwich.

What’s the solution? Move it.

Where? Switzerland.

You’d better supply a few basic facts to fill up the rest of the space. Cost £60m to build (more than double the original estimate); Emirates is providing £36m in sponsorship over 10 years; 1,150m long, 90m high, with 34 cabins capable of carrying 5,000 people an hour; fare £4.30 or £3.20 if you pay by Oyster; journey lasts five minutes.

Not to be confused with: The Humber Bridge – another pointless project built for spurious reasons connecting two places no one wants to go to.

Do say: “You get a wonderful view …

Don’t say: “… of the O2 car park.”



Digging up the buried beer at Hotel Timbuktu


After months of Islamist rule, Timbuktu is getting back to normal – with thirsty journalists replacing the traditional tourists and backpackers.

The cloud of dust was so thick it was hard to breathe.

I was trying to write up another script in the corridor, but a member of the hotel staff was sweeping the floor, whipping the dust into the air.

This was the morning after the Hotel La Colombe (Dove Hotel) re-opened. It had been closed for 10 months during the occupation of al-Qaeda militants and their allies.

When a bunch of reporters showed up shortly after the French recaptured the city, hotel manager Mohamed Toure could not believe his ears. A group of Westerners was offering to pay to stay in a building where nothing was working!

Mr Toure looked up and lifted his arms to the sky. He gave us a huge smile of relief and thanked God, exclaiming: “Alhamdoulilah!”

“I didn’t think I would ever see Europeans again,” he said. He told us that tourism had suffered over the past few years because of a rise in hostage-taking in the region. Yet his hotel was never short of guests.

But the coup against the government in Bamako – followed by the arrival of Islamist militants in Timbuktu on 1 April last year – left him with no choice. He had to close.

“I would have nothing to do,” he told me, “but I would still be up by six o’clock and I would sit on the front steps of the hotel reading a novel all day long.”

When we first arrived, a small crowd of local people emerged, desperate to help out and to earn some money. The reporters, they found, had a list of items they urgently required.

We needed a reliable power supply, so generators and good torches were priorities. Soon the hotel’s terrace was unrecognisable, as a forest of satellite dishes and cables sprung up between the plastic tables and chairs.

A local man toured each table asking whether we fancied mutton for supper. He told us that he planned to roast a whole animal stuffed with couscous for everyone to share. It sounded good to us.

But when he came back with the cooked beast two hours later, it was clear he thought we had ordered the huge animal just for the four of us.

Happily a compromise was reached – we did have to pay for half of the sheep, but there was mutton for all the news teams.

When the Islamist fighters took over the city, they came to question the hotel manager, to ask if there was any foreign investment in his business.

He had to prove, with official documents, that he was of Moroccan origin and that the only money had come from his father. So the place was spared while banks, sacred tombs and shrines were destroyed.

Mohamed Toure did not have to answer any more questions, until the French started to drop bombs on houses they believed were occupied by jihadis.

Many in Mali are experiencing freedom again, though conditions are far from normal

“About 20 of them forced themselves into my garden,” recalled Mr Toure. “They hid under the trees before they left the city.”

It did not take long for trade to return to Timbuktu. Within days of our arrival, a turbaned craftsman had laid out a piece of local fabric with cotton shirts, wooden souvenirs and Tuareg silver knives.

But conditions were still far from normal. When we did get to bed, sleep was difficult. Mattresses were dusty, bed-sheets filthy and torn.

Electricity was in short supply – it cut out at noon each day. We soon got used to those generators roaring away hour after hour.

Running water was also scarce. A few drops for a shower felt like a real luxury.

But the real surprises were called “Guinness” and “Castel”. Cases of the foreign beers had been buried underground when the fundamentalist fighters banned alcohol in town. At last it was time to dig them up.

The bottles were caked in dust like a good French wine kept in a traditional cellar. There were not, however, very many of them so, of course, they were sold at wartime prices.

It has been a great thrill talking to men and women who are experiencing freedom again after months of harsh Islamist rule. The tourists and backpackers – who the people of Timbuktu were used to – have been replaced by journalists and soldiers.

Nevertheless, it means a bit of work and cash for residents who had little of either while the Islamists were in town.

Tourism used to generate significant revenues for Mali’s economy. Soon it will benefit from a new flow of people – journalists, aid workers, soon-to-arrive UN staff and other soon-to-be permanent delegations.

As he struggled to believe his hotel was re-opening at long last, Mohamed Toure told me that, in the last few months, had only been able to afford one meal a day with his family.

“But since you guys arrived,” he told me with a smile, “we’re able to enjoy THREE meals once again!”


Images from Timbuktu

Hotel La Colombe, Timbuktu, Mali – image: tripadvisor

The Islamist invaders destroyed many historical sties and manuscripts.

The Islamist invaders destroyed many historical sties and manuscripts.

A historic city whose very name conjures up a sense of mystery. Once a centre of Islamic teaching, Timbuktu’s architectural glories have been taken by the desert, but the people and the romance remain. – image: dk books

An aerial view of Timbuktu today – image: historyhaven

India’s undiscovered gem:


…the hills of Meghalaya

In Meghalaya, north-east India, women own the land, Christianity dominates and the landscape is straight out of The Hobbit. Our writer visits a most unusual state

Two-lane traffic … one of the living tree bridges in Meghalaya, India. Click on the magnifying glass icon to see a larger image. Photographs: Nick White

“I’m the supreme power in my house,” declared Dave the shopkeeper. “That is certain.” Behind him his wife and female relatives giggled. He turned and glared until they agreed that he was definitely the boss.

The women had good reason to snigger. The shopkeeper does not own the shop – it belongs to his wife. He has four children – three sons and one daughter. But none of them went by his family name: they all had his wife’s surname, and the daughter would inherit the shop.

The couple live in the Indian state of Meghalaya, one of the few places in the world with a matrilineal system, where women own land and property – and men put on a brave face.

Never heard of Meghalaya? Don’t worry, you’re not a wannabe Ukip member. It’s in the far, far north-east of India and is one of the Seven Sisters, the seven states of India sandwiched between Bangladesh, Bhutan and Burma. The sisters are linked to the rest of India by a sliver of land just 14 miles wide at its narrowest point.

Meghalaya is also overwhelmingly Christian – European missionaries having swarmed here on a souls-grab from the mid-19th century onwards.

It sounded like an intriguing corner of India, and one visited by few foreign tourists. You’ll struggle to find a package tour there – but it is easy to put together your own trip. My friend Nick and I flew to Kolkata and took the 18-hour sleeper train north, along the border with Bangladesh, hanging a sharp right as the Himalayas came into sight, then pulling into Guwahati, in the state of Assam.

As soon as we got a taxi out of Guwahati and crossed into Meghalaya, the people we saw around us changed, becoming lighter-skinned and almond-eyed. We were in tribal territory, the land of the Khasi people. The colourful signs on the lorries tearing past us on the twisting road appealed to Jesus, not Shiva, for good luck or salvation.

As the road climbed into pine-covered hills dotted with pretty lakes, the Europeans’ nickname for the area, the Scotland of the East, started to make sense. We changed taxi in Shillong, the state capital, and made for the town of Cherrapunjee. Pressing on, along an impossibly narrow road with terrifying drops, we finally got to our hotel, more than 24 hours after leaving Kolkata.

The Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort sits at nearly 1,000m, with hills in every direction except the south, where the slopes fall sharply away to the plains of Bangladesh. Clouds were building up over these plains, a clue to Cherrapunjee’s big claim to fame: it is the wettest place in the world, with 12m of rain a year, 20 times what London sees. The annual monsoon makes the British summer of 2012 look like a toddler’s teary temper tantrum.

Posters with meteorological facts covered the walls of the dining room, explaining how, from June to October, clouds would march from the south towards the hills where they would unceremoniously dump their load. Years of ridiculous rainfall figures were listed like a badge of honour. There were also slightly sniffy references to a village, Mawsynram, a few miles away which in the past couple of seasons had posted higher rainfall.

I don’t own a pair of wellies, let alone a Kevlar-reinforced brolly, so we had timed our visit for the dry months.

I woke up jet-lag early the next day and walked to the nearby village just as the sun was rising and households were stirring. A teenager, crucifix around his neck, was on his knees on the roof of his home murmuring his prayers, while his younger sisters, already in school uniform, were in the courtyard reciting their times tables. They lost their way when they saw me and shyly said good morning. I wandered past a stall as a man sleepily lifted its shutters. This was Dave (Phanbuh), who introduced himself and explained that his great-grandfather had been a British soldier stationed here in the 1920s. He fielded my questions about the matrilineal system, and continued to insist he was the master of the household, despite the laughter from the women.

“It is good for the women, but not for the men,” he finally admitted, ruefully.

I struggled to stifle a snigger when he said his wife’s name was Fullmerry. Crazy names rule here, a legacy of the missionaries’ work. I was told that children now are just as likely to be named after the latest gadget as a saint, but though I asked the names of people I met across Meghalaya, I sadly never came across a toddler called iPad mini.

Children in one of the villages below Cherrapunjee

By mid-morning we were on a walk to the valley floor, led by our young guide, Don. Five hundred steps into our 2,000-step descent he revealed he had a girlfriend, Jubilee. By 1,000 steps he said he wanted to marry her. By 1,500 steps he was asking my advice about how to ask her father for permission. Villages we passed often had fewer than a dozen homes but most had a simple church, either Catholic or Protestant, sometimes one of each.

By the time we reached the valley floor I had been convinced that Don would make a great son-in-law. We had reached a small stream. Of course, come monsoon, this would become a torrent. How to cross it? How to trade? How to find a wife? Marrying within your clan is strictly prohibited. The Khasis invented a spectacular solution to the problem.

We followed the path, turned a corner and entered Middle Earth. There before us was something from the set of The Hobbit, a bridge made out of a living tree. Its twisted roots formed the base, sides and supports of the 20m span across the river. It looked completely natural and completely insane at the same time, as if the tree had decided one day to go on an unexpected journey. I half-expected to see Bilbo Baggins scuttle across on his way to Rivendell.

In such a wet world a wooden bridge would soon rot, so for hundreds of years villagers have trained the roots of rubber trees across rivers. It could take 10-15 years for the bridges to become strong enough to be used.

This bridge was particularly ambitious because it was a double-decker, one span above the other. I gingerly stepped on to the lower crossing, about 5m above the river bed, but the lattice-work of roots was solid. There were even big flat rocks laid on the base to make a smoother walking surface. My biggest fear was that one of the sinuous roots I was using as a handhold might turn out to be a sinuous snake.

The bridges are still used – I watched as a tiny elderly woman carrying a giant basket walked nimbly across. We crossed more bridges but none was as impressive as the double-decker. It was a shame to see a new wire suspension bridge beside an old and dangerous root bridge in a couple of places.

I stripped off for a swim in a pool before the long, sweaty climb back up to the hotel as Don explained that the matrilineal system was changing, and some sons would now inherit a share of the family wealth. I wished him well with his Jubilee plans.

A Catholic church in a valley

But if that Khasi tradition is weakening, one foreign import is going from strength to strength. The Welsh Presbyterians spotted a gap in the proselytising market when they looked about the British empire in the 1830s. These hills had been largely untouched by other missionaries when the Reverend Thomas Jones arrived in Cherrapunjee in 1841.

Legend has it that the Khasi lost their written language – in a great flood, obviously. Once Jones had got over the shock of finding a place wetter than mid-Wales, he learned to speak Khasi and compiled an alphabet and a dictionary in Roman script – choice examples are slap (rain) and shit (hot).

Presbyterianism thrived and the Khasis got back their written language, which prompted a flourishing of writing that continues today. Unfortunately Jones’s story did not end happily. Weakened by fever, his wife died in childbirth. He fell out with the church elders after marrying a 15-year-old and was forced to leave the hills. He died of malaria in 1849, aged 39.

Around 500,000 Khasis are now Presbyterians, 20 times more than in Wales itself. Nick and I headed into Cherrapunjee to find Jones’s church. It was market day, and the biggest section of the market was devoted to betel nut and leaves. The mouths of men, women and children were stained red and there was spat-out juice splattered up walls everywhere.

I wandered into what looked like a Presbyterian church. It took a passing taxi driver, Aloysius, to gently explain that I was in a Catholic church and to offer to take me to Jones’s church. It stood on the outskirts of town, as simple as the churches I’d seen on our walk. I tried to imagine Jones at the lectern, preaching to the Khasis, telling them to give up their local firewater or face damnation.

Aloysius delivered me to the home of a church elder. I knocked uncertainly and an elderly woman waved me inside. Forget Middle Earth – this time I’d entered middle Wales. The elder, Willis Knight, sat me down in the front room, antimacassars and all. There was a coffee table book of Welsh landscape photographs and a display case full of Welsh ephemera – a snow globe of Cardiff, a pair of sunglasses emblazoned with the Welsh flag, photographs of missionaries in stiff collars.

Mr Knight explained sadly that he had never been to Wales. “I almost went many years ago, but something happened,” he said quietly. “I’m an old man and I won’t go now.” He and his wife offered us tea, but Aloysius, a Catholic, was hovering.

Market day in Cherrapunjee

He dropped us back in town, where a series of booths had now opened, each with a man behind a counter, and numbers scrawled on a blackboard. Crude, 18-inch wooden arrows with clunky metal heads were for sale in a shop on the marketplace. The owner explained that the local sport was archery, and betting on the big contest in Shillong was the local passion.

The next day, back in Shillong, I placed a quid on 9 and 19 for that day’s shootout and, with odds of 80/1, was looking forward to a slap-up meal in Shillong’s finest restaurant that night.

In a street of car repair workshops we were pointed down an unpromising alley and through a gate. The archers were already in a semi-circle and one explained that there would be 50 archers who each had four minutes to shoot 30 arrows into a drum about 15m away. On a signal they were off, dozens of arrows thwacking into the target. I soon realised there was little or no skill required. The archers looked bored, stopping to have a fag or send a text message between arrows.

The drum looked like a porcupine after the time was up. Game over? Nope, this was where the real point of the affair became clear. The arrows were pulled from the target, placed in bunches of 10 in front of an earnest panel of men and counted. The last two digits of the total would be the winning number. There were 902 arrows in the target, so 02 was the winning number. Dozens of men got on to their mobiles and relayed the number to betting booths around Meghalaya and beyond.

It was a lottery! Pulling a number out of a hat would have achieved the same result – but without the spectacle and definitely with more allegations of cheating. No slap-up meal for us. Nick and I had to make do with a beer in a dodgy Chinese-run bar straight out of Indiana Jones, with regulars quickly drinking themselves into oblivion with whisky after whisky. Clearly 02 wasn’t their lucky number either.

We flew back to Kolkata, where I had one final place to visit. The Scottish cemetery is a forlorn place. Thieves have stripped the marble from the graves of soldiers and East India Company men. Only one was pristine. The grave had recently been refurbished by Khasi Presbyterians. He was a long way from his birthplace, and from the place he made his home, but the Rev Thomas Jones had not been forgotten.

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