At the time of my last [3rd] trip to Arunachal in the last year of the century, 1999, a malaria stricken Balwant Sandhu peeked at the flood-plains of Brahmaputra from the cramped confines of the small helicopter taking him to the military hospital, Dinjan imagining it to be an ocean. With me was another climber, friend of many climbing trips, Doug Scott with a busted knee and a fractured big toe. Ours was a spectacular failure; funded by non-profit grants from National Geographic, Everest Foundation, UK and assisted by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. Four out of the original six on the trip attempted a first ascent of unreconnoitred, unclimbed mountain at the head of Khurung river, Takpa Shiri (6655 m). Majors Ashok Abbey and MK Singh, volunteers since two years were shattered: they had suddenly become unavailable, due largely to attitudinal fogginess of the Army's adventure cell! Our trip planned since 1996, had meant two reconnaissances; one took Balwant around the mountain close to Mukhpa la with first-ever pictures of the mountain.
Now four friends- Akhil Sapru, Doug Scott, Greg Child [National Geographic photo man and a considerable climber] and I with four Darjeeling Sherpas my good friend, Lhatoo Dorji sent, were attempting Takpa Shiri, the next highest after, Nyegi Khangsom1, in the Subansiri basin of Arunachal. Takpa shiri in Tibetan, Lhatoo informs me, translates to, 'Takpa'— birch, Shi' — death (to die), ri-mountain. A mountain where the birches die sounded comforting than the other possibility, 'A mountain of dying'! These imaginings came easy to an enervated hallucinated mind; I had done it for 8 days- in a cave overlooking a noisy Khurung four days short of the expedition base north of Dolyang. Diagnosed and prescribed over the military escort radio for typhoid, treated with medicines Sulung/Nishi porters relayed from the expedition head, 3 days away- every 2/3 days. It had felt like good-bye to this land of the rising Sun. To all the lands.
In a chance remark about the uniqueness of the eastern areas of his command- Lohit river, Siang river, Subansiri river- Harry Batra, the General officer Commanding the area and an old friend invited us to visit. We would if a walk could be fitted. Soon details of a 4 week sojourn that would take us to Tinsukhia, Dinjan, and then to any of the destinations we desired- Walong, Along- Yinkiong- Tuting- Gelling; or Mechuka-Jorging; or Daporijo-Tamechungchung- or any combination; thoughtfully included a bonus string of beckoning names- Ziro, Kimin, Bomdila, Tawang arrived. In its detail and concept it fired our fancies; a great train ride, magical places to trek, friends to meet and bandobast to boot.
After a dull train travel, the trip began with a joyful day spent with our hosts splicing perfect plans. We started with a fun ferry crossing of Brahmaputra; a detachment of Bombay Sappers coaxed superbly their well scrubbed boat, an ageing tub powered by an older Bulldozer heart [engine!] and a mix of Sapper grit and ingenuity. Would you believe the 'Master' of the craft takes 15 uninterrupted years of work on the river for complete mastery? The undercurrent of the river shifting subterranean sand banks makes navigating the craft a job of skilled endurance. Occasionally there is excitement up front when the 'nose' — a sapper armed with a 'depth' marker pole hunched above the forward beam sees the 'shallow' mark on the long bamboo pole, his depth gauge. Should the 'Nose' not signal the master a timely correction of speed and course, the Tub could be grounded. The 'Nose' and helpers then would have to leap into the river to shove and cajole the Tub afloat. Not an enviable task. Today Brahmaputra, the river of the 'Lahe Lahe' land ['take it easy, there is always a tomorrow'], flows at ease; a detachment of Gorkhas also crossing the military ferry are asleep on their perches; the crew at their practised navigating chores; vegetables and 'Hat' merchandise laden country craft glide by, carefully avoiding the ferry; a sumptuous breakfast for the visitors on the bridge; a scene of peace and tranquility: even the momentary adrenaline release, whether the turd drops before the user does through the make shift hole above the rear boom, fails to ripple the lull of a great ride. Effortlessly we beach on the opposite bank after 90 minutes. In vehicles we weave across the considerable flood plains of the river to hit the tar road to Lekhabali and a splash of local hospitality. The ladies-Mrs Jean Thomas, Helga Sandhu no-longer chary of expansion before a walk greatly enjoy the eating. Later, We are surprised to see among our convoy, friends from Subathu; most recall their 'Cheel Chukker' recruit runs past Bamboo Lodge, our Subathu home. Major Sheoran, ex adjutant of 14 G.T.C2, and now with his unit is our 'commander' of the day till Along. We are in capable hands.
After lunch we drive towards the hills; distant magic of the blue-hazed mountains is upon us. No suicidal cows loiter across the road; nor urchins; nor dogs; nor cyclists: nor pits and puddles pock the road; nor honking impatient yesterday drivers; nor piles of garbage mark our course; nor villages mostly in the middle of the road; nor skyscrapers leaning over; nor sickly, cursed trees waving buntings of a yesterday politico; no mobs. Arunachal, here we come! Silk smooth roads; wide spaced berms, great canopied trees; the forest is alive with Gnomes and Goblins; 'Great Birnam wood has come to high Dunsinane hill' [would Macbeth have it like this?] We are drunk with joy. Through, Garu, Dali, Basar, Bame, Doke, Along, Siom. what magic 'places'; where are they? Back home 'places' are litter, garbage, stink, skeletal plastic- fed cows, raucous noises. These 'places' are different: community of living beings- of 'wiyus', Doini Polo, humans, animals, trees, rivers, birds, Mithun, silence. They do not crowd out but coalesce. Magic is in place here. Imagine going to places with names like-Singing, Igguing, Migging, Tuting... Later we were to explore these.
After a day long drive, our escort left us ensconced at Siom Kutir, tastefully set above Siom river. The valley of Siom, host to the town, Along, is a surprise; another surprise was the local Commander. He turns out to be an old colleague when Gen. Thomas was the Commandant at the Indian Military Academy, a young Captain Surendra Nath, then a platoon commander was a sought after tennis maestro on the academy courts. Kismet in capital letters! He was now to be our local 'godfather'- not that we needed another but being in the 'spirit' country, we could be forgiven over-insurance!
After a day's pleasant break packing for our walk, we met the PI, short for, Political Interpreter; also the guide, escort and porters and drove on to Sisi Nala to start the first day's walk. More nalas with similar musical single syllable names along the walk met us from mostly under alarmingly tipsy cane bridges- Sika, Shika, Stika, Sikori, Sipori Siri: and then a few innocent ones like Minni Asi [ri- means mountain in some areas; here it appears to mean small water. Si- means water! [Siang, the Adi name for Tsangpo river, means, 'big water'].
We started to walk from Sisi nala; an easy, up down walk along a forest path that climbed to a tribal village, without warning signs- litter, or a balding forest. Rikor a large village as tribal villages go has 4 'households'- each approx. 5x8 m. rectangle thatch supported on strong wood plugs that raise the hut by about a metre, so that domestic animals can access under the wood floor and feed on titbits the inmates drop between the planks. On both/ either side of the house are two detached thatch storage huts; one for grain, raised about 150 cm, rat-proof, padlocked and the other stacked with sawn logs of firewood. Huts are in a cluster, separated as ground/ drainage permits. Outside many houses hang Mithun, pig and deer skulls, a mark of prowess/ prosperity of the owner. Close to the entrance of some huts is a tall frame of bamboo poles with an intricate woven bamboo knot at the top -baskets, tassels, even birds, that mark ridding the owner of 'bad' spirits by the village 'wise' man. Depending on the 'spirit to be rid/ placated, 'the Puja' is performed at the entrance to the house, village or deep in the forest so the 'spirit' may not find its way back. Many dodges are applied to mislead.
Rikor is an Adi village of the Shimongs [shimong refers to an area for Adis are spread wide on left bank of the Siang river]. Numbers of curious children, dogs, pigs and chickens surrounded us and flowed around us to a thatch community hall. It had four hearths; porters gathered around the first, our soldier escort around the next. Third became the kitchen and fourth, we sat around. A bamboo screen was quickly fetched to screen our sleeping platform from the rest.
The Political Interpreter-PI, Amut Nopi of the Shimong Tribe- soon got the villagers to bring loads of firewood and water as we settled for the night. One sees many children in these villages. Adis, friendly and an adventurous tribe soon offered to have 'Ponung'. Ponung, a dance in honour of the visitors, which as the Village Gam [headman] said to show 'on meeting you there is joy in my heart'. Which is as well. A hundred years earlier they would be shunning, if not slaughtering the visitors! Being tired, we declined the offer, to regret it later.
Our mini-expedition cook cooked an edible, wholesome khichri; we drank much soup and slept on a wooden floor. Under the floor some activity went on all night; fowls, pigs and dogs routing for titbits of food dropped through the planks. While we slept we also fed many an insect.
For a timely start we opted for khicheri in the morning and set out at a cracking pace for the 7 hours up and down path. Our guide had said, 'easy' to the next village, Paling. Adi village names end in 'ing'. Wonder why? Steep ascents and descents came often as we slipped and slid under a hot sun. Soon we were waterless and exhausted. After some persuasion, Jean gave her heavy rucksack to a porter.
Later we came to a stream, washed and found it easier to pull up the last hard slope to Paling. Last part of the walk was up a cleared hillside; shaven of all its vegetation the upended slope-an angle of 4060 degrees where the first rain would carry most of its topsoil away! Here was primary forest, broad strips of it left intact would make perfect brakes against erosion, retain and renew soil fertility, provide shelter and food for wildlife, retain and hold moisture, remain a bank of biodiversity? Surely lessons were learnt from Uttaranchal, Himachal horticultural misadventure? Alas, the Arunachal bureaucrats and horticulturists are still bonded to horticultural abattoir's, the modern Indian Horticulture and Forestry Universities? And in the name of development follow faulty models that eventually will have turned these hills barren and sterile! It was already dark and the 10 hours on the move made our joints creak and crackle like an old boat.
No pots could be had from the village because of a 'puja'; the Adis cannot befriend strangers/ outsiders this day or spirits of the forest will bring sickness among the villagers. The PI did find a billy and a kettle to cook a packet of ready to eat meals. It rained all night and we were happy to leave the sullen village at 6.30 a.m. Slipping, slithering we soon got into a routine, as more rain came. We were walking through tropical rain forest of the type I had walked earlier looking for Takpa Shiri. Feeling good our tired muscles were less brittle, we wound down bush and burr. The path led through forest wetting us when it rained and later, when the trees dripped after the rain. Discovery of leeches along the track did not discourage the ladies grazing their butts- swearing at the rain, the jungle, the insects. But for the rain the walk would have been fun. Jean gave up counting leech bites after tallying 40 by the end of the day's walk; the rest of us had 2 bites each.
Fires were up before we reached Singing and the Gams, red coated village headmen, were pleased to have us. Soon loads of firewood and bamboo screens for securing us privacy, a needless nicety among the locals, appeared. As the fires warmed, we stripped to dry clothes; the wet ones steamed away above the flames and smoke. Soon Apong local rice brew, like 'chhang'- arrived, with the village elders and young lasses (no lads) smartly attired in fetching homespun tight tribal skirts dressed to sing and dance to please the visitors. During this, younger girls replenished- Apong, the older ones danced slow rhythmic steps in company to clapping; the rhythm of the dance being kept by a young Gam rattling a long straight sword like a 'Dah' , in its oversized scabbard. Mostly the Gams, rather impressed with my 'two wives' who faced well to the walk and the Apong and I hawed and hummed the evening away. A good thing about being nicely tired and being among hosts not quite sober is that social niceties of conversation are politely discharged with long silences as one gazes into the flames or cases beauty or listens to the rain, made possible by the tin roofs that replace many a thatch. Soon we too joined the dancers. Helga is a natural when it comes to body language- be it Punjabi Gidda or Bhangra and now 'Ponung'. Around midnight we thanked our hosts, gave some money to the senior Gam for the dancers and they left quite tidily, collecting 'Apong' dispensary- tumblers, pails and mugs etc.- but not before a neat little chorus had been aired to the generous 'Kolonell' for letting the sun, the moon, the rivers keep to their courses! A stack of neatly shaved bamboo sticks kept by the entry -these looked like giant match sticks- now was lit, a stick at a time and every family took a stick to light their way home.
Article 5 (J. A. Jackson)
5. Tensing with Jacksons in Parek chu valley.
Article 5 (T. Nakamura)
6. Namcha Barwa, seen from Seti la, east of Lhasa
I love sleeping to the sound of rain and slept well. Waiting for the night rain to let up, at 8.30 a.m., we cancelled the day's walk. The villagers had left earlier to get to Tuting 'to shake by the hand their Mishmi Chief Minister'. It was a quiet day and evening for us. The village had many moss covered old orange trees in fruit: tough skinned and medium sized, tree-ripe oranges were delicious. Dogs and pigs are sanitary stalwarts of the village, these follow you out to crap: unless 'shooed' in time. Dogs look like foxes and are largely silent like spirits. Piglets are like pigs. Adi villages are remarkable: neat, and, odourless, located on ridges are good for defence and views of the surroundings. House platforms are of wood planks raised 2-3 feet so pigs, dogs, chickens have a free run under the house. The walls are bamboo matting/ planks and roof is thatch, renewed every 7th year. Close to each house is a granary, a single hut raised on wood stilts, each stilt has a flat collar of wood about 2 feet in diameter where it joins the floor to prevent rats in to the grain store. Fire wood is stacked nearby in neat wedges. The administration laid water pipes bring water to most villages, who let the taps run. Some villagers bring water from great distances in half-cut bamboo channels like they have always done. No signs of a visiting health worker, doctor or teacher. Administration also helps with construction and maintenance of cane bridges through a local contractor who buys material- usually a length of 15 mm SWR, enough to thrice span the gap, obtains tribal labour through the Gams. Perhaps because of the contractor, tribals seem to do little mending of the walking platform of untreated planks or lengths of bamboo. A rotten plank yielding under Jean on one such bridge gave me some hairy moments as the 'mountain expert' of the party. Her big rucksack would hold her on the bridge; pulling her up again without a rope would have been hard. Next day we got to Lgguing in 7 hours: collecting no leeches. Our radio operator did get one blister fly (Dim Dim) bite. Jean spotted a few birds: Helga noticed many plants she would have liked to identify in detail. The walks were not rushed so we could quiz Nopi long about local customs, names, edible mushrooms and plants. And wondered at the amazing job Verrier Elwin had done, half a century ago recording local folklore.
We were buoyant to start the last 21 kms walk of the trek. The track angled easily along the river. At this time the Siang ran low and formed great big pools that roaring rapids linked. It would be great for kayaking and rafting. All along there were uprooted trees, washed bridges to remind us of the flood of 2000 after an earth dam on the Tsangpo in Tibet broke. We found many pine logs/planks along the river, that after sniffing, the PI would pronounce 'Chinese'. There is no pine along the Siang, since its entry into India so it is a good guess. This day we met returning parties of Adi Gams and lasses: most who did not shake hands with the Chief Minister or missed performing the 'Ponung' for the VIP were sullen.
Mother of a boy from Lgguing overtook us on her way to Tuting where her son had been injured in a brawl with three Tangans. Tangans live along the Kamla river and are known for their bellicosity. After a few drinks three Tangans and an Adi lad had a fracas and the Adi boy was hurt with a Dah. He bled the night and in the morning the local doctor bundled the Adi along with his exposed intestines in a VIP helicopter to Yinkiong/ Dibrugarh. The boy survived!
Our last touch point on the east bank was village Jidu where another river, Yang chu joins the Siang. Up this river are also a few Memba villages. Membas migrated from Tibet about 100- 150 years ago and follow Buddhist observances. Here we crossed over the 200 m cane bridge that loops over the Siang. Despite our experience with these bridges, we were shamed by locals loping down and up the vast parabola of the cane bridge as it swung merrily making our gingerly stepping hugely alarming. The bridge, marked the end of our short but satisfying trek. As always, I came across last. I hate to end a good walk! Across was a landing ground where the jeeps, our Sumo and a truck ferried us to the other end of the runway to waiting tea and pakoras. Kitchen for these was the cockpit of an AN 32 abandoned since 1987. After cannibalising it has been left to the scenery. Our hosts took us to their mess our camp for the night.
The ladies happily opted for an easy day next morning while I left for Gelling, the last Indian village in the valley. On the way are two small ones called Bona and Koppu- all Memba [gone is the 'ing' of the Adis!]. I was dropped a few km of a new road being made and walked off into the sun and 21 km to my destination. Largely a loping walk through thinning forest and then rice fields. I reached Gelling so utterly tired -the last bit is a relentless 500 m pull-up- that my knees would not bend. The IB3 is well made and sits above the village adjacent to the gompa. Another 30 mins walking would take me to the Assam Rifles Post, my hosts for the night. After a short rest at the IB, I abandoned visiting the Post so I could look around the village. This suited my guide who occupied the remaining suite- anyway the 'Sahib' was paying for the entire IB. Clever bloke.
In the afternoon I went loping to the village. These are Monpas, the houses built different, many with tin roofs, some with glass windows. An impressive looking one was of the local contractor who invited me for a glass of Apong served in a Chinese tea cup with a lid. His wife served us upstairs and went down to the ground floor hearth to be with her aged in-laws. Soon an adult cousin also joined. After some desultory talk, two refills, and a nibble at the quartered, boiled eggs, I took leave. My host very kindly showed me the complicated way back in the dark crossing many interrupted steps to the IB. The contractor had two stiff whiskeys and we said 'Tashi Delek'. I was glad for a lid on the cribbing litany- uncompleted, unrepaired government projects, unresponsive officials. Disquieting this. Today aruan island of tranquility; signs of a turbid tomorrow are all there - greedy politicians, lacadaiscal govt officials, clogged redressal machinery, termite ridden village projects, youth half literate hankering for govt jobs, vast destruction of village ecology and environment; what has the development, integration to show for the destruction of the old order? One wonders.
The village had many orange trees, a helicopter ground, the boys use for cricket while the girls look on sitting in huddles, watching from the village. Across the river there is a big Memba village, Bissing, from where one sees the Tsangpo enter India. I was told in this village both polygamy [when one man has many wives] and polyandry [when a woman has more than one husband] are practised. Before turning in, I packed for tomorrow's start at 6 a.m.
At 05.30 a.m. I breakfasted on a 4 egg, onion-green chilli omelette - delicious. Taking leave of my considerate hosts I began the return trudge. Walking fast I sweated myself back to the vehicle point and reached Tuting before 11 a.m., rather pleased with myself. Unfortunately, rushing my bath through (for we had to leave with a pack lunch at 1200 hours) I caught a chill, that later ripened to a lingering nuisance. Helga took her turn of the malaise a fortnight later.
We got to a place called Migging for the night: a wayside hut maintained for marooned soldiers. In the tin hut by the wood bhukhari, I picked my hat with an unprotesting cat taking its nap. Later Jean took it to her room. By evening we had reached Along, oh, the civilisation to a magnificent parting supper!
Come morning we were loaded and left soon after taking leave of our kind hosts. Back tracking to Bame we turned off towards Daporijo to cross into the Subansiri Basin. On the way a Maruti 800 car charged the large Sumo jeep around a bend. We swung out of the way, yet the Maruti got its fender bruised butting the fat end of the Sumo. An angry, young man exited the car, looked at the damage and came for our driver. Meekly the driver emerged to soak an onslaught that threatened to turn violent any moment. Lady in the car also came out and retched into the ditch. After shaking the limp Assamese by the scruff a few times and demanding Rs. 50,000/- at once, on the spot, the guy went to his car and ceremoniously donned his Dah. I wasn't going to be driven by a headless bloke so I left the Sumo to reason the genii. Neatly, the wife drew the Dah out of its scabbard from under his arm and began circling around the Sumo looking, it seemed to strike a demon for a later day Kali. Jean emerged to attempt reason; a discreet loan of a Rs. thousand to our driver to pay the hoodlum earned reprieve. The episode delayed us by 90 mins. Later at lunch our hosts appeared to admire the driving protocol of the novice four wheel 'chargers': a scrap, no matter whose fault, ask, a replacement car, or Rs. 50,000/-, or Rs. 5000/- in that order. The episode certainly slowed if not improved our driving. A fine late lunch at Daporijo with the Border Roads engineers was a just reward for our little escapade.
Drive from Siang to the Subansiri valley and then up to Ziro plateau is a delight. It was the third time I was reaching Ziro, twice at night. I still wonder what is more enchanting- arrive at night and leave by day or arrive by day to leave by night! Ziro, like Gangtok of old, has that come-again friendliness about it.
Next morning, we passed in front of the district courts; a couple of red coated 'Gams' in their ceremonial hornbill caps sat on their haunches, picking their teeth. None of the hustle and hum of the usual courts- these must be the quietest in the country. Most preened for a picture, except one who refused to believe it was not for business. During our walk, we had encountered occasional obduracy for being photographed; 'spirit capture' must surely be for some object?
We tripped and hop-skipped the progress-torn rubbish-choked street that used to be the old vegetable market since moved uphill. Strange mix of plains veggies, spices, and quaint forest produce vied with a stranger mix of plains men and tribals leaving ones nose tingling and eyes feasting. We walked to the Distt. library and the local museum through a noisy, small town bazaar that delighted Jean for it produced a toilet roll for Rs. 60. We had omitted, against advice, to inform and now found a strange somnambulance about our morning's target. It was soon abuzz once the library clerk recognised a friend from Sarli where he was the clerk to the Circle Officer and I the leader of National Geographic trip to Takpa Shiri daily cajoling for more and more porters [they had all gone with the election parties, 'for election maro'!]. Soon all doors were open- literally to allow sunlight in so we could appreciate some of the magnificent cane worked artifacts of tribal life. And buy books/ pamphlets without having to visit Itanagar.
After this leg we enjoyed being in Ziro where, Sumpi, my old Apatani friend swamped us with happiness at seeing me back. With my wife looking on, the spontaneous hugging and touching of my feet quite unnerved me!
Via Kimin we peeled off to the Kameng Division, effecting a seamless transfer from one set of grand hosts to another set of great hosts and headed for Tawang monastery that all enjoyed for it was the Tibetan new Year, Losar. We also visited an Ani [woman monks] monastery and a home that a local, talented Lama runs with help from the local Army Formation for destitute/handicapped children.
This marked the end of our Arunachal holiday and we now headed to Kaziranga. The menu here was straight forward; watch birds. We got onto an elephant at 05.30 a.m. In an hour's ride we saw a few Rhinos, many deer, wild boar and birds.
I dropped my binocular that the elephant deftly trunked back to the mahaut. Later, we went for a day safari. We Spotted a herd of wild buffalo, pigs and many birds. We spotted a herd of elephant and slowed to take a picture of a magnificent male when it charged. With a fearsome trumpet, raised trunk, erect tale it swung so quickly that in a jiffy it had halved the distance to our vehicle. Many things now happened; the guide let off a blank; the driver sped away; tail erect the elephant began wetting itself; amidst 'Oh Gods' my camera clicked in to vague space. Soon we spotted the baby the herd was alarmed about. We were back in Guwahati to board our train to Siliguri and then, a marvel of marvels, discovered the toy train to Darjeeling was functional.
In 7 hours the steam engine had worked itself in to a tizzy, broken a limb but had climbed all the way to Kurseong where it was led to the stables for resuscitation and surgery. It would be another 6 hours to Darjeeling. Feeling rotten at the abandoning of a heroic performer, reluctantly we boarded a cab to reach our friend's well appointed Cart Road house. After three magical days of togetherness in this favourite town of my youth- talking, eating, drinking, walking it was time to head home.
In an otherwise perfect trip our plans went awry at Delhi; the train from the east started 3 hrs late and was 5 hrs behind schedule reaching Delhi. Missed connections meant a cold night of anxiety and discomfort that a noisy, cold and filthy waiting room did little to ameliorate. It also meant getting home with a chill induced viral round that laid us both low for 10 days.
It had been a great trip; met and lived among strange people, seen landscapes and places longed since our youth, tested old skills, tried our ageing bodies discovered and overcome newer aches in old muscles; we had renewed and reinforced old friendships; met strange men and women and worked with trust and feeling with them; discovered new yearning, struck friendships; shared happiness and hardship and after due restoration, are ready for the next renewal!
A visit to Arunachal Pradesh.