Arunachal Pradesh is a wild, remote area in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas in the extreme north-eastern India, bounded by China and Myanmar, the Mishmi Hills and the Patkai Range, populated by predominantly animist tribes. This trip can not be carried out individually due to the necessary permits and lack of tourist infrastructure. We need jeeps and our own food and many local contacts and guides.
After the night stay in Kaziranga, we continue through the immense plains of Assam on beautiful roads overloaded with cars towards Bomdila. Our car passes through motorcycles, bicycles, handcarts, cows, goats, and dogs, in an incessant sound of stunning horns. We admire the vast expanse of rice fields and tea plantations and temples. And we can see in the distance the foothills of the Himalayas.
In Bhalukpong, we pass the state barrier, and here we enter Arunachal Pradesh, specifically in the district of West Kameng. The roads are narrower but they are almost deserted. Steep slopes surround us covered with a thick jungle. The exuberant colors have disappeared giving way to less colorful outfits.
At every moment, the backs of trucks and multiple panels remind us of the need to honk to signal our presence in the blind curves of these narrow roads in cornice. It is true that from 200 m in Bhalukpong, the district rises more than 7000m to Mount Kangte. We soon come across strange cabins made of flattened and blackened corrugated iron sheets. We soon learn that they are shelters of the workers and their families of Border Road Organization.
The landscape is filled with soldiers, barracks, slogans of the army and the BRO and thunderous commercials for the extension of 3G. We see that our mobile as in Assam remains stubbornly blocked. The stalls are similar to those of Assam, with the same profusion of vegetables. Almost all buildings, built on the steep edges of roads, rely on huge piles that compensate for the slopes.
And then, we quickly see small flags, and multicolored garlands, covered with a tiny handwriting. The prayer flags signals that we are in Buddhist land. The trip can begin. A little after Tenga, we leave the main road towards Rupa and Shergaon, in the land of Sherdukpen people. Local legend has it that this tribe descends from Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo in the 7th century but historians are less certain.
The affluent family, which hosts us, has a husband and a housewife, who sells tomatoes and potatoes and has apple trees. The house is simple, in the style of administrative buildings, without any insulation. The modern kitchen is equipped with a gas burner. There is a light bulb in each room but the current is very intermittent.
The heating is provided in some rooms by coal stoves that smoke considerably. The spring water (cold) is outside as the traditional toilets (Turkish water bucket). The bed is wooden and some blankets serve as mattresses. The meal is composed of rice with some boiled vegetables, and a little meat. Our finishing drink entitle us to a classic treatment with rice beer.
The men of the house go hunting with lamps at night. They bring back a small deer which they have, as usual, eaten raw liver, on the spot, sliced with pepper and salt. It will earn us a small stir-fry at breakfast.
The blankets are very hot but we feel a room at 3 degrees in the morning (we are at 1950m). We get dressed fast and have the classic breakfast with tea, puri bhaji and bananas. We leave for Dirang and decide of staying at the hotel at the entrance of the new city. There is a spacious room with lots of electrical outlets (but no electricity), the usual plank bedstead and a standard shower room.
There is a tiled floor without a shower tray, a European toilet, a shower with a small electric water heater that must be turned on 45 minutes before the shower! Unlike private homes where we get a little cooking fire, the hotel, like all that we will see later, is absolutely not heated. So we decide not to stay there and continue the road ahead.
The road from Dirang to Tawang is narrow and in poor condition but far above its sulphurous reputation. However, the snow clearance is not assured. The slightest snowfall paralyzes the road because there is almost no snowplow and nobody has snow tires. On the eve of our visit, about 60 vehicles were stuck by a small snowfall and the army had to intervene.
We arrive at the guest house near the monastery which is being enlarged with important works. We have a nice room with standard bathroom but not heated. The temperature in the dining room and the room vary between 6 and 10 degrees.
Our Bhutanese guide tells us that it was the first stop of the 14th Dalai Lama when he fled in 1959. Although we are very close, we need a special permit to visit the Chinese border. We make a turn towards Lumla by a very bad road, smashed by multiple landslides. Through the villages, on this holiday, we see people making balls for a lottery, many gambling games (banned) and discover countless hydraulic watermills driven by local torrents.
The landscapes are grandiose, the slopes are vertiginous and we are very close to the border of Bhutan that we can barely see in the mist. When we return in evening at the Tawang Monastery, we see two monks walk in the courtyard. They feed all the passersby according to a traditional custom and make everyone taste a pinch of grilled sweet barley. We get white scarves of bliss, symbols of purity, benevolence, good omen and compassion.
Returning to Dirang, the passage of Sela pass (13:30) is more difficult. There is thick fog, 15 cm of snow on the road, and military trucks, despite their chains, are at the ditch and obstruct the road. The start of the descent is worse on the first 10 km because there is more snow and the visibility is zero.
We have the chance to cross almost nobody on this section which takes however 45 minutes for 10 km. The few crossings are extremely perilous due to the narrow road, slippery snow and peaks. After Dirang, we take the road to Bomdila for about ten kilometers and then turn left for a rise of 1600m in 22km, of which only the first third is really passable.
In the following, stony passages with steep slope force us to get off the car to allow our driver to pass. We arrive at night around 6 pm in Chandar, a tiny monpa village at over 3000m altitude after 2 hours of climb. We enter into an unlit stone house with planked floor, beamed ceiling and bamboo slats, sheet metal roof.
A lady recite imperturbably a rosary of the om mani padme hum mantra interrupted only by the coughing of herself and her husband. We get a a wooden bed. The owners, former yak breeders are a little over 70 years old. They sleep on the ground because, it seems, they cannot stand to sleep in a bed, and our driver sleep in a crib at the end of the piece.
A neighbor who works with the BRO for a future military installation come and make the dinner. We have rice with a vegetable curry with the usual glasses of alcohol in this period of Losar. With our 4 or 5 Yak wool and skin blankets, it was, despite the altitude, the hottest house since the beginning of the trip.
We get up before everyone around 5:15 am. There is an exceptional weather, very cold. The water is frozen in all the bowls. The scenery is extraordinary and we can see all around the snowy mountains of the Himalayas. We then visit the Old Dirang and its fortress (the Dzong). There is not much people except a place where a dozen players engage with passion in the game of Kolakpa.
After the Dzong we descent to the old Dirang which mixes old and beautiful old stone houses and a jumble of recent constructions in heterogeneous materials and garbage. The concept of protected site has not yet reached Arunachal Pradesh.
We leave for Sangti Valley, a very rich valley of rice, corn, tomatoes, fruit trees, vegetables cultivation in north of Dirang. We walk across several villages. A lot of gambling, in which professionals siphon some savings of the villagers.
The bottom of the valley is about 1500m, as Dirang but then we go up towards 2000m towards the village of Zimthoung. The fields here have vertiginous slopes and require considerable work. We return to Dirang by the mountain to have lunch with some excellent samosas.
We then take the road to Bomdila Pass across very steep gorges covered with thick jungle. The traffic is not very dense but the many military convoys have a very domineering conduct, like the Sumo that connect Assam to the high valleys. We eat in the monastery's vegetarian inn, perfect, but still fresh.
We depart towards Bhalukpong, a descent with steep slope in the first kilometers. There is an extremely impressive road from Tenga to Sessa with peaks of 200 or 300m, narrow enough for the cars to hardly cross. We see trucks, in the middle of a thick jungle with giant trees, tree ferns, partially destroyed by the cultivation that sees the banana trees grow in regenerating places.
It is a culture on Jhum cultivation in which one clears and burns plots of jungle to cultivate there 2 or 3 years. Then one lets the forest regenerate at least about twenty years. The main crop is rainfed rice (without flooded rice fields) but there are also orange trees.
After safe passage from the border to Bhalukpong, where we leave the Buddhist region, we arrive in Assam where we find its total absence. The land is teeming with people and are colorful. The good quality of its roads however has a bewildering circulation mixing all types of gear, pedestrians and animals.
Our driver is extremely concentrated and rolls at 80-90 km/h with a strong horn. We cross the Assam for this very long stage, without a word or a stop, not even to see for a moment the many and immense tea plantations and paddy fields (dry at this time and traversed by starving cattle), or tropical villages under the banana trees.
The crossing of the border is Hollongi, on a new highway in the making that oscillates between 4 lanes, 2, 1 or not at all. We enter the district of Papum Pare in areas of animist tradition and, first, in the Nyishi tribe.
We arrive at night in Itanagar (750m) that we cross from side to side with many people and a lot of traffic jams. We get a good accommodation and have a nice dinner especially with chicken with butter and cream. We also have curry made with white turnips or radish and eat as salad, lentils and peas accompanied by a digestive. It is less traditional, but not unpleasant!
In the morning, we attend rehearsals of Nyokum Yullo in Itanagar which will unfortunately take place the next day. We departure for Ziro on a very beautiful road at the beginning, built by a private company but which has not yet made the crossings of brooks and torrents. We arrive fast on a classic BRO road, narrow, and in bad condition, with a thick fog and rain. It takes 5 hours to travel the 110 km between Itanagar to Ziro.
We arrive around 4 pm at the home stay, in Siiro village, near Ziro, where a energetic woman runs this cottage. Her small family manages important crops, including tomatoes. Her husband, civil engineer is on the move. They have a nephew who was a very attentive local guide. We get a small room, but a little heated with a bathroom and the usual water heater. The dinner was excellent with chicken and egg. There was bamboo shoot cooked in a wood fire, garden vegetables.
In breakfast we have fresh fruit with cream, including exceptional kiwis, momo, fried eggs, toasts, and omelettes with vegetables. We are here in the small but very famous village of the Apatani tribe. The Apatanis villages are immediately distinguishable from the Nyishi villages, which cultivate on dry land, often in slash-and-burn cultivation.
Here, as far as the eye can see, there are rice fields, cultivated according to the Apatani tradition. There are dikes, of carefully fixed height, allow water to flow from terraces to terraces, keeping the right height in each terrace. There is no plowing of rice fields and fish are raised in this water.
The increase in influx of tourists make the population quite reluctant to be photographed, for fear that their souls will be stolen from them. These villages seem predominantly animist and the flags of Donyi polo adorn many houses, as well as private altars. They are mounted in bamboo, and decorated with heads of cock and broken eggs that are intended to cure diseases or difficulties.
Each village is divided into clans, Hong, for example, has 16, roughly corresponding to large families. The marriages within the clan are forbidden. Each clan has a lappa, a sort of platform that serves as a meeting place and ceremony for clan men for important decisions. Lapps are not allowed for married women. There are also in the streets big Babo masts prepared for the spring festival, called myoko.
In the evening we attend a wedding ceremony. Apparently, in marriage the groom's family must give the first gifts, usually a Mithun for the father-in-law (diiran). They also give a little Mithun for a brother or cousin of the bride, and a cow for another brother or cousin (ari mechu).
In return they will promise to provide the young couple with the rice (in the form of a right to harvest a certain number of fields) that they need for the first year (riitu). The parents of the bride, if they have the means, will offer a return ceremony called miida datchi.
There is also a variant of Miida datii but much more expensive and little practiced with gifts proportionate to the initial gifts. The ceremony takes place entirely in the house of the parents of the bride who assumes the entire reception, as well as the gifts.
The women from the village start cooking for us after we offered them a bottle of brandy. They also bring the Mishmi Juhl, a local rice wine, as ahead is a long cold night.
We then take the road south towards Yazali and Potin (2 hours drive). On this road, a large number of drivers are driving at full speed to the North without any warning in bends. In Potin, we turn to Lichi, Kimin and North Lakhimpur (3 hours since Potin), In this part, the road is better and less crowded. Assam has not changed. There is good road, frenetic traffic and roads crowded with everything. We arrive at night around Pasighat.
Pasighat is the oldest city of Arunachal Pradesh and is the heart of the Adi people. The Adi are divided into subgroups (Padam, Minyong, Padi, Pangi for those we have seen) originally separated by clear geographical boundaries like rivers. They fought each other for centuries until the war with the British brought them together. They speak, however, dialects somewhat different from one group to another.
We also stop at Rani, a village of Adi Minyiong (from the right bank of the river Yamne). According to the Adi tradition, they are in the middle of the Aran festival, the last festival, just before the start of summer that we will see in more detail in Damroh. Next to Pasighat, we go in the guest house of the tea estate, where the owner receives us. The dinner is beautiful and combines, with happiness, tradition of Arunachal and North India.
We meet there a engineer who explains that it is extremely difficult for a outsider to obtain building contracts. There may be a possibility of acquiring land in the city, provided that the Gaon bura (village chief) agrees and possibly have them registered administratively but that one without the other is worthless.
We then leave on the road to Roing (which is closed before Roing following the rains of the last days). We reach after 50 km the Idu Mishmi village of Aohali. From the Mayodia Pass, we see the snowy mountains, with the place itself full of snow, which is reminiscent of similar scenes in Tawang. We overcome our tiredness and are more than rewarded when we observe a Hoolock Gibbon during an excursion to a nearby Dihang-Dibang Biosphere Reserve.
We see some people build a camp near Siang, mainly for rafting activities. We have a tire repaired in front of the police station and then we leave Pasighat in the direction of Pangin to reach the village of Pangi. We cross 80 km (3 hours) of a road whose beginning and end are appalling with a new section in the middle that seems miraculous.
For those who would like to reconstruct the route, Google maps and OpenStreet map are particularly false in this region. Pangi is actually, like Sissen, on the right bank of Siang, a few kilometers before Pangin coming from Pasighat. Returning to the road, we go up the Siang to Pangin, then turn left, along the Syiom River to Aalo.
The 35km alternating as usual the best and the worst with a lot of landslides and landslides due to the last rains, we reach at 1:30. We stay at the hotel which is certainly quite opulent, but rather poorly managed unlike the restaurant which is beautiful with a very nice local map. For dinner we have chapati, curry and the papad.
We take the road to Pasighat for a few kilometers and take the road to the left to the North and Yingkiong along the upper valley of Siang, which is narrow and impressive, sometimes close to gorges. As soon as space allows, it is lined with rice terraces supported by stone walls and it seems that it is mainly grown glutinous rice (oryza sativa) which is the only grown here.
We go 53km in addition to 4 hours to reach Damroh which is the heart of the tribe of adi padam, important branch of the adi people. We stay for our part in the eco-lodge, a little away from the village above the river of the same name.
During evening cooking families gather. We understand that these animistic beliefs are an individual religion. Each one has a direct link with the unique god known as Sedi, creator of all things and whose eyes are the sun (female) and the moon (male). There is no proper worship and the shamans (here called miri) are not clergy but people who have had revelation of their power and declare themselves shamans, that is to say rather healers or exorcists.
A group of intellectuals decided, in the 1960s, to institutionalize these beliefs into a Donyi Polo religion and to create different institutions. It includes the donyi polo yelam kebang, temples (called ganggings), texts formalizing in writing certain oral traditions, and iconography.
At the top of the village, we see the place where tradition says that the founders of the village are buried and the place where the clans meet when there is a dispute between them. A little further on the road there is a quarry where there was a tree, reputed to be that of fertility and where many animists went.
We attend another wedding. The groom can come to live for several years at his in-laws, or even have children without it causing problems. After the wedding, when the husband has income and built a house, it is the bride who goes at her husband's place. The first names are given to the children after the third night, and chosen by the elders, possibly on the suggestion of the parents.
The villagers also speak of a US plane that crashed in the mountains during the World War II and is three days' walk from the village. The villagers have recovered ammunition boxes that they store in the houses and they have fun from time to time by exploding them. In these tribal areas, land management is entirely oral and there is no boundaries. There is, moreover, no written tradition. Some of the land is communal and part of it belongs to families or clans.
The rest of the journey takes us in 70km (4 hours drive) from Damroh to Pasighat, on a huge construction site of a future three-lane road that will however struggle against the clay cliffs that dominate. In a long day, our stage takes us from Pasighat to Tingrai, about twenty kilometers before Digboi.
Outside the passage on the ferry and the river dolphins, we find the same brutal change at the end of the Arunachal. There are crowds and frightening traffic, bright colors of outfits, roads mostly of good quality. We stay with an old lady, owner of a small tea plantation, whose father was working in British tea plantations and was killed during the World War II in Hong Kong.
It's a surprise as it is a house with a perfectly English garden. There is even a shower tray in the bathroom and reading lights on the English nightstands.
In breakfast we have French fries, grilled sausages, fried eggs, porridge and corn flakes with juices and English tea. After visiting Digboi, we leave for Arunachal again. The border post is at Dirak and we arrive in a part of Arunachal very different from what we have seen so far. The land is extremely flat in this part of the district and we can see many golden Thai-style pagodas.
We go to Chongkham, within the Theravada Buddhist Tai Khamti tribe, which is noticeably more austere than Tibetan Buddhism seen at the beginning of the trip. Most temples and pagodas in the area have been built in the last 15 years by local politicians. A young undergraduate student become our guide. He is also passionate about cricket and wears the traditional Khamti outfit with phanoi, a kind of long skirt.
The food is quite different from what we saw in the north. We eat rice in phrynium leaves, mixed rice, vegetables and fish in the same leaves, a large bowl of fish, bowl of vegetables and seaweed. We also have soups with banana flowers, grilled fish, lentils and pork, and Indian beer in bottles.
We live in a large walled area with shards of bottles, a heavy metal door and guards. But the entire back wall is demolished! There is in this chamber a beautiful museum of tribes Tai-Khamtis Singphos, very recent and open on request.
On our return, we stop at Namsai, center of the Singpho tribe, a Buddhist tribe doubly famous for introducing English tea and for having made an immoderate consumption of opium which endangered it. The Namsai market offers industrial quantities of paan or betel leaves and areca nuts, used to refresh the mouth.
We cross a part of Assam, Dirak, on the border of Lohit, Dibrugarh and quickly visit Dibrugarh. We always have the same feeling coming out of Arunachal, to be a peasant arriving at a station at rush hour! We stay at the unusually luxurious hotel after Arunachal (and with real mattresses) but a room without window, with a TV and wifi more than capricious, and a restaurant.
Dibrugarh is the last place to buy cardamom, anise, and excellent quality teas at prices we only regret in Delhi. We then fly to Delhi. The flight is perfect. The staff is smiling and graceful, and the airplanes are almost new Airbus.