Amidst nature's wilderness

ARDUOUS TREK

 Village lifeline: A bamboo bridge on the Siang river. Photo by authorA glimpse of the gushing river through the cracks in the bamboo floor makes you giddy. You wonder if this is what vertigo feels like. A misstep could land you into the swirling Siang, 100 feet below. From the other side of the river bank, there is a steady stream of villagers, some laden with sacks and bags. It is an ordeal to hold on to the unsteady ropes on the side to let them pass. Eventually, somehow, you manage to reach the other end from which there is a steep climb up a jagged slope to reach the road where your vehicle is waiting for you.

Deserted towns

My friend and I are in Yingkiong, the headquarters of the Upper Siang district in Arunachal Pradesh. We had sent our vehicle by road to the other side of the river in the morning so as to avoid six additional hours of bone-rattling ride. By the time we spot our vehicle, it is already 3.30 in the afternoon. The sun sets around 4.15 pm in these parts and we have an eight-hour-drive to go before we reach Tuting, a village close to the Indo-Tibetan border.

There is nowhere we can stay here, nor can we retrace our way back through the bamboo bridge. There are no villages anywhere till Tuting. Left with no alternative, we decide to move on. We have embarked on this journey to track the Siang from its point of entry from Tibet. The road is a river of slush, thanks to torrential rains the previous week. Soon, it is pitch dark. There are no villages, there is no trace of any habitation, no signages to tell you which fork to take, not a soul whom we can ask to guide us. We’re literally driving off the map. Our driver is a young lad from Assam and this is his first trip to these parts of the district as it is for me and my friend Rekha. 

As if to reassure us, a full moon rises dramatically in all its splendour to drench the road with its silvery beams. There is a magical aura of moon-lit wilderness. Dense vegetation, mostly wild banana, gives you the illusion of being in a plantation, but in reality, there is roaring Siang on the right and a mountain to the left. This is one drive I will never forget. We reach Tuting around 11 pm that night. Not that Tuting is a town with twinkling lights. It is a tiny village with a population of about 600 and virtually no activity. With nature being so bountiful, villagers don’t seem to bother about cultivating anything.

If you think reaching Tuting is an arduous adventure, think again. Reaching anywhere in Arunachal Pradesh is equally challenging. You need oodles of patience and a sense of timelessness to get anywhere in this state. It took us two days to reach Yingkiong from Dibrugarh. First, we had to take a country boat across the meandering Brahmaputra from Bogibeel Ghat on the outskirts of Dibrugarh to the other side  — this is the only means of transportation if you discount the weekly helicopter service which we availed on our way back.

For now, our vehicle had to drive on two planks placed between the boat and the sandy river beach at a rather steep incline. Only an expert driver can manoeuvre the wheels of the vehicle on these foot-wide planks to climb the boat and stop in time so as to not go overboard! 

The boat takes an-hour-and-a-half to reach the other side of the bank from where it is a two-hour ride to Pasighat, the headquarters of East Siang district. The Brahmaputra of the plains is now Siang of the hills and the original source of the mighty male river that floods the plains of Assam every year. It is joined by Lohit and other rivers that course through the Assam plains to make up the massive Brahmaputra.

We stayed at Pasighat that night and embarked upon another 10-hour nerve-wracking ride through a non-existent but spectacular Mariang Road, running all the way along the Siang River, and finally reached Yingkiong by late evening. Yingkiong is a one-yak village with a produce market that has nothing more than a few stringy beans and plump bananas. We wandered through this street looking for woollens since it was much colder than we had anticipated. But all one got here were things from Ludhiana at Louis Vuitton prices! We chose what we wanted to buy under the light of a kerosene lamp. 

From Dibrugarh, it takes three days to reach Tuting, a village spread out in a lush green valley surrounded by a chain of verdant mountains. This is the home of Memba and Khamba tribes, all Buddhists. The only place to stay is the circuit house. There is a gorgeous new Buddhist monastery being built by the Taiwanese, but without access roads, one wonders whether this gompa will remain a hidden jewel. 

Gelling, the last village, with a population of about a hundred people, on the Indo-Tibetan border, bang on the McMahon Line, is a further 20-odd kilometres from Tuting. Most of the road is motorable, provided the steel radials of your sturdy SUV are supplemented by your own steely nerves. We trudge up the last kilometre since the road stops short of the village. The Siang glides sensuously past the McMahon Line into Indian territory, a ribbon of molten silver, glinting in the morning sunshine. All the travails of our arduous journey evaporate with the morning mist.

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