Eight days after leaving Bangalore, at dusk, we crossed the border at Dirak Gate in the eastern part of the state, with no one interested in our Inner Line Permits. We had made it to Arunachal Pradesh, the land of the dawn-lit mountains.
BHPian Sonali Singh recently shared this with other enthusiasts.
“Madam, I don’t know what has happened. There were so many butterflies yesterday. And normally, the birds are out by now, looking for fish.”
We were walking on the banks of the Nordhiang, skirting the impenetrable forest cover that looked forbidding up close, no trail visible in its undergrowth. The winter sun was beating down on our heads. It had already been two hours since a local villager had rowed us across the snow-fed river.
I wasn’t sure if our guide at the Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve was lying to comfort us for not seeing anything more exotic than a pied kingfisher diving unsuccessfully for breakfast. Tourists, having spent money and time, which is also money, get peeved at merely hearing, not seeing, the promised animals and birds. They berate the animals as ingrates for not living their lives in public, ready to be captured with Canons and persistence for walls in the meta-verse. For us to have driven 3,500 km to East Arunachal, home in Bangalore as far away as Shanghai, he probably thought we would expect every creature to line up for inspection and portraits. It was his lucky day though. People like me, a heady mix of the unemployed, the impecunious and the lazy, are few and far in between and ridiculously easy to please. Just the thought of being the only two tourists in that forest that day was enough for us to give out sighs of contentment every so often.
A bird flew leisurely over us and soon disappeared into the forest. The guide (whose name I unfortunately do not remember) turned to us. He was looking stunned.
We had disturbed a white-bellied heron, one of fewer than 10 in India, all in Namdapha, one of an estimated 100-400 left, marked for extinction in a world where its natural habitat of fast-flowing rivers running through remote forests has already lost its worth. A 2021 study by the Zoological Survey of India and Bombay Natural History Society uncovered the truth behind its dwindling numbers. Its love for solitude, unlike predilections for communal living of other river birds, is to blame; it didn’t find out about new hunting grounds and now finds itself trapped in the 2,000 sq km of Namdapha. How long does it have?
I do not have a photograph of that moment.
Or of many such others from the 34 days and 10,237 kilometres spent on the road, from Bangalore to Arunachal and back.
I wish I did.
But then, perhaps social media has made us forget it is enough to be on journeys that challenge us and to live to tell tales of the wonder we feel at hearing hidden worlds we could never see without causing their destruction.
This is the tale of one such journey. One to overshadow it might take a while.
WHEN Medusa, my beautiful grey Mahindra Thar, came into my life in June 2021, I knew I would head towards the North East India soon. It would be a perfect way to flip around the not-exactly-a-good-year I had been having, what with the pandemic having extracted its price and changing my relationship status back to single, absolutely and irrevocably unwilling to mingle. Bhutan had been top of the mind recall, but a chance remark across a friend’s lunch table suddenly brought Arunachal Pradesh into focus.
The state is celebrating 50 years of its formation in 2022 and Sanjay Dutt can be found smiling in promotional videos as the new brand ambassador. In a country mad about stars, the choice is a testament to the value the state places in its wildlife. It also perhaps sends the neighbouring thug the usual weak, albeit belligerent, message.
Incidentally, that neighbouring thug is the only reason mass media mentions the state. Declaring Chinese names for territories it claims and kidnapping a teenager hunting around the disputed border (after being released, he was quoted saying he wishes to join the army — the Indian one thankfully) provide valid circumstances for the mainland to indulge in chest-beating, vote-winning, nationalistic rhetoric. Such stories, while not exactly beams of happiness and sunshine, get a few more among the billion plus curious enough to register Arunachal Pradesh as a state.
The state administration has been making efforts in the recent years to get tourists. And for once, thought is being given to income generation for indigenous people before plundering their land. A few gregarious souls, delighted with an alternative to farming and building roads in bucolic isolation, have already availed of subsidies to start homestays and are welcoming Bengalis and Assamese on weekend drives made popular during the pandemic.
Biker-vloggers have been hard at work for some time now. How can all roads be dangerous, I scoffed when watching the umpteenth GoPro footage. It must be wizardry of camera angles.
The first internet search throws up the government site with lists of places and their anaemic descriptions. It does not even yield top tips for visiting Sela Pass and Tawang for the snow and about the annual Ziro Music Festival held among green rice fields surrounded by mountains, two of the more known places. And when the algorithm eventually leads to the few posts by local residents in other towns in the state, they really don’t make an impression. The distance is not merely physical. I mean, what is Walong and Wakro and West Kameng? Blogs and articles can be found only by serendipity. The Team BHP site has a few travelogues of people covering North East in a short sweep. But in spite of all the information I scrounged out, I felt more familiar with the concept of an Australian Bush, which I am yet to visit, than with Arunachal Pradesh.
Write-ups of a convoy-style Thar Trans Arunchal trip organised by Mahindra early last year ultimately became my reference point. Different accounts by invited journalists gave the idea that one could traverse from the east to the west of the state along the NH13. Of course, that convoy had a support crew, not to mention support vehicles, to make and dismantle camps at will. I would need to depend on homestays and dodgy highway hotels. After a while, I gave up trying to ascertain destinations and putting them in order. Time estimates with accompanying description of chaos on the road were wildly varying, for no apparent reason.
It’s in India, right, and I would be in a Thar, I thought. I could do a beating retreat to the last place with hot water.
With a go-with-the-flow itinerary in mind, the “when” was easy. December has acceptable levels of cold and rain, though one cannot count on such things in these days of a post-climate-change world. Nevertheless, it would certainly be better than the months sure to bring landslides, if the newspaper articles were to be believed.
Prepared to go alone, I started talking about the plan to my family and friends. Pater said, “Alone? To Arunachal?” Unexpectedly, some friends expressed interest and I started pondering.
This was likely to take a month, 10 days just going to Guwahati and back because I wasn’t keen on 15+ hours of daily driving. This would be a marathon, not a sprint. And the Thar, which I love to bits for its many things, well, it ain’t superfast. As I thought more, I began to realise the mammoth undertaking I had my heart set on. Having done only one 700-kilometre journey alone at the time in the Thar, a co-driver would be invaluable. Ultimately, the friend with no time constraints, a far more experienced driver, the recent ex-partner (yes, friends too had exclaimed in fascinated horror) became the chosen one. The decision might have been aided by another friend screeching in my ear, “Arunachal?! Ditch the women and take the man!”
So, Ray and I packed our bags and were off on 1 December 2021.
START was delayed, a prognosis of days to come. More items were seeming more indispensable by the minute. After essentials — a duffel bag of clothes, shoes and toiletries each, a tent bag and off-roading recovery gear — had gone in, so did four coconuts from the garden, a copy of Ulysses, an icebox, left-over raisins, toilet rolls, soy milk, a hairdryer…no, don’t roll your eyes.
Initial excitement waned after crossing the Karnataka border. Long stretches of dusty roads flanked by rocky hills with temples on top, highway restaurants with indifferent food, and toll bridges were all we had. The occasional small town or village cut the speed but momentarily. Vignettes of rural India going about its life — tiny tempos and large tractors carrying grains, cauliflowers and shiny plastic chairs, uniformed students walking to school, women in shiny saris travelling with men in white — soon lost their charm. Diesel prices provided the only gawk-worthy entertainment. Peace was temporarily shattered right at the beginning, just before Tirupati, by a stone chipping the windscreen. I pouted for an hour and blamed the co-driver, secretly thankful I was not behind the wheel at the time. A quick search on the Team-BHP site about lorries and their flying pebbles lead me to an astonishing thread on such happenings to others in the same stretch.
Parts with choke points felt like Temple Run; thankfully, demon monkeys were not at hand to attack us if we made a wrong move. First it was the long-haulers lined for scores of kilometres, as multitudes worked around the clock to re-build the Chennai-Kolkata highway swept away by Andhra floods and traffic police laboured to manoeuvre smaller vehicles through the chaos. Then it was the bridge over Godavari. Suspended over the longest Peninsular river in South India, I dwelled on why it had taken me three decades to see what I had read about in school. Cyclone Jawad gave us a half-hearted chase from the beautiful Chilika. And just before Kolkata, Google Maps trapped us, in quite the Abhimanyu-in-chakravyuh style, with a promise of a bridge that turned out to be made of bamboo. We drove desperately for an hour and half to escape the Bengali countryside, replete with startled villagers and slow-motion cyclists who didn’t respond to the word “highway” (hot tip: “main road” works). We were also unwittingly and unwillingly lured into an off-roading experience with the trucks among the moon craters of Moregram, a forgotten stretch of NH14 as close to Mad Max:Fury Road as we would get in our lifetime. After that, the notorious, daily vehicular stand-off at Farakka Barrage seemed like a deserved period of rest. Melas with their maut ka kuan set-ups, Bollywood tunes, and chaat vendors added to the bustle of small-town life passing by us, even if in the light of green and red bulbs, they resemble hunting grounds for serial killers to Netflix-addled brains.
Hold on reality becomes tenuous after interminable hours on the highway, cocooned against the elements. The mind wanders. What were those mysterious, colossal industrial parts that look like they belong to power plants, but don’t? They dwarfed everything in their paths. Were those really mud and grass huts? Highways in Orissa are on their way to being like Andhra Pradesh’s, broad, bland, all trees massacred at the holy grail of driving at an unforgiving pace. But they haven’t yet been stripped off their West Bengal influence, where everybody and their goats, chickens and children lead full lives. Was that…yes, a woman was really squatting and beating clothes with a laundry bat on the side of a national highway. And that 2-days delivery you and I are now used to, calling customer service in fury if those silicon storage bags are not delivered at the speed promised while taking Rs 1,499 off our hands, what does that do to the highways? Do we blame the government for that too? The trucker’s life is spent in a cabin heated by an unrelenting sun and then snaking through the night on roads lit only by others like him, ants with headlights. He (no demand for gender equality here) eats in the shade of a tree if he can find it, or under the dim, white light of a bulb at a dhaba, which he always does.He perhaps finds solace in fleeting conversations at the chai shop and in the warmth of a hug that can be bought in ghettos that come up to service all like him, and perhaps his wife and son understand. Would I?
Highway hotels provided comic relief. One must not say, when travelling with a man one is not married to, ”We need a room for the night.” And one cannot expect profit margins to accommodate detergent supplies. But mornings make these buildings, however dismal they had seemed when checking in the previous evenings, appear cheerful, vaguely reminiscent of Amol Palekar and Sanjeev Kumar films, a happy small town vibe in their innocent shabbiness. The staff serves with the pride of a white collar job in a largely agrarian setting, closest to the air of nirvana that can come only of a government job. And after the inevitably greasy puri-aloo and omelette-bread breakfasts, one feels fortified for yet another day on the road. Once, we received a surprise recommendation with the mandatory safe-journey goodbyes. We would be passing within sneezing distance of Shantiniketan, and of course we wanted a photograph of the tree under which Tagore had probably dozed off in the middle of writing “Where the mind is without fear”.
The list of tactical strategies to avoid debacles grew longer. Watch the blue and white signs. Follow the trucks. No, follow the locals. Stick to wider lines on the map. Except when there are none. Then throw up your hands and follow the yellow, brick road.
The air changed after passing the chicken neck of Siliguri and the Coronation Bridge. It was hilly climbs and tea gardens, and then the roads widened through the rest of West Bengal, and just like that, trailing a tempo with two young men checking their phones, blue skies and sunshine and puffy clouds in surround-view, we were in the North East, passing road signs that proclaimed Bhutan was 50 kilometres to the left.
We stopped for a day in Guwahati to use the washing machine of one of Ray’s classmates from the distant past. And then for another to see the stunning Kaziranga National Park with two-thirds of the world’s rhinoceros population and other assorted beings, the Siberians blending in with the locals, all in a surreal display amidst the tall, elephant grass and the winter morning fog.
Soon it was the home stretch.
And eight days after leaving Bangalore, at dusk, we crossed the border at Dirak Gate in the eastern part of the state, with no one interested in our Inner Line Permits. We had made it to Arunachal Pradesh, the land of the dawn-lit mountains.
Mooncraters of Moregram (video)
At Kaziranga (video 1) (video 2)
Continue reading BHPian Sonali Singh’s travelogue on her Bangalore to Arunachal trip for more insights and information.
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