The raw beauty, surreal landscape and hospitality of Arunachal keep drawing me back.
“The first thing to do when you travel anywhere is to learn to say thank you in the local language.”
“If you have proper roads, it's already too civilised.”
“I never want to get out of this sleeping bag.”
These three lines define my recent trip to Arunachal Pradesh. This was the third time I’ve visited India’s most eastern state – the previous two excursions were for Ziro Festival of Music (2014) and Orange Festival (2015).
Abu Tayeng, whom I met two years ago at Orange Festival was the catalyst for my latest trip. Abu is an adrenaline junkie who runs the state transport department in his free time. He was planning a 5-day angling and white water rafting trip. Would I be interested? I would, I assured him – and I’d be bringing two friends along.
Arunachal: the land of wooden bridges where you're at the mercy of the river if she wants to let you across
A two-hour flight and 15-hour bus journey later, we found ourselves in the rainy town of Pasighat, where Abu’s trusted driver, Tanzin, picked us up. As we began the journey to Abu’s home in Bomjir, a village only reachable after crossing lush forests, the dry river beds of the Brahmaputra, and the Brahmaputra itself. But as fate would have it (and much to my delight), our jeep got stuck in the middle of the river.
When your jeep gets stuck in the middle of the river, keep calm and tug it the f*** out
There was no cell phone signal (of course), so our survival instinct kicked in almost immediately. First, we carried all our knapsacks to dry ground (a relative term given the torrential downpour). Next, we tried to use our combined strength to pull the jeep out of the river, which was nearly impossible because a) we weren’t strong enough and b) the river currents made it even standing up difficult. Luckily, some lovely locals passing by helped us yank the jeep out of the river. We had survived our first river crossing… but were promptly again stuck on our next one.
This time, our phones cooperated. We managed to reach Abu, who told us to stay put and wait for a rescue raft. VIP treatment, I thought, and was ecstatic at the idea of this unusual rescue operation. But things took an even more surreal turn when we saw a massive blue APSTC bus, full of plants sticking out the windows, heading towards us.
We climbed on top of the bus, held on tight, and crossed the river. Somehow. It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done, especially in the moment where it seemed we were sure to topple over. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised: I was going to a place that is cut off from the mainland for nearly half the year, unless you’re sitting atop an elephant.
We made it to our destination in one piece! Hurrah for Arunachal!
Interestingly, getting stuck in the river, driving with rifles in the cabin, or using firecrackers to ward off wild elephants isn’t a big deal for the locals here. While city folk like me think it’s a story to write home about, “it’s not even an inconvenience” to people like Abu. You can’t even call it “surviving.” It’s just how they live here.
When we got off the bus, Abu and his crew were waiting to take us to his jungle lodge in Bomjir. Mithun Lodge takes its name from the 18 semi-domesticated mithuns who live there. Fun fact: if you give these bison-like creatures salt, they cozy up to you.
A lazy morning being spent in the treehouse
The lodge was our base for the next three days. We also met Vinay Badola, a professional fishing tour guide from Garhwal who literally lives to fish. Abu and Vinay taught us many things. Like the fact that ‘Abu’ means father, but within the Adi tribe to which Abu belongs, the youngest sibling often gets called that. Or that the system of blood brothers still exists between some of Arunachal’s 26 major tribes.
I even got to try using a dao, which is a beautifully carved tribal knife for every purpose - from chopping bhut jhalokia (ghost) chillis to make a spicy chutney or for cutting chicken or chopping wood, depending on the need. My personal achievement before I tucked into my sleeping bag: becoming an expert at using the medung, a bamboo pipe that you blow at the wood in the fireplace to get the fire going!
The treehouse of my dreams
My favourite aspect of life at Mithun Lodge was the ubiquity of bamboo, which was used for almost everything. This simple natural technology creates huts and treehouses capable of withstanding any weather catastrophe. Even when it was pouring outside, the thatched roofs of the huts ensured that the rain wouldn’t come in but the smoke went out, while keeping the hut cool and pest-free.
Kibbung, Arunachal's chutney specialist, making bhut jhalokia (the spiciest chilli in the world) salsa
The food was another area of interest. Being a vegetarian, my consumption was limited to eating rice cooked in bamboo, dal, potatoes, green vegetables or eggs. But even though I couldn’t eat it, the tribal food Archie and the others were getting to eat looked pretty darn inviting. Most of the food was hunted - wild boar, pheasants, doves (the emerald dove we spotted on the road were too pretty to eat, according to me), pigs, chicken, all sorts of fish. The way the meat was cooked - either being directly grilled over the fire or steamed in bamboo shoots - added to the flavour and uniqueness too. Being in such a remote area requires being totally self-sufficient, and from whatever I could see of the tribal culture and lifestyle, they were doing that in a way that we city dwellers could only dream of.
Abu making some delicious alu saag for us vegetarians, while the rest of the gang enjoyed wild fowl!
Our nights were spent knocking back nearly locally brewed apong, or rice beer. Of the many interesting conversations sparked by the pinkish drink, my favorite was about how Buddhists, who I learnt were often non-vegetarian, got away with killing animals. The key was in subtlety and subterfuge. In conversation I heard my hosts were known to push cows off cliffs, and to create incisions in yaks, then twist their aortas, which stops the flow of blood to the brain and puts the animals to permanent sleep. They also pin sheep down to the ground, then strangle them. I can’t entirely remember the specifics of how these morbid executions were better than just slaughtering animals, but I’ll be sure to cross-check the facts with the next Buddhist that comes my way.
Fact: you can semi-domesticate Mithuns by bribing them with salt, as is being shown by Abu with his semi-pet Mithun
The best day of the trip began with a fat doob, a wonderful dump, and a crazy ride through the forest to the river Dibang, where we would be rafting. Other than the unbelievable terrain, with silhouettes of mountains on three sides playing hide and seek with the clouds and the flowing river passing by, there was an elephant waiting for us to get us across the river. It turned out to be Moti, whom I had met during Orange Festival two years ago.
The 25-year-old beauty was one of the most beloved creatures in the area, for she acted as a bridge to get people across the river during the monsoons. She clearly wanted food, because every time I touched her trunk, she'd try and shove her nostrils at me hoping for goodies to be thrown in. I had no peanuts to offer, sadly, but Lokender Tati, her mahout, did allow me to climb onto her and take a walk by the river.
Riding on elephants is quite a peaceful feeling, especially when there's a river behind you and mountains on the other 3 sides
Post elephant ride, I tried to help fill air into the rafts but I only managed to amuse the whole crew with my failing attempts, so I decided to spend time skipping stones and photographing the raft preparation instead. Soon after that began a most extraordinary 3.5 hours journey down the river. Even though the river was too calm to really feel the thrill of white water rafting and anticipating the raft toppling over and falling into leech territory, each minute was more gorgeous than the other. I didn’t have the guts to carry my phone on the trip, but the picturesque sights and places I saw on that adventure shall stay etched in my memory for a lifetime.
All set for what was to be an amazing 3.5 hour ride down the Dibang
Moreover, our conversations with the crew members and the overall experience was so starkly different from anything I’ve ever experienced before. I learnt about the Adi way of life, and how to paddle through a meandering river, and that leeches can be removed using burnt cigarette, salt or tobacco. We even stopped at a few surreal islands along the way where Abu and Vinay were busy fishing and looking for the mighty golden mahaseer. Thanks to my conversations with the two of them, my respect for angling multiplied manifold, as I learnt about the world of angling (It’s a 40 billion dollar industry in America!).
I felt silly to not know the basics, like the fact that fish are weightless in water and you know how strong it is based on the way it swims. And that there are vegetarian piranhas known as tambaquis, which luckily don’t share their cousin’s flesh-eating preferences. And that many fish have pharyngeal teeth, which means that their teeth are not in the mouth but throats.
In search of the golden mahaseer with fishing expert Vinay Badola. The guys really lives to fish!
My lack of knowledge and awareness about a sport where you catch and release, rather than kill the fish, only made me more curious. Besides, it was fascinating to see a person whose world was so absolutely driven by fishing and baits and who even had a drawer back in his home in Geneva that he called the ‘Mortuary’, which houses all kinds of twisted, mangled, dead, and teeth-marked lures that had been killed by the fish he had tried catching over this lifetime.
Many conversations and river crossings later, the rafting trip ended near Bizari village, where the jeeps were waiting for us with our lunch. We got a fire going, savoured the hot rice, dal and potent sun-dried chilli powder, and rid ourselves of leeches that had been devouring our blood. On my way back to the lodge, I realized that the beauty of travelling, especially in unexplored, pristine areas like Arunachal Pradesh, is that I am always smiling to myself. It’s probably a creepy smile to anyone who sees me doing it, because it’s seemingly for no apparent reason. But regardless of whether I'm removing leeches from my legs or driving through muddy forests or stargazing with a bottle of apong by my side, each experience counts, and it’s a great feeling to be able to acknowledge that approach to travel and also, life in general.
Chilling in the marom of Abu's hut
The last night of the trip ended with a well-deserved treat. As the bottles of apong were depleted, everybody took turns at playing the music - from Bob Marley to local Arunachal music to Billie Holiday to The Who. At some point, I even recall dancing around the fireplace, full of glee. It was only at midnight when we decided to call it quits, and I managed to emerge from my bed 12 hours later, still hungover and wishing I was a teetotaler. We then packed up, bid adieu to the memorable Mithun Lodge, and began a 12-hour drive to Itanagar, passing through yet another myriad of Arunachal’s finest landscapes.
There is no good way to describe the end of a holiday, especially one that has been so high on adrenaline levels, adventure and awe. Other than my questionable hygiene levels when I’m in the wild, the pleasures of travelling to new places, experiencing new things, and understanding entirely new cultures the way I could in Arunachal Pradesh has never felt more appealing. Cities are not for everyone. Maybe it's time I accepted that my happiest home isn’t in the urban landscape but on the move.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Rohini Kejriwal
Photographs by: Rohini Kejriwal