Arunachal Pradesh – The Wild East

After leaving eastern Nagaland we set out to cross into Arunachal Pradesh for the next phase of our journey. The mountainous regions that enclose the upper Brahmaputra valleys are remote and impassible in the extreme and so it was necessary for us to descend back into the plains of Assam and cross a long tract of flat green tea country interspersed (in a surprisingly haphazard fashion) with the oil and gas fields that produce such a substantial proportion of the wealth of India.

We were a little unsure as to whether the overt military presence was due to the oil industry or to the recent political unrest in the state and were surprised to find our overnight stop at the Dibrugarh Tea County hotel guarded by soldiers armed with automatic weapons. As it turned out, this lot were simply there to guard some senior officers attending a conference and, despite the fact that they had so unsettled the staff that we had a pile of (clean) military underwear delivered to our room and our Thermos filled with lukewarm tap water, we made the best of all the comforts that a rare encounter with four stars provided.

I’d love to be able to tell you that we crossed the longest bridge in India: the Bogibeel, 41 spans of magnificent engineering that carry both road and rail traffic more than three miles across one of the greatest bodies of flowing water in the world to connect the peoples of Upper Assam with the mountainous regions of the North. I’d love to – but I can’t. The completion date and the grand opening ceremony have been pushed back yet again and so we had the dubious honour of being some of the last people to cross by ferry.

After a bit of a wait while a lot of people milled around doing not very much and a disastrous attempt at a brew with the contents of the aforementioned Thermos, our car was manoeuvred by means of a couple of rickety ramps onto the deck of a small wooden boat. Families, luggage and motorcycles were heaved aboard as water seeped up through the boards and a smelly little diesel engine chugged away in complete defiance of the rules of physics. It being inadvisable to dwell in too much detail on the situation around us we spent the forty minute crossing staring up at the seemingly endless expanse of a splendid new bridge as we passed precariously underneath it.

Before long we were out of Assam and into a new state and, as with my entry into Mizoram, I could see a complete change in landscape. The route ascended quickly through densely wooded hills by means of gradually worsening road to our overnight stop in the small town of Aalo (aka Along). Badly repaired stretches of tarmac eventually gave way to a single track dirt road which had been so deeply rutted by the heavily loaded lorries that provide the only supply lines to the region that it at times it felt like being on a choppy sea. This went on for hours. All along the way we saw gangs of workers, mainly women, some with children in tow, armed with hand tools and helpfully equipped with Wellington boots and rubber gloves. Their pathetic attempts to restore the arteries of one of the most strategically important states of India should be receiving more attention from the government of a country that likes to think of itself as an emerging superpower.

Later on I would get some insight into the level of corruption that has lead to such a parlous inequality but in the meantime we were more concerned with getting ourselves, our poor exhausted driver and our poor battered vehicle to a safe place where we could spend the night. Arriving after dark, all you can make out of the town of Aalo are rows of solidified mud waves surrounded by the garish lights of multiple liquor stores and mobile phone sellers. A grim business hotel was offered to us, or if we were prepared to stay on “The Road” for a few miles more, there was a tourist lodge we might prefer. Very fortunately, we opted for the latter and after another half hour’s tortuous progress found ourselves sipping tea and sitting around a wood fire at the ultimate travellers refuge: The Reyi Homestay.

Here after, a delicious supper, we made it plain that we would not be proceeding straight onto the next destination on the morrow and I overheard our hostess, the lovely Minly, tell her husband “she said this would be a wonderful place to rest” while the complex process of a change of itinerary went on around us. It would mean missing out Ziro, an important tribal region of Arunachal Pradesh, but when our host explained that the road in the other direction may actually have become even worse, an extra night here was pretty much decided for us. This meant that Grahame and Imram would be able to go on a nature walk and see something of the villages while I relaxed in comfort with the beautiful view that was revealed to us as the the sun came up on the following morning. The only problem was the laundry.

We were now in the region of West Siang, inhabited predominantly by the Adi people, a communal dwelling, hunting, rice growing people who seem to practice their Donyi-Polo religion happily alongside more conventional forms of Christianity or Buddhism. In fact, the characteristic red star on a white flag is seen as more of a cultural symbol and seems to adorn the occasional small church as well as schools and meeting houses. In contrast to the Buddhists of the higher regions, they have absolutely no impunity in hunting, killing and eating anything that flies, scurries, swims or crawls through the surrounding woodlands or cultivated fields. For such a consummate birdwatcher as Imram this is heart-rending and represents a great challenge to the educators of the future.

But whatever they will eat and despite the fact that this is still India for heaven’s sake, it appears that no-one of Adi heritage is prepared to wash other people’s “inner garments”. I didn’t appreciate the “insensitive foreigner” inference of this because we had been told in advance that we could leave all our washing here for collection on the return journey. Nonetheless, I eventually saw the funny side and, after breakfast, set to work with a bucket of warm water and rapidly turned the tiled bathroom floor into my own version of the dhobi ghatts. The balcony of our room ended up festooned with a long row of pastel-coloured prayer flags the like of which has seldom been seen before.

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