The Hidden Valley of Menchuckha

Another difficult road journey took us past more of the deep cut river valleys and spectacular waterfalls of West Siang. So lush is the vegetation, it is difficult at times to see which parts of the hillsides have been cultivated and which left wild but rows of fruit trees and small rice terraces can be made out if one looks carefully. The rice is a surprise because the region feels mountainous even if the altitude is not very great but the mixed crops are in keeping with the much of the rest of the North East. Most of the tribal folk we have encountered so far seem to prefer to be self-sufficient in a variety of foodstuffs, no matter how small a patch of land they have at their disposal.

We also encountered a lot more road building. At one stage we had to wait an hour while several big yellow diggers were deployed to scrape away enough of a rockfall for the road in front of us to be opened up again. The professionalism with which this was accomplished was more reminiscent of Sikkim than of what we had seen in Arunachal the day before but such a haphazard approach is apparently quite characteristic hereabouts It seems that while the money flows construction of roads, buildings and bridges proceeds at a great pace (after all, there are always people looking for work) but then mysterious gaps in the funding begin to appear and work tails off commensurately. Abandoned projects can be seen in every village along the way and it is said that more than half of the money provided by central government goes to build palatial houses for officials.

Nonetheless we did get to our destination before sunset this time and found our way though the one-horse town of Mechuka to our designated homestay, the Gebu, in the fading light. The gates were locked and it appeared that no-one was at home but eventually two youths emerged to let us into the “Golden Suite”. It was freezing. For some reason someone had decided that fake bamboo panelled walls, puce satin cushions and a shelf of empty whiskey bottles would provide a suitable ambiance for Western tourists but we rapidly had ourselves downgraded to the smaller (and therefore easier to heat) “Silver Suite” and asked for an electric fire to get the room warmed up. In the meantime we accepted the invitation to tea in the family kitchen.

Most of the family appeared to be absent but at least there was a fire lit in a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room. As we sipped welcome glasses of hot water and the boys fussed about their “unexpected” guests, a pile of blankets on one of the sofas began to move and an extremely elderly gentleman gradually emerged. He wore a saffron coloured fleecy jacket, brilliant turquoise earrings and a pair of longjohns; he looked around sleepily at us, put on his trousers and a traditional Tibetan hat and disappeared out into the cold. It seems that the youngsters had also been detailed to look after great grandfather and I wasn’t sure how good a job they were making of it.

After an acceptable meal (and a complicated explanation of the family’s absence which we left our guide to sort out) we returned to our room to burrow under as many blankets as we could find in an attempt to pass the night without freezing to death. There’s no way that electrical connections of that calibre could have been left switched on for any length of time. But first, I decided that I could not miss out on a view of the stars and braved the stepladder which led up to the roof gallery. There was too much cloud for stargazing but I saw that whoever had designed the building had carefully put out seating and a shelter. I’m sure that the view of the dawnlit mountains must have been absolutely spectacular at the appropriate time of year but no-one had thought to fit any sort of trapdoor. Yes, the glacial night air descended completely unimpeded into the rest of the guest quarters. No wonder the boys were staying over in the kitchen block.

I know that there is a certain sort of person out there who chases down inaccessible destinations and revels in all the travel hardships encountered along the way but we had put ourselves in the hands of a highly experienced (and not inexpensive) travel company so just what exactly were we doing here? On the following day the treasures of this hidden valley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and only a few miles from the Chinese border, gradually revealed themselves. As we waited for the chill morning mists to disperse we drank tea while a school-friend of our impromptu host was hastily deputed to be our local guide for the day .

Mechuka (sometimes written as Menchucka and now named god-knows-what by the Chinese) means “healing snow waters” and the small town sits in the scooped out plain of the river Yargyapchu at an elevation of approximately 2,000 meters. The population of Memba (Tibetan) and Adi people have cultivated the region in peace for many centuries, scarcely noticing that in 1918 the British drew a line on the map that had them living in India rather than Tibet. It wasn’t until the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1951 and the Indo-Chinese war of 1962 that they began to attract the attention of the authorities. Even so, the outside world has arrived very slowly with the military airfield only finally being converted to accept a few civilian aircraft sometime last year.

Criss-crossing the valley we duly visited the main sights with the exception of the 400 year old Samteng Yongcha monastery whose roads were temporarily impassable. No surprises there. We drank delicious yak-butter tea at the Samden Choeling Buddhist temple and fished for lucky pebbles in the icy stream running beneath the Sikh Gurdwara of Taposthan. The only Sikhs in this region are in the military and so the latter must have been built by soldiers; anyway they seemed to have had no compunction about adorning it with traditional Tibetan prayer flags and visitors were always welcome. Next we visited the Hanuman rock viewing point where, as well as having difficulty making out the face of the monkey god on the cliff face opposite, I also failed miserably to photograph several magnificent  long-tailed blue jackdaws.

Grahame tried his hand at millet threshing on one of the small farms that cling to the valley edges. He was enthralled by the simple but efficient agricultural methods and was soon swinging those rotating sticks with such skill that the farming family asked us to leave him with them for the day while we continued with the tour. The pristine landscape was only spoilt in one particular location where a quantity of drink cans and bottles had been dumped down by the riverside at a newly-built viewing platform in an uncomfortable contrast to the sparkling blue waters and the distant mountains. We saw a number of new “tourist lodges” under construction on the edge of the town and wondered, as no doubt does every other visitor, whether we were seeing the last of this little corner of paradise.

As he had apparently been given carte-blanch by the rest of the Gebu family, who I believe were away at a festival somewhere, our redoubtable teenaged host opened up the only souvenir shop in town and drew out a jumbled mixture of genuine handicrafts and mass-produced Chinese/Tibetan geegaws. The strings of brilliantly coloured prayer flags were coming out like handkerchiefs from a magician’s sleeve and when he couldn’t find a price ticket he manfully improvised. Since it was an opportunity to stock up on gifts for us and Imram is always on the look out for his sister’s little tourist shop back in Kaziranga, we were all delighted with this little interval before supper.

Grandfather joined us on the fireside stools as we stoked up the stove while all sorts of chopping and scraping noises came from the kitchen. The three boys duly emerged to join us with rows of platters and mixing bowls and continued the process of making huge quantities of mo-mo (chicken and vegetable dumplings) which they set to steaming in a tower of pans on top of the stove. Someone surfed the few available TV channels and we settled on a riotous Amitabh Bachchan film from the 1980’s: moustache-twirling villains, completely irrelevant song and dance numbers and a heroine so chubby the ageing hero risked a back injury as he flung her around the dance floor. After a sumptuous, if rather over-indulgent meal, we sipped a nightcap while the youngest cook snoozed on the sofa. This boy was the son of the Nepali family who are employed as staff by the Gebu family and the way he was treated as a little brother by the others was a real pleasure to see, especially as the rest of his family of “staff” had obviously gone away with the proprietor.

The following morning everyone lined up for thank-yous, selfies and heartfelt goodbyes but before we braved the road back down to Aalo we had to fill up the with fuel. The Mechuka equivalent of a petrol station is a corner shop where a couple of chaps come out with funnels and tip petrol carefully from cans into the tank. This is just one of the reasons why it is probably advisable to visit with an experienced tour company.

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