Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tuting on Two Wheels: Yinkiong and Back

A huge welcome gate informed us that we were now in Yingkiong. The town basically comprises of two parts at different heights. The upper part was the more developed area with the Government offices and the main market while the lower part of the town comprised of small shops and garages. Accommodation is a big problem and the hotels are not worth writing home about. We headed straight for the Circuit House but were told that permission had to be taken from a local officer before we could be allowed to stay there. Being the eve of the Republic Day and a Sunday to boot it took us quite some time to locate the officer. However in the general confusion of things we managed to convince him that we had already applied for permission earlier, which in fact we had, but he had lost our letter. Considering the fact that Yingkiong was the hometown of Geong Apang one of the longest serving Chief Ministers in the country we felt very let down by the condition of the Circuit House. The rooms were quite rundown but we literally had no other option. Having found a place for the night we began a hunt for a place to have our lunch. We were so hungry by this time that we just entered the nearest eatery and ate whatever we could find.
Hunger satiated for the time being we decided to gather information on the road to Tuting. There were 3 possible routes from Yingkiong to Tuting. The first one – going back the way we came and crossing the river at ‘65’. This added around 100 km to the route so we decided against it. The other two options were crossing the Siang at Yingkiong via the Gandhi Bridge or crossing a few kilometers downstream via the Nyobu Bridge. Since Gandhi Bridge was not too far away we decided to ride over and have a look before crossing over the next day. A few minutes outside town we had to leave the main road and hit a dirt track taking us down to the river. It was beautiful ride with an irrigation canal on one side bubbling with mountain water and paddy fields on the other side. Our spirits were rather high as we had already managed accommodation for the night, had had a decent meal and the business end of the day was behind us.

The first view of Gandhi Bridge from the road was breathtaking. From that distance it looked like a string attached to rocks on either side. It looped downwards in the center with the banks on either side at least 10-15 feet higher. Our hearts sank a little when we realized that we had  to cross it that too on a motorbike. Putting on a brave face we made our way to the bridgehead. As the road was a steep dirt track inclining sharply to the river, we decided to approach the bridge on foot. The enormity of the task facing us became quite clear when we actually stood at the bridgehead. Some kind soul had built a temple and heavenly benevolence would definitely be required to cross the river.

The ‘bridge’ comprised of iron cables stretched across the river with a wire mesh covering the sides and the top. The floor comprised of bamboo and wooden planks and the width barely allowed only two people to walk side by side. Even as we stood on the bank of the river we could feel the bridge swaying in the breeze. After inspecting the bridge from the safety of the bank, we finally decided to venture on to it. The moment we had walked around 8-10 feet on to the bridge it began to sway sideways and we began to notice gaps in the planks which were unnoticeable from the bank. We scrambled back to the safety of the bank as fast as we could without unduly shaking the bridge. As we sat on the bank gathering the courage to cross the bridge we noticed a couple of figures starting across on the opposite bank. As they began their slow walk across the planks at our end began creaking. With each creak of the bridge our confidence sank further. We watched the slow but steady progress of the figures despite the increasing sway of the bridge. As they came nearer to our side of the river we were surprised and not a little embarrassed to see a woman carrying her toddler in her arms and holding her second child, who could not be more than 5-6 years old, walking calmly towards us. Putting her child down, she stood with us and watched as her husband calmly brought his scooter across. The bridge being very narrow, he had to ride the scooter all the way and despite his obvious fear he did not hesitate. Seeing the feat being achieved before us gave us the confidence to try it ourselves and we decided to tackle the bridge the next morning. We rode back to Yingkiong feeling a lot better.

The second half of the day was spent strolling across Yinkiong’s market area and having innumerable cups of tea and bread pakoras. As in most hill towns, the women dominated the market place. It appeared to be more of a social occasion than a business opportunity for them. Bhoot jolokia and dal chini (cinnamon sticks) were the main local produce. There was a lot of activity on the public field as the preparations for the Republic Day was on in full swing. It was quite heart warming to see the enthusiasm for Republic Day in this remote corner of the country. Quite a change from Upper Assam which is virtually shut due to perceived threats from various militant groups. It was also quite refreshing to go to a PCO to make a STD call home. Reminded me of my college days and early in my career when I was quite often in areas not covered by mobile telephones. I must hasten to add that Yinkiong is covered by the mobile phone network but our service providers did not do so.

Planning to start at dawn we returned to the Circuit House for an early dinner. The dinner was a typical Circuit House one with mounds of rice, watery dal, egg curry and mixed vegetable. Every Circuit House that one travels to in this country provides the same fare and the taste will be identical. It seems that there is a secret tribe of circuit house cooks who share their recipes with one another.

After a quick cup of tea in the morning we set out for Gandhi Bridge. We wanted to cross early as we had been warned that the road to Tuting on the other side of the river was even worse than the one to Yingkiong and rainfall and mudslides were likely to occur at several places. It was cold and misty and rain was definitely in the air. As we made our way back to Gandhi Bridge a niggling doubt began creeping into my mind. Were we being too foolhardy attempting to cross at such an early hour with no possibility of help should anything go wrong? All our hopes of crossing over were dashed when we reached the banks of the river. The bridge shrouded in mist and we could see only 10 feet or so ahead of us. The wooden planks were moist with dew and dangerously slippery. Having come all the way we were extremely reluctant to return back the same way so we decided that we would attempt a crossing downriver at a point called Norbu Bridge.

We returned to Yingkiong and rode along the highway for around 20-30 minutes before we saw the diversion to Norbu Bridge. It had started to drizzle by now and we decided not to dawdle at Norbu. If we could get across we would or else we would return to Aalong by the same route that we hade come up. Sadly it was to be the latter as the conditions at Norbu Bridge were as bad if not worse due to the oncoming rain.

As we rode back we were quite crestfallen about our inability to cross the Siang into Tuting. We made a brief stop at Geku where we watched the Republic Day Parade and I was once again amazed by the sheer enthusiasm of the general population who turned up in great numbers to attend the ceremony as well as hear the speeches.

As we rode along the now familiar turns and corners I had a chance to ruminate about our entire journey. Two questions, somehow interlinked, kept cropping up in my mind.

What was there in Yingkiong? Did we achieve our objective of biking to Tuting?

It is all about the journey rather than the destination. Yingkiong is a small town in possibly the remotest corner of the country and there is nothing really to do or see there. Yet the journey to Yingkiong made the destination enjoyable.

What of Tuting? The fact is that we never got there. We failed to reach Tuting itself but we achieved the dream of Tuting. Tuting is what the Yeti is to the Himalayan climber or that elusive golden mahseer for the angler or the Holy Grail. Simply put it is that place just beyond those hills, the place you have never been. It is Shangrila. It will always beckon to us and tempt us to leave our daily lives behind for that journey into the unknown.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tuting on Two Wheels: Aalo to Komkar

The next morning, before the sunrise, and after a dozen or so kicks of the starter, we were off. As luck would have it, there was a light drizzle and the sky was very gloomy. We rode for about half an hour before the sun came out and the view simply took our breath away. The drizzle had freshened up the foliage of the forests and they were a sparkling green. On our left the Siang accompanied us like an emerald green snake its broad expanse broken intermittently by rocky outcrops. It was then the thrill of the adventure gripped us. Even our rusty bike seemed to have sensed the moment and was flying along the road.

Now as I put pen to paper, I shudder at our foolhardiness. We were traveling in a remote region on an unknown bike with no spares, spare tyre or tube and half a bottle of water between the two of us. Mobile phones don’t work along that highway and had we faced a flat tyre or mechanical failure we would have been at God’s mercy. In the two days that we traveled we did not cross a single vehicle capable of carrying our bike in case of any such problem. But that is now. There and then as we moved along the road amidst pineapple and orange orchards and beautiful terraced fields the only thought was of absorbing the natural beauty around us and the next stop for a cup of tea.

A beautiful surprise awaited us at Panging village! As we turned the last corner into Panging, the valley suddenly opened up and we realized that the river we had been following was not actually the Siang but only a tributary. Our first view of this majestic river which is called the Brahmaputra in Assam was a revelation. Sparkling green from the now bright sun it roared its way below the road and the tributary paled into insignificance just as the moon melts away with the arrival of the sun. At Panging we crossed the first of the rickety bailey bridges which bridge the river at three points on the road. Our definition of rickety was to change spectacularly later in the day. Panging is also the point at which we leave West Siang District and enter East Siang. In fact the road splits here with one curling away to the right to Pasighat. After Panging, the road began a steady climb and soon the river became a green ribbon below us. The forests became very thick interrupted by clusters of bamboo. These forests seemed to be under private ownership as we saw many areas fenced in.

Although we crossed several beautiful villages there was no place that served a cup of tea. The cold and the damp soon chilled us and we became desperate for a hot cup of tea and breakfast. It was a good two hours before we reached Boleng where an old lady ran a tea shop. Our breakfast consisted of two mathris and a cup of sweet tea. Boleng seemed to be quite a big place as it also had the only fuel depot between Aalong and Yingkiong. 

The road from Boleng was a gentle gradient till we began to descend into Dite Dime or popularly known as ‘65’ as it was sixty five kilometers from Aalong. Curiously we found that people in Yingkiong too called it ‘65’ and insisted that it was sixty five kilometers from Yingkiong too. Since the total distance between Aalong and Yingkiong was 120 km, I just couldn’t work out the mathematics of that one.

Dite Dime must be one of the most beautiful villages in the world. Dominated by orange and pineapple orchards on mountain slopes on one side of the road, the other slope was gently terraced down to the river. Little chang ghars (houses on stilts) dotted the fields. These are used only during the paddy season as it brought the family closer to their fields. Just the ideal place for a summer holiday home with pork and apong in abundance.

Dite Dime is also the place where the road again splits. Taking a right over another shaky bailey bridge leads to Yingkiong and the straight road on the left bank of the Siang goes to Tuting. As we had planned to go to Tuting via Yingkiong we crossed the river on to its right bank. The true majesty and beauty of the river can actually be experienced only on these crossings as we can see along the entire length of the river.

At Dite Dime we enter Upper Siang District and the road begins a steady climb upwards. Its condition also worsens and landslide prone areas become quite common. At many places the gradient and the condition of the road compel us to dismount and push the bike. We take these as opportunities to stretch our legs and take some photographs but we can now sense that, after the initial excitement had abated, the going was getting tough. The two roads, on the left bank to Tuting and on the right bank to Yingkiong, run parallel for a few kilometers and we could see that the Tuting road had more habitation. It could also be a case of the grass being greener on the other side as by this time we are once again desperate for a cup of tea. We cross Geku which seems to be some sort of a Government headquarter with offices and shops, but we could not find any tea shop or hotel on the road. Deciding against going into the town we ride on.

Upper Siang is topographically different to the West and East Siang. The gradient of the slopes are steeper and the forests denser. We meet several groups of men armed with antique rifles and guns and it was obvious that they were hunting parties. Hunting is a fairly common practice even now in these areas and this has resulted in the depletion of several species despite favorable habitats. Forest produce forms a very important component of the household income with bamboo being the most commonly used produce. The tribe inhabiting this region are called the Miyongs and they are a part of the Adi group of tribes. The ‘Kebangs’ or village councils are famous administrative units and the Panchayats of Northern India can be compared to them.

It is past noon by the time we come to Komkar and we are now anxious to reach Yingkiong as, in the mountains, the weather is always tricky after noon. As we near Yingkiong there is a stretch of road which is not only damaged by landslides but also very steep. There are also increasing signs of human habitation and for the first time in the day a couple of vehicles cross us. Even from a moving bike I can discern that same bewildered expression we were met with in Aalong.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tuting on Two Wheels - Aalo Here We Come

We planned a trip for Mechuka for about one and a half years and one week prior to our actual departure we decided that we would go to Tuting – on a bike! As our trip coincided with Republic Day we could not get the necessary accommodation at Mechuka where Government facilities are the only option for travellers.

As it is with most parts of Arunachal very little information was available about places such as Yingkiong and Tuting. It was next to impossible to find information on distances, road conditions, fuel pumps etc. Anyway all of that made the trip even more challenging.

Doubting our ability to navigate the sandy banks of the Brahmaputra on two wheels, especially when the river had receded about half a kilometer on both sides, we decided to use public transport to Aalong and then travel the rest of the way on a bike. We managed to convince a friend in Aalong to lend us his bike. It took quite some persuasion as he just couldn’t understand why two fellows would like to go to Yinkiong and Tuting on a bike when four wheeled transportation was available. In fact, along the way, we had to convince a lot of people that we were sane.

We started early in the morning to catch the first ferry but lost our way in the sands of the river bank. The ferry ghat shifts according to the contours of the river and it had moved from its last known position. The whole bank of the river reminded me of a lunar landscape. Luckily we spotted another vehicle and followed it to the ghat. The ferry ride across a first for me as I had never crossed the Brahmaputra by ferry before. It took us two hours to reach the other bank as the boat had to avoid the treacherous sandbars in the river. As soon as the boat nears the north bank, there is a mad scramble amongst the passengers to reach the taxis to take us to Silapathar town. The scene is chaotic. The drivers practically drag passengers from the ferry and hustle them into their vehicles. The general practice is that you pay the fare; then you load your luggage; then manage to squeeze yourself into a jeep which is already overcrowded. It doesn’t end here. In some cases you even have to push your vehicle for it to start and then scramble on desperately or be left behind with your luggage already on its way to town.

Our taxi, a jeep, has obviously seen better days and has never heard of the term servicing. Having squeezed in twenty people in a jeep designed to carry twelve, the driver nonchalantly gets behind the wheel and, with half his body outside the vehicle, suddenly zooms off with all of us hanging on for dear life. The ride is bone jarring to say the least but we soon forget the bumps as a cloud of sand envelopes us. By the time we get to Silapathar, which is an hour’s drive from the bank of the river, my limbs are numb with shock and it is with great relief that we get down to stretch our legs and arrange for transportation to Aalong.

Silapathar is a typical border town, opportunistic and lawless. After some trouble we managed to get a vehicle to take us to Aalong. The drive up to Aalong is typical of the drive up into any hill station. The gradient was a bit lesser than we expected and it was quite warm and dry for some time before the mountain breeze began to cool us down. We pass through a series of hamlets or bastis as they are known locally. The architecture is fascinating as this is the first time that I have actually seen a chang ghar. This is a bamboo structure made on wooden stilts and is a local innovation to keep the habitation high and dry during the annual floods. A central room with a big front verandah is a typical feature and I can now see where the tea bungalows drew their inspiration from. The area is inhabited by the Galo tribe, members of the Adi group of tribes, most whom are Baptists. Paddy cultivation is common and terraced fields can be seen along the drive. One can only imagine the beauty of the drive when paddy fields are lush green!

However these beautiful stretches of landscape are pockmarked by hills sides which have been deforested and burnt for jhumming or shifting cultivation. Jhumming is an ancient practice where land, usually on hill slopes, is identified and the wood is harvested for use. The remaining stumps, scrubs and other vegetation are set on fire to clear the land for cultivation. After the land is cultivated for sometime the families or, in cases, the entire village would move to a new location and the process would be repeated. In earlier times, with a lower population pressure the cycle was for 7-8 years and hence the land had time to regenerate. Now, the land hardly gets any time to regenerate and hence productivity has become low directly affecting the farmers. Although this practice is on the decline certain communities are still dependent on it. In fact we cross several smoldering hillsides. This is a big threat to the ecosystem here and efforts are on to curb the practice.

The first stop is a place called Ego. This is just about the halfway point in our journey from Silapathar to Aalong. There are some hotels/tea shops for travelers. We took the opportunity to stretch our legs and click some photographs. After Ego we cross a series of beautiful bastis such as Basar, Bam and Darkang. From Bam the road splits and the road on the left goes on to Daporijo which we mark for a future trip.

It is around 6:00 pm when we arrive at Aalong. As expected it was pitch dark. After checking in at Hotel Agaam we proceeded to our friend’s house to have a look at the bike that would take us Yingkiong and Tuting. I must admit that I was a little perturbed when I saw the bike for the first time. It was a scruffy looking CBZ with its best days long over. The front brake lever was missing and it just refused to start unless the accelerator was kicked at least a dozen times. Our friends were aghast at thought of us going to Tuting on this bike. Heated discussions in the local language were going and, although I could not understand the language, I could sense that the general opinion regarding our sense of judgment was not very high. Amidst our disappointment and rising doubts we hand pushed the bike on to the main road with as much confidence and pride as we could muster. Luckily for us it suddenly decided to start and we scrambled and rode back to our hotel. Now began the search for a helmet as I was quite firm that I would not travel without one. Once again I could sense the bewilderment and wonder at our request for a helmet. The idea of a helmet seemed quite alien but we did manage to dig one up.

Having settled the bike problem for the time being we decided to make some social visits. Anyone who has ever been to any part of Arunachal will understand that this meant having to consume copious amounts of rice beer called ‘apong’. Once again, as we nursed our drinks, I could sense certain bewilderment at our wish to ride to Tuting. Also it seemed even the locals we knew had never really been to Yingkiong or Tuting and their idea of the road condition and distances were only slightly better than ours. I must admit that I had serious misgivings about our trip as I snuggled in for the night.