Thursday, September 17, 2009
Tuting on Two Wheels - Aalo Here We Come
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.
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.
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.