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.

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