Travelling in north-east India can be an amusing, exhilarating experience or nerve-wracking and frustrating depending on your frame of mind and your stars. Murphy’s law applies – so just bear in mind that if anything can go wrong it will, but then again it may not.
As a wildlife biologist who has spent many years working in Arunachal Pradesh, I have had my share of mishaps and adventures while trying to get around there. Earlier, as a researcher on a low budget I travelled alone lugging my backpack everywhere on buses and other public transport options, even hitching rides with strangers on trucks and motorbikes – which later progressed during the middle of my PhD years to a rickety old jeep whose radiator would often decide to leak and stop and splutter on some highway leading me to abandon it and hop back on to buses.
A thorough understanding of the geography of Assam and Arunachal is a good idea, if one is planning on extensive low budget travelling alone. There were often really frustrating difficulties in reaching places in Arunachal when I began work in the nineties. One has to usually take a roundabout route – from Guwahati, you have to travel eastward along the south bank of the Brahmaputra, cross the Brahmaputra and then proceed north to Arunachal. If you have to go to another place in Arunachal, you often have to return to Assam, travel there till you reach the nearest point that lets you go back up again north to Arunachal. A road network connecting places within Arunachal from west to east is practically non-existent, although things have improved considerably since 1995 when I first started working there. Transport options for travellers, connectivity, road conditions and options for places to stay has improved considerably in recent times.
Needless to say you should have got your Inner Line Permit before proceeding. Unfortunately, there are complicated rules about where, how and for how long you can get it. Of course, what often happens is that when you don’t have it, they’ll ask for it at the check gate and when you do, they don’t even look at it and just wave you through!
You also have to go with the flow, no rigid plans or squeamishness at modes of transport. It’s safe to hop onto trucks or hitch rides on passing vehicles in Arunachal and even sometimes in Assam – but you have to rely on your judgement. And you must ask questions. You can forget about all the stuff that your mother told you about not talking to strangers. I have had the most fun travelling on state buses, line buses, trucks, ferries meeting curious amused people who were invariably helpful. The North-east usually gets bad press for its insurgency problems – it’s time people came to know how safe it is travelling in the public transport system there in spite of militancy. Where else can a woman hitch rides on trucks and bikes with no worries. Catch anyone trying this out in some parts of north India.
However, despite my no-holds barred enthusiasm, periodic spurts in militant activities, frequent bandhs and increased vigilance by the Army do sometimes make it difficult to move around. The dreaded AFSPA also means that there are frequent checks on many routes. Sometimes, if you are travelling in a hired vehicle, they may stop you and ‘requisition’ your vehicle while you are en route to somewhere.
I remember being stranded on a cold winter night while returning from Miao (Namdapha) to Seijosa (Pakke) during my PhD years. I was on the night bus and the bus reached the Tezpur bus stand at 4 am when it was still pitch dark. I had hoped it would reach later in the morning. There was a curfew on. I was alone with a heavy backpack and nowhere to go. I knew of a few people there but either did not know them well enough to barge in at 4 am or I did not know their address, and anyway there was no transport to reach anyone’s place at that time in the night. No mobile phones in those days. I racked my brains and remembered hearing of an officer based at the GREF headquarters in Tezpur once from Ramana Athreya. The GREF headquarters was quite some distance away, so I pleaded with the bus guys to drop me there on their way out. All the other passengers had gone off. The bus driver and conductor thought I was mad but agreed to drop me at a nearby crossing. I trudged to the GREF headquarters with my rucksack in the dark and pleaded with the suspicious guard at the gate of the GREF headquarters to let me into their guest house or at least sit somewhere. I told him the name of the officer and said I knew him (well, I knew his name and knew someone who knew him). The guard was unconvinced and said it was impossible for him to call him at that time in the night. But he very sweetly offered me a place to rest on his makeshift bed in his own room which was some distance away from the main gate, but I felt a bit awkward doing that. I then gingerly sat in a stool in his guard cubicle and shivered. Finally, after much pleading, he relented and called some other officer, not the big man I sort of knew. The officer came and was flabbergasted that I was roaming around alone at that time of the night. I was finally allowed in and shown to a guest room with stern admonitions from several officers and guards on how I should not be roaming around on the streets in the middle of the night, that too during a curfew. I told them I had no choice. They were very kind; after some time, I was given hot tea. I waited till sunrise and left in the morning to catch the first available buses to reach Pakke.
Another night I can never forget is the time I reached Guwahati on the day of a major curfew after some bomb blasts. I had a train to catch which was leaving at some unearthly hour. I was forced to find a room to spend a few hours in a really dingy room in a dodgy and noisy lodge close to the railway station. I would have to walk from there in the middle of the curfew in the night with all my luggage to catch the train. I knew few people in Guwahati in those days and I did not always feel like bothering them. I spent a mostly sleepless night watching soldiers patrolling the streets and worrying about the random men walking around and shouting in the hotel.
Another time I remember in October 2000, I was returning from Miao (Namdapha Tiger Reserve) with a young colleague, and we had to get off a bus at 2 am on the main street of a small town (Biswanath Chariali), where we did not know a soul. We were again headed for Seijosa, Pakke Tiger Reserve but the buses did not directly go there, so the plan was to wait till morning to take several smaller ‘line’ buses to reach our destination. Biswanath Chariali is quite a busy and bustling town now, but there was no proper hotel in those days on the main street, so we stood around on the main road at night waiting for several hours with our luggage on the roadside till the dawn broke and the first buses started coming.
There are many such travel memories from those times and most have faded with time. Almost all of those journeys were solitary. And in those days I could not afford to hire vehicles. Nor did I usually have any prior plans on reaching a destination on where I would be staying and whether I would find suitable accommodation. Decent reasonably priced hotels where almost non-existent in most of the places I went to and even if some hotels existed, I usually could not afford them on my student budget and PhD grant money. Government accommodation in the form of the ubiquitous “PWD IB or Forest IB” is usually what is available in most of north-east India or sometimes the Circuit Houses which usually needs prior permissions from different officials who are hard to find or contact. On much of my travels, once I reached the remote villages and forest, all was fine and dandy as I stayed in peoples’ houses in comfort and was very grateful for the wonderful hospitality, warmth and delicious local food. It was the in-transit travel in the big and small towns where it was usually not much fun.
However, apart from the fact that one has to travel through Assam to reach places in Arunachal, Arunachal is the safest and easiest places to travel in, except that on a shoestring budget with heavy baggage to lug around and no travel companions it can be a bit daunting at times with the limited transport and stay options.
In those early years till 2003, I remember many fun and pleasant journeys travelling through the mountain roads to reach small towns and then walking beyond to remote villages and hill forests all over Arunachal – to places like Palin, Ziro and Tale Valley in Lower Subansiri district, to Pakke Kessang in East Kameng, to Roing and Mayodia Pass in Dibang Valley, to Nampong, Rima, Putok, Changlai and beyond to the Burma border in Changlang district, to Deomali, Khonsa and Pongchau in Tirap district, mostly on the rickety Arunachal State Transport buses and then lots of walking. On these journeys, often the best part was meeting and conversing with strangers and really getting to know Arunachal and its people. In later years, I spent a couple of months with my NCF colleagues (Charu and Madhu) doing a wildlife survey in Tawang and West Kameng districts where we walked over many parts of the landscape. I have mostly worked in the lower altitude areas of Arunachal but on that survey we covered the high-altitudes. I was thrilled that we went up to 5200 m, the highest I have ever been in Arunachal. I also remember we spent a full 16 days walking and camping without a bath. And on the last few days on the walk from Mago to Jang, I got bitten by several marauding wasps (which I am highly allergic to) and had to walk with a swollen head for 2 days, much to everyone else’s amusement.
Nowadays North-east India is much in the news for its famed biodiversity and, Arunachal Pradesh with its vast spectacular mountainous forests is arguably the richest in its wildlife heritage and forests.
There are many such wonderful places in Arunachal, but among the most magical of such places is the Namdapha National Park where I first began work in 2003.
I had visited Namdapha for a few days in 1996 and 1997 and had only been up to the Deban-Haldibari-Hornbill-Bulbulia-Ranijheel-Firmbase where most tourists and bird-watching groups go. It was only after I first undertook the walk from Miao to Vijaynagar in November 1998 with the Forest Department staff that I fell more in love with the place. A two-month survey spent in parts of the park and exploring beyond the park in the Gandhigram-Vijaynagar area with the Lisu villagers in search of the leaf deer in the winter of 2002-2003 helped me decide that I must work there.
This 1985 km2 park lies in the easternmost corner of India, in insurgency-ridden Changlang district, in Arunachal Pradesh. Described as being among the last large tracts of wilderness areas in Asia and flanked on the south and east by the Patkai hills and to the north by high mountain passes and the Himalaya, it is a place deserving superlatives. The last remaining large tracts of lowland dipterocarp forests in India, the world’s northernmost rainforests, contiguous with primary forests to the north, south and east in neighboring Myanmar. Its altitudinal range (150 m to 4500 m), have resulted in an unparalleled diversity of habitats from lowland rainforests and river valleys to temperate forests and snow-capped peaks. Its biogeographic location and heavy rainfall also add to its diversity with over 1000 plant species, over 100 mammals including at least 15 that are globally threatened, 400 plus bird species, 72 herpetofauna and still counting.
Despite the fact that this area has been visited by a handful of biologists for only short periods and much of this area still remains unexplored (steep terrain, high rainfall, no roads and few walkable trails), new records are being reported and new species discovered. Even tigers, though extremely rare now, can bounce back, if adequate protection measures are taken, given the large forest area.
A handful of tourists visit the park now – picnickers who spend a day or two at the tourist facilities at Deban and bird-watchers that spend a week in the western part of the park (the designated tourism zone) occasionally venturing up to Firmbase in the Namdapha river valley. Conventional wisdom is that much of the rest of the park is inaccessible and difficult to move around in.
I realized this was not true when I began working in 2003 with the Lisu, a little-known tribe in Arunachal. The main Lisu villages of Gandhigram, Sidikhu, Hazulu and Vijaynagar lie beyond the south-eastern boundary of the park. A 157 km road once ran from Miao to Vijaynagar through the Namdapha National Park that is little more than an overgrown slushy forest path broken up by numerous landslides. From the main village of Gandhigram, Miao is a walk of 3-7 days through the park. The road from Miao is motorable up to Deban (26 km) on the western edge of the park.
How long you take each time depends on the weather, how many kilometers of knee-deep sinking mud you have to walk through, how many streams you have to cross. The route you take for this walk keeps changing every year, because the whimsical Noa-dihing river decides what track you can take. All Lisus have to make this trip at least once a year, and some of them up to 7 times. When they are sick, needing surgery, essential supplies, for contract work, or for access to better schools. And even to carry tin sheets or parts of rice mill machines, dismantled cycles or 29-inch TV sets all the way to Gandhigram from Miao.
There is one other way to get there, air sorties from Mohanbari (near Dibrugarh) in Assam to Vijaynagar – but these are few and waiting for them is quite a frustrating experience. Walking is faster, at least for the Lisu and definitely less stressful than the endless waiting and uncertainty of a sortie.
I have done the walk between Miao and Vijaynagar about 13 times, sometimes both ways and at other times just one way from Miao or Deban. And the return journey usually by the air sortie on the Russian AN-32 planes or the helicopter. For us it’s a big deal, but for the Lisu it is a normal way of life to walk such distances a few times in the year for basic needs.
Though every year I got more nervous about crossing the treacherous fast-flowing Namdapha river. Sometimes the water was chest-high and it was hard fighting the strong currents while trying to cross walking upright. I remember several horrible river crossings at different times where I felt I would be swept away. On one of the early trips, I remember Japang and I having a bad time crossing alone. We were both shaken on reaching the other side. At another crossing on the main Noa-Dihing river, where even while being helped by Akhi, I was almost swept away by the force of the water current and fell in the water. Akhi managed to pull me out but he was just laughing all through as if nothing had happened and was more concerned about not getting my rucksack/binoculars/camera bag wet. I told him that he should worry less about all that stuff and more about me!
Those walks along the M-V road and the river valley and river banks hold many memories. By the last day, some stretches would be endless slushy mud and we would all be yearning to reach the village. And every time that last bend on the M-V road where you get the first glimpse of the Shidi valley (Gandhigram) was like heaven and a coming home.
We had established a research and conservation program there which tried to address some of the socio-economic needs of the Lisu, engage in dialogue with them, and try to win their support for conservation through various community welfare and livelihood interventions. The ultimate goal was reduction of hunting and recovery of wildlife populations, so a part of our research work there included figuring out the status of some of the important mammal groups there such as the various primates (monkeys), the small carnivores (civets, mongooses, martens) and ungulates (several species of deer, wild pig, gaur, takin, goral and serow)
Namdapha may not appear to hold much for the usual Indian tourist that always expects or wants to see the tiger or large mammals. It’s not that the spectacular mammals are not there (in fact, the diversity of species is much more than anywhere else) just that they are rare, elusive and many of them are nocturnal and in a dense rainforest, sighting mammals is not easy. Even after having spent so much time in Namdapha, we know that many of the exciting mammals are actually there only from the camera trap pictures we got from some of the surveys we did between 2004-2006.
The only relatively common mammal species is the barking deer and even this you do not see much as in other forests like Pakke Tiger Reserve. Apart from the hoolock gibbons, Assamese macaques and several kinds of tree squirrels, mammal sightings are rare in the daytime. Our field work showed that abundance of many species is very low, even compared to other rainforest areas. But fortunately the forests are not quite empty as yet.
Although I can count on my fingers the number of mammal sightings that I have had in Namdapha and often I complain about how frustrating it is not to see anything despite miles of walking – the few that we do see are much more exciting than the countless animals that one can see from a jeep or elephant back in famous Kaziranga with hundreds of other tourists.
Give me the excitement and uncertainty of a rainforest any day – the possibility of a glimpse of a rare stripe-backed weasel or the curious hog badger around the corner – compared to the tedious certainty of grasslands dotted with large mammals gazing at you in boredom.
For instance, I remember suddenly coming across a crab-eating mongoose scurrying along on a forest path, turning once to look back and disappearing down a slope, before I could focus my camera.
Another time, we came across the extremely rare Hodgson’s frogmouth sitting in a bamboo thicket staring unblinkingly at us. It was still there when we returned a couple of hours later. I got a bad photograph with my point and shoot camera, but at that time, it was probably among the first pictures of the species from Namdapha.
The magic these forests bring does not even have to be of an animal – the glimpse of a startlingly colored rare root parasite growing on a mud bank while you are puffing your way up a steep climb is reward enough.
Then there are the moss-covered branches, the snaking huge lianas, brightly colored flowers in the dense green vegetation, the tree ferns, mushrooms, fungi and orchids or the sudden view of a thickly forested ravine from a steep hill top.
Or the many many smaller creatures that one encounters.
And the many many birds and of course, the hornbills that were abundant in Namdapha.
Field work in Namdapha was also exciting and made fun because of the company of several Lisu (Akhi, Duchaye and Ngwa-akhi and many others) who worked with us and knew the terrain well. With them, we traversed new areas that others have not been to, away from the Miao-Vijaynagar road and the Noa-dihing valley, although there are still so many areas left to explore in mysterious and magical Namdapha.
Often, a walk of an entire day through numerous crazy shortcuts that Lisus love to take would involve several river crossings, wading through slush, walking for hours upstream on small shady streams over slippery rocks vaulting over entangled bamboo thickets and thorny cane and countless ups and downs. All this to reach a salt lick where the Lisu say a takin might just show up. Once you are there, all you will finally see are a few old tracks and dried up dung. Then Akhi will tell you that they may not be coming now because the moon phase is not right! It would be frustrating and tiring but fun too and the forests were amazing.
For several years during the period we worked there, I spent the winters camping in Namdapha and celebrated New Year and Christmas in the Lisu villages. There are many memories from those times spent in the village that would fill a book. Through part of our community engagement, we worked with the community members to set up kindergarten schools for the children with support from Katha, as there were few teachers in the area. We transported books and other educational material bought from shops in Tinsukia all the way to Gandhigram (the biggest Lisu village outside the park beyond the eastern boundary) with porters carrying them on foot from Deban. One memory I have is that the children in these remote villages did not have access to many toys. Nothing would be wasted. After a pig slaughter in winter, I was amazed and fascinated that the adults would blow up the pig’s urinary bladder to give to children to play with as a football, and on the village paths, games would be played with the seeds of Entada gigas.
We usually carried out the wildlife monitoring work on the return walk from Gandhigram, after we finished the community meetings and other work in the villages.
We would set out from Gandhigram with our rations (basic stuff like rice, salt, tea, a few vegetables that soon dried up, some mustard oil), tents, other camping gear and set up camp at each location (either on the M-V road or by the Noa-dihing river bank) for a few days before moving on to the next one.
Often we would send some bags of rice ahead with passing elephants and these would be kept safely for us at some tea shop or settlement on the way. On occasion, we also buried the rice in pits and covered it up to use on the return journey.
Luxuries such as oil, sugar, dal and milk powder are hard to get and in any case it is best to travel light. However, before we set out from Gandhigram, we would always carry some smoked salted delicious pork that the Lisus prepare when they slaughter their domestic pigs in winter. Apart from that, we would be laden with parting gifts from villagers in Gandhigram – eggs, pineapples, oranges, dried Chinese apple (persimmon), yam and packets of smelly fermented soya beans.
We also carried zakhulu (rotis made from pounded steamed rice with no salt or sugar, thick and unfermented unlike a dosa,) wrapped in large Phyrnium leaves collected from the forest. These rotis can be of a variety of shapes or consistencies and can be eaten smoked, steamed or fried. All these goodies would usually run out on the second day anyway, as the Lisu philosophy is to eat up all available food fast and not save for a rainy day! Later we would end up eating boiled banana flowers, tender cane shoots or some other jungle leaves. The pork would be the only thing rationed out to last as long as possible.
Sometimes essentials like salt or rice would run out and we would have to borrow from passing Lisus and other porters or send someone ahead to get it from one of the Lisu settlements inside the park. Every day after the day’s work or on reaching a new camp, Ngwa-akhi and Duchaye would try and find edible stuff from the jungle to add some variety to our diet. This would include bitter shoots of various cane species, some wild leaves, wild banana flowers. All of this would be pounded along with chillies, ginger/garlic and made into some chutney to be had with rice.
Often field work was hampered by the rain and then we would sit around the fire, listening to the rain and drinking endless cups of bitter and very strong local tea (this is drunk by most tribes in Arunachal and is essentially green tea leaves that have only been partly dried over smoky fire). The rainwater would collect in a depression on our flimsy plastic shelter, needing periodic sloshing out. If it cleared up for a while, we would play chillo (a game played with a round ball woven from cane, essentially like volleyball but with a lower net and to be kicked like a football with feet). Later I learnt that apparently this game is also played by other tribes in north-east India and even in Thailand.
I would be very bad at kicking over the net; this would cause much amusement. Occasionally, we would watch a Lisu diving in the cold river with his home-made rubber ‘snorkelling’ mask and bamboo spear to catch a fish.
Sometimes, we would have people passing through on their way to Miao from Gandhigram or vice versa and we would exchange news and information about all manner of important and trivial stuff. There would also be rumours about various people and happenings which would lead to a lot of animated discussion and speculation.
The rain would start again and I would complain that it was because of Ngwa-akhi’s non-stop singing. Undeterred, Ngwa-akhi would get out his hymn book and sing with more gusto. Duchaye would join in. Akhi would be restless, as he hates sitting around doing nothing.
On such rainy days, when no work was possible, we would get out periodically from the tent when the rain slowed down to desultorily watch birds.
One such morning it started to pour so heavily that the small stream next to which we had camped, became hugely swollen and muddy. One of our tents almost went under water. Fortunately, we had finished our cooking, but as we sat and ate, the water levels rose and almost swept away our vessels.
The rain also brings forth vast numbers of the dreaded leeches that manage to sneak their way in no matter how careful you are. One time, I remember when Charu and Madhu had come on the walk to Gandhigram in 2003 soon after the monsoon season, they had complained bitterly about the leeches. Charu is not too partial to rainforests. To this day, he insists he had to pick off around 2000 of them per day on that trip, which of course, is a gross exaggeration. Although I recall even me being horrified one morning when we woke up in our small tent to see the leeches all crawling around on the outside of the tent.
I don’t mind the leeches as much as the ticks, though. I used to itch for days till I learnt from the Lisu that dancing around a small fire while blowing on your clothes is the best way to get rid of them.
Namdapha is a very very special place, even if you do not get to see the tiger or the usual large mammals that you see in other forests.
On one of my winter visits, on the return journey, we got lucky – a helicopter ride over Namdapha from Vijaynagar. As I gazed at the expanses of green, the snow peaks, ridgelines, the rivers and the unexplored lakes and swamps, my eyes were wet taking in the vastness, mystery and beauty of the landscape. And suddenly to make it even more special, I saw a flock of ten Wreathed hornbills flapping hard and flying over the green canopy, visible so clearly even from our helicopter.
I realized that what makes Namdapha so magical and sets it apart from many other wild places is the feeling of being really far away, unconnected from civilization and truly in the wild.
Postscript: This article originally appeared in a shorter form in an inflight magazine of Air Deccan published in March 2008.