A week of unbearable summer heat had prompted me and Tushar to plan an escape into the nearby Himalayan ranges of Arunachal Pradesh. Bizarrely, it turned out to be a beautiful drizzly Sunday when we started our journey from Dibrugarh in Assam, driving towards Ziro in central Arunachal Pradesh. I’d heard much about the Ziro Valley and about its inhabiting indigenous tribes, and accordingly Ziro was the first destination we wanted to visit. But for anyone who wants to go to Ziro from Dibrugarh, at first there is the mighty presence of the Brahmaputra River, a 6 miles wide turbulent water body and undoubtedly one of the mightiest rivers of the world. We reached the river port early and loaded our car and ourselves into a ferry which was driven by a happy pot smoking guy who off course turned out to be friendly. Sitting at the top of the boat, I observed the vast deserted landscapes of the river pass us by – desolated sandy islands, broken boats, massive logs and occasional carcasses of drowned cattle. The mightiness of the river is easily noticeable in the erosion that is eating away much of the banks landmass. After a long two hours of sailing, we arrived at the opposite bank of the river where we saw a troop of army men preparing themselves for what seemed to be a long ride to somewhere faraway. Not having a desire for wasting much time, we continued our drive, through beautiful countryside that was embraced in lush green farmlands and pastures, to eventually arrive at the border check-post between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Not having the required permits, we somehow cajoled the authorities into allowing us drive further. It is a routine much common to me and the entire episode was easy to handle.
Immediately after entering Arunachal Pradesh, the landscape turns into a much denser version of greenery than that found in Assam. Not only did we find ourselves in a rainforest, it was post monsoon and the jungle was colored in impressive layers of the darkest of shades of green. We crossed a few turbulent streams and a little waterfall, and drove through remote regions not to be found in any map. Soon after it was nightfall and then it was the blissful silence which prevails the long nights of the Himalayas.
We arrived at Ziro late into the cloudy night. The town looked big and street lights lit the houses in a mellow orange. The town was almost dead too, with just a few shops open which were preparing for closure. We enquired from the few lonely souls roaming the streets about a decent place to stay, and were led to Arunachal Guest House which is located at the top of a hill. The very enthusiastic owner of the hotel greeted us and showed us our overly moderate room which had a contrasting giant plasma television set in it. We freshened up and headed for the rooftop restaurant where cool winds gently swept by. Both I and Tushar appreciated that we had eventually escaped the summers, and there was certain calmness in our sweaty soul. We ordered some whisky, and were joined by the hotel owner. He turned out to be a jolly man, a migrate from Haryana in North India who’s lived much of his life in Arunachal Pradesh, thanks to his father who was a timber trader back in the nineties. He entertained us with charming stories of the past, providing insight into Arunachali culture. Soon after, the chef served a tasteful dinner which was eaten heftily, after which I couldn’t help but doze off to sleep.
It was a beautiful morning, with just the right amount of drizzle; enough to hydrate a body and not make it soaked. In the light of daytime and from the rooftop of our hotel, Ziro seemed a quaint little Himalayan town based in a valley, with lush green mountains of pine and oak forests around. Soon after breakfast, we were off, guided by the hotel owner himself who seemed to have had developed a liking for us. Crossing the busy streets, I noticed the multiculturalism of the town as men and women from various tribes could be seen walking the footpaths and selling and shopping. As soon as the town finishes, begins the more rural Ziro Valley where farmlands occupy the entire valley till as far as the eye can see. Peculiar to the region, these farms are famous for paddy cum fish farming, where the tribes harvest fish and crop in the same ground. The monsoon rain had pained the landscape strikingly green and had ensured plentiful fish. We continued till a small peak from where the entire valley can be seen, blissful and fresh as mint. Right in the middle of the valley and adjacent to Old Ziro town, a large airstrip lies abandoned. After a few cups of tea at the vantage point, we descended and headed to the home of a local minister. His house is in a huge compound and styled in old architecture. His wife’s passion for gardening is openly visible in the myriad varieties of flowers that grow in the lawn. There were flowers in almost all the colors of a rainbow. We again drank a few cups of tea, striking a conversation with the minister and his associates. I showed him my appreciation for his beautiful garden and wished him luck in his endeavor to help the valley and its people.
We left his magnificent bungalow, and headed to Dong Village, which is regarded by UNESCO as a heritage site and is one of the largest villages of Asia. The village is home to the fascinating Apatani Tribe who are the major inhabitants of the Ziro Valley. Most of the community was out in the farms, and the village wore a deserted look. The houses of the village are sustainable and simple, made from wood and bamboo, and do not demand many resources. It was fascinating when we saw an old Apatani woman who was tattooed, and she wore huge plugs in her nose. We strolled around the village and met a middle aged Apatani lady who was gracious enough to welcome us to her house for some tea. The interiors of the house was not much decorated, and the simplicity gave insight into how a straightforward, peace loving, harmless society will live. We chatted with the lady for a while. She was sweet, kind and explained to us a bit of Apatani lifestyle. The tribe like most other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh follows the religion of Donyi-Polo, a primitive way of worship of the Sun and the Moon. Flags of this religion can be found hoisted in most of the houses of Arunachal Pradesh, where an orange Sun occupies the center of a white rectangle, much like the flag of Japan. We enquired about the features of the old lady we saw. Long ago, the Apatani women were considered to be the prettiest in all of Arunachal Pradesh, and other tribes would often invade Apatani lands to steal
the women. In order to make their women appear unattractive, the Apatani men started a custom of tattooing the faces and bodies of the women, and made them wear huge nasal plugs. Though this custom is no more followed, its features can still be observed in many of the older women, who are testimony to an age when there were no roads in this region, and tribal kingdoms ruled. We moved on and headed towards the main town for lunch. The market area was hectic as there was some sort of Army selection in progress. All eyes were fixed to the stadium in the middle of the market, as if an intense game of sport was being played. We also saw many tattooed elders who were selling vegetables and fish. After a simple lunch, we headed towards the Fish Rearing Center which is located a few kilometers away at Tarin. The road was horrible, but the presence of beautiful forests substituted for the stress of travel. The center has a very ambient and deserted atmosphere where one can easily be drifted away in thoughts of heaven and bliss. A few ponds exist where fish is harvested. I met up with a little chap who came to meet me intrigued by my camera. Though not more than a meter tall, the kid had a giant machete hanging from his shoulder and was busy using his catapult to kill a bird for food and make his mother proud. He wouldn’t stop jumping and asking questions, but was cheerful and we enjoyed his short company. Not left with much else to do, we drove at leisure, searching for a vantage point from where we could watch the sunset, hoping for the clouds to lift. We passed through a few villages and herds of Mithuns which are the most important animal for the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. A bovid species, Mithuns are huge and are often scared of cars, unlike the cows in the towns and cities that
move as if they are kings. After following long winding roads, we eventually climbed up a hill and arrived at an open field where a playground and a few houses exist. We strolled around, calm and content, waiting for the dark cloudy day to turn into a dark moonless night. A young kid who was until then busy swinging came to meet us. Nepali in descent, he too was hyperactive. We played around with him for a while, until a mysterious cloudy darkness enveloped the sky. Calling it a day, we headed towards our hotel, glowing like everything else in the blue of twilight. The evening was usual – a few pecks of whisky along with delicious food, good conversation, and cool breezes sweeping by as we sat in Arunachal lodge’s atmospheric rooftop restaurant. Though next day we planned to drive 6 hours till Daporijo, there was the melancholy of leaving Ziro and the Apatanis; their kind hospitality, the lush green valley, the easiness in the air.