The Lohit Valley lies in the easternmost road of India. Mountains here feel virgin, cut down by the river Lohit. When our team had visited, the river was in a phase of transition; the deep turquoise water of dry winters turning mud red. The April sky had been a mix of rain and blue, and our two days drive which began from Dibrugarh in the Assam plains was mostly through winding roads potholed and muddy. The first night in the tiny eastern Himalayan town of Hayuliang we got to lay under an hallucinogenic sky lighted up by what seemed a million stars; it was the clearest night I had seen in years. We drove under a gloomy sky the next day right till dusk to reach Minzong where the river Chalum joins the Lohit. In wild mountains where humans hardly live, nighttime means a necessity to find shelter. Minzong turned out a blessing; a tiny settlement of the Mishmi people consisting of about five houses. It was exactly what I was looking for, to experience both life and society in the wild. I was not disappointed. The softly speaking tribespeople generously allowed us to be a part of their lives for the night as one family let us stay and use their guest room. Maybe it is the life of hardship and fellowship of the mountains that allows these people to open their doors to strangers and not doubt humanity. I thought about how they would be disappointed if they ever went to the plains. The houses here are made from resources from the jungle; wood, bamboo and cane structures raised in low stilts. Rooms have fireplaces and hunting trophies as decoration. Solar power has come as benefit to these people though rainy days can be corrupt in this regard. A room was all we needed and the fireplace made things cozy for the weather outside. We spent the remaining daylight time roaming around the village and seeking advice from the tribesmen on the possibility of trails we could trek in the future. The knowledge of the locals of these mountains amazed me. These people were true adventurers; solitary hunters who roam the wild Himalayan highlands for weeks at a stretch. We decided on our plan for the next day, a three hours day hike till Bayou which is the last village in the Chalum Valley. Further from Bayou, there is a hunter’s trail which runs for about four days almost till the Burmese border. The icy peaks, passes and lakes beyond this trail still remain unexplored.
The evening went peaceful; occasional rain, burning wood, warm rum and cheerful conversations. We were joined by a Mishmi elder for the night, a man of a kind, he spent the entire night bursting corns in the fire a piece by piece and smoking endless pipes of opium. Whenever any of us would wake up in the middle of the night, he was right there, a mysterious figure by the fire, smiling and enjoying popcorn. That guy was sure tripping.
We dwellers of the modern world have come a long way. I realized this early in the morning waking up to a rooster crowing right under the cane weaved floor I was sleeping on. Located at the country’s eastern edge, dawn here comes as early as four. There was a mellow drizzle outside. The greenery and freshness of the place felt elevating. We took the morning easy before beginning our hike, cooking some breakfast, freshening ourselves, playing with the children and conversing with the folks. Nonetheless the excitement to explore deeper into the parts of this remote sanctuary soon got us all on our boots and hiking. The weather had cleared up but with hints of clouds traveling through the valleys. We started by crossing the Lohit over an edgy hanging bridge and entered into the valley of the Chalum. The currents of both the rivers appeared strong propelled by the melting of winter snow. The Chalum being a small sub-tributary flowed crystal clear. The three hours to Bayou went easy; ups and downs through subtropical forests, more hanging bridges and opium farms. The Mishmis love this sorrowful plant, use it both recreationally and for religious purpose. Almost all the folk young and old recreate with the drug making it a sought after cash crop of the area. Bayou consists of a handful of houses where the lifestyle we found is incredibly self sustainable. Land here gifts more to the people than money could. The houses are peculiar, especially one which sits literally on a huge piece of rock. A bamboo pole decorated with egg shells and bones stands erected outside the village, warding of unfortunate events in accordance to the animist customs of the Mishmis. We got invited for tea by a tribesman to his house. There were numerous hunting trophies inside. Bear skins were laid out around the fireplace to be used as cushion. It was wild tea we drank, grown locally. The tribesman had numerous stories of the mountains, narrating one of a scar from a bear attack. I thought about how we take survival for granted today, but for these highlanders it is still a part of daily life. Another man we came across was smoking from a bronze pipe made from an earlier era.
Though cut off from the world since the mid 19th century, this region since antiquity was a bustling trade route between South Tibet and the Indian mainland, connecting Chowkham in the Assam plains to Zayu which lies in China further upstream the Lohit. The bronze pipe and ornaments of these people are remains of this glorious time. Chowkham is significant when understanding this. Once one of the richest towns of India, it labored thousands of elephants, workers and businessmen in a bustling trade of timber, until stricter environmental regulations were implied banning logging and closing down all factories in the late 19th century. Though it is necessary for the great biodiversity to be preserved, the people of the area suffered as a consequence, thousands finding themselves out of work including the domesticated elephants. Use of opium for recreation has been widespread since. We stayed in Bayou for a few hours until returning to Minzong towards another cheerful evening joined again by the jolly Mishmi old-man.
The next day we drove further upstream the Lohit, right till the border at Kibithu where lies an Indian army outpost. This is a frontier land, tri-junction of the boundaries of India, China and Myanmar, strategic to nations. We crossed Sar Ti on our way not far from the outpost. From the edge of the base we could see some blue roofed houses far in the horizon which marked China’s territorial claim. It bothers me, these invisible international borders. I wish to learn more about this intriguing neighbor of my land, be marveled by their culture. It is a great nation rich with history I have heard. Come to think about it, the other day I came across a Chinaman in Assam and though our borders are closed we shared a connection, both equally intrigued by the other. These connections are important I believe, allowing us to understand humanity better.
We returned to where the Sar Ti joins the Lohit. The government has recently built new tourist cottages here but the rooms had no bedding or any other furniture. Our plan anyhow was to camp by the river and boy we were not disappointed. We found a postcard setting to pitch our tents; a white sandy beach by the river cut by hot water springs. Across the river we could see Dong, the eastern most village of India. I instantly fell in love with the place. Some places have this magic where you just want to put down your battered suitcases and just be there. Something like a blue lagoon in the tropics. We gathered some driftwood later on and spent the evening preparing dinner, in long conversations and gazing at the stars, the burning wood keeping us warm into the night. I consulted with the team about the plans for the hike ahead, cajoling them into leaving me behind. I indeed had no wish to go further. I just wanted to camp out the coming days in these beautiful woods, take some easy hikes and learn more about the culture of the area. I was happy the team agreed and that my friend Arindam was enthusiastically joining me in my camping glory.
We were up early in the morning and soon after set off to the village of Dong. The team wanted to start their hike today so we had to find more information on the Sar Ti Valley, find guides and porters. The village was a pleasant half hour hike from our campsite crossing the Lohit in a long suspension bridge. Unlike most of the Lohit Valley where the Mishmis live, Dong is inhabited by the Meyor tribe. They are a poor tribe. This is evident in their houses which are not as finely crafted as that of other tribes. Nevertheless, these people are highlanders and know to live off the land, to sustain from whatever benevolent nature gives. Sar Ti Valley we learnt from the villagers remains totally uninhabited. Only local hunters visit the valley annually. No outsider had ever explored it and our team was thrilled to be the first attempting it. We soon found some porters and a guide who knew the area. They were all quite young though but we had our faith in them.
The team started their trek by midday with a plan to return in about three days time. Left alone in the beautiful woods, I and Arindam decided to spend the day rejuvenating ourselves in a hot water spring. It felt glorious; the luxury of pure medicinal hot water in this distant cold mountains and the sunny weather overhead. We just lay in the pool for hours gazing at the snow clad peaks that dominate the landscape. Later, we drove around, visiting the nearby settlement of Walong to buy some ration. Meat was a priority so got us an alive chicken to barbecue in the nights. Next was a bottle of rum. That night went peaceful like the mountains, with enough driftwood and alcohol to keep us warm and conversations going.
The coming days passed in utmost serenity. We took leisurely hikes in the mountains midst deep tall trees and wooded grasslands. In Dong, I got to learn more about the Meyors – simple folks they do not dream to conquer the world or be millionaires. Their mixed ideals of Buddhism and animism keeps them contented, their life progressing gracefully slowly like the forests. The word Meyor means a paddy farmer and they are one of India’s least studied ethnic group. Astonishingly, the tribe continues relations with their relatives who live across the border, having secret mule paths in the mountains that evade the armies of such great nations. A soccer match in Walong had gathered crowd from all around. Few houses of the area had horses, one I saw felt like a spirit of the mountains. We spent a lot of time in the hot springs and on occasions were joined by the locals. The nights went late, treating ourselves to barbecues and getting drunk. I could hardly sleep much as the temperatures would drop in the nights across the river bed. I daydreamed a lot though, disappearing my thoughts in these mountains; the endless patch of never explored valleys
The trekking team returned the next day. Speechless, they seemed humbled by their foray into the unexplored Sar Ti Valley. For the last two days, they had slept in caves, hiked in steep mountainside, crossed the Sar Ti river in slippery logs and saw pug marks of wildcats and bears. Not to mention the porters had robbed them which kind of spoiled the way I wanted to perceive the Meyors. Tired, they spent the rest of the day drinking beer while soaking in a hot spring. By afternoon we left the campsite, our magical abode in the high Himalayas. It was time to return to the plains. We wanted to camp the night at Helmet Top, an army memorial located at a hilltop and reachable by a steep tedious uphill drive from Walong. This endeavor failed halfway through when we found the road was smashed completely by a landslide and we couldn’t drive any further. It was getting dark, the weather was looking grim and we had covered a good amount of altitude already. Crazy men, we did not retreat and setup our tents right on the road, right in the middle of densely forested nowhere. Few went to collect wood, two got busy finding a water source to collect water, one was preparing tea; we were at it, the ethics of survival and camping. Against the elements, each man knows his purpose. It turned out not the best idea though. It kept raining at intervals through the night, made it hard to cook or have a good fire. Everything felt damp. Further, it was not comfortable sleeping on top of the hard tar road and I kept thinking of the soft riverbed and hot springs I had left behind.
We woke up to a chilling cold and rain the next morning. Hurriedly we packed and left our damp abode. We drove downhill till Walong where we freshened up at the settlement’s only guesthouse and treated ourselves a hot Buddhist breakfast of dumplings and noodles at a local joint. We drove long the entire day, following the Lohit in its journey to the plains. Though we planed to go right till Dibrugarh where we had begun our journey, we got stuck in the evening at Chowkham where torrential rain and dangerous thunder and hail storms made it literally impossible to drive any further. The first storms of the season were lashing the plains and I could smell the soil. Ahead lay an hard summer.
In memory of Arindam, a dearest friend who passed away soon after this journey.