Every two years, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) documents forest cover in the country and presents its findings in the form of State of Forest Report. In their latest publication which was released a week ago, FSI reports that Arunachal Pradesh has a total forest area of 67,248 sq. km. That is an astounding figure when you look at it written in black and white. But to truly experience the enormity of that number, you need to visit the place. From the thick lowland forests that line its borders in the south with Assam till the alpine forests that hug the snow line in the north, this sea of green tranquility is unmatched anywhere in India. What makes it even more amazing is that most of these forests are communally owned and managed by the indigenous tribal people living in these mountains.
Arunachal is “magical”, “mystical”, “wild” and the “final frontier” on travel websites and guide books. It’s all that and much more. The natural beauty of its green valleys, mighty rivers and rugged snow-capped peaks with a mind-boggling diversity of tribes and their cultures make it the ultimate destination for people of all interests.
As a PhD student, I have been studying the Adi tribe in Upper Siang and their intricate relationship with the forests, rivers and mountains around them. Most Adi people are animists; they believe that all natural objects — such as the trees, the mountains and the streams are governed by different spirits or uyu. Their relationships with the spirits is crucial to the way they utilise the natural wealth around them. Activities such as hunting and shifting cultivation (still the dominant livelihood activities in villages) that involve extraction of natural resources are always accompanied by sacrifices and rituals offered to the guardian spirits.
As more and more people travel to these parts, I can’t help but think of how interesting and enjoyable journeys can get here. My time in Arunachal Pradesh has taught me a lot about journeys.
There is nothing like public transport to teach you about a place and its people. Funnily though, public transport in Arunachal Pradesh is almost entirely a private enterprise, with Sumos, wingers and the occasional mini buses on some routes. Then, there are the dodgy ferries that carry anything from cars to cows across rivers. Government transport is restricted to the rickety APSTS buses and mini buses (a normal sized bus just wouldn’t be able to make it through those hairpin bends on the mountains) and the Pavan Hans helicopters on some routes.
The surest way of getting around in the hills across northeast India are Line Sumos. So it is in Arunachal, too. Manned by daredevil drivers, these vehicles are seen coated with dust and mud with the telltale splatter marks of vomit on its sides.
It is no secret that the roads in Arunachal are bad (where they exist, that is). The locals tell you that. Anybody who has been to Arunachal for even half a day will tell you that. I once heard of a driver of a pickup who had come from the plains of Assam to these roads for the first time with his cargo of construction equipment. After five days of driving on these roads and coping with landslides, he was so utterly defeated that he just left the vehicle by the side of the road and hitched a ride back home to Assam. As they say in Arunachal, “Woh toh surrender ho gaya.”
Travelling with strangers on these bad roads creates a feeling of camaraderie that is probably matched only by soldiers who have been in a war together. There is the added advantage in Arunachal of a lingua franca, Hindi. This is a luxury that a traveller may not find in most other parts of northeast India, where locals are not too familiar with Hindi. Having a common language allows you to not just engage the locals in conversation but to also eavesdrop on other interesting conversations within the vehicle. It’s the only place you get to hear what people think about dams, roads, politics, China and even the latest Bollywood movies. I’ve even been provided with accounts of rare animal and bird sightings that turned out to be very accurate. All this while the car speakers blast out an eclectic mix of Honey Singh, ’80s Bollywood (the worst), Nepali, Galo and Adi folk songs.
It is an almost unwritten rule that the only time the music stops is when you halt for food or when the driver stops in the middle of nowhere and proclaims, “Sab log minus kar lo”. As you might have guessed, there is nothing remotely mathematical about “minus”.
As for the night Sumo, I am slightly reluctant to recommend it. When our vehicle broke down in the middle of nowhere at some unearthly hour, the driver hitched a ride on a passing bike and left the passengers saying that he was going to get some “parts”. Of course, he never returned; the rest of us bonded over a campfire in the freezing cold plotting our revenge.
If you think it can’t get worse than this, then you have not crossed the Siang river on a rickety ferry. Crossing from one bank of the Siang river to the other had become incredibly difficult after a flood in 2000 swept away most of the bridges. The Adi suspension bridges made of cane, wood and metal wire were good for crossing on foot and even on a bike (if you could get used to the sensation of walking on a playground swing). But without a bridge for four wheelers the road distance was almost doubled.
In 2011 came a ferry which crossed the river below Yingkiong in Upper Siang. As the vehicles rolled in carefully over the wooden planks and the boat pushed onto the fast flowing waters of the river which would become the Brahmaputra below, you were awestruck by the sheer spectacle. Unfortunately, the ferry didn’t last long. Last year in the middle of the river, the ferry driver realised that he had run out of diesel (at least that’s what I was told). The crew jumped into the water and made a quick getaway while the boat now lies in a wreck approximately 20 km downstream.
It would be unfair to not mention the APSTS buses. They are the cheapest means of transport, but are severely limited by their own bulky bodies on difficult hill routes. They are so packed and so slow that their utility seems limited. But the sense of camaraderie exists here, too. On one particularly ill-fated night-bus trip from Pasighat to Yingkiong, each time the bus stopped for some mechanical fault or a blown tire, there were more than enough volunteers to help. The road, indeed, is a great leveller.
The writer is a PhD candidate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bangalore.