Not all days are fun on the road : Hot, stuck and itchy in Assam

Arunachal Breakdown

An Arunachal State Transit bus gets a tyre change*


I didn’t take a picture at the time, but the palm trees I was contemplating out the window of my very stationary bus were in a pretty unattractive spot as far as palm tree locations could go. They sat in a line at the edge of a service station, breaking up the service station from the slum houses the service station workers lived on a dirty highway in nowheresville Assam, North East India.

Many people may think that this long term travelling business is fun and games all the time. It’s not. Sometimes it’s days on end of long bus rides and bed bugs. But it’s not a choice I would change for anything.

It was hot, it had been over 40 degrees most of the day and we had been on this bus for probably 10 hours and who knows how many more to go. I feel filthy, my body is dirty. Another layer of sweat is forming on top of the thousand layers of sweat and dirt that have already dried on my skin, built up to the point where all I can feel is grime squashed deep into my pores and my skin itches with a months worth of jungle bites and sores. In the moment it almost seems like I might never be clean again. **I am tired, and the only two things in the world I want right now are a shower and sleep.

Our bus was broken down here, so I had plenty of time to contemplate these palm trees that were now, as the sunset being illumed by the dull artificial light of a line of cracked oversized light bulbs below them. If the sun was setting a hazy pink behind them on warm tropical island I probably would have described these palm trees as beautiful. Here I can’t help but describe them as somewhat oily and dejected looking. There is nothing actually wrong with the palm trees though, they are most likely as healthy as their tropical island friends, it’s just the surroundings that bring a dejected look to my eye.

I begin to wonder then, do the palm trees care? An Eckhart Tolle quote springs to my mind, “..see how every animal and every plant is completely itself. Unlike humans, they have not split themselves in two. They do not live through mental images of themselves..”

The tree has water and sun and so is a tree, it does not sit around lamenting it’s unfortunate fate and being planted in such an un-beautiful location, or does it? Does it hear whispers of a more beautiful place across the world? A place where palm trees all have ocean views and sea air instead of oil pumps and waste? Or do we not understand palm trees at all? Are they shy retiring creature that hate being looked upon all the time and wish they could be planted I the place of their lucky cousins near the service station that hardly ever attract a glance?

As I don’t know if or how palm trees think, or indeed what is important to them if they do, I have no idea if this palm tree laments it fate or not. I believe Tolle is probably right and in this moment I need to be more like the palm trees.

I am returning to Assam after a month of travelling around India’s most remote state of Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal was beautiful. I saw amazing tribes in experienced the beauty and tranquillity of and had the opportunity to see so many amazing sites I will never forget.

I also had to wake up more mornings than I would like to think about at 5am so I could travel (i.e. be thrown around on bumpy, often un tarred pot holed roads) for upto 10 hours with 10+ of my new closest friends squashed into a shared sumo jeep that really only comfortably sits 8 people. I got drenched to the bone hiking in monsoon rains, covered in bites and rashes from mosquito’s, leeches and who know’s what else. I had 2 hot showers, and maybe 4 shower’s that weren’t out of a bucket in the entire month. I hand washed my laundry in the same buckets I was showering from. We where even investigated by the Indian Investigations bureau at one point, as the area is close to the Chinese border and apparently our movements aroused some suspicion.

Would I change any of it? Oh know, not at all. I will put up with alot to watch Buddhist prayer flags waving in the wind of the remote Himalayas and wake up on a deserted jungle river beach. To sit and drink rice beer with friendly tribesmen and butter tea with smiling nuns. Somehow the downside’s and the pain and the endless hours on buses actually make the good bits more good.

At times like this, when I think I just can’t bare another second of this sticky hot mess and can’t fathom how it can possibly take two hours to fix this damn tyre, I know that I am going to appreciate that shower and my sleeping mat on the floor of the bamboo hut that will be my bed that night more than I possibly could after a day at work in the city.

If the palm trees don’t mind living here, I can probably put up with it for a few more hours.

Buddhist Prayer Flags - Mechuka

Buddhist Prayer Flags – Mechuka

*The image above is not of the actual breakdown in this story, but of a different breakdown on a different bus ride. It is a regular occurrence.

**On arriving back at the village in Assam where we where loosely based I was to exhausted to have a proper shower and made do with a quick splash to wash the worst of the sweat off. I was then treated to Indian wedding music until around 6am in the morning – at which point the temperature started to rise above 30 degrees again making sleeping difficult. Sometimes you don’t even get that shower and sleep you were so looking forward to :/

Ziro Valley : Rice Paddies, Bamboos Houses, Jungle!

Ziro Valley

Ziro Valley

Ziro Valley, in India’s remotest state of Arunachal Pradesh is filled with bamboo houses, rice paddies, tribesmen and surrounded by jungle. Arriving in Ziro Valley I was overwhelmed by the ‘greenness’. My already very high opinion of the state was just enhanced further by the beauty of this place.

Ziro valley is a green (I cannot stress green enough) valley, inhabited almost exclusively by the Apatani tribes people. Traditionally the Apatani people practice the Donyi Polo religion, which is an animistic religion, the term literally meaning “Sun-Moon”. More recently Christian missionaries have converted about 50% of the population, creating an environment where half the community are adhering to old beliefs and half have moved away from them.

Travelling in Ziro – Apatani Hospitality

Deciding to travel through Arunachal during the monsoon may not have been the best decision, but it was the time that worked for my friend and I, and so that is the time we went. The valley consists of several villages, and is small enough to hike around in a day or two. We had hiked between around 5 of the villages in a day and where considering whether to set up camp, with the possibility of getting rained on or whether to look for somewhere to stay. With no hotels in any village except Hapoli, and our reluctance to return to where we started out in the morning we sat under a building awning, starring out at the light rain falling on the paddy fields, wondering what to do and a car stopped.

Two western girls sitting on large backpacks is a somewhat unusual site.

The owner of the car, a young local guy named Opo was to become our friend, host and guide for the next three days. He took us in nearly immediately, our bags in the back of his car we where off to meet his mother and sisters working in the rice fields. After joining them for a break in the hut and a crash course in rice planting we where off to his house. A typical Apatani house in the new style, which uses cement instead of the traditional bamboo it still was the same as all the others we where to come to see. The main living area consisting of a fire place in the floor, which everyone sits around to socialise and eat.

Apatani House

The inside of a typical Apatani house

There where a couple of things about the Apatani houses and culture, which where challenging for me as an animal lover and vegetarian. The first being their love of meat, specifically a love of hanging meat inside the house – everywhere. The second being the animal sacrifices. That night while walking through the village we came across a man performing a traditional ceremony. Traditional in Apatani culture means animal sacrifice.

Dony Polo Alter

Offerings on Dony Polo alter


During the day we had come across several of the structures in the picture above, which where obviously related to the Donyi Polo religion. We where to learn this night how they come about. The sacrifice is normally performed for the health of a male family member. The elder chants as he plucks the feathers you see on the altar from a live chicken. I was able, to with a grimace and in the name of cultural exchange watch the chicken part of the sacrifice. When they bought the unconscious dog out my love for animals one way out over my interest in cultural traditions and I had to leave.

We spent a great few days in Ziro Valley, visiting villages, drinking rice wine and immersing ourselves in local culture.

One day we went for a walk with some of the guys up and over a hill. We didn’t really know where we were going, they just took us for a walk. Over the horizon of a relatively large hill was a big green valley with a house and rice fields spread below. I cannot, again emphasise enough just how green this place was, and how astounding a rice field looks amongst all this green. So, so beautiful.

Down in the valley, workers where working, planting in the fields and the owners where in the house and more than happy to welcome some foreign travellers.

Apatani Couple

Apatani Couple with traditional tattoos


The wife, as you can see in the picture above has the traditional Apatani nose rings. The story goes that Apatani women where so beautiful that neighbouring tribes where always stealing them. The piercings and facial tattoos where to stop the women being stolen. This tradition has all but died out with women of the older generation the last ones remaining.

The kettle the women is holding holds not tea but warm, home made rice beer. As guests we where served several cups of course.

The beauty of the valley and the hospitality of the people made my time in Ziro Valley made it one of the many highlights of Arunachal Pradesh.

Getting There
Ziro Valley can be reached by shared Sumo jeep from Itanagar. It is not currently possible to get to Ziro by road from other parts of the state, so make sure you plan on going back and forth between Itanagar.

Should you go?
Oh yes! The natural beauty combined with the unique culture makes this a very worthwhile stop on an Arunachal tour.

Green Ziro

Green Ziro

Tawang

Tawang : A Buddhist mountain paradise

High in the Indian Himalayas, very close to India’s border with China and Bhutan, at the end of a long and arduous 10 hour sumo jeep ride from Bomdilla (or a quick helicpoter rider from Assam if you have more money than time) you will find the Buddhist mountain paradise of Tawang.

Buddhist Tawang is a peaceful high altitude heaven. Tawang boasts the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India as well as the monastery famous for being the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama. The country side is green, the mountains are stunning and the people are friendly. What more could you want?

I travelled through all of Arunachal with a friend I had met in India last year. On arriving in Tawang, our first main stop in this isolated and untouched state, we attempted to walk in pouring monsoon rain to find the nunnery or ‘Ani Gompa.’ Without directions, which proved very hard to come by in the whole of Arunachal we where unsuccessful, we limped back to town, drenched to the bone and went into a guest house run by the friendly Dolma. She took one look at us and had us in by the fire in seconds, warming us with Chai. The hospitality we experienced here had us feeling more like honoured guests than customers and we spent most of our time here in the kitchen with the family (and incidentally the stove which made the room very warm).

Visiting the main monastery we were lucky enough to meet the monk who is in charge of the school and who offered to take us through the classrooms. He was a very friendly person who spoke great english and laughed constantly. We where privileged to have him as our guide for the day. We were greeted by cute little monks, who stood as we came in and chanted in unison, ‘Good Morning Sir,’ which was quickly corrected to ‘Madam’ by their teachers. It is tradition for local families to send their sons here to be schooled. However with changing times most of the students now don’t continue on as monks and return to normal life once their schooling is finished.

Little Monks at school

Young monks at school in the Tawang Monastery

The principal monk was so friendly he even offered to take us out to the nearby nunneries of Tawang in his car. Driving along the slippery and unguarded mountain roads, we were visiting during the monsoon of course he reassured us that nothing would happen as long as he was there. There are two nunneries on ‘Ani Gompas’ in Tawang. The first we visited there is no road too and it is quite likely without a guide you would never find it on your own. Secluded in a little mountain enclave we came across a friendly group of nuns working with male members of there families on reconstructions and making butter ornaments for the impending new moon ceremony.

The nuns spoke no english, but greeted us with smiles and butter tea – a hot Tibetan drink made of melted butter, salt and a sometimes a little milk that is always offered to guests, it is really an aquired taste. It is rude to drink less than three cups, so after we where given it in the morning by our friendly hotel manager and visiting both nunneries, we where a bit butter tea’d out.

A Monpa Tibetan nun making butter ornaments

A Monpa Tibetan nun making butter ornaments

Getting There
Tawang can apparently be reached by helicopter from Guwahati, Assam if you have more money than time and are not inclined to spend 20+ hours in a shared jeep taxi with 10 of your newest close friends. If like us however you have more time and not so much money the only transport making it’s way up here is the shared Sumo taxi.

Taxis leave from Bomdilla at 5.30 am every morning taking about 10 people each and take about 10 hours. You can get to Bomdilla from Guwahati or Tezpur Assam or Itanagar by Arunachal Pradesh State Transit buses, which is again approximately a 10 hour trip.

Things to know – Permits
If you are a non Indian citizen you DO require a permit to go to Arunachal Pradesh and you will be required to leave a copy of the permit at every place you stay as well as with every official you come across who feels like asking for it.

Some tour operators will tell you you have to take a tour (their’s preferably) to get this permit. As at the time of posting this it is possible with a group of two or more to obtain a permit for independent travel. You can get this at Arunachal House in Kolkatta or Delhi – but not Guwahati. There are a couple of tour agents in Guwahati that may do it for you but it is advisable to get it before you get there if you can.

Should I go
Yes. Definitely Yes. Tawang while still off the beaten path is one of the more toursited areas in Arunachal Pradesh and as such there is some tourist infrastructure here, which means you will have relatively easy access to transport and accommodation.

This was the first major stop on a month long journey through Arunachal Pradesh and I know I may sound gushy, but I cannot recommend going there enough! Get there now, before everyone finds out about it.

I think Tawang has become one of my favourite mountain towns and I started making plans to return here before I left. What’s your favourite place in the mountains

A cow in a prayer field

A cow in a prayer field

The road is not sealed for the most part but the scenery along the way is stunning and will help take your mind off the bumps.

Newari House - Bandipur

Bandipur : The ‘Europe of Nepal’

Winding up the hillside, squashed into the front seat of a local Nepali bus to Bandipur, I was reminded that any ideas I had about personal space needed to be firmly put out of my head when travelling on local buses in Asia.  I don’t speak fluent Nepali, but I do understand some and I’m pretty sure that the woman at the end of the row just told the man next to me that we are squashed because he was fat and ate to much buffalo, or  maybe she was just talking about an actual buffalo?  She definitely used the words ‘fat’ and ‘buffalo’.

As we wound up the steep hillside towards Bandipur I realised that although squashed, the trip was unusually umbumpy.  The road was actually new and devoid of the usual potholes.  On arriving in Bandipur I was even more pleasantly surprised, clean, washed, paved streets surrounded by delightful little Newari guesthouses.

Bandipur, I have heard labelled as the ‘little Europe’ of Nepal, and it’s not far from the truth.  I don’t mean to offend the rest of Nepal with this statement, but Bandipur is clean, clean even by Western standards.  Bins are strategically placed and signs on the walls encourage people to use them.

Newari Culture

Bandipur is a Newari town. The Newari people are one of over 40 ethnic groups of Nepal and are the most prominent, and indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley.  The term ‘Newar’ has been in use since at least the 1600′s and refers to ‘people of Nepal’.  Their buildings often consist of tiny little carved wooden windows and tiny little doors and can be seen a lot still in Kathmandu itself.  I find these building just adorable.  The inside is the same, even I have to duck my head and the different floors are connected by wooden foot ladders.

Newari house

The little tiny doors and windows of a Newari house

Bandipur Village

The road ends when you reach the start of Bandipur, which means the village itself has no cars and no motorcycles!  The peace and quiet was remarkable.  Bandipur, it appears to me has been setup for tourism.  Nearly every building on the main street is a guesthouse.  This is good news as it means you get to stay in an authentic Newari house pretty much whichever guesthouse you choose.

While I was able to find a reasonably priced room (400 rupees with outside bathroom), the majority of the places seem aimed at the more up market tourist and are definitely more expensive than what you might be used to paying in Kathmandu and Pokhara.

What to do in Bandipur?

Paragliding is possible and popular from here and there are several day hikes to surrounding villages and temples.

For me, it was a relaxing, peaceful weekend break from the noise of the cities that was my favourite part of the town.
Newari food is also worth a mention and is abundant supply in Bandipur.

Getting there

Bandipur can be reached by a local bus from Dumre for 50 rupees, if you prefer not to get to intimate with your fellow man you may prefer to hire a taxi which will set you back about 400 rupees.
 
Micro vans and local buses regularly leave from Kathmandu and Pokhara for Dumre for around 300-400 rupees..

Should you go?

If your looking for a quiet, peaceful, dust free place to relax and re-charge, Bandipur is a great and easily accessible option.  If your looking for an action packed adventure you probably won’t find it here.

Come for the serenity and fresh air and you won’t be disappointed.
Bandipur Village

Bandipur Village