“The longer the walk, the deeper the thought…” An old adivasi proverb I had once heard was taking on new meaning on this hike to Arunachal's Pasang Sonam Tso, near the Tibetan border. Absorbed in ‘deep’ thought, I lost my balance and slipped, landing butt-heavy with a comical thud…and I smiled. The fresh moss on the rocks was soft, moist, lush and fragrant. The immediate moment was far more abundant than any profundity of the mind. This trek was anyway about to force some meditation out of me. In the first hour itself, we had already negotiated near-vertical rock patches, with only sparse metal wire to hold on to as placebo, and walked stretches on thin bamboo ladders, horizontally placed between cliffs, translucent with dizzying views of brooks far below us. There was little room for thoughts.
My ego was taking a good battering, as I wrestled with the terrain, gripping whatever was available — roots, trees, branches, velvety rocks — panting through steep climbs and slippery descents skipping over streams. I was evidently out of shape; it didn’t help that we were also on a time budget and couldn’t take many breaks. In winter, daylight doesn’t last long; we had only five hours to reach before the sun went down.
We had left later than planned that morning, picking up a couple of hitchhikers in our car on the way — two local women working as road workers at the Indian border check-post at Yorlung, who had missed their morning pick-up. One good turn, as they say, led to another, and our new friends lent us a torch, which we had forgotten to carry in the morning rush for provisions. We travelled with them till the check-post, where we they joined their co-workers, and we proceed on foot through a forest trail.
The road workers here are all women, and they show up for tough labour wearing lipstick and chewing bubblegum. They were certainly a cheerful sight, happily carrying and tossing big rocks around as if they weighed nothing and pulverising them with hammers, as they yakked and gossiped away. In many ways, the northeast is a lot more socially progressive than India’s ‘mainland’; so far, class and gender divides have been far less pronounced here, and manual labour enjoys much more dignity.
We were way behind schedule, but I was in good hands; my guides, Rinjin and Dawa, who multitasked as cooks, porters and eventually, travel buddies, are Memba tribesmen who know these parts well. We descended to the rocky banks of the tireless Yorlung Fooj River, and made our way, leaping from boulder to boulder through this stretch.
The sun descended behind our valley, continuing to illuminate distant snow-capped peaks. I watched with great fascination as some of this final evening glow struck a large, solitary cloud, which in turn bounced a golden streak of this light on the river for a few moments, before finally fading and making way for twilight.
It was at about this time that I was first accosted by a wild blueberry bush. It just didn’t want to let go of my leg on a cliff, but finally relented after some coaxing. After confirming identity, foe promptly became friend; after all, it was fruiting season. Through miles of blueberry fields in their autumn-coloured avatar, we marched and munched, and occasionally also used the now co-operative bushes as handles and balancing grips on tricky patches.
It was already somewhat dark at 3pm. We were close to the lake, but not close enough to continue in the darkness, so we chose to stay the night in one of the basic wooden huts on the riverside.
It’s only after you stop walking that the winter chill really hits you. Luckily for me, a man from Tato, whom I had met two days earlier, had gifted me a waistcoat and a long black cloak hand-made by his wife using a traditional loin loom, just to make me feel welcome in his homeland.
These gifts kept me warm just when I needed it. Though I had researched hand-woven textiles in these parts before, it was only now that I began to actually feel what the act of hand-weaving was really all about, not just intellectually, but in the flesh. It was a labour of love, surely; what could be more loving or generous in a cold place than the gift of warmth?
Rinjin and Dawa, obviously more accustomed to dealing with the cold, were amused to see me in tribal attire. “Whisky-time,” Rinjin declared, opening the bottle. “Now you see why we like to drink,” Dawa laughed.
As the first drinks went down and a dark crust began to form on the juicy chunks of chicken roasting on the fire, we began a night-long discussion on culture, politics, ecology, tourism, Buddhism, Bollywood and the inevitable China topic, which somehow seems to always pop up in these parts. Outside, the moon was waxing, nearly full; clusters of bright, cotton-candy clouds were ganging up in the sky. Outlined as dark silhouette, the mountains now looked larger and much more imposing. The constant gush of the river rang primeval and infinite, sailing me through my dreams that night.
We set off for the lake early the next morning, beginning with another long stretch of riverside boulder-hopping. All the leaves now wore a lovely crystalline glimmer of morning frost, in the dawn, as we tore through fields of fall-coloured foliage. In two hours, we reached Pasang Sonam Tso.
The wind was animating everything here. Buddhist prayer flags hanging on a string shivered vigorously, while the waist-high golden grass swished and waved, their grains ripe and on the verge of scattering. The Chuning La peak’s mirror image on the water was beginning to mosaic away into a shimmer as the lake began to break its morning stillness.
Glad to have finally made it here, I relaxed on the soft warm, rustling grass, basking in the sunshine. As tempting as it was to just let the sleeping dog of my soul lie, we were still behind time; our driver was scheduled to pick us up at Yorlung in the afternoon. If he left, it could mean being stranded, since there’s no public transport here.
We made good time on our return, only stopping occasionally to sip from streams. Movement was now becoming effortless; distilled to a sensible use of gravity, eventually turning all movement — even climbs — into an organised dance with the land.
The night in the forest had given me new energy; my stamina was now endless, in contrast to all my initial mind-trips and fatigue. My self-esteem had been thoroughly destroyed here, and then reinvented. Nonetheless, we still miscalculated the time of our return by an hour or two, and when we reached the border post, we found that our driver had already succumbed to impatience and vamoosed with the car. In a role-reversal, we hitched a ride on the back of the open-topped pick-up truck, travelling with the construction workers and border police who travel home this way daily.
While most of us sat down, the more enthusiastic stone-breaker bubblegum girls leaned upright against the railing, forming a cuddle-chain in the freezing wind, and broke out into a non-stop medley of Bollywood songs amid hysterical laughter under the full moon, as the truck zigzagged downhill in a frenzy. The pioneers had led the way; soon we were all high on nonsense.
Was I imagining that I was huddled up with the woman next to me? Freezing and sweaty, I had been shivering. Our palms slipped into each other’s, so naturally that even we didn’t even notice it at first. Sensing that I was cold, she pulled out her glove and held my hand. The shivering stopped instantly.
I turned to look at her face; it was completely wrapped in a scarf as a barrier against the wind; all I could see were her eyes; I could tell they were blushing. It was a strange and beautiful moment — honest, awkward, comfortable, intimate and ephemeral — all at the same time. Feeble attempts at conversation bombed. Words were futile anyway; this was now for now, an eternity complete in itself. I knew we would never meet again…
…“Pardesi Pardesi, jaana nahii..”
Our giggly backbenchers were unable to resist teasing us; locked together in their hug-chain and swaying from left to right in formation, they were now dedicating Bollywood numbers our way, shrieking in juvenile glee and manic laughter each time the truck jumped and sent us all flying with it, as we thundered through the mountains at breakneck speed. It was like a school picnic gone wild.
Then, unexpectedly, she undid her scarf, and in the bright silver moonshine, I saw her face for the first time. I had never imagined that she would be this beautiful. As I recall the moment now, I experience flashes of Tara, the Bodhisattva of compassion and liberation, magically radiant under that blue starlit sky.
Was this all a dream? We travelled wordlessly for what might have been hours, for all I know, and just as I had stopped believing in time altogether, the truck stopped. She wished me well, and got off at her village. The truck moved on and I was back in the cold again, but the warmth lingered. I felt immensely lucky and grateful. Once again, I had received the gift of warmth from a stranger in these mountains. People from cold, harsh places know what warmth is worth, and they have taught me that it is for sharing.
The trek to Pasang Sonam Tso in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Siang district, bordering Chinese-controlled Tibet, is one of the Indian Northeast’s best-kept secrets. The army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and road maintenance personnel routinely patrol this sensitive border, and it is for these activities that the trail exists. The closest town is the picturesque Mechuka, built around a military airbase. To get to Mechuka, you can drive from Dibrugarh in a shared taxi to Along (432km). From Guwahati, you can take the Pawan Hans chopper to Itanagar and then drive to Along (292km). Carry on to Mechuka, another 180km, the next day after an overnight stay.
Where to stay
You can stay at Gayboo’s Traditional Lodge (Rs 800-2,000 doubles, 9436074877) or at Almost Heritage (Rs 800-2,000 doubles, 9436672849) at Mechuka. Gayboo’s can help you organise the trek to Pasang Sonam Tso.
Drive for 2 hours from Mechuka to Track junction (ITBP check-post at Yorlung). The walk to Pasang Sonam Tso is about 23km and takes approximately 7 hours. A tent is not needed, but you should be prepared to camp. You can find very basic shelter in the form of wooden huts at Ummeed Camp, Shastri Camp and Pasang Sonam Tso. Trail conditions depends on the climate. It’s best to spend at least two nights and three days to make it enjoyable. July to September are warm months, with longer days. It does rain, though, so be prepared for slippery slopes and leeches! October to December is the driest season. This means lower temperatures, dipping below freezing at night. Days are shorter, so plan your day’s walk accordingly. Snowfall is rare, but possible. In the peak winter months of January and February, you should be prepared for tricky patches through snow. The trail becomes more technical.
You will need an Inner Line Permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh. Additionally, you’ll need special permissions to trek to Pasang Sonam Tso from the ITBP. You can get these from the Additional Deputy Commissioner at Mechuka (+ 91-3793-263206, 9436421544), the Deputy Commissioner at Along (3783- 222221) or from the Circle Officer at Mechuka (9436258555). For more information, visit arunachal tourism.org.