The restaurant, Anini’s best,was a single room with four tables and a huge poster of Lhasa covering one wall. Two young Idu men sat at one table, daos strapped across their backs, shovelling spoonfuls of fried rice into their mouths with one hand and playing computer games on their mobile phones with the other. At another, two teenage girls were slumped over the table, fiddling with their mobiles. We ate chowmein, our voices drowned out by the reverberant thud of helicopters taking off, then stocked up on essentials for the trip: Maggi noodles, ‘Good Day’ biscuits and two bottles of the finest Royal Stag whisky. At 500 rupees a bottle it was the Rolls-Royce of local blends and even came in its own cardboard box. Just in case we ran out, we bought a bottle of McDowell’s No.1 Rum too. Lastly I had to register with the police.
“Where John?” queried the fat, jolly Singpho commander-in-chief, as he copied the details of my permit into a yellowing ledger.
I asked him how many foreigners registered here each year and he paused, tapped his mouth thoughtfully with his index finger and replied: “Four, maybe five.”
We rode out of town on a rough tarmac road that threaded its way along the side of the hills. It was a drab day and the sky was smeared with hoary clouds, but I was in high spirits, exhilarated to be riding towards the end of the road, to be so near Tibet. Beside me rode Edi, his grey nylon trousers and pointed black shoes more suitable for a day at the office than a tramp across the hills. But he was an Idu–these mountains were in his blood, and he didn’t need all the pampering paraphernalia us Western travellers lug around.
Altitude and the cold had shaped the landscape differently here, and the luxuriant emerald jungle of the lower Dibang Valley had morphed into tonsured hills, their bald copper pates ringed by slopes of thick green coniferous curls. Occasionally there’d be a single hut on a hillside, grand in its startling isolation, an ancient warren of footpaths embossed onto the surrounding slopes like lugworm casts on a beach. Below galloped and gurgled the Mathun River, secure in its wooded gorge. If it weren’t for the frame of stately white peaks it could have been Scotland in October. After an hour were ached the village of Mipi, where the tarmac road ended.
When Bailey arrived here in March 1913 he found an enfeebled community of Tibetans, the last of a group of 2,000 pilgrims who’d left eastern Tibet a decade earlier in search of the promised land of Pemako. Many had died crossing the high passes, and those who made it never found the prophesied ‘holy mountain of glass’ surrounded by fertile valleys. Instead they’d succumbed to disease and been attacked by the Idu, who’d ambushed them, set traps and shot them with poisoned arrows. In 1909, disillusioned and defeated, most of the settlers returned to Tibet. By the time Bailey arrived only the old and infirm were left.
Now Mipi was a tiny Idu settlement, just a few houses and a helipad splayed over a grassy spur above the river, girdled by an arc of trees. I was expecting a large red and white barrier and a checkpoint patrolled by stern-faced, heavily armed soldiers telling me I wasn’t allowed any further.But there was no checkpoint, and no soldiers to be seen, just two drunks lolling on a bench outside their hut. Beyond, a footpath climbed down to the river then emerged from the trees on the other side, winding alluringly across the tawny hills towards the snowbound ridge of the Indo-Tibetan border.
“Ma’am, we have choice, na,” said Edi, after talking to the drunks for a few minutes. “We stop here, or we leave the bikes with these people and walk. There’s a village half-day walk away. We could go there, na.”
The two drunks lolled and looked at us.
“Let’s go!” I replied, unable to resist the lure of adventure and the pull of those forbidden mountains. It was just after midday; if we walked fast we could reach the village before dark. The drunks might not be models of responsibility but what was the worst that could happen? (Cue a brief mental montage of hot-wiring joyriding, our bikes disappearing over the edge of mountains, crushed limbs, destroyed helmets, dead chickens. . .but all of that was unlikely. Wasn’t it?) Ten minutes later we’d wheeled the bikes behind the hut, pocketed the keys, given our helmets to the drunks and told them we’d be back in a few days. Shouldering our rucksacks, we set off down the hill to the river at a brisk, jubilant pace, the men shouting after us: “Be careful! They’re uncivilized people up there.” After similar warnings on his journey, Bailey had written: “It seems to be universal, the inability of human beings to feel virtuous except when surrounded on all sides by rogues and villains.”
Bailey mentions being in Mipi “in the middle of March in falling snow”, but it was early March now and at least 10 degrees. Edi said it had never snowed here in his lifetime. A wooden bridge took us across the river and from there we followed the narrow, winding footpath due north along the valley. We strode across open hillsides, our feet swishing through dry, yellow grass, then dipped through elfish dells where gnarled branches were hung with ragged pennons of moss and giant ferns sprouted from the nooks of twisted trees. Later we looped through lush pockets of jungle thick with bamboo and banana palms and slid across slabs of rock at the bottom of small, gabbling waterfalls. It was like travelling from Scotland to the tropics in the space of a few miles.
Fired by excitement and a desire to reach the village before nightfall, we kept up the momentum, swinging along with bamboo staffs, sweat trickling down our reddening faces. The wind whispered in the trees, water rushed and babbled around us, and our feet and staffs thudded rhythmically on the path. We paused only briefly at clear, fast-flowing nullahs, Edi bending down to scoop water out of the stream with his hands while I refilled my water bottle. And every time we emerged into the open again there were the snowy mountains, ranged like guardians across the northern horizon. It was on the other side of those mountains that Bailey had slipped over the edge of a cliff one afternoon. He was saved, he wrote, “with the handle of my butterfly net”.
That afternoon I found a huge smile spreading across my face. It didn’t matter that I was puffing and sweating after Edi, or that my legs were tiring: I was elated to be walking into the unknown, towards Tibet, my rucksack clanking with whisky and rum. But there was something else, too. It was as if every joyous stride was sloughing off the last remnants of an unwanted skin. I wasn’t just walking towards the last Idu houses; I felt as if I was walking away from the past and into a brighter future, one free of batty episodes on Thai ferries and in BP service stations. I realized, in those few hours, that the fears and problems of the past year were just that, the past: that I’d been restored to the essence of who I was by the Idu and their hills. It was one of those rare occasions in life when you feel a pure, unrestrained joy to be alive, right here, right now. I wanted to call Marley and say, “I’m back! I’m back!” and to jump up and down and skip through the grass. But I just kept walking across that magical valley, my whole being suffused with light and happiness.
It was six o’clock, and almost dark, when we reached a single bamboo longhouse on the edge of a forested hill above the Mathun. The Idu don’t use the same calendar as us but this time of year is known as Mu-La, the time when the fields are cleared for planting, and the bare earth around the hut was smudged with ash and dotted with blackened tree stumps. Four black pigs grunted in a muddy pen and a foxy ginger dog ran towards us barking, then stopped, wagged uncertainly and skulked away, unaccustomed to sweaty white females landing on its doorstep at dusk.
Edi disappeared into the hut, emerging a minute later with a sooty older couple. “These my fifth cousins, na.”
Elsewhere I would have thought this a startling coincidence, but among the Idu it was perfectly normal.
He nodded towards the pair. “Their name Kormu and Mishing.”
Kormu’s tracksuit was tatty and caked in years of grime, his bare feet black and calloused, the rough hand he held out ingrained with ash and dirt. Filth was embedded in every crease and wrinkle of his face and neck. His short black hair was thick and matted. His wife, Mishing, was tiny and birdlike, her sweatshirt and sarong equally soaked in dirt. They seemed shy and extremely surprised to see us, but they were Idu, and Edi’s cousins, so they welcomed us in for the night. A glance at the map on my phone showed we were at 1,700 metres altitude and just 12 miles from Tibet.
I sat by the engoko as the couple talked excitedly to Edi and Mishing poured us cups of watery yu. On the woven bamboo walls around us hung a plastic clock, a calendar, an old Indian National Congress election poster, a few bamboo baskets and a string of grubby clothes. Two wooden shelves held plastic jars of salt and sugar, tins of tea and a selection of pots and pans. The only other resident was a brown cat, which sat sphinx like by the fire, its brilliant green eyes fixed languidly on the flames.
“They never meet foreign person before,” said Edi, after a few minutes. “They very surprised to see you here, and very happy.”
In honour of the occasion Mishing hurried down the corridor, returning wearing a clean blue T-shirt and a string of white beads. Kormu just grinned, sat beside the fire and poured himself a large glass of the rum Edi had just given him. When I handed him a bottle of whisky, too, Mishing intercepted it, giggling, and disappeared down the corridor to hide it.
I remember that night as one of the funniest of the entire journey. In my mind’s eye I can see the hut clearly–the four of us sitting around the fire in the orange light of the flames, the small, elfin couple with their work-blackened hands. I can hear the clack of mugs, Mishing’s girlish laughter and Kormu’s rasping chuckle. And I can picture the cunning cat, fat as a spoilt pet, which they alternately beat with the bamboo fire tongs and cuddled in the rough way that small children torment family pets. The cat, its eyes never flinching from the flames, seemed utterly impervious to both. At some point we ate dinner, Mishing boiling rice and bitter greens and Kormu slicing raw, bloody venison on a log with hands so begrimed it was as if the dirt had seeped into the skin itself. With no loo and no running water, this would be a bad place to have diarrhoea. But thankfully I was brought up with chickens clucking around the kitchen, a pack of dogs sleeping beside the Aga and one of my mother’s pugs regularly sitting on the kitchen table as we ate. As a result, I’m equipped with a stomach like a steel dustbin.
The more rice beer and rum we drank, the more loquacious Kormu and Mishing became, their initial shyness giving way to a childlike excitement. They laughed freely, showing brown, infrequent teeth that had probably never been nearer a dentist than a strip of cane, a tot of rum and a good yank. They were so happy to meet me, they said, to actually see a foreigner for the first time. They couldn’t believe it! The only outsiders who came here were Indian Army patrols who stole their cooking utensils and drank their yu. By the time the rum was half-empty Kormu was a staunch Anglophile. How wonderful the British were! How kind! How beautiful! Everything made by Britain and Bhutan was fantastic quality, unlike the rubbish made by India, China and Nepal. They were sorry they didn’t have more to give me, that their house was so simple. But I couldn’t have been happier, and told them so repeatedly. Whenever the flames died down Mishing took a length of bamboo from the rack above the engoko and pushed it into the embers, showering us all in a blizzard of grey ashes and giggling.
It was after eleven o’clock when we each lay down on our side of the fire, Mishing fussing around her guests, apologizing it wasn’t more comfortable. She watched as I unpacked my orange sleeping bag, falling about laughing at the sight of my teddy bear and patting its head and squeezing it to her chest in the same rough way she cuddled the cat. Kormu did the same. Afterwards they fell asleep under thin blankets, with logs as pillows, and I lay there listening to the crackling embers, the gurgling river and Kormu’s drunken mutterings. I can’t remember having spent a happier day in my entire life.
My eyes were gummed together and puffy from smoke when I woke at dawn. Mishing was pulling the kettle off the fire and Kormu was still a lump under his blanket. When he emerged, a reluctant caterpillar from its cocoon, he sat up and poured himself a refreshing glass of rum. Over tea and Maggi noodles I asked them if they liked living here and if they considered their surroundings beautiful. There’s always fish in the river, said Kormu, and animals to hunt, and it was never too hot or too cold. But they didn’t consider it beautiful–it was just where they lived. Life was hard here, he went on, having another restorative tot of rum. There was no road, no electricity, no telephone signal, and they had to clear the jungle and work all day in the fields to survive. Politicians always appeared before the elections and promised them a road and electricity, but of course these never came. Mishing had given birth to 11 children, alone, with no medical help, only five of whom had survived. The others had died of diarrhoea, hepatitis, malaria, fevers. It might have been different if they’d been able to reach a doctor.
“My family is the same,” said Edi, nursing a breakfast cup of yu. “My parents had 11 children, but there are only five of us now. It’s just part of our Idu life, na.”
It’s so ironic. We urbanized, overcrowded Westerners dream of these wild places. We travel to the far side of the world to reach them, to get away, to gaze at unpolluted night skies, to be free of mobile phones, email, traffic, noise, crowds. For many of us these dwindling pockets of wilderness are earthly paradises, last Shangri-Las, precious fragments of a disappearing world. Yet for the people who live here the wilderness is there to be tilled, planted, fished and hunted. Their lives are about food, water and shelter–the primal aspects of human survival. They want electricity, a road and a mobile phone connection. They don’t want to walk for days to buy clothes or reach medical help. There used to be more villages further up the valley but they’ve been abandoned. Like a tree, whose farthest branches were withering away, Idu society was shrinking to fit the roads. And it wasn’t just in the Dibang Valley: between 2001 and 2011 the urban population in Arunachal Pradesh grew by 30 per cent. Kormu and Mishing’s remaining five children all lived in towns. We are an accursed race, always wanting what we don’t have. If only there was a happy medium.
Before we left they sat on their porch for photos, Kormu clutching the cat to his chest, Mishing with her arms around the foxy dog, a parody of an English family portrait. Edi then took one of the three of us, and Mishing posed with a bunch of mustard flowers and held my hand tightly in hers. When we hugged each other warmly goodbye, I couldn’t believe her diminutive, bony frame had survived 11 childbirths. They’d miss me, they said, and asked when I was coming back, then we all waved and shouted ji pra ji, stay well, until we were well out of sight. I was sad to say goodbye and leave them, alone, for another solitary day of graft in the fields. What a life they lived.
This is an extract from Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains: A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh–India’s Forgotten Frontier by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (Simon & Schuster 2017, â‚¹499/371pp)