I’m too young to di…e,” the little voice of Oriel, the youngest member of our rafting group, quavered above the crash of waves as we negotiated the raging Siang. It may not seem like the ideal tourism tagline, but it was a worthy T-shirt slogan that captured the essence of adventure. As we were about to enter the rapids, I shot back at Oriel, “So am I!” The raft went full tilt and we hung on for our dear lives with the tenacity of a Mumbaikar on an evening local, barely surviving a potential spill. The Siang is one tricky river.
While approaching Dibrugarh by flight, the wide Brahmaputra river—chequered with sand banks and islets—shimmies by beguilingly. It’s hard to imagine that before charting a placid journey through the plains of Assam, the Brahmaputra is a tempestuous river in its upper tracts. Originating in Tibet where it’s called Yarlung Tsangpo (Xiang in Chinese), it flows gently eastwards through the Tibetan Plateau, cutting through the Great Himalayan Range past the ‘Great Bend’ around Namche Barwa, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Here, it turns sharply through a series of gorges and dashes down Arunachal as the Siang, before being joined by the Yamne, Lohit and Dibang to flow as the mighty Brahmaputra. The volume of water it carries from its lofty mountainous perch has earned it the title of ‘The Everest of Rivers’.
The new Bogibeel bridge, at 4.94 kilometres, the longest rail-cum-road bridge in India and the second longest in Asia, inaugurated by the Prime Minister with much fanfare last December, had made the Brahmaputra river crossing a breeze. There was no love lost for the monopolistic boatmen who used to charge exorbitant rates to ferry passengers and vehicles in the past. After a delicious chicken meal at Amrita Singh Line Hotel at Kulajan Tiniali, we crossed over from Assam to Arunachal at the bustling border town of Jonai Bazar. Driving through Pasighat, we took the Ranaghat bridge over the Siang and buckled up for the final offroad access to our base, Abor Country River Camp.
Oken Tayeng of Abor Country Travels & Expeditions, the man behind the Siang Rush rafting event (2019 was the second edition), welcomed us to his eco-friendly riverside camp. The water supply was tapped from a natural spring, electricity came from solar power and the heritage rooms were named after the rivers Siang, Siyom and Yamne. Over tea at the deck overlooking the Siang, Oken spoke at length about the river. The origin of the Brahmaputra was shrouded in mystery and, for many years, it was not known where it entered India and if the Tsangpo or Siang indeed flowed into the Brahmaputra; some believed it ran further east and became the Irrawaddy or Mekong. Another unanswered question was how a huge river could descend from 9,000-feet to 1,000-feet within the span of a hundred miles; such a sharp gradient led to the theory of a ‘Lost Falls.’
While Tibet was closed to the outside world and the Northeast was covered in deep impenetrable jungles home to ferocious tribes, exploration was not easy. Discovery meant capture or death. This was ‘Abor’ country, an Assamese term meaning ‘barbarous,’ used to describe the fierce Adi tribes. While the British mounted military expeditions against the indomitable Abors, the river’s descent from Tibet was decoded bit by bit over decades by a colourful cast of explorers—a Mongolian lama, a Lepcha tailor from Darjeeling called Kinthup, pundit explorers Nain Singh Rawat, Nem Singh and ‘GMN’, a Japanese Zen monk Ekai Kawaguchi (he ended up as the Dalai Lama’s physician) and Francis Younghusband who led the 1903 British expedition to Tibet. Frederick ‘Hatter’ Bailey of the Bengal Lancers, an adventurous military-officer-turned-secret-agent who was considered mad as a ‘hatter’ by friends, explored the Tsangpo Gorge in 1913 with surveyor Henry Morshead. Around the same time eccentric Scottish botanist and plant collector, Frank Kingdon Ward, was travelling from Shimla to Tibet, complete with his bowler hat, tweed jacket and famed ill temper in tow.
Accompanied by Lord Cawdor, Ward journeyed through the world’s deepest gorge and authored Riddle of the Tsang Po Gorges in 1924. The book was later edited by Kenneth Cox and Ken Storm Jr, who spent 13 years in China before they rappelled down the legendary Rainbow Falls, where the river becomes just 10-feet wide and plummets 70 feet. Cox and Storm became Oken’s first clients and it was heartening to know that he had named his luxury safari tents after them, besides other early clients like Kotry, Tomoko, Clayton and Tun. I was assigned ‘Tun’ and sprawled on the wooden verandah with Charles Allen’s A Mountain in Tibet and the crash of the Siang in the background. Allen called the journey up the Brahmaputra–Tsangpo the ‘Last Great Asian Adventure.’
We were going downstream. On paper, floating down the river seemed a lot more cheerful than hiking through leech-infested jungles or driving on patchy roads. Or so I thought. The first day we drove along the north bank of the Siang to a viewpoint and hiked down to Pongging, where the blue Yamne river meets the olive-hued Siang. Home to the Adi Panggis, the village is accessible by a narrow path and a swaying bridge. Arunachal Pradesh is a hilly state crisscrossed by rivers; suspension bridges of wire, rope and bamboo are the only way to reach scenic but remote hamlets tucked away in the hillside. Further up, on the road to Yingkiong, was Arunachal’s longest hanging bridge at Damro, a short hike from Oken’s other camp, Yamne Abor. Nimble-footed children and Adi Padam herders going to tend to their mithun in the forest traversed it with ease; for lesser mortals like us, it was no less than an adventure.
The next day, we took the south bank route and stopped at Rengging. In the village square was a wooden frame called sotkyang where the resident Adi Minyongs would lynch a mithun instead of slaughtering it during community feasts. We continued to Pangin where the local womens’ self-help group had arranged a lovely meal of rice, chicken, pettu (mustard leaves), pudina (mint) chutney, Adi mirsi (chilli) and salad, besides apong (rice beer). It was a short drive to our overnight base Siang River Camp at Yeksi near Boleng, with tents put up by travel company Nature Unlimited (+91-8730058300, +91-9402787185) on a high sand bank. It began to rain and, over a campfire, our local adventure experts Bengia Bully and Visu briefed us on the river.
The full rafting stretch from Tuting to Pasighat is a 180-kilometre run over seven days in one of the most inaccessible regions in the world. This excludes travel days via Jengging to the launch site at Purung through steep forests and gorges so deep they could be reached only by river. The Upper Siang is expedition level with Class 4 rapids like Pulsating Palsi, besides Class 5 Marta and Class 6 Toothfairy that are so treacherous it could require the raft to be carried around the rapids! But Hairy Hari, Moing Madness, Karko Killer, Geku Wave, Begging Rollercoaster and Dite Dime lay in wait to ambush us along the relatively safer Lower Siang. Reading ‘chances of flips’ on the rafting itinerary with the regularity of a meal was extremely disconcerting, so, the next morning, we paid good attention to the safety briefing by Daman Singh and Amit Magar, our young, experienced rescue kayakers from Rishikesh.
It was raining heavily and with much reluctance we set off from camp. “You’ll get wet in the water anyway,” was the logic offered. Crossing a few suspension bridges, we paddled past Boleng and the hanging bridge at Komsing to Pangin with fun rapids like Parong Rollercoaster, a Class 3 with big waves. The kayakers swerved with the waves, sliding underwater and popping upright again with the alacrity of little grebes. After three hours of running the river as it cut through stunning landscapes, forested hills and jagged rock formations, we reached our next camp at Rottung. “That wasn’t too bad,” we concurred with misplaced bravado, unaware that we had done a calm patch between two wild stretches. We walked to the river and tried our hand at local fishing but got no bites. Luckily we had chicken curry, bamboo shoots, dal and pinup—rice wrapped in leaves and steamed—prepared by local villagers.
The next day after a quick breakfast, we set off from Pangin for Pongging. The river had looked so serene and beautiful from the road earlier; at eye level it seemed to rage and froth. It was at the precise point before hitting the Class 3+ Rottung rapid that Oriel uttered, “I’m too young to die”. They could have been famous last words but for our white-knuckled grip on the raft’s safety line that saved us from going overboard. Shaken, we rolled past Asi cave and the crew thought it safer to pull ashore and inspect the Big Pongging rapids. A Class 4, it descended around a bend so sharply we could only see the rising spray. We somehow survived it and the Pongging Pongak and Sikit Siimar rapids before the river reached the plains. The Ranaghat bridge came to view and we bodysurfed in the placid waters, as if we had been juiced and spat out by the river like melon seeds.
Having gone overboard in Nepal’s steepest river, Bhote Koshi, and enduring an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction a year later, I felt lucky to escape the blender. I also dodged taking back some ‘Arunachali tattoos’ as mementos—those painful bites of the pesky dim dim fly that itch for weeks, scarring you with an “I was there” mark. As we were handed out our certificates, Arunachal Tourism Secretary Sadhana Deori reiterated how the state’s rivers are perfect for watersports, fishing expeditions, nature-based eco-tourism and cultural explorations to tribal hamlets. I can’t wait to be back for a truly immersive experience of the Upper Siang.
Fly to Dibrugarh Airport and drive 158kms/3.5hrs to Pasighat. From Pasighat, Abor Country River Camp is 6kms beyond town after Ranaghat bridge on the Yinkiong Road. Yamne Aboris 70kms/2hrs away at Damro. From Pasighat, Yingkiong is 122kms and Tuting 369kms.
Rafting Route: Pasighat–Jengging–Tuting–Pango–Cherring–Paradise Beach–Geku Twin Camps–Rotung–Pasighat.
Where To Stay
Abor Country River Camp (₹6,000, including breakfast; Oken Tayeng: +91-8414069777) has six tents, three heritage rooms, and three river-view rooms.
Yamne Abor Eco Lodge (₹4,000 including breakfast) includes three rustic thatched huts with ethnic décor facing the valley.
Lhoba Camp (₹3,500, including breakfast; The Left Orange Orchard, Ayeng village;+91-7629841592)
The Serene Abode (₹1,900; Lower Baskota, Pasighat; +91-368-2222382)
When To Visit
Besides the four-day Ziro Festival of Music (26–29 September 2019), the Orange Festival of Adventure & Music (OFAM; +91-9436049843, +91-8876224307), India’s first such fest, is held at Dambuk in mid-December. Rafting in Arunachal is best in winter months; Aquaterra’s (+91-11-29212760) fixed departure Upper Siang Rafting Expedition is on between November 23 and December 4, 2019. The 12-day tour costs ₹1.25lakh (all inclusive, except flights).
For more information: Department of Tourism (Itanagar; +91-360-2214745).