Is it an ocean? It’s...the Brahmaputra. If the coruscating waters of this mighty river are a sight to behold, then the new Bogibeel Bridge straddling it near Dibrugarh nearly steals the sheen. The Brahmaputra fills you with awe and trepidation in equal measure. India’s longest rail-cum-road bridge, which runs for nearly five kilometres over the river, is an engineering marvel and a thing of manmade beauty. More importantly, it has cut down travel time between Assam and eastern Arunachal drastically, making a truly untouched part of India more accessible.
The drive to Pasighat was pleasant, past small—but not sleepy—villages and proud homesteads fronted by neat gardens. The hill town was established by the British in 1911 as an administrative outpost to better govern the greater Abor Hills and the northern territories. Someday soon it will be developed as a Smart City.
The first thing you notice about Arunachal Pradesh is how few people there are. This massive state, with a land area of nearly 84,000 sq km, has the second-lowest population density among Indian states (the least populous is Ladakh). The second is a noticeable change in the foliage, which, unlike the population, is impressively dense.
I was staying at the Abor Country River Camp, here to attend the tail end of the Siang Rush 2020, a promotional activity by Arunachal Tourism whose signature event is a short whitewater rafting expedition down the Siang; hence the name. Oken Tayeng of Abor Country Travels & Expeditions is the super-enthu, seemingly ageless organiser of the Siang Rush (2020 marked the third edition of the event). Once I had made his acquaintance, I knew the Rush could not be in better hands (for one, he does not rush things overmuch).
Each year, the Rush follows a different itinerary, showcasing a new part of Arunachal. The other participants, a clutch of India’s best boutique tour operators and agents, were more intrepid than me and had started their tour several days earlier. They had been richly compensated for their long cab rides across the length of Arunachal, taking in the Dzong at Dirang, the sprawling Tawang Monastery, the stunning Sela Pass, the moving Jaswant Garh War memorial, the ebullient Nuranang Falls, the historically important Thembang Fortified Village, and much more. They had also had an opportunity to share with the honourable Chief Minister their views on the sort of tourism Arunachal should promote and which its fragile and unique ecosystem can sustain.
I lolled for a day at the river camp, waiting for my fellow travellers to arrive, and enjoyed every minute of it. Since I was anything but gainfully occupied, I took my driver up on his offer to show me a viewpoint further upstream on the Siang. We ascended gently, eventually arriving at a rocky outcrop set high above the valley of the Siang, and clearly popular with the locals. Here was a bend in the river, swirling eddies, hidden whirlpools perhaps, and a palpable increase in the water’s velocity. The view was mind blowing. I had seen the Brahmaputra earlier only in Guwahati, where it is positively oceanic—and tame when not in spate. In the upper reaches, it’s a tumult. The swell in winter was still impressive, so I can only imagine what effect the monsoon has on it. This was my amuse-bouche. The main course would be served when the group attempted the rapid later in the trip.
At the camp—which offers both a traditional Abor house and tents overlooking the Siang—I had the good fortune of occupying the same bed Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao had slept on when they visited the newly-opened camp in 2016. This has, apparently, created a niche demand for the room, especially among Assamese guests.
The participants arrived, full of stories, and brought me up to speed on all they had seen so far and what they thought of Arunachal. They seemed charged and curious—which every traveller should be. Ajeet Bajaj of Snow Leopard Adventures gave a riveting talk about his 2018 Everest climb, which he did with his daughter Deeya.
Next morning, our day began with a round of yoga, led by Naina Ngilyang, who conducts her classes in state capital Itanagar and specialises in aerial yoga. By the time we had gone through her punishing stretches (“Shall we do 10 surya namaskars today?”), I think we could pretty much fly. Then, finally, it was time to go rafting.
Before we set foot in our rafts, however, we visited Rottung, a village near the kick-off point surrounded by high mountains, a village that has spruced itself up because it wants to be cleanest in the state. Here we were subjected to some heartfelt rural hospitality. There was singing and a lilting dance in honour of the visitors, followed by a delicious meal where rice was served in leaf packets. An afternoon well spent, before we headed down to the river for our first bout of rafting. After state officials declared the Siang Rush properly open, we pushed off into the cold, cold waters, clutching our life jackets for, well, dear life, paddles at the ready.
In the end, the rafting was fairly tame. And for this I am grateful. I promptly reserved a seat in the oar raft, where paddling was, um, optional. The high point of the ride was splashing each with the freezing waters of the Siang.
Who could have imagined a decade ago that we would be doing Facebook Lives beamed around the world while hurtling down a rapid in a raft on the Siang? There were tributes too for Akshay Kumar of Mercury Himalayan Explorations, an adventure travel visionary whose recent and untimely passing had left all of us shocked. In fact, Akshay was scheduled to lead the rafting section of the Siang Rush 2020 and would have been with us. But the universe had other plans.
After a few hours we pulled over on to a white sand beach. As if almost overnight, a veritable tent city had sprung up here, our home for the night. (The next morning it would be gone, leaving no trace, just memories for a lifetime.) It was a moonlit night, and, over drinks, a singer from Pasighat with a dulcet voice belted out old Hindi numbers. There was grilled mithun and pork curry. Some fresh apong had been rustled up. Then, karaoke took over. Tourism’s gain is music’s loss, I thought to myself as Oken regaled us with one Elvis number after another. Under the blazing moon, on that white sand beach of the Siang, this was a heady mix. And I can say, without a doubt, that camping on the river was the high point of the trip for me. Despite the revelries, there was no relenting from Naina, so there was yoga on the beach next morning. Some of us headed out to Dibrugarh, for a chat with the Jalans, venerable tea planters of the region, and to spend a sublime night at their Mancotta Chang Bungalow. The others rafted down from the Rottung camp to Pasighat, getting off near the Abor Country River Camp, bringing the latest Siang Rush to a close.
Key takeaways from the trip? Arunachal is a niche destination, and can’t really be developed as a mass market proposition. More accommodation options need to be created and tourism should not focus on just one or two main destinations. Eco- tourism, community-based initiatives, culture and adventure tourism seem to be their best bets. Here’s hoping that by the time the next eagerly awaited Siang Rush rolls around, there will be positive interventions and visible changes on the ground. I, for one, can’t wait to get back.