The Mishmi Hills are a beautiful world of jaw-dropping landscapes — tropical forests,
The Mishmi Hills are a beautiful world of jaw-dropping landscapes — tropical forests,alpine meadows, shrubby woods, bamboo groves and sloping grasslands so deeply hued that verdant would be an understatement for this high rainfall biodiversity hotspot. The setting is simply other-worldly. Cerulean skies seem to reach out for the rolling hills. Trees wear giant creepers, elegantly draped. Orchids flower profusely on the forest floor as well as high up on trees. The earth far below the lush canopy is not only blanketed with decorative ferns, they leap up ten feet tall and sprout like umbrellas at the top. The bends are hairpin and the valleys unfathomable. It’s one of the last places on earth, or at least in India, that are still mysterious — in fact, the number of species of mammals, birds, flowers, insects and butterflies that inhabit the Mishmi Hills are still being counted. They are sparsely visited by tourists, these hills, and I think that’s one of the reasons why this remote land belongs most to the clouds, fog and snow and, sometimes, sunshine.
We are in far eastern Arunachal Pradesh, in the Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary, of which the Mishmi Hills are a bewitching part. The famous monastery at Tawang and the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary are in western Arunachal — of course, they are both slices of heaven on earth and they get more visitors because they are better equipped with basic infrastructure. It’s true that not many tourists come to Mehao, which only makes it even more pristine. Anini, the last village on the India-China border, is not far away. The Mishmi Hills actually shot into the spotlight only when the Rufous-throated Wren-babbler was re-sighted here in 2004, after a gap of fifty-eight years. Bird enthusiasts and eco-tourists couldn’t resist coming by and that has opened up the traffic a bit… but only a little.
The hills are divided into three altitudes — the lower altitude (1,300m) stretches from Roing to Tiwarigaon; the Tiwarigaon to Coffee House section forms the middle (2,655m); the highest altitudes rise from Coffee House to the Myodia Pass, the most elevated point (2,666m) on the Roing-Hunli stretch of the Roing-Hunli-Anini road, and it’s distinguished by snow-covered mountains. Hunli is a tiny town at a height of 1,250m, 90km from Roing but it’s best to set base at Roing (the higher altitudes have the fewest stay options). And the coffee house? Well, the legend goes that the authorities did not have enough funds to build a ‘proper’ resthouse and this ‘coffee house’, actually a rudimentary guesthouse, came up. You need prior permission from Roing to stay. A cook is available but you’ll have to carry supplies.
The hypnotizing landscape of the Mishmi Hills is the southward extension of the great Himalayan range in the Dibang Valley of Arunachal. The name is derived from the Mishmi tribe native to this land. The hills are home to leopards, jungle cats, musk deer and Himalayan black bears. Hoolock gibbons abound plentifully, and three abandoned tiger cubs were recently rescued near Anini. Irpa Mekola and Jibi Pulluare, two young men who live here, are doing a lot of conservation-related work and research. A good part of their efforts focus on the rehabilitation of the Himalayan black bear and Hoolock gibbon. But it’s the different species of birds that dominate the Mishmi Hills. Birdwatchers are naturally thrilled by this unexplored paradise.
Did you know that Arunachal Pradesh is home to 680 of the 1,200-odd bird species found in India? The bird species found here are a roll-call of exotic names — Sclater’s Monal, Blyth’s and Temmink’s Tragopan, Chestnut-breasted Partridge, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Pale-capped Pigeon, Ward’s Trogon, Dark-sided Thrush, Green and Purple Cochoa, Rusty-bellied and Gould’s Shortwing, Beautiful Nuthatch, the Rusty-throated and Wedge-billed Wren Babbler, the Fire-tailed Myzornis, there are at least four Parrotbill species, there’s also the Black-headed Greenfinch, the Scarlet Finch, and the Grey-headed Bullfinch. In brilliant contrast to the background in variegated shades of green, Mishmi’s colourful birds are as much a treat to the eyes as the wildflowers that grow here.
What brings them here, these birds? It’s the flowering (also of orchid blossoms) and fruiting season. Keep a look out — a keen eye can spot other, glorious wildflowers in bloom — it’s easy to overlook them when you are surrounded by so much beauty. Finally, the elusive Wren-babbler is easily sighted but just as difficult to photograph — still, you are bound to get lucky with a treasure of other bird sightings while you scan about for it. That’s how they are, the Mishmi Hills.
Getting there: Dibrugarh in Assam is the nearest airport and railhead (143km). Air India and Jet Airways fly to Dibrugarh airport from Kolkata and Guwahati. They also fly to and from Dimapur in Nagaland but it’s a highly priced route with multi-stop services. A Rajdhani Express connects Dibrugarh to Delhi, and trains run to Guwahati, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru (Yesvantpur Junction) as well as other parts of the country.
The road that goes to Mishmi leads from Dibrugarh to Tinsukia and then Dholaghat. From Dhola-ghat, ferries ply over the gigantic Brahmaputra to the Sadiya Ghat on the other side, and from there, further by road, to Roing and then the Mehau Sanctuary (wherein lie the Mishmi Hills). The sun rises and sets early at Mehau, in India’s extreme east. Ferries start at 8.30am and ply only till 3.30pm. The road from Sadiya Ghat to Roing is terrible and eats up most of the travel time.
How to go: Kolkata-based Help Tourism is a reliable operator for eastern India and its dedicated birding division does tailormade tours to Mishmi with experienced naturalists as guides (contact: Kali Temple Road, Kolkata, 033-24550917, 9433094681, eastindiabirding.com). Most flights arrive in Dibrugarh in the afternoon and it takes another day that includes a river crossing on a barge and travel on bad roads to arrive at Help Tourism’s basic but very scenic Dibang Valley Jungle Camp (independent bookings possible via offices in Delhi, Kolkata, Siliguri, Guwahati and Darjeeling; 9733000442, helptourism.com). The Dibang Valley Jungle Camp’s Chang bungalows are located by the 18km milestone down the road to Miyuliati. There are four rooms available at the property. Extra guests are accommodated in tents. Note, it rains more or less throughout the year in Arunachal Pradesh, which increases travel time. Jaipur-based Tragopan Tours also offers birding tours of the Mishmi Hills; 0141-2357740, 9414051353, tragopantours.in).
Note: At Roing, a mandatory permit has to be taken to stay in the Mishmi Hills. A photo ID with address proof will be needed. The permit is valid for 3-4 days.
When to go: October to mid-December, and then again from mid-February to May, is high season. March and April offer the best bird sightings, and orchid blossoms. March also ushers in pre-monsoon showers, so visitors keen on bird photography would have to keep a few extra days handy, just in case you lose some to uncertain rains.
The lower areas can be covered in peak winter but the higher reaches are far too cold then.
Festivals are also a great time to be here, and the period from January to March marks different celebrations by different tribes. It’s a great time to observe old cultures, and their colourful clothes, innovative headgear and beautiful accessories are captivating. Young Arunachalis, otherwise dressed in western clothes, turn out in traditional attire at such times.