These Are (not?) Indians: Western Arunachal Pradesh

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See a string of prayer flags, billowing and wind-tattered, hanging over the street and you know: you’re back in Tibet.   Or at least, as close as you (I guess that means “I”) can get.  The “real” Tibet, sitting up there on a plateau somewhere around 4000-5000 meters above sea level, has been closed to foreigners for some time now.  It’s possible to fly or train in to Lhasa and get shuttled around in a jeep for a hundred bucks a day, but there’s no entry for those who want to roam freely, sleep by the rivers and under the stars, and sip yak butter tea in an dark shack with a grandma.

Then again, I’ve also heard it said by foreigners and Tibetans alike that Tibet is no longer Tibet; globalization (Sinozation?) has come, and the whole area has been diluted ethnically, religiously, and socially by the influx of Han Chinese looking to be among the first to set up shop.  In part, this is the same story that’s going on in small and out-of-the-way place all over the world; in part, it’s also a deliberate attempt by the Chinese government to water down Tibetan identity to the point where the population is no longer homogenous enough to protest together.  It’s working; many Tibetans have left Tibet and live in Yunnan and Qinghai (neighboring provinces in western China), in Bhutan, in Dharamsala (where HH the Dalai Lhama presides over the Tibetan government-in-exile) and, you guessed it…in Arunachal Pradesh.

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But first, we had to get there…meaning a 280km ride with a total of 20,800m of gross altitude gain (that’s two and a half Mt. Everests) and one mountain pass at 4,200m.  Not the highest in the world, but it’s up there.  High enough to make your head spin, anyhow.  There was no doubt that the road would be rough, but we had also expected it to be empty.  Quite the opposite!  Loads of military convoys passed by daily, sometimes with as many as ten or twelve big rig-sized jeeps, taking soldiers to the hill tactics training stations around Tenga, or transporting various branches of paramilitary and Indo-Tibetan Border Police force soldiers back and forth to their homes in the plains.  The region isn’t exactly volatile – like I mentioned in the last post, there’s almost no violent insurgent activity to speak of, only a general strike every month or so – but it borders China, so I guess they’ve always got to be on guard.

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In addition to the surprisingly large military presence, there were two medium sized towns along the way and several smaller ones, so that we managed to get hot food and a guesthouse just about every night.  In fact, every square inch seemed to be either populated, forested, or cultivated, so we couldn’t camp at all on the whole way up.  We’ve also got our own predilection for bathing to blame for that.

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Kids playing in front of a stupa in Bomdila.  This photo captures the diversity of Arunachal nicely: the two main ethnic groups are Monpas (left and center), who are descended from Tibetans but have been living in Arunachal for generations, since long before the Chinese government started stirring up trouble, and plains Indians, usually from poorer northern states like Bihar.

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One of my favorite things about the developing world in general is how even young children assume responsibilities like running errands, cooking, and caring for siblings.

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One of Chris’ favorite things about the developing world is how nobody bats an eye when you ask if you can borrow their baby for a picture.

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Kind of Hindu-looking auntie cooking the quintessential Tibetan dish: Momos!  Veg dumplings, stuffed with cabbage when they’re lame, cabbage and chives when they’re decent, or cabbage, chives, and textured vegetable protein when they’re crazy awesome.  Nonveg versions also available.

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Morning assembly at a school.  Depending on the school, the students might sing up to three different national anthems – each in a different language!  The Indian anthem in Hindi, the Tibetan one in Tibetan and the local (Monpa) one in Monpa.  The schools here are generally English-medium and the principal was addressing the students in English…that I couldn’t really understand.

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Up at the “upper Gompa” (the bigger of two monasteries in town), there was a weeklong vigil following the passing of one of Tibetan Buddhism’s highest Rinpoches (masters).  Hundreds of villagers sat around the monastery grounds repeating mantras, saying prayers, and counting prayer beads, while monks sat inside and chanted for hours on end, presumably to give the lama’s soul the strength to cut all its ties with this world and move on to the next.  It being such a somber occasion, I didn’t feel right taking pictures.  Except in the back, where a few monks were preparing vats of Yak butter tea (ingredients: milk, Yak butter, salt…it’s not easy to swallow, but it does fill you up and keep you warm).

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“Sir, take our picture.”  “No, don’t”  “Quiet, let him take it!”

Chris 2014-07-04-056 (CoCB@fAtB)

Phurpa, a Monpa guy (27) serving in the Assamese Rifles squad of the Indian army, posted in Manipur, charged with patrolling the Burmese border and combating Meitei (local manipuri tribe) insurgents who have their home base on the other side. What a world!

We met Phurpa at a snack shop in Tenga in the afternoon and he told us to call him when we got to Bomdila that evening.  He helped us find a hotel and invited us down to his house the next morning, where he served us tea, shared some nice crackers from the military store, gifted us two Nepali mountie knives, played a few Tibetan pop videos for us on his Samsung tablet, and introduced us to the music of American rapper Machine Gun Kelly.  What a world!

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Chris 2014-07-05-063 (CoCB@fAtB)

On the way out of Bomdila and on the way to Dirang, we stopped in a tiny little town to try and scrounge up some lunch.  No luck; the closest thing to a restaurant there served only instant noodles.  I started pestering a guy who looked like a non-local and eventually he caved, admitting that he and his companions were working for a hydel (hydroelectric) company and that they had a bungalow and a cook just around the corner.  Score!  They fed us rice, dal, veg curry, and omelettes, and even invited us to stop by again on our way down.

Interesting tidbit: the village will get fifty years (was that right?) of free electricity for letting the company build a dam and plant there.

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We weren’t the first cyclists to take this route, but we are few and far between enough that the kiddos haven’t lost their curiosity.

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Near old Dirang, a village sandwiched between forested mountains and overlooking the stream that runs between them.  Everything seemed to be in pretty good shape, but these kids still came up to me while I was taking a picture and pointed at my water bottle.  “Pani, pani!” Needless to say I poured them each a cup.

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A family in Old Dirang who invited me for a cup of tea while I was strolling around the village taking photos.

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Also in Old Dirang: a pack of kiddos who up until a moment before had all been rolling around in the grass together.

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Monks on the way to New Dirang.

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Kalachakra (“Wheel of Time”) temple in New Dirang.  They had had a birthday party for HH the Dalai Lama that morning with lots of music and prayers.  We had been told that it would last all day and that we should for the evening ceremonies, but when we got there we found out that everything had been cut short to mourn the passing of the aforementioned Rinpoche.

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By the time we got there, nothing was going on except for a few people doing prostrations in front of one of the stupas and a few others walking in circles around it, spinning the prayer wheels on each go ‘round.

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That evening, walking across a rickety old bridge just for the heck of it.

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Just on the other side was…well, not a park, but a kind of green space with enough miscellaneous objects in it that the kids could enjoy themselves.  One favorite activity was scrambling up the wire mesh that was holding the stone wall together.

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Another was sliding down the electric cable.

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Both in one shot.

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The runt.

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Uncle Chris causes a traffic obstruction.

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One great thing about India (and lots of other places out here) is that if you stand around looking perplexed for long enough and someone will come solve your problem.  Due to rough roads, Chris’ front rack had snapped.  This guy came over with some extra rubber strips and fixed everything right back up.  Who needs a $100 welding job?  1000km later and still going strong!

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Moments after laughing at Chris and feeling superior because of my bicycle’s outstanding durability, I noticed something.  My back brakes weren’t working, because my back rack had partially collapsed.  This guy fixed it with a steel splint and, again, a bit more rubber.   (more details about bike breakdowns in a following post).

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I was surprised to see how many aunties were out on the road doing hard labor.   Wages for laborers vary by region and kind of work, but most figures I’ve heard are between $1 and $3 per day.

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This was the face he made even after I asked permission to shoot.

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Commanding officer Kumar, from Bihar, in charge of a 90-man paramilitary squad in a town called Jang where we got stuck there during a two day general strike.  We could have defied the traffic ban and ridden on to Tawang, but Chris’ rim had pretty much snapped in half the previous night, so we were S.O.L.  And S.O. food since all the markets and shops were also forcibly shut down. CO Kumar took pity on us and had his cook whip us up a lunch even though technically we civvies ought not even be hanging around the base.

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Finally, Tawang!  Home of Tawang monastery, the biggest and oldest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the world after only Potala Palace in Lhasa.  More about that in a later post.

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At the park outside the monastery we met a couple of Tibetan dudes sitting around.  They mentioned that it was some sort of Independence Day celebration and drove us down to the Tibetan community center, where we got to stuff our faces with Tibetan cheese and mini-bell pepper casserole, and got to have beers poured for us by these guys:

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The three oldest Tibetans in Tawang.  They came over the Himalayas ON FOOT during the mass exodus after the Chinese invasion in 1959.  Some of them had been in the Tibetan army and had been part of the advance party clearing the way for HH the Dalai Lama himself.  The two on the left are widowers, the one on the right was once a monk who now lives by himself in solitude and mostly makes ends meet by going around performing rites for people.

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The younger generation.

Far left is Tenzin, who speaks perfect English and used to work at a Walmart call center in Delhi.  Walmart sales reps in the states would call him to ask whether a customer there at the customer service desk was allowed to return a certain item.

Not sure about the guy next to Tenzin.

In the middle is Tashi, who runs a little diner with his uncle.  The menu consists of Chai, yak butter tea, beef dumplings, and beef noodle soup.  He also lent us his motorcycle so we could go on an excursion for a day.

Between me and Chris is Jack, who runs a hotel and a restaurant.  He offered to let us stay, but when we went to check out his hotel, his wife told us that everything had already been booked.  Shucks.

 Chris 2014-07-14-118 (CoCB@fAtB)

Bottom right in Yellow is Pema, niece of the owner of the hotel Chris and I stayed at in Tawang.  She studied in the biggest city in the northeast and then got posted to a tiny village school way up in the mountains.  She invited us down for a day to check it out, chat with the principal (in shades), meet the kids, and tell them a little about our trip.

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We also took a walk to yet another terrifyingly rickety bridge.

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Jhamtse Gatsal, another school, both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  The name means “Garden of Love and Compassion;” it’s a “children’s community” on a hilltop within sight of Bhutan where orphans, abused, and other disadvantaged children from the nearby villages come to live, learn, heal, and grow.  About ninety children live together in simulated “families” of 20-ish kids each.  They study a standard Indian curriculum during day, but with lots of direct interaction from the teachers.  They also get lessons in Tibetan language, Monpa culture, Buddhism, and have lots of sports and creativity time.  They even take care of the community grounds, helping out in the farms, gardens, and grounds-keeping.  If I had a little more to contribute in terms of permaculture and gardening knowledge, I’d definitely stay there for a few months.  I may still do that.

Jhamtse will be having a fundraiser in Boston in November.  Please go if you can and share if you can’t!

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We both felt the urge to stay at Jhamtse for a few weeks or more, but with only a couple days left on our Arunachal “Protected Area Permit,” we had to head back down to Assam pronto.  Chris’ bike was busted and we had neither the time nor the desire to do the whole 280km again in the other direction, so we hitched a ride in a big old lorry and did the whole thing in 2 days rather than seven, spending the night in between in our trusty tents, pitched in the truckbed.  A little grimy, but at least we were safe from the rain.  And probably more comfortable than the two drivers, who slept on fold-down bunks in the cab.

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One of our drivers, Lobsang, is on the right.  He used to study in Bangalore but had to come back to Tawang to take care of his alcoholic mother.  He said he makes about $50 a month as an assistant driver.  He spends about 10 hours a day in the truck, four or fives days a week.

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“Why are elephants grey, huge, and wrinkly?  Because if they were small, round, and white they would be aspirin.”

I’m not sure whether it’s funny…but this guy certainly doesn’t know.

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After an excruciating 16 or so hours on the Heinous, Hellacious, Atrocious, Bodacious Arunachal roads (during which time I actually learned to sleep sitting upright in the half-lotus position), we finally made it back to the low- and smooth-lands of Assam.  Chris popped his busted bike on a rickshaw, had it wheeled over to the bus station, and we bussed our way over to Guwahati for some major rest and repairs.

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2 Responses to These Are (not?) Indians: Western Arunachal Pradesh

  1. Andy says:

    Now I know where the knife came from. I’ve been meaning to write a thank you, but I must have subconsciously been waiting for this post. Thank you. It’s nice to know you’re thinking of us. Stay safe and keep posting.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Nice sleuthing! At first I considered mounting the knives somewhere on the bike frame, but I figured that that would likely result in some street punks using them toslashing my precious tires just for the fun of it. Much better to send them home to my fellow Man Trip veterans. Enjoy!