You cannot savour the mystical offerings of Arunachal Pradesh on a quick site-hopping tour. We choose to slow down and relish the intriguing tales that permeate the tropical rainforests on the banks of the Siang. By Neetole Mitra

Arunachal Pradesh
A long suspension bridge made of palm wood across the Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo credit: MICHAEL RUNKEL/ALAMY

One left turn past the Ranaghat Bridge and the pitched National Highway 513 is all but gone, leaving us to navigate a mud trail. The jeep Sukumar Tayeng is driving, rattles. To break the silence of the green overgrowth around us, I ask Tayeng, “How far do we have to go?” He replies, “It’s a very old car.” I look up inquiringly, spot a hearing device plugged into his ear, and fall quiet, musing about the age of the vehicle, even more, aware of the rattles now. It’s finally not raining today after a week of torrential downpours. As the car struggles over wet mud, I think aloud (really loud this time), “I hope we don’t get stuck in this slush!” The wheels squeal, and the vehicle dramatically sinks to the right. We are stuck. The engine cries for mercy as Tayeng pedals the gas. Eventually, he reaches behind my seat and pulls out a dao (a single-edged Chinese sword), smiling at me as he does this.

Tayeng has a faraway look in his eyes. He’s a well-built man in his early 60s, wears a safari hat, has a hunch and a waxy mole on his upper lip, and now, he’s tightening the wheels of his 21-year-old jeep with a dao. We are in the middle of the jungle. No one knows I’m here, and both my cellular networks have abandoned me. When he returns to the car smiling at me and raising his weapon-wielding hand, I am already ducking before I realise he’s put the dao back, and his muddy hands have returned to the steering wheel.

It is probably the stories of the past few weeks that induce these jitters in me as I make my way to Abor Country River Camp, a multi-acre property hidden away in a tropical rainforest on the banks of River Siang. I have just returned from a week of exploring Adi terrain with Holiday Scout. I’ve spent days filled with incessant rains lurching forward on what can hardly be called highways. Two SUVs juggling nine inmates without mercy, like corn seeds on fire. Our route from Roing to Pasighat to Boleng to Jengging to Riga to Tuting to Kaying to Inkyong and back has been a blur of forests—turn after turn of unruly growth crawling out as if to touch you slightly before claiming you whole; mossy barks adorned with a million varieties of creepers; something growing everywhere there is any space.

Inside the vehicle, the atmosphere is rife with stories, like a camp on wheels. The lack of fire logs doesn’t hinder the myriad narrations about the tribes that live in and off these forests. Neharika, a middle-aged Idu Mishmi woman and my fellow passenger from Roing, tells me about her father-in-law, Lt Buluge Umbrey. “He was a respected man, a priest with special powers.” She claims that her father-in-law placed a gigantic rock over River Siang, changing its course forever. “You can still see the rock.” I want to laugh it off, but her tone and demeanour tell me this is not a brag but what she believes to be an undisputed fact. The man next to me, Michael Mibang, nods in agreement and gives me a demo with a raised elbow, “If you have a broken bone, the priest would just hold the area and do something, and it would get fixed within a few days.”

Arunachal Pradesh
A bird’s-eye view of River Siang. Photo credit: NEETOLE MITRA

They are referring to the traditions of miri priests, also known as nyibu shamans; the name is different in each tribe’s distinct language. They come from an ancient lineage of ritualists drawing from the animist traditions practised in the region. The miri is said to have the power of clairvoyance and communicates with the good and bad elements of the earth. It’s not rare for the natives of the land to go to the priest in case of theft or ailments.

Later, in the silence of Abor Country, the uniqueness of India’s eastern frontier comes to life even more vividly. Six luxury tents look out at the river gushing down the valley, mad with the monsoon’s feed. Showing me around the property, Tapir Dirang, a guide and adventure enthusiast, says, “A majority of the furniture at Abor Country River Camp is made out of driftwood that the Siang floats up the shore.” He points at an armchair in the lounge, which I occupy later in the evening, and adds, “This could be a log from China!” I’m settled in one of the three luxury cottages at Abor Country. My room is called Siang, and it smells of flowers. Chinese watercolours adorn the cane walls, and the bed is a cocoon of comfort. Fresh towel rolls and a wooden tray with a cup of lemon tea arrive, sealing me into a bubble of joy for the rest of my stay.

Watching the rains, after a hearty meal of vegetables cooked in light spices and dal (made in traditional Arunachali style), I groan audibly when someone from the kitchen fetches a plate of freshly cut pineapples. It’s a groan of pleasure. The kitchen at the back is a community space. The fireplace signifies that this is the centre of the Arunachali home. Behind it, the garden supplies most of what is cooked at the camp. The pineapple, too, is grown somewhere in the vast backyard, as is the banana that I will be served in the morning along with the breakfast basket.

Arunachal Pradesh
The luxury tents at Abor Country River Camp. Photo credit: NEETOLE MITRA

A walk in the evening through rain-gnawed trails leads me to the grey-sand riverbank gracefully lined with breezy kashful (kans grass). In the distance, a wooden bridge connects the two banks. The locals like to test their weight against the wood, making the bridge sway. Newcomers like I linger around for hours in the middle, looking at the water swirling away. One doesn’t find Internet or phone connectivity here. Even electricity is elusive. However, there is never a dearth of quiet moments with nature. I spend my time at Abor Country listening to the river sing in the evenings and occasionally indulge in chats with Dirang.

Dirang works with his tribe brother Oken Tayeng (Sukumar Tayeng’s younger brother), who owns Abor Country. When not taking travellers around, he spends his time in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh, hunting for WWII US Army planes that couldn’t survive the ‘hump’ (the peaks of Eastern Himalayas) during their journey to China. He narrates his adventures of surviving the forest, fighting delusional porters, crawling across cliffs, and manoeuvring floodwaters. “We’ve recovered 22 planes so far. There are more than 600 out there.”

More than 600 planes lost along with their pilots. Never found till now. It wasn’t just Japanese fighter planes that brought these young men down, but also the unpredictable climatic conditions of the hills over which they were flying. These missing planes are just one of the many mysteries that lie in the folds of Arunachal Pradesh’s Eastern Himalayan ranges; waiting, perhaps to be discovered, perhaps to be forgotten at last.

As a white moth dances by the candle flame, an uncanny wave of moth-cricket chorus travels from the depths of the forest around us and grows dramatically shrill, until their treble presses on from all sides—a shamanic omen agreeing with my thoughts.

Arunachal Pradesh
Abor Hills and surrounding valleys are the epitome of natural beauty. Photo credit: NEETOLE MITRA

GETTING THERE
Book a taxi from Dibrugarh Airport to cover the 160 kilometres to Pasighat. Guwahati International Airport is the preferred option for overseas visitors.

STAY & TOURS
Connect with Oken Tayeng of Abor Country Travels & Expeditions at +91-8414069777 or +91-9436053870 for enquiries about a stay at Abor Country River Camp and tours of the state.

Related: Dibang Valley Of Arunachal Pradesh Likely To Lose 2.7 Lakh Trees