The dirty road stretched out before us is filled with dark-skinned men in jeans and t-shirts. One man has a saxophone hanging from his neck while another holding dolphin balloons has a red and gold sash strapped to his forehead. Curious. Little boys playing a game of dashing across the road. We proceed with caution at 1mph. The sound of drums and music getting louder and closer. Caution turns into apprehension as we see a human blockade ten metres ahead. Are those banana trees bobbing up and down above the crowd? People are staring at us now. Only a few colourful saris indicate we are in fact in India. We are surrounded.
This is the scene that presented itself the moment we crossed the Myanmar-India friendship bridge and entered into the border town of Moreh. It seemed we entered during a festival and the whole town came out to celebrate. Thankfully a few policemen came to our rescue and parted the crowd, like God parting the Red Sea for Moses. We drove past crowds of men dancing, banging on drums and jiggling about to blasting music, followed by a group of women in brightly coloured saris, and two trucks with banana trees strapped to its front closely tailed behind carrying the town’s children. They waved, smiled and asked where we came from whilst trying to shake our hands. A warm welcome fit for celebrities but we were overwhelmed and were glad to be winding our way through the mountain roads towards Imphal.
India’s population is on par with that of China’s (around 50-100 million difference) yet its geographical area is three times smaller. When we were in China, we already felt the pressure of overpopulation and urbanisation but that was nothing to complain about, now we have tasted India. We got our first sample when we arrived in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, where it took us literally hours to find a quiet and deserted place to sleep. We soon would find out this was a reoccurring theme throughout India.
I would prefer to take you to the Eight Sister States first. This is an area in the northeast of India whose existence, owing to my ignorance, was totally unknown to me prior to this trip. And it is here we escaped the suffocating pollution that choked the cities in the rest of India. The Eight Sisters comprises of eight states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. We spent the first few weeks of India in this part of the country, especially in Arunachal and Nagaland. After visiting this area, I changed my mind on many of the misguided pre-conceptions of an India I learnt only from books and words of mouth.
Arunachal Pradesh shares a border with Bhutan in the west, Myanmar in the east and disputing border with China in the north. In fact, if you go on Baidu Maps or Gaode Maps, Arunachal is in fact part of China. There was a shroud of mystery covering this “land of dawn-lit mountains” and it beckoned to us. As we waited for our permit to be issued to signal our legal entry into this area we headed to its neighbouring state in the south, Nagaland.
To me Nagaland is a land of ancient tribes. They were known for their ‘head hunting’ culture, where men were encouraged, even a pre-requisite to marriage, to go on expedition against other tribes, and to score as many kills as their strength and courage can muster. A successful head-hunter, thereby a most eligible bachelor, flaunted the skeletons of the head of his enemies as ornaments. This culture is no longer practised but I wore a certain amount of pride when these ferocious individuals, mistakenly, recognised me as one of their Naga sisters. Indeed, I do look a little like them or they like me. My image of what Indians should look like smashed into a thousand pieces. I look Indian or Indians look Chinese? I guess this is only surprising if you took land borders for unbreachable lines that people did not cross to exchange with each other.
In order to avoid aimless driving around Nagaland, we set ourselves Longwa Village as a goal. The scenery we saw en route smashed another image of what I thought Indian landscape should look like to hundreds of pieces. I did not expect rolling hills and windy lush mountain paths that recalls memories of Southeast Asia. In truth, we felt we were back in Myanmar. We were not disillusioned. When we got to the village chef’s house, resembling a loaf of bread on a hilltop, we were told half of it was actually in Myanmar territory.
Within days our permit for Arunachal was issued and we lazily rolled ourselves back down the hill and made our way to Ziro Village. This village is home to the Apatani tribe people, whose women, allegedly the most beautiful amongst all the tribes in Arunachal, wore face tattoos and nose plugs. Not knowing exactly where to go, we turned up at Christopher Michi Tajo’s house out of the blue and thankfully he was free to receive us. As an ambassador for Apatani culture he offers homestays and insights into its customs and rich history. He kindly offered us lodging and we wished we had more time to spend with him and his family, especially his mother whose energetic presence reminded me of my own grandma. They looked similar too. Maybe I should recommend the face tattoo and black nose plugs to my grandma.
We headed west of Arunachal and zig-zagged our way up the breath-taking view of Sela Pass to reach the “celestial paradise in a clear night” – Tawang Monastery or Gaden Namgyal Lhatse in Tibetan. After the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the Tawang Monastery, at 3000 metres above sea level, is the second largest in the world, but according to a monk, it is the largest functioning monastery in the world. We only needed to take walk through the grounds of the monastery to understand what he meant.
I could not help but compare it to those we visited in Qinghai and Shangri-La, and Tawang felt completely different. The narrow alleyways were marked by smells and stains of human inhabitants; there were monks of all sizes going about their daily life, that included daily morning prayer; and it did not have the glorious golden rooftops and newest renovation we saw in China. In another word it was not commercial. It felt lived-in and homely. At first, I was disappointed by the organic and earthly feeling that poured out of Tawang Monastery but only when I encountered genuineness did my eyes open to the falsehood of the past.
To close off this post I would like to quickly mention Kaziranga National Park in the state of Assam. We had the pleasure to enjoy a safari experience in Serengeti where we saw amazing animals like elephants and giraffes. But I remember the difficulty in spotting even a single rhino and the excitement it caused when the tip of a horn was spotted miles away. Therefore, I was surprised to see so many rhinos at Kaziranga National Park and at such close proximity!
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