Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Wild East: An Epic

In the same week, I went from the state of Arunachal Pradesh, 85 percent covered by lush rainforest, a total population of 1 million people, and a rich tribal culture to the city of Mumbai, known as the financial capital of India, boasting 18 million residents and the second largest slum in the world. While Mumbai certainly has a charm of its own, my heart lies back in Arunachal Pradesh.

Traveling to Arunachal Pradesh undoubtedly pushed the limits of my patience. I understand IST, officially known as Indian Standard Time but should really stand for Indian Stretchable Time. Before I left for Arunachal, I’d endured the common frustrations experienced by foreign travelers in India – lack of punctuality, frequent power outages, random business closures – but Arunachal takes it to a whole different level.

On the other hand, Arunachal Pradesh is a land witnessed by few outsiders. During the duration of my roughly two-week stay, I saw one European lady in Pasighat the day I arrived and about 10 British photographers on the way to the Subansiri River – that was it.  In Arunachal, stunning natural beauty surrounds life still lived as it was centuries before.


Stuffing a few finals items into my bag, I hopped in Menoj’s classy, white Ambassador taxi around 11pm and headed for Haridwar train station en route to New Delhi. Arvind warned me that every year, people die traveling the roads around Rishikesh at night. Wild elephants roam the surrounding jungles and after the sun goes down, play with people and cars as if they were bored and looking for a new toy. Setting out, there were lots of other cars and trucks on the road and I figured tonight wouldn’t be our night.

Menoj helped me board the train while a kind Indian lady helped me find my berth. I was traveling 2AC, an air-conditioned sleeper class that isn’t quite first class but is certainly an upgrade from the packed cheaper seats. The three other people in my four-bed berth were already sound asleep - it was 12:45am. The train provides clean sheets so I laid them out, took my belt off to secure my bag to my bunk, put my headphones in, and dozed off.

Getting off the train at 4:40am, Delhi station was alive and bustling. I made my way to the pre-paid taxi stand, dodging porters and taxi drivers, where I hopped in a no-haggle taxi to Indira Ghandi airport. I checked in for my flight and after few short hours wait, I was in the air en route to Northeast India.

Arriving in Dibrugarh, Assam around 2:30pm, I checked in to the Hotel Rajawas, the first hotel I’d stayed at in India. I quickly left to check out the main market while there was still plenty of daylight. After a bit of poking around, I realized downtown Dibrugarh has little to offer the wandering traveler other than a laid back and safe atmosphere in a state known for its ethnic clashes and violence. Exhausted at this point, I headed back to the hotel, ordered dinner, and began planning for my trip the next morning into Arunachal. 

My Arunachal contacts were essentially useless in helping me book transportation from Dibrugarh to Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh (AP), the town where I would base my stay in the Northeast. Fortunately, the woman who owned Hotel Rajawas met me in the lobby after I had dinner to discuss transportation options. What makes the journey from northeastern Assam into southeastern AP most interesting is the required crossing of the Brahmaputra River, the fifth largest river by volume in the world. With a bridge still years away from connecting the two sides of the river, the only option is to take a ferry. Mrs. Saharia, the hotel owner, first called the daily Sumo service (a Sumo is a big Indian-made jeep) that takes you from Dibrugarh to Bogibeel ghat (ghat in this part of India means ferry point), then picks you up in another Sumo on the other side of the river and drops you right in Pasighat. Of course, the guy’s Sumo was broken and needed repairs that would take about a week. Thankfully, the Sumo driver gave me good advice on how to make the journey without a direct service. I was to wake up at 4:30am and get driven by Mrs. Saharia’s driver to the Dibrugarh Sumo stand. Around 5am, the first shared Sumo would leave Dibrugarh for Bogibeel ghat, about an hour away. I would take the first ferry of the day at 7am across the Brahmaputra to Silapatar ghat. Once reaching Silapatar ghat on the other side, I would take a shared taxi into the town of Silapatar, then get in a final shared taxi to Pasighat. If all went somewhat to plan, I would reach Pasighat sometime in the afternoon.

As the Brahmaputra recedes after the monsoon, Bogibeel ghat’s location on the bank of the river responds. Alas, there is no proper ferry building as we’re used to back in the states. Leaving the main road at a seemingly random location, our Sumo entered the flood plains of the Brahmaputra where jeep tracks crisscrossed each other and surely led to nowhere. After about 10 minutes, we approached the Bogibeel ferry point somewhere on the enormous flood plains. Shanties offered food to travelers while many old, brightly colored wooden ferries awaited their turn to take people across the massive river. So far, so good - I reached Bogibeel ghat with little hassle and was actually ahead of my loose schedule.

Three cars with mirrors tucked in fit on each ferry, although if the cars are small, four somehow seem to work. As for people, there’s a maximum limit written on each boat but until the boat starts taking on water, everyone is more than welcome. The biggest challenge is getting the cars onto the boat. Of course, the two boards that bridge the bank and the ferry aren’t made nice and wide, they’re barely tire width. I learned that the trick is to stare at the ferry man directing you while ignoring your instincts as you drive onto the boards. Still, on the other side of the river, I saw a car off the boards…I’m sure that wasn’t the first time that’d happened.

Pushing off the bank with the help of long bamboo poles, the engine fired up and we started across the river. The women and a few men sat in the seated section below while a bunch of local guys and me hung out on the roofs. Chai was served with a pastry and I basked in the immensity of the river.

These ferries are steered by an intriguing system. Chains connected to the steering column run down the sides of the boat where they’re then connected to steel wires that run the length of the boat. The steel wires are then tied to the rudder.

For the traveler, the new bridge across the Brahmaputra will add convenience, but retire the unique character of the ferry experience.

I was informed by friendly and helpful locals I was chatting with that there was a direct Traveller service (a Traveller is an 18-seat mini-bus) from Silapatar ghat to Pasighat. Getting on this mini-bus would make my day much easier, but I was warned that I would have to run to get a seat as it usually filled up quickly. With my massive, heavy bag tucked in the seated compartment below, I knew I would probably be one of the last people off the ferry. Another helpful local said that he too was going to Pasighat and would run ahead and try to get us seats. As expected, I was the very last person off the ferry. Quickly making my way up the steep, rocky hill where the taxis were waiting (I’m always blown away by the skill of Indian women who can walk over any terrain in sarees and short heels),  the conductor of the Traveller service took my bag and loaded it into the back of the bus – so far, so good. Then he asked for my ticket…uhhhh. Fortunately, the locals once again helped me out and made sure I got on the bus. I ended up sharing the front seat with another guy for the two hour journey into Pasighat. While my right butt-cheek was asleep most of the time, I had a prime window seat! 

The white vehicle is the Pasighat Traveller
Across the Brahmaputra, it feels as if you’ve left India. Bamboo huts line the sparsely populated landscape while thick, tropical rainforest covers the surrounding Himalayan foothills.  

Before I left for Arunachal, Arvind put me in touch with his good friend and local big shot in Pasighat, Uchi. As I entered Pasighat, I called Uchi who said he would send some of “his guys” to pick me up and take me to the hotel where he earlier booked a room for me. Somehow I managed to find the guys in the busy taxi square of Pasighat, hopped on the back of one of their motorcycles and headed off. Pasighat is a wild town. It’s dirty, bustling, and not the least set-up for tourists. Men carry around old Soviet shotguns and big knives, both for work, hunting, and “security.” After checking in to the Hotel Oman, a borderline one or two star hotel but known as the second best in town, Uchi’s guys took me to try to get online at the “best” internet cafĂ© in town. Of course, their internet connection wasn’t working and laughably never had a connection during my multi-week stay. We found a connection in a small printing store and Uchi’s guys said goodbye. I quickly checked my email and left, the smell of printing chemicals overbearing.

I settled into my room back at the Hotel Oman and rested before Uchi’s guys picked me up again to take me to his house. Some people in Arunachal are doing quite well. Over the past five or ten years, India has pumped loads of money into the state to build infrastructure as China contests the land of Arunachal Pradesh. Even for Indian standards, Arunachal is quite corrupt and thus many locals are rather wealthy while infrastructure remains frustratingly poor. Anyways, Uchi is an incredibly warm and nice guy. He welcomed me into his home and I thanked him for helping me out upon arrival in Pasighat.

After talking for a bit, he invited me into his traditional Adi hut. The Adi tribe was originally a group of raiders in the Yunnan province of China. After getting kicked out by the Chinese, they migrated to their present location in eastern Arunachal. Adi homes are made solely from the land, mostly bamboo with a few hardwood supports. Uchi told me that if a big group gets together, these homes can be built in two days – one to collect the materials and one to put them together. They usually need rebuilding every five years or so. The main room of an Adi home is the kitchen, built around an open fireplace and hung smoking racks in the middle of the room. Bedrooms are located off the kitchen. Upon entering Uchi’s Adi hut, I felt as if I had gone back a few hundred years. Adi’s are known for their smoked meat – sometimes meat is smoked for a day, sometimes for a year. They’re also known for their rice beer which every family makes themselves by burning rice in its husk and then fermenting it. I was offered fish which Uchi told me was smoked for a few months and a glass of rice beer. Dipping the fish in salt and chili flakes, it was….hard, tough, and pretty flavorless. Exclaiming my delight, I washed it down with some rice beer. Welcome to Arunachal! Uchi told me that he was going fishing on the Siang early in the morning and invited me along. Even though I craved a full nights rest, I couldn’t pass up his offer. With a 5am pick-up arranged, Uchi drove me back to the Hotel Oman.

While I was excited to fish with Uchi, the main goal of my second day in AP, November 19th, was meeting face-to-face with Nino Dai, the Adi local who co-owns RiverIndia. Nino is probably the hardest person I’ve ever tried to get in touch with. One second he’s easily reachable and then poof, for three weeks he’s nowhere to be found. I was physically closer to Nino than I’d been in the past four months when I first got in touch with him, but he was still nearly impossible to get ahold of. I’d tried to get in touch with him all day long after I first arrived in Pasighat to no avail. Despite this challenge, I feel asleep easily after a long, but memorable day.

My first glimpse of the mighty Siang River


While Uchi fished, from the banks of the Siang I finally got a hold of Nino – what a relief. We arranged a meeting at my hotel room in the afternoon. Fishing with Uchi was a nice, relaxing experience. I hung out with Uchi’s gang and some local fishermen, eat more traditional Adi food (boiled chicken and boiled leafy greens with some smoked chicken and rice), and basked in the beauty of the Siang and its surroundings.

It was a great feeling to finally shake hands with Nino in the afternoon after fishing and we quickly settled into logistics. He told me that instead of the 21st, we would head out on the 20th for Daporijo, the put-in location for our Subansiri trip. Not expecting to leave so soon, I told Nino I had some small-picture details to take care of. I asked him to pick me up in the morning of the following day when I’d meet the rest of the RiverIndia team and we'd pack the truck and head out.

Nino told me that we’d try to leave his home by 11 or 12pm, reaching our resting place for day one of our two day drive to put-in by dark. Setting the tone for the rest of the trip, we ended up leaving around 6pm and reaching our destination around 12am. Nonetheless, Nino’s family home and RiverIndia base is a pleasant property in a quiet part of town with lovely gardens and good hospitality. I met Nino’s parents and Ito Bai and Bodkhe, Nino’s right and left hand guys. Arun Dai, Nino’s uncle and the seniormost guide would meet up with us later. He had to make a chicken coop for his family out of bamboo and cane before he left.

We loaded up the jeep for our trip, slowly but surely. Amazingly, we fit all the rafts and gear for a 7-day expedition with 18 people in the back and on top of one small jeep. To round it out, six of us, Nino, Ito, Bodkhe, Arun, Nino’s girlfriend, and myself, would sit inside for the two-day drive. 

With the truck packed, we headed out for the 6-hour drive to Ito Bai’s family house in the town of Basar. Now really, really tired after waking up yet again before sunrise, enjoying a full-day of fishing, and packing a rafting trip, I put in my headphones and dozed off as we drove into the night.

Reaching Ito Bai’s around midnight, we quickly settled in to conversation and rice beer around the fire in his traditional Adi kitchen. Soon, we were all off to sleep, planning to wake-up early for the second leg of our drive.

I woke up in the morning to find out that Ito Bai’s brother had a truck that we could use to lighten the load on the jeep. We transferred the gear over to the truck that was much more suitable to the amount of stuff we had.

Breakfast at Ito's

After a filling breakfast of what else, boiled chicken and leafy greens with rice, we hit the road. I was excited that we were driving during the day as I knew the scenery masked in the darkess the night before was surely beautiful. I wasn’t let down as we made our way through the rolling foothills of Arunachal Pradesh, passing lovely villages and gorgeous vistas.

After many hours of driving, we reached a restaurant and bar with a few sleeping huts in Daporjio right on the Subansiri that Nino uses as a put-in. After unloading all the gear and relaxing for a bit, we headed out to Nino’s girlfriend’s sister’s home. In Arunachal, people commonly refer to a massive network of extended family, blood related or not, as their brothers and sisters. This home belonged to a man with three wives and in this situation, all the wives were Nino’s girlfriend’s “sisters,” the real connection I’m still not sure of. We were warmly greeted and shown into the kitchen. This traditional Adi kitchen had three fireplaces, one for each wife. We were offered rice beer and smoked meat, this time buffalo. I assumed that all the food in India would be really spicy. For the most part, the food had been fairly benign, certainly no spicier than hot Mexican dishes. Arunachal Pradesh and Assam happen to be the producers of the sabor chili, affectionately known as the ghost chili back in the States, the hottest chili in the world. The buffalo meat kicked my butt! Even the local contingent was sweating. After a few more glasses of rice beer, our hosts were making phone calls on their cell phones telling their friends how happy they were to have a foreigner in their home. I’m not sure who felt more new to the experience, but we were both glad to be sharing each other’s company. After another traditional Adi meal of boiled chicken, leafy greens, and rice, we headed back to our camp for the night.

In the morning we prepared the gear for the trip and met the guests. The Subansiri River is one of the five major tributaries of the Brahmaputra and is most known for its world-class fishing, among other epic qualities. The guys on the trip showed up in their fishing vests ready to roll. Most of the group was from Assam and well into their fifties. Nino asked me if I would give the safety talk so I ushered the group into the bar and gave them my best effort. Fortunately, for the most part they all spoke good English as I was worried they wouldn’t laugh at my dumb, standard jokes that accompany all of my safety talks. 

Earlier, Nino told me that he wanted me to guide the paddle boat on the trip. The paddle boat turned out to be a 14ft. Indian-made raft with the largest thwarts (cross-tubes) I’d ever seen in my life. After my safety briefing and a quick paddle talk, I loaded up my crew and we headed off for our seven-day expedition.

The Subansiri was the first river I’d been on in India where the road wasn’t somewhere in the distance. Off in the middle of nowhere, the scenery quickly got outstanding while the casting commenced. 

A typical day on the Subansiri consisted of a few hours on the river after serving breakfast and breaking down camp. Lunch was cooked in the morning and served once we reached the next night’s camp. Because there is only one time zone for all of India, Arunachal lives up to its slogan, “the land of dawn lit mountains.” Arunachal gets the first sun of India early in the morning but consequently gets dark equally early. With the sun going down around 4:30pm, the days were short but fortunately we only had to cover a small amount of river kilometers each day.

Few fish were caught in the first few days of the trip, largely due to the incredibly destructive method of dynamite fishing used by the locals. Paying off guards at the road building companies’ dynamite stockrooms, the local fisherman buy cheap dynamite, then blow out sections of the river and paddle around by wooden boat to collect the fish. This shortsighted method of ecosystem annihilation will ruin the future of local fish markets as well as a local rafting market. Until the fish run out, I doubt the locals will stop using dynamite – it’s quite a sad scene.

While still enjoying the amazing scenery around us, everyone was excited to reach the confluence where the Kamla River joins the Subansiri. The Kamla is nearly the size of the Subansiri and it was expected that the fishing would get much better after the two rivers met. For me, it meant that the rapids would get much bigger. The Kamla is introduced by one of the bigger rapids of the trip, a nearly kilometer long wave train. I was curious to see how the Indian-made raft would handle in some bigger whitewater as we’d previously only run some smaller class II/III rapids. Our raft did great through some pretty big waves and after the Kamla, I was delighted to be on the biggest river by volume I’d ever rafted. The Subansiri now must have been 50,000cfs, much bigger than the Grand Canyon when I saw it, which was at a 30-year high of 30,000cfs.

After the Kamla confluence, we decided to pull-over and let the guys fish. The beach we pulled over at also happened to be full of the special beetles that people from Arunachal absolutely love. 

The guys quickly made a small fire and roasted some of the beetles. Actually, Arunachal people prefer them raw but I figured if I was going to try them, cooked would be best. Snapping off the heads and removing the legs and wings, you then have to squeeze out a red filling from the center. After preparing the beetle, it’s ready to eat (although some prefer the beetles whole with no preparation). It tasted sort of almond-y and made my mouth numb… that was a first.

As we arrived in camp for the night, Nino informed me that due to the poor fishing conditions, the guys were talking about taking-out a day early instead of doing a lay-over day as we had planned. It was the first time I’d ever been on a multi-day expedition with a liquid take-out date. Regardless, we set-up camp for the night and were greeted by some locals who lived in a village a few kilometers off the river up in the canyon. One personable villager invited us to come visit the next day and we invited him to dinner with us. Around dusk, rain began to fall and we decided to lay-over for a day and stay put. In past trips, the fishing had been good around the camp and those who didn’t want to fish during the day could hike up to the village.

The villager told us that it would take about a half-an-hour to hike up to the village. Accordingly, I figured it would take at least an hour. Nino thought that we should leave around 1pm, but I knew that if we planned for 1pm, we would leave much later. With the sun going down at 4:30pm, I suggested we leave around 11am to give us enough time to explore the village and get back to camp before dark. With the plan to leave around 12pm agreed on, we wished the villagers good night and went to sleep with the rain pattering our tents.

The next morning, the rain receded and the villager and a buddy came down. His buddy went off into the jungle for a while and came back with some of the Northeast’s finest bananas and…field rat. 

Our local guide and friend was the guy on the right
Like the Flintstones, this guy caught the rats with rock and trigger traps. Our Arunachal team was delighted with the catch!

The Assamese boatmen, brought along by our guests to help them, smoking Arunachal's finest rat
With the rats set-up for an all-day smoke, most of the group headed upstream to fish for the day while Nino, Ito Bai, Bodkhe, me, and three guests waited for the villager to come back down to lead us through the jungle. Showing up around 1pm, we set off along the cliffy, rocky bank right along a big bend in the river. Then, after negotiating a long boulder field and crossing a small creek, we finally reached the trail up to the village. I told Nino that we had to be careful with time as we certainly didn’t want to have to do that walk in the dark, or even worse, in the dark and in the rain. I then realized that I brought my waterproof bag with a rain-jacket, water, and my camera but my headlamp was sitting back in my tent. Furthermore, I was wearing my flip-flops as I didn’t want to wear my soaking wet shoes. While not necessarily set-up for success, my excitement overcame the small warning lights that were set-off by our circumstances. We crossed the first bamboo gate and hiked through some rice paddies. Nino told me to keep checking myself for leeches as he pulled one off his pant leg. 

Quickly, the hike up to the village got really steep and it was quite slick from the rain the night before. Nearly 45 minutes into the hike, the villager told us we were about two-thirds of the way up. With one eye on my watch, one of the guests we brought up decided that the hike was too strenuous for him as his diabetic condition was making him nervous. The villager took him back to our camp as the rest of the group continued up the path.

It was a great feeling to reach the village and we could feel the reciprocal excitement felt by the villagers. Nino and I explore around a bit…what a different life these people live.

We were then invited into one of the homes where we were given some local rice beer and boiled chicken. I was blown away by what I found inside – a bunch of village women huddled around the fire, a small TV, and pictures of Jesus. Evidently the mid-20th century Christian missionaries did their job.

Our village guide returned from walking our client back to our camp in amazing time, entering the hut with another one of our guests, a colonel from Uttarakhand stationed in Arunachal, who decided last minute to come up to see the village. Our guide introduced the group to the locals inside in his charismatic manner. I was introduced to much laughter as the son of Barack Obama. After a discussion and more laughter, since we decided I looked a little different, I was finally introduced as the son-in-law of Barack Obama. While we were in a traditional village 50 kilometers walk to the nearest road, the world felt momentarily quite small.

Nino and Ito Bai loving it

After our introductions, the village elder walked in and we greeted him with great respect. He told us that rafters coming up to their village from the river with a foreigner felt like a weird dream. 

Eddie, one of our guests from Meghalaya, and I with the village elder
Then, our village guide told us he wanted to show us some local music videos he was in. Lo-and-behold, the generator fired up and on went music videos of our friend dancing in the woods to traditional Arunanchali music. It was starting to feel like I was in a weird dream too.

After thoroughly enjoying the videos, I checked my watch and it was around 3pm. I had previously discussed with Nino that we should leave around 3pm, giving us enough time to reach our camp before night set-in. No such luck this time. The village guide then preceded to give us an impromptu performance of three or four of his favorite local songs and then told us about his dreams to be a member of parliament. This guy was non-stop!

Around 3:40pm, I told Nino we really needed to get going. We of course had an extended Indian goodbye and finally headed out. With Nino and the rest of the group dragging their feet, Eddie and I decided we should get going down the trail. Just as we started down the trail, it started to rain. Nearly running down the trail in my sandals, we made it to the bottom of the slippery, steep hill in about ten minutes. Once we got out of the jungle, the rain really started in. Wet and getting dark, we headed onto the boulder field, crossed the creek, and made it to the cliffy bend in the river sans flashlight. Injuries on a rafting expedition in the middle of Aruanchal Pradesh with the nearest small road 50 kilometers walk away are a no-go. Eddie and I made it back to camp safely with the last light but we looked back and we didn’t see the one or two flashlights which Eddie and I knew the rest of the group had. I’m always amazed at how well things work out, and of course, everyone made it back safe, even over the loose, slippery rocks and steep cliffs in the dark.

Glad to be back in camp, we dined on Indian food and eat the smoked rat which…tasted like rat. The guys who fished did quite well and spirits were high. Tomorrow we would pack-up camp and head down river, rain or shine. In awe of the day I just had, I fell asleep to the sound of rain on my tent once more.

Fortunately, the morning brought bright sunshine which dried our gear enough to pack it away mostly dry. The guys also rallied the biggest catch of the trip, a 16kg Golden Mahseer. 

The Golden Mahseer is an endangered species and fortunately they released this monster of a fish.

For lunch, we had some red rice the villagers gave us as a gift. Plain, it was the best tasting rice of my life and even the guys from the Assam said they’d never had anything like it. 

While everyone was still talking about the big catch, I went to sleep giddy knowing that tomorrow was the biggest whitewater day of the trip.

Beautiful Subansiri
With three big rapids lined up in a row and one worth scouting, we started off early in the morning. Once again, the little Indian boat dwarfed by the size of the river did great, as did the rest of team in the fairly straightforward but big rapids. 

The bottom half of the scout...it's always much bigger when you're in it
We had reached our last night on the river and I was bummed to leave such an amazing place. I learned a lot from the Adi guides on the trip who knew how to use the natural resouce homeland like no people I'd ever met before. And it was fun to teach them some of my river skills from California. 

Bodkhe, Nino, and Ito Bai in the kitchen
We took out at the site of the half-built lower Subansiri dam. The Assamese people have halted major construction of the dam citing the destructive downstream effects it will bring. They’ll blow up any truck carrying major machinery or materials to the dam site. In the world’s largest democracy, the government knows better than to test the will of the people, especially in the wild Northeast.

After an Arunachal-paced load out, we hit the road for the long haul through Assam back to Pasighat. I crashed at Nino's place that night and ended up spending the rest of my nights in an awesome tent cabin in the back of his yard. 

While on the Subansiri trip, I told Nino that I’d really like to do a guide school on the Siang to help train some new guides for Nino’s team. RiverIndia is the only local rafting outfit based in Arunachal Pradesh. Other Indian and global companies run some of the rivers of Arunachal but they bring all of their own gear in, use their own guides, and do little to improve lives and educate locals on the benefits of rafting tourism. A booming rafting industry in a town like Pasighat, as seen all over the world, can bring great benefit to the local community while leaving the natural resources intact (often better cared for). This was the vision of my good friend from California, Roland Stevenson, when he co-founded RiverIndia with Nino.

With only one day between Nino’s schedule and my departure that would work to lead a potential guide school, I was troubled by the fact that I wouldn’t be able to teach a meaningful guide school in one day. I decided that Nino and his crew could really benefit from learning first-aid and CPR as only Nino was trained in CPR, and his course was years ago. The day we got back to Pasighat, with the help of my Wilderness First Responder field guide, I put together a day long first-aid and CPR course for Nino, his crew, and a potential guide.

A full Arunachali Moon
I figured we’d do a morning session at Nino’s house, then drive to Siang River and do some rafting. On the river, we’d pull over at a nice beach, have lunch and do another session. Then we’d finish our day of rafting, come back to Nino’s and have one last talk. I have no formal training in instructing a first-aid and CPR class and in the U.S., it might be illegal to do so without proper qualifications. Still, I knew that if I didn’t teach these guys, they would probably never learn these essential skills for a wilderness expedition river guide. Carefully laying out a course that only taught them the basic necessities for an outdoor guide, I hoped that my good intentions wouldn’t backfire later down the line.

Around 10am, we started with an introduction to when and where wilderness medicine is appropriate. Then we dove into the critical systems and how to fix time urgent problems. 

Teaching the Heimlich
I was curious to see how these guys would respond to the course. Medical terms and techniques can’t be simplified and I knew only Nino had much schooling. With Nino as my translator, the guys were really responsive and I was really excited that they were so enthusiastic. Fortunately, over the previous two months in India, I’d picked up a little Hindi so I listened carefully to Nino’s translations and corrected him when he got too loose with the precision of wilderness medicine protocols. After our first session, we loaded up the jeep and headed up the Siang.

Getting to raft the Siang was a major reason for traveling out to Arunachal. With no Siang rafting trips confirmed, I decided to head out to AP when Nino had a confirmed Subansiri trip and hope for the best in seeing the Siang. The Siang River, incorrectly known amongst the rafting community as the Brahmaputra for commercial reasons, flows out of the Tibetan Himalayas as the Yarlung Tsang-Po. It then crosses the border into Arunachal Pradesh and becomes the Siang. The Siang is the largest tributary of the Brahmaputra, accounting for 30 percent of its total volume. It is by far the most massive river I’d ever paddled. Close to its confluence with the Brahmaptura just below Pasighat, the river is at its largest and in a monster water year for the Northeast, it must have been around 80-90,000cfs. I laughed to think we were running the Tuolumne at 700cfs at the end of August.

Just paddling out of the put-in eddy on the Siang took considerable time and shortly thereafter, we paddled into the first rapid. From the top, it looked quite small – just a mellow set of waves coming off the left wall. Unbelievably, once we were in it, big waves formed all around us and I was shouting paddle commands to the guys as we paddled hard to crest the huge features (yes, I was still guiding the small-tubed 14 foot Indian-made raft).We quickly pulled into a big eddy that guarded a nice beach with good sunlight. On the beach, we dropped right into traumatic injuries – sprains, dislocations, fractures, splinting, and packaging.
After that, we transitioned into CPR. CPR is easier than I think the guys expected it to be, but I could tell that they understood that the simple technique made them potential life-savers and they gave me a big thank you after our on the river session. 

After lunch, we headed back out on to the monster river and ran a few more straightforward, but really big volume rapids.

The biggest horizon line I'd ever seen
At take-out, I made a commitment to make it to the upper reaches of the Siang and run as much of the river as possible where the rapids are much, much bigger and surely outstandingly impressive…next time, next time.

Back at Nino’s, we changed out of our river clothes and I finished up the course with a section on hypothermia over chai. The next day, I went into town in the morning and laminated a few copies of the packets I made them for the course. They’ll carry those on the river with them and I’ll be proud to hear if they successfully use the skills. Anyways, we were all tired from the day but there was a shared sense of appreciation for simple skills that make us much more capable and confident guides.

While on the Subansiri trip, the tea Nino brought was delicious and I asked him what it was. He told me it was a local tea called “Siang Tea” and that the tea estate was just outside of Pasighat. If I could swing it, I really wanted to visit the plantation. Fortunately for me, one of Uchi’s guys used to be a village leader in the village right next to the tea plantation. In my last day in Arunachal Pradesh, I met up with Uchi (after laminating the first-aid and CPR packets) and then headed out for about an hour ride on the back of one of Uchi’s guy’s motorcycle for the tea plantation.

The drive was awesome and even though I’d seen lots of Adi homes and culture, it was still just as exciting as the first time I experienced it. 

Men working the field

When we reached the tea plantation known officially as Donyi Polo Tea Estate, I found out that outsiders are required to pre-arrange entry ahead of time. Luckily, Uchi’s guy knew everyone and we cruised right past the multiple guarded gates.

The tea estate was beautiful, the oldest and biggest in Arunachal. Uchi’s guy, Baiya (“older brother” in Adi), told me that it would take at least a day to see the entire plantation. 

We reached the processing plant where they process Siang Tea and ship it out to the world. Again, ushered right in, we cruised around the plant.

The best smelling place to stand of my life
We then met with the General Manager and one of the Assistant Managers of the estate, all Bhaiya’s friends. It was time for the General Manager to do his daily quality tasting of the tea made the day before.

After inspecting the tea dried, infused with water, the color of the steeped tea, and slurping it and spitting it out, he was satisfied. Great quality for that time of year, he explained. Then we sat down for a cup of their Orthodox Tea, USDA certified organic from another estate about 200kms away up the Sianga valley but processed where we were. Since the General Manager spoke great English, I got to ask him a bunch of questions. I thanked them for their time as they ran off, obviously busy.

The Asst. Manager, General Manager, Yours Truly, and Baiya
 We hopped on the bike again and headed out. The sun left the sky as we cruised back to Pasighat, catching an epic last sunset in Arunachal.

The next day I was to wake-up in the morning and catch the Traveller mini-bus (I booked a ticket in advance this time) to Silapatar ghat, take a ferry across the Brahmaputra, and then a Sumo into Dibrugarh. I’d have lunch at the Hotel Rajawas and get to the airport around 12:30pm to catch my 2pm flight. Leaving no room for error in the Northeast is not an ideal situation, but I didn’t want to waste a day in Dibrugarh, leaving Arunachal a day early. Fortunately, my travel to Dibrugarh from Pasighat went to plan. Hilariously, we fit 19 people into one Sumo from Bogibeel ghat into Dibrugarh, including one person on top with all the luggage. I would consider 14 people to be pushing the limit, but somehow 19 of us fit in. Not to mention, a lady from Nagaland and her little boy were getting car sick in the back of the Sumo with me and a few other people!

On my flight out of Dibrugarh, I was treated to views of the eastern Himalayas, the highest peaks in the world including Mt. Everest, and the Brahmaputra River. I can’t wait to see that view on my next flight back!

1 comment:

  1. wow, coop, glad to finally get to start catching up on your amazing journey. you are having such a fantastic adventure!! glad i don't know about some of these events until they are over - yikes!! yum on the roasted bugs and smoked rat; lucky you!!
    enjoy your last jaunt - the desert towns are supposed to be beautiful!
    see you soon,