Curled beneath the eastern ramparts of the Himalayas broods a wild land of unnamed peaks and unexplored forests: the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The largest and least populous of the Seven Sisters – the septet of states that make up India’s turbulent, tribal Northeast – it lies folded between the Tibetan plateau, the steaming jungles of Burma, the mountains of Bhutan and the flood-prone plains of the Brahmaputra Valley. Remote, mountainous and forbidding, here shamans still fly through the night, hidden valleys hide portals to other worlds, yetis leave footprints in the snow, spirits and demons abound, and the gods are appeased by the blood of sacrificed beasts. More tribes live here, and more languages are spoken, than anywhere else in South Asia. A goldmine of flora and fauna, its unparalleled altitudinal range provides sanctuary to a fabulous array of exotic and alarming creatures. Snow leopards prowl along frozen ridges. Royal Bengal tigers pad through the jungle. Burmese rock pythons slither through the loam.
Yet Arunachal Pradesh remains almost unheard of outside India and little known by those within it. Cordoned off from the outside world from 1873 until the end of the 1990s, today the harshness of its terrain, a sensitive political situation and the need for expensive and restrictive permits still make it a little-visited region. All factors which gave it an irresistible lure…
In early 2016 I spent a glorious ten weeks exploring Arunachal Pradesh. Travelling 2000 miles by motorbike, foot, boat and (10 miles by) tractor, I went from the sweaty, leechy jungles bordering Burma’s Shan state in the east, to the snow-dusted, gompa clad peaks of Tawang in the west. I met shamans with magical powers; followed explorer FM Bailey’s footsteps to the border with Tibet; stayed with Idu Mishmi and Khampa families who had never slapped eyes on a foreigner before; sat around endless fires talking about tigers, yaks, yetis and spirit snakes; followed leopard tracks through the jungle; saw gory amounts of animal sacrifice; trekked deep into the sacred Buddhist kingdom of Pemako; got drunk with nuns and sweated up mountainsides to the wreckage of US 2WW aeroplanes.
It was shiveringly cold, ineffably wet, excruciatingly hot, breathlessly high, mind-blowingly beautiful and constantly surprising. There really can be very few places in the world that are so unknown, unmapped and little visited by outsiders; I feel extraordinarily grateful to have gone, and to have met so many wonderful people along the way.
A book about this journey, Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains, is published by Simon & Schuster UK and India on 15 June 2017.
For an idea of what this journey was like, have a gander at my little video below.
Huge thanks to the below for their invaluable support of this expedition. Without them I’d be poorer, colder and lost. And probably still at home.