Posts Tagged With: Arunachal Pradesh

Ziro Tolerance

Getting from Tawang to Ziro took two days with various stop offs, one leg of the journey involved an overnight sleeper bus. Sleeper buses in Arunachal Pradesh are like the Rat Ride at Light Water Valley, except there’s no photo at the end, just a stinking headache and a sore neck…

Ziro Valley’s landscape is very different to that of Tawang, tracts of lush paddy fields stretch for miles, the sun shines, the sky is clear azure and the birds constantly sing happy songs for happy people. Descending into Ziro is like stepping into God’s back garden…


Hapoli is the main settlement in the valley, but this is little more than a jump off point for the tribal villages. It’s worth calling into the market and seeing if there’s any weird food stuff that tribal people are well known for…

Bananas, chillies, eggplant, jungle rat…

Ziro Valley is where you will find the Apatani tribe. Most well known for the facial tattooing and nose plugging of the women. Apparently Apatani women were considered the most beautiful of all tribeswomen in Ziro Valley, making them prone to kidnappings by horny tribesman from the rival communities, such as the Nishis. The girls were therefore defaced by their own men to discourage them from being snatched up and taken away. You will see women over forty with facial tattoos and the women over sixty with nose plugs or yaping hurlo as well. Surprisingly the average life expectancy is over 80 for a woman, and it’s not uncommon for some to live to 100+


When we walked into the largest Apatani village, Hong, we happened to stumble across all the women crowded around one of the village lapangs, a large wooden structure used for public meetings. The women were waiting to collect their annual pension, one by one they queued up until it was their turn to stamp their thumbprint (most are illiterate) and collect their 2400 rupees, approximately £25 for one year, they don’t get a bus pass either so think twice before complaining about the U.K state pension.

Hong village street

A babo, large wooden staff. One of these is erected outside every house indicating the clan or family

The women waiting for their pension

The Apatani women aren’t that keen on having their photos taken, it wasn’t their choice to get the facial tattoos, they think it makes them ugly and some have even been to Harley Street to get them removed. I just showed them a photo of some Pennywell girls and they felt a lot better about themselves…


The Apatani religion is Donyi-Polo, which focuses on the worship of the Sun and the Moon. Whenever anything bad happens, the Apatanis believe it is caused by evil spirits that have spat their dummies out. The sacrifice of animals is practiced to keep the huffy spirits on side. Mithun, a type of cow unique to Arunachal, is normally sacrificed on big occasions. If you visit during festival times you will see every animal under the sun being put to the sword, you will also hear ‘Sacrifice’ by Elton John being played on repeat, I’ve heard it’s a hit with the Apatanis…

We saw this man walking around with a freshly sacrificed mithun leg, so something extremely bad had happened, such as a death. Or maybe they’d heard I was in town…

Apatani grave (biyu) with the skull of a sacrificed animal

Apatani bloke flexing

We were invited along to the victory bash of Shri Tillong Sambyo, the Hong village congress party minister. Let me tell you one thing about Indian politics, it is as corrupt as Lance Armstong’s drugs tests. This guy only won the election as he showered the public with ‘motivational’ gifts of fresh meat just before voting. The victory party was just another sweetener for the masses, free drink and as much mithun as you can eat. Being the only white people in the vicinity we were treated like royalty, and were practically force fed cup after cup of home brewed rice beer. Home brewed rice beer tastes like a mixture of dry cider and cheap boxed wine, pretty lifting, but does the trick. All day we stayed and watched traditional Apatani dances and numerous very long speeches by the minister, no one listened, just waited for the buffet to open.



We left Ziro all rice beered up and extremely happy to have come face to face with these unique people, it’s also worth noting that this is the first place I’ve visited beginning with a Z, house!

Our Apatani Aunty and Uncle

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The End Of The Road

Arunachal Pradesh sits in the far North East corner of India and shares a large land border with China. The Chinese have on a few occasions tried to claim AP as their own, so the already fragile Indo-Tibetan border is heavily guarded, there is a strong military presence throughout the state but the peaceful atmosphere remains. This is probably one of the least explored parts of the country and is often dubbed ‘the final frontier’ of India, certain places in the state are still to be named and mapped so the idea of delving into the wild is appealing to me. Let’s hope that the 50 quid I’ve shelled out for the inner line permit to come to ‘The Land of the Dawn Lit Mountains’ will be worth it…

Dirang was a long drive from the Assam border, and we really only stopped here to break up the journey to Tawang. Dirang has only a handful of fly ridden eateries selling nothing but fried rice, but on the other hand almost half the shops in town are hole in the wall alcohol joints, so even though you will go hungry in Dirang, you will never be without a bottle of Bagpiper whisky. Old Dirang is a long walk from the new town, or in my case a 5 minute drive if you can hitch a ride from someone who assumes you’ve met David Beckham, just because you’re English. Old Dirang’s tiny stone Monpa houses reminded me of the village scenes from ‘Cadfael’ the 16th century crime solving monk, and there were more goats than people. Back in new Dirang we checked out the Yak Research Centre, the chief professor kindly showed us around the labs where they are attempting to create a genetically modified super yak that can live in warmer climes. I didn’t mention that I’d eaten yak meat only a couple of weeks ago…


In Hinduism, a deity may be a rock in a cave, a tree growing in an orchard, a cow wandering the streets…or even a banana…

or a goat…

Arunachal’s roads are in a word, appalling. Bus travel here is rare so everybody uses shared Tata sumo jeeps to get around. The roads, if you can call them that, are very muddy, so combine this with the mountain terrain and it’s understandable how it takes an eternity to get anywhere. You can forget about sleeping, reading or doing anything else to pass the time as the journey will be extremely rough, so all you can do is sit and wait, whilst being stuck in the same position with the eleven other passengers. The distance from Dirang to Tawang is a mere 170km, it takes 8 hours. The road twists and turns up and over the 4176m Sela pass and down into the valley. The ‘highway’ continues for some time, the smell of the cannabis plants that line both sides of the road being the only comfort. A final ascent is made to Tawang where you reach the end of the road, literally. It’s just as well this town doesn’t have a football team as a trip to Tawang F.C would be a nightmare away day…

One of the better roads

Normal sight on an AP highway

The trucks have eyes in Arunachal

Tawang was founded in the 17th century and is the last major settlement on the ancient trade route to Tibet, I’m guessing there were a lot of banjo strings sold here and that’s where the town generated its name from. The monastery here is reportedly the second largest in the world after Potala Palace in Lhasa and is a must visit pilgrimage site for any Indian Buddhist. Monasteries can act like schools for young monks who wish to dedicate their lives to finding spiritual enlightenment. The young boys eat, sleep and live here whilst doing all their lessons including Maths and English, just like any other school, bullying is not unheard of as I found out when I witnessed one monk receiving a ‘chalky’ on his robes by the rest of his cohort. Inside the prayer hall is a giant statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, maybe this is where Black Grape got their inspiration for the song ‘Shake Your Money Maker’…





Afternoon prayers

8m high statue of Buddha Shakyamuni

Urgelling gompa, a nice walk further into the valley, is the exact spot where the 6th Dalai Lama was born. The small, colourful monestry has a rather eerie set of hand prints that are worshiped by devotees, I just thought it was pretty cool having a cuppa in a former Dalai Lama’s bedroom…



The Tawang valley is predominantly inhabited by the local Monpa tribe. Some of the older traditional woman can be found hanging around the bazaar selling cow’s blood and sporting yak felt headgear, which looks a little like those cheap Rastafari wigs you can buy at Camden market…


Tawang is Dalai Lama mad

Come to Tawang if you ever want a truly ‘off the map’ experience, no internet, no telephone and most of the time, no electricity. A little further afield from banjo sound, is what they call ‘the lake district’ a series of high altitude lakes near the Tibet border. Unfortunatly foreigners are not allowed any further, as it is too close to China and anything the Chinese are involved in is never simple. So, having reached the end of the long road that started in Madurai, it was time to turn around.

(Up to date info on how to get a permit for AP. It is possible to do it yourself and pay only $50, but this is a lot of hassle and means spending time in either Delhi or Kolkata to make numerous, time consuming trips to their respective AP houses. Whatever anyone says, it is impossible for a foreigner to get it on your own in Guwahati. I strongly suggest just biting the bullet and paying an agent to do it, the extra fee is worth it to eliminate the stress. Shop around for different prices, I was quoted between $80 and $130 dollar per permit. I ended up settling with Rhino travels in Guwahati although it’s possible to find cheaper agents in Arunachal itself but this means possibley having to do bank transfers to pay the fees.)

Arup Barua – Rhino Travels
+91 9864021303

Christopher Michi – Apatani Cultural Preservation Society

Categories: India, Useful Information | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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