Dibrugarh is a port city, towards the far-east of Assam. The problems that the people here (and in Tinsukia) have with the ULFA are understandable. This is a Hindi dominant belt and resembles any small town in north India. In fact, almost all the businessmen we met were non-Assamese, and like all of the north-east, army presence is large. One such north Indian led us to Hotel Kusum early in the morning as the bus ride had lasted just 8-9 hours over the 477 kms. The hotel had advertised a package ride which included the ferry ride to Pasighat. This had been the most important reason why we opted for Pasighat as the first place of visit in Arunachal. Sadly, the bookings had finished at the hotel and we had to go about reaching the port and taking a ferry by ourselves.
We checked out in two hours and took a waiting jeep to the river bank. We had been told by Mr. Bora that there was actually just one ferry a day to Pasighat, and all the rest that plied the route ended up at Oiramghat, a place 27 km from Pasighat. As luck would have it, we missed the direct ferry.
As we boarded, paying Rs. 70 per person, someone loaded a car onto the boat. Apparently, crossing the Brahmaputra was a shorter and far cheaper way of traveling from Dibrugarh to Pasighat. Driving the car would require a round-about, rigorous travel ordeal. Here, one could pay Rs. 1200 and finish the journey in 8 hours. Well, you pay only if you do not have connections with the Assam government!
Mr. Gogoi, the man who had boarded with his car was a young man on a business trip. Since it was a relative of his who was handling the Assam government’s ferry business, he was traveling free. An affable fellow, he began rattling on about his many businesses and the opportunities he was trying to create with his marketing company in the north-east. Meanwhile, the ferry was floating blissfully through a narrow stream of the river. A few ducks and migrant birds looked up from near the shores, fishermen boats would occasionally glide past, few hamlets appeared from time to time, one neelgai surprised us with its sudden appearance and quick disappearance and at various points, men, women and children just stared blankly at our ferry, or so we had learnt to think.
I have to say that this ferry ride is one of the highlights of north-east. The calmness of the river is shattered by the reverbs from the boat’s engine, but the sheer experience of traveling with locals in such a vehicle is pleasing. However, it must be said that the return journey (which apparently takes less time since its downstream) could also be a good option.
We had been thinking furiously about the subsequent stretch from Oiramghat to Pasighat. It would be 3 in the evening by the time we reached Oiramghat and how were we to go to Pasighat? Why bother when Mr. Gogoi and his car is around! He offered to take us to Pasighat. From the friendliness he showed towards us, we had seen this offer coming, and admittedly, we had at times worked quietly towards achieving this free lift. After reaching Oiramghat without any alarms and after watching the locals, through amazing dexterity, transfer the car from the boat to the road, we enjoyed what was to be our only comfortable ride in Arunachal Pradesh.
As if to prove his long reach in bureaucracy, Gogoi was received by an Education Secretary of Arunachal, whose presence meant that nobody would check our permits at the checkpost! The casual and carefree life of the state was visible immediately as Gogoi rode from Oiramghat to Pasighat via a place called Rani which would host Pasighat’s new airport. The humour of the Arunachal bureaucrat was complemented by the unhurried way of life. It was a very enjoyable ride till we reached Pasighat, by which time it was dark; at 4:30! The two bid us farewell at the Hotel Siang (recommended by Mr. Bora and a sister hotel of Kusum). We could only get a single-bed room, and the receptionist looked unnecessarily glum. As the Education Secretary had said, “Welcome to Arunachal”.
If the most important tourist spot is a horticultural college, the town mustn’t be too much fun. That was precisely how Pasighat was; a town with absolutely no desire to attract tourists (even offbeat ones), with a small market and a decent bakery to show for near the empty bus-stand, I won’t recommend this for anyone who is looking for a rocking night out. At seven in the evening, the market and the bakery were shut, and I wonder if the already empty bus-stand had been infested with ghosts.
Our hotel receptionist, a young man in his late 20s, had been quite cold thus far and looked utterly officious. We had asked him to book our tickets with a Tata Sumo operator for the following day, for Along, a town in the West Siang district (Pasighat is in the East Siang region). “Don’t worry, we can do it tomorrow,” he said, in a rare moment of professional sloth. In the night, at around 8:30, I was walking down the most brightly-lit part of the town, the hotel corridor. Trying to strike a conversation with the only guy in sight – the receptionist – was proving a hopeless affair, even though he never looked irritated at my questions. Just then, we were joined by a local Arunachal resident, who had booked a room for his friends. Kaling Panyang, was his name. This was my first meeting with someone ethnically from Arunachal (the receptionist didn’t look a local), and it was to prove fruitful, for it gave an opportunity to understand the people of this state.
Panyang was running a computer training center. After the receptionist had introduced us to each other, he began rattling off advice after advice. I thought it must have been the drink, but from what I was to see during the next week, he had been absolutely right in what he said. The gist of it was something to this effect, “If you are here to just tour the state, everybody will help you. But if you are dishonest, people here will not tolerate it.” And then he gave me his address and phone number, asking me to call if and when I was in trouble, “I am not a don, but if you get into some trouble, not of your making, give me a call. People would at least know that you have someone here in Arunachal and might let you go.”
Out of Pasighat
Pasighat’s mention in the internet was more or less thanks to various tribal tour website. The Pasighat-Along-Ziro-Daporijo-Itanagar route is a relatively popular stretch for foreign tourists keen on learning about the many diverse tribes of Arunachal. The other reason why Pasighat was on the net was because of the annual Siang River Festival. This was a government initiative which too hoped to draw in tourists.
The receptionist, after the previous night’s conversation, had become friendlier. So much so that he woke us up in the morning to give this amazing news that there were no Tata Sumos for Along that day. In fact, there were no Tata Sumos for anywhere that day; all because there was some sort of a meeting of its drivers that fateful Sunday morning. Since the Siang River Festival was still a couple of days away, the thought of spending another day at Pasighat was crushing. It is perhaps like any small town in India and is home to the Adi tribe. A new airport is coming up 10km away at Rani, and of course, there is that horticulture college, which everyone recommended us, (albeit reluctantly) to visit. The thought of staying in Pasighat was simply not appealing. The lazy previous evening at the market where everything moved in slow motion, if at all it moved, and the dull lights and the meat bazaar had left us with just one thing on our minds – when is the next Tata Sumo out of here?
The receptionist sensing our hurry, ran out to the bus-stand and returned with the bad news that there was no bus, either, to Along. However, there was one to Itanagar, which was about to leave soon. We saw this as a lifeline and ran, with bag and baggage, to the bus-stand. The receptionist too ran with us volunteering to hold a bag and brought us to the state bus-stand where the Arunachal Pradesh State Transport (APST) bus to Itanagar was about to take-off. He got into trouble with the helper of the bus as that guy wouldn’t put our heavier luggage on the roof of the bus. The conductor though seemed a reasonable man and he asked the helper to help us. The only reason why he wouldn’t put our luggage on top was because he had already tied the rest of the stuff and didn’t want to re-tie them. With no option left, he chose the middle path, he just place our two bags somewhere without tying them. Our seats were right at the back and as a parting shot, the receptionist apologized to us for the problem with the luggage and added, “Uska complain karoonga.”The bus trip to Itanagar at Rs. 170 per person was anything but comfortable. A journey of over 8 hours, like much of the public transport in Arunachal, this bus too had a dicey rear suspension. To add to it, the driver was game for a bit of good old highway racing. The only problem was, given the inconsistent smoothness of the roads, the bus jumped regularly and us, at the rear, had the same feeling people have when they are on a rollercoaster, except, we hadn’t asked for it. Every time the bus went up in air and landed safely, we looked back, to see if any of our two bags had fallen down. This happened for a significant distance. Later, convinced that the bags had seen the worst and they were safe enough, we looked at taking care of ourselves. The conductor of the bus somehow resembled a schoolmaster. I was curious as his Hindi was far different from the locally spoken one and he looked like a north Indian. I was right and wrong. He wasn’t from Arunachal, but he wasn’t from the north either. He was a Malayali, from Trivandrum. For 36 years, he had been working in this far-off state and I was reminded of this quite complimentary joke.
A sea-diver is gobbled up by a whale. When he enters the beast’s belly, he finds that a Nair has already opened a tea-stall there.
The bus somehow went from Arunachal to Assam and back to Arunachal, via North Lakhimpur. At the border, we were asked to show our Inner Line Permits and soon we entered Naharlagun, Itanagar’s twin-town.