I had put in my papers earlier this year and took off work in May. The idea was (and still is) to explore the alternation as a way of life. I find it hard to do things half-heartedly so I give it my all when I am in a job, consequently burn myself and then I think I owe myself some time off in order to explore other things in life and to help myself see a grander perspective.
Parul decided to join me this time on my wandering spree and we decided on a road trip to North East India. After her ride to Jaisalmer earlier this year, Parul had been showing increasing confidence and interest in biking. So we set out of Delhi on the morning of 14th September and made it to Tezpur over a course of 8 days, stopping at Lucknow, Kushinagar, Darbhanga, Kurseong (❤️) and Bongaigaon en route.
After staying a few days in Tezpur to figure out a few things, we decided to leave our bikes in Tezpur at a friend’s house and continue thence by public transport to our first destination - the Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.
I admittedly knew little about Arunachal Pradesh before I set foot inside it. When we caught our bus from Tezpur, I still knew little of what to expect from the coming few days. I intentionally tend to keep things so in order to maximize the sense of discovery. The bus took us through the beautiful paddy fields and fenced villages that I would begin to associate with Assam as much as the tea estates flanking good tarred roads. Parul and I caught an occasional nap on the 6 hour long journey and as the day drew to an end, we reached Bandardewa, one of the many “gates” to Arunachal Pradesh.
We got our ILP checked at the gate and then proceeded to the other side to catch another bus to Naharlagun - the sister town to Itanagar, Arunachal’s administrative capital. Almost immediately after we crossed the gate, it started drizzling and the rain picked up a bit on the way to Naharlagun. The rains were the primary reason that we were using public transport instead of our motorbikes. The road to Ziro was not one of the best ones and Parul was not yet comfortable negotiating slopes and hilly roads.
We reached Naharlagun in less than an hour and quickly found a decent hotel near the bus stand. I went to ask for buses to Ziro on the following day but the bus stand seemed as if it had been dug up and left so since. There was no counter there that would serve for information and asking around did not help a lot. So I postponed the activity till the morrow and then walked around the town with Parul to hunt for food. And quite a hunt it was! Most of the places had shut down or were in the process of doing so. We were quite surprised since it was only a little after 7 PM and Naharlagun was a big enough city. We did find a restaurant open which looked a little uptown. We went in for the lack of a cheaper option. Turned out that the food was good and reasonably priced. I also tasted my first round of pork in North East 😋
At 6 the next morning I went to ask around for a bus or Sumo. The counters were right across the street and since there was no bus to Ziro, I booked a Sumo. It was leaving in 10 minutes so I went back to the room, asked Parul to pack up as quickly as possible and we were down at the stand in 15 minutes. Luckily the Sumo had waited 😛
It was cloudy throughout but the rains spared us after some light activity. The ride was a bumpy one with the kalamitti being the most exciting. It is essentially a single lane of muddy path with 4 feet of mud wall (remenants of cleared landslide) on either side and spans across a couple of blind curves. I will let your imagination do the rest.
The Sumo dropped us at Ziro after a rocky 5 hours journey. It had been a typical Sumo journey - trying to grab a nap while cramped for space and wildly rocking from one side to another. So what we wanted to do was to find a hotel and get some rest. The drop had been in Hapoli, one of the villages that comprises Ziro. Of course I had no idea that it was so. I had imagined Ziro to be one town or something of the sort. Parul knew all about it though and had even seen a few hotels online that were in the area. But we were also told that the festival grounds were a little far from Hapoli, making it a task to travel by foot. So we decided to look for a place closer to the grounds. But where exactly were the festival grounds? Good question.
I called a friend who had been to Ziro before and he gave me some vague directions. I even found two locations on Google Maps which claimed to be the festival grounds. All this took a lot of time and effort since the network was flaky and the internet was slower than half-a-G. We zeroed in to a general area on the map and were delighted to find a couple of hotels listed on Google in the vicinity. But first, we decided to get a BSNL SIM card since it was more probable to have network in this region (whatever were we thinking!).
At the BSNL office, right after we had got a SIM, Parul suffered from a spell of illness; probably something she had eaten. Once she felt better we debated once more what we wanted to do and she said she was up to checking out the hotels. So we walked a good 20 minutes in the direction of “Old Ziro” and upon reaching the hotels, found out that they did not have a vacant room. Perfect. Where could we find one? Would be very difficult since the festival was coming up. Had we not made a reservation?
We set camp in the hotel’s cafe and started making calls to a list of homestays that Parul had found online. Almost every one of them had the same answer. They were booked. They had been booked for the festival dates atleast 4 months in advance. They also recommended that we should have made a booking. We thanked them and moved to the next option. Almost an hour went by (or maybe two) before we finally gave up and decided to take a homestay close by which was free for the next two days before the festival began. We would figure out the other days tomorrow. Today we were running out of patience and energy.
While we had been making calls from the cafe, another group of locals that had been sitting there walked over to us and we had a round of introduction. After talking for a while and giving us their number in case nothing worked out in matters of accomodation, they shook our hands warmly and said “When you go back to Delhi, tell them you met Arunachalis, not Chinese”. It struck me as mighty strange at the time.
The homestay owner came to pick us up from the hotel and drove us to his house. It was a beautiful property overlooking the paddy fields. Uncle also showed us in a distance the festival grounds. Too bad he did not have a vacancy for the entire duration. His house also had a big garden where he grew all kinds of herbs and a kiwi tree that on which the unripe fruits had started hanging. All in all, we were happy with the result of the day’s effort. 😄
At night we were treated to a buffet of homecooked food in the pretty dining hall. It had a fireplace in between which we would learn to be typical of the region.
After dinner we sat down with the hosts and Aunty poured us glasses of “organic juice”. Over the local made mulberry wine we asked them a lot of questions about the region, their lifestyle, their religion, festivals, etc. The Apatanis were the main tribe of the Ziro valley and they were, as we would come to know first hand over the next few days, known for their hospitality and warmth. They had mostly converted to Christianity and were primarly agrarian in their lifestyle. The wine was quite potent and we slept a sound sleep that night, tired from a day of bad roads and unnecessary lodging hunting.
The next morning Uncle introduced us to a relation of his who had a homestay in the Hong village. He had vacancy and we could go check it out if we wanted to. We gladly agreed to do so and went later that day to walk around the village and check the homestay. Hong is one of the largest villages of the area and the walk there took us through the paddy fields and a beautiful bamboo plantation. The grey skies, green hills in the background and the golden fields ready for harvest provided a very, to steal a word from a friend’s description of Ziro, enigmatic effect. We clicked a lot of pictures of the largely vacant roads and buildings. Again, we were realising first hand that Arunachal has the least population density in India - only 17 persons per sq km as per the 2011 census!
We found Uncle’s relative’s place after asking around a bit and checked it out. It was not nearly as pretty as the one we were staying in but given the dearth of options, it would have done. We decided, however, to walk all the way to the festival ground and to see if we could find something nearer to the venue.
The festival grounds were still being prepared but we asked permission to check it out and were granted. The venue looked beautiful and I was totally looking forward to the festival which has been on my wishlist for a whole lot of years now.
More importantly though, we found a few boards right next to the entrance which advertised some guesthouses and homestays in the other direction (Birii village) from which we had come. We noted the names and numbers and made the calls. One of them told us that they had a vacancy and we decided to go check it out. While looking for the place we walked into another building mistaking it for the guesthouse. This was how we accidentally found the place that would host us for the entire duration of the festival and more! This house was being set up by a bunch of friends who were trying out the business for the first time and we willingly agreed to be their first customers. 😂
Birii (pronounced bee-ree) is the village closest to the Ziro Festival of Music grounds. Just in case someone wants to know. 😬
Days of ZFM
The next morning, after breakfast, we bade farewell to our hosts and headed for Birii. We had come to know that morning that the homestay had been booked by the ZFM organisers and right before we were leaving, the person in charge had come to check the place out. He told us that they had overbooked and there was a room free if we wanted it. It was a such wow moment for both of us but since the homestay was quite expensive and not really close to the grounds, we decided to stand by out commitment to Opo (one of the friends operating the guesthouse).
After the hour long walk to Birii, we came to know that the rooms we had selected on the previous day had been taken by a group that had managed to reach before us. We were offered another room and since it had just as pretty a view of the valley around, we were not really complaining.
We settled in, got ready and left for the festival which was to start later in the afternoon. Parul put on her red gum boots which we had got from Hapoli. I must add here that it did not rain at all and her two boots were of unequal size 😂 For more about the festival, you can read Parul’s post.
The festival was amazing, with the first day being the most mind blowing and the trip slowly fizzling towards the fourth day. At least for us and in terms of music and the experience. What I was looking forward to the most was… well it was MONO. But apart from the music, it was the zero waste drive that the ZFM was trying to do. Waste reduction and reluctance to use plastic packaging is one thing that Parul and I have been trying to adopt recently with varying degrees of success. I was quite curious as to how a music festival would play it out.
To put it shortly, the entire effort was a failure. Not because of any lack on the part of the organisers but because of the attendees. End of the day it became something that we are used to - a few cleaning up the mess of many. I was quite perplexed at the result though. Somehow, I had been expecting that a crowd of youngsters (mostly) who had enough spending power to reach and attend the festival and who were up to date with the entire #planetorplastic debate (it’s not easy to escape things on social media) would need only a little motivation to clean up their act for just 4 days. But apparently it is not so. Smoking zones were ignored and despite all the incentives and repeated announcements that the organisers made on stage, people littered, left their plates where they ate, dumped it anywhere they thought convenient. And it was not just the “outsiders” who did this. Even the local participants who loved in the very same valley did it, perhaps more so. Maybe it is in human nature to create a mess. Maybe it is only through repeated conditioning that we will be able to get the required foresight of what bad waste management can lead to.
On a lighter note, we also had a gala time at the guesthouse. The group who had reached before us were a bunch of Goans and two air-force officers from Siliguri. We struck a good friendship with the Goans and every night was spent drinking Godfather (Parul hates it), apong (local rice beer), roxy (local rice vodka), Old Monk (of course!), mulberry wine (we got more from Aunty) and weird cocktails that involved these in varying proportions. The hosts were probably the most friendly ones we have met. They made food for us to eat and set up a bonfire in the evenings. The first few days were spent near the evening fire and then when another younger and more energetic group took over the parties we retired to drinking outside our rooms.
The festival itself was something quite unlike what I have attended before. It was, in ways, similar to the second NH7 Weekender that I attended in Pune. I did not have a home in Pune back then and has a big role to play in the similarity. The setup was cosy and inviting. Just two stages and no overlapping gigs. Artists both, big and small. Some local flavours and sounds we had never heard before. Some big names that were on the dream-list. Too little crowd. A lot of wide open space and a general sense of relaxation. No traffic to deal with on the way back home. I think it has been one of the most enjoyable festivals I have attended so far.
A World Apart
The festival ended in four days but we lingered on. One reason was that the Sumos were not running in the regular shared basis since the festival guests were renting them out for their return. Also, we were in no rush to get away. This gave us more time to relax and to learn about Ziro first hand.
We came to know that Ziro has an interesting systen of panikheti, as we learnt from our host Opo. The fields have canals and small pools where they rear small fishes. The Apatanis have been doing this traditionally for a long time now and it is only recently that a study proved that this method actually increases the field’s fertility and helps keep the crop pest free. To top it, there is the harvest of fish as well.
Twice during my stay at the guesthouse, the kids of the nearby school went out on a cleanliness drive. Escorted by their teachers, they went about the streets shouting slogans and picking up the thrash that others had carelessly left behind. I am ever hopeful that, given the right guidance, the future generations will be able to bring about a much needed change 🙏
One of the days we walked around the villages on this side of Ziro - Hari and Bulla. The paddy fields were being harvested and the farmers went about their daily chores, used to seeing a occasional tourist stray about.
On another day, we tried seeing the famous Shivling that had been discovered nearby but found it a cumbersome and expensive task without a transportation of our own. So we gave it a skip for another time. Our favourite passtime, as before, was to hang out outside the room, admiring the view, reading a book or drinking with our Goan friends. They too had a few days to spare before they returned to their regular lives.
After two days we bade goodbye to our hosts and friends and exchanged numbers to stay in touch. The Sumo ride back was slightly better since we took a slightly different route to get to North Lakhimpur instead of Naharlagun. This one skipped the kalamitti stretch at the cost of a slightly longer ride on the plains back to Tezpur but we preffered this option to the other.
The driver of the Sumo told me a few more things about this part of Arunachal that I had not known. Kiwis were sold for 100 rupees a kilo during harvest season in Ziro! This was to be a month later so we had missed it. He also told me that there was a trans-Arunachal highway project that was being planned. However, the Commissioner of this district was in prison on charges of corruption and the project had been stalled. Arunachal, he told me, was the most corrupt state in the nation.
By the time we got to North Lakimpur and took a bus back to Tezpur, I was thinking over and over about how different this land had been from the one where I had been living. It had it’s dark sides but had seemed to me in many ways better than the mainland. I was looking forward to seeing more of it in the coming few weeks. We had a month long permit for the state and I was looking to make the most of it.
Here is the complete album of our Ziro experience.