Silence and serenity in northeast India

Michael Snyder / Special to The Washington Post

Published Nov 23, 2013 at 11:56PM

If you go

GETTING THERE

• Jet Airways flies to Guwahati in Assam, the nearest major airport to Arunachal Pradesh, from Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Buses run regularly from Guwahati to Itanagar (from about $9, nine to 11 hours), where Jeep connection is available to Ziro (about $8, five to seven hours). Private vehicles can also be arranged from Guwahati directly to Ziro, starting at around $40.

• Protected Area Permits, required for all foreign visitors traveling to Arunachal Pradesh, can be arranged in person at the Arunachal tourism office in New Delhi or, more conveniently, through a guide or tour operator. Permits for 30 days cost $50, plus an additional handling fee if booked through an agent or operator.

WHERE TO STAY/EAT

• Ziro Valley Resort

Biiri Village, Ziro

011-91-37-8822-4278

Comfortable and charming, if a bit creaky, and a 15-minute walk from Hong village. Restaurant offers decent renditions of North Indian and Indian Chinese dishes as well as alcoholic beverages. Double rooms from $25 a night.

• Siiro Resort

Siiro Village, Ziro

011-91-37-8822-5123

siiroresort.com

A bulky new building made of logs and rough stone, set at the southern edge of the valley. The restaurant here serves no alcohol. Double rooms from $25 a night.

• Home-stays

There are eight home-stays spread across five villages in the valley, six in concrete houses with modern amenities, two in traditional bamboo houses. They provide traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner and are best arranged through local guides (see below). Rooms from $11 a night, with food.

WHAT TO DO

• Government Craft Emporium

Route 229, Hapoli

In a compound of colonial-style bungalows just outside central Hapoli on the main road leading to Old Ziro. Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

• Northeast Holiday Tour & Travels

011-91-80-1401-2558

Christopher (Tajo) Michi offers customized guided trips for foreign travelers throughout Arunachal and the northeast. Tours including transport, hotel accommodations, food, guide and travel permits from $150 per night for two. Email: northeast-holidaygmx.us.

• Brahmaputra Tours

011-91-94-3663-4496

www.brahmaputra-tours.com

Guide Koj Mama offers itineraries covering various regions of Arunachal Pradesh and the surrounding northeastern states. Tours including transport, hotel accommodations, food, guide and travel permits from $180 per night for two.

INFORMATION

www.arunachaltourism.com

When the music ended, the valley fell silent.

In the last weeks of September, the monsoon rains had largely receded, but elephantine clouds continued to pour over the hillsides, drifting close overhead and dropping dramatic shadows across the golden paddies carpeting the valley floor. Cupped like so much still water in the upraised hands of the Himalayas, the Ziro Valley had returned, once again, to its customary quiet.

Over the previous three days, the second Ziro Festival of Music — one of the newest additions to India’s rapidly expanding festival circuit — had brought some 1,200 people to the valley. They’d traveled from across the neighboring Seven Sister states of the remote northeast, and from India’s big cities, to Arunachal Pradesh, the sparsely populated hill state that bursts from the plains and tea plantations of Assam and rises toward the Tibetan plateau.

Like all the artists and journalists who attended the festival, I arrived by road from Guwahati, the nearest major city with an airport. The drive — I would describe it as harrowing, but that seems like an exaggeration, albeit a mild one — took 18 hours, beginning along the flat banks of the Brahmaputra River and continuing, in its final 60 miles, along pockmarked switchbacks that hugged the contours of the hillsides as they rose through subtropical jungle toward the gentle alpine hills that enclose Ziro.

The lack of infrastructure, and the travel permits required to enter the state because of its disputed northern border with China, make getting to Arunachal complex, which has kept the state well off the grid. In its small way, the festival has begun to put Ziro on the map, but like most of Arunachal and the northeast, this remains tribal territory: amazingly diverse, virtually unexplored and beautiful beyond all reason.

Ziro, for instance, is home to the Apatani tribe, one of 26 major tribes (there are more than 100 subtribes) that make up Arunachal’s minuscule population. With just 1.4 million people spread over 32,000 square miles of jungle-covered hills, alpine valleys and snow-capped mountains, Arunachal has the lowest population density of any state in India. Yet follow the single road that heads north out of Ziro, first climbing through pine forest before dropping suddenly into a deeper valley lush with bananas and primeval fern trees, and you enter an entirely different tribal zone, with different styles of housing, different festivals, a different language.

A calm that ‘feels like absolution’

After the Ziro festival, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley — two former members of Sonic Youth who played the last show — held a news conference. “This is beyond what we thought we’d come to India for,” Ranaldo said of Ziro. And it’s true: Most travelers associate India with drama — with chaos, riotous colors and the constant possibility of transcendence and disaster. Ziro bestows a calm that feels like absolution.

The scriptures of the earliest Tibetan Buddhist sect describe seven sacred beyul, or hidden valleys, a concept that led James Hilton, in his 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon,” to create the mythical Himalayan utopia of Shangri-La. That’s a name that gets bandied around a lot by tourism ministries and enthusiastic tourists alike. Kashmir, Swat and Hunza have been described as tragic Shangri-Las lost to the ravages of war. Bhutan, with its famous Gross National Happiness index, long history of isolation and highly restrictive travel policies, is sometimes described as the last Shangri-La.

Before leaving for Arunachal, I heard several people describe it as yet another one: the seventh beyul, exquisitely preserved, sublime in its isolation.

I was, of course, skeptical. But then, I hadn’t yet seen Ziro.

Settled in the valley

Shri Buga Bullo and his wife, Yagyang, live in a village called Hong. Inside their home, the tightly woven bamboo walls blocked out the brilliant sun that had warmed the Ziro Valley to an unusually hot 90 degrees. Like all traditional houses here, the Bullos’ home centers on a communal fireplace and a hanging three-tiered rack that held skewers of drying meat, firewood and, on top, a massive sheet of fat and skin from a pig, petrified and preserved over decades (literally) by the constant smoke from the fire below. Like the dozens of horned mithun skulls stacked in the corner (mithun is an indigenous, semi-domesticated bull), collected from ceremonial sacrifices performed over many years, the slab of fat is a sign of prosperity.

Buga crouched on one side of the fire with a century-old silver pipe clamped between his withered lips and chatted in the local Apatani dialect with Tajo Michi, who has led tours around the northeast for the past nine years. (He goes by Christopher for the convenience of foreign tourists, and for the past two years has run his own agency, Northeast Holiday Tour & Travels.)

On the far side of the fire, Yagyang prepared a metal pitcher of rice beer, a milky, sweet-sour drink brewed in nearly every house in the valley. Like many women of her age (which is indeterminate; birthdays are neither marked nor celebrated among the Apatani), Yagyang wears the nose plugs and facial tattoos that distinguish the local women from those of neighboring tribes: a single blue line from the forehead to the tip of the nose and five separate lines running from the lower lip to the chin.

The origin of these tattoos is obscure. The common story goes that they were designed to disfigure the Apatani women, who were otherwise so beautiful that men from the surrounding tribes would raid the valley to kidnap them. Koj Mama, the president of the Arunachal Pradesh Birding Club and director of Brahmaputra Tours, told me that this is almost certainly an invention.

As Tajo, Koj and I drank our rice beer, Buga stood — bent forward nearly 90 degrees, his topknot held at his forehead by a long reed — to retrieve a jar of Apatani salt for us to eat along with the drink. The fine black powder is made from the evaporated liquids pressed out of a locally grown grass. It’s vegetal, briny flavor, infused with the metallic tang of iodine, gives the final kick to a local delicacy known as pike pilla, a simple stew made from smoked pork or mithun skin.

Unlike neighboring tribes that have long practiced a nomadic style of shifting cultivation (called jhum), the Apatani have been settled in the valley since their prehistoric migration from the north, giving them the opportunity to develop uniquely sophisticated agricultural and craft techniques.

The wet paddies that line the valley floor, for instance, double as fisheries for small freshwater fish, which are either dried and fermented for chutneys or steamed in a hollow stalk of bamboo sealed with leaves and placed in the hot coals of an open fire. This preparation, called sudu, is also commonly used for chicken, liver, eggs and rice. Canny guides like Tajo and Koj — all highly attuned to global trends — will make a point of telling you that the food here is entirely local and organic, an understatement if ever I’ve heard one.

At the Government Craft Emporium, housed in a creaky colonial bungalow in the village of Salang, craftspeople from the surrounding region receive stipends to come here and improve their skills, weaving the traditional geometric shawls and gales (a type of sarong) of the Apatani, Nyishi and Adi tribes. Wander through the compound, and you’ll see a woman from the Buddhist Monpa tribe in the state’s northwest tying small woolen carpets, a blacksmith crafting tribal machetes and a carpenter fashioning all manner of objects out of bamboo. Some of these craftsmen stay permanently at the center, while others return to their home villages to pass the skill along. At the Emporium store, the final products are sold at shockingly low prices, as little as 450 rupees (about $7) for a handwoven gale.

No ‘must-sees’ or ‘must-dos’

In about four hours, you can walk the road that loops between the villages skirting the edge of the valley floor, and in a day or so you can complete the trail through the dense forest just above. You can linger in the villages themselves, walking beneath the tall ceremonial wooden masts known as babos left from the myoko festival held every March — part of the prevailing sun-and-moon worship tradition — and past old women sifting millet and rice on their front porches. In all this you’ll find no “must-sees” or “must-dos”; Ziro resists imperatives.

On my last evening, after a brief sunset hike into the forest between Hong and Hari villages, Tajo and I stopped at a house to sample another brew of rice beer and a potent (though barely potable) distilled rice liquor. We ate skewers of beef taken straight from the smoking rack and thrown into the coals.

At another house, we ate fish sudu and hot chutneys, and at the end of the night, we returned to my own home-stay in a traditional bamboo house back in Hong, where the owner, Tom, made arrangements for my onward journey the next day.

After a long day (and a draught of water to match it), I fell fast asleep on a stiff bamboo pallet to the conspicuous sound of absolutely nothing.

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