I will make no bones about it- at the age of 27 years I have been blessed and fortunate enough to travel extensively within India and internationally. Being an avid trekker, mountain climber and cyclist I have opted to save up and attempt niche and relatively isolated places mountains, hills and trails. No place in world affords such exclusivity as the pristine and untouched state of Arunachal Pradesh in the North East India.
With dense mentally and physically challenging jungle to its towering snow-capped mountains, Arunachal Pradesh is my favourite place in the world. It has always baffled me as to why mainstream mountaineers and trekkers have always given the Arunachal Pradesh a step motherly treatment but why should I complain? I have never felt nor I have ever experienced such a sheer sense of wanderlust and awe on my time on this little 3rd blue planet revolving around the sun as I do in Arunachal Pradesh.
Needless, to say in the past two yearsI have focussed on trekking and climbing mountains extensively in Arunachal Pradesh from the Tawang region, Gorasam, Mechuka, Hirong and eastern point ridges of the Dibang –Dihang Bioshpere, but the tale I seek to tell you is about a mountain called Lola Shin Lin DamI climbed in 2015, the sheer isolation, pristine and raw untouched beauty of which is what makes for my seductive love affair with Arunachal Pradesh.
At 6200 meters, Mt. Lola Shin Lin Dam with a high prominence at round 4995 metres located between the border of West Siang and Upper Siang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, it certainly does not compare in height to either Mt. Kangtoor Mt Gorichin nor is it a technical ascent. The mountains of central and eastern Arunachal Pradesh are unique in there characteristic of having a lot of greenery and vegetation at very high altitudes as opposed to their sister central and western Himalayans counterparts.
Bridge over the River Siang
Ever planned something spontaneously? An Oxymoronic concept but that is best how I can describe our decision to climb Mt. Sin Lin Dam, chiefly because I found out about the mountain 5 days before I decided to climb it. I was on trip to see Mouling National Park and met a porter and guide whose names were Lukhpa sir and Mempa sir and one to led to another, I before I knew it I have struck a deal with MempaSona sir, where he agreed to accompany me through from a town called Monigong through a dense and thick forest to reach and climb Mt. Lola Shin Lin Damat rate of Rs. 650 a day. Unlike my previous treks, I was informed by Mempa sir that we will not be packing any much food for the trip and we were execute this trip in lines with what I would later find out to be a Man vs. Wild method of adventure and he proceeded to take me a quaint blacksmith to purchase a local Arunachali dao for a neat Rs. 350 which along with my khukri which I got from my base camp climbof Mt. Annapurna in Nepal be are tools of the survival on this random adventure.
The blades of my impromptu adventure
I had already come prepared for the cold weather that would start to set in October-November in the Eastern Himalayas and in addition to the quintessential trekking gear, sleeping bags with we set off at 3:30 am with a trampoline sheet, an additional pair rubber boots and chat masala (an asset I will later on find as a critical must have!) and 3 2 litre bottles of kerosene. I was actually nervous, because this was my rouge mission and with a group smaller than 5.
For all my travel and adventure I never got the grasp of photography and hence continued in my absurd trend to carry to mobile phones instead and take as many photos as I could till these phones ran out- un-professional right? Do not care, for lugging around a bulky SLR I do not own in this kind of trip where mobile phone towers and electric ports were a facets of science fiction, is an act of idiocy not pride.
Gushing stream of the cliff edges with bamboo wedges for a thirsty wanderer.
After 2 and half days of relentless knee deep mud traps and leech infested puddles with nothing much talk about or see, the dense and unrelenting jungle of the Kacha-bu and Rameng forest with its a unique blend of equatorial and temperate rainforest with an astonishing variety flora and fauna granting gave way to a stunning view and finally a glorious trap of rays of sunlight through the canopy. I sought it be a glistening blessing from the forest gods for this mad hatter trip and I had decided to inflict to us.
Sunshine of my Love!
The opening of a cliff affording me a mild respite from catching up with Mempa and Lukhpa sir, allowed be a brief opportunity to survey the western flank of the hills as we proceeded to higher altitudes, covered in thick morning mist adding to periphery charm as a welcome respite to the surprising amount I was sweating. I stopped to absorb the view.
Lost in the eyes of the mist
As the sun set, we set up camp on the third night- a fire place and us three huddled in tight group roasting the last remnants of the pork slices and dried corn that Mempa sir’s wife had packed us as starter package (a sort of cheat code for the last 3 nights). Lukhpa sir grumbled that his wife near packs him anything much to Mempa sir’s and my amusement. It was a quite chill and quiet night with very little ambient light due to the thick canopy and we were warming up to each, conversationally and quite literally under a little blue trampoline. We agreed to take turns to settle the fire through the night, a routine that would be essential to get used to in the coming days.
We started the next morning with Lukpa and Mempa sir informing me that the route we would take was the trail taken by their forefathers for centuries to collect exotic herbs at the higher jagged edges of the Mt. Lola Shin Lin Dam. It made sense considering the other face of the mountain from a distance clearly had half of kilometre of vertical plan and I clearly was not prepared for equipment wise to make any notion of assault to the peak. We would go as high as the local knowledge and inclement weather at such altitudes would permit – yeah, totally rouge with no back-up plan and kilometres away from any civilisation. On we soldiered, me parroting the songs marching tunes of my companions which they went on to explain to me included lyrics like ‘the forest loves us, we love the forest’, ‘the mountain judges the silent, the noisy drown in despair’ and my personal favourite ‘pretty girls like men who feed them’. We were building so great camaraderie here and I loved it.
There was brief shower of blistering cold rain but we did not stop, cutting through denser and more seemly impenetrable jungle thanks to almost samurai like use of Lukpa and Mempa sir daos’ and I as an apprentice following suit. We made steady progress and at around 4:35 p.m. we stopped to make our second camp. Mempa sir left for about 20 minutes and came back with a dead macaque which sees proceeded to skin for dinner. I cannot say that macaque is a very tasty delicacy but hunger trump taste and the afore-mentioned chat masala so sparingly used played a saving grace to the toasted macaque. Gushing streams 2 minutes from the camp made water a non-issue. I eaten a lot unusual critters but not this primitively cooked and hoped the macaque would settle well in the tummy well over the night.
The surrounding forest
A shy Lukpa sir laughing- Camera shy
While there evidently a lot that was lost in translation, people tend to be more philosophical in the midst of a forest below a mountain with a little breeze. We are obsessed with Kashmir and Pakistan, that we quite often forget that the India-China war of 1962 left been scars and repercussions for the people of Arunachal Pradesh. Lukpa sir and Mempa sir told me about how their forefathers used undertake the arduous trek and mountain climb to Tibet on the other side to trade furs, wood, berries for scents, spices and clothes which was then a porous border between India and China with only love and respect to be shared. Mempa sir sighed “The political class do not care for the mountains, they do care for the forests, they do not care for tradition – they only seek to acquire and exploit everything without giving back”. For a calm and composes men, there palpable disenchantment with politics of war strangely evaded me as something obvious till that moment – 40 years of a pissing contest had ruined 4000 years of cultural affinity and love between two great civilisations.
The ancient drying bamboo forests of May and July were slowing withering away for the impending winter andthere is an ancient thumb rule that must always be remembered – never and I mean never hold on to take the support of dark brown and black bamboo while climbing. It is unreliable, shakes and splinters far too easily, making it trekking hazard rather than an apparatus for assistance. Mempa sir with his expert eye pick out a few solitary green bamboo poles as trekking poles and oft went to higher destination.
Mempa sir and I snap a pick at the Black Bamboo forest
Me and My Bamboo stick. Note the newspaper below with what remains of the cicadas snack
As we climbed on the temperature dropped to 2 degrees and the ensuing ascent inclination getting more steep and slippery the roof point of the prominence of Mt. Lola Shin Lin Dam came in view calling to be like a saucy siren singing in the frosty wind.
Prominence shot of Mt. Lola Shin Lin Dam
The macaque was a sparse meal and I was starving and the assortment of insects that Lukpha sir had roasted and kept as snacks for later were quickly consumed by us three. It was not my first foray with insects having eaten insect blows regularly on several treks in North East India, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, but these bunch of forest cicadas, ants and cockroaches were delicious protein rich snacks- tangy like a spoiled tamarind with jaggery. I was informed that Lukpa sir had also caught some small boar in the morning and had neatly packed the same in three pouches. I started to worry that we were killing to many animals but Mempa sir said “It our ancient way of life we only kill what we need, never more – we never waste anything”. He pulled out a part of the last night macaques ribs and said he would use it as goat comb to find ticks and keep it skin as extra cover for his dao’s sheath. I thought to myself “Fair enough!”.
I was informed that I was about one to one and half days from our intended destination and we needed to pick up the pace. I was tired but determined to make to see this trip through and I was filled with a prospective state happiness and marvel at how ridiculous this trip is and how my dear mother, completely clueless as what I was doing here.
The night was cold-frigid actually and our equipment was rudimentary and nowhere requisite for this kind of low temperatures. All three of us scurried to find stones to heat in the camp fire and wrap in a blanket. Clearly Mempa and Lukpa sir slept like babies but for me it was a very tough night. But I was warmed with the thought that I was on no luxury trek, this was what I wanted to do and this is what I am doing.
I wriggled out of sleeping bag the moment I heard Mempa sir move and set out to finish the routine formalities of nature’s call. We ate what remained of the boar and I also realised rather late that I had a packet groundnut chiki (a south Indian staple snack) which Memp and Lukpa sir gobbled up with delight. We set out and decided to switch on the phone to take photos. After 6 hours and two intermediate stops for water and pieces of chiki – I found myself at my self-fulfilled prophesy – The Prominence.
I dropped my gear and continued to navigate the cliff edge to find a comfortable spot to rest ever so briefly. Mempa sir followed behind me in a flourish akin to mountain goat and perched himself at ledge a foot away from me and then after settling in for few second said ”I want you to listen carefully, the Lola-dam is going sing for us”. I must have looked at him with mixture of exhaustion and excitement as he grin proceeding become a source of light!
And so we waited, in silence and then it happened- the reason I sought to recount this tale. As sure as I am of mother’s voice, I heard a distinct and mellifluous sound of children singing. I recoiled in fear for this was more than unnerving. The song has no words and yet it most certainly was a language, audible enough discern in midst of the cacophony of the freezing winds cycling hit us. The Lukpa sir wore a more stern expression on his face with clear display of body language of immense respect and pensive thought.
Lukpha with visibly effected by this now fading song, head lowered his head said “The Lola-dam sees us all, knows our intentions and lends her voice only to the ears of only those who are destined”. I felt remarkable sense calm on hearing is words. These hills, forest and mountains were no mere topographically entities for my comrades, they were a part of a spiritual and symbiotic way of life and belief that required much more than one’s 5 sense to experience. I was inducted into this niche club by Lola-dam and I held the song of singing children as my badge of honour. I lingered on the peak and Mempa sir urged me to switch on my mobile phone to take a picture of me. A solitary picture later, my distinguish phone gave up on life settled into a slumber.
My Portrait of my Melodic Induction
The temperature dropping with every moment and the inadequate clothing I had for this altitude, we all decided that we would need to make our way back to the lower ridge. I persisted for a brief 2 minutes more, to take in the panoramic view and with a heart proceeded to descend while string at the glistening unsurmountable peak of Mt. Lola Shin Lin Dam well beyond the prominence – if only I had come prepared, with a team, equipment, food … Yes, that would have a different journey. It was also a journey that would not have happened because owing to fact I had no idea that this mountain existed until 1 and half weeks ago and it was never destined to be planned. I grumbled and mentally walloped myself- At least I could have brought a battery pack, I mean one photo on the prominence, just photo!
Ticked off with myself, I realised the descent from the prominence was going to be no cake walk. The rocks were sharp, cold and jagged and we gingerly and with the utmost caution placed our feet in the cleavages afforded to us. It was a long descent (a whopping 3 hours longer) to get back to the remnants of our morning campsite. I three my shoes and proceeded to cut wood to for the fire, I knew my role and the drill.
I was to later find out that night that although Mempa sir had heard the song of Mt. Lola-Dam when he was young and sprightly 23 year old, it was the first time the 40 year ole Lukhpa sir. His father spoke a great deal of it as a child and he had sought many times to hear himself but was not fortunate enough- until today. He told he would never forget me, as I was with him today. I was too emotional to say anything more than mustering up a “Thank you”.
Over the course of the next 4 days down the mountain and an alternate route, I spoke in with by comrades in great detail about life, the world as we know it and other existential topics. I said joked that I had been to 20 national parks in India, but never saw a tiger in the wild and they laughed, and the quickest retort Lukpa and Mempa sir told me that they had never seen the sea and asked me what was it like to be at sea?.
How do you explain to someone what it’s like to see the sea? I racked my brain and told them, it was the same feeling you get when you reach the top of a mountain. The sea also sometimes sings to its guests both loving and deadly songs. They seemed happy with my answer, little aware of how much injustice I felt I was doing to both the mountains and the sea, with my limited mortal vocabulary.
We reached a town by the name Koloring safe and sound but very tired. Lukpa sir burst into his house saying what I inferred to be “I heard the song!, I heard the song! ”. A meal and the night’s sleep later, I found myself with the difficult situation of having to part with my mountain brother. I paid Mempa sir and Lukpa sir the amounts after rough calculations only to have Lukpa sir return Rs. 650 back to me. When I asked why, he told me that he will not take money for the day he heard the song of Lola –dam, he did not want the memory of that day to have a monetary value. I just hugged Lukpa and Mempa sir and left, no soppy words – we will part like men.
Me holding World War 2 machine gun casing probably Japanese at Monigong
The trip from Monigong to a town called Hirongwas a long perilous journey on a Tata Xenon pick-up truck driven by one Mr. Damo who was on his way for delivery of goods to a town called Aalo, through terrible to nearly non-existent road, intermediate deluges of uncharacteristic rain. After a night sleeping in the car and we reached Aalo where I stayed at hotel Toshi Palace Hotele. I needed to book a flight to Bangalore and Dibrugarh in Assam was the closest airport. I caught a crowed TATA Sumo sharing taxi group heading to Passighat as I had to catch a ferry across the Brahmaputra that who take me to Dibrugarh.
The ferry takes about 1 and half hours from one bank to the other, and fellow passenger lent me his power bank and I as I sat recollecting the impromptu incredible trek my mobile phone came to life. My dear sweet mother had 42 missed calls from my mother, 2 from my father and over 100 text messages. I shuddered at the very notion of having to call back and explain myself, so I dropped a text ‘Sorry, all fine. Will call soon.’
Irresponsible? Yup sure. My tried and tested advise is if you have no excuse so the best strategy was give none.
Adventure as its common definition goes roughly means ‘an unusual and exciting or daring experience’ or “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks’. I pretty covered that and bi more with this trip and it was going to be a rough reunion with the folks after this rouge adventure with no intimation, so I was going to enjoy the peace while it lasted.
Contemplation on the ferry from Passighat to Dibrugarh
Final Blaze of the Setting Sun over the Brahmaputra
They say you must end a story strong, leave the reader with a lasting effect that allows them to endear to the tale and feel a part of your story. Well I tell you this modern world and it comforts conspire to throw mundane impediments to you de-sensitise you to wonder. We are all explorers, we are all adventurers and we should never let anyone kill our childish enthusiasm to seek and discover. I am simple soul, I do not aim for the stars, there more than a several lifetimes worth of places to see on this magnificent planet before I die.
I cannot remember who said this but it goes like “Those who do not travel, read only one page of the book” to which I add “and those who lose their sense of adventure, are those who cannot appreciate even that page”.