Gelling in Arunachal, Where the Siang Enters India
From the McMahon Line on the Indo-Tibetan border, the Siang seems almost benign. Is this the same river that routinely ravages the plains of Assam every year, washing away homes, hearths and wreaking havoc? Is this the same river that spreads out in chaotic tentacles meandering through the plains of Assam to throw up the largest river island in this part of the world?
Siang is the original Brahmaputra and it springs from Lake Manasarovar in Tibet where it is known as Tsangpo. I had forded the Tsangpo during my trip to Manasarovar years ago. Now I am on a riverine pilgrimage to welcome Tsangpo’s entry into India through the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh where it gets rechristened as Siang.. I had harboured visions of cascading waterfalls and a dramatic U-turn as it enters Indian territory, but all I can see is a placid and shy sliver of silvery stream sinuously wending its way through the border.
But appearances can be deceptive. The Siang gathers volume and velocity as it approaches the plains of Assam where it is joined by its myriad unruly siblings, including the Lohit and Dihang and swells into a massive miles-wide torrent of reckless rapids and frothing fury. Siang enters India at Gelling, the last village on the Indo-Tibetan border.To reach Gelling, you would need three full days, a formidable SUV and nerves of steel to survive the bone-rattling drive through notional roads little more than a stream of slush.
My friend and I begin our journey in Dibrugarh in Assam and drive through picturesque villages to reach Bobgil ghat, a desolate and depressing ferry crossing, the only one that connects Assam with Arunachal. The ferry itself is ramshackle and run-down affair so much so my friend begins to doubt my sanity in undertaking this journey. But our driver, a young lad from Assam is unfazed. He manouvers the vehicle skillfully through an improvised ramp consisting of two planks placed at an incline between the boat and the sandy river beach. A torrential downpour ensures that no matter where you stand on this boat, every inch of your skin is drenched. Visibility is near-zero.
The ferry drops you on the other bank 90 minutes later, but it takes a similar length of time and six pairs of sturdy shoulders to lift the wheels of your vehicle from the slush in which they get mired. The next stop is Pasighat, the headquarters of East Siang. The next morning we take the Mariang road since it runs parallel to the Siang offering beautiful vistas. What we had not been told is that this road is just notional and that you would be tossed so badly like pebbles in a rattle that you hardly notice the scenery. If you survive this road, you end up by late evening at Yinkiong, a picturesque village in a valley enclosed by verdant hills.
Early next day, we send our driver on a six-hour journey to the other side of the river. We wait until after lunch and set out on foot to cross a treacherous half-kilometer-long bamboo bridge bound together with nothing more than worn-out ropes. The bridge sways and wobbles ominously and the ropes sag dangerously. We steel our nerves, keep our eyes fixed on the other bank, much like Arjuna kept his on the bird and somehow make it across the bridge perched a good 50 meters over the swriling eddies of Siang. But the locals take it in their stride, literally. After all this is their only connectivity!
From here, it is a further seven-hour drive , most of it after dusk – the sun sets around 4-15 pm in these parts. But bad roads was the least of our problem here. The entire drive was so desolate with nary a human in sight. With a roaring Siang on one side and the mountain on the other, it is one of the eeriest drives I have ever undertaken. We reach the village of Tuting – population 600 – just before midnight and stay at the circuit house, the only place where one can lodge in this outpost. The third day, we part-drive and part-trek to Gelling perched on McMahon Line to welcome Siang into India. wondering at her seductive power that persuaded us to undertake this arduous journey.