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  • Writer's pictureJoel Koechlin

Great Escape Legacy: Arunachal’s Calling

Let’s rewind a couple of months. Remember Sangti, the little village lost in a deep remote valley of Arunachal Pradesh that Kalki and I visited on Day 2 of our May expedition? I said that I wanted to end my days there, right? Well, trouble is, when one projects a strong formation in one’s mind, it does happen!

But no, be reassured, this post is proof enough that my days didn’t end yet, and I have no plan to let this happen early. However, soon after getting back home, I found myself haunted by visions of this Arunachal village which had seduced me in most subtle ways. I could hear the sound of the Sangti river, smell the pines of the surrounding forest and the smoke of domestic fire, I would imagine myself sitting in Kunu’s house open lounge on the first floor, like in an eagle’s nest, prone to meditation and creative work as well; it was like if I had left a small part of myself there, and that tiny bit of me was pulling on a delicate umbilical cord and insistently calling me back.


Sangti village, Arunachal Pradesh

I made a show to myself of resisting for a while ­– after all, I had many occupations to attend to – but then, in time, this feeling became so overwhelming that within less than 2 months, almost like by magic, I found myself again in a plane landing on the runway of Guwahati airport.

A rental motorbike was waiting for me, a brand new RE Classic-500, with 45 km on the odometer, thanks to the excellent services of AweRides, the vehicle rental organisation that I would gladly recommend in Guwahati. And a thoughtful Dorgee Letro, Kunu’s dad, had sent his daughter to help me clear the hurdles at the Arunachal border (and sure enough, her Shakti-like intervention, with her knowledge of the local languages as well as her “ethnic connections”, played a dominant role in my smooth crossing).


Anna Kunu with her mother: bridging 2 generations in harmony

And so, off we went under pouring rain (I had finally understood what it means when it is said that the North-East regions of India gather among the highest precipitations on Earth, and accepted it as a fact of life) on a single long journey from Guwahati to Sangti, thump-thumping along in a single day – and part of the night. The most taxing section being the stretch between Bhalukpong and Bomdilla, a narrow mountain road snaking through thick jungle, mostly broken down, regularly punctuated with huge landslides freshly bulldozed away – which means a lot of mud and more mud, and rain and cold and fog.

From the point of view of an explorer keen to understand regions and people, my first visit of May last had been rather frustrating – 18 hours, that’s all we got: in the rush of a shoot you can’t do much more than tag along with the crew and abide by the maddening schedule. But of course, this is work and another experience altogether.


Helping in the farm: the Bullet does it all

Now I could settle at Kunu’s place, live with her family, meet the neighbours, learn some rudiments of the Monpa language, participate in the way of life, help in the farm, understand the tribal history, have a glimpse of the problems affecting the village and of the few conflicts affecting communities (no place is a perfect paradise). And I found it fascinating. I had my freezing cold water bath in the morning, was eating the family food without any complaint (even when I was offered fried dry frogs as one evening snack), I was appreciating my glass of warm ara with ghee** in the evening, relaxing on the farm’s lawn with my host. As the days were passing, a stronger bond was slowly being built: Kunu was my adopted daughter, Dorgee Letro and his wife Sang Nima my adoptive parents, the villagers were stopping by and chatting with me. I was no longer an alien, I had melted in the scenery: even the village dogs don’t bark at me in Sangti.

** Ara: the local brew made out of distilled rice and/or corn


The Sangti valley

Late afternoons I used to walk to the river, watching Dorgee armed with a fishing rod and catching our daily handful of fish for dinner – part of the seasonal diet when the river teems with trout-like fish – and settle myself on the narrow suspended bridge, fascinated by the fierce monsoon flow of the Sangti carrying tree trunks and branches in the gloom of a monsoon dusk.


The Sangti river in calmer days …

Bridge start vid

And when the time came to leave the village and return to the big city – by then Kunu had returned to Bomdilla to study for her BA degree – I had this strange feeling in my stomach that the little prince of Saint-Exupery must have felt when he had to say goodbye to the fox:

And when the time came for his departure, the fox said: “Oh! … I shall cry.”

“It’s your own fault,” said the little prince. “I wished you no harm but you wanted me to tame you.”

But then, later the fox gives him his secret gift:

“Now here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Yes, in spite of the remote location, in spite of an outdated and seemingly unnecessary ruling limiting access to the entire State (not merely the northern border regions), it is quite within the realm of possibilities that I will end my days in this valley: no status is eternal, governments and policies change, I can be patient, only time will tell…


With Dorgee Letro and Sang Nima

coming up in September



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