Crossing the Brahmaputra

trucks

As our flight came in to land in Guwahati, I peered over The Family’s shoulder at the lush greenery and little ponds brimming over with water below. The flight was on time. As we collected our baggage and walked to the exit, The Victor pointed out a kiosk which said "Arunachal Tourism". Our plan was to spend a couple of days in Assam, and then cross the state border to Arunachal. That requires a permit. We were very happy to find that it could be obtained right at the airport. We collected the permits, and went out to look for the man who would drive our rented car for the next ten days: Mr. Avatar Singh.

It was midday as we drove out of the airport parking lot in a large Innova. I had the seat next to the driver. As we negotiated the traffic in Guwahati I thought we had a taciturn Avatar. Only when we hit the highway did Mr. Singh start to talk. He told me the route he was going to take, south of the Brahmaputra, crossing it near Tezpur. He was radiated happiness when he saw me looking at the map on my phone. He thought he hd found a kindred soul, and told me more details about the route. Suddenly I found he had crossed to the wrong side of the highway. Twenty meters on he drove into a petrol station. He grinned at me and said that this side of the highway was in the state of Meghalaya and petrol was cheaper here. Clearly, from the number of trucks parked in a bay next to the pump.

adjutant

Very soon The Family screamed us to a halt. Even Avatar had to pay heed to her command to back up. Not having done any birding before, Mr. and Mrs. Victor had little idea of what was going on. When the car had backed up enough, I followed The Family as she walked a little further back. There was something interesting and enormous on a large nest at the top of a tree. The Victors had followed us, and we gazed at the bird which resolutely turned its back at us. Having seen things like this before, I knew it was an adjutant. As I focussed my camera, I heard multiple gasps: another adjutant had raised its head above the foliage. As the two birds glared lovingly at each other, we completed our identification: they were lesser Adjutants (Leptopilos javanicus). Our holiday had truly begun.

taxi

The highway is part of the Golden Quadrilateral which connects India with a continuous four lane highway. Here it passes numerous little towns and villages. There were many state transport buses plying the highway, but clearly not enough to take care of all the people who needed to travel. The road was full of multi-utility vehicles, with people packed in as densely as a black hole. Our car kept overtaking them too fast to photograph. Avatar kept up a non-stop stream of highly personalized information on whatever we passed, for example that these MUV-buses went so fast that it was clear that the drivers could not care less for the state of their cars. As I tried to photograph the vehicles we passed, I realized that the Avatar was not one who slows down for a passenger. On the other hand, he did slow down at every speed breaker on the road.

brahmaputra

As the shadows began to lengthen, our long eastward drive turned north on to a well-surfaced two-lane road. We reached the Brahmaputra. This river arises in the Tibetan plateau, where it is called the Tsangpo. As it crosses into India its name changes to Siang. In Arunachal it meets another, almost equally large, river called the Lohit. The meeting of the two creates the incredibly wide river which we crossed as the sun was about to set. In winter it is a braided stream flowing around huge sandbanks, presenting a tranquil picture in the sunset. But every year during the monsoon it floods, and the human cost is tremendous.

night

Night fell as we passed the town of Tezpur and continued along the highway. There seemed to be deep jungle around us. Avatar Singh knew the eco-tourism lodge that we were headed for, but he wanted me to look at my GPS for the correct turn off. We found it, and drove a couple of kilometers in. It wasn’t the jungle it had seemed to be just a few minutes ago. We passed a few huts and soon we were driving through a large village: there were small fields and clusters of houses. Eventually we came to a signpost which assured me that Avatar knew where he was going. Soon enough we came to a gate I remembered. Our dash across India had come to an end. We were two time zones away from Mumbai. The dark night would have been early evening at home; we might not be back home from work yet.

We found our tents and gathered for an evening’s tea. Permits were needed for a walk into the forest the next day. A river rafting trip had to be arranged. But most important: we had to find someone with a knowledge of where to find the local birds. We would wake at sunrise.

Birdlist for NH 37 and 37 A (5 November, 2015)

It is hard to identify birds with certainty when you barrel down a highway; for example, was the bulbul you passed a red-vented or red-whiskered? So the birdlist here is just indicative.

  1. Lesser adjutant stork
  2. Asian open-billed stork
  3. Black kite (formerly pariah kite)
  4. Little blue kingfisher (formerly common kingfisher)
  5. Long-tailed shrike
  6. Oriental turtle-dove
  7. Spotted dove
  8. Little egret
  9. Drongo
  10. Bulbuls

Inner Line Permits

One of the little headaches that afflict you when you plan to travel to the north-eastern states of India is the question of inner line permits. Do you need it? Where do you get it? Why do they have it anyway?

ArunachalThe answer as of today is that you need it if you want to travel to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. The Victor found a web site for the ILP to Arunachal Pradesh. We tried to get one through the web site. It seemed easy; we uploaded the documents needed, and got an instant response by SMS. Two weeks later we received a mail saying that the application was rejected. It turns out that the web-based form works only if you are planning to travel to Itanagar, the capital of the state. For any other destination, you need to apply in Kolkata or Delhi.

So we couriered our application to Kolkata about three weeks ago. There has been no response to it yet. In the meanwhile we found from the car hire agency that you can apply for an ILP when you reach the inter-state border crossing at Bhalukpong. You get it within half an hour if you are a tourist. We plan to try that. Lucky we don’t want to go to Tawang to work!

To get to Bum La you need another permit, this one issued by the Indian Army. Over the last decade there has been commerce between India and China through this 5 km high pass! Tripadvisor forum discussions tell us that it is not too difficult to get the permit once you get to Tawang.

With the recent decades of mounting tension along some borders, and terrorism across others, one understands why the Indian army may want to control traffic close to borders. But what is the logic of the ILP? A newspaper article claims that this was instituted by the British when they moved into these areas to exploit natural resources. Selectively issuing passes kept Indian businessmen out of the competition. Now the ILP is used by local tribal politicians for exactly the same purpose. However, the lack of competition and an open market has slowed the development of these states tremendously. These claims and implications by the newspaper have a certain logic. I wonder what the local people feel. I’m sure we will find out.

Note added 12 days later

Some things are simpler than they appear. The Inner Line Permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh was available at the Guwahati Airport. As we were about to exit, we saw a kiosk of Arunachal Tourism, with a notice saying that the ILP could be obtained there. Each of us had carried two passport sized photos and two copies of our PAN cards. We parted with these and were given our permits in a short time. Later we found that we could also have got it at Bhalukpong.

The pass to Bum La was even easier. We asked the hotel in Tawang, and they arranged it for a small fee. We did not need more photos or copies of the PAN cards. The hotel took our ILP and arranged everything. Apparently, this Restricted Area Permit (RAP) is issued by a magistrate. Then it has to be taken to an army office which gives you a date and time when you are allowed to go.