Tuting is a spread out pleasant town, with a market area and surrounded by green mountains, some with a peppering of snow on them. Flags flutter across the skyline above the tin roofs. We wasted no time before we got out there and chatted with people about our plans to trek to the five lakes of Donakasha in the mysterious Buddhist land of Pemako, the hidden paradise in the shape of a lotus. Buddhists believe that Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava) blessed the region with hidden spiritual treasures that can only be accessed through the challenge of pilgrimage.
We liked the idea of the arduous trek to this special land and it was a fitting adventure to mark the end of our Himalayan journey, but as we chatted with more local people, sadly it was becoming apparent that the snow was going to be a problem and we needed to scale back our plan. We were just too early in the year, the passes aren’t accessible until July. Instead we have decided to follow a river that goes up to this land and see how far we could get before it became too tough.
We had no map, but desperately needed to know where villages were high up in these mountains. Asking about and some chance meetings over tea and meals we started to piece together a rough map on a scrap of paper. One meeting with a particularly helpful pair of soldiers was very interesting and we asked if they could get us any military maps. It was pushing it a bit in this sensitive area, but they did return with a useful map photographed on their phone which we could look at.
We checked out the shops in the market to work out what supplies we could purchase. It looks like we need to carry stuff for 8 days. How much will that weigh? We thought. How much does our kit weigh? All things we had to work out so we new how many porters to employ. They carry 20kg each. Then there is how much rice and dhal we need to carry for them, plus pots and pans and firewood. More porters for all of that too. Looks like 4 porters will be ok, but it’s all quite a logistical thing to work out
While we are having our lunch, a bowl of thupka, a Tibetan noodle soup, a young monk sat down opposite us. A smiley chap called Sanjay, wearing burgundy robes. The head phones from his smart phone trailing from his Buddhist clothing. He chewed gum, which he discarded through the cafe window when his soup turned up. Sanjay spoke good English, we chatted lots, and he invited us to his monastery. He was 25 years old and had been a monk since the age of 12. He studied now in Kathmandu, the religious art of thanka painting, and had spent time in Bhutan and Assam.
At the monastery he showed us round, the living area, the canteen, and the temple. 200 monks lived here, all young people, quite a few down to the age of five. It was a peaceful, clean, well organised spiritual place. Melodious chanting came from the temple.
Leaving our flip flops on the large steps by the grand entrance, we went into the temple where three large gold Buddhas looked down on us. To each side there were rows of low desk like benches that contained holy books, written in Tibetan script, behind which the monks sat on the floor.
We walked around the grounds, it was the end of the school day and the atmosphere was very relaxed. Children in their robes fooling about, the dormitory area. There was more of a Hogworts feel to the place rather than how you might imagine a monastery to be. We continued to an area of stupas and many prayer flags over looking the wild Brahmaputra river below. We learnt all about the monks daily life from Sanjay, it was fascinating.
We said goodbye to Sanjay at the monastery football pitch as he was keen to get on and play, his football boots were in his bag. He said “monks love playing football” and like the others, hitched up his burgundy robes and got on with the game. We had learnt a lot about the life of youngster monks.
Una our guide, quite a large chap, and not over chatty, seemed to have got some porters for our trip. With a bit of help from the friendly guy at the chai stall Una came up with some quantities of rice dhal vegetables, salt, tea and sugar that were required for himself and the three porters for the 8 days. It was a bit random and we all had to prompt Uno and help him with the amounts. A few other details Uno had overlooked, like the porters needed baskets that they carry on their backs. He seemed to know about the route and where we could camp. He turned up promptly to our meeting and asked only for a reasonable advance of money for porters to purchase umbrellas and gum boots. We are sure it will all work out fine and be a huge adventure, for him as well as us.
We purchased 15kg of rice, 3kg potatoes and 2kg dhal, plus some items for us like noodles, soya chunks, and tinned sardines.
The next morning while waiting for Uno at 6.00am we were chatting with the son of the hotel owner, a biology teacher who spoke very good English. He told us about his father’s fascinating life. He had been abandoned by his parents when he was 6 years old. His parents split up and both remarried, and they just left him to fend for him self. He had to live with the pigs under the stilted houses of other people. He was destitute. Some how he has managed to build up a good business which includes a few shops he rents out, a hotel, and a farm. He has brought up seven children who have all had a good education. Now about 70 years old he has recently finished a four year term as mayor of Tuting, and still advises the local government. He was the first person to have a tractor in the town, which was brought in by aircraft before the road was built. Before the tractor he had brought two bullocks in for ploughing. It was several days of walking and he had to construct a bamboo raft to bring them across the fast moving Brahmaputra river. Amazing how a poor boy of six, starting with absolutely nothing could do all this. His son told the story with such proudness of his dad.
Uno turned up with three Assamese porters and he was carrying a shotgun. We asked what is that for are going to be doing some hunting? Oh no he replied, safety, in case of tiger!”. We packed the baskets with the food and our bike panniers.
The Brahmaputra, that we have been following upstream since Guwahati, now called the Siang, tumbles down from Tibet. We are following a tributary, called the Young Sang, which goes all the way to Pema Shelri, one of the Buddhist sacred sites.
Crossing the Siang on a long suspension bridge, with cracked and missing timber slats, we headed off in thick jungle in the pouring rain. The Young Sang river roared down the steep valley, boiling white water. We climbed on narrow slippery paths through deep jungle. It was different to the cycling, now we were right in the jungle. We were connected to it now, scrambling through it on narrow paths, huge plants with broad gigantic green leaves were towering above us. The river always nearby, and a few smaller rivers and streams in deep steep valleys had to be crossed on poorly maintained suspension bridges, which we edged across slowly. The swirling river foamed below us as we stepped across the missing bridge planks.
We soon realised that Uno was a fantastic guide and knew the jungle like the back of his hand. Our early impressions were completely wrong. Maybe he just wasn’t very confident and didn’t initially come over so well, but his knowledge was amazing and we felt really safe with him. He was also great with sorting out the porters, who were also lovely people. They had come in from Assam to do a stint carrying cement up to Singha village, carrying 50kg sacks, and earning for them good money. They were heading back to Assam, but luckily for us they agreed to come on our trek. They are also from a minority tribal group and can understand some of the local tribal languages.
It rained all day as we pushed on through the jungle, eventual stopping at a chai stall in a village, that had a fire cooking area and a back room where Una and the porters could sleep. We camped next to the tea house. The rain stopped as evening approached and as the clouds swirled away the skyline of snowy mountains could be seen. It was a magnificent sight in the late day light. Clouds swirled in and the view was gone again, only to reappear again moments later. The next day was a long day, walking for 11 hours, crossing many rickety suspension bridges, now they were lined with colourful prayer flags. We passed a couple of Buddhist monasteries. It was hard going climbing up the Young Sang river valley, with many tributary rivers to cross, but at least it was sunny and the views of snowy mountains set against the blue sky were magnificent. We passed through Adis villages and then reached Mishmi villages. Most villages had some Tibetans living there too, signified by colourful prayer flags blowing in the wind above their houses.
Eventually we reached Singha, the last village, with its small Buddhist monastery perched on a hill top and overlooked by the spectacular snow covered, sacred mountain of Riot La. Only a few houses are lived in now as people have left and moved to Tuting. The small village school has closed and the remaining people struggle with the hard life of bringing everything in by foot. A road is gradually being cut up to here, but completetion will still be about five years away. Una’s family house was here so we camped next to it and were able to do cooking on his fire range.
Leaving Singha we were soon in thick jungle where there was barely a path. The route felt different almost immediately, a little used path that the jungle was continually trying to take back. We should have guessed, as the umbrellas that Una and the Assamese porters were carrying were left at Singha and instead they carried machetes. We were now climbing through the jungle, ducking under trees and bamboo. We were following the Young Sang which was now much smaller but still a roaring river running steeply over large boulders, chucking up white water. The going was really tough, either climbing over the boulder strewn river bed or climbing and scrambling up muddy cliff sides, clinging on to roots and rock crags, arms and legs being stung by plants and bitten by insects. Una held out the barrel of his shotgun for me to grab to help over a tricky part. Eight and half hours of scrambling along steep, dangerous valley side took its toll. Then whack, Ganesh, one of the Assamese porters killed a very poisonous snake in our path. As dangerous as a cobra they told us. We had never done anything quite like this before. Physically this was at our limit. Crawling, clambering and scrambling along the jungle river cliffs, hanging onto tree roots, just hoping they would hold, rocks and mud slipping away beneath our feet tumbling through very steep, almost vertical vegetation covered slope down to the river. We were frightened and felt we were relying on a lot of good luck. We were becoming exhausted. There was no real path just a route that had been vaguely cut through the jungle perched dangerously on very steep ground that came straight up from the wild river. We saw no one all day. We felt isolated and worried. If we had a fall we were many days from getting help, and that’s if any help exists in this remote empty corner of India. Majib, one of the Assamese took a fall, nothing too serious, and there was laughter, but it was lucky it was on an easy section. We were worried about the risk they were putting themselves under carrying large loads on this treacherous path. They were not mountain people, this was an alien environment for them too.
We were faced with a dilemma. Una had seen a monkey and respectfully asked us if he could shoot it. He hunts and lives in the forest. He and the porters are working hard carrying our loads and said “only rice and dhal is ok, but monkey is good” It was a tricky one. It is what they do, and we said you must do what you normally do, kind of hoping he might miss! But he was a crack shot, only one cartridge, he got it. There was much excitement and it did do them for four meals.
Eventually we got to a camp close to the river. A timber open sided shelter with fire pit was there. It was an idilic location, forest all around us, and the noise of the river filled the air. We got our tent up and soon realised we were being plagued by leaches, horrible things suckering from one surface to another in a wrigley fashion. We had to adopt a strict search of our bodies, clothing, and trainers, before we got into the tent. They were stuck to the outside the tent and we pulled some off ourselves. Our trainers had many in the tongue and under the laces. It was the last thing we needed when already exhausted.
We still had another five hours of similar trekking to reach the monastery on the edge of the Tibetan sacred land at Anuling. It was a daunting prospect, two days to get up there, and back to this camp and then back down the frightening section we had just done. We reluctantly decided it was better to head back to Singha the next day as it was too much worry hanging over us knowing we had to go back down the terrible route we had just done, and the route up to the monastery would be similar to.
The Assamese porters really appeared to be enjoying the trip as they had never been this far up the river before and hadn’t really lived in the jungle like this. They were out front hacking our route through the jungle with their machetes. We were becoming quite a close group, but always everyone hung onto Uno’s every word.
Machetes are the multi tool here, cutting through the forest, peeling potatoes, cutting a leaf off a banana palm to use as a plate for lunch, splitting vines to make rope, butchering hunted animals, and not such a pleasant sight, Una sitting by the river cutting his toe nails with his machete.
Feeling so much better now we were returning, and really enjoyed the day, appreciated the amazing place we were in, rather than worrying were we going to get back in one piece. It was still the same treacherous route but heading back down felt much better.
The forest was beautiful and dramatic, untouched, and unlike anywhere we had been before. It had been spared the logging companies that have stripped Borneo and Laos, other places we have travelled looking for virgin rainforest. It was largely untouched by man, just a little near villages for their requirements. The Young Sang tore its way down the steep boulder filled river bed. Jungle, a chaotic mix of shapes of dark green with towering trees to the canopy, lined the valley sides.
It’s was a lovely feeling returning to the familiarity of Singha and Una’s house. That night I made bread for everyone. I had been carrying a small sachet of yeast for nearly three months from home, and this was a fitting moment to use it. We drunk some local distilled brew sitting by the fire eating bread and honey. As we lay in our tent next to Una’s house, drifting off to sleep, we could hear Una’s dad doing a Buddhist chant, perhaps a ritual he ends each day with.
We feel privileged to be part of their life living in villages. Seeing how they do their day to day jobs. Like lunch, they carry rice and some potato curry, which they eat off a banana leaf that they cut from the forest. People collecting firewood and tending to the land. Again Una showed his jungle knowledge by removing some tick like bug that had buried itself in my leg.
A very easy pleasant day got us down to the village of Tashigong, set in a picturesque location with good snowy mountain views. Like so many villages here many people have left and abandoned their pretty timber houses on stilts, to live in easier places. We camped in the school, that had closed down a few years ago. Many porters that have come here to carry cement to Singha were also staying in the abandoned buildings.
We woke up to pouring rain and by chance a tractor that had delivered some sand was heading back to Tuting, which would have been a day and half walk. As the weather was so bad and there was no chance of seeing amazing views we decided to hitch a lift sitting in the back of the trailer, with some other porters who had been carrying cement to Singha, and a lady with a baby on her back. The got heavier and we were all getting soaked to the skin. It was cold as we were shaken by the rolling and crashing of the tractor over the very rough track. When we stopped for tea and noodles at the tea stall we had camped at on the first night the fire was a life saver and we warmed up. The tractor slowly made its way lurching and rocking its way through deep water filled ruts towards Tuting. It was very uncomfortable and made walking seem painless. The seven hour journey through towering jungle turned into ten and half gruelling hours as the tractor had problems with fuel, like not enough, and kept getting air locks, which meant we had to keep stopping and dismantling the fuel lines. The driver each time sucking diesel through with his mouth. The trailer also had a serious problem with a loose wheel. The wheel studs wobbled around as the wheel clanked alarmingly, rotating in an unnatural fashion. They had no wheel wrench, and a few attempts with an adjustable spanner made no difference. There were many stops to look at the wheel, but no solution apart from lighting up a cigarette and chewing more pan, which seemed to keep everyone happy. Somehow it made it without sheering off.
vExhausted, damp and sandy from being chucked around in the trailer for so many hours when we arrived at Tuting we made our way to the guest house where were met by the friendly hotel owner’s son who we had been chatting to on the early morning that we left to go trekking. It was great seeing him and he kindly asked us to join his family for supper.
The guest house family house was set in a garden next door. It was a very traditional Adis house with many generations living there. The timber house set on stilts was entered from a long wide shaded veranda that ran the width of the building. A large central space, with an impressive central fire pit, had many rooms leading off it. The floor was wide dark smooth planks that had been polished with years of use. The spotlessly clean smooth timber floor extended to include the veranda, where you left your shoes. There is no furniture apart from small stools made from split bamboo, and like Una’s house everything is done on the floor. The father was making one of these stools as he sat by the fire drinking Apong, a home brewed millet beer. The large square fire hearth had a pot stand for cooking and a multi layered bamboo structure above which served as a drying rack for firewood, and a place to smoke meat and preserve spices. It made for a very warming focal point that we all sat round, drinking Apong, and chatting. The different parts of the family are all living closely together and eat together round the fire. Supper was the usual rice and dhal and vegetables, and also cured smoked pork that was about a year old. It all tasted good and very welcoming after our long day.
It was interesting seeing how their family worked. It was only the men and Helen plus a very old lady relative that ate round the fire. The women and children didn’t seem to eat when we were, and certainly not with us, they just did the cooking and brought the food out. It was also interesting that all family members were expected to work in the paddies preparing and planting the rice crop. The son who was a biology teacher said this was necessary as his father had supported him through education. It’s also handy that the long school holidays that they are on at the moment are set around the times for rice cultivation.
Our Himalayan journey has come to and end now. The hills carry on into Tibet and China, but the border is strictly closed. Our incredible journey with all its memories and intense experiences is now completed.
Before we leave Tuting, a place that we are starting to feel part of, with so many people knowing about us, stopping for chats and asking us how has our trek gone, we wanted to buy some Buddhist prayer flags, and in particular some for Becky and Katy. We had so nearly reached the sacred land and this seemed like a nice memento for our four thousand kilometre journey. It was something special to take home with us. Outside the shop a team of ladies were digging a ditch alongside the road. It was a Buddhist women’s group that do some road work and the money they earn they give to the needy through the monastery. They were a feisty lot wielding their sledge hammers and spades.
We chatted a lot with the two sisters that ran the shop selling Buddhist items and chinaware from Tibet, while drinking tea. They sweetly insisted on giving us a miniature set of prayer flags to go on the front of our tandem. We will remember their kindness.
We must now start the long journey back to Delhi, transporting our bike all the way. We will travel in trucks, buses and trains, taking many days.