Deep in the Eastern Himalayas, sitting on fallen logs around flickering firelight, the banana blossoms taste exquisite.
I’ve never tried the flowers of this fruit before. I watch as Tokmin, one of our porters, first chops the tender florets from the vivid purple bud and then pushes them inside a freshly cut tube of bamboo, which he places into the flames. Once cooked, we eat the blooms with rice, sardines and steaming daal — all served on huge jungle leaves, with a splash of chilli.
Together with my husband, Mark, and two children, Zac, 11, and Archie, nine, we’re exploring the eastern half of Arunachal Pradesh, a state tucked up in the furthest corner of India’s northeast.
We’re trekking through thick forest to Pekimodi, a remote village far from any road. Arunachal Pradesh has India’s second-largest forest cover and remains one of the world’s last unexplored wildernesses, with vast tracts of jungle-jacketed mountains where clouded leopards and red pandas roam.
It’s a land of shamans, spirits and stories of yetis. And although it’s India’s least densely populated state, it’s also one of the most culturally diverse, with 26 tribal groups. The name in Sanskrit means ‘land of the dawn-lit mountains’ because every morning Arunachal Pradesh welcomes India’s first sunrise.
Dawning: Kate Eshelby and her family embark on a guided tour of Arunachal Pradesh, a state in the furthest corner of India’s northeast. Above is a valley near the town of Ziro, which is the family’s first stop
For a month we’re travelling with our guide, Tahul, and, for this trek, with three local porters, Pokrin, Orin and Tokmin. Their leathery, homemade backpacks, crafted from palm leaves, look like carapaces, and despite wearing only plastic slip-on shoes, they move nimbly on the steep paths. Our sons delight in watching them dash into the emerald undergrowth to carve a walking stick, or slice bamboo into rope.
Arunachal Pradesh varies in altitude, so the landscape is ever-changing. Lofty alpine meadows step into a range of temperate, subtropical and cloud forests, so there’s a rich biodiversity. It’s a paradise for plant hunters who come for the blazes of rhododendrons, blue poppies and peonies.
Epiphytes such as ferns and orchids abound — and Zac and Archie love running into the waterfalls which plunge through the greenery. After two days of climbing, we near the village. Will-o’-the-wisp mist floats over the valleys, making the mountain-tops seem like islands in the sky.
I’m a little nervous as we cross a handmade, bamboo hanging bridge — it swings high over a raging river. There’s a final ascent before a cluster of thatched houses appears, gazing out over snow-armoured peaks. Pekimodi, with its population of about 40, has no electricity or phone reception. It has a tiny school, but no teacher. ‘It’s far away so no one wants to work here,’ says Pokrin, who was born here.
We mount the wooden steps into his parent’s stilted house, where we spend the night. Sitting on low stools around a hearth, I listen to the popping sound as his mother makes popcorn. Several villagers join us — foreigners are rare. They tell us how they caught an Asian golden cat and sometimes hunt Mishmi takin (goat-antelopes).
At the start of the trek, we see the beginnings of a road slowly being built to the village. I feel sad watching the diggers destroy the jungle. ‘Medical evacuations are hard and so is carrying 30kg of things, up and down mountains, every day from Mariyang, the nearest town,’ Tahul says.
Previously, the Government has focused its coffers on more populous states, only turning its attention to regions like Arunachal Pradesh when it wanted to counter the threat of bordering China.
Now, infrastructure is fast increasing, but with little environmental sensitivity, despite it being a state prone to earthquakes and landslides. For tourists like us, Arunachal Pradesh remains an overlooked part of India.
A Buddha statue looks out over Tawang, a town in the west of the state that follows Tibetan Buddhism
Off the beaten track: ‘For tourists like us, Arunachal Pradesh remains an overlooked part of India,’ says Kate
Few tour operators come here. October to March is the best time to visit for avoiding the rains, but June and July are when most of the flowers bloom. We’re with Abor Country Travels, the state’s pioneer of tourism. But other small companies are noticing the enormous potential, including East Quest, newly set up by a man, Avijit, whom I met years before, when he was the lead guide at a tiger reserve.
Now, with his knowledge as a naturalist, Avijit wants to show tourists the region’s beauty. ‘I work with local guides, so they can use their tracking skills to show the animals to guests instead of hunting them,’ he says.
We had flown into the state’s only big city, Itanagar, from Kolkata. Its history and impenetrable geography have maintained a mystique around Arunachal Pradesh. The British Raj drew an imaginary ‘inner line’, beyond which no one could pass, to protect their tea plantations. Arunachal Pradesh remains a restricted area, so permits are required (though easily obtained).
The state feels entirely separate. Many of the people worship the sun and moon, following Donyi-Polo, their animist religion, which exists here and in neighbouring Assam. The west of the state, around Tawang, follows Tibetan Buddhism, and has the world’s second biggest Buddhist monastery.
Our first stop is Ziro village, a three-hour drive from Itanagar. At View Point Homestay, overlooking terraced rice paddies, we drink delicious, homemade kiwi wine, brewed from the orchards.
Kate reveals that Tawang has the world’s second-biggest Buddhist monastery (pictured above)
Above is Kate with her family, their guide Tahul and their driver Sanjeev
The state almost always seems to be enjoying a festival somewhere; each tribe has its own celebrations. We’re in Ziro for Myoko, a festival about bolstering clan ties, celebrated by the Apatani tribe.
Most of the village’s wooden homes fly flags, each sporting a red sun, the symbol of Donyi-Polo. The older Apatani women still wear large, wooden discs in their noses, but this tradition has stopped among the young. Myoko is led by shamans who don wigs of long, black hair, tied into top knots. I observe one, dressed in blue wellies and a bandolier of tiger teeth, as he jumps in the mud to scare away bad spirits, before divining omens from a sacrificed chicken’s liver.
Later, under sacred peach trees, many pigs are sacrificed to the Apatani’s ancestors. This is followed by much feasting and carousing, with every home flinging open its doors, while our boys play football outside with local Apatani children. Next, we drive further east, along hairpin roads.
Kate flies into Arunachal Pradesh’s only big city, Itanagar, from Kolkata where she stayed at Glenburn Penthouse (pictured)
Abor Country Travels (aborcountrytravels.com) and East Quest (eastquest.travel; firstname.lastname@example.org) provide tailor-made trips, from £3,500 per family of four for a week. This includes a guide, all accommodation and meals, a car and driver, and flights from Kolkata to Itanagar. Flights cost from £600pp direct to Kolkata (flightcentre.co.uk). In Kolkata, Kate stayed at Glenburn Penthouse (glenburnpenthouse.com).
On the way we spend time in a traditional stilted longhouse — many of these seem to almost hang over the mountain edges. Home to five families, it’s like a flame-lit tunnel, with a line of five centralised fireplaces. One man wears a cane cap topped with a hornbill’s casqued beak, the Nyishi tribe’s ancestral headgear.
Nowadays — thanks to a community conservation initiative to protect the birds — the beaks are made from wood.
Next is Abor Country River Camp, where we sleep in a spacious safari tent, set up on a wooden platform overlooking the Siang River. One afternoon the camp organises for us to raft along a tamer stretch of the river, past wild, white-blond beaches hidden in the jungle.
Our final destination is Dibang Valley, where bird’s nest ferns climb the trees; we hear the cries of hoolock gibbons; and swim in mountain lakes. We stay in the little town of Anini, home to the Idu Mishmi tribe.
Early one evening, Aito, our host at Aito Miwu homestay, takes us to a pioneering project — a small, local shaman school.
‘Shamans are the heart of our culture, the messengers between our human and spiritual world,’ Aito says. ‘Yet youngsters no longer want to go into this profession.’ Inside, teenagers are chanting with their teacher, Sipa Melo. It’s mesmerising.
Back at the homestay, we sit on the bamboo-slatted floor talking to the family. We learn that tigers live in these high forests, so the Government wants to create a reserve — something the locals oppose.
‘This will cut us off from our forest, which we depend on,’ Aito says. ‘We already have a reserve by culture. According to Idu Mishmi mythology, tigers are our siblings and killing them is taboo.’
That night Zac, our eldest, turns to me before sleep. He’s loved being Ray Mears in the forest, and dreams of returning to teach in the school at Pekimodi.
‘Do you think this jungle will still be here when I’m older?’ he asks.
We can only pray that it will.