Where lies the border between “impossible” and “crazy difficult”? Where is the point, where one should start thinking about surrendering and say – “it is too much for me”? Before and during our journey, we had a lot of adventures – most of them being rather “under control” and relatively well planned. Even though some of our adventures might be described as “pro”, we never really risked much.
While cycling in Arunachal Pradesh we felt a deep need for a big, advanced adventure, involving a bit of exploration and pushing our bodies to the limit. Arunachal seemed to be perfect for that – it is the least explored state of India, and there are pretty large parts of the state never visited by Westerners. On the way back from Tawang, going towards Ziro Valley, we realized, that there might be a nice option for us – a kind of an alternative way, only partly marked on the maps. We discovered that in the town of Seppa, instead of going South (main road), we could take the road leading North, towards the Himalayas (again). When checking Google Maps (please, please – click on the map to enlarge it and understand what we are writing about) we understood, that the road ends in the village of Chayangtajo. There was a section of the road, leading towards Palin and further down to Ziro, on the other side of the jungle, not more than 20 kilometres across the jungle. We assumed that there must be a path leading from Chayangtajo to the other side – 20 kilometers is not a big distance and while checking the satellite images, we could see some rice fields even closer to Chayangtajo than the road that is marked on the map.
So, even though we had only half of our permit left, we decided to give it a try and from Seppa we went up North, towards the unknown.
Many people warned us about Seppa – “don’t go there, it is a wild place”. “People wear strange hats there, they tie their hair on top of their forehead and they are rude” – we were told many times in the villages even hundreds kilometers away from Seppa. The reality was partly true – people were very direct, but far from aggressive. They indeed had their hair tied in an interesting way and were kind of proud of that. Seppa was a great town to visit – inhabited mostly by the Nishi tribe, the dominant tribe of Arunachal; a bit rough, but a perfect start for our adventure.
We saw a lot of men wearing the traditional head cover – “biopa”, a kind of a cap made out of cane, decorated with a hornbill’s beak in the past (now a wooden mock version) and birds feathers.
Immediately after arriving in this part of Arunachal we felt that it is not the number one place for Western tourists to visit – the locals were extremely curious and direct, greeting us with a smile.
All the way to Chayangtajo (2 days) we had nice meetings with the locals, dressed in their traditional clothes and living a traditional lifestyle.
Right before Chayangtajo we could see snowy peaks on the horizon. This part of Arunachal, even though covered by the thick jungle, can get pretty cold in the winter time.
We had a plan of getting some decent information in Chayangtajo about the possibility to cross the hills. We hoped to meet the head Officer of the village or the Chief Architect or whatever their title was; we needed to know if it would be possible to cross the jungle with the bicycles. We knew that there was one governmental guesthouse in the village and some offices of the officials, but we found Chayangtajo abandoned by all the governmental employees (including the teachers of the local school). The only person who could speak some English was a 12 years old boy! We stayed 2 nights in the guesthouse (Mat had some stomach problems) and asked the locals (using body language) about the jungle path. We learned that there is a village called Pasang on the other side, and that local hunters and porters need one day to reach it. We also learned, that the government started to build the road leading to the other side. That were great news for us! We did not know how much of the road had been already built, but even 2-3 kilometers would be nice!
Nobody could explain us how the road to Passang looked like, and what exactly we could expect from the path. The only map we had, was a pre-loaded Google Map, Open Street Cycle Map (with contour lines with the altitude) and a bit of satellite images from Google (looking like a green crepe paper). Not much, but better than nothing. We could neither connect to the Internet (our sim card did not work in Arunachal Pradesh) nor charge our batteries (no electricity in the village). Thanks to our solar panel we left the village with 2 of 3 smartphone batteries charged.
We bought as much food as there was available in the local shops – we hoped to get some decent provisions, at least peanuts and good snacks, but we only found powder milk, instant noodles and some biscuits. We assumed, that if local hunters and porters need one day through the jungle, we would need maximum 2 days to push our bikes over the 20 kilometres stretch, so we bought enough food for 3 days of adventure. We left Chayangtajo early in the morning, following the yet-to-be road to Passang.
The section of the road we counted on was shorter than we assumed – only 4 kilometers. At the end of it we met a crew of workers digging the road. We asked about the road to Passang, but we could not get any clear information. They pointed towards the digger, so Mat went to check the route – there was a narrow path leading East – enough to assume, that this is the way to Passang.
We used to check our position on the GPS (we use OSMand app with CycleMaps) every now and then, just to be sure that the path leads towards Passang. There are no routes marked on the maps available on the internet, so we had to trust the contour lines. For the first 4 hours it made a lot of sense. Plus – we could cycle short sections from time to time.
The path was narrow, but pretty dry, with not so many obstacles. The biggest problem for us were the gigantic ticks – we had to make tick-breaks every 20 minutes to check our skin!
Two hours before the sunset we realized, that we might had followed the wrong way! The path suddenly turned South and we started to go down. When we were sure that we are on the wrong trail, it was too late – going back to Chayangtajo would take us six hours. Two local girls passed us by when we were descending, and that made us sure, that there must be a village on the bottom of the downhill. (According to the people of Chayangtajo there should not be any village along the way to Passang…)
We were correct: what you can see on the picture below is Tamak Salong – a small settlement in the middle of the jungle.
We were not very happy when we realized, that we made a mistake. We had very little food (to save the weight) and we were not prepared for an additional day in the jungle. However, we decided to stay positive and keep our fingers crossed. At the moment of entering the village, we were spotted by a local English teacher (working in Chayangtajo) who encouraged us to stay in the house of his friend and continue the next day – as it was already getting dark.
We could not be more lucky! Bima was the first person we met in this area who could speak decent English! He explained us our position – due to the road construction, the path to Passang is partly covered by fresh soil, so we missed the turn and instead of going North-East towards Passang, we went East, and later South. Bima explained us, that we can still continue our traverse and take a path leading from Tamak Salong towards Passang, but it would be a very difficult climb for us with the bikes and all our equipment. By taking the wrong turn, we went down from 1900m to 1400m, so we would have to gain the altitude once again.
We decided not to go back to Chayangtajo and try the alternative path after the night spent in the bamboo house of the local family.
We had a fantastic evening there! We were served boiled rice and vegetables, and a huge cup of apong – local, homemade alcohol. Bima told us, that we were the first visitors in the village! There was one anthropologist in the area some years ago, but he never ventured to Tamak Salong. What is more, the people told us that they have never seen a bicycle in their life.
On the next day there was supposed to be a festival – so the people of the village gathered in the house of our hosts to practice a traditional dance! How lucky we were – sitting there with friendly locals, drinking rice wine, watching the dance and listening to the women singing!
As we learned from our friend, people of that village (and other small villages around) belong to a sub-tribe of the Nishi tribe called Salok. Their language is completely different from the local languages (it is tonal), and the scientists can not completely agree where their ancestors came from. We know that before they started to cultivate rice, they used to hunt and gather the plants from the jungle (they still do) and eat “rangbang” a kind of a starchy pulp made out of a boiled tree bark (!) – they cooked it for us and it was delicious! Before going to bed Bima translated what the head of the family tried to tell us: “You are most welcomed in our house and in our village, were are very happy to have you with us and in case of an enemy coming we will protect you with our knives”
We slept at the place reserved for guests just next to the fire (people keep the fire burning in the middle of the common room), together with the entire family. The next day we had breakfast together, and said goodbye to our hosts!
Our friend drew a map for us and wished us all the best! Some of the people followed us for the first hour, helping us to get over the obstacles.
To get to the same altitude (from the day before) we had to climb some extremely steep slopes for the first 5 hours. It was impossible to do it with all the luggage, so we had to do it piece by piece. First the unloaded bikes, next the luggage. On the steepest sections 2 of us had to push one bike! (Reminded us a lot of our adventure in Zanskar)
Our speed was less than 1 kilometer per hour! It was so difficult…
The path is used by the local hunters, and since they walk only with their rifles (and not with the heavy backpacks), the trail is not very well maintained. We had to carry the bikes over or under the fallen trees almost every 10 minutes!
During the entire day, we did not meet a single person on the trail, we spotted only several bird traps – a sign of human presence in this area. We checked our position from time to time and it was not helping us much – we knew that we are moving way too slow. We had been working hard the whole day, from 7am to 5pm, with almost no breaks, running only on sacks and we only moved 3 kilometers!
Finding a flat place took us an hour and we started to prepare the place for our tent when it was already dark. The tent barely fit between the trees, that’s how thick the jungle was!
In the morning we got up at 5am and continued the ascend. The night was very cold (around zero Celsius). We were walking towards the ridge – we knew that after the ridge there would be a stream that we should follow to get to Passang. We had a great view at the Himalayas in the morning – gives you even more energy than the best coffee!
The section of the path before the ridge (2200m) was in fact a stream. We were out of water at that time, so we collected a bit of it using a piece of bamboo (Ray Mears style). It took some time to fill up the bottles but we got fresh and tasty drinking water.
The path was so steep, that we could barely climb it empty handed! We had to climb it 4 times (2 bikes and the luggage), so a 200m section took us 2 hours!
We hoped to get a nice and dry path on the other side… What awaited us was even worse that what we had so far! Dense jungle, overgrown, damp trail and a lot of boulders!
Some parts of the route were literally a stream. Many times we had to slide down the rocks, holding to our bikes!
It was very difficult to take good pictures out there – the humidity was too high and there was almost no sunlight reaching the bottom of the forest!
We really hoped to find a good path, where we could at least push our bikes unobstructed, but nothing like that happened! After the route flattened a bit, the stream got bigger and bigger. During that day (3rd day) we had to cross the stream at least 40 times, since the trail was once going on its left, and once on its right side.
Finding a place for the night was again – not easy. Anna had to spend an hour cleaning the ground from the plants. We camped at the place, where our path joined the Chayangtajo trail (the one we should had taken at the first place). We hoped to be in this spot 2 days earlier!
New day – new hopes. We counted on a wider trail – as it was supposed to be the only way joining Chayang Tajo and Passang. Instead, again a narrow path with hundreds of fallen trees, holes covered by plants and mud – tons of mud!
One of the small mistakes we made, was trying to keep our shoes dry at the beginning of the stream. We have lost quite a lot of time by not walking right into the water but hopping from stone to stone.
On the fourth morning we met a group of hunters, that told us (with body language) that we were 4-5 hours from Passang.
We decided to have a break, eat some lunch and check our position before deciding how to proceed further. We had to charge the batteries of our phone, which is not easy in the jungle, oh no! The only spots of sunshine were in the middle of the river (pretty wide at that point).
When we finally got the fix on our GPS, we realized, that we were still very far away from our destination! We were not sure where Passang is (it was not marked on our map), but from what we could see on the map (contour lines) we knew that we are at least 6 kilometers from it. Meaning – 2 full days of pushing and carrying our gear, maybe even more! We were running out of food, we had no chance to charge the batteries for our headlamps and our days of the permit were running.
We made the decision to leave our bikes in the jungle, take all our luggage and walk to Passang! It was now the matter of just making it to the other side and getting food. We locked our bikes with our Kryptonite cable lock, packed the backpacks and panniers and started walking.
Each of us had a 40l backpack loaded to the full and one pannier (plus camera bag for Mat), more than 50kg distributed between us two! We were much faster this way, but not super fast. It felt like a military training, or a parkour from a nightmare!
After 6 hours, we reached the first house. It was dark already, for the last 2 hours we had been walking through the jungle with our headlamps. We were explained by the locals, that it is still an hour to Passang, and since we were so tired and had only 200g of powder milk left, we decided to put up our tent and wait until the next morning.
In the morning we packed our things and started walking towards Passang. We stumbled upon sections of the road under construction and people digging through the slopes. Apparently, on that side the road to Chayangtajo was being built entirely by hand!
Approching Passang was a huge relief! We could see the houses on the hills and the road in a distance! We had finally made it!
We were advised by Bima in Tamak Salong, that we should find his niece, who could speak some English and ask her to help us in case of troubles. We could not find her, since she was away, but we were contacted by a local Hindi teacher – Doni. We stayed in his house (in the kitchen), where we could rest a bit after 4 days in the jungle.
We still had our bikes out there in the forest, and we knew that it would not be easy to bring them back. We had to make a plan.
Passang happened to be a very basic place, with no electricity, no shops and abandoned governmental offices. Most of the locals were employed to build the road to Chayangtajo.
We knew, that the only way to get the bikes back quickly would be to ask the community for help. We needed 2 or 3 strong helpers, who could go with us to the jungle early in the morning and get the bikes back. Unfortunately, all strong people were involved in the road construction, so finding the porters was quite hard. Luckily Doni helped us to ask two experienced hunters to go with us into the jungle.
So – we had it all planned! We wanted to start the recovery mission early in the morning the next day. At the afternoon dark clouds started to gather, and by the sunset it was pouring with rain! It stopped around 4am, just two hours before our departure. That meant – walking in the mud, climbing super slippery slopes!
To our surprise, the porters arrived a bit unprepared – they had no food with them, no water, wearing only basic shoes. They did not look particularly strong either. And they were late!
Soon after we started our march through the jungle, we realized how wrong we were not trusting their power. They were super fast and agile on the muddy path, literally running through the jungle!
Getting to the bikes took us 3 hours and 20 minutes (we needed more than 8 hours to make it with the backpacks 2 days before). We had to cross the stream ten times – this time going right through the water, not waisting the time on stone hopping.
When we finally saw our bikes standing there in the middle of the green bushes, we were happy and relieved – they were still there! After a closer inspection we discovered, that somebody tried to steal them when we were away! The lock mechanism was clogged with a twig and there were marks on the cable – the thief tried to cut it with the machete! Luckily the Kryptonite Flex lock turned out to be strong enough to withstand a machete attack! Opening the lock with the key was impossible, so if we would not have the S&S couplings installed on our frames, the bikes would still be there today!
We dismantled the bicycles and let our porters prepare the load to be carried through the forest. They made slings out of fresh bamboo and used them to place the load on their backs and suspend it on the forehead. We strapped the platforms and front wheels to our backpacks that we filled up with saddles and some other equipment. Walking back to Passang took us 4 hours.
Tired and completely soaked due to the wet trail , we could finally relax! Our bikes (and us) were safe!
To understand a bit more how hard it was for us, click on this map:
We spent one more night in Doni’s house and in the morning, together with our porters, continued towards the place, where the road starts (Sango). We wanted to be on the road as soon as possible (permit).
Crossing the jungle with the bikes was for sure the most difficult adventure we have ever had. The remoteness of the location, lack of information about the trail and a very difficult terrain made it extremely hard. Nevertheless, we were very happy to do this – we were in the places never visited by a Westerner, and we did it with the bicycles! Yes, we risked a bit, but isn’t a bit of uncertainty involved in every adventure?
Now, after a while, we can definitely say that it was the best thing we had done during our stay in the North East of India!