Arunachal Pradesh, India

By Amar Dev Singh 31 August 2016
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These adventurers searching for the unexplored source of a river in the Eastern Himalaya get more than they bargained for.

BEYUL, OR HIDDEN valleys, are believed to be pockets of paradise in remote parts of the Himalayas. Legend has it that these are places of peace and refuge from the outside world, protected by dangerous terrain and ferocious guardians. Some beyul are well known, some are even inhabited, while others are secret, only occasionally visited by spiritual seekers and adventurers.

Recently we had the privilege of finding one such secret beyul in the remote Eastern Himalaya.

The first humans

We sprinted up a steep vegetated hillside; pulling heavily on branches and grabbing at tree trunks. I gasped at the thin air at nearly 4000m above sea level. My heart pounded wildly and my head felt like it was going to explode. I stopped every few minutes and doubled over, wheezing for air. We had only one hour to make it to a place that no one had ever seen before. And we had only one chance at this, as both time and our supplies were running out.

Huge spruce and fir trees towered over us, their branches drooping, heavily laden with moss and dripping with long tendrils of old man’s beard. My boots sank into the ground, soft as a mattress, covered with a deep layer of moss. I swung my machete at the thickets or rhododendron to hack a path through the dense undergrowth. There were no tracks here. There was no record of anyone ever venturing this deep into this part of the mountains.

Eastern Himalaya

We were following a river to its source, deep in a remote corner of the Eastern Himalaya in Arunachal Pradesh. Unlike the well-trodden trails of Nepal and the Western Himalaya, the mountains of Arunachal are largely unexplored. We crisscrossed the river a number of times before reaching the final obstacle in our path – a series of waterfalls.

We clamoured over the lip of the final waterfall and could finally see the river’s source, a lake, in the distance. It had taken years of planning and now I was finally there. I practically sprinted the final 20m to the shores of the lake and stood, hands on my hips, gasping for breath by the pristine shores.

Steep mountainsides swept up from the lake edge to unnamed 6000m summits. The lake was like an emerald jewel set in granite, its clear placid waters dropping away steeply into dark unfathomed depths. I could see across to the far side where the glaciated valley climbed steadily leading to the border with Myanmar.

I felt a rush of pleasure as I took a moment to realise: we were the first humans to have the privilege to stand at this enchanted place.

Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to spare. We had four hours of daylight and as much time to trek back to camp through trackless forest. I took one final glance before bounding off across the boulders to rejoin my companions.

A dangerous journey

I won’t reveal the exact location of this beyul so that it may lie undisturbed til the next group of seekers rediscovers it, suffice to say that journey there was a long and somewhat dangerous one.

Our Secret Compass team had flown in from all over the world on a warm October evening in Delhi. While we were from very varied professional backgrounds: IT specialist, financial analyst, ex-soldier, mining electrician etc., we shared the one thing that had brought us together: a quest for adventure.

We caught a flight to the northeast region of India, then boarded a couple of four-wheel drives and hit the road. It was the tail end of the monsoon and heavy grey clouds darkened the skies. The air was muggy and thick.

Eastern Himalaya

Our heavily laden vehicles drove at breakneck speed through small towns and villages, swerving wildly to avoid cows, chickens, goats, cyclists, trucks and all manner of potentially deadly obstacles. The driver grinned broadly, displaying his betel nut-red teeth, as we oohed and ahhed in terror at the near misses.

On the second day we drove more than 10 hours till we reached the trailhead near the Chinese border. It was late in the evening and already dark. We unloaded our gear and stacked our bags in an empty room of a half-finished guesthouse.

In the morning the people from the local village turned up to offer their services as porters. Sorry, did I say offer? They demanded that we employ them for twice the regular rate. The negotiations started off very aggressively. They shouted their demands, gesticulating wildly with their arms.

The shouting and negotiations continued late into the afternoon. We weren’t getting anywhere. Eventually I agreed to the outrageous terms and we shouldered our packs and filed down the trail.

The trek started in a deep gorge; its steep slopes were covered in thick subtropical jungle draped in vines and the roar of the river echoed off granite cliffs. The track petered out into a faint game trail used by the occasional local hunter. We scrambled over broken ground, sometimes dropping down to the rounded boulders along the river and then climbing into the thick jungle on the hillsides and along the tops of vegetated cliffs.

Eastern Himalaya

The route crisscrossed the valley a number of times and we had to cross the wild river on some of the sketchiest bridges I have ever seen. They were crude constructions made either of single logs or a couple of bamboos lashed together with vines, which flexed and wobbled under our weight.

Later that afternoon we had made it to a suitable campsite – a sandy spot between some large river boulders that was the only flat spot in this narrow valley.

We rose with the sun the next morning, packed quickly and, after a breakfast of sweetened porridge and cups of chai, entered the jungle once again. The route was much the same as the day before: tough going through sections of jungle, then down to the boulders along the river, then scrambling up steep sections of exposed roots and rocks.

Over the next few days we continued to hack our way through the jungle following the river through a variety of vegetation belts as we climbed higher into the mountains. Tall spruce and fir trees replaced the broad-leafed trees of the lower reaches. Most noticeable was the absence of vines, which had become the bane of our existence, tangling on our gear and pulling us back.

The river, a constant companion, roared by our side; rapids gave way to waterfalls as the terrain steepened. The trekking varied between grades of difficult, serious and deadly. We waded through waist-high ferns, often having to crawl under or clamour over fallen trees.

Eastern Himalaya

While sorting through the supplies and reordering loads at camp everyday we discovered that the porters had been indulging in wholesale theft of our supplies. By the fifth day it was obvious that the porters had stolen so much food that they had almost compromised the expedition. They had eaten through all their supplies and had then stolen nearly a week’s supply of food from our bags. I divided the remaining supplies into loads and retained only five of the porters and sent the rest back down the valley with all nonessential equipment. We had about another week’s worth of food; just enough to get us to the source of the river and back.

We climbed through pine forest with dense undergrowth of bamboo and stunted rhododendron trees. At 3500m the valley flattened out and broadened into a textbook u-shaped glaciated valley. It was great to have a broad expanse of sky above our heads after the days spent in the claustrophobic confines of the gorge and jungle.

We were out of the trees but the struggle was far from over. The forest continued all the way to nearly 4000m, now broken into thickets interspersed with large spaces of dense undergrowth. The river, now considerably smaller, was strangely silent as it meandered its way through the broad flat valley.

After only a few hours, we set up camp and had the afternoon off. It was a good opportunity to let our bodies acclimatise.

The final push

We rose early the next morning as we aimed to make our way to the source of the river at around 3700m and make it back to camp before dark. It was a lot easier travelling light but the virgin jungle was much more dense.

By around lunchtime we still hadn’t reached the source, which I calculated to be only six kilometres from camp. The dense undergrowth had impeded our progress and route finding was very difficult. My GPS indicated that we were only a kilometre away from the source and by my estimates we only had an hour to spare. We made a decision to travel as fast as possible and turn around in exactly an hour, whether we made it or not. We synchronised our watches and tore off up the mountain, finally reaching the source of the river and revelling momentarily in the sight of the lake before we had to turn around.

Eastern Himalaya

We made it back to camp just as night was falling. The cook had a roaring campfire and a hot meal waiting. Bellies full, we stared in silence at the flames til late in the night.
After a solid night’s sleep we woke to a snow-blanketed landscape; heavy clouds and mist hung low in the valley. The porters started to pack the camp without asking us. I was puzzled as we were planning to stay for at least another day. They just snapped at me and said they were off down the valley to a lower camp. After much argument I had no choice but to agree to head back with them.

I fixed a meeting place and told them to go ahead. Maila Chetri, one of the porters, stayed behind with us. We hurriedly packed our gear and followed in their footsteps. After a few hours of trekking through the snow we made it to the waterfall and down to the campsite, cold, wet and hungry. This was where we were supposed to meet our porters, but there was no sign of them.

We pushed on to the next campsite but still there was no sign of the porters. They had abandoned us; taken off with all our food and kitchen gear. We were four-day’s walk away from civilisation and all we had in the way of food were the trail snacks we carried in our packs.

We were fortunate that Maila had stayed behind with us. I unzipped his bag and found, to my immense relief, a couple of bags of pasta, an assortment of muesli bars and a few packets of soup. That, coupled with our personal trail snacks, would hopefully be enough to make it back.

We wolfed down some muesli bars and headed down the valley. The forest and the mountains, whose majesty we had revered on the trek in, now loomed over us like a predator watching our every move, waiting for us to make just one mistake.

The next day, a few hours into our hike down the valley, we spotted a couple of figures along the riverbank far in the distance. They were from another village further down the valley and explained that they were looking for a hunter who was lost in the forest. They said they had seen our porters a day earlier, and that we were most welcome to join them at their campsite a couple of hour’s hike downstream.

When we arrived at their campsite, they very generously presented us with a two-kilo bag of rice and refused to accept any payment for it. We gifted them a torch in exchange. It was good to be in the company of friendly, hospitable people.
The next morning we bade farewell to our hosts and marched off into the jungle; spurred on by the thought that we’d be sipping a beer by the evening.

We hacked our way out of the gorge just as the sun was setting. Elated to be out of the jungle and back on easy ground, we bonded for a bit of backslapping and posed for photos. Everyone profusely thanked Maila for sticking by our side.

We pounded out the last kilometres along a village track to the trailhead. I couldn’t wait to get the pack off my shoulders and savour an ice-cold beer; sometimes dreams do come true!

The essentials

Getting there: While there are no flights to the capital Itanagar, regular flights from major Indian cities fly into the airports in the neighboring state of Assam at Guwahati, There is a helicopter service from Guwahati to destinations in Arunachal.

The adventure: The author led this pioneering expedition for Secret Compass, a company dedicated to operating expeditions to some of the most remote regions on Earth.