Menchuka means medicinal water of snow. I am tempted to interpret it as divine land in the lap of snow. Pristine and untouched, vouched for by the lack of good roads leading to it.In fact, every stone that juts out on the path, making it an extremely bumpy drive leading to this slice of heaven, is proof that man’s greedy eyes have only just begun to settle on it.Hills, mountains, rivers, valleys, and…hold your breath, quaint and exotic wooden and bamboo bridges – you name it and you have it by the dozen. Variety of flora that you could lose count of, each more exotic than the other.
Well, what or where is this Menchuka?
It is a small valley town nestled 6000feet above sea level in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, the land touched by the first rays of the sun! For fact collectors, it is considered the last village before the McMahon Line dividing India and China. Beyond Yorlong, civilians are not allowed and the area is patrolled by the 13Kumaon Regiment. While visiting the town, it is worthwhile visiting this place and saluting the soldiers, who have traded the comfort and security of family life, for this perilous vigil so that you and I sleep in peace…
One gets to this place, first by reaching Dibrugarh in Assam, then ferrying across the mighty Brahmaputra river from BhogibeelGhat, and thence toPasighat, Arunachal Pradesh by road. The ferry experience is no ordinary one. Along with us, our SUV vehicles are also loaded on the ferry and carried across the river. Hats off to our young and incredibly brave and talented drivers!
Pasighat is the headquarters of East Siang district. Its around 150m above sea level and from here starts the ascent to Aalo or Along. The roads are bone rattlingly bumpy but the scenic beauty takes your breath away. You almost forget the physical discomfort when you feast your eyes on the ethereal surroundings.
Wild banana trees, growing in such profusion with the purple flowers that we normally see, along with orange and pink flowers which we never knew existed. Of course, there are all varieties of bamboos and pines too. And sooo many other plants and wild flowers that you could spend a lifetime studying them. Arunachal is home to the exquisite orchids and to see them casually blooming in the wild, one feels as if they are teasing you! And throughout the course, we follow the Siang River. Siang is formed by the confluence of Yomgo(China) and Siyom(Tibet). Siyom flows through Menchuka and as we drive towards Aalo from Menchuka, we see the sangam of the green Siyom and the blue Yomgo to form the Siang. Just for information, Siang is joined by Lohit and Dibang to form the Brahmaputra! So Brahmaputra enters India from Arunachal Pradesh. The route is not exactly teeming with eating joints but the few and far between ones are located at very scenic spots. We stopped at one near an incredibly tall waterfall and had the tastiest Maggi for lunch. You get dal roti too.
The most preferred form of accommodation is Homestays in Aalo and probably the only form currently available in Menchuka.
A visit to the tribal villages in Aalo was an eye opening experience. The architecture of villages in mountains is very different from those in plains.
Levelling is of prime importance here. Hence all houses are built on stilts. Bamboo and palm leaves are the main ingredients. The huts, are basic, need based, neat, practical, and look deceptively fragile. But, these are very sturdy and have stood the test of time. No frills, no cluttering. It leads one to wonder, who taught these simple people physics, maths, and engineering that they built such scientifically sound structures? Its ironical that long long back, when there was no organized form of education as we know it today, man probably knew more about nature, .. and himself. These simple people teach you the most profound lesson that, all that there is to be known, lies within us.
Another bumpy drive takes you down to a valley and you rub your eyes and pinch yourself to believe it’s real. It is…..Menchuka…
The homestay here isGebo’s Lodge. I think that’s the best part of the trip. This living with the inmates, sitting in their kitchen, watching them go about their daily chores, while the lady of the house cooks meals, giving us an update about the latest gossip, chiding her husband, admonishing her kids….What better way to get the real feel of this place and see the lifestyle of the people?
I can still taste the thukpa(their khichri),momos(the lady taught us and we prepared them!) and butter chai(with salt)served around a fireplace with such simplicity that it at once warms the mouth and the heart.
Actually, the area south of the McMahon Line, now officially part of India, was inhabited by Tibetans. Hence, the cuisine. Rice beer brewed from rice and millet is the favourite alcoholic drink here. Customs and traditions have been developed that enable the people to adjust to nature and revere it, rather than manipulate and destroy it.
Even birds chirp and tweet contentedly and nod their deep satisfaction to belong where man and mountain are at peace with each other.
The local religion is DonyiPolo (Sun-Moon), which is heavily influenced by Hinduism, in worshipping nature and the philosophy of maintaining balance of nature. It is believed to be the land where Sage Parashurama washed away his sins and where Lord Krishna married Rukmini. Massive conversions in the mid and late 20th century by Catholic Christians has led to Christianity being a major religion here. Buddhism is also followed and Menchuka has some of the oldest monasteries of Arunachal Pradesh.
There are a few Buddhist monasteries on mountain tops, so that calls for a great trekking experience, not for the level of difficulty but for the sheer views.
One can have one’s fill of walking on wooden and bamboo bridges for there are plenty of rivers in Menchuka. A meditative experience, for one has to be totally focussed on the next step while walking on these deceptively simple contraptions. And when you are right at the center of the bridge, the way it swings, can be nerve racking!
Ultimately, the elegant magnolias, the majestic rhododendrons, and the elusive orchids of Menchuka teach you that no matter where you mark the compass of your journey, the real destination lies within.