A short interlude.
We drove on to North Lakhimpur, a town of about 100,000 peple. We were rather looking forward to North Lakhimpur because we wanted to go shopping. A Cheltenham-sized town ought to have a Cheltenham-sized bookshop, Colin thought. Colin had only one book left to read, and a bookless Colin is a troublesome thing indeed. Now the local word for book is kitab, which might give some clue as to which people that run the bookshops, and, guess what, ... its Eid! We went round the shops anyway.
In some shops it was obvious what the merchandise was: cooking pots, plastic buckets, vegetables, tinsel; the rest were stacked with brightly decorated packets containing who knows what: cement? breakfast cereal? shampoo? offerings for the gods? Intense scrutiny turned up a bookshop in time, but it looked at first that Colin would have to develop a new interest in Assamese inheritance law or hydraulic engineering. Nevertheless whether it is Snickers in the high Pamirs, Lobster Thermidor in Chitkul or literature in NorthEast India, if it is there, we will find it; we cleared the shop of all its R K Narayans.
The hilltribe lands
Back to the cycling. If we had little information about the Tawang road we had even less about the Ziro-Pasighat road. We knew that the first day could hardly avoid a reasonable amount of climbing, as there was most definitely a pass of about 1600m just before Ziro. Not that we were sure where exactly that was, even the map didn't pretend to know. Worse though, the so-called topo map seemed to show the first part of the ride climbing over another pretty hefty piece of ground and we were hoping to magic that away by trying not to think about it. As it so happened, we were spared that climb, but the road made up for it with continuous ups and downs at a variety of gradients and duration.
The overall landscape was different to the previous ride; ruggedly mountainous and covered in jungly forest, but nowhere as high as before. The villages were also markedly different, here generally constructed of bamboo and wood, no prayer flags or any temply things, the people perhaps identifiably more south-east asian than Tibetan, and lots and lots of pigs. The cycling was horribly similar though. By the time we got to the foot of the big big final big climb it was already late afternoon, but now we were used to or more truthfully more resigned to riding potholey roads in the dark with inadequate mini torches. The lights of Hapoli were a welcoming sight, etc., etc., but they took an awfully long time coming. The fabulous Blue Pine hotel was a deserving reward.
We had scheduled plenty of rest days in this part of the trip, despite reckoning the Tawang half was the harder cycling; the reasoning was that the Tawang half was going to be higher and colder and you cant really laze around properly when it is cold. There was also the cultural aspect, that is, pottering around villages, to be done. Hereabouts, Hapoli and Ziro and a bunch of other places nestle in a small plateau in a ring of hills at about 1500m. Its serene rice-growing land, traditional villages of the Apatani tribe. The houses are woven bamboo. There are sun-moon symbols, and other commemorative and memorial structures by the houses and in the fields. The older people, sunburnt, lined, small and wiry from a hard life, wear traditional clothes, and the older women still have the bizarre nose-plugs and face tattoos; they dont like cameras. The youngsters wear skinny jeans and they do like cameras: most usually they were to be found taking photos of us on their phones. We cause quite a stir. Tourists do come here, both Indian and foreign, but I doubt if many get out of their cars and they certainly dont ride cycles. Throughout this part of the trip, we heard loads more calls of Foreigner! and Cycle! than on the Tawang half. The road is a lot more quiet overall.
Something that makes travel at a cyclists pace diffcult in this region is the lack of places to stay. There are hotels in the bigger places but they can be upwards of 200km apart. In between there do exist government Inspection Bungalows, but theyre impossible to book in advance, and often hard to even contact on the day. Rupak has all sorts of fun trying to get us into the next place; its as well we did have the rest day.
The riding for the rest of the trip was through these jungly hills, with only a vague idea of where the road might go. The roads generally climb away from the rivers and take a contouring route in and out of valleys and over ridges. When you are there, it is difficult to make sense of the lie of the land, you see a confusing melange of ridges and valleys and small peaks and you cant work out where the natural direction goes, though it does make sense when you do plot the GPS points on the map.
Some memorable episodes: a guy on a motorcycle comes round the corner, theres a sudden flash of amazement, and "wowww!"; a small solitary roadside hut where a woman from the plains sits with her baby, she gives us some oranges from her tree; we pass a family walking, a boy lands on my pannier rack.
Daporijo was a scruffy place but a genial one, except for the jobsworth police chief who demanded we turn up in person to register, then didnt turn up himself. We stayed in Ligu, a traditional village just outside, where Pilum Ligu has a simple guesthouse. Pilum invited us for rice beer and roast pork at his house. Its a traditonal design, made of bamboo and wood, though these days people are using concrete for the bases and steel for the roofs. There is one large room with an open hearth in the centre, racks above the fire for drying firewood and so on. Around the walls, the remains of family memorials, Mithun horns from weddings and feasts, wild boar jaws from hunts.
It was a couple of days ride to Aalo. The between stop was at a place called Tirbin, another unexpectedly long ride finishing in the dark. I cant remember why it took so long, maybe we were being lazy. The road nosed in and out of crannies in the forest. Biscuits went into us. The jungle was always worth staring at. The road was busier around the junction for Basar. We were invited to a wedding but the prospect of sleep was more immediately appealing.
I told a lie in Aalo I told a local I thought his town was nice. In fact it is a dump. It has a lot of wine shops and young drunk drivers. There is a scary bridge 4km out of town that Rupak could do. Pasighat could only be better, we thought, unconvinced. We rode on.
It is not uncommon for the last ride out of the mountains to be something of a let-down; not so here the road to Pasighat was full of unexpected surprises. The weather wasnt brilliant and the first few km were, as we had imagined, along the riverside. But then the road darted off into the jungle, upwards, with one of its favourite sorts of gradient. This road had the added interest of generous potholing and long sections of muddy cack. After a particularly invigorating climb, a village with a duckpond with pink lilies, a man with a moped in need of our pump, and a young woman photogenically weaving.
Lunch, a roadside picnic, was potato pancakes with potato curry, Aloo a la Aalo I suppose. A jeep stopped, a tourist jeep. Rupak and Niron chatted to the guides, whom they knew. The tourists sat inside. We waved and said hello in a friendly fashion (actually we said haha foreigners first) ; they still stayed firmly inside. I got up and they did allow to wind down the window a little, and exchange a few words. I'm not sure if I get other people.
We didnt make it to Pasighat for nightfall. The road surface had made it too slow going, we did the now-customary shameless trick of driving on and coming back the next day to finish the ride. We probably wouldnt have bothered if the road had not kept its interest right to the last. The final stretch used to follow closer to the riverbank but a landslide some years ago had taken that out, instead a wiggly winding up and down as if it wanted to keep playing for an extra 10km. Beyond Pasighat its all flat. Pasighat is pleasant; a large and even placid market place (admittedly it wasn't market day) and a decent hotel.
The great treat at the end was the river cruise. This is a very slow and small ferry to Dibrugarh. Six hours of watching the world go by slowly, a world of grey sandbanks, and milk churns waiting on grey sandbanks, and fishermen. We thought we could get used to this cruising lark, but we will have to get more practice.