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Mechuka, the hidden valley

Our journey to Mechuka begins on gray pillows in Guwahati. Tenzin growls sullenly at us. Named after the Dalai Lama, the dog is almost as old, but not nearly as balanced, as the spiritual head of the Tibetans. Tenzin has a hard hearing and no longer sees particularly well. In our presence he is always a bit suspicious and bares his teeth even in relaxed moments when we get too close.

Tenzin is part of Devraj. The man in his early thirties is a tour guide and freelance photographer for India's major daily newspapers and international travel magazines. Devraj is a nice guy, very different from his dog. We spend hot and sticky July days with him on the Assam plain in northeast India. Pleasurable idleness connects us. Chai steams in glasses. Cigarette smoke wafts through the heavy air. Devraj loves the outdoors, grilled pork and marijuana. When the laziness of the day allows, we often sit in a friend's burger shop who serves us crazy triple-pork burgers and then holds home-grown weed under our noses.

Later we meet Jubi, who is hungover and tries to get through the day in her outdoor and trekking shop. The last night was wild. A joint helps. The few customers who come by are all friends. Beer bottles clink, because Jubi's equipment store also has a restaurant, which is honestly a bar.

Boheme in Guwahati

We're still here in the evening. In the meantime an extensive circle of friends has arrived. Tour guides, freelancers, musicians, make-up artists, an ex-junkie who runs a rehab center in Guwahati, an actor who has just finished his first cinema production in Mumbai. Jubi's friend Godzi, a guy as big as a bear, is there too. He has just finished a ten-day silent meditation and is celebrating his return to the world of sensual pleasure with a real high.

Devraj and his friends are the hedonistic spearhead of the city and far from having to worry about material things. Guwahati is small and the opportunities for diversion are manageable. Jubis Lokal is one of the few constants in the starving entertainment business. Numerous anecdotes begin and end here. Every evening we meet familiar faces, drink, smoke.

On the hot afternoons that turn Guwahati into an incubator, we lie under a humming ceiling fan. Tenzin is breathing hard. Devraj tells us about northeast India. His passion are the mountains and the remote valleys hidden in them. He is particularly fond of Arunachal Pradesh, north of Guwahati and on the border with China. If it were up to Devraj, we could spend months there. Since we are only allowed to travel to Arunachal with a thirty-day special permit, we have to sift it out.

It's not that easy, because Devraj throws superlatives around. He enthusiastically talks about every side valley, every mountain pass, snow-capped peaks, wooded slopes, friendly people and old traditions. Thembang, Sangti, Tawang, Ziro, Tuting - information overload.

In all its debauchery, one name keeps cropping up: Mechuka. In the middle of Arunachal and less than thirty kilometers from the border with China is the remote valley. It is breathtaking, explains Devraj with shining eyes. He speaks of icy rivers, green pastures, dark forests, warm people and a culture that is closer to Tibet than India. Just two decades ago, Mechuka was cut off from the rest of the country and could only be reached with a fan gun. It was not until the beginning of the 2000s that a road was cut through the mountains under military pressure to connect the Mechuka to the Indian transport network.

The way to Mechuka

From Guwahati we follow the Brahmaputra upstream to Dibrugarh. The water-rich river feeds the fertile, tropical plain of Assam. Rice fields and banana plantations thrive here, papayas grow by the roadside. Assam is famous for the tart tea that is grown here and accounts for almost half of Indian tea production.

A young man waves to us at Dibrugarh. A large red L is stuck to the windshield of his small car. It stands for “Learning License” and is the basic evil of Indian traffic. With it, novice drivers in India can take part in road traffic on their own for three to six months. This is followed by the practical test and because nobody learns binding rules, there is indescribable chaos on India's streets.

We leave Assam through the Brahmaputra. On the other bank we reach the town of Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh and continue into the mountains of the Front Himalayas. Culturally, linguistically and religiously, we dive into another world here. About one hundred different ethnic groups live in the scattered valleys, communicating with several dozen small and very small languages. They are people of the forest, people of the mountains. They belong to the Adi, Apatani, Memba, Monpa and many other ethnic groups who once immigrated from Tibet and Myanmar. India suddenly disappeared. Kolkata, New Delhi or Varanasi are not only geographically but also culturally far away.

The road becomes bumpy after Pasighat. Potholes are lined up, clouds of dust swirl behind the few cars passing by. Inside, the risk of injury increases exponentially at a speed of twenty kilometers per hour. Blue spots are a part of the mountains. We swing up and down in the back seat of a car. My head smacked the side window several times. The car groans. Majestic jungle rises up around us in lush green. We follow the Brahmaputra and then the Siyom River until we reach Kamba at dawn. Our ride is the last car on the road. In the dim light of the end of the day, only a handful of mopeds with coughing exhausts roll through the village.

Kamba and the Adi

At the end of the village we wait next to a boarding school. Dozens of children wave excitedly at us from the top of the three floors. “Are you foreigner?” They want to know and when we say yes, they freak out completely. We are the first foreigners they see in the village. Word of our arrival got around quickly. As if we were a strange thing, men and women come together around us. From among them, two voices speak to us curiously but politely, ask questions and translate our answers for those standing by. Then they invite us to spend the night in the assembly hall of the village. We refuse, don't want to cause trouble for anyone. Instead, we set up our tent in the falling darkness on a meadow next to the boarding school and when our spectators notice that there is nothing more to talk about, they gradually withdraw.

Four young men saunter up under cover of night. Weighing step. It is not entirely clear whether they smoke weed with us or just want to know if we have weed with us. It is not the last visit. First come two teenage couples who take euphoric selfies with us in the dark and while we are already in the tent, suddenly men knock on the outside tarpaulin, with whom we do not speak a common language. We don't understand what they want and they too disappear at some point.

The next morning, the attention of the village turned to us. We are being watched from every corner. But if we speak to a person, he just replies with an embarrassed giggle. The inhabitants of Kambas belong to the Adi ethnic group, which is native to several valleys of Arunachal Pradesh. Their traditional houses are some of the most beautiful we have seen in India. A huge building made of bamboo and wood rises a few meters above the ground on dozens of stilts. Several generations live here together. Dried fronds of the palmyra palm cover the roof truss. But the best thing about the house is the surrounding terrace. It serves as a storage and drying area, but is also a place for social interaction. The old and young sit here, do housework, eat together, the toddlers play here, neighbors and friends are welcomed here for a cozy get-together.

We stand on the side of the road with a handful of fried bananas and wait. - And wait - a rickety off-road vehicle only stops after five hours. Two older men drive with us in the direction of Tato, about a hundred kilometers from Kamba. The street remains cluttered. We bump through the mountains for five tiring hours. Only the beautifully wooded slopes flatter our eyes.

Stranded in Tato

Our drivers reach their destination around 15 km before Tato: six houses in a curve on the slope. Not a place we want to stay. Instead, we shoulder our backpacks and march off. Dark clouds hang in the sky. Rain fell in the last few hours. Not violent, but enough to make the lonely slope muddy and slippery.

A swollen mountain stream rushes across the road and blocks our way. In the middle of no man's land, an off-road vehicle approaches after an hour. It's a sumo, a four-wheel drive made in India and the most driven vehicle here in the mountains. Up to ten people can fit in, and more if necessary. Three men from Kerala are sitting in front of us in sumo; Christian missionaries invited by the priest in Tato to convert animists in the mountains.

When we reach Tato, it is already dark. A single street lamp illuminates part of the place. Few people are still on the way to welcome us strangers to their small village. As the cool night is beginning, an elderly woman presses two cups of chai into our hands, which she balances out of her house on the slope. Two young girls accompany us through the village looking for a place to sleep. They suggest that we spend the night at church. We prefer our own tent and somehow the two of them arrange it in a short time that we are allowed to camp in the schoolyard at the end of the village.

When our tent is up and the girls are sure that we don't need anything else, they withdraw. For this, the village priest visits us with his entourage. The three missionaries from Kerala are also part of it. We are invited again. This time we are supposed to spend the night in the school building. The night is going to be very cold, the priest assures us.

Packed in all the layers of clothing our rucksacks give us, we stay in the tent because it's already set up anyway. The night is indeed bitterly cold. So cold that we can't shut our eyes for trembling. When the first rays of sun fall over the surrounding peaks, we pack up with stiff limbs and soon afterwards we stand again on the side of the road.

The clear morning envelops Tato in a smooth light. Here, too, the houses stand on stilts, but are less expansive than in Kamba. Despite the early hour, Tato is already busy at sunrise. Children make propellers by attaching two cardboard strips to a stick at an angle of ninety degrees and walking with it over stony paths. Chickens, pigs, dogs and cats wobble along the only road. A girl from the house opposite is playing with a mouse in her hand.

The elderly woman who served us chai last night hands us a huge cucumber for breakfast that is as long and thick as my forearm. The two girls who quartered us in the school yard also stop by and bring a bag full of guavas with them.

But not all villagers treat us so trustingly. We are particularly suspicious of the youngest. Most children only dare to pass us in a hurry. One of them loses a shoe near us, which it reluctantly picks up again with a brave heart.

Packing list

Our equipment has to withstand a lot. We have been constantly on the move for over 7.5 years and put a strain on our belongings in daily use. Some of them only survived for a short time with us, but others have proven themselves for years and we are convinced of the quality. You can read our recommendations here.

Waiting by the roadside

A few military trucks thunder through the tranquil town. It's time for training again. The Indian army is rehearsing an emergency in the mountains of Arunachal. The region is politically contested. It once belonged to the southern part of Tibet until British and Tibetan diplomats agreed on a border line. It leads almost 900 kilometers along the MacMahon Line, which leads over the summit ridge of the eastern Himalayas from Bhutan to the Brahmaputra.

However, China does not recognize this border, which is why, in addition to a brief war in 1962, there have been provocations along the border line again and again today. This is one of the reasons why the Indian military is regularly present in the mountains.

The sun is meanwhile high above the surrounding peaks. Most of the villagers have got used to our sight. Only now and then a curious glance flies over to us. There is a house on a hill next to the road. Wild flowers and tendrils grow in the garden behind a weathered wooden fence. A woman sits in front of it, who could be any age between thirty and fifty. She is a nurse, she says, and if we were to wait here in the evening, we could spend the next night in her house. It's a generous offer that we hope we won't have to take. We still have a lot of time.

But when around ten o'clock a chicken truck roars through Tato and doesn't want to take us with it, even though it goes to Mechuka and has space in the passenger seat, our hope fades drastically. Since we arrived in Tato the night before, this van has been the first non-military vehicle on the way to Mechuka. Maybe we’re losing our only chance right now.

The coming hours pass more and more slowly, dragging on endlessly into the day. The sun is at its highest point and apart from a few chickens pecking around unsuspectingly in the area, nobody is to be seen. Two more cars rumble through Tato. Both are occupied down to the last free centimeter. But then, it is already three o'clock, a sumo with screeching shock absorbers jerks up. Together with the nurse, who takes an unexpectedly large part in our fate, we summon the driver. And we can actually get on board.

Finally mechuka

Overjoyed, we swing ourselves and our luggage onto the back seat. We stayed in Tato for twenty hours. We wave goodbye to the friendly nurse until we disappear around a bend. Forty-seven kilometers to Mechuka are still ahead of us. We need two and a half hours.

Then finally the Mechuka Valley opens. Hills swing gently out of the valley. Dry grass and dry undergrowth dress them in a garment that is sometimes beige, sometimes sand-colored, sometimes brown and sometimes yellow. In contrast to this, the pines, which stand together in groups, have a dark, strong green. The snow-capped peaks of the high mountains frame the elongated valley.

An old tractor stands on the side of the road with a rusting trailer. On the bumpy slope, potholes maltreat both vehicles and passengers alike. The village of Mechuka is at over 1,800 meters above sea level. It consists of a handful of streets that surround a large, white stupa in the center of the town. Buddhist prayer flags fly in front of the wooden houses. Colorful corrugated iron roofs decorate the place. Blue, gray, red, rust. Firewood is stacked meters high in front of house walls.

We move into a simple, cozy room. Walls, floors, ceilings, everything made of wood. The kitchen is the center of the house. In the midst of them, chai simmers in smoky flames. Family members gather here, eat together, warm themselves by the fire.

Life in Mechuka

The sky over Mechuka is wide. Just a few airy clouds roll slowly over it. We walk along the dusty roads to the Yargab Chhu River. In the meadows behind the last houses in the village, lean horses pluck the few green blades of grass between the stones lying around.

Before mechuka were linked to the rest of the country by a road shortly after the turn of the millennium, they were the only means of transport in the region. Everything that somehow reaches the valley is moved on the back of a horse. Back then, people tilled fields, kept cattle and thus ensured their survival. For centuries the economic, social and cultural relations with Tibet and China have been much more pronounced than with the subcontinent India. It was only when the Indian military established a runway in Mechuka and closed the border with China after the war in 1962 that it was even possible to transport large quantities of goods from India into the valley.

The influences of Tibetan culture in Mechuka are still evident today. The Memba who live here share the same traditions, celebrate the same festivals and enjoy the same food. Momos, thukpa and fried noodles are an integral part of the menu.

The Yargyap Chhu rustles in the stony bed between the meadows. Women sit on the bank and wash clothes in the icy water that flows out of the glaciers of the Himalayas somewhere in the west. A wobbly suspension bridge leads over the wide river.There are gaps between the creaking wooden planks that are so large that at least one leg could disappear into them with a careless step. The crystal-clear water rushes along underneath.

Two women come towards us. With a stooped gait, they carry heavily laden wicker baskets on their backs. Only a strap running over the forehead secures the load, which is held solely by the strength of the neck muscles. It is the Himalayan carrying technique that we encountered in Nepal and Pakistan. Shoulder straps and hip belts, as they characterize our backpacks, are more of a nuisance than helpful for people here.

On the other side of the river we hike between the blue of the sky and the sand-colored hills. There are isolated houses between dry arable land. There is no trace of the residents. Our gaze wanders through the valley. Mechuka is rough. The infrastructure on the edge of the Himalayas does not allow anything else. The mountainous landscape guides our eyes, the valley comes into focus. A light wind blows over dry grass. Pastures and fields nestle against the river banks. In the south and west, wooded slopes climb out of the valley. Dark pines defy the altitude with their heads held high. In the distance, the border with China runs along the snow-capped peaks. It's pleasantly warm down here in the valley, but as soon as the sun disappears behind a cloud, the cold creeps out of the ground.

Mechuka on the edge of the Himalayas

Mechuka is a leisurely place; without exuberance. This applies to people and nature. Both hold back. The inhabitants are quiet, the fields barren. What comes out of the ground here, is serious, can not be impressed by frost after drought. Nothing more than what is necessary grows here. The focus is on the essentials. Mechuka's seclusion is not an idyll. People do not opt ​​for a simple, natural life. There is only one thing. Especially in winter, when the cold gets too icy, it's tough.

Our view is different. With every breath we try to suck in the valley. The gentle nature caresses our senses. Colors and sounds are pleasantly mild. Without resistance they get into the head and body and with them good-naturedness spreads. Suddenly there is silence. No thinking, no wanting to act, no planning. Instead, we sit on the banks of the river and look through a valley that delights us with simple, natural beauty. The high clouds pass the sun, their shadow wanders through the valley.

Although the majority of the memba in mechuka are Buddhists, a few animists still live here. They proudly let the Donyi Polo flag, a red sun on a white background, fly in front of their houses. They believe in the spirits of the elements and the forest, to which they pay awe-inspiring respect. In their imagination, beings protect and harm equally. Shamans who come into contact with the world of the supernatural help to make them forgiving.

The belief in ghosts goes back to old Tibetan Burman traditions. The Donyi-Polo movement tries to give the cultural mosaic of the indigenous population in Arunachal Pradesh a unified identity with its symbols of sun and moon. It is intended to bring together the different animist currents and make them less vulnerable to Christian but also Hindu attempts at proselytizing.

Troop exercise

Back in the village of Mechuka, the Indian military trucks thunder through the village. They are part of the military exercise that is taking place all over the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian army sets up camp between Thembang, Ziro and Mechuka and stirs up a lot of earth in the otherwise tranquil atmosphere of the mountains. Mechuka is also under a cloud of dust.

On the slope south of the village there is a gompa that can be seen from afar. Prayer flags flutter happily around the small Buddhist monastery. Just a few meters in front, the military has set up a parking lot for their vehicles, which weigh several tons. Soldiers' underwear is drying over the railing of the gompa.

The view down into the valley leads over the roofs of the mechukas and the runway that was set in the middle of the village. The military seems inappropriately present between the few houses. Every day propeller planes approach with a deafening noise, hovering only a few meters above the ground during the approach, before disappearing behind the walls of the airport.

Velvet Yongcha Gompa

A road leads west from the village, where the Samten Yongcha Gompa juts out on a hilltop over the valley. A steep mountain path lined with prayer flags leads up behind a wobbly suspension bridge. At the top, Buddhist monks keep religious life. For 400 years they have had a view of the valley from the small monastery. It's an amazing view. Under the cloudy sky, the curving river passes fields and pastures. Isolated trees grow in between. Houses stand together in large and small groups. Mechuka is not just a place, it is becoming more and more of a feeling. It's the smell of grass and trees, the rapid change from warm to cold, the dry skin on the heights, the seclusion.

An old woman opens the wooden gompa. Like them, the building is marked by time. The bright colors of the creaking door have long faded. Inside, a blue demon bares its teeth angrily. It is Vajrapani, the guardian of secrets and one of the eight most important bodhisattvas in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism.

In the evening we are back in Mechuka. It's piercingly cold. We sit by the kitchen fire with smoky chai. There are still hardly any tourists in Mechuka. But this will change. The road through the mountains changed the possibilities in the valley. The centuries-old dependence on agriculture is broken. In the meantime, food is being delivered that is often cheaper than the harvest brought in under harsh conditions. Many farmers are changing saddles, expecting a higher income from tourism.

But in Arunachal Pradesh, which is difficult to travel anyway, Mechuka is still one of the most remote valleys. Even compared to Ziro and Tawang, the path is arduous. Nevertheless: The charm of the old days is gradually being lost. The people in Mechuka alone decide whether it is worth mourning over it.

If you liked this article and would like to travel with us, then support us with a small tip. Donate us a coffee cup, chocolate cake or a decent rambazamba - anything is possible.

From the far north of Germany out into the world: In 2011, Morten and Rochssare will be hitchhiking and couch surfing on the South American continent for two years. It goes on in exactly the same way. But now in the other direction. The two have been hitchhiking overland from Germany to India and on to Southeast Asia since 2014. There is still a lot to discover.

They tell of their adventures and encounters in their books "The Hitchhiker's Guide to South America" ​​and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to India", both published in the National Geographic series by Malik.


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