It was only March, and the monsoon wasn’t due for several months. But for a week now we’d been walking through mountains cloaked in fog, the skies around us violent with rain and storms. Sitting on the wooden balcony of the lama’s house in the village of Yoldong, watching lightening spear the shrouded hills, I wondered if it was some sort of a test.
“Maybe the goddess doesn’t want to see a Britisher,” said Ata, my guide as if reading my thoughts. “You must have a pure mind to reach the heart of Pemako—many people have had to turn back.”
But Pemako wasn’t supposed to be easy to reach, and it was going to take more than unseasonable weather to make me give up. Created, according to Buddhist belief, by the eighth-century sage and sorcerer Padmasambhava—or the Guru Rinpoche as he’s otherwise known—this wild, mountainous region straddling southeastern Tibet and the Upper Siang District of today’s Arunachal Pradesh was said to be an earthly paradise. Here rivers flowed with enchanted water, trees grew edible bark, old men became young again and a dazzling pharmacopeia of herbs held the key to eternal bliss. Known as the “lotus of great bliss,” anyone lucky enough to die here gained instant Buddhahood.
In order to stop a stampede towards instant enlightenment, the wily Rinpoche made sure it was a perilous place to reach. Pemako, he warned, was guarded by vicious vipers, blood-sucking leeches, witches, demons, man-eating tigers, cannibals armed with poison darts and wrathful protector deities. When British explorer and plant hunter Frank Kingdon Ward travelled to the region in 1926, he described it as a place of “perpetual rain; snakes and wild animals, giant stinging nettles and myriads of biting and blood-sucking ticks, hornets, flies and leeches.”
Undeterred by such reports, I resolved to try and reach Pemako myself. Even if I didn’t experience any of the purported magic of the place, I hoped I might find Shangri-La, a hidden valley untouched by the outside world.
My journey began in Tuting, a dishevelled village 16 kilometres south of the McMahon Line, the disputed Indo-Tibetan border created by the British in 1914. Strings of damp prayer flags hung over wooden houses and clouds obscured the surrounding mountains, drifting across their green flanks like smoke. With me was Ata, a regal looking Khampa lama I’d met by chance. Nattily attired in khaki and gold wellingtons, he ambled along beside me, swinging a walking stick and chanting the Guru Rinpoche’s mantra as we went. Although in his 60s and recovering from a heart surgery, he looked a decade younger.
“Tuting very sacred place,” he told me in his thickly accented English. “It most secret place of goddess Dorje Phagmo. In Tibetan language ‘Tu’ means ‘women’s private parts’ and ‘Ting’ means ‘deep inside.’”
It was definitely the first time I’d begun a walk from inside a sacred vagina. For the next few days we puffed up and down a procession of forested ridges, the Yangsang Chu River purling below. At times we’d be sweating up steep little paths through the forest, at others we’d be forced to follow the boggy embryo of a divisive new road that was being built through the valley.
“Before this place was so silent.” said Ata sadly, “but now there will be machines.”
At night, soaked after covering up to 20 muddy kilometres, we stayed in Khampa villages where vegetable patches sprouted green behind rough wooden fences and stout old women with long black plaits and rolling gaits led cows along the paths. In each one was a bijou (small) gompa, its gilded roof and fantastically decorous interior at odds with the simplicity of this rural life.
In the evenings, when he wasn’t sitting in lotus position, deep in meditation, Ata would regale me with tales about the region. He spoke of rocks inhabited by wrathful deities; the powerful lama he’d known whose body had shrunk miraculously after his death; a goat which had eaten enchanted grass and gone into deep meditation, and plants which made you fly. One man, he said, had eaten this while going to the loo in the forest, with miraculous results.
“After he go loo, he fly,” chuckled Ata.
And then there were the stories about reincarnation, a common theme in Pemako. “One of her children is the reincarnation of a famous Pemako lama,” said Ata one evening, as our apple-cheeked hostess ladled us warming mugs of chang by the fire. “As soon as the child learnt to speak he talked about his past life and family. To confirm his identity he was presented with a selection of rosaries, bells and drums belonging to different lamas. He immediately picked out the ones belonging to the old lama, recognising them as his own. Now the boy is 12 and studying at a monastery in Mysore. This sort of thing is normal here.”
We’d sleep in lumpy piles on wooden floors, rising soon after cock’s crow to eat trakzen, flat discs of unleavened bread, and omelette for breakfast, washing it down with Tibetan salted butter tea.
On the sixth day we reached Devakotta Monastery, a humble stone building on the summit of one of the many hills. Almost an island, it was cradled in an oxbow of the Yangsang Chu, surrounded on all sides by wooded slopes and the icy, rushing waters of the river. But while it may have looked like just another fold in the subcontinental plate, Devakotta was the heart of Indian Pemako, one of the Rinpoche’s greatest treasures, the home of the dakinis, or female deities, and a place where the worthy could achieve instant Buddhahood. Even if you weren’t saintly, it was good luck just to walk around it and Ata advised that I do three koras, or circumambulations, in order to gain good fortune. As Guru Rinpoche himself had written: “Whoever makes one complete circumambulation of Devakotta Mountain, the door to all lower rebirths will be closed.” Perhaps after three, I’d be reborn as a queen.
Edging over a rickety hanging bridge to the monastery, eyeing the river below, I felt a strange stirring of emotion when a shaft of sunlight, the first we’d seen all week, burst theatrically through a chink in the grey. Perhaps, having made it here, the dakinis were welcoming me. And later, when I sat inside the psychedelic interior beneath a golden icon of Guru Rinpoche, I had the strong sense of an unseen energy, so tangible it felt as if I could scoop it from the air and hold it in the palm of my hand, a golden, pulsing orb.
We awoke to a sunlit sky the following morning. For the first time I could see the lustrous hills we’d walked through and the snow peaks that framed the valley, their freshly dusted ridges shining like mercury in the morning light. After days of turbid weather, it was like waking up to a new world, as if the old, grey one had been soaked in colour overnight.
Buoyed by the change in the weather, we walked on to Tashigong, a tiny Khampa village where Ata had grown up. Maybe it was the transformative effects of sunshine, or my own elevated state of mind, but to me it was a place of heart-bursting beauty. From its lofty hillside perch above the Yangsang Chu, its few houses looked out across hills that creased and soared and rippled beneath forest as thick as an emerald fleece. Beyond them was an encircling shield of mountains, their jagged white crowns carved by the bright sunlight into sharp fields of light and shadow. Although we were still at only about 5,200 feet above sea level, it felt like we were much higher. In the village, clumps of tall white flags whipped in the breeze, bovines grazed contentedly and peach trees blossomed pink.
We spent two blissful days here, staying in Ata’s old family house with his brother-in-law, another astonishingly spry 60-year-old. I could see that life here was tough: there was no medical care, or electricity, or schools, and many of the villagers were illiterate. They lived hard, physical lives in an often extreme climate: planting, harvesting, cutting, collecting firewood, milking, cooking. But despite this, what struck me about the people of Tashigong—as it had about other remote tribal villages in Arunachal Pradesh—was how contented they seemed. There was a lightness of spirit, a deep-seated cheerfulness. People had time for each other, stopped and said hello and shot the breeze, and they were round-cheeked and well-fed, their gardens overflowing with fruit and vegetables.
I felt life here to be the antithesis of our fast-paced, mechanised, materialistic, modern existences. Life in Tashigong was real. It was about food, shelter, family, community, togetherness. It was about need, not greed. It was about living with nature, the seasons and the cycle of night and day. People produced their own naturally organic food, breathed pure mountain air, spent the majority of their time outside and were free from the tyranny of the sedentary, screen-addicted lifestyles so many of us now lead. Maybe I’m guilty of putting the villagers’ lives on a pedestal of lost pastoralism, but I saw Tashigong as a paradigm for a disappearing way of life. It made me feel as if we’ve gone wrong somehow, that progress and modernisation are taking us away from the essence of humanity. It’s something I’ve thought about a great deal since.
In total, Ata and I spent 10 days walking through Pemako. We encountered no dangerous beasts, or vipers, or demons, or cannibals armed with poison darts, or any of the other obstacles earlier pilgrims had encountered. Nor had I found the key to eternal life or a portal to another dimension. What I did find, though, was a breathtakingly beautiful, remote valley inhabited by people of exceptional jollity and occasionally astonishing youthfulness. I heard wondrous stories and spent numerous happy nights around glowing fires. And I’d been fortunate to travel in the company of an exceptionally knowledgeable guide. In a world that has largely been mapped, clicked, blogged about, uploaded and tramped across, this distant valley did feel like something of a Shangri-La—as much as such a thing can exist in human society, with its grief, passions and transience. Now that the road was coming, my time there felt even more poignant.
Getting There Lower Pemako, as the Indian side of Pemako is known, is found in the Upper Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh. The closest town is Yingkiong, and visitors can take a Sumo (shared taxi) from Yingkiong to the village of Tuting (about a six-hour drive) where this trek begins from. Yingkiong can be reached by Sumo from Pasighat—again this journey takes around six hours. For the trek itself, a guide is highly recommended.
Seasons The best time of year to visit this region is between Sep–Oct. It is possible to visit all year round, although from October to early June it won’t be possible to trek over the higher passes and in summer you can expect heavy rains, snakes and leeches.
Stay There are no hotels or guesthouses in Lower Pemako’s Yangsang Chu Valley. Instead your guide will arrange for you to stay with local Khampa families along the way.
Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent is an English travel writer. Her latest book, Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains: A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh–India’s Forgotten Frontier (Simon & Schuster) is available now. She tweets @AntsBK.