Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Challenging journeys and hard-to-reach places, often by motorbike, is what travel writer Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent does best. With her latest book highly commended for a prestigious award, we catch up with this fearless, multi-tasking, solo-traveling adventurer.
She’s a writer, public speaker, TV producer, and expedition leader—and her latest book, Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains, set in India’s far northeastern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, was highly commended for the 2018 Edward Stanford Wanderlust Adventure Travel Book of the Year.
This (still) under-visited region was closed to foreigners between 1950 and 1998 and even today, permits and restrictions make it a challenge to visit—but that’s all part of the appeal. We chat to Antonia about why she was attracted to this part of India, what makes it so different, and the enduring appeal of solo travel.
Meera Dattani: Congratulations on your nomination! It’s an interesting region to focus on—why were you so drawn to this corner of India?
Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent: Thanks so much—it’s exciting to be nominated! I first heard about this little-known sliver of northeastern India while working on a BBC production in Delhi about four years ago. Our Bengali producer happened to be one of the few outsiders to have traveled to Arunachal Pradesh extensively, and he fired my imagination with tales of unmapped wilderness, shamans with magical powers, sacred valleys, matrilineal tribes, and yeti sightings.
It sounds like you were well and truly sold on it?
Yes, it’s one of the most inaccessible, culturally diverse, and least known of the seven states that make up the tribal northeast. And with the exception of the late Mark Shand’s 2003 book River Dog which charted his journey down the Brahmaputra River, almost nothing had been written about it since the 1940s. And even Shand only scratched the surface.
I’m not one to moan about there being nothing left to explore—exploration is a state of mind—but in a world that’s largely been mapped, clicked, blogged about, uploaded and tramped across, it seemed unbelievable such a place still existed. I knew I had to go.
What makes it so different to the rest of India?
The northeast, particularly Arunachal, bears little cultural or geographical resemblance to the rest of India. It’s a mountainous, inaccessible land at the far eastern end of the Himalayas—more tribes live here, and more languages are spoken, than anywhere else in South Asia. Around 30 per cent still practise animism and while much of India can feel overcrowded, only 1.6 million people live in Arunachal—and it’s the size of Portugal.
Given the differences, how does the region ‘sit’ within the rest of the country?
Somewhat awkwardly. Some Indians are barely aware of its existence and much of this is down to us meddling Brits. In 1873, half a century after annexing the region from the Burmese, the British cordoned off the mountainous tracts and introduced a strict permit entry system that remains today.
It was designed to restrict movement between the fertile lowlands of Assam and the mountains, but it was really a peace deal with the hill tribes; a clever way of saying: “Stop interfering with our precious tea, oil and elephant trades—and we won’t meddle in your affairs.”
Then in 1947, when India lurched to an uneasy independence, Nehru kept the status quo. It was only in the late 1990s the Indian government cautiously allowed foreigners in—but expensive, restrictive permits means few outsiders venture there.
There’s also the thorny issue of China—they never agreed to the border drawn up by the British. They still call it South Tibet—a slur which India takes seriously. They went to war over it in 1962, and have eyeballed each other ever since. When I was there in 2016, the Chinese government were furious that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had announced a visit there.
How is traditional local life being affected (or not) in such a place?
While I wouldn’t say the way of life here is disappearing entirely, there’s no doubt that, after centuries of isolation, the tribal cultures are going through a time of change. Roads are being built at an unprecedented rate, electricity is reaching remote villages for the first time, and many of the younger generation are moving to cities like Delhi, Guwahati and Kolkata to study and work. In some ways, this is improving people’s lives, but it’s also causing both a loss and a crisis of tribal identity.
You obviously relish the freedom of traveling solo. What makes it so special?
There’s nothing quite like finding yourself alone in a wild, far-flung land; it’s extraordinarily liberating. And the more remote, the better. In our normal lives, we’re surrounded by familiarity—we rarely test ourselves, or work something challenging out without asking a friend or the internet—but when you’re alone, you have to work things out. Traveling alone is also more immersive: You whole-heartedly engage with your surroundings and people you meet.
You run a travel company, Edge Expeditions, with your boyfriend Marley. On your site, you say: “We believe travel is often taken far too seriously.” What do you mean by that?
I often feel this whole ‘adventure’ malarkey is taken too seriously—I’m convinced all those zip-off trousers and technical sandals somehow erode people’s sense of humor! Yes travel’s about exploring, experiencing, and coming home inspired, but it’s also important to have FUN! Just because we’re tramping across some distant land on a Very Serious Adventure, doesn’t mean we should forget to have a laugh. Laughter can transcend all ages, language and cultural barriers.
As well as running Edge and leading expeditions for your company, you’re an author, travel writer, speaker, and travel show producer. How do you do it all?
With the assistance of Earl Grey tea, yoga, and meditation! It sounds a lot, but I focus on one thing at a time: I’ll lock myself in a shed to write a book for eight months, work solidly on a TV contract for four months, then set aside time to give talks, write articles, and potter around my garden.
I’ve also learned the importance of saying no, and making sure I have space in my life. As architect Mies van der Rohe so wisely said: “Less is more.”
Her latest book, Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains: A journey across Arunachal Pradesh—India’s forgotten frontier (Simon & Schuster) has been nominated for Wanderlust Adventure Travel Book of the Year in the 2018 Edwards Stanford Travel Writing Awards. The winner will be announced on February 1, 2018 in London.