New Welsh Review
Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains: A Journey across Arunachal Pradesh, India’s Forgotten Frontier
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Not only was Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains shortlisted for the 2018 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award, but it has also been given high praise by other influential writers and personalities such as Benedict Allen, Alastair Humphreys and Joanna Lumley.
Detailing Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent’s grand trip across Arunachal Pradesh, the book draws the reader from the very first page, enticing us with lyrical prose and illustrative description. Immediately, you can feel the mountain fog on your face, smell the damp forest air, hear the low voices of locals chatting, taste the Dibrugarh tea.
Remote, mountainous and forbidding, here shamans still fly through the night, hidden valleys conceal petals to other worlds, yetis leave footprints in the snow, spirits and demons abound, and the gods are appeased by the blood of scarified beasts.
And oh boy, does she experience a lot of ritual slaughter.
The author goes to the places that others describe as ‘wild, uncivilised foreign land’ and ‘occupied by lawless savages with a nasty proclivity for opium,’ proving them entirely wrong. She meets some of the most incredible people, with rich and varied cultures, traditions, and religions, and stays open-minded and honest throughout. She never takes anything for granted, and always approaches new places with an almost childlike curiosity, entirely open to learning new things, whilst challenging stereotypes.
This is book that will surely be used to reference the forgotten frontiers that were demarked before globalisation blurred them. It brings problems such as climate change, new technology and deforestation to the fore. As the author states, in a couple years, these lands will be different.
Along with these issues, younger generations are now opting to leave their home towns and villages, drawn in by the bright lights of the cities and the paycheques that come with them. This makes it especially difficult for the people who choose to stay in their hometowns – especially the elderly – as there is simply not enough resources to build the necessary public facilities for people losing the support of their younger relatives. As the younger generation moves on, the older one dies, along with the traditions.
There was no medical care, no electricity, or schools. Many of the villagers were illiterate. They lived hard, physical lives in an often extreme climate: planting, harvesting, cutting, collecting firewood, milking, cooking. It was an existence that left little room for the luxury of idleness. The younger generation didn’t want to be subsistence farmers anymore – they wanted mobile phones, labels, the internet, cars.
Bolinbroke-Kent struggles with the dizzying speeds of human development in areas that have become incredibly populated over the past few decades, and by the time that she finds herself back in the cities, she yearns to be back in the villages. ‘Stifled by Assam’s crowds, that night I dreamt of the entire subcontinent coming loose from its tectonic moorings and sinking into the Indian Ocean under the sheer weight of humanity and its waste.’
This author is a greatly charismatic writer, opting to introduce the histories and backgrounds of the places and people she visits, rather than focusing the journey on herself. She offers historical and cultural context and educates the reader on a place they likely would have never heard of. A very great amount of research has contributed to this well-rounded, full-bodied piece.
Halfway through are a selection of photographs from the journey, and whilst they sadly do not depict any of the rural, traditional villages she visits, they are all printed on thick, high-quality paper, truly bringing the story to life.
Travel does for this author what it her books do for her readers, enlightening them, and encouraging a higher level of adventurousness within their normal lives [although of course our current horizons are limited]. ‘For the first of many times over the next few months, I thought how lily-livered we are in England [sic]; how removed from the real wild our mollycoddled, sanitised, urban existences have become. Maybe it would do us good to throw the odd tiger into the mix.’
At the heart of Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains is the key missing component of our modern-day Western world: community. Our existences are fast-paced, mechanised, materialistic, and all-too-often artificial. Yet at the core of each person central essentials must be in place for health. Apart from a need for food and shelter, we require family and togetherness, and yet we seem to have lost our value for those latter concepts along the way. No longer do we live in tune with nature, good food, and fresh air; too many people live screen-addicted sedentary lives, and I am writing as a young woman. ‘Whilst children in Britain spent an average of six and a half hours in front of a screen, American children spend less than half an hour outside a week.’
But here no one spent their days sitting in cars and air-conditioned offices, working in pointless jobs to pay the mortgage and buy more stuff they didn’t need. They weren’t subjected to the same drip-feed of distressing news that filters through out media channels every day.
A lot can be said for a book that not only gives you an insight into the world around you, but also a look inside yourself. Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains sets out to be a travel title. But at its heart is a book of storytelling, self-discovery, reflection, and adventure. No wonder even Joanna Lumley loves it.
This is Amy Aed’s latest review in a series on adventure books.