Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains – Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

Warning: I started reading Cryptonomicon midweek last week and thought that I’d finish it by today or maybe tomorrow, but I got tripped up with the holiday weekend and I refuse to read that particular book concurrently with any other book, so there’s probably not going to be a blog next Monday. Judge away, but I’ve been meaning to read Cryptonomicon for ages and I don’t want to be distracted.


This week’s read was Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent’s Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains. Yes, that’s a lot of characters. The cover designer must’ve had a field day (or a headache) arranging that business.

This book released last year, making it, I believe, the most recently published travel book that I’ve read in the last year and a half. (I’m getting better! For some standards of “better”!) I pulled it from the 2018 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards shortlist (along with a few other books I’ll be reading this year), as some of my favorite travel books have popped up on previous years’ shortlists, so I figure it’s a good award to pay attention to.

Enough about that business.

This lovely book is about Bolingbroke-Kent’s (henceforth referred to as BBK) journey through Arunachal Pradesh–one of India’s twenty-nine states, and one that I was 100% unaware of until about two weeks ago, when I was reading the latest Explorers Journal, which covered a historical event that BBK herself speaks of during her travels.

So.

BBK spends two months traveling around the northeastern-most state of India, mostly on her motorbike, who she names Hero. She stays with several native tribes, partially drowns in abhorrent levels of rain, manages not to eat any meat other than fish and only gets food poisoning once. Having been to India, I am in awe.

Her writing is heavy on scenery, history, and ecology. In this, and her general (but not complete) lack of attention to her internal workings, you can see that she is coming from, well, where she’s professionally from: journalism and BBC TV production. The writing style and focus is very much akin to Midnight in Siberia whose author, David Greene, hails from NPR.

In sum, Dawn-Lit is unlike the bulk of travel reading I have been doing, as it is more of “reader as student” book, rather than a “reader as travel companion” book. Put in another way, this book is primarily educational, with entertaining personal narrative being a second, less visible thread.

This is not a complaint. Travel books, as I’ve discussed… on this blog… with myself… cover a wide swath of mini-categories, focuses, and writing styles. This one happens to be on the far left, where something like Eat Pray Love would be on the far right. They are both well-written books, but the standard reader for EPL would likely not be inclined towards Dawn-Lit and vice versa. Also, I would expect more men to be reading the latter.

Anyhow, I enjoyed the read. Yes, it was a lengthy book, reaching almost 350 pages. And, yes, the descriptions eventually outgrew their welcome for me–but I can get impatient. But BBK is a lovely, if ofttimes distant, traveling companion.

Also, personal note: what a baller. A solo female traveler going into under-explored, patriarchal territory for two months, riding a motorbike? Baller.

Some quotes for your education and edification:

“Curled beneath the eastern ramparts of the Himalayas broods a wild land of unnamed peaks and unexplored forests: the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The largest and least populous of the Seven Sisters–the septet of states that make up India’s turbulent, tribal Northeast–it lies folded between the Tibetan plateau, the steaming jungles of Burma, the mountains of Bhutan and the flood-prone plains of the Brahmaputra Valley.”

“But I was still a woman travelling along and, wherever in the world that was, the less I flashed my pearly white flesh, the better. Not that I’m blessed with a fabulously heaving bosom but, well, some people get excited by anything.”

“In the village, life carried on as normal: children shouted, dogs barked, geese honked, and bony men yelled at bony cows as they beat and drove them home. They’d lived cheek by jowl with claw, fang, horn and tusk for countless millennia; it was as normal for them as having a cup of chai. For the first of many times over the next few months, I thought how lily-livered we are in England; how removed from the real wild our mollycoddled, sanitized, urban existences have become.”

“This was the point of adventure, I reflected: to remove the coddling net of certainty and lob a few grenades of risk into your life; to face your fears and carry on despite them; to realize, every time you overcome these real and imagined obstacles, that you’re a little bit stronger than you thought you were.” 

“Morbidly interested in seeing the extent of the Miju’s culinary tastes, I pointed to a selection of species in the book. Hornbill, hummingbird, bulbul, Himalayan barbet, roller–no bird was too small or too rare; he’d dined on them all. Trying not to look like Disgusted Vegetarian of England I nodded and turned the pages. Who was I to criticize after all? The British hunt foxes and hares, kill badgers and shoot rabbits. As horrified as I was, it wasn’t my place to barge in with my wagging-fingered foreign values and tell him it was wrong.”

“Although I was riding into increasingly remote and unknown territory, I wanted to travel alone. Solo travel is like a drug–it has its risk, but it also has the potential to unlock rare feelings of euphoria Only when I’ve been totally alone, miles from anywhere or anyone I know, have I experienced its pure, unbridled joy.”

“Many Indians drive with their ears, not their eyes; it’s a simple law of effect and cause, and is probably taught by driving schools–‘no horning, no seeing’. Several people aptly demonstrated my new invisibility by wandering into the road right in front of me, causing us all moments of near-underpant-staining-terror. After that I rode along yelled BEEEP BEEEP! like a demented human claxon, animals and people scattering in wide-eyed alarm before my wheels. From the sideways looks they gave me as they lunged towards the verge, I suspect even the goats thought me certifiable.”

“I live in the St Werburghs area of Bristol, a wonderfully alternative community where crystal healing and vegetarian shoes are the norm. It was Saturday morning, and in an hour or two the good people of my street would be pouring hemp milk into their tea and making scrambled tofu for breakfast. And here I was kicking off the weekend with a grade-A bloodbath.”

“Every journey is an exercise in unshackling yourself from the safety and routine of everyday life at one end, and letting go of your fears of the unknown at the other. And on every journey there’s a moment when the bonds are loosed, when at once the journey inhabits you and you inhabit it.”