A music festival on the India-China border

Festival Image copyright Orange Festival
Image caption Arunachal Pradesh's road infrastructure needs massive improvements

The remote and disputed mountains close to the border with China in India's Arunachal Pradesh state recently provided an unlikely setting for a music festival. It was also an occasion for India's army to win over the people of a state that China claims as part of its restive Tibet province, writes Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi.

Orange orchards provided a dreamy backdrop to the concert in mid-December as a crowd of 2,500 settled down for a relaxed opening night of live music and local rice wine at the Orange Festival in Dambuk, 300km (186 miles) from the Chinese border at the southern edge of Tibet.

Image copyright Joseph Arthur Instagram
Image caption Brooklyn-based Joseph Arthur headlined the music festival

But even before the first band got on stage, news trickled in that a ferry carrying festival participants, vehicles and equipment on the Brahmaputra river (which originates in Tibet as Tsangpo), was stuck on a sandbank.

The plot grew thicker as a bus carrying 50 performers got stuck on another stretch of the river. Darkness, the cold and poor mobile connectivity added to the drama that would stretch for nearly 12 hours.

"The tyres were submerged, and the water was just inches away from getting into the bus," said Rakshit Tewari, a Mumbai-based musician who was on the ramshackle, state-owned bus. "A local guy said that if it rained up in the mountains before the rescue team arrived, we could be washed away in the valley."

Image copyright Orange Festival
Image caption Musicians were rescued after their bus got stuck in the river

India's first "adventure and music festival" was already living up to its billing. And this wasn't even monsoon, when elephants are used to cross the rivers.

That it did not turn into a misadventure was down to Hari Singh, a former national rallying champion who was leading the logistics team of motor-sports professionals.

Image copyright Orange Festival
Image caption Off-road rally drivers rescued a vehicle from the river

A rescue vehicle managed to spot the bus after a few hours, and passengers were eventually evacuated at dawn. Mr Singh went to rescue the people trapped in the ferry.

Adventure and rock-n-roll

The drama very much reflected the poor state of infrastructure in India's north-eastern states, particularly in strategically important Arunachal Pradesh.

"We have made good use of our bad roads," quipped Lhakpa Tsering, a local off-road racing champion, as drivers from Arunachal Pradesh won several categories of the Orange 4x4 Fury.

Image copyright Orange Festival
Image caption Cars were loaded on a ferry to cross the river. The bridge in the background has remained unfinished for several years

The river beds, bamboo bridges and dust tracks that masquerade as roads in Arunachal Pradesh were ideal for the off-road racing competition, but it is a strategic disaster so close to the contentious border, particularly as China continues to strengthen its road and rail infrastructure in Tibet.

The Sino-Indian border dispute is an old one, dating back to 1914 when Britain, India's former colonial power, signed an agreement with Tibet making the McMahon Line the de-facto border between the two countries. China has always rejected this.

Image copyright Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi
Image caption Locals gathered on broken roads to greet the participants of the Orange Festival in Dambuk

The Indian Army has deployed thousands of troops in the state because of the often tense border situation. The festival provided an opportunity for the army to win the trust of the local population.

At the festival venue, the Indian army had its own corner with guns on show. Festival-goers checked out army artillery, while the soldiers mingled, ate and bantered with the crowds. There was a friendly vibe between the army and locals that many here believe is unthinkable just across the border in Tibet.

Image copyright Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi
Image caption Tine Mina, an Everest climber, hopes to start her trekking and adventure sports organisation in her hometown near the China border

Locals also vouched for the cosy relationship they share with the Indian army.

Tine Mina is the first woman to climb Mount Everest from this region, and wants to start her own trekking and adventure sports venture near her hometown, about 100 km (62 miles) from the China border. Ms Mina said that the Indian army had been supportive of her cause, but getting tourists to brave the road to Dambuk is the difficult bit.

Image copyright Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi
Image caption Indian soldiers interacted with locals at the Orange Festival

Joseph Arthur, the Brooklyn-based singer and artist who headlined the music festival, summed up the road trip on his Instagram account: "I had no real way of perceiving what was road and what was infinity."

For those who braved the road, Orange Festival's final act came with a dash of magic: the crowd head-banged under a torrential, icy Himalayan storm, as local rock legend Lou Majaw belted out a cover of Bob Dylan's Knocking on Heaven's Door.

Adventure and rock-n-roll won against all odds, once again, on the road to Dambuk.

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