For nearly a week we have been tracing the villages along the India-Pakistan border in search of the Dhaneta Jat, an elusive Muslim tribe in the deserts of Gujarat state. Our long, hot journey takes us through a colourful constellation of villages, each home to a different tribe; some welcoming, some unapproachable. But we refuse to leave without photographing the Dhaneta, one of India's most reclusive castes. Kutch, the northernmost expanse of Gujarat, is inhabited primarily by Muslim tribes who roam as nomadic herders (jats). It was not easy to get here; a 15-hour train journey from Delhi to Ahmedabad then a nine-hour bus ride to the city of Bhuj. FINDING THE TRIBES depends on the assistance of locals. We enlist Pramod Jethi, the ticket man at the 18th-century Aina Mahal museum. He is a Kutch tribal expert and author. We spend the first few days journeying through Banni, austere terrain outside of Bhuj, in an autorickshaw. Our guide is also our driver. Tom and I are huddled uncomfortably in the back as it sputters noisily along unpaved roads. It is summer and 42 degrees Celsius. Balancing on the heads of passing women are sparkling metal pots of well water. We salivate at the sight but dare not drink. What we wouldn't do for an ice-cold Limca! Each hamlet in Banni is home to a different tribe: Gharacia, Ahir, Harijan, Rabari, Vadha, Lohar … Like scattered pearls, they are separated by vast expanses of desert. Each tribe is distinguished by their own customs, dress and jewellery. The varying reactions we are met with match each tribe's varying appearance: the cheerful embroidery motifs of the genial Harijan; the unfriendly Rabari, dourly swathed in solid black. The Gujarati government has encouraged local tribes to open up their villages to tourism, to improve their economies. They lead us into their homes, simple clay huts made beautiful with elaborate wall hangings inlaid with mirrors. Kutchi men spend the day out with their livestock, the women stay at home doing needlework. Embroidery is their most precious skill. Some spend decades stitching ornate heirlooms for the next generation's dowry. The women attempt to persuade us to buy carpets, clothes and handicrafts. A Rabari rug that took months to make costs 10,000 rupees (HK$1,250), as does an Ahir's dress. "We can't afford these things," we say. "Buy," they say, "buy a carpet!" "We are just backpackers," we say. They can't understand why we came here if not to buy. We encounter a Harijan engagement party. The vivid clusters of women are like a desert dream of surreal colours and psychedelic patterns. They receive us affectionately, pulling us by our hands into their house. This is a rare opportunity to get to know the tribal people personally. They show off their new bride's dowry and ask our driver where I am from. "I'm Chinese," I say. "We have never seen a Chinese before," they reply. Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang was one of the first Chinese to travel to India, in 636AD, during his legendary 20-year pilgrimage to the "western regions". Sometimes it feels like I am the second. Amid the chaos of celebration there is a woman sitting quiet and regal on the floor against the wall. I mistakenly think she is the bride. Everyone laughs. She is the groom's mother. The real bride, who is only 17, is toiling in the yard, cooking potato curry. The second part of our quest takes us to northern Kutch, near the India-Pakistan border. We have switched guides and vehicles. We now travel in a salt-white Hindustan Ambassador, king of India's roads. We are paying considerably more but our new driver vows he can take us to the Dhaneta Jat. Due to its proximity to Pakistan, this region requires permits. We obtain these at the police station in Bhuj. "You are Chinese," the officer says. I don't know if he is asking or telling. "Chinese, yes," I say, nervously; we were warned in Delhi that Chinese cannot obtain permits to India's restricted regions. The officer says something in Gujarati to our guide. Heads wobble. "You will be the first Chinese to go to northern Kutch," the officer says, and issues our permits. "Is that true," I ask. I feel like I have made history. He wobbles his head. The northern lands are even more bleak than Banni. Heat dances like a dragon on the ground's surface. All we see out of the dusty windows of the Ambassador is yellow sand. We can barely breathe but to open the windows lets in the desert. The jats of northern Kutch are a landless caste of livestock owners and extremely poor. They earn a living from cattle's milk. Unlike in Banni, their pastoral camps are sparsely populated. Dwellings are constructed of sticks and stones and old tarps, beds of hay. From this poverty they bring out priceless family heirlooms and intricate silver necklaces to sell to us. We wouldn't buy even if we could. From the car we spot a group of women helping with some road work. "Dhaneta Jat!" our driver exclaims and skids to a halt. They are identifiable by crescent-shaped brass nose rings, as big as their faces, held upright by strands of thread pinned to their hair. Like we've sighting a rare bird, we approach carefully, so as not to startle them. The women are laughing and the men are smiling. Their friendliness is unexpected. We misinterpret their cordiality. Tom aims his camera and the women instinctively hide their faces. The men become angry and shout. They are Sunni Muslims and strictly forbid photos. Our dispirited driver says he knows someone who is a member of the Dhaneta Jat, but they are far away. "It is our last chance," we say. We get lost in the desert trying to find the camp. We are hot, thirsty and irritable. It is dusk when we arrive. Our driver shares a beedi cigarette with the husband while they speak together privately. The wife, her large bejewelled nose ring sparkling in the golden light of the setting sun, prepares dinner. Tom and I wait tactfully over by the Ambassador. We have learned from our prior indiscretions. They are also Sunni but agree to let us photograph the wife. She is old and not pretty like the girls on the tourism bureau's posters and postcards. "Those are not real Dhaneta Jat," our driver says, on the journey back to Bhuj, of the pretty postcard girls. "You have a picture few can ever get," he says, of the true Dhaneta Jat. It will become our most prized photograph of India. THE AUTHOR "My name means 'red plum blossom', which is the flower that was blooming when I was born", says Hong Mei, who comes from a small village in Jiangsu province. In 2009, she took her first trip abroad, a year-long exploration of India with her husband, American travel photographer Tom Carter (author of China: Portrait of a People ). "I watched Journey to the West and old Indian movies like Caravan when I was a little girl, but other than that I was oblivious to [India] except that [she knew] it offers the challenges we backpackers thrive on, and a vast geography where I could lose myself," says Hong, of her motivation. She may well be the first mainland woman to have backpacked across the country. "I myself wouldn't say I'm the first ever Chinese female to backpack around India," she says, "just technically the first on record to publicly make the claim. And publish a book about it." India borders China's Tibet and President Xi Jinping has said bilateral ties and economic cooperation between the stirring Asian giants are a priority for his administration, yet the average mainlander knows little about the subcontinent beyond what is reported in the news. "My publisher did the due diligence prior to publishing my book; you can count on one hand the number of books about India ever written by Chinese. The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions , about Tang-dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang's legendary 20-year pilgrimage to India, is the best-known travelogue. Faxian preceded him, in the early fifth-century AD, with possibly the first-known recorded Chinese account." Despite being the world's biggest spenders on international tourism, as many reports state, mainland citizens are traditionally limited to just two annual golden week holidays, which prevents them from travelling extensively abroad. Generally they stick to packaged, guided tours to a few famous sites. Nevertheless, "I think [the trip] illustrates something that is occurring more: disenfranchised, directionless Chinese youth, for the first time in several generations, now have the opportunity and the means to travel the world", says Hong. "Backpacking is still regarded as being irresponsible by the older generation, so it's a kind of symbolism of our refusal to settle down in marriage or some meaningless job." Visas, which lasted just two or three months at a time, presented something of a problem on her adventure. Hong had to leave India four times (twice to Kathmandu, in Nepal, twice to Shanghai) in a year to renew her entry permits, distractions that ate up savings and thus ended her trip earlier than she would have liked. Due to border disputes between China and India, Hong was denied access to restricted regions in the northeast. In order to write a sequel, she hopes to return soon and visit those areas, as well as Kashmir - along with her son, who is now two years old. Mark Footer The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me (published by Thinkingdom/New Star Press and in Chinese only) is out now. Hong Mei and Tom Carter will speak about their journey at the Asia Society on October 28. For tickets, visit asiasociety.org/hong-kong .