The scenic beauty along the way mitigated our discomfort of the bumpy drive
North East India has always been a mystical and magical region for any traveller. With its unending hills, quietly flowing rivers, deep valleys, enchanting forests, rare flora and fauna and a unique blend of cultures, every state in the region offers fascinating travel experiences.
It is this very fact that prompted me to accept an invitation I received from Don Bosco University at Guwahati in Assam to take part in a conference. After browsing the Internet and a few calls to friends in the North East, the location was finalized: Tawang, the north eastern tip of India (in Arunachal Pradesh) bounded by Myanmar on its east, Bhutan on the west and China on the north and north east.
The statistics of Arunachal Pradesh themselves are fascinating: the largest State in the North East that covers an area of 83,743 sq km with evergreen forests covering more than 82 per cent of the State. On the other hand, the State has the thinnest population density in the country with only 13 persons per sq km.
Welcome to Arunachal Pradesh, a veritable treasure house of nature!
If seeing is believing then you must ‘see’ Arunachal Pradesh to ‘believe.’ People there are different and its natural beauty is unparalleled.
Soon after the conference, my friend Viju and I boarded a train to Jhakalabandha, adjacent to Kaziranga National Park on National Highway 37 (recently renamed Asian Highway 1), about 20 km before Tezpur. After an overnight stay in Jhakalabandha in an eco-cottage, my friend and I took a jeep safari inside Kaziranga Park the next morning. We had a dekko at an Asiatic wild buffalo, a few Asian elephants, swamp deer and the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros.
From there, we hired a jeep to Tawang, the dream destination. The cost of traveling is usually Rs 4,500 per day per jeep, regardless of the number of passengers and number of days. We reached Bomdila, about 165 kms from Tezpur on Day 1.
A tourist requires a permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh: the check-post is at Bhalukpong, 56 km from Tezpur. Those on official duty are exempted from permits. Bomdila was about 110 km from Bhalukpong, but Nayan, the 23-year-old jeep driver told us that it would take about six hours. Initially we were surprised, but soon realized why he said so. After we crossed the Assam – Arunachal Pradesh border (Bhalukpong) in less than an hour, the tar road gave way to bumpy unpaved road.
The scenic beauty along the way mitigated our discomfort of the bumpy drive. The deep valleys, water falls, banks of the river Kameng surrounded by evergreen forests were a photographer’s delight.
At 2.30 pm when my friend asked the driver to stop at a nearby hotel, he said we had to wait at least two hours to reach any hotel. Another surprise awaited us: by 4.15 pm it became dark, a common feature to the North East. At 5 pm we stopped at an eatery near Sessa and had lunch. By then it was pitch dark. Any eatery between Bhalukpong and Tawang charged Rs 100 to Rs 120 for unlimited meals consisting of rice, rotis, vegetable curry and salad.
We reached Bomdila around 7.30 pm and started shivering with cold with temperature dropping to three degrees Celsius. It was about 30 degrees Celsius in Tejpur. Such steep and sudden drop in temperature was unbearable for a Mangalurean used to hot and humid climate. The woollens we had were not enough to keep us warm that night at a Buddhist Monastery guest house!
At an altitude of 8,500 feet Bomdila Bomdila offered a bird’s eye view of Kangto and Gorichen peaks, the highest peaks of Arunachal Pradesh, amidst the Himalayan landscape and snow clad ranges. The region is inhabited by Monpa, Sherdukpen, Aka (Hrusso), Miji and Bogun (Khwas) tribes.
After visiting the monastery, we left Bomdila for Dirang, 42 km away, at 7.30 am. After reading a lot about Dirang it was a big let-down: the town was less than 300 metres with a few shops and two wine shops. The Indo Tibetan Border Police base was just about 200 meters away. On way to Tawang not far off from Dirang was a hot spring known for its medicinal properties. We reached Sela Pass, the world’s second highest motorable pass at an altitude of 13,700 feet running through a small ridge and along the Paradise Lake. This place with snow-capped mountains more than made up for our disappointment at Dirang.
The Paradise Lake as the name suggests was indeed amazing. It was barely 300 metres from Sela Pass. We left it with sweet memories even though we were famished with no eating joints anywhere around. It took us 45 minutes from Sela Pass to cover 14 km and reach Jaswant Gar, a memorial to Jaswant Singh, who valiantly managed to change the course of the battle and forced the Chinese to retreat during the India-China war in 1962.
At sunset, we had to leave for Tawang. There was an enchanting sight of the waterfall en route. We reached Tawang, our dream destination, at 7 pm. It was pitch dark by then and shops were about to be closed.
The next day was important to us as we wanted to do a lot of sightseeing at Tawang before the sunset at 4 pm.
Tawang was a small town between mountains and valleys. We were hoping that the roads would be free of snow so that we could cover most tourist spots within two to three hours.
Non-local vehicles are not allowed here. We had to hire a local vehicle separately at Tawang to go for sightseeing. The charges ranged between Rs 3,500 and Rs 4,500 for a day that actually doesn’t last beyond five to six hours.
Norbu, a local driver, settled for Rs 4,000 for a sightseeing trip in Tawang including Madhuri Lake. In the event of heavy snowfall blocking the road to the lake, then the charge would be Rs 3000. The other tourist spots in Tawang included the famous monastery, the second largest in Asia and a memorial (built in Buddhist architecture) commemorating the heroes of 1962 India-China war.
The driver chose Madhuri Lake as the first spot to visit, 34 km away.
Even before we covered six kilometres we saw many drivers (returning without reaching the lake) signalling to us to get back. They had informed us about the Army personnel having blocked the road due to heavy snowfall. But Norbu paid no heed and went ahead. Maybe because he had a vested interest!
As luck would have it, the Army personnel had cleared the snow and ice by the time we reached the spot close to the Shungetser Lake, the sacred lake of the Buddhist Monpa tribe of Tawang.
Thanks to the driver’s never-say-die attitude we could visit the lake now called Madhuri Lake. It was informally renamed after film star Madhuri Dixit. The hit song Tanhai, tanhai from the movie Koila featuring the actress’ dancing was shot there.
The driver told us the lake was created by a flash flood after an earthquake in 1950. But it became a tourist spot after Koila became a hit.
We also visited the other amazing picturesque spots in and around Tewang: Panga-Teng-Tso (PT.TSO) Lake, Nagula Lake, Gorichen Peak and Nuranang Falls among other spots.
The sights on our journey back to Tawang such as snow-clad mountains, deep valleys, lakes exhilarated us no end. The Army presence en route made us feel secure.
The visit to Tawang Monastery was hurried, but the architectural beauty of the 17th century structure with three storeyed assembly hall housing a temple and 28-foot Buddha idol made it so unforgettable.
It became dark when we reached Tawang War Memorial which had names of 2,420 heroes of the 1962 India-China war inscribed. On display at the memorial were maps, photographs, and weaponry along with Indian soldiers’ paraphernalia. One of the two rooms is used for sound and light show depicting the heroic deeds of war heroes.
We left Tawang early morning the next day carrying back home many happy and fond memories of being in the midst of captivating beauty of the land of Monpas, surrounded by thick clouds.
Most of those residing in the region were men and women of the Border Roads Organisation repairing and clearing snow and others working as drivers and tourist guides or running petty shops and small eateries. They heavily depend on Guwahati (Assam) for essential goods and groceries including vegetables.