As our car slowed down on the narrow, hilly road and came to a halt behind a long line of stranded vehicles, we noticed the men and machines at work. A huge crane was busy removing the boulders and earth that obviously had rolled down the hill and blocked the road. It looked like we would be stuck for quite some time. So we got off the car to look around. The sky was slate grey, and the valley below was covered in a thick mist that was slowly rising up. This was the second leg of our long road journey to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. It was end of May. Monsoon had arrived in the Bay of Bengal and would hit the hills any time.
The tour company took charge as we detrained at Guwahati after a night’s journey from Howrah. Cars were allotted and our luggage was taken care of. Our first destination after an early lunch was the famous Kamakhya Temple on the outskirts of Guwahati. It is famous all over India as a great centre of trantric form of worshipping the Mother Goddess or Shakti.
From outside, the temple at Kamakhya is like any other Hindu temple built in the Assamese style. However, the sanctum sanctorum – where the sacred body part (fossilised into a piece of stone) is kept and worshipped – is located in a natural cave which goes down several feet below the surface. To reach this dark Garva Griha, lighted by only two brass oil lamps, it took us nearly four hours.
Every day, thousands of devotees from all over India come to Kamakhya to have a “darshan” of the sacred body part of the “Devi” which, as legends tell us, fell at this spot.
Tawang lies at a distance of about 500 km from Guwahati, the capital city of Assam and gateway to the northeast; but because of the nature of the terrain we were to cover this distance in three days, with two night halts at Bhalukpong and Dirang. On this trip there would be no scope to see Guwahati. What little we saw was not much different from any other crowded Indian city.
In the morning we started for Bhalukpong, visiting on the way the Balaji Temple and the Vashishtha Ashrama. The former, built on a huge plot of land, is a rather poor replica of the original. The Vashistha Ashrama was clearly very old, with a charming little stream – the Vashistha Ganga – passing by.
The road up to Bhalukpong, the small border town in Arunachal, is good, straight and traverses the plain of Assam. Some hills are visible far and near, and the panorama is beautiful. The small hamlets in the midst of thick plantation of banana, coconut, betel palm, mango and jackfruit were little different from the Bengal villages. At some distance from Tejpur, we crossed a beauiful arched bridge on the Brahmaputra.
Bhalukpong has little to offer by way of tourist attraction. However, for us from the plains, the pebbled banks of the swift-flowing Buruli river was a good spot to unwind and draw in some fresh mountain air. With the rolling green hills on both sides, the view was pretty. What was not so pretty was the sight of little girls, barely seven or eight years of age, carrying small bolders from the river’s bed for their parents to hammer those into chips. Did they play with friends? Perhaps. Do they attend schools? Probably not!
The clearance to proceed came at last and our convoy started its tortuous journey uphill once again. The road wound its way upwards, with the mountain slope on one side and a deep gorge, densely forested, on the other. Far below we could see dear little Buruli’s rocky course like a strip of silver. Nothing of its foaming and gurgling was visible from here . It was a beautiful scenery, but the twists and turns of the road, and the occasional skidding of the wheels due to the mud brought in by the gushing rain water down the mountain were scary.
Our driver Shahjahan, however, had a steady hand and a cool head. He steered us safely through the hazardous course. I noticed that several times we drove right to the top of a mountain and came down on the other side only to climb another, higher one! That’s how, crossing several mountains, we stopped for lunch near a small waterfall, and just above a picturesque little rivulet. The place was beautiful and we had some photography by the time the lunch was served.
However, walking up from the river-side I had a rather unsavoury encounter. The otherwise innocent cow, perhaps unhappy at my audacity of crossing its path, came menacingly close, its head down and the small but sharp horns pointed towards my belly! I jumped out of harm’s way, but not before getting a few bruises while trying to avoid a nasty somersault.
At some 5000 ft above the sea level, Dirang, is a hill station of Arunahal Pradesh. It is famous for its Buddhist monastery as well as for the panoramic view of the valley below and of the snow-clad mountain tops of Tibet that are visible from here. We would halt at Dirang again on our way back. Therefore, there would be no sightseeing on this lap of our journey, said our Tour Manager. We walked around the township as much as we could, and then retired for the night.
As at Bhalukpong, here too just as we had started our dinner, the Manager began his
briefing for the day ahead. He spoke about the treacherous road up to and beyond the 13700 ft Sela Pass that we would cross and did not fail to warn that some of us could feel nausea and get a headache at that altitude due to lack of oxygen in the air. In such an eventuality we were to remain seated in the car and not to venture out during the 15-minute halt at the pass. This ominous announcement quite naturally spoilt our appetite for the otherwise wonderful courses prepared by our cook. No one cared to listen when the Manager said that we would also see a very beautiful waterfall at Jang, a few kilometers before reaching Tawang.
There is not much to say about the road, except that it was indeed worse than the one we had covered so far. It had caved in at some spots and the bottlenecks created due to the restoration work made it even more dangerous to negotiate. We also saw many more military convoys on this stretch than we had the previous day. The weather worsened as we approached the Sela Pass, and when we reached there, we were totally enveloped by a thick fog. It was drizzling, but we didn’t feel much cold even at that height. Some of us ventured out and walked down to the edge of the lake, which was not visible except when the veil of mist lifted a bit to give us a glimpse. Some snow was visible on the road-side but there was none on the road. From the Sela to Tawang, the road was somewhat better. We stopped on the way at some non-descript place where we had our lunch. We reached our hotel at Tawang by tea time.
The Jang Waterfall, about which our Manager had spoken the previous evening, indeed was beautiful. It of course cannot be compared with the more famous falls at other places, but it was very charming nonetheless. The gushing water from a height of 100 ft was hitting against some huge protruding rocks and this produced a fine spray of water which formed a mist.
I can hardly describe the beauty of this waterfall set amidst thick forests and a gorge through which passes a stream into which merged the waters from the fall. Our entire group descended the steps to enjoy the sight. We reached our hotel at Tawang by tea time.
As was his wont, our Manager began his usual harangue soon after the dinner was served. By now, however, we learnt to live with the horror he would paint about the possible road and weather condition during the next leg of our journey. Actually, Tawang was our final destination; but the trip would remain incomplete without a trip to the Bum La, a Pass at 15,200 ft where our soldiers are guarding the border with China in fair weather or foul. An added attraction would be a picnic by the Sangstar Lake populary known as the Madhuri Lake after the famous Bollywood actor who had shot for a film at this lake. This part of our journey was optional, at some additional cost; but eventually we all ‘opted’ for it.
It was exactly 8 in the morning when we started our journey to Bum La, which was ‘just’ 35 km away. Initially the road was really good and we thought it would be like that throughout! But after a few kilometer’s drive the road vanished. A track was there – marked by the passage of military trucks which, during winter, put chains on their tyres.
Before we ventured on this portion of the drive to Bum La, there was a checking of our special permits. The general upkeep of the vehicles was also perhaps checked, as it seemed from the way the army men were looking at the tyres of our vehicles. It was the month of May. So, the snow on the hills and the ‘road’ was melting, which created a deadly mess for the vehicles. That’s why for this journey we had to hire local drivers and four-wheel drive vehicles. Our Innovas were no good beyond Tawang.
As we drove upwards, the dense greenery of pine and other trees that grow in high altitude gave way to just grass growing on the hillsides where yaks were grazing. Soon even this also vanished, and we were above the tree line and in the land of lofty mountains and snow.
We found that workers of the Border Roads Organisation were busy ‘maintaining’ the track (road, if you will) primarily for the movement of the heavy trucks of the Army plying throughout the day carrying men and material to and from the frontier. From our cars we could see the heavy guns being towed by trucks, and other activities of the Army. We also saw a large number of bunkers on both sides of the road. Sadly, photographing anything to do with the Army was a strict no in this area, and we stuck to the rules.
At Bum La, we passed an arch with a big “welcome” board. The drizzle that had on the way soon turned into ‘freezing rain’ along with icy wind. We filed into a large hall under the careful watch of the Indian army. The trip to the Line of Actual Control – some 200 metres away – would be guided, and in groups. There were many tourists here besides our band of 28. The hall was warm and the army provided us with hot water and tea. There also was a desk selling some souvenirs. Our wait was short, and soon we started walking towards the China border, led by a jovial army man.
There is nothing romantic about this desolate, inhospitable place. It was a barren plateau strewn with small hills. There was snow all around, but the layer had thinned. Our Army guide told us that by September/October snow would fall fast and thick, and the whole place would turn into a white desert. At the LAC there was a “Thank You” board. There were a couple of tin-roofed office buildings on one side where the tri-colour was flying. These, we learnt, were for holding border meetings with the Chinese from time to time. No, there was no Chinese soldier around.
Some of the over-enthusiastic tourists merrily crossed the line. They were called back, and tersely told not to click photographs on the Chinese side. Though we didn’t see them, they were watching us!. Our army is present there right up to the border. But the Chinese, we learnt, were in their camp some 20 kms from the LAC. Their side of the plateau has an all-weather road. They would be here in 40 minutes’ flat, if necessary. On our side of the border, the mountain was brittle and prone to landslides. Hence, the men of the Border Roads Organisation have to be on their toes throughoutthe year.
Returning to the welcome hall we had another cup of tea, before starting our journey back to Tawang. The packed lunch was to be eaten at the Madhuri Lake which was our next destination. Unfortunately, one of our co-passengers started feeling unwell. He, we learnt, was suffering from high blood pressure worsened by the height of Bum La. He did not want to visit the lake, and would like to go straight to the hotel for rest. The two of us had no option but to call off our fixture with the film star, and return to Tawang.
But we could not return immediately. At a spot just beyond the ‘Y’ junction that the other vehicles took for the Madhuri Lake, we learnt that firing drill was on, and we could move only when it ended. That could be an hour or more, said the sentry at the check point. We were not allowed to leave the vehicle. The place was desolate, with snow here and there. The eerie silence was only broken by the resounding booms of guns that were being fired. We saw the guns when we came up. Now we are also hearing them from close!
We were to spend that night and the next at Tawang – enough to see the monastery and the town. The formal name of this beautiful monastery – claimed to be the second largest after Potala in Lhasa – is Galden Namgey Lhatse. This beautiful edifice, three storeys in height, stands on a very large area surrounded by high walls. Besides the main temple, it has residence for the lamas, and a large museum and library. Located on the highest point of Tawang, the monastery is visible from all parts of the town. Built about 400 years ago during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, this monastery played host to the 14th Dalai Lama when he left Lhasa in March 1959 to avoid capture by the Chinese and, after an arduous trek through lofty mountain passes, crossed into India near Tawang. The view of the valley below from the monastery is breathtaking.
The other ‘must see’ spot in Tawang is the very big statue of Lord Buddha – the Patron Saint of Tawang. My wife and I had already been there in the morning as we took a stroll around our hotel. The Buddha here is sitting in his usual padmasana on a high pedestal, blessing the mankind and especially the city of Tawang.
Tawang is also the birth place of Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama (1683) and we paid a visit to the monastery where he was born. Located in a rather secluded part of the town, it is a very peaceful place – ideal for meditation. If the Wikipedia is to be believed this Dalai Lama was an extraordinary person, who loved fun and frolic of a kind not usually associated with a high Lama.
Returning to the hotel after the morning sightseeing, my wife and I went around the nearby market. It was a busy place with a large number of shops selling Chinese pottery and other items. They also sell good quality incense sticks and woolen shawls that are worth a look at.
In between visiting the monasteries we also visited the war memorial, depicting some aspects of the 1962 war with China. But to all of us more attractive was the Army Canteen – not for the food – but for the various items being sold which even civilians could buy. Some of us literally lapped up whatever they could.
We skipped the lunch provided by the tour company (somewhat fed up eating extremely delicious but utterly Bengali food for every meal), and visited a local restaurant to try some Arunachal specialities. Our host, a very nice lady with a soft manner, suggested we eat a dish each of Churpa with boiled rice. Churpa is a kind of curry made of fermented cheese made from yak’s milk, into which are put lots of vegetables and meat. As we were not keen about the meat, chicken was used as a substitute. The dishes were prepared and served hot. It was wonderful.
Like most tourist places, Tawang also has a light and sound show. We spent the evening enjoying the short but informative presentation about local history and parts of the 1962 war.
Our Arunachal trip was virtually over; but we were to return by the same route. On the way back to Dirang we visited Jaswant Garh, a memorial set up and maintained by the Army for the valiant Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, who was awarded Maha Vir Chakra posthumously for his display of . extraordinary valour in silencing a Chinese machine gun in the 1962 war.
It was nice to see some of the equipment used by the soldiers those days. Of these, I was fascinated by a field telephone complete with a Morse key attached. The location is beautiful and the Army Canteen is a good place to have a cup of tea.
Before halting for the night at Dirang we also had a glimpse of the Thubsung Dhargyeling monastery. Consecrated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in April 2017, it is a pretty colourful building in a picturesque setting.
We drove down to Bhalukpong the next day, after a visit to the Tipi Orchid Garden on the way. The shady garden has a wide variety of orchids, but only a few of them were in bloom. It was a hot day, and we were happy to reach the hotel at Bhalukpong for a night’s rest, before hitting the road back to Guwahati.
The trip was difficult and strenuous; but the reward was ample. Arunachal, thanks to its difficult terrain, has escaped the tourist onslaught that other places have suffered. The irresponsible and mindless construction boom that we see at other hill stations is absent in Arunachal. Nature here is still vergin and unspoilt; the air is pure and balmy. I wish I could spend a few more days and see the countryside. Sadly, there are “miles to go before I sleep”!
Our trip was well organised. our stay, movement and meals were very well taken care of; so we were quite care free. It also gave us some free time for ourselves. Still, in a conducted tour one does not get the pleasure of walking around and enjoying a place fully, or to mingle with the local population and observe their lifestyle. Maybe, we will return someday and spend a leisurely week in Dirang. The requirement of getting an Innerline Permit to visit Arunachal is bit of a damper though.
The trip, however, was memorable for several reasons. The weather was not too bad. The feared monsoon was yet to unleash its full fury. Also, besides enjoying the enchanting natural beauty of the places we visited, we also had the rare opportunity to see for ourselves the extremely difficult conditions in which the protectors of our borders live and work. We will rememer the smiling faces of the young men of the Army for a long time to come.