18 December 2010

arunachal pradesh

place: bhalukpong, bomdila, dirang, jang, tawang
district: west kameng, tawang
state: arunachal pradesh
location: tawang is some 350 km from tezpur via shuttle or bus
average cost per head: coming soon (in a group of four)
mode of transportation: shuttle, bus
stay: hotel hornbill (bhalukpong), yatri niwas (bomdila, 03782223005), hotel gan chin (tawang, 9436692465, 9436674585)
food: local and continental
fame: culture, tribes, monasteries, wildlife, river kameng, wildlife, himalays, passes, lakes etc

TOUR OPERATORS:

Himalayan Holidays (Tezpur-Bomdila-Tawang) 9436228628, 03794223151, 03794222483 (tawang office), 03782222017 (bomdila office), 9864364153, 9957178796 (tezpur office)
Shangri La Tours and Travels (Bomdila-Tawang, Bomdila-Tezpur) 03782222433, 03782223151, 03782222255, 9402232009, 9402241029

prayer flags: a constant companion
It was the night of 17th October, a night that was never to be but a night which made us realize what “in the middle of a moonlit night” actually was. A night of fervor, a night of chill, passion and I would go on to say my best bight ever. The quaint little town of Bhalukpong was never really in our plan. We were supposed to have headed straight for Bomdila on the morning of 18th but then as fate would have it, due to unavailability of regular shuttle from Tezpur we had to make decisions in haste and landed up in the town of Bhalukpong where a huge concrete head of Mithun, Arunachal’s state animal, welcomed us with its imposing colossal horns. We were told by the driver who had dropped us till there that we would get regular shuttle and buses for Bomdila. It was our folly we believed him but then we hardly had any other option. There was of course no one ready to drop us till Bomdila and we were left stranded in a place where everything was dark and reminiscent of Stone Age. In any case, a trip towards Bomdila, making way through serpentine hill roads, with valleys and ravines plunging deep into heaven didn’t sound good and we better gave it a miss and thought deciding the future of the trip the next morning. We paced ahead for hunting a hotel to hide our heads from the ravaging cold. There were hardly a couple of hotels there and we luckily found one, Hotel Hornbill, named after an exotic bird, the one that had till yet eluded us with its mystic stories and fame. We had countless cups of tea and then set along to scout for alternatives of reaching Bomdila the next morning. But before that we thought of taking an uphill walk. The night, with its expanse of the dark sky, the shining shield of the moon and the lofty hills, gave a surreal feel to our very own existence. We felt we were in a different world altogether. The military man, walking with hurried pace, made us realize of the ground realities, but nothing, absolutely nothing, made us feel, not even once, that we were in a piece of land which China laid claim on. It was every bit of India with beautiful Indians all around. I had fallen in love with Arunachal and it was to grow manifolds in the days to come.

welcome to the land of morning sun: bhalukpong
When every discussion with each shuttle owner and tour operator came to unhealthy conclusions we decided to rope in the help of a hawaldar of Arunachal Police. There was this fat and grumpy man, Mr. Pandey, from Purvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh (the fact that I am also a native of the same geographical region can’t be overlooked) whom we stalked for help as hapless college students with faces made to appear even worse than the war-ravaged people of Germany post World War II. I don’t know what made some of us register themselves as penniless college students out on a fun tour of the wild Indian hills but it was great fun faking identity. The man, a divine intervention for sure, took pity on us and decided to help, but not before long, out came all the stories he had baked in his heart. He was definitely hell-bent to help us out of the place but then, if you have forgotten, everything comes for a price. He was a lonely man, from the Gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh who had his family living miles away. He had his tales of surprise, agony, happiness, content and disbelief. He narrated out his heart and we lent a patient ear. He had issues with his elder son, who had married a thick-lipped lady from South Africa, and paid little heed to the sacrifices of the old man. His younger son, studying in an upfront engineering institute had backlogs in his papers and that worried the old man who had plans of opening a school in his native village post retirement. The more he laid out his stories, to four complete strangers, the more conspicuous we became. We did sympathize with the man after all. In a matter of few hours, we knew each other well enough. He knew our villages, our schools, colleges and offices and we knew even his salary. It was getting late in the night so we left for our hotel (relax! the hotel was just on the other side of the road. Bhalukpong is a small town, with shops and hotels lined on a small stretch of the highway with some villages down the valley where a large board proudly gave directions to the Pakke Tiger Reserve) and with a couple of pegs of Vodka slept blissfully in the coy comfort of the narrow bed with Vivek beside me taking a zillion turns every second.

pakke (pakhui) tiger reserve
We woke up early anticipating the planning we had to do and to catch a glimpse of the rising sun but the hills at the distant and almost everywhere else made the sun elusive when it rose. Over cups of tea and a gentle breeze blowing in the Dooars I thought to myself, “Could life had taken a better turn?” and then I was hit hard with reality. The tour operators whom Mr. Pandey had given polite orders the previous night to arrange for our trip to Bomdila refused coldly citing unavailability of seats. Before we could get further disillusioned with the way things were going Mr. Pandey came on the scene, out of his small home, and assured us that he would arrange for something. Over more cups of tea and with a growing uneasiness and anxiety and with posters of Toko Teji nailed all around came the news from Mr. Pandey that he had, at last, arranged for a truck (headed for the McMohan Line) which would give us a lift. We were more than happy and puffed with a sudden splurge of excitement gasping the fact that we would finally be on our way to Bomdila and that too in a truck (besides the uncertainty of the days to come). We couldn’t thank Mr. Pandey any less for his noble efforts and for all what he did. We set off for the headquarters of West Kameng district with the gusto of a teenager.

tipi falls, tipi, west kameng
Arunachal came alive within minutes of the journey. The huge layers of forested hills, arranged one over the another, the wild and fast flowing river Kameng, the deep valleys, the muddy roads, the countless waterfalls, the small sleepy towns passing by, gibbons jumping from one tree to another in a dense clout of jungle on the other bank of the river would stuff excitement even in the weirdest of souls. It was getting too much to handle. The road was a botheration for quite a while since an expansion projection was underway by Border Road Organization (one of the most reputed bodies responsible for making roads in the most inhospitable of conditions and notorious for the road signs that range from salutes to the ones who died making the roads to be careful and cautious on the roads itself). The beauty of the land of many tribes kept unfolding at a leisurely pace. All along the journey, river Kameng was a constant companion. At places it was wide, muddy and looked wild and at others swift, white, rocky and narrow but with an everlasting beauty that would inspire the laziest of person to jump to action. Countless Bailey bridges along the river, hundreds of military outposts (which implies how critical this area is) and thousands of sign posts we left behind before halting at Nag Mandir Bazaar where we had a feisty lunch of local Arunachal food (a simple assortment of roti, dal, omelette, salad and some local vegetable cooked in little oil and spice) followed by a huge peach, the cultivar of which you would never get in the huge cities.

nag mandir bazaar, west kameng
A few miles hence we halted yet again for a dekho of the river Kameng where it had the biggest of the boulders in her belly. The truck journey, a first for us, was both exciting and tiring and after almost six hours we reached our destination for the day, Bomdila. I have no words to describe the beauty of the place. The closer we reached the place the more it looked like a gateway to heaven, the elusive Shangri La, which Arunachal has in abundance. It’s beyond my potential to paint the place with words with all the narrow roads, the multitude of hills of varying height, the hanging clouds, dark and white, the gorges and the constant chill in the air. The approach to Bomdila, I would say, was one of the highlights of the journey. A little drizzle had left the place unexplainably cold. We reached the place by 2 PM and straddling across the curvy roads of the town, which went up and down, finally reached our hotel, Yatri Niwas. Before anything else, we decided to book a vehicle that would take us to Tawang the next day but as expected every tour operator (there were four that I could count) raised their hands helplessly and said a big, “I am sorry. We are booked for the next few weeks.” The ambiguity of going to Tawang the next day mixed with the fact that even if we decided to turn back to Tezpur we would have no vehicle for days and maybe weeks made the whole episode sullen and bleak. But we were optimistic souls and after dousing the anxiety over a cup of tea left for discovering the town, a small one, but really difficult to cover owing to the terrain.

bomdila, 2217m, west kameng
A small gompa (stupa, chorten), which we could see from the road near our hotel, was marked as the destination and since it was about to be dark we hurried our steps. Going around the town, littered with butterflies in hues of the rainbow, birds unknown in the plains, dogs with a rich coat of fur, and the beautiful Monpa people made us realize that life out here is so difficult, so different, so close to nature and so celestial. A small town nestled deep in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, hundreds of miles away from the plains, is surely God’s own place. With heavy breaths and visible tiredness after having scaled the ascent to the stupa we felt blessed for having coming at least this far. The monks served us water in little porcelain cups and I tell you, water never tasted any better. Such innocence, such naivety, such playfulness, such nobility is very rare in the big cities. We retuned back to our hotel and since it was already dark we decided to dine at the best restaurant out there that would serve us authentic Arunachal food and settled for Hotel Tsepal Yangjom where we had thupka (a noodle dish with much gravy and enough to fill your stomach), manchow soup, rice and chicken manchurian. We asked the waiter if he could help arrange a vehicle for Tawang the next morning to which he gave an ambiguous reply, “I will try arranging some.” That did give us some solace and before retiring to our hotel for what we thought would be the last night at Arunachal gave our last words to the hotel manager, “It would be very kind if you could arrange something.”

(prashant) on the rocks! river kameng
Disillusioned despite the pleasure we had for the day we got into the comforts of our blanket and readied for sleep with just one peg of Antiquity Blue. It just wasn’t the right time to celebrate with rivers full of alcohol. A huge knock on the door made us jump on our feet. You certainly don’t expect guests, late in the night, in a stranger city and that too in the middle of Himalayas. We opened the door and in came a man, short and fair, with two mobile totting guys behind him. He told us he had been sent by the hotel manager who was his brother-in-law and that he was there to help us arrange a vehicle. To our dismay he continued with his blabber for the next half an hour saying how honest and god fearing he was and that he had a baby boy and a god-fearing wife whom he wouldn’t be able to show his face if at all he cheats helpless tourists. Without our approval he went on with his stories of how he charged nominal, that his Suzuki Eeon was brand new, just fifteen days old and how he would double up as a guide and show us every landmark place between Bomdila and Tawang including the Dirang hot spring, Sela Pass, Paradise Lake, War Memorial at Jaswant Garh and Nuranang Falls. He said he had this good habit of waking up early in the morning and circling the local gompa and that we could trust him and the price he would quote would be nominal, which was obviously, according to him, disregarding the fact that we were stranded tourists looking for a way out. He said he was notorious in the area as Chota Don and that people were afraid of him and that he was a true Monpa, fearless, god-fearing and honest. And finally when he came with his right price we all looked for cover. For a journey till Tawang he asked for 8000 bucks and when we said we had to return to Tezpur too he was quick to add another 5000. So for a journey from Bomdila to Tawang and back to Tezpur he wanted 13,000 bucks which would otherwise cost us not more than 5000. We were left speechless and told him we would let him know the next morning. The moment he left with his heavy rants of God, honesty and the Monpas, which still echoed in our ears, we gave a hearty laugh at our agony.

dirang valley, west kameng
The next morning we again woke up early, this time not for the rising sun but to linger around the tour operator’s office to ensure he arranges for some seat to Tawang. But everyone had the same clich├ęd answer, “It’s just next to impossible to arrange for a group of four. If at all anyone doesn’t show up it would still be a couple of seats and not four.” After much effort and wait, when most of the vehicles left for Tawang, fully loaded with all the passengers turning up, we decided to go and have a cup of tea and plan for the return journey whose prospects looked as bleak as anything else. We were, at that time, the four saddest people on earth. Things looked lost and forlorn and the very thought that we would miss so much gave us goosebumps. But then as fate would have it, amidst the entire petrol, cash and vehicle crisis, a local Omni driver, who had come for refueling, came to our rescue. The tour operator (Shangri La Tours and Travelers) was kind enough to fix the Omni for us and even went around looking for us after we had left for another cup of morning tea to douse the misery of having messed up everything. Our excitement knew no bounds at the godly news. We rushed to our hotels, packed our luggage and off for the holy town of Tawang which was in news on the onset of the year for the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang monastery. His visit was a political message of sorts for China, that he very much considered Tawang, and the whole of Arunachal for that matter, a part of India. A few miles ahead, still in disbelief that we were actually heading for Tawang, we saw the mighty massif of Gorichen, housing the highest peaks of the state. The road was bad and dangerous but we had the will of iron and continued amidst beauty and a road lined with hillocks on one side and deep plunging valleys on the other.

bomdila, west kamneg
The first stop was the hot spring at Dirang but more than that I loved the Dirang Valley, all green and tempting and could see many campers there near the Dirang River. We had our breakfast at the town of Dirang and for a change the ATM was working fine there unlike at Bomdila. We headed further deep and high into the lap of the mighty mountain range and wherever we laid our eyes we could see eternal bliss including butterflies, birds, rivers, valleys, forested hills, and tribesmen in their strange dresses but with an ever smiling face. The man behind the steering was a thorough gentleman who helped me remember the hotel we had booked. My phone wasn’t working so I had no idea how to contact the hotel owner and confirm of our arrival plus I wasn’t getting the paper were I had written the name of the hotel. Bypassing some of the most stunning views I had ever seen in my life and many a munching herd of yaks we reached Sela Pass, the highest motorable road in North East. It was the first time ever I had been beyond 4000 m and the feeling gave me a high.

nuranang (jang) falls, jang, tawang
The roads looked more treacherous than ever before and we even saw the remains of a truck that had met a sad fate last year. There was a marked change in the hill topography with the rocks covered in colorful mosses and lichens and the air becoming thinner and to top it all, to our ultimate surprise, it began to snow. Yes, the 19th of October, it was the first snow of the season at Sela and my first ever. We jumped out of our car and couldn’t control our excitement and like kids left to play after the rigors of tuitions played and frolicked in the snow and the blowing cold wind. I took off my shirt and with just a vest on my body pranced around and could hear the aunties from my home state Bengal quip with anger, “Chele ta ke dekh, koto osobbho. Thanda lege gele bujhbe. Aaj kal kar chele ra! Shudu style.” (Look at that guy? How silly! He will understand when he catches cold. The guys of today! Too much style) There was a small gompa and an equally small shop nearby which served tea, magi and other confectionery items. The beautiful lady owner was visibly upset over the sudden splurge of tourists who had come inside to protect them from the snow. We had countless cups of tea and when the wait for the obscure magi became longer decided to move on with the displeased owner constantly shouting at the tourists to maintain discipline inside her shop and not taking eatables without her permission.

gorichen massif, as seen from bomdila
Just beyond the pass was Lake Paradise, one of the highest lakes in India and strikingly beautiful. The landscape changed as we went downhill with colorful coniferous trees replacing the evergreen mixed forests and the rivers becoming violent and rocky and more waterfalls along the route. We soon crossed the famed Jaswant Garh war memorial, erected to honor a brave soldier (Jaswant Singh Rawat) who was martyred in the 1962 Indo-Sino war and then the wait began for the ultimate adrenaline raiser, the Nuranang Falls, alternatively known as the Jang falls, located some miles off the town of Jang. It had come out of its oblivion in the year 1991 when a song of the movie Koyla was shot at the fall (and at the nearby Sangetser Lake).

sela pass, 4177m, the highest i have been so far
The terrain became rugged and forested again with much the same scenery we had left almost 350 km behind. It was getting darker and we waited with arrested breath for the fall and when it finally came we were left in awe. It was a sheer beauty, a gorge of water falling from a height no less than 300 ft and leaving a much higher imprint in our minds. Though we were in great hurry we did stop at the fall for quite a while and every single glance made us wonder how God has blessed this world with so much of plenty. We moved on and sometime later at a sharp turn we saw the first glimpse of the world’s second largest monastery and not before long, just before dusk, we reached our abode for the night, hotel Gang Chin in Old Market, Tawang. A local festival celebrating Dussehra was in full flow and they were serving butter tea and some snacks for free. The ATMs weren’t working in the city and there were long lines at STD booths and restaurants. We had yak momos for dinner and decided to participate in the road show which showcased an assortment of cultural fest from across Arunachal and Assam including the yak dance, a Bodo dance, a shawl dance, fashion show with wooden masks et al. it was great fun, a heady mix of global and local, of traditional and contemporary and to top it all, the MLA of the area was also there mixing with the crowd and handing away prizes as common as a slip draw. It was quite late when we went to sleep with a glass of brandy and woke fresh the next day for a trip to Tawang monastery and local sightseeing.

coniferous forests beyond sela pass
The monastery was really amazing, huge and colorful and markedly ancient with huge carpets hung on the wall, beautiful Buddhist motifs everywhere and the cylindrical bells that I had always wanted to churn around. A swarm of little monks, robed in red, came out running from the main temple and lined for breakfast. We too went inside the kitchen and asked to be served and they very much obliged. A visit to Urgelling Monastery, the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama and a war memorial rounded our trip after which began the most crucial part, the haggle for the return journey. Much like at every point of our journey in the Himalayan state we went around the town looking for alternatives but nowhere it seemed a viable option with reserved vehicles asking for as much as 17,000 bucks. We had our train to Kolkata the very next day from Guwahati so we had to, any cost, set forth today itself. After much struggle we got three seats (from much help of Himalayan Holidays) in an SUV which needed some urgent repair so we had to wait. The wait got longer and just when we started losing hope came the news that the car was ready. Finally, after much wait and with feelings mixed with anger, disinterest and indifference we headed for Tezpur and not before long the car had its breaks coming down and we had to wait for another couple of hours at Zero Point, Jang for our journey to resume. The driver had his hands bandaged and his pain was visible and with night falling quick and temperatures dropping considerably beyond Sela Pass he had to down his pain with a couple of pegs. It was an anxious night of uncertainty. We had our dinner at some dhaba in the dead of night and when it was obvious that the drunk driver would in no way be able to drive through the dangerous Himalayan roads any further we had to scout for another driver and luckily for us we got one in a car parked behind us at the dhaba. He was a minor but then he was the only one whom we could trust under such precarious condition because we had to move on lest we miss our train.

tawang monastery, tawang
It was around 2 in the night when we came across a huge traffic jam and the news that a landslide had occurred some feet away was yet another in the line of events our journey had so far shown us. The army had decided to blast the landslide and had requested me and Prashant to tell every vehicle in the hundred mile long line to push their vehicles back but the sleepy drivers paid no heed to our shouts so we decided to sit beside a waterfall and stare at the naked moon with dark spots and thought Arunachal was much the same. We moved ahead when the landslide cleared and with a sleepless night saw the dawn of a new day, our last day in the North East, at the Tipi falls, not far away from Bhalukpong. Moments later, we halted at the border town for tea, met and thanked Mr. Pandey for his help and moved on. We reached Guwahati, checked in a hotel, rested for a while, went to the zoo, a beautiful one, had dinner at a posh restaurant and finally two hours before midnight went to the station for our train that would mark the end of a journey, a wonderful one at that, to a conclusive end.

monks at tawang monastery
Despite all the ups and downs of the journey, despite all the uncertainty, despite all the anxiety, it was certainly the longest and most memorable journey of my life so far. I made new friends and got closer to the ones I had. Learnt so much about two most wonderful states of India, met people on the way who made me realize that it’s ultimately one big family we are all a part of. It’s one big beautiful world which has so much beauty to offer, to suffice for a lifetime and to protect which is the duty of every single soul. Till my next journey, this is Vivek Singh, signing off, and wanderlust till doomsday!

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