Arunachal Pradesh is just another state for most Indians – and hits the headlines more for what the Chinese say or do than for anything else. It is a large mountainous state, almost the size of Paschim Banga (to be politically correct), with limited access, predominantly by road. The helicopter services are few and far between and the one to Tawang had been discontinued earlier this year after 2 disastrous crashes.
Tawang had always been on the growing list of ‘places to visit’ in the ever dormant traveller in me. It was probably, lower down the list, because of its remote nature. I was due to go for a teaching progrm to Tezpur University and it was almost unbelievable, that a professional acquaintance of many years, who was also going for the same program also turned out to have a strong chronic ‘travelitis’ infection.We discovered this by accident and we could not resist the opportunity to make the long, and what we were assured by many, to be a back breaking journey, from Tezpur to Tawang.
So, we excitedly planned a trip together, visited AP Bhawan to get the requisite permit (yes, even for Indians) and requested our Tezpur hosts to arrange the taxi etc. All the folks we met at Tezpur were surprised at the two ladies, travelling the arduous route. The view from the guesthouse at 5 am beckoned us and we set off with hope and anticipation. We had been assured that the 340 Km could take anything from 14 to 18 hrs and had planned to break the journey mid-way. The first 50 km through Assam was pretty and flat – with 15 KM of the worst road i have ever traversed!! ( And that is something for a Gurgaonwasi!!) But once we entered AP though Bhalukpong, it was all uphill and enchanting.
There were innumerable waterfalls and the mountains were covered with thick forests the likes of which we had not seen since our childhood. I am sure, many of the younger Indians have never seen the ‘jungle’ of our folklore! After, 8 hours of journey we reached Dirang which was our night halt. A brief, stroll around the typical hill town market and we were ready to get into the razai at 5pm – by which time it is pitch dark. We should seriously consider 2 time zones in this country – i have always felt it when visiting the north-east.
We had an exciting 7 hr drive to Tawang the next day – over the Sela pass – which at 14,000 ft is one of the highest motorable passes in the world. It is the only entry into Tawang valley from India and the Border Roads and the Army keep it open all through the year. It was snowing as we drove over and my friend, who had never experienced a snowfall was as excites as a child. Sela Lake, was half frozen over, as were we!! We had carried a lot of stuff, bit it still fell short at those temperatures.
As you drive down into the Valley, there is the memorial to PVC Jaswant Singh and all those brave men who lost their lives during the 1962 Chinese invasion. A brief tour of Tawang market and the ‘razai’ again beckoned us by 5pm. The temperatures drop so steeply, life is a constant challenge. Wood is stacked in large bundles outside every house – people have to face the extremes of temperature – how can the cutting of trees be banned? That the forests survive is probably only because the population pressure is low. And its a good thing that HP and BP are everywhere.
We, unfortunately only had one full day in Tawang. So, we visited the monastry, which looms over the town, visible from everywhere. It is the largest monastry in India and an important seat of the Mahayana sect.
But the visit to the Penga Ten Tso lake was the best part of the trip. It was like walking into an old fashioned christmas card – the kind that used to come by post from distant lands in earlier times. And ours was the only car there – even a normally restrained person like me broke into a trot and rushed towards the waterside. It was breathtakingly beautiful, unspoilt and pristine. But, of course we were not the only people there – the Army was there and the locals were earning their daily bread by carrying sacks of cement. It was snowing heavily and it was magical.
It was 2 days of travel to get back to Gawuhati – on the way back Sela had a lot more snow. By the second day afternoon we were back on the plains – it was as though we had returned from another world!!