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Road to Tawang

Road to Tawang
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It was in the month of March that I made this fantastic drive to Tawang, the beautiful land of Monpas in the western most corner of enchanting Arunachal Pradesh, tucked into the cascading hills close to the China border. We were a duo and it was a week-long trip planned from Jorhat, an eastern district of Assam. Our first halt was at Kaziranga national park, near Tezpur. Kaziranga national park is a world famous wildlife sanctuary which is one of the few places where one horned Indian Rhinoceros (unicorn) are protected. There are plenty of hotels of all budget sizes and small cottages around the national park. We stayed in one of them and on the first day, and in the early morning, our gypsy dropped us near the elephant boarding station and we set course for our adventurous elephant ride. The best part about this ride is that the elephants can get pretty close to the Rhino herds and we can see them upfront; but the limitation is that the elephants cannot go deep into the forest for want of time. But, if one gets lucky, one can even spot an Indian tiger.

Though we could see our elephants stamping and trumpeting uneasily as they sensed the tiger’s presence nearby by, we were unlucky to spot it’s swift movement through the bushes. It was a Maruti Ggypsy ride through the national park that we enjoyed in the afternoon. The advantage of the Gypsy drive is that one can reach deep into the forest and see more wildlife, but the disadvantage is that we cannot get very near them. After an adrenalin rush when a family of rhinos tried to run amok, charging at our open roof gypsy (thanks to the guards who are quite acquainted with the Rhino’s nature, they scared them away by making peculiar sounds), we retired for the day, had an early dinner of sizzlers and soup and hit the bed.

We set course from Kaziranga early the next morning, (in North-east India the day breaks  early, and it is ideal to drive in the morning hours), crossed Arunachal state border near Balukpong and started climbing to a height of about 5000 feet above MSL and reached a place called Tenga by noon. Tenga is a place where you do not see much civilisation, only Army personnel. We decided to stay put at Tenga that night as our next night halt was planned at Tawang, which was a 10-hour drive, and night driving here is not advisable. And we needed rest to energize ourselves for the adventurous drive ahead. As planned, early next morning we resumed our journey to Tawang. The drive was a steep climb up. We crossed places like Sapper, Bomdilla, Dirang, Jung waterfalls before finally reaching Tawang. Bombdilla is a fairly big township on the hill where you can buy whatever is required; whereas Dirang is a smaller place which is famous for Kiwi fruits. If you are passing by in the Kiwi season (Jan-Mar), you can pick them up very cheap. Jung waterfalls looks pretty tall and slender splashing down into the valley and you can view it at a distance from a viewpoint not far from the main road. In case you wish to see her closeup, then you have to trek downhill to the base. All throughout the drive, we saw sheer beauty that was all encompassing; be it serpentine roads, cascading mountains, rushing rivers, sleepy hamlets, misty valleys, colorfully dressed people, alpine trees or fast-changing skies. The most adventurous stretch was the Sela pass, which is at a height of about 14000 ft above MSL. During the climb, visibility was almost nil due to foggy weather conditions. The roads too posed a challenge due to the snowspill all around and I was very apprehensive about my small Maruti Alto, whether she will be able to negotiate her way out of that eerie and rugged terrain …but at the end, yes, we reached the top, where it was brightly sunlit and the visibility appeared good. There is a big lake at the top and a lone, small teashop, where you are to get a piping hot cup of tea to warm your already chilled and stiff body. Subsequently, it was the zigzag climb down, but now, with our fear conquered, we could stop where we wished to pose and capture precious moments…but the lack of oxygen at that altitude was insufficient to keep us cheerful  for long and we had to rush down the slope as we were not acclimatized to heights. Once we reached Tawang, we stayed put and took ample rest. Next day, we had plans to visit Boumlla pass, to take a peep at the Chinese soldiers across the border and view Sangetsar lake (famous for Madhuri Dixit’s dance for the movie Koyla) but the weather gods weren’t happy and the roads were not clear for a drive due to heavy snow; nevertheless, on the third day of our wait for weather clearance, we couldn’t contain ourselves and drove further up until 13 km from Tawang... but then my small car was getting into thick snowdrifts on the road, so I had to turn back lest I got into some serious trouble, or I would need iron chains to wrap around the tyres for further grip to climb up, for which I was not equipped (sturdier vehicles like Innova and Scorpio are better).

Meanwhile we visited the Tawang monastery, which is believed to be the second oldest in Asia (400 years old), where you can see red robe-clad monks of all ages, and a war memorial where you get chills reading about the patriotic valour and sacrifices made by our brave Indian soldiers during the 1962 Indo-China conflict. There is a handicraft emporium and local markets where you can shop for incense sticks of various exotic fragrances, Buddhist souvenirs like prayer wheels (it’s pretty costly, so do bargain). Tawang town is a scantily crowded place with small shops and restaurants, including couple of well-stocked souvenir shops. In case you are a non-veg freak, you may even dare to try a serving of Yak meat with a dish of flat noodles or ‘Thukpa’. The Yak, a semi-domesticated type of buffalo, reared by the locals for meat and milk, and the salty Yak butter tea is a delicacy here.

Having come all the way up here, we were rather determined to make it further up to Boumlla pass and Sankethsar lake. So we hired a bigger car (Innova) locally and set course the next morning. About 15 Km from Tawang town, the rough mountain road splits into two at ‘Y’ junction. There is no civil population from here onwards, only a few Army posts. If you take the right hand road, it will take you to Boumlla pass in about 90 minutes or so. On reaching the pass you can stray into no-man’s land and see the Indian army border post and even the Chinese Army post at a distance. If you take the left hand road, it winds down 50 km to about 6000’ AMSL and will lead you to Sanketsar Lake. This lake is believed to have been created after an earthquake in mid-last century, which trapped trees in the middle of a crater. Seeing both these picturesque places are worth it for the rough drive you endure.

After almost six days of exploring this splendid land, we started back. Half the joy of the Tawang odyssey was in the drive itself. Snaking through the hypnotic mountain roads alongside clear gurgling streams and a pristine landscape was the ultimate traveller’s dream. Driving down was a joy after having accomplished something great, but it was sad too, since we had to leave this magical landscape behind. This part of the country is not well known and a bit of advertising may attract more adventurous tourists. And once they visit they get addicted and ask themselves, ‘Why did we spend so much money visiting places like Switzerland?’

A mighty gash in the earth ringed by hulking mountains, Tawang Valley begins to work its magic on the minds of travellers the moment they start descending along the patch-worked sloping ridges to its lower floor, swept by vast fields and dotted with Buddhist monasteries and Monpa villages.
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