Tawang - Unexplored Paradise
്Text & Photos: Romin Joseph
I am surprised why Tawang is not part of Tibet. Geographically and religiously it makes perfect sense to me if Tawang was part of Tibet. More military personnel are found in this town than civilians, because it borders with Tibet and Bhutan and much-hyped tensions between India and China. Tawang was the center stage for 1962 Indo-China war. One of the first places to witness snowfall in Indian Himalayas, Tawang ranges from 6000ft to 22000ft. Tawang has a great importance in Budhism as 6th Dalai Lama was born, 13th was hiding in 1911 avoiding the Chinese invasion on Lhasa and the present (14th) fled this way to India in April 1959. The second largest Budhist monastery in the world is situated here. Politically this sleepy town plays an important role as McMohan line passes through Tawang, signed in 1914 Simla Accord between the plenipotentiaries of British India, China and Tibet.
Thanks to HV Kumar for the persistent morale boost in this trip and Lonely Planet guidebook for the guidance. In Line Permits: If Tawang generates interest in your traveller, first learn about the permits required to enter Arunachal Pradesh. It sounds ridiculous that an Indian national needs ILP (In Line Permit) to enter this state. Arunachal permit is a two day affair and you apply on a working day, the permit will be issued the next day 10am- need two passport size photographs and ID/address proof copies, original has to be shown to the officer. Pay an amount of Rs 30/- for the application form and processing. If you need to go to another place in Arunachal, a separate permit is required- Itanagar and Tawang calls for two permits- so carry enough copies of ID/address proofs and photographs.
Arunachal Bhawan is near DownTown hospital on G.S Road, Rukmini Gaon, Dispur. Any bus to Dispur from Paltan Bazaar will carry you there. If you are more tech-savvy and not in a leisure mood to waste one day for this permit, you can contact Himalayan Holidays and they will arrange your permit if you email them photograph and ID proof and ILP can be collected at Guwahati. http://himalayan-holidays.com/ Rest of India prepaid mobile connections do not work in Northeast India. So if you need relentless mobile connectivity, make sure you have a postpaid connection from rest of India. While waiting for the ILP for two days using the cheap network of city buses, I was exploring Paltan Bazar, Fancy Bazar, Kachari Ghat, Cotton college etc enjoying the delicious Assamese food and a comfortable stay at Ananda Lodge (s/d Rs 140/200 MN Road, Ph:0361-2544832) Guwahati.
My survivable Hindi speaking abilities were put to test while interacting with the locals especially during evening chit chat with Mr. Upen (Tel:9859722990) working at the lodge. Many were surprised to meet with a solo India trotter and 'I am from Kerala' was helpful as everyone knew at least one Keralite. Tezpur: You can't reach Tawang in a day or one go if you are using mass transport. Guwahati-Tezpur-Bomdila/Dirang is the way to go, by halting a night at each place. One fine day morning, I boarded an ASTC bus to Tezpur from Paltan Bazar bus station adjacent to the railway station. A shuttle service bus took me to ISBT terminal and in a deluxe 2+1 bus, I was tavelling comfortably to Tezpur at a cost of 145/-. Worst case, you can obtain a seat in a Tata Winger from Network Travels, Paltan Bazar at a slighly higher cost. It takes 5 hours to reach Tezpur and post lunch, I settled at Hotel Center Point (s/d/st Rs 450/600/1400 Main Road, Opp. Police Station) at Tezpur.
The City of Blood, this ghastly name is not justifiable -well kept parks and lakes makes Tezpur one of the best towns in Assam. Exploring this town on foot gave me a kaleidoscope of Assamese culture and scenic views -Padun Phukhuri Lake, Chitralekha Udyan, Ganeshgarhg temple, Agrigarh Hill, Oguri Hills and sandy Brahmaputra banks. Unexpected delight was a group of boys and girls from a school with multi-ethnic Northeast characteristics dancing to the tunes of a folk song and this was being shot by semi-professional videographers. 4pm sunset gave a good view of mighty Brahmaputra.
Tezpur to Dirang: Wake up with sunrise and reach a few Sumo counters along the road near the bus station, I could secure a seat to Dirang for Rs.350/-. Tata Sumos do a great job in this route with 12 people and 500kg of luggage.The last row is really bad and your head will develop a bulge if you are not carefully holding on to the seat. The roads are yet to be asphalted, I could see more buldozers and earth movers than cars or jeeps. A long convoy of army vehicles delayed our trip many times on this post war scenes like roads.
Passing Bhalukpong, Tenga, Seppa and Bomdila, I reached fabulous stone village Dirang after 9hours, thanks to a puncture and the bad roads. Dirang: At an elevation on 1621m, this Tibetan village was chilly at 5pm in the evening, it was close to single digits on the mercury. Though it is not publicly available like Bhutan, if you seek you will find a restaurant to warm up with a peg of whisky for Rs.25. I could find a cheap accommodation at Hotel Moon (03780-242438, s/d/tr 200/300/600 w/ shared bathroom and TV).
Hiking around the Dirang valley next day morning after a nice breakfast and red tea- more appropriate name than 'black tea' as per its color, gave me immense pleasure to meet the locals, ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) officials and a few kids. The kids wanted a printout of their photograph, after getting a printout for Rs.20 I was searching for their house showing their photograph and a neighbour lady promised me that she will deliver to the intended recipients. Apart from the Yak club and Dirang monastery, a hot spring 30min walk on the way to Tawang, Rs.50 by taxi one way is not to be missed at Dirang. While the temperature outside is hovering around 10*C, it was too cozy to scrub the dirt and fatigue enjoying the warm medicinal bath. SBI ATM is the only option to pull out money and its downtime is not predictable-so withdraw enough money when you see the ATM working.
Deforestation for firewood and plastic littering are two major issues to be curbed in this Monpa village. Uttam was my best friend at Dirang who runs a stationery shop. Dirang to Tawang: I was seated in a Sumo by paying Rs.400 for a Tawang ticket and when I reached Se La Pass at 4176m where snow will appear first in early October, my dream of watching snow in India was fullfilled. A few switchbacks on this end of the world endless roads, there is a little shack to serve you tea near Jaswantgarh - a 1962 war memorial for three soldiers who combated bravely to protect their motherland.
Lhou village, 18km before Tawang is very attractive according to the locals and you may detour if you are driving own vehicle. Tawang: 3048m above MSL, accommodation at this jaw-droppingly scenic valley is expensive and the cozy Hotel Dungphoo( 03794-223765 d with pvt bathroom Rs 600) was my favorite. Getting across with the rest of the world is painful from the telephone booths, better inform your dear ones that you are in a paradise where 'connecting people' is far from a dream. Touristy destinations are Tawang Gompa- 2nd largerst Budhist monastery in the world, Gyangong Anigompa for Budhist nuns. I took a little more pain to wake up at 4am and caught up with Lobsang (9402650726/223277) who offered to take me around Tawang. We set out at 6am to see the early snowfall and spotted Yak(male), Dri(female), Dzo(crossed with domestic cattle). Lobsang was entertaining - stories varied from his 14yrs army life, family, legends about lakes and temples, Budhism and Dalai Lama.
We covered Shungetser Tso(Madhuri Lake, named after the Bollywood flick Koyla), P.T Tso lake and many more lakes each of them was prettier with the bare black rocky mountains and the lakes border frozen subsoil supporting low-growing vegetation. Though restricted to civilians and foreigners strictly prohibited; Lobsang's acquaintance with the military made our Tawang safari pleasing covering some of the highest motorable roads in India by his peppy Suzuki Alto. 'Lhasa 508km' was a tempting signboard but there is no overland route from India to China. I salute the army men who spend their best part of life in the bunkers with limited creature-comforts at sub-zero temperatures to protect Tawang - a roadblock in Indo-China reconciliation. Jai Hind!!
Post a sumptuous Naga lunch with rice and pork fat, I explored Urgelling Gompa, learning the basics of Yellow Hat branch of Tibetan Buddhism, Tawang Monastery meditatively watching the Buddhist nuns, War Memorial thanking the 2420 soldiers who gave away their life to a eventually unsuccessful war - the legends and history made me more knowledgeable and humble. The population at Tawang seems to be affluent and literate, fashion conscious youngsters riding pricey motorbikes and apple-cheeked school kids are omnipresent. Private transport are hatchbacks and mass transport is managed by a fleet of Tata Sumos-Land Rovers of India. For a 10hours Tawang Safari, I paid Rs 2500 to Lobsang; a token of appreciation of Rs.200 extra for the breathtaking places in the paradise unexplored and a good friend's company.
People are very friendly, I was running into the kitchen in the restaurants to warm up from the piercing cold, -5C temp in the night and shops/restaurants comes to a halt at 6pm. A sense of national identity is lucid and they proudly proclaims 'our country' and 'our army' during patriotic talks; contrary to the popular notion that this part of India is the 'least Indian'. Bomdila: Though I was planning to reach Tezpur from Tawang in one day, I had to break my journey at Bomdila, after I found that there is a Togyar festival at Bomdila monastery. Phurpa Tsering my friend from this trip hails from Tawang and looking forward to marry again which is common in polygamous Monpa tribes. Tata Sumo, I had been travelling broke down due to leaky radiator and the driver kept trying his best by pouring turmeric powder to fill the hole in the radiator and frequent stops to fill water from the streams. I collapsed at Bomdila, Hotel La(03782-223344 s/d Rs 250/350) and the owner Tashi TSering and I were close friends after an hour of conversation. Tashi woke me up next day morning and invited home to treat with special tea - butter, salt and local tea leaves. Tashi spoke faultless English, graduated from a college at Shillong and his grandfather was in Lhasa for higher education. He loves South Indians and been to Chennai and our conversation topics were religion, south Indian hospitals, languages in Arunachal. He has nice new rooms added to the hotel, built behind the old wooden building.
I explored Bomdila on foot - APST bus station did not show a sign of life, the annual day celebration at the vast ground was spellbinding. Hiked up to the Bomdila monastery to watch the mesmerizing Togyar festival dance forms. A clown tickled our funny bones and he did a good job of fund raiser. Wearing masks of skulls and various demons, the lamas performed cham to the accompaniment of traditional Tibetan instruments- used in Tibetan Buddhism to exorcise devils. A vegetarian nutritious lunch was provided free of cost to the audiences. I befriended with Samudra Vijaya from Mumbai and Kedar Mukherjee from Mumbai who were participants of National Trekking Program organised by Himalayan Holidays, and their experiences were enchanting. Finally it was time to say audieu to Arunachal Pradesh- 'The land of Dawn-lit Mountains' home for 65 different tribal groups -Monpa, Adi and Apatani are a few of them. Declared as a fully fledged state in 1987, Arunchal has more than a dozen tribal languages and Hindi is widely spoken and used as a common language among locals. 7 hours of Sumo trip via the winding roads and I am back at sweaty Tezpur from freezing Bomdila and set to Jagiroad, Assam to celebrate Diwali with Sachin; I needed a vacation from my trip
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