Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The land of the Rising Sun: Arunachal Pradesh

view of Kameng River and braving it out in the snow on our way to the Indo-Bhutan border

For a Mumbaikar attempting a great escape into the splendid isolation of Arunachal Pradesh, it was a bit disconcerting to come across a lake named after Madhuri Dixit. Because for the locals, the Sangestar Lake is now Madhuri Lake, thanks to a song from the film Koyla that was picturised there.
It was also annoying (though sometimes sweet), to have to keep explaining to the locals that the mere fact that I live in Mumbai does not make me Shah Rukh Khan’s close personal friend. And finally, Arunachal’s No. 1 hit song drove me straight up the wall. It is by Himesh Reshammiya.
Fortunately, these – and the Maratha Regiment at the Bum-La Pass that I was only too happy to keep happy by exchanging notes on ‘back home’ – were the only reminders of the crowded, congested city on the other side of the subcontinent that I call home. For two glorious weeks, I was in a fresh, cool, unspoilt environment that is Arunachal Pradesh. And I will never forget the experience.

Adventure : Arunachal

Situated on the north-eastern tip of India, with Bhutan on the west, China on the north, Myanmar on the east and the states of the seven sisters on the south, Arunachal Pradesh is our very own land of the rising sun.
It is not easy to get there – especially the West Kameng district where I went trekking. You must fly to Guwahati first, and then drive along the River Bhramaputra to Tezpur from where, after an overnight break, you continue to Bhalupong, a town on the Arunachal border. Before you go, however, you must apply for an Inner Line Permit – essential for a sensitive border state like Arunachal.
Documentation done, our adventure began with a climb to Jamiri, en route to the Dirang Valley, wandering past the Kameng River as it meandered down the mountainous terrain, fed by umpteen streams and waterfalls. About four km from Bhalukpong we stopped at Tipi, which hosts the Orchid Research Centre. The Orchidarium features more 500 species of orchids – Arunachal is the orchid capital of India, and scientists at Tipi have created several new hybrid species.

Onward & Upward
Onward from Tipi, clouds gathered at eye level, and the road twisted against the mountains. For someone fresh from the congestion of Mumbai, the journey was like a benediction: fresh, clean air, and a long distant view. Never mind that it was a long trip to Dirang, we loved every metre of it.
After a trip to the Dirang Zhong (fort) and a night at the tourist bungalow, we detoured slightly to visit India’s only yak farm before climbing up Tom Hill, which, at 9,545 feet able sea level, gave us our first view of the snowcapped mountains on the border. This was our acclimatisation trek: the plan was to trek to Sania on the Bhutanese border (13,500 feet).

Snow Trek

The trek was an awesome experience. The weather was strange. Three kms in to our trek and the weather takes a complete turn. It starts snowing. It was a completely new but frightening experience. But, thank to our guide and Tashi and the other porters who kept our spirits high and did not let us get de-motivated. Three hours into the trek and the entire group had split. The idea of being together all the while had been lost. The weather further got worse and finally our trek leader Jayesh in consultation with our guide took the decision to wait at a Goat hut at ‘Dhonk Chi Phu’. From our hut the ‘Pemakoksum’ range of Bhutan was clearly visible. We were only three hours away from our summit point Sania (Bhutan Border) but we could not proceed as the weather was bad. It took us all of six hours to reach the goat hut (13,255 ft). Nevertheless everyone was happy that we atleast made it to the goat hut.

After the snowtrek as we were warming ourselves in the small goat hut, Jayesh our trek leader announced the change in plans. We realised that the weather conditions had led us to alter the plans a bit. The plan was to trek back the same route to Naga-Jiji (our base camp) and then from here trek down to a small village called Lubrang

Patriotism Unlimited

Lubrang, a village on the Indo-Bhutan border, had precisely 10 houses and a gompa (monastery), and that was all. Right ahead of us was the massive Gorichen group of peaks, standing guard over the border, and right next to us were the hospitable residents of the village, offering us their extremely potent local drink, ‘rakshi’.
The locals of this area belong to the Monpa tribe and, in their traditional attire – long, striped wraparound skirts and boots for women, trousers and jackets made of yak skin for men – did not look at all Indian.
After two nights in Lubrang, we began phase two of our trek, this time to Sela Pass and Tawang. Sela Pass, the second-highest pass in the world, is 14,500 feet above sea level and runs through a ridge along the Paradise Lake. Snow lined the road as we drove up to this pass where, in the 1962 war with China, our soldiers fought valiantly to keep the invading forces out. Tales of heroism filled our ears and we trekked to the nearby Jaswant Garh War Memorial, raised in memory of Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, Lance Niak Trilok Singh Negi and Rifleman Gopal Singh Gusain, of 4 Battalion Garhwal Rifles. For their bravery, their unit was bestowed with the battle honour ‘Nuranang’, the only Indian army unit to receive such an honour in the 1962 war.
Behind the memorial, on a clear day, there is a panoramic view of mountain peaks, including Bum La. Take it from me: this view is best enjoyed to the accompaniment of piping hot samosas and dosas from the stall manned by Army jawans.

The Great Escape

Downward from Jaswant Garh, the terrain changes. Green begins to take over. Do not, under any circumstance, miss Jung village and its waterfall on your way to Tawang. It can uplift the most jaded soul.
Tawang, seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. It is also known as Mon Tawang, Tawang Shyo, Towang, T’a-wan and Tang Shyo. This is where Bollywood begins to make its presence felt, but fortunately, I could escape to the Pankang Thang Tso (Tso meaning lake). The drive there is steep and often snowbound, but words cannot describe how beautiful it is.
We got to peek into China from here – though the border was infinitely less interesting than the gorgeous lakes and marvellous mountains. And on our way back, we stopped at the world famous Tawang Galden Namgyal Lhatse (meaning celestial paradise), better known as Tawang Monastery. One of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Asia, it can accommodates over 700 monks.
Unfortunately, like all holidays, mine had to end. But I will never forget the dawn-lit mountains, remote hamlets, sleepy villages, magical gompas, tranquil lakes and beautiful orchids of Arunachal Pradesh.


Vasu said...

Wow! It must have been an awesome experience. Arunachal is on my list of dream destinations. Thanks for thr write up!

Travel Geek said...

Yes Arunachal was an awesome experience and one must visit it atleast once. I have really beautiful pix of the place but cannot put that all up on the blog


Ronald D'Costa said...

you made me relive that trekk!There is enough masala for three stories.Would have liked to have read a few descriptions and experiences that would have raised it above the Travelogue and made it truly "Anushas"
During the trip you struck me as being a brutully honest person and so willing to help persons making a first trip so much easier.

Vasu said...

Hi, do you have a link to your photos from Arunachal. Trying to get some friends to do this and need to sell the story well to them :)

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