Now, I am not happy with roads. It’s a peculiar confession to be featured but this is the truth. I see roads as creatures conceived with commercial and military motives, increasingly becoming ever-faster zones, almost like restricted habitats where aliens such as animals, children and non-motorised vehicles are not allowed. On road journeys, I don’t get a kick from the speedometer but find succour from the other habitats that the road moves along – villages, fields, forests, hills and rivers.
On the journey from Guwahati to Tawang, there was a bounty of all these elements to keep up the spirits. And then, because we were making the journey in the month of February, there was a bonus in the form of snow. It was a journey that began auspiciously next to the Brahmaputra River, went through the green plains of Assam, into the hills of Arunachal – that enigmatic part of Arunachal which, lying to Assam’s north-west corner, borders both Bhutan and Tibet. Going up, we took a leisurely five days to cover the 500- plus kilometres and, on the way back, three, and in between spent two days at our destination, Tawang. We drove in a Bolero, and in fact, most of the other vehicles on the route were Scorpios and Sumos. I sat in the front seat with the driver, which meant that I was assured of good views and could secure bits and pieces of local knowledge from the driver.
We began from Guwahati on an unusually nippy morning, crossed over to the northern bank of the Brahmaputra and travelled through an almost continuously cultivated tract – small fields lined with palm, bamboo and banana trees, and some pleasing village houses of mud and bamboo, often giving way to the cheap functionality of brick and cement. Our first afternoon, we went looking for (and finding) rhinos in Orang National Park, and reached a darkening Tezpur for the night. But the very next day a lot changed: a little ahead of Tezpur, the national highway ended, the double lane gave way to a single lane, forests started appearing with gratifyingly greater frequency than fields, and hills dotted the horizon. It was a lovely juncture for stopping to drink in this change, and we halted at the Nameri National Park for two whole nights to enjoy the forest, its copious bird-life and the River Jia Bhoroli, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The time we spent at the Eco Camp in Nameri was more than a stopover, made memorable with river rafting, picnic lunch on an island in the river, a risky sighting of two wild elephants and some beer by a bonfire in the evenings.
On the day we left Nameri, a Bodo outfit had called a bandh. We were in the Bodo area of Assam and, on the highway, every single shop was closed and there were no civilian vehicles. Our driver – himself a Bodo and an expert at negotiating bandhs – waited till an army convoy passed and drove along with them. He also gave us several insights into the complex political world of various Bodo organisations. Bhalukpong, just an hour ahead of Nameri, is where Assam ends and Arunachal begins. The change here was dramatic: Inner Line Permits, mandatory for all visitors to this border state, were checked, and then the climb started; the River Jia Bhoroli was renamed the Kameng here, and the first Buddhist prayer flags started fluttering in the wind, dispersing their blessings. (A majority of the people of western Arunachal are called Monpas and are mostly Buddhist.) In Arunachal, the road is usually a series of hairpin bends, sometimes running next to the river, then rising up into the mountains and back down again. We drove past an unusual habitat: a tropical rainforest with a canopy of tall trees that had climbers inching up on them, and a dense undergrowth creating darkness below. These are areas with minimal human habitation – in itself a visual treat. Further into Arunachal, army presence increased and the road broadened out.
We visited Rupa, an old monastery, later in the day. The monastery and town, originally named Tukpan, are beautifully located at 4,618 ft, surrounded by mountains on all sides. The three-centuries-old gompa is a colourful wooden structure typical of Himalayan Buddhism. Here I was surprised to see a long ritual being conducted by the local townswomen. It seems that the Monpas and Shertukpen have been Buddhists for more than a millennium, and traces of their earlier religious traditions have been kept alive by women (sometimes without informing men), and later incorporated into the larger Buddhist practice. As we drove up, the temperatures came down. We crossed the first pass of the route, the Bomdi La (8,134 ft), and went down on a forest road that was being widened, into the town of Dirang, with its old and empty monastery on the hilltop and a beautiful valley spread out below. It was the perfect place to spend our first night in Arunachal.
The next morning, we left quite early to have enough time to drive to the nearby Sangti Valley and spot its winter visitors, the black-necked cranes, and not to be late for the highest and toughest pass of the route – the Se La. In the afternoon, we stopped at a village teashop on the roadside. Far below, we could see a thin silver line that was a river. All around us were the Himalaya, their upper reaches covered in thick white clouds. The clouds were rising slowly, leaving behind on trees patches of white that I hoped would be snow. When I asked a villager where the road would take us, she pointed up and said, “You will enter those clouds and go up and away into them.” Up there in those clouds, up where they were leaving behind fresh snow for us, that was the high point of our journey from Guwahati to Tawang – both literally and figuratively.
A journey through the clouds
We were at a height of 9,337 ft, and there was snow on the few rooftops that comprised the hamlet of Dzongrilla. It lay on the roadside, forming a white border to the black tar. And it was here that our car started its journey through the clouds. It was as if thick white ether had saturated everything, blocking all light. Visibility was less than a 100m, the trees were heavy with snow, and the road was a white field with traces of wheels. We took a few photographs there, and they all turned out black and white – there was no colour in those frames. It took us 2 hrs to complete the 20-km journey that lay ahead of us. The car in front of us got stuck and it took a long, collaborative effort to get it moving again. At the end of it, we had risen above the clouds themselves, and a warm sun shone down on us. It was quite pleasant at the top. We were at Se La at 13,700 ft. As we drove on, it continued to snow. Once we had to wait in the biting cold next to the frozen Se La Lake for an hour as two men on a bulldozer tried to find the black road surface from under masses of white cotton. But these delays were hardly unwelcome – all around us were snow-covered hills and valleys that I took in with delight.
Tawang, its new town and its old fortified monastery, were only a few hours away. We drove down the mountain, which was a site of battles during the 1962 Indo-China War, deep into the valley to cross another river, past villages and thousands of prayer flags. We finally reached Tawang, which was lost in a fog, and offered no warmth but enough hope, with its innumerable monasteries, villages and stories. This hope surfaced bright and unambiguous in the morning with the sun and radically changed the disposition of the entire town. Scores of people emerged, decked up in their amazingly colourful costumes, holding bundles of lit agarbattis, spreading the fragrance and their laughter from one gompa to the next, and all over the hills, whose snow-covered tops smiled benevolently and blessed the initial days of the New Year, celebrated as the Losar. The Losar festivities involve a lot of food, drink and dance, and a break from everything considered work, including running offices and shops. Those were to go on for some more days when we started our return journey, looking forward to experience again the snow on the Se La. But we found that most of the snow had disappeared, taking with it much of the top layer of the road. Also gone were the clouds, and as a result, for the first time we saw the menacing zigzags of the road below, hugging a near vertical face of a black mountain. We got set to tackle those bends, our minds filled with the memories of the lovely walks in the villages around Tawang.
ON THE ROAD
Arunachal Pradesh is a Protected Area and all visitors need to secure a permit to enter. Domestic tourists should get an Inner Line Permit (ILP) and foreign tourists, a Protected Area Permit (PAP). ILPs can be obtained from the Arunachal Pradesh Resident Commissioner’s office or the liaison offices located in New Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, Tezpur, North Lakhimpur and Jorhat. PAPs can be obtained from all Indian missions abroad, and the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Offices (FRROs) in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. You need two passport-size photographs while applying. For more details, visit arunachalpradesh.nic.in.
The road from Guwahati to Tawang is not lit up, and it starts getting dark early in these parts – as early as 4.30 pm in winters, and 6 pm in summers – and as hill roads are risky and deserted at night, it’s ideal to begin early in the morning. From Guwahati to Balipara via Tezpur, it’s a two-lane road, broad enough for the traffic it carries, smooth and without potholes. The first leg of the drive is on NH31 and the second on NH52. You’ll find dhabas, petrol pumps, puncture repair shops and mechanic shops at regular intervals on this stretch.
The national highway ends at Balipara – here the road becomes a single lane, and soon after Charduar, forested areas and hills appear in the distance. It’s a typical mountain road after Bhalukpong. The road is mostly single-lane till Bomdila; two-laning work is being carried out almost everywhere except on a couple of stretches. Fallen boulders, mud and debris are common sights on these stretches, but maintenance is usually done quickly. On the whole, it’s a comfortable drive. Petrol pumps, puncture repair shops and mechanics are available only at the few towns that fall en route: Charduar, Bhalukpong, Tenga, Bomdila, Dirang and Tawang. Roadside dhabas are also to be found in these towns. It’s best not to be too low on fuel after Bhalukpong because the towns ahead – Bomdila and Dirang – have only one petrol pump each.
After Balipara, it’s advisable to carry some food and water with you. There are not many shops and dhabas in between the towns on this route. Thus, while 530 km is the shortest distance from Guwahati to Tawang, we covered 737 km on the way up to Tawang.
When to go: The best time for this drive is March to May and September to November. The road is at its worst during the monsoon from June to August. Orang is best visited from November to April; best animal and bird sightings are from February to March. Nameri is best visited from November to May, and the best period for animal and bird sightings is December to March.
What to pack: A hand shovel and some rope to tie around the tyres could come in handy; also carry woollens and blankets.
Driving tips: The road to Tawang reaches a height of 13,700 ft at the Se La. From December till February, a stretch of 50 km, spanning either side of the Se La, can be snow-covered. The army keeps the road open through the year, but don’t be surprised if you are stuck here for a few hours. A vehicle with a high ground clearance is recommended.
STD codes: Guwahati 0361, Tawang 03794
About the author:
Amit Mahajan has earned money as an engineer, reflexologist, travel writer and translator. He hopes to add more to the list. He lives in Delhi and wants to spend a long while on Goa’s beaches.