A Journey to the Shangri-La of the North-East: Tawang

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This article is in continuation to the Delhi – Assam via Nepal article https://thetravellertrails.in/north-by-north-east-delhi-to-assam-via-nepal/

By Suraj Dutta

The mind reels under stagnation when all that you wish is to travel and explore diverse cultures across various geographical locations, but you are kept away by myriad reasons, otherwise known as “life”. The Mahindra tune playing in my mind “Live Young, Live Free”, I traversed a length of 2600 kms to reach Assam from Delhi following the Nepal East-West highway corridor on my trusted Enfield.

Arunachal, as it seemed to me, was like a raw natural painting adorning the crown of the wildly rugged North-East landscape. Its proximity to the Chinese border (McMohan Line) and China claiming parts of the state make the idea of exploring Arunachal an exciting and adventurous one! There is a plethora of destinations in Arunachal for travellers seeking offbeat fun, chief among which are Ziro, Pasighat – Menchuka, Namdapha – Vijoynagar, Roing-Mayodia Pass, Sangti Valley – Tawang, Tezu – Parshuram Kund, Pangsau Pass, Miao – Changlang (Patkai range), Kibithu, etc.
Since it was my first foray into Arunachal and I had about 10 days of travel time, I decided to keep my travel plans limited to only Mechuka and Tawang. We shall be reading about Mechuka in the next edition while we explore Tawang in this one.

Tawang is situated in the extreme western part of Arunachal and used to be the district headquarter of the West Kameng district until it was given district status in itself.

My journey to Tawang started from Tezpur in Assam. I had two routes at my disposal to choose from. Either go via Mission Charali in Tezpur to Bhalukpong through the Balipara route or take the Orang route via Mazbat-Kalaktang-Rupa to Tawang. I was warned about the frequent landslides on the Bhalukpong route while the Orang route was one of scarce traffic. The major tourist traffic includes the local taxis which take the Bhalukpong route. Historically, I had never followed the same route while entering and exiting a destination if possible. My logic for this being – when I have the opportunity to explore twice, why be happy with repeating the same route? Hence after ascertaining the current connectivity status of the Bhalukpong route, I took the busy route via Balipara one fine sunny afternoon.

Bhalukpong comes under Arunachal and is about 50 kms from Tezpur and 270 kms before Tawang. The principal inhabitants are the Apa tribes with Bhutan asserting dominance once over this tribal territory. The main points of attraction are the Pakhui Game Sanctuary and the Tipi Orchidarium.

Clockwise from top left: Arunachal Pradesh Map. The drizzle sets in at Bhalukpong. Crossing Balipara towards Bhalukpong.

It was a sunny day, the roads were good and barely an hour of starting from Tezpur, I was in the periphery of Bhalukpong. But just as I was about to enter the first town of Arunachal, the mischievous rains of north-east came down hard.

I gazed in awe at a river flowing parallel to the road which was brimming with flowing water at the road level. A bit more downpour and the road would be submerged, I was pretty sure. Looking at the steady yet not heavy drizzle, I analysed that this wasn’t gonna end soon. Out came my rain-wear. It was wet fun thereon. Heavy thump of the Enfield accompanied me as I started uncovering the wild beauty of Arunachal, Bhalukpong onwards.

 

The picturesque hills with the wild Kameng river flowing beneath me and sighting the occasional waterfalls, made me feel as if I had just stepped into some “amazonsque” heaven. This beauty isn’t something delicate or subtle; it was as raw and wild as it can get. Definitely a pahadi nagin! And the rains just coated everything with freshness.

Left: Isn’t the Kameng forestry “amazonsque”? Right: Lush greenery & waterfalls – Bhalukpong scenes.

But my happiness was short lived! Upon crossing Tippi, the dreaded landslide zone started which extended for the next 15 odd kilometres. Tough men with grim faces were busy working the JCBs (earth movers) to keep the tell-tale slushy road clear of the wreckage of fresh earth.

To make matters worse, the rain was giving way to a fog which was setting in quicker as I rode deeper and deeper into the mountains. The landslide zone took about one-and-a-half hour to traverse, by the time I reached Sessa/ Thippey which featured a Goddess Durga temple.

At Thippey awaited the second obstacle, a more challenging one. The light fog gave way to a heavy foggy curtain as I kept climbing mountain after mountain with only about 3 to 5 metres of visibility. It was an entirely different world up here, something similar to a misty Jurassic Park theme. It looked as if evening had already set in, at 3 in the noon. Navigating through sparse slow moving vehicles across tight bends, I reached the dreaded Nechi Phu Pass at 4.45 in the evening, the last 20 kilometres from Seppa taking nearly two hours to cross, such was the density of the fog! After the pass, the fog relievingly lessened but the road continued its sad tale.

At places, it degraded further with slushy quagmires trying to gulp up my tyres at the remotest possible opportunity. I was finally seeing reason as to why I was warned about the treacherousness of this route. No way was I returning via this route in my down trip!

Left: A foggy N.Phu Pass. RIght: In remembrance of the fallen soldiers of Indo- China war.

Sixteen kilometres after N.Phu, the horror ended with the Nag Mandir bridge coming up. It was nearly six in the evening as I sat on the bridge, surveying the landscape which was in shambles and taking the mud off my boots. I decided to call it a day, the constant drizzle and the low light having effectively sapped my energy. After crossing the Nag Mandir, the traffic flow through which was controlled by the Army, the Tenga army cantonment area came up. It was a welcome sight to see a large town before me after traversing the wild route from Bhalukpong. I set up a tent for the night in the Tenga market periphery with clean drinking water readily available.

Clockwise from top left: Local girls constructing a rope-bridge near Tenga market, eagerly pose for my camera. A view of the Tenga cantonment area barracks. The Rupa diversion to the left.

The next day was a sunny day. The foggy dark roads seemed to belong to another side of the world now. The growing presence of the army as I kept travelling amazed me and made me remember that I was travelling towards the border.

I left my Tenga campsite by eleven in the morning and came across the Rupa diversion towards Guwahati and Tezpur immediately upon exiting Tenga. I made a mental note of the diversion as I planned to take this route via Kalaktang to enter Tezpur on my return journey.
I had brunch in the serene hill town of Bomdila and got my bike checked for willy-nilly tinkering. One interesting phenomenon I noticed was to what extent the chips packets were inflated. Maybe because of the altitude, the packets were inflated to their optimum level and looked as if they would burst any moment. Interesting!

Welcome to Bomdila!

A bird’s eye view of Bomdila town.

Nature’s way of cautioning us to stay focussed!

I had heard stories about the picturesque Sangti valley near the Dirang range on the way to Tawang. As I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to view the valley firsthand, I made a beeline for it after Bomdila. The town of Dirang constituency is situated about 50 kilometres from Bomdila and Sangti about 10-15 kilometres further diverted from Dirang. The roads after Tenga and especially after Bomdila are a pleasure to drive and these 50 kilometres could be easily done in less than an hour.

Pretty green hilltop landscapes.

It took me about an hour to ride through taking in the serenity of the place with excellent views of the Kameng flowing in at a distance with rich green paddy fields offering a picturesque vista. It was the perfect picnic location and can be relished in full if you come here for a chilled holiday. I could see that the basti (local terminology for village) featured numerous Kiwi, Apricot and Apple orchards. The valley is known for the migrating black-necked cranes which come from China and adorn its landscape during the winter months. I wished I could camp in Sangti but Tawang beckoned.

The picturesque Sangti valley with lush fields.

 

The road after Sapper, which houses a sizeable army camp, deteriorates again with the nemesis condition of drizzle and fog making a comeback.

I kept gunning towards the cold Sela Pass crossing the occasional village or two on the way. But mostly it was army settlements marring the route. The Baisakhi Garrison was the biggest army camp I witnessed en-route. Jawans gazed at me with bewildered expressions from behind their pickets. For another human, there was no logic behind climbing Sela in such a bad weather.

The constant drizzling was starting to affect me as the cold kept creeping in as I gained altitude. Barely 10 kilometres before the Pass, I had to take half an hour break to let the rain subside a bit and the temperature to go up by a notch.

Thankfully the road didn’t deteriorate that much after Baisakhi as I reached the pass at 6:30 in the evening. As expected, the pass was deserted with even the army outposts empty of their inhabitants just like Khardungla in Ladakh. It was so cold with an icy wind sweeping the rain on my face that I couldn’t muster courage to get my camera out.

Right bank of Dirang town.

The ride down from Sela Pass in complete darkness was another memorable experience. The road gave way to gravel as I rode shuddering in the rainy cold. I was desperate by then. I was comfortable with night time riding, but definitely not under these conditions! Warmth was what I craved for the most at that moment as I realised I would freeze if I continued riding.

Riding for another fifteen kilometres and forty-five minutes in the cold, I finally came across a state established cafeteria of sorts in Nuranag.

Entering Tawang, all the nearby destinations highlighted.

The grumpy caretaker was reluctant to give me shelter for the night as he claimed travellers who stayed the night stole his stuff. After quite a bit of cajoling, this challenge was successfully overcome too as he made way to park my bike inside and cleared space for me before the welcome sight of fire.

The night was a windy one and I was thankful that I was tucked under the covers in a sofa overlooking the fire. The morning ride resumed with me finding the way to the mighty and beautiful Nuranag waterfalls but as my luck would be, some blasting work was in progress and I couldn’t explore it.

Jang, the next big town that I encountered after Sela Pass is the Chief Minister’s (Mr Pema Khandu) home town. My ILP was checked only once throughout the trip at the Jang military outpost after which I had breakfast in the town before resuming the ride.

Tawang was only forty kilometres from Jang and I witnessed numerous road widening work going on as well as setting up of Jio network towers. I reached Tawang nearly two hours after starting from Nuranag (60 kilometres). It was a sedated ride, taking in the beauty of the high mountains, the fresh air, the wide curvy roads and views of distant villages hanging by the mountain sides.

One with the grumpy caretaker of the wayside cafeteria.

First view of Tawang with the Monastery glistening in the distance.

Now I know why Arunachal’s Tawang is termed as the Shangri-La of the North East. Such was the freshness of the air and the environment that I was convinced it would have an age-stalling effect on the residents.

The first enthralling sight as you enter Tawang is the sight of the golden roofed Tawang Monastery. Situated at the top of a mountain overlooking the town at an altitude of 10,000 ft, the monastery is the largest in India and second largest in the world. It dates back to 1681 when it was founded as per the wishes of the fifth Dalai Lama. It was once administered by Tibet before the British implemented the Simla Accord of 1914. The sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang, such is the significance of Tawang for Tibetans.

Entrance to the Tawang Monastery.

It was time to enjoy the hospitality and serenity of Tawang and explore the Tibetan Cafes, Y junction, Bumla Pass, Sangetsar Lake and the Taktsang Gompa. If I could wish anything, I would have definitely wished to stop time and hover around this peaceful place with smiling faces all around!

Pretty prayer wheels of all sizes.

The return trip was pretty uneventful other than reaching Bomdila the next evening and taking the Rupa route to Tezpur in the dark.

At Rupa, following the rule of bypass roads. Instead of taking the one entering the town, I took the one bypassing it which led me through a jungle route to Shergaon. My heart in mouth as I rode through tall overhanging bushes in the night, I shrugged a sigh of relief as I exited into the highway leading to Kalaktang after a couple of hours of riding.

Mesmerizing misty Sela Lake.

The highway from Kalaktang to Bhairabkund and then further onto Balemu-Mazbat-Tezpur was a smooth one and can be preferred by travellers over the landslide prone Bhalukpong-Tenga route.

Drool-worthy landscape of the Nuranag area.

This was the tale of my five day adventure to the Shangri La of the North-East. With memories cherishable for a lifetime, I ended the trip with a promise to set on a new one soon!

 

Suraj ‘Sufi Traveler’ Dutta likes to think of himself as an avid traveller with a sweet tooth for trekking to less explored trails. A lawyer by profession, he was introduced to the unlimited vistas of travelling by means of long distance biking expeditions. Solo biking till date remains his preferred means of travelling and he considers the Enfield Thunderbird as his most prized possession. Trekking to the Everest Base Camp remains at the top of his to-do list.
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