On the day of Diwali, today, I recall one of the quietest Diwali days that I had. It was in Tawang. We visited the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, a quiet little temple called Urgelling gompa. There seemed to be no one there. We looked at the beautiful 600 years old white gompa with its two yellow doors, uncertain about what to do. Our driver was a local boy, and he went to a nearby house and came back with the caretaker. The lean middle-aged caretaker carried two keys with which he unlocked the doors.
I’ve written about this place earlier, and the tragic-romantic life of Tsangyang Gyatso, the boy who became the sixth Dalai Lama. According to Gelug Tibetan Buddhist belief there is only one Dalai Lama, a living Bodhisattva, and the ruler of Tibet, reincarnated in body after body. The boy from Tawang who became Dalai Lama is said to have planted three trees and prophesied that he would return to Tawang when they died. One is said to have died in the 1950s, a few years before the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled from Tibet and came to India. I walked around and took photos of the two remaining trees.
On the way in we had turned the prayer wheels, helping to keep in motion the Dharmachakra, the wheel of Buddhist law. If you are religious, this is said to give you a spiritual connection with Gautam, the Buddha, who set that wheel in motion when he gave his first sermon in distant Sarnath. For me it is an automatic gesture, feeling the balance, listening for a squeak or rattle. The caretaker had a different interpretation; he thought the Buddha in me speaks when I pass a wheel. Behind the row of wheels I’d seen a chamber with chortens and lines of butter lamps.
In the days before Diwali the sight of oil or butter lamps with their wicks lit in a steady frame puts me in a mellow frame of mind. The Family says this is just my excuse for eating too much. That is certainly part of the mellowness. In any case, when I asked about the lamps, the caretaker was happy to take us through the lower yellow door into this chamber. The room was filled with these large chortens, with only a narrow passage left for us.
We walked past them to a table with lamps set out in rows. We began to light them. The ritual meant different things to different people. For the caretaker it was part of his duty, his dharma, so to say. For me and The Family the lighting of lamps on the days leading to Diwali was a continuity with the mellow memory of family gatherings in the past. Our beliefs give meaning to our actions, but, independent of meanings and beliefs, little acts like these are the doorways through which the continuity of our lives pass. We lit the lamps. The caretaker and our driver took a few and placed them below the chortens. Then we locked the door behind us and went away.
It seems to me that by November the epidemic would have burnt through most of the population of India. In this newly safe climate, if we survive, we will be aching to go on a holiday. I suppose international travel will still involve quarantines on arrival, or impossible-to-satisfy COVID-safe visa conditions. So our next holiday will have to be in India. My mind turns to the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh: the high border between India and China.
We love that high cold air, the hours on bumpy roads which take us to the middle of nowhere. In that bleakness, to find a warm cabin, and a simple dinner of hot thukpa with a blazing chili sauce. In that emptiness the only sounds that you hear are the cold winds which blow over the roof of the world, and the lonely calls of ravens and choughs. We are waiting for that long drive across the flood plains of Assam and up into Ziro valley. I hope the next five months do not change the world and its borders so badly that this becomes impossible.
When you travel across the eastern Himalayas you cannot help but notice the popularity of carrom. In Thimphu we found a street lined with carrom boards after dark, each board had a game going on. It’s hard to be excited by a game of carrom unless you have been exposed to it since your childhood. In the streets of Thimphu no game was without a little band of appreciative spectators. The photo above was taken at mid-day near the Reshi hot springs in Sikkim. We saw similar scenes in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, parts of Assam, and even as far away as Tripura.
Football is tremendously popular as a sport in the hills. One can understand that in the narrow ledges on hills it might be difficult to kick a ball around in an impromptu game of football. Cricket is not very popular; presumably a boundary would not be hard to score. Archery is a widely practised competitive sport in the hills. But these are not games you sit down to with a bunch of friends.
Chinese pavements are full of games which often attract large audiences. Sometimes they seem to be strategic board games of various kinds, but often they are games of luck: cards, for example. The Chinese way of life involves accepting luck as a cosmological principle. Perhaps the Himalayan cultures, with their guardian deities, are different?
Some of the food that the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh eat is pretty well known in the plains, but others are completely unknown. Momos are found across the Himalayas, and I’m no longer sure where they originated. Traditional Monpa cooking used barley to make the covering, and the filling could be yak, pork or vegetables. I think I’ve never eaten this variety; every momo I ate on this trip was made with maida.
Similarly, variants of the thukpa are found across the Himalayas. The one I ate in Dirang was clearly “cleaned up” for tourists: the meat was chicken instead of pork, but it had a variety of local herbs and definitely had yak cheese. When I asked the cook about the herbs, he just said they are local. I could not even get the local names of the herbs from him.
In Tawang I came across the thenthuk. The meat was chicken, and it seems to be like a thukpa in spirit, but uses broad noodles. These look like the hand-pulled noodles I ate in Bejing. When I asked about it, I ran up against the Monpa unwillingness to talk about food with “outsiders”. I asked whether the noodles are hand made, and I got a nod in answer. When I asked whether they are hand made in the kitchen of the restaurant, I was told that it was not. That’s about all the information I got. Again, I could not get the names of the herbs from the cook. When I asked abut the difference between a thukpa and a thenthuk all I was told is that the latter hs broad noodles. If you are Mon, can you please leave an explanation in the comments? I assure you it will be highly appreciated.
I asked about zan and chhurra in the hotel in Tawang which we stayed in, and my questions were greeted with delight. How did I know about these? I said that I’d read it on the net. They were surprised. The cook said that zan is not made very often these days, people prefer rice. There was general consensus that zan tastes really good. I was told that they would try to get someone to make these two things for me. I got a vessel full of steaming hot, bready, zan: by far too much for me. I liked the taste, but it was heavy, and I could not eat too much (that’s the dark bread-like thing on the plate). The chhurra was clearly something special: it was like a very cheesy stew full of local herbs. I loved it (disclosure: I love ripe cheeses). This was an amazing meal: simple, in that it was just two things, but so complex in taste. Yet again I could not get a description of how these things are made and what the ingredients are.
Arunachal Pradesh is a biodiversity hot spot. Markets are full of diverse fruits and vegetables. I’m sure that the little that I ate is just the tip of a culinary iceberg. Inside India there are cuisines which are still hidden away from most of us!
The Sessa Orchidarium is not hard to spot. On our way up from Bhalukpong we’d seen it on the right flank of the highway just after passing through Tipi, and marked it down as something for later. On the way down we saw again the gate above which is a large board which says "Sessa Orchidarium". Although we were fairly sure that November is not a time when orchids flower, we visited it because it was so easy to spot.
We drove in. There was a ticket booth, but it was not manned. The gate was open, and we drove through to the parking lot. The person selling the ticket arrived when we were about to leave. Near the parking lot was a map of the Orchidarium.
The place is large. There are many sections with naturally growing orchids. In the wild we had seen orchids growing on large trees. One part of the grounds was full of these trees. When I walked among them I saw orchids growing; very few of them were flowering. It would have been nice to know more about them, and I wished this section was labelled and had more information.
The locations of greenhouses were marked on the site map. We walked on to one. It was standing open. Until now we had seen no one. Now we spotted someone walking past. He stopped when we asked him where we could go, and he indicated the open door. Inside were the usual spectacular hybrid varieties. We saw many Cattleya. This was a little bit of a surprise, because the genus Cattleya is not found in the wild in these regions.
Orchids are special enough that we spent a while walking slowly through the aisles. Few flowers were in bloom, but the ones which were looked lovely. It seemed to me that we had seen most of them before. At this time of the year the greenhouse was pleasant but not spectacular. I think it will be a riot of blooms in April or May. Unfortunately, even in the hothouse, labelling was minimal. If each plant had been labelled, we could have looked up information on it with our phone as we walked through.
When we emerged, the place was still deserted. We could have walked into other fields and other greenhouses, but the story would have been similar. It was hard to be enthusiastic about the Orchidarium in winter, especially as there was no information on what we were seeing. Clearly there is a laudable effort to cultivate and preserve. Since this place calls itself a research centre, one has the feeling that this part of the work is being done with some enthusiasm. But it also invites public participation, always a good thing for scientists to do. A little more thought given to educating the public about orchids would have been very welcome. The Family and I are determined to go back, and the next time we will try to go in the company of a botanist who knows about the local orchids.
One of the central tenets of sustainability is to buy local. This has multiple effects. First, by eliminating the carbon overhead of transporting goods, it directly impacts the long-term health of the global ecology. Second, by buying local varieties of food one ensures that biodiversity in agriculture is maintained, and local varieties of crops do not die out. But more importantly, by giving business to local artisans and farmers, it prevents their migration to ecologically unsustainable megapolis. When the slopes of lower Arunachal Pradesh are full of wild bananas, we thought it would be possible to eat local varieties of bananas. No such luck. The only bananas we could find in the market had been trucked up from the plains. Every fruit vendor had a different explanation of why there were no local bananas on the market. This led us to believe that there is a social dynamics at work. The same dynamics determined that there would be kiwi farms in the hills, and not oranges, musambi or ananas.
On the way up, I’d noticed apples being sold in Nechiphu La. I’d naively assumed that these would be local varieties. Not true. We asked one of the vendors about the provenance of the apples, and she said that they came from Himachal Pradesh. I saw packets of Golden Delicious, and they are bound to come from much further away. Even here our attempt to buy local failed miserably.
The shop which sold the apples also had packets of some dried berries hanging at the back. The Family asked what they were and the shop girl said that they were "junglee" spices. The prejudice against local produce was out in the open. We bought a packet and asked how to use them. The girl became animated and explained what to throw away and what part to use, and how to use it. So it seems that the prejudice against local produce is absorbed from tourists coming to this region and becomes an instinct. A cryptic commerce in locally gathered food continues. I’d seen similar attitudes in the Bhalukpong bazaar on the way up, and thought that it is a pity.
It is a pity not only because the lack of development makes the people of this region feel inferior to richer visitors, but also because visitors miss out on a variety of things which might be interestingly different. I hope that by repeatedly trying to buy local we made some difference to these attitudes.
As the earth rotates, the zenith shifts almost half a kilometer westwards every second, if you are at the equator. Even in Tawang, this is close enough to the truth. It was also close enough to the truth to assume that dawn broke when the zenith was 90 degrees to the west of the sun and sunset was when the zenith moved 90 degrees to the east of the sun. A little correction, and that gave us 10 hours to cover the relatively small distance from Tawang to Bomdi La. The earth itself presented us with tall barriers, but we also handicapped ourselves by losing the first four hours of sunlight to the slow process of waking up and having breakfast. In terms of actual movement our progress was rapid: three and a half hours from Tawang to Se La, including breaks, another two hours to Dirang, and a final one and a half hours to Bomdi La. If we had really tried to race the earth, we could easily have reached Tezpur between dawn and sunset.
But it was nice to stop now and then. At Jang I spotted an ATM and stopped to get some money. In Tawang my card had crashed one ATM, another refused to accept it, and a third had long queues. The Avatar spotted a petrol station and insisted on topping up an already nearly full tank. This gave The Family time to do some useful birding. Then further on we stopped to look at a frozen stream. The temperature had fallen due to the snow fall near Bum La the previous night, and even at 11 in the morning the temperature was just a little above freezing. The edges of the stream had formed ranks of icicles, with ice stalagmites reaching up from below each (photo below). The stream itself looked frozen. If you looked closely, then below these plates of ice you could see the slow trickle and flow of the stream. For people like us, from the steam-bath of Mumbai, this was a fantastic sight.
We stopped at a point just below Jaswantgarh for a last look at Tawang. Far below us the Tawang Chu flowed in its valley, and in the distance we could see the sloping plateau on which Tawang town rests, the monastery perching on the highest ridge on the plateau. A couple of bends in the road on, we were at Jaswantgarh. We stopped for the samosas. The free tea warmed us. Half a week ago there were as many tourists coming south as going north. Now we saw nobody on the way north; perhaps they would arrive later in the day.
From Jaswantgarh it was a steep climb to Se La. A wind blew up the valley of the Nuranang river as we climbed. When we reached the tip of Paradise lake, I asked Avatar to let me off. I wanted to walk the rest of the way and meet up with the gang at the army canteen at the pass. This lake looks like an artificial lake created by damming a stream. Reading the histories of the India-China war of 1962, it seems to me that this must be part of the old effort to fortify the pass and use it as a fall-back position. This strategy had failed in 1962. One hopes that the rivalry between India and China never reaches a stage when it has to be tested again.
Although we had reached the edge of the Tibetan plateau in our trip, I had the feeling that I had not walked enough. Now, as a cold wind blew up from the valley behind me I had a wonderful walk. I was at a height of over 4000 meters, and the only vegetation around me was sparse grass. The sky was blue and nearly cloudless. Around me circled a mass of large black birds; crows, I thought first. But their calls were more musical. As a small part of the flock landed near me I recognized them as yellow-billed choughs. I walked on in the cold breeze, the desolate landscape, the absence of people, the call of the choughs. I wished I had had more time during this trip for such walks. My hour was soon up, as I arrived at the army canteen to meet up with The Family and the Victors.
It was a little warmer on the other side of the pass, but still cold in absolute terms. Work gangs were repairing the monsoon damage to the road. The lack of technology was remarkable; and it meant that there were people working at jobs which did not need them. More than anything else, this drove home to us how poor and underdeveloped this part of the country remains, in spite of the pious hopes we read about in newspapers. Later in the day we passed a small village, and when The Family saw a pretty young girl walking along by the road she wondered aloud what this girl could expect out of life. A little below Se La I saw this group of women from a work gang taking a little rest. It was so cold that they had covered their faces. Life in India is hard for many people, but it seems much harder up here. The pursuit of happiness is a luxury here.
We reached Dirang before sunset, and stopped at the market for a samosa chat at the bazaar’s most popular spot: Sanjay Hotel. The public toilet in Dirang bazar turns out to be very clean, and a boon to travelers. We pressed on. The sun set before we reached Bomdi La. It became dark very quickly, but as we climbed it got a little lighter. I stopped to take a shot of the last colours in the sky. Trucks were passing by, headlights blazing. I managed to catch one such headlight painting the vegetation by the side of the road a lovely yellow to go with the dark hills and the fading sky. We drove into Bomdi La in time for tea. We would have an early dinner and turn in, because there was little to do after dark in this little town. The next day was a short drive down to the plains. Our holiday was almost over.
The landscape on the way to the 5072 meter high Bum La pass, on the border of India and China, is beautiful. If you reach Tawang, there is no reason not to press on to Bum La. There is a lot of material on the web about travelling north of Tawang which is garbled or plain wrong. Here are the facts: you can take your own car to any of the lakes or monasteries north of Tawang, there is no need to hire a local taxi. You need a “Restricted Area Permit” (RAP) only if you want to travel to the border pass of Bum La north of the Y-junction. Your hotel can arrange for this pass. There is a canteen at the Sangetser lake where one can have lunch. In case you are interested in planning your trip, I give distances and times in a table right at the end of this post.
We traveled to the border of Tibet in China on the day of Diwali. Since the army post on the border invites their counterparts in China for a lunch every year on that day (and five others) we were only permitted to travel north of the Y-junction after 2 PM. We decided to visit the Penga Teng Tso, the Sangetser Tso and the Taktsang Gompa before this. We also decided against taking our own car because Avatar Singh refused to travel on roads where he had not gone before. However, we saw many private cars on the way.
Penga Teng Tso is a beautiful lake which stands less than half an hour’s drive north of Tawang. The road up to this lake was very good. Although our driver was not keen to stop here, we had heard so much about it that we insisted that he turn off the main road here. There is a path down to the lake, and a good path right around it. I went down and touched the cold and clear water. On the far side of the lake I saw a herd of yak, and my intention was to walk around the lake to it. Behind me the driver pleaded lack of time with my companions, and they asked me to turn back. I took some photos of the lake and the herd, and came back.
As we drove on the road did not remain good for long. We saw work gangs repairing the road at intervals. The whole landscape was full of lakes. We did not know the names of most of them. Although our driver was local, he did not know their names either. He claimed that since no one lived here, nothing was named. This is clearly false, since some of them were named. In any case, we could not possibly stop at all of them. I took some photos, like the one above. You can see the red bush which is ubiquitous as you climb towards 4000 meters and beyond. I haven’t found what it is called in English, Latin, Mon or Tibetan, but surely it is well known and must have been described years back.
As we climbed, it became colder. There was hardly any snow on the ground. What little there was speckled only north-facing slopes. Eventually we passed Y-junction and took the fork towards the Sangetser lake, Taktsang Gompa, and the Zemithang valley beyond it. The road wound down towards Sangetser Tso, but climbed very rapidly from there towards Taktsang Gompa, about 6 kms further along the road. The guru Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to the Himalayas, and is credited with having founded three Gompas called Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest). We had done the two-hour climb to the one in Bhutan perched magnificently over a cliff. We could drive right up to this, although it is also placed as precariously overlooking a valley far below. The gompa is small, but very atmospheric, and full of travellers from Zemithang.
We had given up on bird watching at this height. In the cold weather almost everything would have moved down. But The Family saw a flock of about forty pigeons come to land on a tree near the monastery. When we looked carefully at them we realized we’d never seen anything like them before. The fat birds were clearly cold, and tucked their heads into their shoulders as they sat on the tree. Later we managed to identify them: they are snow pigeons. Another lifer!
We went back to Sangetser Tso. We were told that this lake formed when a recent earthquake dammed the outflow of a river. One can see that it is connected to a river. In fact this is the same river which flows through the valley above which the Taktsang gompa sits. Unfortunately I don’t have maps which name it. I wish I had asked for this information from one of the many friendly army guides we met. In any case, you can see that the lake bed was flooded fairly recently, because the disaster killed a lot of trees. The trunks of these dead trees still poke out of its blue waters, and makes it one of the most distinctive lakes in the vicinity. In fact, distinctive enough that Bollywood superstars Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan were filmed dancing around here in a long-forgotten movie.
We ate at the canteen which the army has built near the lake. The building was warm, and there was quite a variety of food available. As we ate, the driver began to get agitated and wanted us to leave immeidately. It was barely noon, and if we left now, we would have to spend almost two hours waiting at the Y-junction for the army to let us through. The driver was agitated and would have nothing to do with this logic. We realized later that he had never been to Bum La and was scared of getting stuck on the road. He was much more reasonable on the way back. In any case, we delayed a little, and had to spend only about forty five minutes at the Y-junction.
The army had given the same start time to many cars. The road towards the border are bad, and the army likes to bunch up cars so that one car can help another in an emergency, or at least convey a message about a stuck car to them. The photo above gives some idea about how bad the roads are. In some places it can be told from the surrounding terrain only by the fact that the stones on the road bed are somewhat smaller than most of the stones around. The steep grades that would have to be negotiated now and then were made very difficult by this kind of surface. On the other hand, there were no dangerous sections overlooking cliffs. We had reached a high plateau, and the road was roughly flat. The land sloped up towards a height of 5000 meters, and the cold was becoming intense.
Suddenly we were at the end of the road. There was a muddy parking lot for the cars. We got off and some army men told us to walk ahead towards a reception hut. We sat down there, and were offered a tea. Apparently some people have trouble breathing at this height, so the attempt to make you sit down. No one around us seemed to have an altitude problem. It was bitterly cold, however. We walked the last few meters to the border. Our army escorts requested us not to take pictures of the Indian installations, but did not care if we took photographs of the Chinese side. Some mountain dogs played a game of tag, crossing borders at will.
We were shown a line which was apparently the border. There were many Indian tourists and some Indian army men at this line. Strangely there was no one from China. Their border post was apparently three Kms away. No Chinese tourists ever came to see the pass across which trade had historically joined Tibet and India. In the bitterly cold wind we photographed each other. One of my panoramas turned out to include two of our army guides. In retrospect I see that they look cold too, although they put up an act of bravado in front of us. I was so cold that as soon as I got back to our car I had to wolf down a small bar of chocolate.
When we started back it was still bright daylight. Our driver was clearly under less pressure now. He was very willing to stop and look at the lakes which we passed. One of them was this beautiful heart shaped lake: a beautiful blue surrounded by slopes covered with white ice and red plants. It had turned cloudy in the previous couple of hours. Now the clouds began to lift and the sun began to shine through these breaks.
When we got back to Tawang it was 4 degrees below freezing. 1500 meters above that it must have been easily 5 degrees colder, and with a pretty big wind chill. This was one of the most exciting Diwalis that I have ever had.
Times and Distances
Distances and times are from the Tawang Circuit House. The full on-road timing for the circuit Tawang to Y junction to Sangetser Tso to Taktsang Gompa to Sangetser Tso to Y junction to Bum La to Y junction to Tawang is about 350 minutes.
Everywhere we went in the hills we saw shoes being dried. In Tawang I saw these boots strung up spectacularly close to the sun. Lobsang started laughing when he saw what I’d stopped the car for. But this was only one of the many places where I found drying footwear.
These really colourful child’s slippers were drying on a sunny rafter beam in a house in the village in Sangti valley. You cannot pass through a village in the West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal without coming across a few shoes or slippers drying conspicuously. Sometimes they are spectacular, and someties they add just a touch of whimsy to a balcony.
Eventually I learnt to look out for people washing shoes. Then I realized that this is a commonplace in the lives of the people in this place. Small boys and girls, grown men and women would be at a tap, or even a hillside spring washing shoes. Travelling largely by car, as we did, we clearly missed climbing the hills they did. The evidence was that our shoes never got muddy enough for us to have to wash them.
The Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh seem to have a thing about knitting. When we visited in a pretty warm early November, we found a lot of wool being sold in the bazaar even at the altitude of Dirang. Then in Tawang we saw women knitting all the time. When I say that, it could be that this is a thing for just before the weather turns very cold. On the day before Diwali we walked in the bazaar of Tawang after lunch and found that whenever a group of women gather, at least some of them would be knitting, as in the photos above.
The Family topped all my sightings, as always. She saw a woman walking along a mountain road, knitting as she walked!