Racing the earth

frozenstreamAt the earth’s equator, every second the zenith shifts by almost half a kilometer westwards due to the rotation of the earth. Even in Tawang, this was 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 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. 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 did not walk 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.


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.

Into Arunachal

Nameri is very close to the border between the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, the protected forest of Nameri (in Assam) is continuous with the protected areas (in Arunachal) of Sessa Orchid Sanctuary, Pakhui Tiger Reserve and Eagle’s Nest Wildlife Sanctuary. The last three together make up the Kameng Protected Area Complex. The Kameng, which flows through this biodiversity hotspot in Arunachal, is the river which is called the Jia Bhoroloi in Assam.

Entry into Arunachal requires the so-called Inner Line Permit. Fortunately we already had it. As we reached the border crossing in the little town of Bhalukpong, we realized from the long line of waiting trucks that we had a wait ahead of us anyway. It wasn’t yet 8 in the morning. Avatar Singh parked the car near the bazaar and went off with his car papers and our passes to the checkpost. I walked through the bazaar looking at the vegetables displayed by vendors. The variety clearly showed that we were in a biodiverse area: about half the vegetables on sale had been foraged from the wild. There was an incredible variety of chilis. Even the green leaves included some which I’d never tasted.

chilis sag

It took about half an hour for the check of the papers, and then we were off. The two-lane road remained close to the Kameng river for a while. We passed through a part of the Sessa Orchid Reserve as we climbed. A few kilometers from Bhalukpong was the town of Tippi. Just a couple of kilometers past Tippi we spotted an Orchid Research Center across the road; we would stop there on the way back. The road wound between hills and river. This was the road down which the invading Chinese army had travelled in 1962. Today we passed Indian military trucks ferrying people to the frontier or back. It was a bit of a sight to see army trucks pass below the Buddhist banners of peace on this beautiful jungle road.

tigereyesSoon we left the Kameng behind and began to climb. As we climbed we hit occasional patches of very bad road. The going was slow. The Family sat next to the driver, trying to spot birds from the moving car; she was the best spotter among us. No navigation was needed, because the road was well marked, and Avatar knew where to go; but The Victor kept track of distances and times. Soon he estimated that we were zipping along at an incredible 25 Kms an hour. Our speed was also limited by the fact that we stopped every now and then for photos or birds. We stopped at an army canteen by the roadside. There was a truck parked nearby. As we had our masala chai, we admired the artwork on the truck.


The next landmark on the way was the village of Tenga, named after the river which flows past it. A particular landmark for truckers and regular drivers along the road is a Naga temple just outside Tenga. Avatar Singh tried to get us to finish our lunch at his favourite restaurant here, but we balked at lunch before noon. At some point after this we passed a little village next to a picturesque suspension bridge across the river, and stopped to take photos. After this, the road left the Tenga valley and climbed for a while. Around 2 in the afternoon, as we were drooping from lack of food, as we entered the town of Bomdi La. We expected our Avatar to stop for lunch, but he sped through town. We had to force him to stop and turn back to find a restaurant.

2015-11-07 14.25.52 2015-11-07 14.39.40

The town of Bomdi La seemed to be charmless, at least the part of it which the highway passed through. It is on a mountain pass at a height of 2200 meters above sea level. A fog blew about the town, which seemed deserted even in the early afternoon. A bunch of dogs seemed to constitute that part of the population which was up and around. We found a little restaurant in a basement below some shops. The Nepali cook who ran the place was clean and had a cap and mask on as he cooked. One of his helpers hummed a Nepali song from the 1971 Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman movie Hare Ram Hare Krishna. There was only a vegetarian thali to eat with an optional extra plate of chicken. Avatar ordered a plate. Between the four of us we ordered two. The food was decent, but the town had a hopeless and beaten air about it. I guess if the day were sunny or we had visited the Gompa, we would have had a different opinion of Bomdi La.

We drove on. The sun set behind mountains at about 3:30, and it got gloomy. By 4 we reached our target for the evening: Dirang. The hotel looked well-painted, but we realized it was an old hotel. Like all old hotels in small-town India, the maintenance was not as good as it could have been. The furniture was a little scarred, there were no clothes-hangers in the wardrobe, we had to ask room-service to find cleaner towels. But the restaurant was decent, and most of all, we were well inside Arunachal. Outside our windows we could see the Dirang river. The next day promised to be good.

5 kilometers up?

ArunachalOn Thursday we leave for our annual pilgrimage to the Himalayas.

This year’s trip is to a region full of the history of a half-century old conflict. We trace the lower end of the route which the Dalai Lama took to escape to India in 1959. Then, in 1962, the Republic of India had its biggest military defeat when the Chinese army came down this route, and then withdrew.

Four of us will fly to Guwahati, in Assam, and try to drive to the Chinese border crossing in the Bum La. On the way we cross the Brahmaputra river, drive past Tezpur, cross to Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong, drive along the river which changes its name from the Jia Bhorloi to Kameng as we cross a state boundary, have lunch in Bomdila, touch Dirang, cross the high Se La, and rest for a while in Tawang.

I was looking at distances and elevations today. Our plan involves driving about 200 kilometers to Nameri wildlife sanctuary in a day. This involves a net climb of 10 meters. After a couple of days, we drive another 160 kilometers to Dirang. This little town is at an elevation of 1497 meters. That’s not much, but on the way we cross Bomdi La, which is at 2217 meters. We spend a couple of nights in Dirang. The rare Black-necked cranes winter here, and we hope we are lucky enough to see them.

On Monday morning we do a 30 kilometer drive to Tawang, over the Se La, which is at a height of 4114 meters. I hear that the pass already has snow, but we plan to get off the car and walk to the nearby lake. This will test our altitude readiness. Tawang is at a height of 3048 meters, and should not present a problem. In any case, we plan to spend at least a night and half a day in Tawang before moving out. Our main objective, Bum La, is apparently fairly snow bound. The last 65 kilometers’ drive will take us to a height of 5029 meters. I want to take it slow, so that I enjoy the pakoras and tea which one can get there.

The last time I went above an altitude of 5 kilometers, I was unable to enjoy the view. This time we are taking frequent breaks, and giving ourselves time to rest and walk. I hope the snow does not prevent us from reaching Bum La, and I hope this time I can walk around without getting sick.

Wish me luck.

[Note added later: the experience was better than our expectation]

So much to do, so little time!

The distance between Guwahati and Tawang is supposed to be about 570 Km. Not much, you would think, but we are informed that even in good weather it would take us at least 14 to 15 hours to do this trip. Clearly, this is not something that we should try to do in one day in November. We need to break this journey up, so that we do interesting things on the way, and still have enough time at Tawang.

My friend, The Victor, is great at planning road trips. He figured that Nameri National Park, which is almost halfway, 220 Km from Guwahati, should be a 5 hour drive. We reach Guwahati at around 11; so we should be in Nameri at five in the afternoon, allowing an hour’s stop for lunch on the way. Since sunset is just after 6 in this region in November, we might get in an hour of birdwatching in Nameri on our first evening, provided we do not dawdle over lunch. If we are a little delayed, then we might do our birdwatching on the way, and reach Nameri after sundown.

We plan to spend two nights in Nameri, so we should get one morning and one evening of birdwatching for certain. Then we leave for Dirang, where we plan to spend the night. This is a 165 Km stretch which begins to climb, and should take us 5 hours to do. Since a check for permits is involved as we leave Assam and cross to Arunachal Pradesh in Bhalukpong, there might be queues which eat up time. Still, it would be safe to give ourselves 6 hours of driving. It should be enough to leave by 10 in the morning, which means we might be able to get in another quick morning of birdwatching in Nameri.

There may not be spectacular things to see in Dirang. It is supposed to be good for birdwatching, probably also in November. Although a dzong (monastic fort) is mentioned, the descriptions do not sound great. There is a mention of a gompa (temple) and great views on the way to the dzong, Since this is very close to Dirang village, we might do it in the morning before we leave for Tawang. The road distance is about 200 Kms, although the straight line distance is about a fourth of this. The road is full of switchbacks, so we should expect to take around 6 hours if the weather is good. This is reputedly the most unpredictable part of the journey.

We plan to spend three nights in Tawang. Half a day will go to see the monastery, which is the largest Gelugpa monastery after the Potala palace in Lhasa. I wonder how much it has changed since the Dalai Lama was welcomed here in 1959 when he finally left Tibet. We’ll take a day’s trip to Bum La and the Shangetser Tso (lake). I’ve read about a Takhtsang Gompa in this region, if this is anything like the Dzong which goes by the same name in Bhutan, then we must try to find it. We could try to find the Nuranang waterfall on the way, although it seems to lie a little away from the main road. I’ve seen some lovely photos of the Pangateng Tso, so that is another place we could try to visit. But really, the place The Family and I would like to go to is the Eagle’s Nest wildlife sanctuary. Our three nights in Tawang may not give us time to do everything in this list. We’ve heard much of Monpa food, especially the thuppa and the fish. We should be able to find this kind of food once we start climbing.

We return by the same route. The first day we plan to spend seven to eight hours on the road and halt at night in Bomdi La. The Sessa Orchid Sanctuary near Bomdila is supposed to be wonderful; in November we may not see too many orchids, but we might spot a red panda or two. Bomdila is the gateway to the rest of India, as the Indian public learnt when this town fell to the Chinese in November 1962. From Bomdila the drive to the Brahmaputra is short. Unlike the Chinese army, which pulled back from this town after declaring an unilateral cease-fire, we will press on southwards. We’ll probably take a look at the Bomdila monastery before we start on the drive back. We’re planning to stay in a small tea estate for a night before getting back to Guwahati to catch our flight.

The great unknown in all of these plans is the state of the road. We don’t drive very hard on most of the days. In spite of that, mountain roads are unpredictable. There’s only so much planning that you can do. Once you are on the road, things tend to change. That’s part of the fun.

Puzzled by passes


All mountain passes are the same: you climb along a road with mountains sloping up on both sides, the engine whines and grumbles so that you have to downshift, and then the road levels off. You are at the pass. Tall mountains flank the road, but now the road falls. The lowest line between the mountains is the road, and the highest point on the road is the pass. The geometry of the pass funnels winds along it. If there is snow, then the wind can pile it into huge drifts. If the mountainside is unstable, then boulders will fall down as far as they can, which means they block the road. High mountain passes are hard to cross in bad weather. I anticipate trouble like this when we cross the Se La (Se pass) on the way to Tawang in early November.

Himalayan passes I know go by names like Chele La (near Paro in Bhutan), Thorong La (in the Annapurna in Nepal), Khardung La (in the Ladakh plateau of India), and Se La (the pass between Bomdi La and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh). The word La probably comes from the Tibetan word Lam, meaning road or path. The thing that puzzles me is the fact that in Nepal, whose language is very different, the word used comes from Tibetan.

An aside: a romanticised Indian story about the naming of Se Pass seems to be gaining currency recently. According to this story, during the 1962 India-China war, an Indian soldier held off the Chinese singlehandedly at the pass. He was brought food and water by a tribal woman called Sela. When the soldier was killed, she committed suicide. According to the story, this is the origin of the name of the pass (the soldier is said to have got a posthumous medal for bravery). For this story to be believable, at the very minimum, the woman should have been called Se and not Sela. If you look at a list of Param Vir Chakra awardees you’ll find one for holding off enemy troops till death in the nearby Bum La. The new story does not do justice to the true story of Subedar Joginder Singh, which you can read by following the link above.

A time to plan and a time to travel


The October holidays are in November this year! Every year during the Diwali break, The Family and I try to go somewhere interesting for about a week. Diwali is often in October, but occasionally, it is in early November. This is one such year. We started discussing plans with friends, and quite suddenly decided to go to Arunachal Pradesh.

This is a huge state, as I realized when I opened up the map above. We need to fly in to Guwahati in the neighbouring state of Assam, and then take the road. We could go east to the border of Myanmar or north to the border of China. The road east would take us to Namdapha national park, which is supposed to be great for wildlife, birds and insects. This sounded good. But our friends suggested going north towards Tawang, the second largest monastery of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan buddhism, and the largest outside of Tibet. We have had a trip to Tawang on our minds for a long time, so this was an easy decision.

Now the details. Tawang is disputed territory, the 1962 war with China was essentially about Tawang. So it turns out that we need permits. This may be the least of our worries. Tawang is at a height of roughly 3 Km above sea level, and it begins to get cold in November. We have to cross Se La; at an altitude of more than 4 Km above sea level, this is one of the highest passes you can drive across. It could well be snow-bound in November, although we hear that it is never closed for very long. We might have to wait an extra night in Bomdila or Tawang if the pass is closed.

The Pakke tiger reserve lies just off the Tezpur-Bomdila-Tawang route. The Pakke river descends to meet the Jia Bhoreli (what a lovely name) near Nameri. It is tempting to make a halt in Nameri or Bhalukpong to make a couple of trips into the jungle. I have a wonderful memory from Nameri: a sky full of hornbills at sunset, the deep bass of their powerful wings the only sound as we stood transfixed and watched hundreds of these birds settle on to treetops to roost. But that was in May, not November. It should take 5 to 6 hours to get to Nameri from Guwahati. After a night or two at Nameri we could make the 5 hour drive past Bomdila to Dirang. The next morning we would drive on to Tawang: another 5 or so hours away. The distances are small, but the roads are slow.

We’ve been thinking about Tawang for years. Now suddenly we have only months to plan this!