Racing the earth

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.

Over Se La to Tawang

The morning was bright and cloudless. By now we had got used to waking with the sun. Just before we left, the sun came up over the mountain and began to light up the Dirang Chu and the bazaar next to it. Dirang is at a height of just about 1500 meters. We would climb rapidly to 4100 meters at the Se La and coast gently down to Tawang, whose altitude is about 3000 meters. Se La is reputed to be cold always, so we were prepared to put on four layers of clothes each. We barely needed two on the warm and sunny morning when we started.


The road climbed rapidly. The surface was quite bad in patches. As we approached the pass we saw the first ravens. We stopped the car. The deep cry of ravens carried in the air and we saw them flying above the cloud covered peaks around Se La. In a tree near us one of the jet black birds sat. It turned to look at us, and then flew off. Se La is a hidden pass; you need to come pretty close to it before you see it. The Family was in front next to Avatar, and Avatar pointed out a random peak to her and said that Se La was next to it. She was quite cut up when the road went elsewhere. Avatar had this ability to completely cut out everything except the road right in front of him. That’s why he was always afraid of getting lost.


As we approached Se La the magnificent peaks around it came in view. The dense fog would sometimes cover the whole range and reduce visibility to a point where everyone except Avatar noticed. Then it would lift partly to reveal a slope plunging a kilometer down. The clouds seemed to be drifting to the right. I had put on my third layer when we got out to see the ravens. Now I shrugged on a jacket. The road turned, and turned again. Suddenly we went through a gate. Avatar would have driven on, but we pleaded with him to stop. I zipped up the jacket and stepped out. Although there was little snow, there was a keen breeze. I had to fumble for my gloves.


Just north of the gate is a lake, which is probably called Paradise lake. The slopes on either side can be climbed. I pulled on a covering for my head and started up the slope on my right. I wanted to do a short, controlled climb to see whether I got tired or breathless. I got to a hut at the top of the ridge and looked down at the blue lake surrounded by meadows with grass dried to a bright yellow. I was ok; happy, but a little cold. I went down and joined the others in the canteen run by the army. The cosy room, samosas, bread pakoras, and tea warmed us all up.


We drove on down. The slopes were covered with a red bush which we would see all through the region north of Se La. A little less than an hour later came to Jaswantgarh. This is a memorial to a battle in the 1962 war where the Indian army held off the invading Chinese army for 72 hours. Jaswant Singh, a rifleman who captured an enemy machine gun and was killed in the process, was awarded a posthumous Mahavir Chakra for his role in this battle. Across the road from the memorial is an army canteen which serves very good samosas and free tea. There is a little platform which juts out over the valley of the Nuranang river. The Victors took their record shot here. We met a couple who were on the way back from Tawang. Talking to them we learned that the road to Bum La is open and not as long as some sources claim.


The downhill road got worse as we proceeded: bumpy and dusty. We passed the strung out town of Jang a little past one in the afternoon. Immediately after this town we saw a sign pointing to a side road which would lead to a view of the Nuranang waterfall. Avatar took this road only after registering a formal protest about the possibility of getting lost. Nuranang turns out to be a high waterfall, at least a 100 meters. The afternoon sun set up a lovely rainbow in the spray. Nuranang waterfall is sometimes called the Jang waterfall after the nearby town. This is the spot where the Nuranang river falls into the Tawang river. In the photo above, you can see Tawang Chu flowing down the valley. A hydroelectric station is just visible in the lower right corner.

We found our way back to the highway easily, and proceeded down to the Tawang river. At a bend in the road we found a small roadside restaurant where we stopped for lunch. I had a mild headache which got worse as we came down. Since it was past two in the afternoon, I figured this was due to hunger. We ordered two thalis: a vegetarian thali for The Victors, and a chicken thali for the two of us. Either the food was very good or we were more starved than we had realized. The thali came with unlimited amounts of rice, dal and two vegetables, so we were surprised that two people were allowed to share one. Avatar also looked pretty satisfied with his meal.


We hit the road again, and crossed the Tawang river pretty soon. The bridge was just wide enough for a single truck, and was festooned with prayer flags. The river gushed over rocks at this point. It would take a pretty skilled white-water rafter to do this stretch. Avatar was happy to indulge us in our desire to get back on the bridge to take photos. We had to dodge trucks pretty sharply as we did that. Strange how the highway looked quite empty as we drove, but now three trucks passed in rapid succession. This was a strategic bridge during the 1962 war. When the Chinese army occupied everything north of this bridge, the Indian army demolished this, and prepared Se La for defense. The destruction of this bridge halted the Chinese advance for three weeks.

We didn’t know it yet, but we were pretty close to Tawang now. The road surface improved. In about an hour we had reached Tawang. The sun would set only after we were settled in our hotel rooms. It had taken us about 8 hours to cover around 130 Kms. We’d covered the distance from Guwahati to Tawang in three days and two nghts, if you subtract the two days we had spent in Nameri and Dirang.

My headache got worse and I began to get the sniffles. I took a gram of vitamin C, a doze of zinc, and settled in front of the room heater. The Family and Mrs. Victor decided to go off to the nearby bazar. I was going to stay warm and enjoy my access to the wifi. My attempt to make a blog post was disastrously unsuccessful; the bandwidth was just not enough to upload photos. It didn’t help that the power kept shutting off. Every time this happened, someone would switch on a diesel generator manually. The connectivity would come back only after the town power supply was restored. I’d shut down the laptop by the time The Family was back. We had dinner and went to sleep. The temperature outside had fallen below freezing, and I was keen on a long sleep to recover.

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]

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!