There seems to be no lack of pithy sentences promising you the world if only you travel. One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The journey is the reward. Travel makes you modest. Focus on the journey, not the destination. Nothing is as tedious as a journey. No two journeys are the same. The beauty of a journey is that it’s unpredictable. If you are 22, I urge you to travel. Wisdom comes with age. Travel teaches tolerance. Travel long enough, and you forget your passwords. Travel stretches the mind. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been. Amazing how much stuff gets done the day before you leave. I have seen more than I remember. To understand a foreign country, smell it. Go see for yourself. There’s no foreign land, it’s the traveller who is foreign.
The truth is travel is tedious, and not always comfortable. You only have to eavesdrop on two backpackers chatting to figure out how expensive, inconvenient, and downright unhealthy travel can be. I’ve found more disconcerting things about my hometown by overhearing conversations between backpackers than by reading newspapers or doomscrolling. If travelling has taught me anything, it is that it is far more comfortable to stay at home, drinking a tea or a beer as the mood takes you, eating food that you like, and generally being in an environment that you have grown used to.
I learnt that on a freezing winter’s day in Hamburg you should not take a ferry ride through the harbour, or take long walks with a camera in hand. Much better to do what locals do, and stay inside a shopping arcade or sit in a warm restaurant. Better still, go to Hamburg in a different season.
Do not look for the telling detail in Rome. Better to step back and take a long shot of the piazza. It would be even better if you just step back into the crowd, find a table to site down at, and order something to drink. i had more fun drinking a coffee and eating a cake at Piazza Navona that I had taking photos of the fountains.
Do not go off the tourist map. Do not follow the white rabbit. There is no wonderland waiting for you in Goa. Remain where the tourists are, in the places marked out for you. Enjoy the inauthenticity of a big tourist destination. Remember that Alice did not have a great time in wonderland. The world is full of people trying to make a living. Most of them do not have the money to travel.
Bhutan may or may not be the happiest country in the world. But it is not the world’s richest. The always photographable gho and kira which people are required to wear in public are not cheap. The result is that most people only have a small number of outfits, and they cannot always dress for work or leisure appropriately. Do not assume that everyone treats work as a such a joyful activity that they dress their best to work.
Life in a small small village is not carefree. It is often boring and pointless, much like our own, no matter where we come from. If you look different, then you are as much of an attraction for them as they are for you. Even better, you give them an opportunity to forgo dangerous travel to broaden their mind. Also, be sure that any local politician worth his salt will tell his constituents that he has worked hard to make sure that the village is the most attractive in the world, which is why people come from far to see it.
It is not travel which broadens the mind, it is thinking about what you have seen. Anthony Bourdain probably never said that, but Mark Twain may have. Maybe travel has taught me that. Intercontinental flights are boring enough that I get a lot of reading done on trips.
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.
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!
Tawang gompa is the second largest monastery of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism (the largest being in Lhasa). Attending morning prayers here was definitely one of the high points of our visit. The monastery is well endowed, with many of the buildings undergoing restoration or having recently been restored.
After visiting the Urgelling monastery we came back to the hotel, picked up The Victors and left immediately for Tawang gompa. As we entered the gate of the monastery, we saw a shop near the entrance where a young monk was buying a packet of biscuits. The boy-monk finished his transaction and ran away into the monastery. Much of what we saw of the life of novice monks reminded me of a school.
Our first stop was a little shrine inside the gompa where there were a couple of chhortens, with lamps burning in front of them. An old monk sat looking at us while I took photos. The family decided to light a lamp, and she seemed to light up the old man. When I took a photo of him, he asked me where we were from. I told him Mumbai. He said people from Mumbai believe, people from Kolkata do not. A random act by The Family has perhaps forever changed the way this man and his friends will view Mumbai.
We walked into the main prayer hall and found a prayer was in progress. This is a tremendously awe inspiring thing to hear and see. The chants fill up the cavernous space of the hall, and at times the various musical instruments join in: cymbals of various sizes, drums, and wind instruments. I diffidently asked one of the monks whether I could take photos, and he said as many as I wished. I walked around, sometimes between rows, and no one objected. If I go back, I will definitely try to record the prayers: it is a sound that I want to take apart and understand.
The most impressive looking instrument is the horn whose photo appears above. I’ve seen this instrument in many of the gompas and dzongs which we have visited. In each place I tried to take a photo of it, but I never could step back enough to capture of the sense of its size. In Tawang gompa I think I succeeded finally. The instrument is used sparingly in the ceremony. It must require tremendous power to blow this horn, so the person playing this technically challenging instrument is allowed time to recover. In this photo you can also see two other smaller horns, and the drums.
As far as I could make out, all the adult monks who do not specialize in the horns play cymbals and chant. Some of the teenagers played the drums. The youngest monks may chant, but do not seem to be required to in any clear hierarchical fashion. As far as I could see, the youngest boys were only required to be patient. They had enough freedom to talk to each other, or even be extremely curious about the photos I was taking.
Even so, at the end of the prayer the boys rush out boisterously, shouting as if a school recess has begun. They even play the same kind of mischievous games which I remember from my own school days. On the day when I watched, they converted the shoes of one of their mates into a football and kept kicking it around the courtyard.
The monastery is not as charming as the Urgelling gompa, but it is more lively. The novice monks here seem to be under less strict control than in most places we have seen in Bhutan. The Dalai Lama’s public personality is very open. I wonder whether it is that openness which is influencing the course of things here and in other Gelugpa monasteries.
If Tawang is remembered in Tibet, it is because of Tsangyang Gyatso, who was born here and then became the sixth Dalai Lama. Our first stop was to be the Urgelling Gompa, where he was born.
The Victors wanted to get up late. Avatar flatly refused to drive in Tawang unless we had someone who knew the roads. We’d studied the layout of Tawang on the way in, and could navigate by GPS, but Avatar was deathly afraid of getting lost. So we asked the hotel if they could spare someone for half the day. The head cook, who called himself Lobsang, had nothing to do, since he’d already farmed out his work to the young boys in the kitchen. So he was elected as the guide to The Family and me.
The Urgelling gompa is a small structure, standing serenely in the middle of some woods. We walked in through the half-closed gate, and skirted the building counter-clockwise, running our hands over the prayer wheels as we went. Ever since I read Terry Pratchett’s “Thief of Time” I’ve always set prayer wheels in motion. We came out on the courtyard in front of the entrance to the gompa. The morning sun made everything look cheerful.
The gompa was closed, but Lobsang found the caretaker, who opened the door for us. The inside was stunning. Colourful paintings lit up the small room. Suspended above them were thangkas with portraits of the successive Dalai Lamas. I asked Lobsang to point out the sixth. There was a bit of consultation between him and the caretaker, a bit of counting, and they pointed to the portrait alongside. Interestingly, in his own birthplace, the sixth Dalai Lama is revered, but not really remembered.
She smells sweet of body My sweetheart, the highway queen; Like the worthless white turquoise She was found, to be thrown away
Tsangyang Gyatso (The songs of the 6th Dalai Lama)
Being ignorant of Tibetan history, I researched his tragic-romantic story later. The fifth Dalai Lama had died in the middle of messy politics involving Tibet, China, and Mongolia. The search for the next reincarnation was carried out in secret by the Dalai Lama’s regent. When Tsangyang Gyatso was found, he was already fourteen years old. He was administered the vows of a novice monk by the Panchen Lama. The rebellious teenager was said to be constantly at loggerheads with his instructors. He renounced his vows, dressed as a lay person, was seen to drink and often left the palace to visit prostitutes. He wrote love poems which are still known today. His lack of interest in governing destabilized the political balance in the region. A Mongol warlord invaded Tibet, and conspired to send the Dalai Lama to China. He disappeared at the age of 24, in the year 1706, on his way to China as a prisoner.
The murals on the walls were clearly religious stories. I took photos as Lobsang translated the caretaker’s words from Mon to Hindi. Unfortunately the stories mostly left out important details, perhaps the locals know the stories so well that they assume that we too can fill in the gaps. My notes mention Lappan Rinpoche, Thring Cheng and Tsokta. The person in the picture above to the left, is clearly a powerful being; he has on the yellow hat of the Gelugpa sect and holds a tiger in his left hand. The picture on the right could depict the entity whose statue is shown in this post.
I could not make out whether those powerful entities were entirely benign. But what about these? The one on the left above is clearly a very powerful person. But he is not totally benign, judging by the three heads which he holds in his spear. The man in the red robe is clearly a monk. He too has the green halo of a superior being. Could this be a Dalai Lama? We did not get a full story, but the caretaker offered us interesting biscuits: salted crackers with cheese between pairs. They looked like they were ordinary sweet cream biscuits, but they were salty. The Family found them later in the market; they are made in Kolkata.
Still bemused, we followed our two guides down the external stairs to the lower level. This was the basement behind the prayer wheels. It was filled with chhortens. Lobsang and the caretaker lit some lamps here and changed the water for the flowers. We followed them out. We were led to two trees to the right of the entrance gate (visible as the middle tree behind the gompa in the photo on top). When Tsangyang Gyatso left Urgelling, he planted three trees and said that he would return when they died. One of them withered a little before the 14th Dalai Lama walked into Tawang in 1958. The other two seemed very healthy.
This would have been the end of our tour if Lobsang had not accompanied us. But the caretaker now decided to show us a little local secret. We clambered down the slope outside the gate. About a hundred meters down was a little pool of water with a stone in the middle of it. The area around it was covered over with colourful prayer flags. This is where the soul of the Dalai Lama resides, we were told. The unlucky boy, Tsangyang Gyatso, had good taste. The forest was calm and peaceful, and I hope it remains so, a little neglected, but alive in people’s memories; like a favourite old uncle you wish you could visit, but no longer have the time to.
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.
One of the little headaches that afflict you when you plan to travel to the north-eastern states of India is the question of inner line permits. Do you need it? Where do you get it? Why do they have it anyway?
The answer as of today is that you need it if you want to travel to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. The Victor found a web site for the ILP to Arunachal Pradesh. We tried to get one through the web site. It seemed easy; we uploaded the documents needed, and got an instant response by SMS. Two weeks later we received a mail saying that the application was rejected. It turns out that the web-based form works only if you are planning to travel to Itanagar, the capital of the state. For any other destination, you need to apply in Kolkata or Delhi.
So we couriered our application to Kolkata about three weeks ago. There has been no response to it yet. In the meanwhile we found from the car hire agency that you can apply for an ILP when you reach the inter-state border crossing at Bhalukpong. You get it within half an hour if you are a tourist. We plan to try that. Lucky we don’t want to go to Tawang to work!
To get to Bum La you need another permit, this one issued by the Indian Army. Over the last decade there has been commerce between India and China through this 5 km high pass! Tripadvisor forum discussions tell us that it is not too difficult to get the permit once you get to Tawang.
With the recent decades of mounting tension along some borders, and terrorism across others, one understands why the Indian army may want to control traffic close to borders. But what is the logic of the ILP? A newspaper article claims that this was instituted by the British when they moved into these areas to exploit natural resources. Selectively issuing passes kept Indian businessmen out of the competition. Now the ILP is used by local tribal politicians for exactly the same purpose. However, the lack of competition and an open market has slowed the development of these states tremendously. These claims and implications by the newspaper have a certain logic. I wonder what the local people feel. I’m sure we will find out.
Note added 12 days later
Some things are simpler than they appear. The Inner Line Permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh was available at the Guwahati Airport. As we were about to exit, we saw a kiosk of Arunachal Tourism, with a notice saying that the ILP could be obtained there. Each of us had carried two passport sized photos and two copies of our PAN cards. We parted with these and were given our permits in a short time. Later we found that we could also have got it at Bhalukpong.
The pass to Bum La was even easier. We asked the hotel in Tawang, and they arranged it for a small fee. We did not need more photos or copies of the PAN cards. The hotel took our ILP and arranged everything. Apparently, this Restricted Area Permit (RAP) is issued by a magistrate. Then it has to be taken to an army office which gives you a date and time when you are allowed to go.