We entered Arunachal Pradesh and were in the West Kameng District. Crammed up in a Tata Sumo, there were 12 of us excluding the driver. We were climbing the Himalayan roads towards Tawang.
We stopped briefly at a few spots just after the border. At a place called Tenga Valley, enchanting views of the Eastern Himalayas surrounded us. The passengers were mostly army workmen who were headed to their army posts around Tawang. I was the lone soldier going to Tawang that day.
The warm air of the plains gave way to the chilled breeze which blew from the North. A few Himalayan peaks were visible and the rain continued through the journey sometimes mixed with hail and sometimes with snow.
In the middle row of the taxi was me and three other army men. I introduced myself to them and they reciprocated. They were all from Kerala and were surprised to meet a person from their state travelling alone. As the journey progressed, we discussed a lot about the army and the work they have been doing there for years. These men had served in Ladakh, Kashmir and even in Bhutan.
The camaraderie they had developed for each other was also striking. After a while they started calling me “Sir” which they generally call their colleagues in the army. These men were not high-ranking soldiers just Havildars and workers and I built immense respect for them thereafter. Most of the work done at these remotest of regions are done by these great men.
The driver picked up speed and soon we passed by Bomdila, where I was supposed to reach the day before but failed to make it. We passed Dirang which was another spot of interest en route. And after this there weren’t going to be any breaks. We had a good meal for lunch at one of the shacks somewhere after Dirang. The journey was definitely back-breaking and you feel you are being tortured for no reason. The route to Tawang is considered to be one of the deadliest routes in India and my tryst with the Himalayas continued.
The Sela Lake marks the entrance to the district of Tawang which is a border region of India with Bhutan on one side and China/Tibet on another. The entire area was under Tibet at one point of time.
The lake was so beautiful, I forgot the pain and hardship we went through to get there in that crammed up jeep. The army men shared some of the stories and folklores of various landmarks and events of the War of 1962.
The snow was unbearable after Sela and it started to get dark. While in situations like this, taxi drivers usually carry a set of chains to wrap around the car’s tires to increase traction in the snow. But that day our friendly young driver forgot to bring his. We managed to get through the snow lying areas pretty quick before it got worse.
Once we were though Sela Pass a little distance after the lake the weather became all right but the heavy downpour continued. Slowly the army men were dropped off at their army camps at Jang but there was still a 2 hour ride to Tawang. We were running late as it became dark. I later came to know that this was the driver’s first ride to Tawang. Shocked to hear that, I prayed to make it to Tawang in one piece.
Clearly this was not a route to be treaded by the amateurs. But as it turned out he forgot the route too. There were three of us; myself, the driver and his assistant. The visibility in the rain got worse. Somehow at around 8pm, 14 hours after we had left Tezpur we reached Tawang.
The city had already shut by then and no restaurants, hotels or lodges were open. We walked into a few lodges but they were already full for the night. Since it was raining I couldn’t walk around to find the government lodge I had planned to stay at. I decided to bunk in the car.
The driver went out in the rain and managed to find me a good place to stay for the night.
The morning after, the rains continued and mostly weather swept the town. When the clouds cleared up I had the view of the famous Tawang Monastery right before my eyes from my room.
The Monpa people of the town are Buddhists and has Tibetan origins while the place gives you a different flavour of India. Tawang is also the place the Dalai Lama had fled to during the Tibetan Uprising.
The next day morning, I set out on a tour of the small town with an umbrella. The main aim for the day was to visit the Tawang Monastery which is the largest Buddhist monastery in India and resembles the Potala Palace in Lhasa.
After what seemed to be around 2-3 hours of hiking in the rain from the main market area, I made it to the monastery up the hill. There weren’t a lot of visitors that day owing to the constant rainfall. But thankfully, this was my time to explore the museum and the monastery alone. The monks had finished the morning prayers which one could hear in surrounding areas. I spent a few hours looking and studying the artefacts at the monastery museum. The monastery houses one of the biggest statues of Buddha inside. There was a lot to see, read and learn at the monastery.
I made a slow walk back into town through all the possible streets around the place. Some people stopped by to ask where I was from as they weren’t familiar with a new face there. I had to either be from the army or a worker. The army had a strong presence here. And Unlike Ladakh and Kashmir, Tawang is not crowded with tourists and so it’s not commercialised yet, which is good. Most men, were amazed I came all the way from the southern-most state of India to visit their little town.
While there is no electricity, 3G or good phone network for most of the day in the town, one can sit around in the lodges and enjoy the breathtaking views or take a walk around.
On a Sunday morning, I saw the entire town gathering to clean the streets after the rains. Everyone joined the initiative. People burnt juniper on the streets and the aromatic scent of the plants were spread everywhere. The same day I paid a visit to the War Memorial of the 1962 war. There on the walls at the memorial were the names of the soldiers who lost their lives in the war. Most of this history is now forgotten.
There are other places around Tawang, like the Jung Falls, Madhuri Lake and Bumla Pass, the border with China. Due to the heavy snow and rain most roads to these tourist spots were blocked the entire time. I spotted a few backpackers like me in the market area and acquainted with them. They were there after a 3 month-long trip of the entire North-East. We shared our stories and experiences and they inspired me to take my travels further.
After about 5 days, mostly spending the time meditating in solitude, I boarded a low-cost state bus back to Guwahati. The bus journey was 24 hours and I sat there the whole time reflecting back on the time spent at this tiny Himalayan hamlet. It was probably the best break to the relentless travel I did over the few days prior to it.