Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tuting on Two Wheels: Yinkiong and Back

A huge welcome gate informed us that we were now in Yingkiong. The town basically comprises of two parts at different heights. The upper part was the more developed area with the Government offices and the main market while the lower part of the town comprised of small shops and garages. Accommodation is a big problem and the hotels are not worth writing home about. We headed straight for the Circuit House but were told that permission had to be taken from a local officer before we could be allowed to stay there. Being the eve of the Republic Day and a Sunday to boot it took us quite some time to locate the officer. However in the general confusion of things we managed to convince him that we had already applied for permission earlier, which in fact we had, but he had lost our letter. Considering the fact that Yingkiong was the hometown of Geong Apang one of the longest serving Chief Ministers in the country we felt very let down by the condition of the Circuit House. The rooms were quite rundown but we literally had no other option. Having found a place for the night we began a hunt for a place to have our lunch. We were so hungry by this time that we just entered the nearest eatery and ate whatever we could find.
Hunger satiated for the time being we decided to gather information on the road to Tuting. There were 3 possible routes from Yingkiong to Tuting. The first one – going back the way we came and crossing the river at ‘65’. This added around 100 km to the route so we decided against it. The other two options were crossing the Siang at Yingkiong via the Gandhi Bridge or crossing a few kilometers downstream via the Nyobu Bridge. Since Gandhi Bridge was not too far away we decided to ride over and have a look before crossing over the next day. A few minutes outside town we had to leave the main road and hit a dirt track taking us down to the river. It was beautiful ride with an irrigation canal on one side bubbling with mountain water and paddy fields on the other side. Our spirits were rather high as we had already managed accommodation for the night, had had a decent meal and the business end of the day was behind us.

The first view of Gandhi Bridge from the road was breathtaking. From that distance it looked like a string attached to rocks on either side. It looped downwards in the center with the banks on either side at least 10-15 feet higher. Our hearts sank a little when we realized that we had  to cross it that too on a motorbike. Putting on a brave face we made our way to the bridgehead. As the road was a steep dirt track inclining sharply to the river, we decided to approach the bridge on foot. The enormity of the task facing us became quite clear when we actually stood at the bridgehead. Some kind soul had built a temple and heavenly benevolence would definitely be required to cross the river.

The ‘bridge’ comprised of iron cables stretched across the river with a wire mesh covering the sides and the top. The floor comprised of bamboo and wooden planks and the width barely allowed only two people to walk side by side. Even as we stood on the bank of the river we could feel the bridge swaying in the breeze. After inspecting the bridge from the safety of the bank, we finally decided to venture on to it. The moment we had walked around 8-10 feet on to the bridge it began to sway sideways and we began to notice gaps in the planks which were unnoticeable from the bank. We scrambled back to the safety of the bank as fast as we could without unduly shaking the bridge. As we sat on the bank gathering the courage to cross the bridge we noticed a couple of figures starting across on the opposite bank. As they began their slow walk across the planks at our end began creaking. With each creak of the bridge our confidence sank further. We watched the slow but steady progress of the figures despite the increasing sway of the bridge. As they came nearer to our side of the river we were surprised and not a little embarrassed to see a woman carrying her toddler in her arms and holding her second child, who could not be more than 5-6 years old, walking calmly towards us. Putting her child down, she stood with us and watched as her husband calmly brought his scooter across. The bridge being very narrow, he had to ride the scooter all the way and despite his obvious fear he did not hesitate. Seeing the feat being achieved before us gave us the confidence to try it ourselves and we decided to tackle the bridge the next morning. We rode back to Yingkiong feeling a lot better.

The second half of the day was spent strolling across Yinkiong’s market area and having innumerable cups of tea and bread pakoras. As in most hill towns, the women dominated the market place. It appeared to be more of a social occasion than a business opportunity for them. Bhoot jolokia and dal chini (cinnamon sticks) were the main local produce. There was a lot of activity on the public field as the preparations for the Republic Day was on in full swing. It was quite heart warming to see the enthusiasm for Republic Day in this remote corner of the country. Quite a change from Upper Assam which is virtually shut due to perceived threats from various militant groups. It was also quite refreshing to go to a PCO to make a STD call home. Reminded me of my college days and early in my career when I was quite often in areas not covered by mobile telephones. I must hasten to add that Yinkiong is covered by the mobile phone network but our service providers did not do so.

Planning to start at dawn we returned to the Circuit House for an early dinner. The dinner was a typical Circuit House one with mounds of rice, watery dal, egg curry and mixed vegetable. Every Circuit House that one travels to in this country provides the same fare and the taste will be identical. It seems that there is a secret tribe of circuit house cooks who share their recipes with one another.

After a quick cup of tea in the morning we set out for Gandhi Bridge. We wanted to cross early as we had been warned that the road to Tuting on the other side of the river was even worse than the one to Yingkiong and rainfall and mudslides were likely to occur at several places. It was cold and misty and rain was definitely in the air. As we made our way back to Gandhi Bridge a niggling doubt began creeping into my mind. Were we being too foolhardy attempting to cross at such an early hour with no possibility of help should anything go wrong? All our hopes of crossing over were dashed when we reached the banks of the river. The bridge shrouded in mist and we could see only 10 feet or so ahead of us. The wooden planks were moist with dew and dangerously slippery. Having come all the way we were extremely reluctant to return back the same way so we decided that we would attempt a crossing downriver at a point called Norbu Bridge.

We returned to Yingkiong and rode along the highway for around 20-30 minutes before we saw the diversion to Norbu Bridge. It had started to drizzle by now and we decided not to dawdle at Norbu. If we could get across we would or else we would return to Aalong by the same route that we hade come up. Sadly it was to be the latter as the conditions at Norbu Bridge were as bad if not worse due to the oncoming rain.

As we rode back we were quite crestfallen about our inability to cross the Siang into Tuting. We made a brief stop at Geku where we watched the Republic Day Parade and I was once again amazed by the sheer enthusiasm of the general population who turned up in great numbers to attend the ceremony as well as hear the speeches.

As we rode along the now familiar turns and corners I had a chance to ruminate about our entire journey. Two questions, somehow interlinked, kept cropping up in my mind.

What was there in Yingkiong? Did we achieve our objective of biking to Tuting?

It is all about the journey rather than the destination. Yingkiong is a small town in possibly the remotest corner of the country and there is nothing really to do or see there. Yet the journey to Yingkiong made the destination enjoyable.

What of Tuting? The fact is that we never got there. We failed to reach Tuting itself but we achieved the dream of Tuting. Tuting is what the Yeti is to the Himalayan climber or that elusive golden mahseer for the angler or the Holy Grail. Simply put it is that place just beyond those hills, the place you have never been. It is Shangrila. It will always beckon to us and tempt us to leave our daily lives behind for that journey into the unknown.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tuting on Two Wheels: Aalo to Komkar

The next morning, before the sunrise, and after a dozen or so kicks of the starter, we were off. As luck would have it, there was a light drizzle and the sky was very gloomy. We rode for about half an hour before the sun came out and the view simply took our breath away. The drizzle had freshened up the foliage of the forests and they were a sparkling green. On our left the Siang accompanied us like an emerald green snake its broad expanse broken intermittently by rocky outcrops. It was then the thrill of the adventure gripped us. Even our rusty bike seemed to have sensed the moment and was flying along the road.

Now as I put pen to paper, I shudder at our foolhardiness. We were traveling in a remote region on an unknown bike with no spares, spare tyre or tube and half a bottle of water between the two of us. Mobile phones don’t work along that highway and had we faced a flat tyre or mechanical failure we would have been at God’s mercy. In the two days that we traveled we did not cross a single vehicle capable of carrying our bike in case of any such problem. But that is now. There and then as we moved along the road amidst pineapple and orange orchards and beautiful terraced fields the only thought was of absorbing the natural beauty around us and the next stop for a cup of tea.

A beautiful surprise awaited us at Panging village! As we turned the last corner into Panging, the valley suddenly opened up and we realized that the river we had been following was not actually the Siang but only a tributary. Our first view of this majestic river which is called the Brahmaputra in Assam was a revelation. Sparkling green from the now bright sun it roared its way below the road and the tributary paled into insignificance just as the moon melts away with the arrival of the sun. At Panging we crossed the first of the rickety bailey bridges which bridge the river at three points on the road. Our definition of rickety was to change spectacularly later in the day. Panging is also the point at which we leave West Siang District and enter East Siang. In fact the road splits here with one curling away to the right to Pasighat. After Panging, the road began a steady climb and soon the river became a green ribbon below us. The forests became very thick interrupted by clusters of bamboo. These forests seemed to be under private ownership as we saw many areas fenced in.

Although we crossed several beautiful villages there was no place that served a cup of tea. The cold and the damp soon chilled us and we became desperate for a hot cup of tea and breakfast. It was a good two hours before we reached Boleng where an old lady ran a tea shop. Our breakfast consisted of two mathris and a cup of sweet tea. Boleng seemed to be quite a big place as it also had the only fuel depot between Aalong and Yingkiong. 

The road from Boleng was a gentle gradient till we began to descend into Dite Dime or popularly known as ‘65’ as it was sixty five kilometers from Aalong. Curiously we found that people in Yingkiong too called it ‘65’ and insisted that it was sixty five kilometers from Yingkiong too. Since the total distance between Aalong and Yingkiong was 120 km, I just couldn’t work out the mathematics of that one.

Dite Dime must be one of the most beautiful villages in the world. Dominated by orange and pineapple orchards on mountain slopes on one side of the road, the other slope was gently terraced down to the river. Little chang ghars (houses on stilts) dotted the fields. These are used only during the paddy season as it brought the family closer to their fields. Just the ideal place for a summer holiday home with pork and apong in abundance.

Dite Dime is also the place where the road again splits. Taking a right over another shaky bailey bridge leads to Yingkiong and the straight road on the left bank of the Siang goes to Tuting. As we had planned to go to Tuting via Yingkiong we crossed the river on to its right bank. The true majesty and beauty of the river can actually be experienced only on these crossings as we can see along the entire length of the river.

At Dite Dime we enter Upper Siang District and the road begins a steady climb upwards. Its condition also worsens and landslide prone areas become quite common. At many places the gradient and the condition of the road compel us to dismount and push the bike. We take these as opportunities to stretch our legs and take some photographs but we can now sense that, after the initial excitement had abated, the going was getting tough. The two roads, on the left bank to Tuting and on the right bank to Yingkiong, run parallel for a few kilometers and we could see that the Tuting road had more habitation. It could also be a case of the grass being greener on the other side as by this time we are once again desperate for a cup of tea. We cross Geku which seems to be some sort of a Government headquarter with offices and shops, but we could not find any tea shop or hotel on the road. Deciding against going into the town we ride on.

Upper Siang is topographically different to the West and East Siang. The gradient of the slopes are steeper and the forests denser. We meet several groups of men armed with antique rifles and guns and it was obvious that they were hunting parties. Hunting is a fairly common practice even now in these areas and this has resulted in the depletion of several species despite favorable habitats. Forest produce forms a very important component of the household income with bamboo being the most commonly used produce. The tribe inhabiting this region are called the Miyongs and they are a part of the Adi group of tribes. The ‘Kebangs’ or village councils are famous administrative units and the Panchayats of Northern India can be compared to them.

It is past noon by the time we come to Komkar and we are now anxious to reach Yingkiong as, in the mountains, the weather is always tricky after noon. As we near Yingkiong there is a stretch of road which is not only damaged by landslides but also very steep. There are also increasing signs of human habitation and for the first time in the day a couple of vehicles cross us. Even from a moving bike I can discern that same bewildered expression we were met with in Aalong.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tuting on Two Wheels - Aalo Here We Come

We planned a trip for Mechuka for about one and a half years and one week prior to our actual departure we decided that we would go to Tuting – on a bike! As our trip coincided with Republic Day we could not get the necessary accommodation at Mechuka where Government facilities are the only option for travellers.

As it is with most parts of Arunachal very little information was available about places such as Yingkiong and Tuting. It was next to impossible to find information on distances, road conditions, fuel pumps etc. Anyway all of that made the trip even more challenging.

Doubting our ability to navigate the sandy banks of the Brahmaputra on two wheels, especially when the river had receded about half a kilometer on both sides, we decided to use public transport to Aalong and then travel the rest of the way on a bike. We managed to convince a friend in Aalong to lend us his bike. It took quite some persuasion as he just couldn’t understand why two fellows would like to go to Yinkiong and Tuting on a bike when four wheeled transportation was available. In fact, along the way, we had to convince a lot of people that we were sane.

We started early in the morning to catch the first ferry but lost our way in the sands of the river bank. The ferry ghat shifts according to the contours of the river and it had moved from its last known position. The whole bank of the river reminded me of a lunar landscape. Luckily we spotted another vehicle and followed it to the ghat. The ferry ride across a first for me as I had never crossed the Brahmaputra by ferry before. It took us two hours to reach the other bank as the boat had to avoid the treacherous sandbars in the river. As soon as the boat nears the north bank, there is a mad scramble amongst the passengers to reach the taxis to take us to Silapathar town. The scene is chaotic. The drivers practically drag passengers from the ferry and hustle them into their vehicles. The general practice is that you pay the fare; then you load your luggage; then manage to squeeze yourself into a jeep which is already overcrowded. It doesn’t end here. In some cases you even have to push your vehicle for it to start and then scramble on desperately or be left behind with your luggage already on its way to town.

Our taxi, a jeep, has obviously seen better days and has never heard of the term servicing. Having squeezed in twenty people in a jeep designed to carry twelve, the driver nonchalantly gets behind the wheel and, with half his body outside the vehicle, suddenly zooms off with all of us hanging on for dear life. The ride is bone jarring to say the least but we soon forget the bumps as a cloud of sand envelopes us. By the time we get to Silapathar, which is an hour’s drive from the bank of the river, my limbs are numb with shock and it is with great relief that we get down to stretch our legs and arrange for transportation to Aalong.

Silapathar is a typical border town, opportunistic and lawless. After some trouble we managed to get a vehicle to take us to Aalong. The drive up to Aalong is typical of the drive up into any hill station. The gradient was a bit lesser than we expected and it was quite warm and dry for some time before the mountain breeze began to cool us down. We pass through a series of hamlets or bastis as they are known locally. The architecture is fascinating as this is the first time that I have actually seen a chang ghar. This is a bamboo structure made on wooden stilts and is a local innovation to keep the habitation high and dry during the annual floods. A central room with a big front verandah is a typical feature and I can now see where the tea bungalows drew their inspiration from. The area is inhabited by the Galo tribe, members of the Adi group of tribes, most whom are Baptists. Paddy cultivation is common and terraced fields can be seen along the drive. One can only imagine the beauty of the drive when paddy fields are lush green!

However these beautiful stretches of landscape are pockmarked by hills sides which have been deforested and burnt for jhumming or shifting cultivation. Jhumming is an ancient practice where land, usually on hill slopes, is identified and the wood is harvested for use. The remaining stumps, scrubs and other vegetation are set on fire to clear the land for cultivation. After the land is cultivated for sometime the families or, in cases, the entire village would move to a new location and the process would be repeated. In earlier times, with a lower population pressure the cycle was for 7-8 years and hence the land had time to regenerate. Now, the land hardly gets any time to regenerate and hence productivity has become low directly affecting the farmers. Although this practice is on the decline certain communities are still dependent on it. In fact we cross several smoldering hillsides. This is a big threat to the ecosystem here and efforts are on to curb the practice.

The first stop is a place called Ego. This is just about the halfway point in our journey from Silapathar to Aalong. There are some hotels/tea shops for travelers. We took the opportunity to stretch our legs and click some photographs. After Ego we cross a series of beautiful bastis such as Basar, Bam and Darkang. From Bam the road splits and the road on the left goes on to Daporijo which we mark for a future trip.

It is around 6:00 pm when we arrive at Aalong. As expected it was pitch dark. After checking in at Hotel Agaam we proceeded to our friend’s house to have a look at the bike that would take us Yingkiong and Tuting. I must admit that I was a little perturbed when I saw the bike for the first time. It was a scruffy looking CBZ with its best days long over. The front brake lever was missing and it just refused to start unless the accelerator was kicked at least a dozen times. Our friends were aghast at thought of us going to Tuting on this bike. Heated discussions in the local language were going and, although I could not understand the language, I could sense that the general opinion regarding our sense of judgment was not very high. Amidst our disappointment and rising doubts we hand pushed the bike on to the main road with as much confidence and pride as we could muster. Luckily for us it suddenly decided to start and we scrambled and rode back to our hotel. Now began the search for a helmet as I was quite firm that I would not travel without one. Once again I could sense the bewilderment and wonder at our request for a helmet. The idea of a helmet seemed quite alien but we did manage to dig one up.

Having settled the bike problem for the time being we decided to make some social visits. Anyone who has ever been to any part of Arunachal will understand that this meant having to consume copious amounts of rice beer called ‘apong’. Once again, as we nursed our drinks, I could sense certain bewilderment at our wish to ride to Tuting. Also it seemed even the locals we knew had never really been to Yingkiong or Tuting and their idea of the road condition and distances were only slightly better than ours. I must admit that I had serious misgivings about our trip as I snuggled in for the night.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Riding High in the Low Country - IV

It was getting a little dark and we decided to make a determined push towards Tawang. The road became extremely steep and we had to stop frequently to allow road-building crews to clear the road from numerous small landslides and rockslides. As we spiraled upwards we could see the Tawang Chu (In Tibetan chu means water; in this case river) below us. One of the unique features of the entire drive from Tenga upwards must be the Gompas and chortens (stupas), which dot the hillsides. These are like little spots of white and saffron peeking out from the somewhat denuded hillsides.

There are numerous beautiful villages on the road just before you reach Tawang. One of the more famous villages is Urgeling, which was the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama. The road also splits several times. One road leads to Lumla and from thereon to Zemithang, which has a beautiful stupa. There is a very interesting story associated with the Stupa. It is the exact replica of a Stupa in Kathmandu except the dimensions are smaller. The monk who got the design had carved it onto a radish but during his journey from Kathmandu to Zemithang, the radish lost some its succulence and hence, although, the design of the Stupas is the same, the dimensions are not! From Zemithang one can drive up to Taksang Gompa, Sangetsar Lake and PT Tso and reach Tawang in a circuitous route.

However this requires a four-wheel drive even in the best of seasons and is a full day’s tough and grueling drive. Lhou village, just short of Tawang, had one of the few local handmade paper units till some years ago. Although the Monpa are adept at many crafts including weaving, basketry, carpet making and wood carving, one of their least known accomplishments is the hand made paper they make from the bark of a tree known locally as shukseng or paper tree. These hand made papers are used in the Gompas for writing religious prayers and hymns. It is silk textured and retains its look for years.

We were quite keen to see this but were informed that it had shut down. We finally reach Tawang at around 4:00 pm in the evening. The area is also called Monyal, Tibetan for ‘lower country’. The Fifth Dalai Lama entrusted Mera Lama the task of establishing a monastery here. During the search for a suitable spot, the Lama’s horse strayed away. When the Lama found the horse he realized the location was suitable for the monastery. In recognition of the part played by his horse in choosing the site, he called it Tawang (ta: horse, wang: chosen) or "the place chosen by horse".

It is damp and freezing and the air is distinctly thinner. We are booked into Hotel Buddha bang in the middle of the main market. The hotel has an unassuming exterior. It is reputed to be the best hotel in Tawang but we do feel quite disappointed seeing the dimly lit rooms and the barely functioning room heaters.

Tawang like most hills stations suffers from a shortage of water. Dinner comprises of rice, dal and fried potatoes, as the hotel serves only vegetarian food. We find it a little difficult to sleep that night, as our bodies need acclimatization to the altitude. Half of the next morning is spent in getting the water pipes to unfreeze so that we may get some running water. This involves boiling a bucket of water from the hotel’s store and pouring it into the overhead tank. Our water is also available by 9 am or so, the melting aided by the sun which is shining brightly. As the weather here is always pretty dicey and we had heard plenty of stories of tourists stuck in Tawang due to snow at the Sela Pass, we decide to cram as much as possible into one days sight seeing. The first step was to get permission from the DC’s office to visit Pankang Teng Tso (PT Tso) and Lake Sangetsar, a.k.a. you guessed it –Madhuri Lake!

Surprisingly this did not take very long. As the prayers start very early in the monastery, we decided to make that our first stop. The Tawang Monastery is over 400 hundred years old and is the seat of the Mahayan sect of Buddhism in the eastern Himalayas. It is also one of the largest monasteries in Asia. As we entered the outer premises of the Monastery, the guttural chanting of the monks could be heard. The monastery complex houses the main temple, living quarters, a library and a museum. Tourists are now required to pay a nominal fee for visiting the complex. The main temple houses a three storey high Buddha statue apart from priceless antique paintings (thangkas), beautifully carved drums and statues of various Buddhist deities. The museum complex has priceless antiques associated with the monastery. The entry and tour to the Monastery is priced, as is the tour of the Museum with a premium on cameras. Thereafter we make our way upwards to one of the Ani Gompas closest to Tawang. Ani Gompas are basically nunneries and there are several around Tawang. Each nunnery consists of a small Gompa with attached hostels for the nuns. The road to the Gompa is scattered with bunkers from from the 1962 Indo-China War and it feels eerie as we walk around the spots where people fought and died. As we reach the Gompa, we see some Anis reading their texts while basking in the sun. Others went about more mundane tasks such as collecting water, firewood and grinding grain. The Anis are famous for the herbal incense that they make but we see no evidence of it. In fact the packet variety seems to have taken over. The Gompa itself is nothing much to write home about but it was new experience for both of us to visit a nunnery. Another interesting feature was a prayer wheel rotated by water which as expected was frozen.

Further up beyond the Ani Gompa lie PT Tso Lake and Lake Sangetsar. The route we take is supposed to have been taken by Guru Nanak on his way to China. Both PT Tso and Sangetsar are frozen over and it is not difficult to see Madhuri prancing away on the ice-covered lake with an amorous Sharukh in tow. Beyond lies the Taksang Gompa, this is so named because of the imprint of a tiger’s pug on a rock nearby. The Gompa itself is very mysterious with the Head Lama having a human skull for a wine cup and a human thighbone for a smoking pipe. As it was getting dark and the weather was turning ominous, we decide to return to Tawang.

The next morning, the sun is shining gloriously we make good our escape across the Sela before it closed up. After one very long drive we reach Bomdila where we check into a tongue twister of hotel called Siphiyang Phong, named after a local peak. The hotel has definitely seen better days but is a relief after the 8-hour drive from Tawang. We go down to the market briefly and see some potential for shopping, which we leave for the next day. The last day is a lazy one as we only have 5-6 hours of travel to Tezpur. The morning is devoted to shopping more for near and dear ones rather than for ourselves. We are stuck in a tremendous traffic jam at Nechiphu due an early afternoon mist but manage to reach Tezpur safe and sound.

The next day we hear that tourists are marooned in Tawang due to heavy snowfall at Sela.

Riding High in the Low Country - III

The beautiful Pemaling Hotel in Dirang marked the end of our first day’s journey. Recently constructed, just a couple of kilometers short of the town itself, the hotel is perched on a hillside adjoining the State Government’s tourist lodge. After checking and a quick lunch we decide to stroll down to the village. The local inhabitants are Dirang Monpa quite distinct from the Tawang Monpa in the sense that their languages are totally different. Dirang town itself is nothing to write home about but the valley has lots of nooks and corners for tourists to spend some time. Around 8 kilometers from the hotel, across the Dirang River lies the Sangti Valley, famous as the winter home of the Black Necked Crane. These are known as Dhung Dhung Karmas in the local language and fly down here to avoid the cold Tibetan Winters. Can’t say that I blame them because Sangti seemed to be out of a postcard. Although it was the dry season, there was plenty of greenery around. In recent years, though, the number of visiting cranes has been dwindling steadily. This has the locals worried as they consider the cranes auspicious.

Sangti also hosts a Sheep Farm maintained by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research or ICAR. The gates were locked and our driver was of the opinion that there wasn’t much to see in the farm anyway. Also across the river Dirang lay the Runkhung Apple and Kiwi Farm. Dirang is rich is horticulture and its products have great market value but production is low and hence the products seldom make their way out of the state. We could also see plenty of orange orchards and there seemed to be an orange tree in every backyard.

Another interesting place to visit in Dirang is another ICAR project, the Yak Research Centre. The farm is actually located some distance from the town off the main highway but the office is in the town itself. Definitely worth a visit to know more about these elusive semi-domesticated animals. The next day we started a little late as we soaked in the early morning sun. Our driver seemed a trifle worried as he gazed north in the direction of Sela Pass. Clouds were beginning to build and he wanted to cross the pass in the first half of the day. We were the least bothered as we were quite keen to visit all the places of tourist interest along the way. Close to Dirang right on the highway is the Dirang Hotspring. The location, on the riverbank with farmlands and orchards on the other bank, is quite breathtaking, but the maintenance is poor. There are a couple of cemented bathing tanks but they are quite unkempt. Surprisingly young men and women seemed to have no compunctions about just stripping down to the bare minimum and plunging into the tanks together.

The road reaches its lowest point in the Dirang Valley at Sapper. Here it begins its climb towards the Sela Pass, the gateway to Tawang. We stop for a brief period at the War Memorial at Nyukmadung built in the memory of soldiers lost in the 1962 Indo China War. Beyond Nyukmadung the road splits with the smaller road going up to the Yak Farm which we are told lies around a couple of hours off the main road. Higher up from the Yak Farm lies Tom Hill which gives a wonderful view of the entire Dirang Valley and is also a high altitude pasture rich in flora.

As the road continues its climb towards the Sela Pass, we now notice that the lush green vegetation of the Valley is giving away to snow covered mountainsides. A lot of pines are now visible with the odd rhododendron bush. Signs of largescale deforestation are everywhere. Apart from the road builders’ camps only army establishments are visible on this stretch of the road. The really steep stretch begins from Sange, which is the last settlement on this side of the Sela Pass. The first signs of snow are visible on the road and soon we are amongst the snow laden hills. It is getting definitely nippy outside. We notice that as we climbed upwards the sky had begun clearing till it dawned on us that what had actually happened was that we had risen above the clouds and found clear skies!

A huge welcome gate tells us that we have arrived at the Sela Pass (approx. 14,000 feet above seal level). This pass connects the West Kameng district of the state to the Tawang district and also marks their borders. This is the highest point on the entire stretch of road form Bhalukpong and Tawang. There is a cemented structure, which houses a temple and has a small stupa outside. There is a hut which doubles up as a tea and snacks stall during the peak tourist season. Other wise the place is completely bare. Immediately after crossing into Tawang District, there is a diversion towards Chabrila and Bangajan, which houses a monastery and has 108 lakes. Some of these lakes featured in the Sharukh Khan film Koyla. The road to Bangajan is a difficult one in the summers and in the peak winter season we decided not to be foolhardy and moved on towards Tawang. We drove along the Sela Lake, one of the many sacred lakes of the region. The lake much reduced in size was completely frozen.

The northern face of Sela i.e. the portion in Tawang District gets much more snow than the portion we had just crossed and the snow-covered forests and mountains just took our breath away. The sight of snow covered mountainsides dotted with pine trees and rhododendrons was a breathtaking site. Patches of brown hillside combined with the white snow made it look as we were traveling amidst a black forest cake.

To our utter delight the road down from Sela was crowded with Yaks and we had our first close view of these animals. This portion of the road also houses some sensitive army installations, which our driver told us were ammunition stores. Photography is prohibited and even stopping the vehicle here was not allowed. This was pity as the landscape was the stuff postcards were made from. Pine and rhododendron forests covered with a layer of snow, with Yaks grazing leisurely in the pastures. There was a small stream flowing by the road. It was frozen from the top and the water flowed through a channel beneath the frozen surface and could be clearly seen even at a distance. As we descend the slopes, the rhododendrons began to give away to hillsides of high altitude bamboo, again ravaged by over harvesting. These bamboos are much thinner than their cousins of the foothills and cannot be used to make pillars or other such supporting material requiring bearing heavy weights.

They are woven into mats and this is used as a roof. The practice is to just throw a new mat over the old one and voila! You have a new roof. Further down the road we arrive at Jaswantgarh which is a memorial maintained by the Indian Army in the memory of Jaswant Singh who single handedly delayed the advance of the Chinese Army in the 1962 war for 48 hours. When he was finally overcome, the Chinese, furious at the thought that a lone man had licked them, hung him from the nearest tree till he was dead, decapitated him and presented his head to their commander. The commander however had his brave enemy buried with full honours. Legend has it that even today if a sentry sleeps at his post; the spirit of Jaswant is there to awaken him. The army maintains a refreshment point at Jaswantgarh where travelers are served tea and samosas, pakoras etc free of cost. They also maintain the ONLY toilet throughout the journey from Tezpur to Tawang so it came as a very welcome relief indeed.

The road loops its way downwards towards the town of Jang which is the first major town across the Sela. Jang lay just below the snowline and we frankly had had enough snow for one day. There are places to eat here and we settle down for a hearty lunch despite having pakoras just an hour back Blame it on the cold but it seems your appetite is doubled here. The proprietress of the hotel tells us that Jang forms the road head for the ascent of Mount Gorichen (21,000 feet plus), which is the 2nd highest peak in the region after Mt. Kangto (Tibetan for ‘Snowy Mass’, 23,000 feet plus). There is a hot spring at Mago enroute the ascent to Gorichen where the water is so hot that “yak meat is cooked in 20 minutes”. With that gem of information we decide to move on. Our next stop is what is popularly called ‘Madhuri Falls’. Some years ago, West Kameng and Tawang played host to a film production unit from Mumbai, which starred the then heartthrob Madhuri Dixit. So we have lots of nooks and corners here which are called Madhuri this and Madhuri that. Apparently she shot a dance routine near the waterfalls at Jang and hence the name. The waterfall lies a couple of kilometers off the highway.

Although we could not reach the base, it was a magnificent view even from a distance. The water falls from a great height and even in the winter, the volume was quite high. How Madhuri managed to even get the near the waterfall, leave alone dancing near it, was beyond our comprehension. The beauty of the whole thing was a little marred by the presence of a hydel project near the base of the waterfall, which we are told was not functioning.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Riding High in the Low Country - II

Bellies full and warmed up we make our way up towards Nechiphu (5,694 feet), which is the highest point between Bhalukpong and Tenga. This part of the state is inhabited by the Aka tribe, who are relatively backward as compared to other tribes of the region. Dwellings are usually bamboo huts on stilts and the Akas still maintain their animist traditions. The forests around us abound with wild bananas on which the Akas depend for cash income. Nechiphu is a misty place with a few scattered huts where vehicles stop in case the visibility is very poor, which is often the case. At Nechiphu the road splits, one heading towards Seppa, the district HQ of East Kameng district. This is one of the least explored regions of the state and even inhabitants of other districts prefer to avoid it. Making a mental note for a future visit we drive on to New Kaspi where, apart from a Nag Mandir, there are also few dhabas where one can tuck into some hot food. From here onwards the road begins its descent into the beautiful valley of the River Tenga.

Tenga itself is a small town, catering mostly to the Army as the 5th Mountain Division or the Ball of Fire Division of the Indian Army is headquartered here. There is a proposed highway from Tenga to Kamengbari in Assam, which would vastly reduce the journey time to Bomdila, but the construction of this road is being opposed by the State Forest Department as it would have to be built through virgin forests cutting across the Eagle’s Nest Sanctuary, which is a high altitude biodiversity hotspot. Incidentally there is also a trek route from Sessa to Eagle’s Nest. The Tenga Valley is home to the Buguns, one of the smaller tribes of the state. The road moves alongside the river for a while and just beyond the Army installations the road splits into two with one going towards Bomdila and the other towards Rupa. Rupa is another beautiful river valley and beyond Rupa lies an area rich in horticulture potential and, if local lore is to be believed, it has some great fishing sites. This road ultimately goes on to enter Assam near Mazbat. Rupa is home to the Sherdukpen tribe, who are nomads by tradition and once had the practice of migrating to the foothills of Assam for trade during the winters. There is also a Tibetan settlement on the Rupa – Mazbat Road which houses a Tibetan University.

We move on forward on the Bomdila road. The climb up to Bomdila is very steep. At around 12 noon we finally reach Bomdila. Although the town, with its myriad shops looks very interesting, we decide to move on to Dirang as we have planned to spend a day at Bomdila on the return journey. There are small camps at short distances on the highway, which house the road building gangs. These are named after the leader of the camp so we cross several camps with names like Rama Camp, Munna Camp etc.

We gradually begin our descent into the Dirang Valley, possibly the most beautiful area in the whole of Arunachal. The road is quite bad compared to the one that brought us to Bomdila. The hillsides are bare and denuded and landslides seemed to be occurring quite frequently going by the tell tale signs on the road. Around 10 kilometres from Bomdila, the road splits with one road going to the right towards Nafra, the home of the Miji tribe. We get to know from the locals that there is an ancient graveyard in Nafra and that there also some unexplored caves.

The first thing you notice when you enter the Valley is the wind. It is shaped like a funnel and this makes it a very windy place. There is a constant wind blowing throughout the day and this makes the place quite chilly despite it not being at a very high altitude. There are two Dirangs – one is the village itself and other is Dirang Basti, which is around 20 km short of the village. The basti houses the remains of the Dirang Dzong, built around 500 years ago. Dzong, is a Tibetan term which loosely translates to ‘fort’. In ancient times, this region was under the administrative control of the Kings of Tibet and Dirang was an administrative headquarters where tax collectors would come from Tibet to collect taxes. Squatters now occupy the Dzong although our driver tells us that the Govt. has recently decided to renovate it and develop it as a tourist attraction. He takes us inside, which is quite unkempt, dirty and completely in ruins and points to show us a couple of cells which were used to house prisoners. Seems people didn’t like paying taxes even in those days.

Will continue later.........

Riding High in the Low Country - I

We made the trip several times in our minds before actually embarking on it. Based in a Tea Estate at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, our day began with a wonderful view of these snow-capped peaks. We would often discuss the trip whilst having our morning cup of tea and plan for it.

Our journey finally began on a cold January morning. We started early as the high mountain passes tend to get foggy and m
isty by midday and the weather has the habit of suddenly changing for the worse in the afternoon. The town of Bhalukpong, which literally translates to ‘Bear Spring’, marks the border between Assam and Arunachal. It is an hour’s drive from Tezpur and along the way we pass through the Nameri Sanctuary on the banks of the river Jia Bhorelli (called Kameng in Arunachal).

After Nameri the road begins its ge
ntle climb to the foothills. The forest on either side has been degraded by jhumming and the prominent crop at this time seems to be mustard. Stumps of trees litter the landscape. At Bhalukpong, non-residents of Arunachal are required to submit their ILP’s and register themselves.

The Assam Government has recently built accommodation facilities at Bhalukpong while on the Arunachal side there is a Circuit House overlooking the Kameng River. Beyond Bhalukpong, the road moves along the river Kameng till
Tippi which has an Orchidarium. Arunachal accounts for around 500 species of orchids– almost 50% of the total species known in India.

Tippi is also a favourit
e picnic spot and the riverbank is crowded with picnickers from Assam during the month of January. We looked wistfully at the beautiful river and its inviting banks but decided to press on as we had a long journey ahead of us. On the opposite bank of the river Kameng at Tippi lay the Pakui Wildlife Sanctuary. The only access to the sanctuary from Arunachal is by boat. This Sanctuary is rich in wildlife and is home to some of the rarer cats such as the marbled cat, fishing cat etc. The Forest Department has a couple of lovely cottages in Tippi where one might, with the required permission, spend a couple of days and explore the sanctuary.

Immediately after Tippi, the road begins its first serious climb of the trip towards Sessa. It winds its way upwards along the river, but soon, the river is just a silver necklace thousands of feet below us. The road from Bhalukpong to Sessa also has numerous waterfalls, which are vastly reduced in volume due to the season but can be seen in their full glory during the monsoons or immediately thereafter.

Sessa is our first stop for the day for a welcome cup of warm black tea and breakfast of puris. Although the Indian Army maintains a dosa point just before reaching Sessa, most Sumo drivers opt for small joints run by Nepali immigrants. Most Nepalese have come into the state as labour for road building, which are maintained by the Border Roads Organisation, and have stayed put in large numbers.

Will continue later.........