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.........