Saturday, January 17, 2009

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.

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