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Published: April 6th 2011
We returned from Cherrapunji to Shillong and then to Guwahati, the next day Isabell had a flight to Delhi and I had to get myself the permit for Arunachal Pradesh.
Getting a permit to travel within your own country is difficult to digest and I dont understand why the government has kept up with this archaic system. One gets permit easily, but you waste a day (apply today, get tomorrow). Also, the problem is that they give you permit for one identified route (as per their system) at a given time, so you can e.g. do down the Tawang route, but then come back to Guwahati, get the next permit for the next route and go again.
So while I had ambitious plans for Arunachal, with this bureaucratic hassle, I decided to do the Tawang-Dirang route.
The closest point to go to Arunachal was Tezpur, so I did the 5 hour trip from Guwahati to Tezpur (again!) and stayed overnight at Tezpur. Getting a sumo to Tawang is a rush-rush affair, they are usually pre-booked. Also, as I learnt later, its best to book a sumo where the driver is from Arunachal (more on this later)
any case, I set out for Tawang from Tezpur early the next morning (6AM). On the way, we crossed many areas near Tezpur which had heavy security presence (I put that in mind to general risk perception). The route takes through Bhalukpong-Bomdilla-Sela Pass-Tawang, a narrow road interspersed with civilization, army camps and infrastructure projects.
To get to Tawang, one has to cross Sela Pass, at a height of 4,167 meters (2nd highest motorable pass in India). Its a pass that the army closes post 3PM because of snow, so it is critical to get there by 2PM. Once you are in the pass, the army will let you go through. However, the best drivers who can get you there are from Arunachal, they know how to drive in these parts. Unfortunately, the driver of the sumo I was in was a new guy from Tezpur, so we reached Sela Pass by 7PM. By some strange luck, we were allowed to go through (as were 2 other sumos), but once we entered the pass, the fun began.
Almost every 50 meters, the snow had covered the road and the sumos could not go. The options were to stay at
the pass in the night (not too much fun when you consider it was about -5 to -10 degrees and snowing incessantly) or to clear the road. So nearly 25 of us, took turns shovelling the snow and making our path. The hands/body froze each time we got out to shovel, but we just didnt have an option. But out of the 25 of us, there was a lama, who was wearing his usual robe (which means no real protection against the chill), he had just incredible energy, ability to handle the cold and the determination not to give up. We were all inspired to help seeing him in action.
The typically 30 minute journey through the pass took us 5 hours, but we reached Tawang at midnight. And as luck would have it, the hotel didnt seem to have registered my booking and there were at least 5-6 other people who didnt have hotel rooms, we kept on banging one hotel's door, till the guy opened up and agreed to give rooms to every one.
It was strange travelling alone after so long again, but the adventure of the trip made sure my mind was focused on
the goal - Tawang
The next morning (and Tawang has real early mornings, by 4AM the sun was up) I woke up to a freezing temperature, but excited to explore Tawang. However, I had to cut down my plans of going to whats now famously called as Madhuri Lake (thanks to the movie Koyla that was shot there), because the roads were blocked with snow. So I decided to focus on the Tawang Gompa, which has the tallest buddha statue I have seen (8 meters) and the war memorial.
Visiting the war memorial and speaking to army jawans there brought a different perspective to life. In the 1962 war with China, Indian soldiers, poorly equipped with hardly any winter clothing and archaic weapons fought bravely in these freezing parts. However, thanks the superiority of the Chinese both in numbers and equipment and indcisive political leadership in India, China managed to occupy right upto Tezpur. Strangely, they turned back and left, but in the aftermath, Indian government and military learnt their lesson on how to protect our land in these parts.
The locals in Tawang speak a language which is a Tibetan-Burmese mix, they look at people from
other parts of India with affection and are extremely friendly and helpful. All the locals I spoke to were very happy with the Healthcare, Education systems in place and were very proud that the Dalai Lama had recently visited there and spoken to them. Despite most of us from other parts of India not having visited Arunachal at all, the locals are as Indian as any of us, their sense of belonging to this nation is obvious.
The next day I decided to leave Tawang as the roads remained closed due to snow. The drive back was in the morning. I was spellbound by the beauty of Sela Pass and Sela Pass Lake. The name Sela comes from an event in the 1962 war, where a local lady, by the name of Sela, helped a lone Indian soldier Jaswant Singh (there is a place called Jaswantgarh which is almost a spiritual place and revered by the army). She carried ammunition from one place to another while Jaswant Singh ran shooting from different places (all others were dead by then), so that the Chinese thought there were still a platoon fighting. Jaswant Singh succumbed to his injuries and Sela, instead
of being caught by the Chinese, jumped off to her death from the mountain top. History of these lands is full of stories such as these, this is a part of India that I am proud to have visited
I reached Dirang the same day, its one of those tiny villages in the womb of the mountains that one would love to relax for a few days in, which is what I did. Relaxed walks, nothing on the mind
And then left for Tezpur en route to Delhi, to crash at my brother's place for a couple of days. After nearly 2 months of hard travel, I needed to recuperate 😊
Epilogue: The trip around my own country cleared my mind a lot. No, I had still not found all the answers, heck I still didnt know all the questions. But some bits and pieces were falling in place. A kid in the crowded Shillong market helped me decide to spend some of my time with underprivileged children.
Every journey begins with a small step.
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