We returned to Tezpur looking forward to exploring the rest of Arunachal. If Ziro had been a taste of what was to come, we were surely in for a treat! We quickly gathered our bikes from Mayank’s home in Tezpur, thanking his family profusely. The safety of the bikes had been the primary reason why we could afford travelling to Ziro in a Sumo.
Back on the Bikes
I was particularly happy to be on Typhon. Somewhere I did harbour something of a regret that I had not taken him to Ziro. But that was all hindsight. Had it rained on the days we were in Ziro, I would have been glad of my decision to leave the bikes in Tezpur in peace. Human nature is perplexing!
We left Tezpur the very next day for our next interim destination. Nameri National Park is just 40 kilometers from Tezpur in the direction of Tawang and we had decided to halt there for a couple of days. Parul’s aunt manages a Pygmy Hog Conservation Center out here and we were offered the room which was usually taken up by her guests or interns. The national park was closed due to the rains so we spent our time learning a bit about pygmy hogs, doing our pending laundry, walking about and in general getting ready for the road ahead.
Road to Tawang
After two days of preparation, we loaded our beasts again and left on the road to Tawang. The gate at Arunachal border was in Bhalukpong and we were asked to produce our ILP and copies of driving license and vehicle registration certificate. For the ones unprepared, there are photocopy facilities available at exorbitant rates right in front of the gate. 💁
Once the formalities were done, we headed into Arunachal. The road got pleasant and the valley started deepening to our right. Due to Parul’s tendency to over prepare, we already knew that this road was not in a good condition. Lo and behold! 13 kms out of Bhalukpong, the road got bad due to ongoing highway construction. And by bad, I mean BAD. It was navigable but there was little of the road left. Slushy muddy patches made most of the stretch and these were peppered with patches of pebble strewn paths with an occasional added complexity of steep slopes.
After the first muddy patch I stopped my bike to see if Parul would need any help. It was going to be an entirely new riding experience for her and I think I was as anxious as she was; maybe more. Wonderfully, she managed to slide her way through the stretch! For the entire 20 kms that the roads were broken, she did not blunder once. I recalled how many times I had fallen or lost control when I had started off motorbiking and how I had learnt from these blunders and finally understood the dynamics of different surfaces. Parul did none of that. She just heard me warn her on the intercom and maneuvered her way out of the patch. Easy-peasy. 😕
We rode all the way to Dirang on the first day. After that 20 kilometer stretch the roads had gotten pleasant again. The valley kept getting deeper and the mountains turned grander.
Parul managed to entertain as always. On one of the stops, she complained that she smelt something burning. Upon closer inspection, we found out that in her awesomeness, she had packed the Rynox bag wrong and one of it’s leg had burnt off against the rear tyre. On further inspection we found that it was not the only thing that had burnt. Parul’s white shoes had a burnt off toe now. 😆 To her credit, she is still sporting the same pair. 😝
There was little in the name of traffic on these roads. An occasional truck or some tourist vehicle; perhaps a military truck or convoy. One thing that stood out was how well behaved all the drivers were out here. Everyone followed proper road discipline. As a motorist, it is a treat to drive in Arunachal. 😄
We crossed Bomdilla without a second thought. It was on the list of places that were suggested to us but we still had time on our hands and decided to push Bomdilla for the return journey. We pushed ahead to Dirang and got there well before sundown.
We quickly found a hotel to put up for the night and then went to walk around to the riverside.
There was some bandh in the town so our ration of Old Monk took a hit. We made do with Akshay Kumar’s Khiladion Ka Khiladi instead. 😂
The next morning we started early as usual. Around 20 kms from Dirang we reached the Baishakhi canteen. The sun had barely made an appearance till now. Parul had decided to layer up here and it was only once she was shivering that we realised that the temperature out here was 6 degrees! We decided to stop longer for breakfast and something warm to drink. The Tawang route has a lot of good army run canteens that the civilians can use. It is set up to compensate for the lack of tourist facilities otherwise. We had momos and sat sipping on some tea, waiting for the sun to break out of the clouds. Little did we know that this was the perpetual state of this region.
After advising one of the army guys on how to get an Android application made, we started off again. Up ahead was the Sela Pass. Parul was oh so enthusiastic about clicking a picture of Sela Pass with it multiple curving roads. Instagram depicts Sela Pass as such and so our expectation was set. No such luck though. We climbed the pass in dense fog. Parul complained that she could not see my bike at times which was barely 50 meters ahead of her.
It was not until we reached the top of the pass that we saw the sun. Below us, the entire road lay shrouded in clouds. This was the highest pass in the area and the clouds kind of get stuck on the way from one valley to the next, resulting in a sea of white clouds on one side and the bright sunny sky on the other.
This pass also marked the beginning of Tawang district. We did the customary photo-shoot before we headed ahead.
The Sela Lake was just ahead of the gate and we saw it with an underwhelming feeling. The alpine lakes of Kashmir have spoilt us in terms of what we expect from high altitude lakes now. Sela Lake was just a pretty water body on top of the mountain, nothing more.
The road after Sela Pass was somewhat tricky. Broken and turning in U-pins for a long way down. We managed with much effort. The warmth of the sun helped us a lot and our bodies warmed up after the cold beginning of the day. After the broken descent, the road got much better and we enjoyed the scenery.
Jaswantgarh War Memorial was our next stop. This is a memorial built in the memory of Jaswant Singh Rawat, a rifleman of Garhwal Rifles who captured an enemy MMG from the Chinese army in the war of 1962. It was a valourous effort in which Jaswant Singh lost his life and there were many legends surrounding this man’s heroics. I am not sure how many of them are true and how many fantasy but they are all surely interesting. Standing at the spot and looking at the mountains all around, it was obvious how important these were to the security of our country.
We pushed on ahead steadily and making good time. The roads got a little restrictive and the traffic picked up while we were crossing Jang, a bustling town on this side of the river Tawangchu. The other side was a treat once again. We rode on good roads and at good speed all the way till Tawang. With only 4 kilometers to go till Tawang market, I asked some locals for directions. They pointed at a “short cut” which was good tarred road but just a bit steeper. I turned and was expecting Parul to follow me. She called out in the intercom saying that she had fallen from the bike. 😐 After all the rocky and muddy stretches that the road had offered us, she chose a perfectly well tarred road to fall down. The locals who had helped us with the directions helped her with the bike as well. Apart from a little fuel spillage there was not much harm done to either of them. We pushed on till the market and then stopped at a dhaba to have a late lunch. This helped Parul recover her nerves and we looked up some hotel options. We found a nice hotel that would serve as our base for the next few days and settled in.
We decided to take it a little easy the next day. The first thing to be done was to get the bikes washed. I landed up in Denzin’s shop and he was happy enough to chat with me while he leisurely worked on the bike. He gave me a bunch of recommendations as to what I should go see and what I could skip. He also told me his story of how he had studied in Delhi and still went back from time to time to meet his friends. He had come back to Tawang with a sense of responsibility that he owed to his family.
That afternoon we went to the Nuranag waterfalls. It was back down the valley towards Jang. We could hear the falls much before we saw it. After parking the bikes next to the small hydro-power station, we walked the short distance to the base of the falls. What a mighty fall it was! A beauty and pleasure to behold.
We spent a couple of hours near the falls, taking pictures, getting drenched in the spray, marvelling at the multiple rainbow formations, walking to the bridge for a different vantage point of the falls.
We could have easily spent more time there but we decided to head back to Tawang. We had a nice lunch in the market.
That evening we walked up to the Buddha statue to watch a hazy sunset. The beautiful Tawang stretching out in front of us and the grand statue of Buddha was overlooking the town’s happiness. Something about the entire setting sent out the message of peace and harmony.
The next morning was to start early. The plan was an ambitious one but I had consulted Google Maps and it had deemed it to be doable. The start had been delayed by an hour or so and it was only around 9 AM that we made our way out of Tawang after having refuelled Typhon. The road, if you could call it that, was all broken up and basically just a heap of stones. We halted a while at P.T. Tso which was passable and slowly reached Y Junction, the point where the road diverges to Bumla Pass.
We had decided to skip the pass, since we had heard it to be just another border and neither were very interested in it. Plus there was the added headache of procuring a permit from the DC office in Tawang. So we headed straight for Tsungetsar Lake after a brief stop to warm ourselves with the chai that the military canteen was serving. The road ahead was the same pile of stones all the way till Tsungetsar. Advancing oh so slowly, we reached our immediate destination around 12:30 PM. This lake was better than the rest but yet again we felt it’s glamour feebling infront of the Kashmir alpine lakes. The buddhist flags, however, added a lot of colour to the lake and we enjoyed taking pictures and walking beside the lake.
The adjoining area was developed by the army; overdeveloped in our opinion, but it provided a good picnic spot for the locals. Tsungetsar had a claim to fame similar to Nuranag’s. Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan had shot a song here during the filming of Koyla movie. Ever since, this lake had been called Madhuri Lake as well.
We left the lake after half an hour’s break and headed for Zemithang. The army officer at the lake warned us that the entire route back to Tawang via Zemithang was quite a stretch but we were in the middle now and willing to risk the unknown road ahead rather than take the same broken one back. So onwards we headed. The stretch from Tsungetsar to Zemithang was one of the most scenic ones I have ridden on. The valley was absolutely gorgeous and the road was solid enough to allow me to enjoy the view. The sun was out and the weather was also permissive of the indulgence.
We reached Zeminthang around 2 PM to see the small village perched next to the river. While Tawang had become a bustling city, Zemithang still retained it’s Monpa authenticity. There was such a European feel to the place with the flowing river and the stone houses.
There was another reason I had put Zemithang on our route. There was a stupa which was said to be similar to the one on Kathmandu. I had assumed it to be the main attraction of the village and thought that spotting it would be easy. Not so. Plus we had lost network so there was no longer any internet to help us out. The few locals that we asked were not sure which stupa we were talking about. And I had little to offer in terms of description other than “It’s a white stupa!” 😬 Led and misled, we took the road onwards towards the China border. After about an hour and a half of wild goose chase, we decided to give up the effort and settled for a golden statue of Guru Rinpoche as the end of the road for us. Our aerial distance from China would have been around 10 kms or less.
There was a certain thrill in having had come this far but we knew that we had lost a lot of time. Part of the road back would have to be negotiated in darkness and neither of us were fans of the idea. We started back at quarter past four and 40 minutes later reached Zemithang again, to the spot where the road diverged back to Tawang. In my mind, somehow, Tawang was supposed to be 35-40 kms from this spot. My heart sunk a little when I saw the sign board pronounce that it was another 85 kilometers away. I had been ready for an hour long drive in the dark. This would be more; much more. We hurried on, eager to lose as little of the precious daylight as possible.
Not 5 minutes out of Zemithang on this route, we saw the stupa we had been searching for! The sun had already disappeared behind the mountains and the dusk was setting in. We decided to spend some time admiring the stupa that we had so frantically searched for, which we now learnt was called Gorsem Chorten. Since we had to ride back in the dark anyway, another fifteen minutes would no longer matter all that much. The stupa was beautiful and big. We took a complete round around it and Parul, as usual, turned every single prayer wheel. As per her, we needed all the karma and luck we could get.
We finally set out to negotiate the 80 odd kilometers back to Tawang at quarter past five. The world grew completely dark in another fifteen minutes. Everything thence was a yellow spot of tar lit in Typhon’s headlight. The world around us was a dark unknown; jungle at times and valley at others. Villages and traffic was rare but the road was fortunately in good shape. Much better than the one we had taken through Tsungetsar. We made our way steadily, stopping only when absolutely necessary and counting down the kilometers. Neither of us spoke much during the journey all the way till Bomdir. We finally breathed a sigh of relief and drove the rest of 10 kilometers to Tawang in ease.
We had called our hotel once we were back in network. We had correctly suspected that the caretaker was concerned since we had left early in the morning and had been gone for almost 12 hours. He rebuked us saying that he had been trying to contact us. We assured him that we were safe and sound and that we would reach back shortly. We parked our bike back in the hotel around 8:30 PM and then left to hunt for food. Tawang shuts down early, around 7 PM and now there was harly anything to be found. The only option was the “late-night” cafe that remains open till 10 and we feasted ourselves to Maggi there. We finally discussed how both of us had felt during those 80 kilometers. Parul had been imagining the natural and supernatural possibilities that we could have encountered. Right from a bear to a ghost. It was a jungle after all! My imagination had been much more limited and practical. I was just hoping to survive the road without a breakdown or a puncture. Typhon had not disappointed! But the day had been exhausting, more so mentally. The amount of concentration and focus that the night driving had extracted out of me was taxing. I slept soon after sliding into the bed, welcoming the temporary numbness of the brain.
After changing the hotel on the next morning, we decided to go see the monastery. The Tawang Monastery is the second largest monastery in the world and the largest in India. It holds a powerful influence on the country’s Mahayana Buddhism. It has a strong history behind it, of how it passed hands between Tibet, British, India and China.
We walked around and sat in the prayer chambers. We even went through the small museum that displays the history of Tawang and the migration of Tibetians when China occupied their land. Pictures show India’s welcome of the Dalai Lama and of various political celebrities who have visited the Tawang monastery throughout the years.
After the monastery we sat in a cafe nearby for some tea and food. Then we went to the War Memorial. The memorial remembers the sacrifice of the soldiers who had lost their lives in the war of 1960 with China. The story of China’s advancement and our resistance is displayed as well. It was a surprise for us how this war has never been a popular topic for movies in India. Perhaps there are stones that no one wishes to turn.
We ended the evening by watching a documentary on the war which played in an open air theater next to the memorial right after sunset. The heroics prod the patriot in you, however deep within it may lie. We finally rode back to the hotel in the cold evening air of Tawang.
For our last day, we headed to Chakzam bridge. Chakzam Lama had, almost 600 years ago, connected the valleys using metal chains. A few of these old bridges still remain although many of the old metal chains have been claimed by the valleys. However, they are still free of rust, a metallurgical miracle similar to the Asoka Stambha in the Qutub Complex. Perhaps the people then just had the patience to do things right rather than hurry and make things that they knew were not perfect.
The ride to the bridge was through small roads with flowers on either side. The rice fields had already been harvested and the villagers were busy loading the trucks. We reached the bridge and saw another new one constructed right next to it. But we chose to cross by the wobbly Chakzam bridge. It was a funny affair to begin with but we got used to the movement of the chains. Bamboo and iron meshes provided a walkable surface and we were soon walking with ease and dab’ing on the bridge. 😛
We sat a while on the other side, admiring the valley and the bridges that were drastically reducing the distance between this side and the other. Human and natural marvels.
Return to Guwahati
While there was much more that we could have done in Tawang, we left the next morning. We had to reach Guwahati in order to meet Aamir and Neha who were going to join us for Meghalaya. At Jang we encountered a long convoy of military trucks and jeeps. A few soldiers struck up a conversation while we were stuck in a jam and there was the usual inquiry of where we were from, whether my fellow rider was a female (everyone had been quite impressed by that), where we were heading, what all we had seen, how long we planned to travel, etc.
We reached Dirang that afternoon and decided to stay in the same hotel that we had put up in on our way to Tawang. We walked to the monastery that evening but were a little late and reached just in time to see the monk close the doors. He reopened the prayer chambers for us but we did not want to rush the experience and decided to come back the next day with more time at hand.
The next morning we rode to Sangti Valley which is 20 kms off the main highway. The valley was extremely beautiful and relaxing. We stopped by the river to enjoy it’s rumbling and clicked a whole lot of photos. 😆 There were homestays out here which we had not known about. Perhaps the next time we are in the area, we would like to stay there for a couple of days.
We rode to the Thembang Village next. It was a little farther and the road took us to a height with clouds and cold winds.
Thembang is a fortified village on top of the mountain and a tentative UNESCO world heritage site. It was interesting to see how the villagers here lived, walled away from the hustle and advances of civilization barely a few kilometers away.
After walking around the village for a while we left back for Dirang. The afternoon nap delayed me yet again and I reached the monastery after the doors had been shut. Another time I guess.
The next morning we left Dirang for Guwahati, skipping Bomdilla yet again. The distance was considerable and we were not sure whether we would be able to manage it all in a single day. But we stretched and the road helped a lot. We took the route via Kalaktang on the way down. It is newly constructed and does not show up correctly on Google Maps. But it is a straight and well made road with scenic vistas and small villages. It was an utter delight to ride on this one.
Back on the plains, we were reminded of the woes of population and civilization. Honking buses and rash taxis. It left us a little flustered since we had gotten used to disciplined driving. 😑 Cribbing, we made our way back to Guwahati, to a home we were getting used to.
Here is the complete album from our road trip to Tawang.