Somewhere over the Rainbow: The Road to Tawang, Part I (West Kameng District)

IMG_2734 Even I couldn’t have dreamed up a moment so perfectly surreal or a place so bewitchingly beautiful. Filled with glittering rainbows, thundering waterfalls, mirror-like mountain lakes, wild orchids, flower meadows and meandering river valleys, Tawang is an untouched and pristine land that inspires indescribable wonder. SONY DSC Tawang is one of the 16 administrative districts of Arunachal Pradesh. It is historically Tibetan territory and as a result, is claimed by China as a part of South Tibet. The people of Tawang are the Monpas who are adherents of a sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The Buddhist monastery in Tawang is the largest in India and plays an important role in the everyday lives of the people. Getting There: It is best to fly down to Guwahati (Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport) and drive down to Tawang.

Travel Requirements:

Arunachal Pradesh borders China and therefore, there is considerable military presence in the State. All travellers require special ‘Innerline Permits’ to travel to the State. These permits can be obtained in New Delhi, Guwahati or Tezpur. The innerline permits are issued the day after the application is submitted and have the following requirements (as of June 2014):

– 2 passport sized photographs

– an attested copy of any one of the following: driving license, pan card, PRO, election card

– a No Objection Letter from parents in case the applicant is an unmarried woman (extremely sexist and discriminatory in my opinion but that’s a post for another day).

Oh and I forgot to mention that in case the applicant happens to be a married woman, she needs a No Objection Letter from her husband. The Indian bureaucracy and government’s efforts toward the empowerment of women should be applauded.

The Road:

From Guwahati, travel to Tezpur and then 56 km onward to Bhalukpong, which (at 213 metres above sea level) is the entry point to Arunachal Pradesh (in West Kameng District). The road to Bhalukpong is fantastic and since theres no hill driving involved, you’ll make pretty good time. As a bonus, the route is incredibly scenic as well. 

However, beyond Bhalukpong the road is extremely treacherous. It is horribly damaged, incredibly narrow and steep with innumerable hairpin bends. It is also prone to landslides. In addition, long stretches of it are over 10,000 feet above sea level. Its best to travel with someone familiar with the road and the area. I would not recommend travelling without at least a couple of expert hill drivers.

Bomdila is the first major town on the road to Tawang. On the way to Bomdila, you can stop at Tipi or at Sessa to see hundreds of varieties of orchids, which have been cultivated in their natural habitat.

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All along the road, there are breathtaking views of the Kameng River and innumerable waterfalls gushing down the hillside.

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We stopped for breakfast somewhere between Bhalukpong and Bomdila at a wayside restaurant called Hotel Saiddle (Only for Fooding). If you like chillies and spicy food, I would definitely recommend ‘fooding’ here. The typical Arunachali meal seems to consist of Roti/Rice with dal, vegetables and a local chicken/pork curry. The food was decent, unlimited (like a thali) and cheap. However, the red chilli chutney is why I will keep my eyes peeled for this place the next time I visit Arunachal. Having grown up in India with parents who live in the Middle-East, I’ve tasted a fair number of red chilli chutneys and harissas. So believe me when I say that this one was spectacular.

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After eating all that food, its a good idea to get out of the car and walk around. The Kameng river valley provides extremely scenic spots to stretch your legs.SONY DSC

Once you get back in the car, eventually you will reach Tenga Valley which is about 78 km from Bhalukpong. It is a small town and an important army check post (it is impossible to ignore the military presence in Arunachal given its proximity to China). The Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary is close to Tenga valley but I really did have to leave something for my next visit.

Bomdila is quite close to Tenga valley, though it seemed light years away as the road worsened the further we went. The headquarters of West Kameng District are based in Bomdila. It is a lovely and quaint mountain town with incredible vistas and a craft centre that sells beautiful and soft Arunachali carpets.  IMG_2700

 42 km ahead of Bomdila lies Dirang, home of the lovely Tsiangtey valley (apparently even the Siberian Black Necked Storks visit) and also the National Yak Research and Breeding Centre (who knew?). I would very much recommend staying in Dirang for the night. It is utterly peaceful with nothing but the soothing gurgle of the river to break the silence. We stayed in Hotel Pemaling just outside Dirang and sat listening to the river for most of the night. Do have breakfast here, the view of the river valley from the dining room is lovely.

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In addition, it is advisable to stay here because it is only 45 km away from Se-la Pass, which, at an altitude of 13,700 feet gets rather cloudy (foggy?) later in the day.

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Its best to try and reach Sela by noon so that your vision is not obscured by fog (especially if you are driving). This is even more important since you might be feeling slightly lightheaded due to oxygen deprivation, already. Also, you don’t want to miss the wild horses, yaks and the lovely wild orchids close to Sela.

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 Sela pass is marked by another beautiful gate welcoming visitors to Tawang district and a sign by Border Roads Organization (BRO) announcing “Sela Pass You are at an Altitude of 13700 feet”. You want to stop and wander around here for a bit. Feel a sense of accomplishment at having reached the second highest motorable pass in the world. Its also a good idea to walk into Tawang to find an enormous lake which is brilliant blue throughout the year (except in the monsoons when its an unfortunate dark grey).

Sela lake in October: I still have to see this #nofilter
Sela lake in October: I still have to see this 😦 No filter, by the way Photo courtesy of Mr. Darpan Bhuyan
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The same lake as I saw it in June

Now that we’ve walked into Tawang, I’m going to conclude this post and continue the journey in Tawang in Part II. Read on for Tawang Monastery, Nuranang (Jang) Falls and Shungatser (Madhuri) Lake!

I’m not really a person who reads or shares inspirational quotes (they make me feel sort of cheesy) but whoever said that travelling is as much about the journey as the destination, must have been to Tawang.

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Read on for the second part of this journey:

A Celestial Paradise, Tawang District, Arunachal Pradesh

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