M double U

2018 Arunachal Pradesh

The next day was mainly a traveling day, Rubul told me it would be the longest journey of our trip. First we had to backtrack 60 kilometer towards Guwahati before we took a road to the right, straight toward Arunachal Pradesh. We passed small villages, some towns with busy markets and large rural areas filled with rice fields, typical Assam scenery. Then we crossed the Bramaputhra river on a 4 km long bridge. The tide was low but I could see the space it would fill during rainy season.

Not much later we arrived at Arunachal Pradesh, I was not allowed to continue my journey before my passport, visa and inner line permit were thoroughly checked. Fortunately all was I order so we could go ahead.

Not only did we change state but the landscape changed dramatically as well, immediately after we crossed the state border we left the Assam plains and started climbing up into the foothills of the Himalayas. The road was in bad condition (understatement) so we hardly could drive faster than 20 km/hour, everything faster seemed irresponsible and excessive speeding. The valleys were covered in fog so I could not see how far down it went next to the narrow road, and maybe that was for the better for my ease of mind. The roads were soaking wet, making driving a slippery and tricky affair. Roadworks caused some delay every now and then but each time we were allowed to proceed after a short while.

And then the fog became very dense and thick. We could hardly see 10 meters ahead and at times it became so dark I could hardly see the difference between the road and the air. On a couple of occasions we came dangerously close to the abyss and my heart skipped a beat or so more than once. Closing my eyes did not help either as I was to restless to do that. Memories came back from our trip to Ladakh in 2015 but this time the fog added to my restless feelings.

Of course we were stopped by the inevitable, more roadworks. The military had blocked the road and we were informed we were only allowed proceed after five pm…a 3 1/2 hour wait. Just before this obstruction Rubul had told me he was eager to arrive at our destination before sunset. Well, we could forget about that right now. There were some vicious conversations between the drivers now impatiently cueing, and the military staff. Unfortunately the last ones were carrying impressive guns so there was nothing to do but to obey their orders. One cannot accuse the Indians from proper planning, allowing batches of cars through at a time, in between the roadworks, that would’ve been far to logic.

It did not take long before young kids showed up selling boiling hot tea, cookies and snacks. It showed the real entrepreneurship of the youngsters and I could only laugh whilst zipping a nice cup of tea.

That afternoon went by slow but finally we were allowed to move on… At least beyond this barrier as less than a kilometer further on we were stopped again as down the road explosives were being used for widening the road. The explosions were deafening but fortunately this delay did not take to long. So on we went, at least until we met the oncoming traffic, which was also impatient after being held for hours at a go. With the narrow roads chaos was predefined and chaos it became…

After we finally took this hurdle we could make up for some lost time. Fortunately the fog had settled down so it was easier for Rubul to maneuver over the narrow road. I was getting rather cold by now so I asked to turn up the heating. Unfortunately that was only working when it’s warm outside! How could I have expected anything else. With almost five hours delay we made it to Dirang but before we made it to the hotel there was one final surprise… A blocked road. We had to backtrack a couple of kilometers and find an alternative way to our hotel. 280 kilometers and 13 hours after departing we arrived.

The hotel was massive and I cannot recall a lobby being that big. Neither can recall a lobby that cold, I felt myself shivering during checkin. I had a late dinner, with my cold feet in front of the moderately warm electric heater. Suddenly all lights went out, so did the heater, fortunately not too long. By ten I went to back to my room. It was time to unpack my thermal underwear, I was going to need it.

Although I had not expected it I slept well that night. I was ready for another adventure, first we would have to climb till 4176 meter before we could descend into Tawang. I could only hope for a less problematic ride than yesterday.

After breakfast we started our journey. Climbing from Dirang, Arunachal’s most perilous road seemed like an endless series of bombed-out zigzags, which crossed several army camps and landslide zones. Fortunately the road was in much better condition than the  stretch the previous dat so we proceeded very well. We made a short stop over at the Jaswant Gawh war memorial to pay homage to those who fell in the Chinese-Indian war in 1962. Fortunately the Chinese withdrew, but for my liking they should have withdrawn much further, past the Tibetan border to be precisely.

Finally we reached Sela, a windy 4176m pass that breaches the mountains and provides access to Tawang. It was cold, very cold and in spite of being dressed in layers I wished I had bought an additional set of thermal underwear. Normally at this time of year the pass would have been covered in snow but not this time, it did make the crossing less complicated. It was the first time during my trip I saw blue air instead of the the ever present fog. The views were definitely worth my suffering from the cold but it did not take me long before I got back into the car, sheltered from the howling winds.

From the pass, the road plummeted down the mountainside into the Tawang Valley. We enjoyed a very tasty lunch in a road side restaurant after which we continued our journey to the Nuranang Falls, which were cascading down the steep cliffs and continued as a streak of silvery rivulet down the gorge. In spite of the fact the water was only at 10% of it’s volume it reaches in the rainy season I thought they were extremely beautiful and impressive.

Another war memorial had stunning views over snow topped mountains and was erected for a brave officer who got missing during the war but is still believed to be alive. As so he is still on the payroll of the Indian army…

Not much later I checked in at my hotel, overlooking the 400 year old monastery. After checkin I asked Rubul to bring me to a wine shop and I got my first bottle of old monk rum, 2 weeks after I arrived in India. The coke was more expensive than the rum (1,50 euro) and I could not wait until my first zip.

Of course electricity dropped but I was able to update my journal before dinner. Ordering from the extensive menu card seemed to be a problem as the first five items I choose were not available. So sorry sir… Still managed to select some tasty items. Not much was going on and it was bitter cold I returned to my room for yet another early night. But no complaints, with my lack of afternoon naps on this trip this was exactly what I needed. My bed was cold, very cold and I was shivering for about thirty minutes to get reasonably warm. It reminded me of the old days where we had no central heating and single glazing was the norm.

Considering the circumstances I slept reasonably well. Breakfast was fine and I was ready for another day. Fortunately the sun was shining and the skies were magnificent blue. Our first stop was the Tawang monastery. When I entered the courtyard an old monk waved at me and showed me the museum. A large collection of Buddhist artefacts were on display here, some even going back centuries.

The courtyard was covered with prayer flags which were in beautiful contrast with the blue sky. The main payer hall was of a very familiar architecture to me as I had already seen plenty of those. Still every time I am hit by the atmosphere, especially after I removed my shoes and entered the prayer hall. The colors were striking, the fabrics, the fresco’s. Once again my mouth dropped open. The serenity, the atmosphere, so serene, so touching.

I could go the the balcony at the first floor which gave me a different perspective of the impressive hall. The vibrant colours, the cushions where monks would be seated during the daily Puja. My imagination went in overdrive and I could even hear the chanting, the trumpets and the hypnotizing drums, even though the hall was empty…

The fourteenth Dalai Lama had searched refugee in this monastery on his flee for the Chinese after they illegally and aggressively had taken control over Tibet. He returned in 2016 and many signs on the road were still commemorating this visit.

Once I left the prayer hall I strolled at ease through the premises of the monastery, watched monks doing their daily routines and turned some prayer wheels in respect to Buddha and Buddhism in general. From all the religions in the world this simply seems the most appealing and correct one for me, not that I will become a convert though but it’s philosophy brings a lot of valuable lessons for life.

Next stop was a nunnery, it was much smaller in scale than the massive monastery but I did love the tranquil atmosphere. The small, but beautiful prayer hall was a delight for the senses and in front of it a little girl was extremely motivated learning the holy scripts.

When in Tawang one cannot miss out on a massive Buddha looking out over the valley and that was where we were heading next. Unfortunately the interior was closed but I still could admire the exterior. I had to move away though to admire the sheer size.

Not much further on was a smaller display of statues with Buddha preaching to four monks. On the lower parts of the statue there were panels which described Buddha’s life from being born as prince Siddhartha till becoming the enlightened one.

As we were very close to the Chinese border army camps could be seen everywhere (somehow there seemed to be more military camps than villages around). The only camp I was allowed to enter housed another memorial to commemorate the 1962 war with China. Photography rules were extremely strict, only the memorial, pointing the camera at the camp was an absolute no-go.

Tawang is famous as it is also the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. It was a modest place but beautiful in it’s simplicity. For Buddhist of course a place of extreme importance. After the sixth Dalai Lama left his birthplace he made a vow to return but it took him eight reincarnations to do so.

Our last stop was the old market in Tawang. I strolled around a bit and enjoyed the activity. As it was Sunday there was not much going on in town. The craft museum was closed and as one of the most beautiful lakes in the area was too close to the Chinese border I had no permission to go there.

So I had a late lunch, listened to some music and updated my journal while soaking up the last sun rays of the day which were lovely and warm. Actually it was warmer outside on the terrace than inside of the hotel.

It was a slow and relaxing afternoon but as soon as the sun had set temperatures dropped considerably and I had to prepare myself for another long and cold evening.

Next morning it was time to leave Tawang and backtrack the road of eternal zigzags. Still loved the scenery whilst we slowly climbed to the Sela pass. Shortly before we reached Sela we had a lunch stop in a road side restaurant. I sat around the stove with a number of locals, a cozy atmosphere. The ambience might have been extremely basic, to be politically correct, but the noodle soup was perfect. Exactly what I needed for the onward journey.

Outside the freezing cold wind was howling therefor we decided not to make another stop at the Sela pass but continued our journey. The views were simply breathtaking but gradually the blue skies were covered by a layer of fog. We were back at the valley.

As we skipped the Dirang monastery and it’s old village on our way to Tawang due to the road blockage Rubul asked me whether I wanted to see them now. Of course!

The Dirang monastery was extremely modern and had quite some Chinese influences, still I liked it, although it was a far cry from the other monasteries I had seen.

The old village, approximately 5 km from the new village, was like being in a time warp. Small narrow paths meandered between the traditional houses. People were busy preparing bread and noodles the old fashioned way, or skinning some beef to be dried afterwards on a washing line. What a completely different world, I could see why the younger generations moved out to enjoy a more modern lifestyle, to be honest I could not say what the better option was.

Our final destination for the day, Bomdila, was only another hour drive away, and we arrived mid afternoon. Time enough to visit the Bomdila monastery before going to my hotel. On arrival I witnessed a group of monks playing a match of cricket. Apparently the worldly pleasures are no strange thing for the monks. I kept on watching the game for a while and enjoyed the enthusiasm of both the players and their spectators.

In front of the modest prayer hall a big piece of fabric, with an eternal knot sawn on it, blocked the entrance. Fortunately a monk spotted me and rushed to remove the barrier so I could admire the prayer hall. Having seen so many already I noticed I started to focus on the smaller details.

After checking in at my hotel I strolled through the small city centre after which I returned for what must have been my first hot shower since days (the last couple of days I limited myself with a quick wash as no hot water was available and I could not face a freezing shower in an even more freezing atmosphere). Then it was time to update my journal, have dinner and return to my room for another early night. It had been a brilliant day.

After a good sleep I enjoyed breakfast and prompt at eight o’clock in the morning Rubul picked me up. Today we would have to cross that bad piece of road again where we got stuck for 3 1/2 hour on the way up to Tawang. As we did not feel like waiting that long once more we left early. The first part of the road was fine but quickly it’s condition detoriated. Everywhere road workers were busy with their hard labour, cutting rocks, making cement and freeing the road as much as possible. With the simple tools they had available this seemed to be a job with hardly any progress but time over here simply has not the same value as in the west.

And then it hit me hard, I had seen numerous of these road side improvised villages. spartan houses made of straw mats, flattened oil drums and plastic foil. But not until this time it came to my full realization. These houses were what one would expect in the slums of Mumbai or Kolkota but here they provided shelter from the elements for the laborers during the long and freezing nights. Water was available from a stream across the road and improvised kitchens made it possible to cook extremely basic and ever repeating food. With salaries of approx. half a euro a day it looked like a life without much future, without much hope. Still there were plenty of children around, the smallest ones carried on the back of their mother whilst she was cutting rocks. This was another side of India, the rough touch.

At once I felt privileged with my lifestyle in the west and was grateful to be born over there, with all opportunities available, without being condemned to a harsh life cutting rocks, generation after generation. But I also noticed it was the first time I was really shocked, a thing that even Kolkata had not managed to do so. It wasn’t the first time whilst this trip my eyes became humid but it was the first time because of sadness and compassion.

Around midday we arrived at my hotel, the sun was shining and my room looked out over a gentle flowing river. By now I could feel the tiredness of a week of non stop traveling so I released Rubul from his duties for the rest of the day, changed into shorts and found a wonderful place in the garden for lunch. That afternoon I listened to music, had a long afternoon nap and did do absolutely nothing. It might still have been early but for me the program for the day was over, it was chill out time, time to relax and rejuvenate.

After sunset light started to fade, as it does every day, but with no electricity in the hotel it became dark, very dark, even before it was six o’clock. Nobody seemed impressed by this so I decided to go along with the flow and wait until the generators were finally started and provided light in the darkness.

As it was cooling down a bit (but nothing compared to Tawang) a bonfire was lit for me and when I saw Rubul sitting in the car I invited him to join me for dinner. Obviously I choose for momos again and they were as lovely as during lunch time. By eight it was time to return to my room. It had been a lovely evening with an interesting conversation but once again days finished early in India.

Continue to the Meghalaya Experience