My First Tryst with the Himalayas – Arunachal Pradesh

For a Mumbaikar attempting a great escape into the splendid isolation of Arunachal Pradesh, it was a bit disconcerting to come across a lake named after Madhuri Dixit. Because for the locals, the Sangestar Lake is now Madhuri Lake, thanks to a song from the film Koyla that was pictured there. It was also annoying (though sometimes sweet), to have to keep explaining to the locals that the mere fact that I live in Mumbai does not make me Shah Rukh Khan’s close personal friend. And finally, Arunachal’s No. 1 hit song way back in 2006 drove me straight up the wall – it was by Himesh Reshammiya. Fortunately, these – and the Maratha Regiment at the Bum-La Pass that I was only too happy to exchange notes on ‘back home’ – were the only reminders of the crowded, congested city on the other side of the subcontinent that I call home. For two glorious weeks, I was in a fresh, cool, unspoilt environment that is Arunachal Pradesh. And, I will never forget the experience.

Situated on the North-Eastern tip of India, with Bhutan on the West, China on the North, Myanmar on the East and the states of the seven sisters on the South, Arunachal Pradesh is our very own land of the rising sun. With all the controversies on the border dispute between India and China, I just felt I wanted to reminiscent about the beautiful trek I went on and write about this beautiful land kissed by the first rays of the sun.

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Spotting Lubrang village through the trees; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

The best period to visit Arunachal is from April to October but, it is not easy getting there, especially the West Kameng District, which is where I went trekking and touring. One must fly to Guwahati first, and then drive along the River Brahmaputra to Tezpur from where, after an overnight break, you continue to Bhalukpong, a town on the Arunachal border. Before you go, however, you must apply for an Inner Line Permit – essential for a sensitive border state like Arunachal.

This was my first Himalayan trip and this trip was to determine if I would ever go back to the high altitudes for trekking or climbing. Wondering why I am saying this? That is because I am a chronic Asthmatic and yet was trekking avidly in the Sahyadris. Asthma was never a hindrance and I led treks in the Sahyadris for close to a decade prior to stepping foot in the Himalayas.

However, there was an internal fear within me when it came to trekking in the Himalayas. I could never get myself to be confident and do a Himalayan trek. I had this fear that I would not be able to acclimatise, my asthma could come in way etc; But, finally on the advice of a friend who had trekked with me, I decided to go to Arunachal and do my first Himalayan trek there. And 10 years down the line, am I glad to say that there has been no looking back after that. 

Our group of six flew to Guwahati and drove to Tezpur, 181 kms from Guwahati. The drive was dominated by sights of the Brahmaputra river. Closer to Tezpur however, the countryside became greener and rural. The well-known wild life sanctuary Orang was on the way and housed some unique mammals like the Assamese Macaque. We reached the outskirts of Tezpur and were pleased to note that Nameri was not far away as our first night halt was at the Nameri Wild Life Sanctury. The Eco Camp managed by Ronesh Roy was our home for the night and we let the travel fatigue vanish in the wilderness.

On the second day, we soon reached the Arunachal border at Bhalukpong, a scrawny town. We had to show our Inner Line Permits (ILPs), necessary for all visitors going to Tawang. We were elated about the fact that finally we were in Arunachal Pradesh and the wilderness gathered around us, filling our senses. The river Bharali (which joins the Brahmaputra near Tezpur) kept us company for a short while. White-water rafting is possible on this river, but we gave it a miss as our journey had just begun and proceeded further to Jamiri. Climbing up, we had our first glimpse of the Kameng River, meandering down the mountainous terrain, fed by numerous water-falls and streams that were a treat for the eye.

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Scenery from atop Bhalukpong; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

Four kms from Bhalukpong is Tipi, and from there onward the clouds gathered at eye level, and the road twisted against the mountains. For someone fresh from the congestion of Mumbai, the journey was like a benediction: fresh, clean air, and a long distant view. Never mind that it was a long trip to Dirang and we loved every meter of it. Tipi has a large Orchidarium and the Orchid Research Centre. The Orchidarium has over 500 species of orchids. Arunachal Pradesh has the largest range of orchids in India and the scientists at Tipi have created new hybrid species. We saw some orchids in complete full bloom. It was an awesome sight.

We next proceeded towards Bomdila, which is at a height of 8000 ft. Closer to Bomdila, the roads were lined with impenetrable forests and there were many waterfalls alongside the road. Our souls almost transformed with a new vigour after having run away from the summer heat of the mainland. The clouds and twisty roads with the backdrop of the mountains and the forest made us curious like a child, wanting to stop at every corner to take a few snaps. Bomdila itself is a laid back town and we stopped there for lunch in a small restaurant. We quickly exited Bomdila on a higher note as the road climbed up above the town and suddenly in an act of magic, the town disappeared behind the hills taking a downward turn through more twists to take us into the Dirang Valley, 42 kms away from Bomdilla.

The setting of Dirang could be least described as beautiful as it was clearly more idyllic than many other hill stations. After a trip to the Dirang Zhong (fort) and a night at the tourist bungalow, we detoured slightly to visit India’s only yak farm before climbing up Tom Hill, which, at 9,545 feet above sea level, gave us our first views of the snowcapped mountains on the border. This was our acclimatisation trek before we embarked on our big long trek – the plan was to trek to Sania on the Bhutanese border (13,500 feet). I had told our trek leader that if I was unable to do the acclimatisation trek to Tom Hill then I would return and stay back at Dirang. This was my testing trek and to my utmost pleasure, I walked brilliantly and had no issues whatsoever in acclimatising.

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On the trek from Nagajiji to Dhonk-chi-phu; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

The long trek was an awesome experience. The weather was strange. Three kms in to our trek and the weather took a complete turn as it started snowing. It was a completely new but frightening experience but thanks to our trek leader and Tashi our guide, and the other porters, who all kept our spirits high and did not let us get de-motivated. Three hours into the trek and the entire group had split. The idea of being together all the while had been lost. The weather further got worse and finally our trek leader in consultation with our guide took the decision to wait at a goat hut at ‘Dhonk Chi Phu’.

From our hut the ‘Pemakoksum’ range of Bhutan was clearly visible. We were only three hours away from our summit point Sania (Bhutan Border) but we could not proceed as the weather was bad. It took us all of six hours to reach the goat hut (13,255 ft) but nevertheless, everyone was happy that we at least made it so far. As we were warming ourselves in the small goat hut, our guide and trek leader announced the change in plans. We realised that the weather conditions had led us to alter the plans a bit. The new plan was to trek back the same route to Naga-Jiji and then from there trek down to a small village called Lubrang and from Lubrang trek down to Dirang.

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A local at Lubrang adorning traditional clothes; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

Visiting Lubrang, situated in the Indo-Bhutan border, was an amazing experience. We rolled our eyes around and right in front us, we could see the massive Gorichen Massif standing tall as guards. Gorichen Massif consists of peaks with altitudes 6423 m, 6226 m, 6488 m, 6247 m and 6383 m. This group of peaks is also visible from the Sela Pass as also from a high point in Tawang. An Indian Army team first climbed Gorichen in 1966.

Lubrang was a small sleepy village and had ten to twelve houses and a Gompa. The locals of Lubrang  belonged to the Monpa tribe and, in their traditional attire – long, striped wraparound skirts and boots for women, trousers and jackets made of yak skin for men – looked unique. The women of this land were natural beauties with flawless skins. The entire village had gathered around us and were extremely hospitable. They were only too glad to have us around and we were treated to some local beer called ‘Rakshi’ – a real potent drink. Rakshi is the local drink and be it a happy occasion or sad, Rakshi is brewed and served in every home. Rakshi is brewed from rice or maze and the one we were served that day was brewed from maze.

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Sela Point; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

After a short two-day stay at Lubrang, we trekked down back to Dirang. One night’s stay at Dirang and we began phase two of our trek – Sela Pass and Tawang. Sela Pass runs through a ridge along the Paradise Lake and snow lined the road as we drove up to the Pass. During the 1962 war with China, our Indian soldiers had fought valiantly at Sela Pass to keep the invading forces out. Tales of heroism filled our ears and we trekked to the nearby Jaswant Garh War Memorial, raised in memory of Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, Lance Naik Trilok Singh Negi and Rifleman Gopal Singh Gusain, of 4 Battalion Garhwal Rifles. For their bravery, their unit was bestowed with the battle honour ‘Nuranang’, the only Indian army unit to receive such an honour in the 1962 war. Behind the memorial, on a clear day, one can get a panoramic view of mountain peaks, including the Bum La. Take it from me: this view is best enjoyed to the accompaniment of piping hot samosas and dosas from the stall manned by Army jawans.

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Scenic view of Sela Pass; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

Downward from Jaswant Garh, the terrain changed and greenery began to take over the landscape again. Do not, under any circumstance, miss the Jung village and its waterfall on your way to Tawang, for it can uplift the most jaded soul. Tawang is truly a tryst with nature at its best, and a heady mix of history, religion, patriotism and of course, undying legends. Tawang seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis though. It is also known as Mon Tawang, Tawang Shyo, Towang, T’a-wan and Tang Shyo. This was where Bollywood begins to make its presence felt, but fortunately, I could escape to the Pankang Thang Tso (Tso meaning lake). The drive there was steep and often snowbound, but words cannot describe how beautiful it was.

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The amazing Jung Falls; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

We got to peek into China from here – although the border was infinitely less interesting than the gorgeous lakes and marvellous mountains. And on our way back, we stopped at the world famous Tawang Galden Namgyal Lhatse (celestial paradise), better known as Tawang Monastery. One of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Asia, it accommodates over 700 monks. The monastery is the fountainhead of the spiritual life of people in the region. The main courtyard had a museum housing original scriptures and artefacts dating back to the 6th and 8th centuries. The other attractions in Tawang were the Tawang War Memorial, built by the army. It has a beautiful Stupa dedicated to the memory of the 2,420 men who lost their lives in the Kameng sector in the 1962 war. The Dalai Lama sanctified this Stupa.

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Tawang Monastery; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

Another interesting place we visited was the Ani Gompa (Nunnery). Tawang has a long tradition of nunneries called “Ani Gompas” and there are several nunneries located there. Unlike the monks (Lamas), the girls become nuns and join the nunnery on their own and there is no social pressure or tradition making the practice compulsory. One of the oldest Ani Gompa is the Brama dung-chung Ani Gompa, located 12 kms from Tawang. This Ani Gompa was commissioned by Karchen Yeshi Gelek in 1595 and housed about 45 nuns. The Gyangong Ani Gompa is about 5 km from the Tawang township and has about 50 nuns staying there as well and that’s the one we visited.

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Anis praying at the Ani Gompa; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

To visit the India-China border at Bum La (15,700 ft), 38 km away, a special permit from the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Tawang was required, which had to be endorsed by the military commandant’s office. Not all tourists visit the border, but we felt this was the high point of our trip. Unfortunately, it was a holiday on the day we went for permission and therefore had to forgo our trip to Bum-La. From Tawang, we proceeded to the Eagle’s Nest Sanctuary, which is a protected area of India in the Himalayan foothills of West Kameng District, Arunachal Pradesh. Eagle’s Nest Wild Life Sanctuary offers premium birding along an old road (hardly used) through very good forests ranging from tropical to temperate (600 m – 2700 m). Both the Eagle’s Nest and adjoining Sessa Orchid Wildlife Sanctuaries were notified as protected areas in 1989. These sanctuaries are approximately 40 kms east of Bhutan, and are therefore highly significant to the conservation of the Eastern Himalayas Endemic Bird Area 3.

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Early morning bliss at Eagle’s Nest Wild Life Sanctuary; Photo: Anusha Subramanian

The trek into the forest was beautiful and we also had the rare opportunity to see a herd of white elephants running. But like they say, all good things have to come to an end and our trip also had to be completed. I, however, will never forget the dawn-lit mountains, remote hamlets, sleepy villages, magical gompas, tranquil lakes and beautiful orchids of Arunachal Pradesh.

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