Gulu, our driver asked us: I bet you plainsmen can’t see a thing, can you? We couldn’t disagree and his novel and slightly cheeky term of reference to us, made me smile. To plainsmen like us, the visibility beyond the windscreen was a couple of metres, caused by a thick fog from the Dirang River, 1,500 metres below. It was as if a cloak of cotton wool had enveloped us. Without fog lights, we focussed really hard on the windscreen like chess players concentrating over a board.
Night Halt at Bomdila
Gulu with big lungs and thick legs was from the shadow of Annapurna, and a mountain-man through and through. He was the driver of the ‘Night Super’, a minibus which took 20 bone-shaking, spine-compressing, neck-jerking hours to get from Tezpur in Assam to the Himalayan town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. We had just left Bhalukpong about two hours earlier, where we stopped briefly at a barrier to show the Arunachal Pradesh Police the Inner Line Permits. After a stop at the Durga Mandir, we then ascended 1,500 metres on a winding road when we hit the patch of fog on our drive to Bomdila, the stop-over hill-town on our journey to Tawang.
By 6pm, the sun had set and we were at 2,000 metres altitude. We passed the unmistakable silhouettes of pine trees and fraying Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind. Tibetan stupas stood by, as we drove into Bomdila’s electric lights; detractors of the full moon above, in the chilly night sky. We stayed the night in Bomdila and left at 6am, the following morning. The sun was up already and we turned the corner to see a wonderful view of pure white peaks. Gulu pointed high up to a patch of white snow, the Sela Pass, the second highest pass in the world to which we were headed.
Road Up to Sela Pass
At 4,000 metres, we reached the Sela Pass. It was bright on top with the noon sunlight reflecting sharply off the snow, forcing us to squint. We entered a small wooden shack for tea; inside was the owner, a young, bespectacled Monpa lady and a small girl aged about seven.
The shop was a curiosity in itself. Where else at 4,000 metres altitude could you buy tins of mackerel, noodles, cigarette packets and sweets; the owner had done a sterling job for maintaining this much-needed respite from the road. The small girl brought us our lunch of eggs, toast and tea and then they all huddled round me, curious to see my mountaineer’s watch which showed compass bearings, altitude, temperature, barometric pressure, and of course, the time, which was approaching 1pm.
Visiting Jaswant Garh
In the afternoon, clouds overran the sky and we set off a further 4 hours east to Tawang. The scenery changed fast to craggy rocks and barren hills. Grazing yaks and fast melt-water streams started to appear as we descended the snowline. We stopped at Jaswant Garh, a memorial that is now a shrine to a brave soldier who lost his life in action in the 1962 Chinese Aggression. We looked across the valley and tried to reconstruct in our minds how it must have been like, in that cold November over 30 years ago.
Today, the area couldn’t be further from the experience of a battle. On those very slopes where soldiers once fell, yaks now graze purposefully in a blissful silence. Clouds and fog glide majestically through and consume the memorial which is solemn and tranquil. The shrine, under a white roof, houses a photo and the personal belongings of Jaswant Singh, Garhwal Rifles, MahaVir Chakra.
The Sights and Sounds of Tawang
By 2pm, after an 8 hour-drive, we finally arrived in Tawang and settled into our hotel. By evening, we took a stroll down Tawang’s single High Street. Due to an earlier storm, there was a power cut and so the shops were lit up in candlelight, giving each a homely look, an illuminated curious face above the wares, watching us walk past. Now and then, I spotted a monk in dark red robes passing by. One of them even whizzed past on a motorbike. For me, he symbolised Tawang: an age old place brought into the 21st century.
The town where the 6th Dalai Lama was born, one of the holiest places in Gelukpa Buddhism with ancient monasteries, served as a refuge for the 14th and current Dalai Lama against the advancing Chinese army. Today, the town has electricity, telephones, a snooker room and is an army base with helicopters. Its markets sell a whole variety of things; I spotted one that was selling Britney Spears track pants alongside a traditional Monpa dress. In the twilight, we admired the view of the monastery, close enough now to make out its myriad buildings.
Holy Vibes at the Monastery
We woke early the following morning, and drove down the main road of Tawang to the main monastery. The courtyard we entered was spectacular with the brilliant white of the gompa, yellow roofs and multi-coloured decorations. Ancient silks adorned the walls to give the place an intensely holy ambience. Close to the front gate, there was a water wheel which had prayers inscribed on it; every time the power of the water spun the wheel, a prayer was said, imparting holiness to the water.
At lunch time, we went to visit an Ani Gompa, or nunnery. The final Gompa we visited was the one where the 6th Dalai Lama was born in the 18th century. It was quiet and homely, and had an outdoor staircase that took you up to the main room, where a cabinet housed the foot prints of the 6th Dalai Lama in stone. The lawn outside had bushes with tiny strips of cloth attached to its branches, which fluttered in the wind, invoking the prayers which were written on them. A huge tree stood grandly by the entrance, said to have been planted by His Holiness Himself centuries ago.
Coming Back Home
The drive home the next day started at 5am. This time we were able to enjoy the winding, beautiful yet still daunting journey home. We breakfasted at a cold Sela Pass at 7am, no longer strangers to the bespectacled lady owner and her young assistant. After 11 hours of driving, we were back on the plains. The yaks had now changed to cows, the pine trees to banana plants, and the precipitous slopes were now embankments to paddy field. The air was thick and warm again, and a mosquito entered the car.
We were tired but happy. Tawang, with its mystical charm seemed miles away but somehow, strangely deep within us still.
Words: Loona Hazarika
The article was first published in Eclectic (July 2009) issue