Visitors must be baptised by rain, landslides and blinding fog (September 2010)
Pravin Sawhney & Ghazala Wahab
Arunachal Pradesh : Alterna – tively described as the hidden paradise or the jewel of the Himalayas, Tawang, a tiny town of mere 20,000 inhabitants, is actually closer to the mythical Shangri la than anything else. At least, that’s the effort it demands from those who desire to breach the strings of protective Himalayan peaks which hide it in a delectable bowl of deep green foliage, dense forests, wild flowers and impish mountain brooks at about 10,000ft above sea level.
The old Ladakhi adage, ‘the land is so barren and the passes so high that only the best of friends or fiercest enemies would want to visit us’ applies very well to Tawang, except that the land here is not barren, drenched as it remains almost throughout the year in rain. Hence, it is entirely understandable when a local says ruefully, that ‘while friends struggle to reach us, foes covet us’. And it is some struggle. Reaching Tawang is not a day’s job no matter how urgent your requirement or how deep your pockets. In that sense, this quaint town straddling the ancient and themodern is a leveller. All visitors must be baptised by rain, landslides, raging waterfalls across the roads, washed away slopes and blinding fog.
For an average traveller, the struggle to reach Tawang starts in Delhi itself. Connections to Arunachal are not on the fingertips of travel agents. And Arunachal Bhawan gives theoretical information, which is also available on the state’s website. The fastest way to reach Tawang is to fly to Guwahati and then depending upon the weather, either take a helicopter or drive uphill. While there are plenty of air connections to Guwahati, none is so good that you can reach Tawang in a day. An option given by a state-recognised tour operator was that we spend the night at Bhalukpong that sits astride the border of Assam and Arunachal. According to him, if we leave Bhalukpong at the crack of dawn next morning we can race to reach Tawang by evening. Overnight at Bhalukpong? The tour operator tried to dismiss all misgivings by, “There is a state government guest house, apart from several places that offer food and lodging.” Fooding and lodging, we discovered over the next six days, is an Arunachali term for bare minimum facilities.
At this point, fortunately for FORCE, the army stepped in. Following a series of recent incidents, the concept of ‘India-China limited war’ had become a subject of passionate debate. To understand what it meant on the ground, we had put in a request with the Indian Army to visit Tawang. Just as we were despairing over logistics, the army came up with an all-encompassing plan for a week taking care of travel, accommodation and interaction with officers at all levels. Moreover, a liaison officer was deputed to escort us on this tour of discovery to the northeastern-most part of India.
We decided to do the road journey from Guwahati to Tawang and take the helicopter on our way back. Though Pawan Hans booking agent said that tickets were done three weeks in advance, we were confident that as FORCE we would be able to pull some strings (read, army) and get ourselves on the helicopter for the return journey at short notice. With all logistics in place, finally we were on our way.
We reach Guwahati a little after noon and are met by an army liaison person with a Bolero SUV. “The ideal car for these roads,” declares the driver, adding, “The road is bad in patches.” Should we then have lunch in Guwahati? “There are plenty of places on the way,” he says, kicking up a cloud of dust. The weather is humid, the city crowded and the Brahmaputra majestic, almost like an inland sea. A few kilometres after crossing the Brahmaputra we hit national highway 52, narrow, pot-holed and flanked by closed-in villages, fruit-laden banana trees and paddy fields.
The scenery does not race past us, as the road does not allow the car to do more than 60km per hour. And that is on good patches. For the rest, we amble on at 40km per hour. The ubiquitous dhabas or roadside eateries that are considered signs of prosperity and traffic are missing. Even after two hours on the road there are no dhabas in sight. Close to 3pm, the driver pulls in at a petrol pump for fuel. Next to it is a small restaurant called, what else, Dhaba. The landscape remains more or less the same through the rest of the journey. By the time we pull into Tezpur Cantonment it is 6.30 in the evening. Dusk is setting in and fireflies are out. A colonel from the Corps headquarters calls to firm up the plan for the next day. All details are in place.
The sun rises early and by eight it is quite warm. The corps has sent a different Bolero to pick us up. “The road is very bad,” says the new driver, Jon. “We may even have to stop on the way if it gets worse.” Within a few minutes, we know what he was talking about. In several places the road was replaced by a dirt track, sprinkled with coarsely crushed gravel. In other places, wall-like structures were erected in the middle of the road forcing the car to take a detour through the muddy fields. “They are raising these platforms to build a new road,” says Jon. Doing not more than 40km and at times 20km we reach Bhalukpong in over two hours; a distance of mere 60km. First lesson: Don’t calculate the distance in kilometres. Henceforth, we don’t ask Jon how far a place is; only ‘how much time?’ At Bhalukpong, we turn onto NH 229 on our way to Tawang.
Gradually, as we leave the plains behind and start the climb the road acquires sand dune-like features. The car goes up and down in a roller-coaster manner. “As I said, the road is going to be very bad,” Jon warns again. Oh yeah, as if we don’t know what a bad road is. Looking into the rear-view mirror, Jon says with what looks like a sneer, “The road so far has been very good.” What is he trying to do, put the fear of the road in our hearts? Clutching the seat handle with one hand and the back of the front seat with the other, we plunge headlong into what looks like a ditch but is still a part of the road, which sometimes slopes precariously towards the valley. Gradually, we get used to the bumps and the scare caused by them to look out at the scenery. River Tippi is following the course of the road. Actually, if you don’t look at the road or the valley, it is not so scary. Just concentrate on the looming mountains, the tall trees, which from a distance look like green cotton balls piled on top of one another.
But no amount of psyching up helps. The road continues to deteriorate. By now, the sun has been swallowed by the clouds and a light drizzle starts. Finally, all pretence is shed and the road ceases to exist. A dangerously slushy, muddy track in which the tyres of the car sink in stretches ahead. We are close to 4,000ft above sea level and the car lurches precariously from side to side as it tries to negotiate a very narrow bend, even as a vehicle coming from the opposite side brushes against it. With heart in the throat, we lurch ahead cautiously. The sneer disappears from Jon’s face and he turns down the volume of the music. Sometimes the car just does not move forward, but digs in stubbornly in the slush with the rear wheels slipping sideways in protest. It needs all of Jon’s ingenuity to push it forward, he slams
down hard on the accelerator and the car obliges with a lurch. Patiently, Jon cajoles his few-month-old vehicle to not let him down and we stagger from bump to bump. We manage to cover a little more distance when the car halts. There has been a mud slide. The road has been blocked. An earth-mover looms into view piling mud on one side, clearing a rough patch so that traffic can go on.
Waiting behind the earth mover is an army convoy. Jon gets his tongue back as we wait for the road to clear. “The road will remain bad till we reach Elephant,” he says. How many kilometres is that? He shrugs. Ok, how much time will it take? “One hour,” he says, adding helpfully, “Sometimes, the landslides are so bad that it takes nearly 10 to 12 hours to clear. One should always travel on these roads with enough water and food.” Toilets, anyone?
The road clears. While the trucks in the convoy manage to amble on, a bus carrying service personnel gets stuck in the slush. When all fails, the soldiers get down, ankle-deep in the mud to push the bus. Once the convoy is through, we too slide through the mud. The next hour takes very long with another minor landslide and detention on the way. Finally, we cross Elephant and once again notice how majestic the Himalayas are and how musical the waterfalls. A little beyond Elephant is Sessa where we are met by our liaison officer who will be our companion for the next week.
Reaching Tawang is not a day’s job. All visitors must be baptised by rain, landslides, raging waterfalls across the roads, washed away slopes and blinding fog
The presence of a strapping young Captain uplifts the mood in the car. Thereturn of the road, albeit severely broken and pot-holed also helps. Though it is noon, the sky is grey and the drizzle continues. Explaining the condition of road, our Captain says, “The Border Roads Organisation is working on expanding the road into two-lanes, which is why it is dug up in places.” If ever there was an understatement, this was it. And just on cue, the car swerves past an obscure board put up by the BRO. ‘Doublelaning work in progress. Inconvenience regretted.’ That settled, we drive on to Tenga Valley, which is host to the Ball of Fire Division and our halt for the day.
It is nearly 2.30pm when we pull inside the division headquarters. Two reasons for breaking the journey here: One, Se la, the second highest motorable pass in the world at 13,700 ft should be crossed well before 3pm because after that fog settles there, reducing the visibility to almost zero; and we were over four hours away from the massif. Two, the evening can be well utilised interacting with a host of officers on how they view China.
Weather forecast is not very encouraging. It rained at night, but our young captain is confident that we will have a pleasant drive. Most importantly, Jon is cheerful. Perhaps, the road would not be so bad after all. We leave Tenga Valley around eight and drive along the playful Tawang chu (river) forcing its courseagainst the rocks strewn in its path. The army has provided an escort car, another Bolero, with a JCO, just in case.
Tawang lies beyond three ridgelines. Hence, one has to go up and down the mountains crossing three passes of varying altitudes. While we had crossed one minor pass the previous day, we now gradually approach Bomdilla, the first formidable pass at 7,773ft. The road is behaving well, the air is crispier and a slight chill is perceptible. All in all, it is a pleasant drive.
Bomdilla is the headquarters of West Kameng district. Till a few years ago, there was only Kameng district which included Tawang as well. Subsequently, for geographical and administrative reasons, the district was trifurcated and in its place are West Kameng, East Kameng and Tawang districts. Since the district collector of West Kameng sits in Bomdilla, it is a place of some import with the population of nearly 74,000, primarily the Miji and the Monpa tribes. The houses, hotels and sports field along the highway accords relative prosperity to the town.
As we begin our descent into the valley, clouds start to collect affecting visibility. It is only nine in the morning and we are over three hours away from Se la. Jon gets chatty. “If the weather deteriorates further we will have problems crossing Se la. Even on clear days it gets foggy, today it could be worse,” says our harbinger of good tidings. Since the road is alright, the drive is relatively easy and Jon is emboldened to talk. “There have been so many accidents on these roads,” he says. “A few months back a Bengali family had come for a holiday. Driving back from Tawang, they reached Se la late in the afternoon. The driver refused to cross the pass because of fog but the family insisted. Since they were paying the driver he had to listen. He missed the bend and the car went down. The whole family died.” He continues, “Last month a truck fell down from Se la and everyone including the owner of the truck who was sitting inside died. The truck is still lying on the road below. I’ll show you,” he says looking across to the Captain for corroboration. The Captain is non-committal, but that does not deter Jon. “Last year an army vehicle went down. The gorge was so deep that it could not be recovered,” he says, again looking over to the Captain. What about the men inside? “They all died,” he says.
What happens to those who plunge to their deaths on these treacherous mountain roads? Do their souls rise to the heavens or like the vehicles remain unrecovered? Jon has an answer. “At night, a girl and a boy walk on these roads asking the drivers for a lift. If you give them the lift, the bend in the road appears like a straight road and the vehicle goes over the cliff. Why else will experienced drivers make such mistakes,” he says in a tone that sounded more like a reassurance to himself. “Often when I drive alone at night I hear a girl call out to me, but I never stop. I roll up the windows and put the music at full blast.”
Jon is good at creating the ambience. Solemnity descends on us. Both the mountain and the road start to look extremely formidable and we look out of the window with a new sense of gratitude. Fog continues to play hide and seek and road starts to deteriorate. About an hour short of Se la, we stop at the army transit camp at Senge for a quick lunch. There is a sense of urgency now. We have had too many pit stops, the road does not look too good and the weather refuses to improve.
Post lunch we race towards Se la, but the road impedes the speed. The drive uphill is extremely slow and is made worse by the rain. Just as the car gets the momentum, another landslide stalls traffic on both sides. Pulling the car closer to the cliff, Jon steps out to stretch himself and get updated on local gossip from other drivers. After nearly 20 minutes, earth movers manage to clear enough mud for the traffic to resume. Miraculously, the fog has also lifted and it seems that we may after all have an expansive view of the Se la bowl and the beautiful lakes that surround it.
No such luck. Clarity was only momentary. Fog deepens as we climb up onto high altitude terrain. Though it is not yet 2pm when we reach Se la, it is darkness at noon. The drizzle has turned into a full blown rain and visibility is only a few metres. Se la is reduced to a mystery in the fog.
The descent from Se la is even more difficult. There is hardly any visibility and the road is broken and slippery. Barely 30 minutes after Se la is another landslide. Army convoys are piled up on either sides of the road. Since is not a landslide prone area, no dozers have been stationed here for clearing. A handful of local women have been tasked to clear the road manually. This looks like a long haul. Drivers are murmuring that unless an earth-mover comes we could be here for the night. Our Captain confabulates with other army personnel who are stranded there. One straggler walks up to him, “There is a short-cut a little behind you,” he offers. “Small vehicles like Bolero can easily climb down.” We ignore him. A short-cut at 13,000ft? Sounds like short-cut to heaven or hell. But he perseveres. Finally Jon and the driver of the escort car decide to walk the distance to check-out the short-cut. They decide that it is manoeuvrable and we get back into the cars. The short-cut is actually a steep dirt track, at almost a 60-degree incline. Sitting on the edge, clutching the back of the front seat we start. The car ahead tilts precariously to one side and it looks that it might topple over, but both the drivers are good. The ordeal lasts for about half an hour before we hit the road again.
Driving past Nuranang, the scene of a fierce battle in 1962, we stop at Rifleman Jaswant Singh’s memorial to pay our respects. For all military men travelling on this road, Jaswantgarh is a pilgrimage. Nobody crosses it without stopping here. On the hillside, just outside the memorial are the graves of 300 Chinese soldiers who were killed here by Rifleman Jaswant and his two companions. Behind them, shrouded in mist are the 1962 defences of the Indian Army.
The closer we get to Tawang, for some reason, the mood is becoming sombre. It could be fatigue or the fact that we are now in the area where so many of our own had been martyred so many years ago. There is young blood on mountain slopes. Jaswantgarh onwards, each hamlet, every small town has some war history, Captain tells us. We can no longer banter with Jon. Crossing Jang and Khirmu we speed towards Tawang as much as the road permits. Darkness is fast creeping in and the Valley is becoming narrower and sinister.
Around 6.30pm, we reach our destination. Welcome to Tawang, says the decorative gateway. Only there is nothing to see. Tawang is wearing a shroud of darkness and fog. In sullen silence, we drive to the guest rooms generously provided by the 190 mountain brigade. Our host, a colonel, assures us that if the rain stops now, we will have a majestic view of the Tawang monastery overlooking the town from just outside our rooms in the morning. And, if the weather holds we can drive up to Bum la, the border with China which is also the place for Border Personnel Meetings.
Rain returns. So does fog. Overlooking our rooms is an expanse of sheer white. No mountains, no valley. Bum la has been ruled out. There is hope that by 10 the clouds may clear a bit and we will be able to visit the monastery.
Sometimes the car just does not move forward, but digs in stubbornly in the slush with the rear wheels slipping sideways in protest
First bit of sunshine since we left Guwahati. Though fog still lurks on the horizon and the monastery is still veiled, the weather has been declared fit for travel to Bum la. A small snag: Brakes of Jon’s Bolero have finally given up and we will have to go in another car. “A car lasts only a year in this terrain,” he says. “After that it becomes unaffordable to maintain. I always sell my car after a year and buy a new one.”
Brigade arranges another car and we are off to Bum la. Our captain assures us that just as we start our ascent we will get a bird’s eye view of Tawang. But all hopes are dashed by the return of fog. Clinging to the mountain, the road meanders and we move at the average speed of 25km per hour. There is no civilian population here. All we see on both sides are army settlements and dumping yards. Given that Bum la is open to tourists, it is curious to see so much of military so close to the road.
Once again, the shadow of 1962 looms over the landscape as well as the conversation. We cross several landmarks each with a reference to the war. It is both a fascinating and a beautiful drive. We stop at the memorial to Subedar Joginder Singh and accept the halwa which is given as prasad. “Wait till you reach Bum la,” says our escort for the journey, a Lt Col. “The halwa at Bum la is very famous.” As we climb down the steps to leave, the Lt Col turns back to the memorial and salutes the departed.
Before we reach Bum la, he stops again. There is another memorial. This one is called Assam Fort. “A platoon of 5 Assam Rifles was asked to hold the Chinese here,” he says in a slightly muffled voice. “There were no defences, no bunkers here. They fought till the last man,” he says, pointing to the gentle slope next to the canopy. “Their remains are all buried here.” Since the area remained under Chinese occupation for nearly two months, the bodies of the soldiers could not be retrieved.
Bum la is just a short distance from here. At 15,300ft, it requires Stage 3 acclimatisation. It is extremely cold and windy. The Lt Col has thoughtfully given us thermal jackets and woollen headgear. Just next to the border is a heap of stones. It is customary for everyone who comes here to add a stone here in the hope of India-China peace. Dutifully, we do our bit. Just behind it, is Maitri Sthal, the building where BPMs take place. While India has built permanent structures here, there are none on the Chinese side. They simply pitch tents where it is their turn to host the meeting. Hot tea, halwa and pakoras are served at 15,300ft on India-China border. We cannot stay here too long, says the Lt Col as we are not acclimatised for extreme high altitude. As we walk towards the car, there is just one thing left to do. We step across the heap of stone onto the impeccably-built Chinese road; ahead is a vast wasteland with no signs of human habitation. We turn back to India and see the well-beaten dirt road, signboards exhorting India-China friendship, hutments for meetings, toilets for visitors and prayer flags. This is where people live, you can tell.
We had pulled strings and got ourselves a place on the helicopter. But it rained the previous night and the helicopter had not come for the last two days because of bad weather. There is no choice but to get back into Jon’s car and start the long journey back. His brakes have been fixed by the military transport. We start on a positive note. Jon declares, “Whoever comes here complains about the roads. But there is magic in these mountains, which always brings you back.” Looking out of the window, with the sun peeping from behind the clouds, who could argue with that.
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