Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Tawang becons

Looking at the never-ending line of hills in the horizon Ashimda asked me “ Can you see the farthest hill? Well, we shall have to cross that one too.” It was really fascinating as we kept riding and descending one after another hill to cross even that farthest one. But newer hills just kept popping up in the horizon with our journey.

Recalling that trip to Tawang still gives me fond memories of thrill and excitement. It was 5 days of pure fun and adventure. Tawang, now major tourists spot, is a lovely little town in Arunachal Pradesh almost at the China border. Its altitude is 10200 feet. But to reach there you have to cross the Shela Pass at an altitude of 13714 feet. We traveled 585 km from Sivasagar to reach Tawang. From Guwahati, it will be roughly 540 km. It is really a lifetime experience and is recommended for everyone unless you have problem with high altitude or any other medical complications needing regular attention.

Planning for the trip : The car
We choose to stick to the Ashimda’s dependable Maruti 800 because you could be sure to have a servicing center for Maruti even in the Himalayas. But if you are in-group of 6 or more opt for a Tata Sumo or similar vehicle because they are best suited for such a long journey on the hills. For other cars servicing facility, if required, may leave you in soup. In any case, if you decide to try out your car, then have a through servicing. Special attention should be given to coolant and radiator. Strengthen feeble horn. Check belts, etc. Get a pair of good fog lamps. Two stepney is highly recommended. God forbid, if your car deceives, you will be left stranded in the hills where the nearest help may be several hills away. Summing up, get yourself satisfied that the car is fully fit for 4/5 days strenuous journey. Also get your Inner Line Permits (ILP) and Tourist Lodge bookings at Bomdilla, Tawang and Dirang confirmed beforehand. Prefer to stay in the Govt. run Tourist Lodges rather than in hotels. ILP can be obtained from the Arunachal Bhavan in Guwahati or there is a office near Jail in Jorhat. The fee per person is about Rs.25/-.

Best season
The ideal period is 3rd & 4th week of March. You can be rest assured to find snow at Shela Pass and PTSO. We started our journey on 25th March. We had plenty of snows at Shela and we could hardly made it to PTSO because of snow. However, it should be remembered that snow melts very fast – two days of blazing sun and all the snow is gone. Not surprisingly on our return there was hardly any snow at Shela. But to our good fortune we experienced snow fall at Shela. To be in the out feeling soft droplets of cotton like snows raining down on you was a grand finale to our trip.

Alternatively you can choose end October, if the summer has already subsided in the plains. Probably you will find snow at least at PTSO. Without snow the joy of the trip will be halved. Nov. to Feb will be too snowy to visit.

Get yourself sufficient warm cloths. You will need everything from sweater, jacket, cap, muffler to gloves. It can really very cold up there. You will feel the change in temperature once you cross Nechifu Pass.

The itinerary
The whole journey will take at least 5 days. Your itinerary should be as follows:

Day 1 : Travel upto Bomdila. Halt at Bomdila
Day 2 : Travel upto Tawang. Halt at Tawang
Day 3 : Local sightseeing at Tawang
Day 4 : Return from Tawang. Halt at Dirang /Bomdila
Day 5 : Return to Nazira / Sivasagar

You may add one more day for an additional day’s stay at Dirang or Bomdila for sightseeing.

The journey begins
Start as early as possible, preferably around 0630 hrs. Your first destination is nearly 400 KMs away out of which 100 kms will be in the secluded hills. Take some light foodstuff which will be handy on the way. You would be better off having your breakfast on the way rather than wasting time in the morning. Keep in mind not to make your halts longer than 30 min. Your last stretch will be up on the hills trying to climb upto 8134 feet. The more you get delayed on the way, the more difficult will be for you, driving on unknown hilly territory.

After leaving Tezpur town, you travel through Namdapha Reserve Forest to reach Bhalukpung. This is an elephant infested area and so be careful, specially on rainy days. At the Bhalukpung border, you will be required to produce your Inner Line Permit (ILP). There is a petrol pump here. Refill your tank. Petrol is relatively cheaper in Arunachal. After passing through Sesa you will climb to the Nechifu Pass at 5694 feet. Nechifu is about 50 km and requires 2 hours drive from Bhalukpung. You will find fog-warning signs there. Clouds get trapped here within the hills to form fog here. On our onward journey, there was no fog. But on return, there was so dense fog that visibility was hardly 4/5 meters, that too around 3 pm in the day. Your next destination will be Tenga. The road between Nechifu and Tenga is very treacherous. There are stiff slopes. Keep checking your wheels. There is every possibility that breaks will get heated and start fuming. In fact, the whole stretch upto Bomdila was built prior to the Chinese invasion and so the design and laying is terrible. There was a stretch where you feel like going down a roller coaster from a 4/5 storied building. About 20 min. from Nechifu you will find a string of roadside hotels and a Puncture Repairing Shop. On your return you have to have your lunch here. Remember, in the hills, you cannot afford to choose where you dine. Dine where you get it, else you may end up driving for hours without even a roadside dhaba.

At Tenga, there is a large military establishment. It is a small town with hotels and restaurants, though not of good standard. But there is a shop where you can get good momos. Tenga is at 4884 feet. Thereafter, your ascend to Bomdila starts. Bomdilla is at 8134 feet and is about 45 min. drive from Tenga.

Bomdila your first destination and halt for the night. There is a hotel named Shiphyang Phoo and a Govt tourist lodge for comfortable stay. The hotel is costlier. Better to stay at the tourist lodge. You have to pay extra for lighting the Fire Place in your room. It is the largest town in your whole trip. There is a market and several restaurants. Most important for you may be Garages and the Petrol Pump.

Start early again next morning, preferably around 8 am. After driving for about 2 hours, you will reach Dirang at an altitude of 5500 feet. Because of the low altitude, it is much warmer and so comfortable to stay at Dirang. Halt here on your return from Tawang rather than staying at Bomdila. There is a Tourist Lodge and a Hotel side by side. Book while going. Ther also is a petrol pump at Dirang, next to the hotel. We spent an extra day here and really enjoyed it with a picnic. There is a hot water spring, which is to be avoided as you will not get into that dirty pool. So avoid climbing down and up those 100 plus steps. But there is a sheep farm, which is worth visiting to see the large horned Russian breed sheep.

You will cross Sapper and Sange (9177 feet) in about 1 and ½ hour from Dirang. We found a roadside hotel after crossing Sange where we had lunch. There was no food joint after Sange for hours together. So, we also had dinner at this very dhaba on our return. Your final assault on Shela Pass starts at Baisakhi at 11218 feet. Road from here is not black topped as melting snow makes maintenance difficult. We had a tyre puncture here. It is worth mentioning that we could get it repaired at Tawang only. We just prayed that misfortune of another puncture should not stuck us. And, fortunately God listened to us.

Located at 13714 feet, Shela Pass is the Gateway to Tawang. It was all snow there. Named in the memory of the local damsel who helped Jaswant Singh in keeping Chinese at bay for days. There is a temple here and also a lake. You may be lucky to see the lake half frozen. We saw it. We also got to experience snowfall here on our return. Beware! weather changes very fast and it can suddenly turn very cold and scarry. So do not stay here for long.

You will badly want a cup of hot tea after chilling out at Shela pass, which you can get at a small settlement just when complete the descend from Shela. 15 minutes from Shela, you reach the Jaswantgarh monument. There is a temple here built in the memory of Jaswant Singh, who bravely fought the Chinese. If you wait here to pay homage at the temple, you will be offered tea and pakoras by army unit stationed there. Few army personnel are always posted here who lives in 2 bunk houses stationed there. You can also see the bunkers used in the 1962 war around this place. The Chinese had reached Bomdila in the 1962 invasion and people had even started leaving Tezpur fearing further inroads.

Another 15 minutes descend and you will see the Jung falls, made famous in the movie Koyla. The fall is about 1 km off the main road. Better visit it on return. But must visit it. There is a hydel power plant here. You should go to the base of the fall to feel how big it is. I have never seen a fall as tall as this. The fall is so powerful, that you will see the rainbows formed by the sprinkled water particles. Tale care of your camera.

You will reach Lowe and Bomdir before finally reaching Tawang. For your record, Lowe has a garage for repairing punctures. At Bomdir (8827 feet), there is a tinali. One road goes to Lumla and other to Tawang. Read the road signs properly as you may not find anyone to guide you. From Bomdir you start ascending again for Tawang at 1020 feet. It took us about 3 ½ from Shela to reach Tawang.

As we had bookings in the tourist lodge, we slipped into the comfort of the warmth of our rooms. Let me tell you, it was real biting cold. The lodge was renovated for the flim Koyla. It has two suites, one named after Madhuri and the other after Shahrukh. At Rs.750/- per day they were not that costly.

Our sightseeing started next day around 9 am. We first went to the Tawang monastery said to be the second largest in Asia. It is more than 350 years old. A monk, Mera Lama, a contemporary of the fifth Dalai Lama, founded this monastery. The sixth Dalai Lama was born in this monastery. The Tawang Monastery is also known as the 'Galden Namgyal Lhatse.' Photography was allowed inside the main shrine. The young little monks sitting in lines quietly chanting some hymns was quite a site.

Thereafter we proceeded for the PTSO lake. PTSO stands for Penga Ten Tso. This lake was also extensively shown in the movie Koyla. The lake is about 15 km up from Tawang. On its base there is an army outpost where you need to enter your details and video cameras are prohibited. After going a few kilometers, there just snow and only snows. The lake and its approach were covered in at least 3 / 4 feet of snow. It was fresh unlittered snow. Snow is why people travel to far away places. But it can be seen at just 500 kms away from Guwahati. We slid, jumped and did anything we could in knee-deep snow. There was no one except us. Few kilometers up from here, you can actually see Chinese army outposts.

We came back to the town for lunch. The place has more army personnel than its local population. All supplies come from Tezpur. There is very little option for dining. There are garages, which also repair punctured tyres and a petrol pump which is on the outer end of the town. We spent the rest of the day in relaxing.

A memorable journey was coming to an end. On our way back we stayed for two nights at Dirang. We were peacefully cut off from the hardships and pains of the rest of the world with no newspapers. We bought the entire catch from a fisherman who was angling in a rivulet in the hill. After driving all day and most of the night, we finally reached home at 2 am in the morning. Even now, whenever I drive on a cloudy day in the hills, specially through the Kaziranga National Park, memories of that trip to Tawang keeps coming back. It was five days of pure thrill, fun and adventure.
(Note: This trip was undertaken from 25th to 30th March, 2001)


Anonymous said...

This information about cars and garages is especially helpful, thanks!

Ezee123 said...

Excellent write up on your journey into Tawang.
Glad to have read it.

Anonymous said...

your write up was very interesting. i was thinking of driving down to that place from mumbai. but you stayed only a day at tawang. so to drive from mumbai will not be a good idea at it would take 15 day's drive to reach there. may be public transport will give a more realistic idea to visit tawang for me specially in view of your statement that there are more army personnel than local population.

Anjuli said...

what an excellent write up about the travel- you give every detail! GREAT!!