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aslam abbas | blogger | thinker | observer

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10 May 2017
A 7 day trip to the Serene Tawang by 7 people

This is where we are going
A view from the Giant Buddha Statue in Tawang

The Plan

“The time has come to escape somewhere. Somewhere remote, somewhere wild and beautiful at the same time”.

This was all I could think of for the past few weeks and I would browse tripadvisor and other blogs for the perfect escape. I was confused.

“Should I go alone or should I call my friends? It would be boring to go solo. But who would have the time and budget to make such a trip!”

And I was nowhere near to finding a destination as well. As I was knocking around these thoughts in my mind, I got a call from Appu. Appu is a guy who doesn’t do the usual chit-chat. He gets straight to the point.

“Shall we go to north-east, Aslam?”, he asked. Oh boy! You know, when what you are searching for finds you, it brings a special joy. I told him, I was also making a plan. He said that we just have to fix the dates, book the tickets and the rest we can plan along the way. The game was on. Other heads started popping in. It turned out that everyone was exhausted by the dreaded office life and they all dreamt of a break. The NE trip WhatsApp group was born. Sajeev, Prasad, Kartha, Deepu and Sebastian joined the trip. So many of our common friends had already visited places in north-east India. The amazing video they made became one of our many inspirations to go to north-east. There were so many choices in north-east ranging from Gangtok, Chirapunji, Meghalaya and the list goes on.

“Boys, Let’s go to Gangtok. Plan later, book the tickets first before the rates go sky high.”, said Appu. We obliged. After careful consideration of available dates, we booked flight tickets to Guwahati Airport. The dates were from Apr 29 to May 7. All of us booked the cheapest flights (SpiceJet, of course!) and started looking for itineraries to Gangtok. Meanwhile, I started calling travel groups to get an estimate of how much the trip would cost each of us. My calculations put me at 25,000 INR per person for 7 days including airfare. We had already booked the tickets, and there was no going back. So the planning continued.

“Hey have you heard of Tawang and Sela pass? It is a remote place, and very beautiful too. Check it out!”. As soon as Kartha mentioned Tawang, the group came alive. The words, Tawang, the Hidden Paradise, instantly caught my attention. It is not as famous as the other tourist spots, which means lesser tourists, more freedom. There is a chance of finding snow in Sela Pass, which is on the way to Tawang. Everyone started digging up photos and itineraries for Tawang. Everyone except Sebastian maybe. If I remember properly, he was ok with anything as long as we were all going. So, Tawang it was.

Now the next crucial element of the trip, the instrument of transport. It was rent a bike Vs rent a cab Vs self-drive car. The rent a cab option quickly went out of the window. Incidentally, one of our friends had already gone to Tawang. He shared with us the pictures of Dirang Valley and the wonderful condition of the roads and hairpins that lay ahead. He warned us that self-driving is dangerous and tedious. Even their cab driver was having a tough time. The warning had the reverse effect. Everyone took it as a challenge to ride the roads, rather than to sit in the back of some stranger’s car. And the rent a bike option was crossed out since most of us were better at driving cars than riding bikes. So we booked a Mahindra Scorpio from ZoomCar for 7 days. They recently started out in Guwahati, so it was the perfect timing for us. We didn’t pre-book any hotels. Sajeev and I were not so happy with that decision, but after a sarcastic lecture from Appu on how overplanning ruins the fun of a trip, we gave in. It turned out to be the right decision.

Tawang Valley Pic
The mesmerising Tawang Valley view from the monastery

Day Zero - Fri Apr 28, 2017

Did I forget to mention the Inner Line Permit (ILP)? I guess I did. ILP is mandatory in many places in north-east. Because these are border areas with a lot of army presence. I read in some blogs that getting them offline in the Guwahati office can be a bit of a hassle. So we opted for the online application. The online application costs 100 INR per head and the offline only 10 INR. It takes a few days, but you will get it. Additional to the ILP, we also took a copy of an ID-proof.

Free advice: Let me tell you in advance that one copy is not enough. Take 4-5 copies of ID-proof and 2 copies of ILP if you are planning to visit Bum La Pass. The additional ID-proof copies may come handy when you are booking the hotel in Tawang.

Sebastian and Prasad had come to my place in Bangalore. Appu should also have joined us, but he preferred to stay with his friends in Mysore. His buddies there were planning to go to Nandi Hills on bikes, so they dropped Appu on the way. He later regretted that decision, because he lost all his sleep. The four of us had straight flights ahead from Bangalore airport to Guwahati airport. Sajeev and Deepu were to fly in from Chennai Airport with a stop in Kolkata. Poor Guys! They were the first ones to reach Guwahati and grabbing the Scorpio from ZoomCar was their duty. Kartha was to fly in from Pune and land at the same time as the Bangalore bunch. With the last check on our backpacks, we flew off to Guwahati.


Day One - Sat Apr 29, 2017

For a change, the Spice Jet flights arrived on time. Guwahati Airport was neither well maintained nor large as its Bangalore counterpart. It had a parking lot the size of two Basket Ball courts. All of us took our backpacks and grabbed a seat in the nearest KFC. No, we didn’t have KFC for breakfast. We were just waiting for Sajeev and Deepu to come and pick us up in the Scorpio. An hour passed, waiting for them. Meanwhile, we took out our cameras and inspected them. Sebastian had brought a digital Nikon. That camera had a mind of its own. From time to time it would zoom in and out. Plus, the capture button was too stubborn. It would not work no matter how hard I pressed. Deepu had also brought a camera. It was an oldie but still functioned properly. Fortunately, Deepu and Appu had iPhones. So that would suffice.

the ride
Our ride for the trip

It was almost 10.30 am. At last, they came with the Scorpio, a mighty blue beast. We hopped on and the first thing that we did was check the fuel and tire pressure. Deepu was the navigator and Sajeev was the driver. We set the destination to Bhalukpong and drove on. None of us had eaten anything and were extremely hungry. We looked for hotels on the highway, but couldn’t find anything decent. The view along the road reminded me of Kerala. There were a lot of green pastures, paddy fields, and small hills. However, Guwahati didn’t have the one thing Kerala has, an amplitude of hotels along the highway. Finally, we settled for a small hotel. There was no menu as such.There was only Poori and Sabji. That became our brunch. Two hours into the trip and I realized that sitting in the back of the Scorpio is a pain in the ass. So we decided to stop here-and-there and shift places and the driver.

There are some tourist places in Guwahati, temples mostly. We didn’t stop at any of those places because we wanted to reach Bhalkupong before sunset. The road ahead was in good condition. We didn’t face any traffic. We did get a bit lost when we tried for a detour near Tezpur. The detour took us through a small village. We were a bit surprised. It looked exactly like a village you would see in Alleppy. We even saw a grandma coming out of the church in the traditional Kerala Christian attire. Someone in the back asked, “Did we lose our way and end up in Keralam?”. The similarities were that close. Even the shops and markets resembled that of Kerala from the 2000s. We passed a lot of schools on the way. Oddly, almost all schools had white uniforms and senior girls had to wear sarees. Pretty soon we got back on the Highway and stopped for a cup of tea. The tea session quickly turned into a mini-banquet with everyone ordering biriyani, fried rice, and even soup.

Free advice: the hotels may say they take cards for payment, but the GPRS signal may be too low that they won’t work. So carry a good amount of liquid cash.

All along the way, we talked on and on about our office lives and college days. Many memories were refreshed and I think that is the best thing about going on a trip with college mates. There was one memory of our friend that stood out. Let’s call him X. X was a charming intellectual with an extreme appetite for sleep. X always makes it through the exams somehow. Like every other engineering student, it is the late night combine study that helps all of us, including X. It was the internal exams time. It counts for 50 marks at the University. This time it was Maths for our branch. All of us prepped well, digested the formulas and marched to the examination hall. In the examination hall, students are seated so that no one from the same branch sits close to each other. Also, the branch will be split into groups and placed in different examination halls. It so happened that X was the only one from our branch in his examination hall. He didn’t mind. We finished our exams, went back to the hostel and started discussing the paper. As we were discussing, X stepped in and started listening to the answers. X started panicking, he didn’t get any of the answers that we got. After a few minutes, he started saying that none of the questions we mentioned were in his paper. We also got confused. That is when it struck all of us. X had written the physics paper of another branch. The whole two hours of the exam, X gladly sat there, attempted all the questions, handed over the answer sheet to the examiner, walked away confidently and never realized that it was not the Maths paper. Oh man, you should have seen the look on X’s face. He immediately went to the Maths department to see our professor. The entire department burst into laughter. Our professor only had to say the following, ” In my 25 years of teaching experience, I have never seen or heard such an incident ever happening.”. He got away with it and got his retest. This is one memory that still makes all of us laugh till our cheekbones hurt. The only reason, I am not revealing the identity of X is because if he gets pissed, he might hack this blog of mine.

npcb scene
A scene that reminded us of NPCB

I am sorry, I think I got carried away. So where were we? Yes, I was in the driving seat with sixty km left to Bhalukpong. I must say I was lucky. I got the best road with zero traffic. There was a dense forest on both sides and a smooth road ahead. The golden evening sunlight was slowly fading away into the horizon. As I was speeding along, we glanced a small river on our right side. We decided to take a stop and have a look. We couldn’t find a way to the banks of the river. Appu and I spoke to the local children and they showed us the way. The river bank was laid with beautiful stones, almost looked like a scene from NPCB. It was a part of the Kameng river that went on to join the Brahmaputra. We snapped some pics and continued the journey. We reached Bhalukpong check post. This is the first place where we had to show the ILP of each passenger. The army men just had a quick glance through the paperwork and passed us through. I spoke to a senior army man, asking him for hotels nearby. He told me he was posted there only the day before and didn’t know much about the area. He did tell us, why the place was called ‘Bhalukpong’. It has something to do with bears (Bhalu is bear in Hindi) coming over from the forest for a drink.

fall of appu
Appu slipped into the icy water and got completely wet

We got a nice deal at a lodge, Hotel Tazi Yangste. As we were settling down, we met our next surprise. I saw Kartha and Sajeev talking with some of our batchmates from our college. We knew their team had gone a week before to Tawang, but we never imagined seeing them along the way. Vishnu, Shahanshah, Potti and Sreeram had all gone in rented bikes. What freaked me out, was their costumes - jacket upon jacket with thermals inside, gloves on the hands and gumboots on their legs. They were in a hurry and very quickly they gave a brief summary of Tawang and the road ahead to Bum La. Their tips really helped us. The good news was that there was snow at the top, but they warned us that if there is heavy snowfall, getting to the top in a four-wheeler may be not allowed by the army. We bid them farewell and settled down at the hotel. We all had some delicious chicken momos. We tucked in early since we wanted to leave early in the morning.


Day Two - Sun Apr 30, 2017

I somehow woke up at 4.30 am in the morning. The plan was to leave at 5:00 am sharp because the destination was Tawang and there were plenty of bad roads ahead. I was surprised to see that sun was already up by 5:00 am. I had heard about the demand for a separate time zone for north-eastern states. Only now did it make sense to me. All of us had decided the earlier night that we will rotate the seating position every one hour. It was almost 6 am when we departed from Bhalukpong. Sajeev started the drive as usual. The river Kameng was by our side and offered some beautiful scenery. Every few kilometers we could see JCBs and Bull Dozers parked on the side, ready for maintenance. A landslide can occur anytime and block the roads. Deepu had informed us that the day before we arrived in Guwahati, there was a violent storm that caused a lot of damage. I guess we were blessed with apt weather conditions. Most of the bridges we passed were made of steel and can only pass one vehicle at a time. If we see any other vehicle coming in from the distance we have to honk them and let them know we are coming. Right after Sajeev, when Prasad took over the driving, we had to stop our Scorpio for nearly 5 mins to let an array of army trucks pass.

We stopped for breakfast in the nearest tea stall we saw. There is a minimum waiting period of half an hour after you place the order since it takes longer to cook in the higher altitudes. While things were cooking, I had a chat with a young teenage boy.

“Hi there, we are from Kerala.”. He seemed very happy to see South Indians. I asked his name, but can’t recollect it now.

“So which tribe do you belong to?”

He said, “I am from Nimji Tribe, but most people living here are from Akho Tribe. Each tribe has its own language and we don’t understand each other.”

“So is it true that there are more than 200 languages spoken in the entire North-East?”

He laughed at me and said,“200 may be only the accounted number. There must be a lot. Even I don’t know the exact number.”

By this time, his younger sister came out. When I asked her name, she gave a toothless smile and hid behind her brother. I was about to leave when he gave me his facebook id and asked me to add him. I chuckled and said, “Ya ya. Sure. Bye bye!”

Our order had arrived; hot Maggie plus tea.It tasted good and we left. The road up to Bomdilla was fine, but after that, we saw the worst roads ever. The parts of the roads where maintenance was going on were filled with dirt, three inches thick. The parts where road tarring was going on, was full of dust and bumps. It took nearly 2 hours for us to get onto some freshly serviced road. It felt like heaven. For lunch again, we stopped at a small stall. These stalls are held by bamboo sticks on the mountainside. The whole building distributes its weight through these sticks. We could literally see the deep cliff from the holes on the wooden floor. As we sat down admiring the ingenuity of the building, Maggie noodles and tea arrived for the second time. Kartha, Deepu, and Sajeev wanted to try something different and they ordered Chicken Tukpa. It is nothing but noodles in their native style.

Free advice: Don’t order Tukpa.

Along the way, we could see a lot of army stations. Each unit has its own name and purpose. Photography in these areas is prohibited and there are speed breakers along the road to make sure that we drive slow. These stations are well maintained and we can approach these army men for any help we need. Also to point out that among the few ATMs that we saw along the road, most were situated near to these army stations. By evening, we had reached Dirang. We were running low on fuel. We took the Scorpio to the nearest petrol pump. Since we rented the vehicle from ZoomCar, the fuel bills will be reimbursed. However, we need printed bills from the pump for the reimbursement. This small little pump was out of printing paper. After a few minutes of discussion, we pumped diesel worth 500 INR, took the written bill and left. Something is better than nothing.

flags
These prayer flags can be found everywhere on the road

It was almost 4:30 pm, but the sunlight had nearly gone out. Thick fog was starting to set in. Appu was driving and was having a hard time seeing the road. The fog lights and indicators were turned on. To the left of the road were sharp ridges, which was clouded by the fog. As we slowly made our way through the fog, tiny dots began to appear against the front window frame. It was not waterdrops. Then we began to hear the sound of particles hitting the car. For a moment we were worried, was it hailstones, but it was not that hard or big. It was snowfall!

“Look man, it’s snowfall”, exclaimed everyone. We lowered the side window panels and saw actual snowfall. Everyone was excited and joyous because it was a first time experience for everyone. It lasted only for a couple of minutes and then the fog cleared. Everything was back to normal. From a far distance, we saw the ‘Welcome to Tawang’ gate and we knew we had reached Sela Pass.

Sela Pass
The colorful entry gate at Sela Pass

We parked the car and all of us posed for a group picture. There were sheets of snow lying around and it was too cold. At the moment, I was wearing my casual clothes. Very bad move there. Within seconds, my hands and feet started to ache and I had to switch to shoes, gloves and a jacket. We shut all the windows and turned the A/C knob towards the warmer side. That was the first time, I used that option in a vehicle. We rotated our seats and Kartha climbed onto the driver seat. Sunlight was fading away. It also started to shower a little and we still had more than 70 km to cover to reach Tawang. To make things worse, the condition of the road was that of an abandoned battlefield. We knew that the next town ahead was Jang. We decided that if we find any lodge in Jang we shall spend the night there. It was 7:00 pm when we reached Jang. We found a lodge, but the owner said that if you drive for one more hour you will be able to reach Tawang. By this time, the battery of almost all our phones was down and the network signal was nearly extinct. Fortunately, Sebastian had downloaded the offline map on his phone and he was getting the GPS signal as well. So he became our navigator in the dark of the night.

We drove on, climbing hairpin after hairpin with no human being in the near sight. We found a building with lights on. It turned out to be a Paying Guest House. Appu and I got out of the car and went inside. We were greeted by a chubby little man.

“Namaste, where are you from?”, He came out with his hands folded. We introduced ourselves and explained our situation.

“Nothing to worry. Rooms are available. For seven people, you will need two rooms. One room will cost you 2500. And you guys want to go to the Monastery and visit Bum La, right? I can arrange that. I am the philosophy teacher here at the Monastery.” He was very polite and we continued to converse for a few more minutes. I wanted to take the rooms. But he mentioned that if we were to go forward four-five kilometers, we would reach Tawang main town. “There are lodges there as well”. We decided to try it out and come back to his place if we didn’t get anything.

As we went ahead, we started seeing more building lights. It was a relaxing sight. We have been driving the whole day, starting at 6:00 am in the morning. Everyone was tired. Once we reached the main town, we knocked and inquired at a couple of lodges. We finally took two rooms in Shampala Hotel for just 2000 INR. Also, all the restaurants had closed down at that hour. Luckily our Hotel manager mentioned that something should be available at their sister hotel. I went to check. It was completely locked from the outside. I had to knock at their door for a few minutes before a boy came out. There was only chow mien was available, so I placed an order for seven Chicken chow mien. I promised to come back in half an hour and went to the room. The rooms were not centrally heated. This meant that the bed and blankets were ice cold. We had to lie down and use our body heat to make them sleepable. Someone brought the food from the sister hotel. Sadly, instead of seven, there was only five. We shared the food, filled our tummies and crept into the bed. Never before had I eaten noodles three times in a day!


Day Three - Mon May 01, 2017

Finally, we had reached Tawang on the third day. “Mission accomplished”, we whispered among ourselves. The first thing I did after waking up from bed was to go to the terrace. I wanted to get a good look since we drove to Tawang in the pitch-black, we had no clue about our surroundings. Fresh cold air breezed through my bare feet. I could see clouds of fog gently coming down from the snow-capped mountains. It was 7 am and sunlight was creeping through. Most of the shops were already open and the street looked busy. First thing on the list was to take a nice hot bath. That plan was shattered in an instant; the heater was not working. That’s what happens when you go for budget hotels. Let’s say, I somehow managed it.

Free advice: Bathing in icy cold water can bring a tingling (bearable) pain in your hands and feet. It will take a few hours for the pain to pass away.

By around, 9.30 am all of us were ready. We didn’t have much planned for the day. Visiting Tawang Monastery and obtaining the pass to Bum La; these were the only things on our bucket list. Unlike other towns we passed like Dirang or Bomdilla, Tawang looked more well built and organized. Our hotel was in Nehru Market and had some good restaurants nearby. For breakfast, we had lots of options - Rice (Chaval), Chowmein, Paratha, and Poori. All of us ordered Rice with Chicken and Mushroom curries. It really tasted good. On the side, there was a notice that said that non-veg and alcohol will not be served on Wednesdays in Tawang. It was according to Buddhist customs, I believe.

Roaming in Tawang
Just taking a stroll in Tawang

After our breakfast, we went to the DC office to get the pass to Bum La. Prasad drove us. We had to stop at every junction and ask for directions. We finally made it what looked like a small municipal office building. There were no boards around and we didn’t we couldn’t distinguish between the army men and security guards by the uniform. After a few minutes of roaming around, a man came up to us and asked us, “You have come to get the pass, right? Wait here. I will give you the form”

We thought he would be the clerk. He actually turned out to be the DC himself. He gave me a form to fill. We had to give all our names and address details. He asked for our vehicle RC. I hesitated for a moment, following which he frowned and asked me,

“In whose name is the vehicle registered to?”

“None Sir. We actually rented it from a company called Zoom Car. It is registered to them”

“The RC is not in any of the passenger’s name?”

“No Sir.”

“Then I can’t give you the pass. You will have to hire a local cab and his RC will have to be used”

“But Sir..”

“Listen. Listen. You will easily get a cab. Come back with him. Also, bring two copies of all your permits and address proofs. Ok?”

“Ok Sir. Thanks”

“Hurry up.” With these words he gestured me to leave the office. Many others were waiting in the queue.

So that was our experience in getting the Bum La pass. We were a bit disappointed. Not only will we have to pay the cab driver, we will miss the chance to drive on our own. Nevertheless, we decided to get a cab after getting back to Nehru Market. The Monastery was nearby. So we headed off to there. The Tawang Monastery was the largest in India and for some of us, it was the first time visiting a Buddhist Monastery. We saw the Monastery up ahead, but it looked deserted except for a few taxi cars parked. Deepu was in the front seat and asked a fellow passing monk, if it indeed was the Monastery and if we could go in. He nodded his head and walked away with a smile. Prasad parked the car. I grabbed Sebastian’s camera and started clicking pictures.

Prayer drum
One of the many Buddhist prayer drums

We could see the whole of Tawang town from this point.There was a giant Buddist prayer wheel outside. Their prayer ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ was written all over the drum in the Tibetan language: ‘སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས’. It has six syllables, each denoting a certain human quality. As we slowly made our way inside, I saw Appu and Sajeev talking to a young couple. Turns out that they from Kerala as well. After a small chit-chat, they went on their way. There were not many tourists around and strangely there were very few monks around as well.

One legged hen
A hen posing for me near the Monastery

We entered the main praying hall. It was hard to believe that building was made in the 17th century. I saw many people sitting down on the vertical mats. Some were meditating, others were just posing for their friend’s camera. I decided to take a good look around. The main Buddhist statue was huge. It looked similar to one of those architecturally marvelous Cathedrals. There were smaller statues of monks. Each of them carried a different object in their hands. I later learned that it represented the six syllables of their prayer. Many devotees had left money and eatables near the statue. There were yellow vertical prayer mats hanging from the ceiling. The place for monks to be seated was covered in a satin cushion. Since there were no prayers going on, we explored other doors and stairs. Outside the prayer hall, there was a museum as well. The rest of the buildings were the living quarters of the monks. That’s what we assumed because there were no monks around to confirm. Kartha said we should have come when the prayers are going on.

inside the monastery
The statue of Buddha inside the Monastery

There is a special ambiance in the prayers that is energizing. We moved on to the ropeway that takes you to Ani Gompa. It is at walking distance from the Monastery. As we were making our way, we saw a group of cab drivers. We asked them if they could take us to Bum La. They gave me a number of their friend. I made the call and the driver agreed to take the seven of us for 4500 INR. I agreed, the standard rate was 5000 INR. He agreed to meet us at our Hotel at 2:00 pm. There was a small crowd near the ropeway. We thought we could easily go in the next round. Unfortunately, we had bad news. The rides ahead have already been booked and they only take six people at a time. That was the second disappointment of the day.

Free advice: Book the ropeway in advance. 200 INR per head. Timings from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm.

It was only 1:00 pm. We went back to our Scorpio and discussed what we should do. We needed to check the vehicle. After yesterday’s strenuous journey, the brakes and tires needed to be checked. The cab driver had already mentioned a garage down the road run by a guy called, Babloo. “Best guy in Tawang”, that’s how they described him. So we split into two groups. One group took the Scorpio to the garage and others went back to the hotel. Most of us were also tired by the long journey and needed more rest. On the way back, Appu mentioned that he saw a board that said - ‘Cycles for rent’. I, Appu and Sajeev decided to check it out. The store name was - ‘MyTawang’. They rent bikes, cycles and other adventure apparels. The bikes were in good condition, but I can’t say the same about cycles. There were five Btwin mountain cycles at the store. The owner said three were already booked and he could only give us two cycles. Each cycle costs 500 INR for a day. One cycle didn’t have the front brake. I took that one adjusted the seat height and started riding alongside Appu. As we rode through the street, all eyes were fixated on us, because no one rides a cycle on those hilly roads. Appu was having a very hard time making it up the hill. He was also not too familiar with gear shifting. I changed his gears to the lowest gear combination possible. After just a few kilometers, we found ourselves gasping for air. I think it has to do with the altitude. Onlookers were smirking at us, but we paid no attention. Since I had to meet up with the cab driver to Bum La, I went back to our hotel and gave the cycle to Sajeev. Once again, I found myself giving him a quick lesson on gear shifting.

cycling in tawang
Cycling in Tawang

Time passed and I got tired of waiting for the cab driver. It was getting close to 3:30 pm and there was no sign of him. He was not picking up the calls as well. I decided to take a stroll down the street and saw a board - ‘East Line Tours and Travels’. Just out of curiosity, I went in and enquired the cost of hiring a cab to Bum La. The man in the black jacket there said,

“Driver is available. But DC office will close by 4:00 pm. When do you want to go?”

That’s when I realized we only had half an hour left. “We are seven people. We need to go tomorrow itself.”

“Oh! Well, it will be tough. For seven people one Sumo is enough. Do you have the ILP copies and ID proofs?”

“Ya, I do”. I showed him the documents.

“It will cost you 5000 INR. For now, you need to give me 500 INR advance. You should have come in the morning. It’s already late!”

Without giving it a second thought, I handed over the money and the xerox copies. “What will happen if the DC office closes?”

“You will get it. You will get it. Now we will have to go to his house and collect the pass. Just pray that the officer doesn’t have any other plans. Come back here in the evening and I will tell you.”

I thanked him and left. I felt irritated that I didn’t do this a few hours earlier. The team that had gone to the garage was back and walking down the road. Appu and Sajeev were also there with the cycles. I told them everything. We just looked at each other. Kartha said, “We are not leaving Tawang, without going to Bum La. Otherwise, the trip would be worth nothing!”. We all nodded in agreement. By this time, everyone already had lunch and I was the only one left. They pointed me towards a good restaurant, ‘Mon-valley restaurant’. I went straight in. The good news was that they had beef. As I sat there waiting for my order to come, I pondered on how to restructure the trip, if we’re to spend an additional day in Tawang. At the same time, the man in the black jacket from the travel agency walked into the restaurant. He saw me, gave me a hand wave and shouted,

“Your pass is ready! Be ready by 7:00 am tomorrow. Come to my shop, Ok?”

That was the best moment of the day. “Wow! That was fast. Thanks a lot!”

” I told you, you will get it”. Uttering these words he immersed in a conversation with the restaurant owner. They looked similar, maybe they were relatives. I couldn’t tell for sure. Most of the north-eastern people looked the same to me. My friend had mentioned this matter to his north-eastern friend. His reply was that he felt the same way. He thought that all the South-Indians looked the same. I am sure my friend didn’t see such a reply coming. The man in the black jacket went into the kitchen and grabbed something to eat. I think being a small town, everyone there just knows everybody. My order came. It was the tastiest meal I had since we started our trip. Everything was cooked to the optimum and the flavors were just correct. I left with a happy tummy. I noticed that I had some miscalls on my phone. It was the original cab driver, he was waiting at the hotel. I met him and explained the situation. He didn’t complain. He went on his way.

I saw that Appu and Sajeev were back with the cycles. They looked tired and were done with riding. There was still some daylight remaining and I wanted to go for one more ride. So I took it downhill, away from the town and avoiding the stares of people. I coasted down without pedaling, enjoying the view and the air. Hairpin after hairpin I started going faster. I only stopped when it struck me that I have to climb up all those hairpins. It is a pleasant feeling when you lay down on the mountain grass bed, staring at the sky. Fast forward a few minutes of solitude, I was struggling against the hill. I only remember making it back without stopping anywhere.

The cycle store was on the Old Market Road. This is the major shopping area in Tawang. Lots of shops selling clothes and sandals. I bumped into an antique shop. There was no one in the shop except for an old man and a young lady dusting off the items on the shelf. She was about to approach me and ask me what I wanted. The old man stopped her. He talked to her in Hindi (assuming that I didn’t know Hindi), “These young people will not buy anything. Let him have a look and then he will leave”. Well, he was absolutely right. I didn’t speak a word and simply stared from shelf to shelf. There were Chinese style clay pots, huge flasks and plenty of laughing buddhas. There were prayer flags and mats that resembled the ones we saw in the Monastery. Lots of small decorated knives were hanging down. Also for the first time in my life, I saw an actual Samurai Katana. It actually weighs a lot more than you expect. Then there were other items that I don’t know how to describe. Anyway, I moved on to another cloth shop. There I bargained for a sweater. Even though I got a good price, I decided to buy it the next day and left for my hotel.

As I walked up to my room, the hotel owner called me and asked me to fill the entries in his register. Since we booked the room at midnight, we hadn’t done that. As I finished filling in the details, I noticed that the owner was watching an IPL game live on the TV. It was Mumbai Vs Bangalore. Out of curiosity I asked him,

“IPL ha. You like cricket?”

“Ya. Why not?” answered the owner, without taking his eyes off the screen.

“But, do you guys play Cricket? I mean I know you guys play football a lot but I didn’t see any cricket grounds anywhere in these hills.”. Now I had his attention.

“We have grounds.”. Then he mentioned some names, which I don’t remember. “We even have Tawang Premier League every year. This year’s league just got over.”

Now I was impressed. I didn’t want to stop the conversation. ” I see. The young people here at Tawang, what do they do after school? Do they go to college or for work?”

“College? Yes, those who study well go to college. We don’t have a college here. Many go to Delhi or some other place. Some go to Bangalore and other places in South. Others will start with their parents; doing business or other work as they get. It is all good.”

He was on a roll. “Some of my family members are in the US as well. There are people from Tawang settled in the UK and abroad. Yes, there are many.”

He understood that I was really impressed. I continued, “So Sir, we have come a long way from the south to see your place and people. I am just wondering where do you guys go on vacation?”

“What vacation? We don’t go that many places. But you should understand, we are Buddhist people right. We mostly visit Buddhist places. We go to the shrine in Ladakh, in Coorg and other places nearby.”

“So don’t you want to go to Tibet then?”

“Yes, of course. But it is not that simple. Do you know that we can go to China without Indian passport?”

“What! Without passport? How?”

“See that’s the thing. China wants to make parts of Arunachal Pradesh theirs, including Tawang. So if we go to the Chinese embassy for Visa, they will say we will give you Visa if you don’t submit your Indian Passport. They are telling us that we are already Chinese and don’t need the passport. They are trying to woo us in. That’s one among the many reasons, the army is stationed here. And we don’t accept this offer from the embassy you see, even though we would love to visit Tibet. If we did that it will increase the tensions between India and China.”

” That’s a tough situation.”

“Yes. But this is how it has been for a very long time. We just hope it changes in the future.”

“Hmm. Alright, Sir. I don’t want to disturb you from your game. Good night.”

“Good night. What’s your plan for tomorrow?”

“We are going to Bum La.”

“Good. Good. You will like it.”

“Ok Sir.”. Off I went to the room. We discussed what we should wear for tomorrow. After putting our phones and cameras for charging, we went to sleep.


Day Four - Tue May 02, 2017

We were ready by 7:00 am and reached the travel agency’s office. The office was open, but there was no one there. I tried to call, but no one picked up. I wondered if we were cheated but instantly ruled it out. The people there are known for their honesty and hospitality. After a few minutes, the man in the black jacket came. We were relieved. Just for a moment, I just thought how the hell he left his office completely open for that long. I guess that is how things work in the town of Tawang. Anyhow, we had to wait for some more time, since the driver was just on his way. We went to have breakfast in the meantime. There were no hotels or restaurants on the way. We all had multiple layers of clothing on to protect us from the cold. I thought I was the one with the most layers but Deepu had beaten us all. He wore two t-shirts, one thermal, a sweater on top of them and a jacket on top of all of that.

The driver came on his Tata Sumo. We paid the travel agency an advance amount and got inside the Sumo. Appu had already stolen the front seat next to the driver. Everyone had their eyes on that seat. We all settled down when the driver looked at Appu said,

“A fat guy has to sit in the front seat”. Appu was heart-broken. I seized the opportunity quickly; finally an advantage of being the fatter among the lot. So we set out to Bum La pass with me in the front seat. The driver started playing some old Bollywood songs on the stereo. He seemed like a cheerful guy. I asked his whereabouts. His name was Leyki; father of two boys aged two and three. Taking tourists to Bum La Pass was his main source of income. He had only gone yesterday, he said and there was a heavy snowfall. Yet, he managed to take the travelers to the top. That was good news for us. It meant that we had a driver determined enough to take us to the top even if the weather went rogue.

As we slowly gained altitude, we could see old army bunkers camouflaged in the green pasture. They seemed to be deserted. There were no more houses or buildings along the way. We came to our first checkpoint, the Mathura Grounds. There were so many boards there with instructions for tourists. Among them, there was a board that displayed the names of the major places ahead, with a status sign next to each of them. All the places were marked with a green circle in the status column. This was good news. It means we can travel smoothly. After Mathura Grounds, there was an army platoon every five kilometers or so. Each one was heavily guarded with grilled fences. There were lots of army trucks and gypsies lying around. We noticed that the many of them had chains bounded over their tires. We knew about this; they are used to get a grip when riding in the snow. We asked our driver, Leyki,

“Hey, Are you carrying any chains for the tires, in case we run into snow on the way?”

“No Sir. There is no need for that. I will take you even if there is snow. Don’t worry!”. He seemed full of energy. He had our full trust. The green pasture along the cliff started to disappear. Sheets of snow began to replace them and we began to get juiced up. We started clicking a lot of pictures. Seeing our excitement, Leyki calmed us down,

“Calm down. Calm down. This is nothing. There are better views up ahead. Settle down please.”

Snow mountain
One of the snow mountains in BumLa

He was right, very soon, the only thing we could see was mountains and snow. By the time we reached the next checkpost, we couldn’t contain ourselves. All of us popped out the Sumo and started digging into the snow. There were a few other Sumos around. They were also on the way to see Bum La pass. We couldn’t hang around for long since we had to move out quickly. After this checkpost, we passed a lot of army trucks. The road is wide enough to pass just one truck, but still, they would give some space for the Sumos to pass. However, whenever we were climbing a steep slope, Leyki would keep a lot of distance from the vehicle in the front. Upon asking him, he replied,

“The thing is, if these trucks brake in the middle of the climb, there is a high chance that they will come back all the way down. Since the road is muddy with the melted ice, they will not get a good grip and might bump into us. Even if they don’t bump into us, they need to start from the bottom to get some momentum to climb the slope. They can’t just start from where they are stuck.”

road to bumla
The road to BumLa covered with snow

We were glad, we hired a cab. We were thinking that the roads would be similar to what we found near Sela Pass. In Sela Pass, at least some roads are tarred, but the roads to Bum La are not maintained properly at all. The indicators are also used in a different way in hilly roads. If the truck before you is glowing it’s right indicator, it means the truck driver is giving you permission and space to overtake the truck. Leyki told us that at the end of the day, after driving these roads he becomes tired and goes to sleep very quickly. These roads demand patience and skill.

Snow angel attempt
Everyone taking a nap in the snow bed

We reached the third checkpost and thereafter the PTso lake. This is one of the largest lakes in the area. It almost looked as if it was carved out of the valley and jammed between two mountains. The scenery was a pleasure to the eyes. For some reason, Leyki stopped the Sumo in the middle of the road. He pointed out that other trucks way up the cliff had also halted. All of us got out of the Sumo. The army man passing by said that it is snowing at the top and that is why they are not letting us go. This meant the halt would go on for some time. Leyki looked disappointed.

lake in bumla
A nearly frozen lake in BumLa

Nonetheless, we didn’t waste any time. The first thing we tried was to build a snowman. All hands were on the deck rolling the snow into thick balls of ice. But smashing them together into a larger ball, big enough to form the belly of the snowman, was not that easy. Whatever techniques we tried, the snow would fall apart somehow. After admitting that building a snowman is not an easy task, we walked away. I noticed that Leyki was talking to the another Sumo driver. It seemed like they were planning to put on the chains on their tires. However Leyki had mentioned, he didn’t carry any chains with him.

road to bumla
The uphill climb to BumLa

Prasad was the most ecstatic among us. He went crazy with the snowballs. He and I soon ended up playing catch and throw. We didn’t hesitate to dive and fall into the snow. It was smooth as a pillow. Almost half an hour had passed, still, there was no movement on the trucks. We noticed that all the army men were wearing sunglasses. We wished we had brought them with us. The glare from the white snow was hurting our eyes. I found it difficult to open my eyes to their normal capacity.

photo group
Taking snaps while getting held by the Army

By this time, Leyki and his driver friend were done with putting on the chains on each of their Sumo’s. The other driver carried a spare one, which came handy for us. There was some movement at the top and vehicles started horning. We rushed to the Sumo and Leyki started the Sumo. We were glad that we were finally moving. We went up for just two hairpins. After that, all the Sumos had come to another halt. This time, the drivers were busy untying the same chains that they tied up half an hour ago. What a drama! Leyki also stopped and started doing the same. I asked, what just happened.

“Those army folks were wrong. There is not much snow on the road. We can drive without chains. Chains on the tire will only slow us down. Haa. We have already wasted our time.”

I nodded and started giving him a hand with untying process. All of us were standing close to the edge of the hairpin. It was almost a twenty-foot drop to the hairpin below us and there were no barriers on the side at all. The edges were completely snowcapped. Deepu made an attempt to look down farther, to which Leyki shouted,

“Hey, you want to go so fast already? Go any closer and you will slip!”

He was right. It is hard to judge the thickness of the snow. From the outside, it might appear even, but the bottom is definitely uneven. Sometimes our legs went in just up to the ankles and sometimes up to our knees. We had to be careful for our own sake. Meanwhile, Prasad and others were busy making snow angels on the other flatter side of the road. The tire was freed from the chain and the journey continued. There were huge rocks on the road that seemed to have fallen off the mountain in a landslide. There were so many writings on these rocks as well. So many inspirational quotes were written on these rocks. We noticed the same thing at the army stations as well. I believe surviving every day in these places really needs some inspiration.

huge valley
One of the largest valleys near the top of BumLa

I was confused as to whether I should sit back and enjoy the view or snap as many pics as I can. Sitting in the front seat does come with its responsibilities. With one hand on the camera, out of the window pane, I tried to do both tasks. The melting snow decimated the road further. The valley and its surroundings bewitched our eyes. I don’t remember anyone speaking anything in those moments. Our heads were almost unidirectional and any attempt at conversation would have destroyed the trance we were in. Leyki pointed out his finger and said,

“Look! That’s Bum La Pass. We are almost there.”

igloo
The army Igloos near BumLa Pass

As we approached the pass, we started to see buildings and Igloos made by the army. These Igloos looked very different from the one I had seen in my Geography Textbook. Leyki parked the Sumo and we walked towards the Pass. There were a dozen tourists there. We had seen some of them in the town of Tawang. We realized that the army was serving hot tea by the side. I am not sure if it was cow milk or goat milk, but it tasted damn good. The army was only letting people enter group by group. So we had to wait for our turn. The notice boards, strictly said that photography is not allowed. However, everyone was clicking pictures and the guard didn’t say anything. Our turn came. There was a nearly 100-meter walk to the LOC. On each side of the path, there were boards that portrayed the glory of each Indian state. It took us some time to find the board where Kerala was mentioned. The path we were walking had some history to tell us. It’s where the Chinese army invaded India during the 1962 Sino-Indian war. It was only opened to traders and civilians in 2006. There was a Heap of Stones monument right at the borderline. It’s actually a tribute to the Indian Army for guarding our motherland.

BumLa
The panaromic view of BumLa Pass

The army men at the border spoke to us about the history of the place. He showed us the communication line that connects Indian Army to Chinese Army. Also in the distance, we could see a Chinese watchtower. One group is only allowed around five minutes near the border. Those five minutes felt really long though. We departed from BumLa. I asked Leyki, “Where are we off to now?”

“Come. I will take you to Madhuri Lake”

There was a memorial nearby. It was completely buried in snow, so we didn’t get a good look. I later learned that this was the memorial of Subedar Joginder Singh, a recipient of the Param Vir Chakra. Joginder Singh was the platoon commander of the 1st Battalion of Sikh Regiment. The story goes like this. During the war, the Chinese army terrorized Namka Chu. They planned to press forward and moved into Tawang. There they encountered the Sikh Regiment. The Regiment had only 20 men. The Chinese decided to attack the post in three waves, each comprising 200 men. The Sikh Regiment fought back. The first wave was down. But the strength of the Regiment halved. The commander, Joginder Singh was also wounded. They were out of ammunition. They only had their bayonets left with them. Undeterred, they charged in and fought valiantly. The Chinese had the numbers and superior ammunition. They won. Joginder Singh was captured and he passed away in Chinese captivity. But he had singlehandedly took the lives of over fifty enemy soldiers. I was reminded that it was because of Heros like Joginder Singh, that we can sleep peacefully in our country.

moss on trees
Green moss growing on pine trees. Their presence indicates clean fresh air

Leyki was driving slowly down the hill. Once again the view of the valley enchanted us and all of us got lost in our thoughts. Pretty soon, we found ourselves discussing China, Communism and why India will take a long time to reach the growth level of China. The route to Madhuri lake was a bit long. The real name of the lake is Sangestar Tso. It was formed in an earthquake. It got the other name after the actress Madhuri Dixit danced around the lake in the movie Koyla.

Madhuri lake top view
A top view of Madhuri Lake

We reached the lake by around 1 pm. The view was not something I expected. It was a lake trapped between mountains surrounded by a walkway. There were arrays of pine trees stranded in the middle that was barren. There was even a canteen set up by the army. Oh boy! We were hungry! We saw a few other travelers from Mathura Grounds and BumLa who were also in the canteen. There were only two items on the menu - Momos and Poori Sabji. We ordered both.

Madhuri panoramic
A panoramic view of Madhuri surroundings

Madhuri lake was really huge. Also, there were Yaks feeding of the grass in the vicinity. They were gigantic. It’s a good thing they were friendly creatures. We clicked some snaps and even helped other tourists take their snaps. Time passed too quickly I think. We roamed around a lot. Leyki was shouting from the parking area to come back. He was right, we had spent a lot of time. Somehow Sajeev and Appu were missing. I decided to look for them. None of the cells were working. So the only thing to do was take the side walkway and shout their names. I caught up with them somewhere in the middle. They can’t be blamed, one can easily get lost in that scenic beauty and walk on and on losing track of time. Leyki was visibly upset when we returned. Almost all other Sumos had left for the day. On the route back, he didn’t say a word. He tried to speed up a little, but with seven people inside and the road being in the poor condition it was, Leyki couldn’t go much faster. To add some salt to the wound, the other drivers who were behind Leyki overtook him. Their Sumo’s mostly had one or two passengers. So we were the last bunch. Plus it started snowing. Phew!

I tried to make some conversation attempts, but they failed. Finally, after we had passed some army posts, he spoke.

“We are going to be the last ones to arrive. I won’t have any time to rest”

“We are sorry..”. I tried to say.

“Ya, I know. It happens. The thing is these roads are very tough and makes the driver very tired. You have to always switch between 1st and 2nd gear and when I reach back, I go to sleep and try to get the pass for tomorrow’s passengers. Now, because you guys are late, I have no time to rest and I might even not get the pass from DC.”

Cloud shadow
Clouds casting their shadow on the hills

Everything he said was true. I simply asked him to stay optimistic. We had passed Mathura Grounds by this time. Only a few more kilometers to Tawang. From here the sky was so clear and we could get a nice view of the Tawang monastery. The clouds cast shadows along the valley and the monastery shined in the sunlight. At the same moment, we got the glimpse of a rainbow, one end in the mountains and the other in Tawang. It was the best sight of the day I think. An epic ending for the journey to BumLa.

Monastery from top
The golden yellow building is the Tawang Monastery

By 3:30 pm we reached back at our Hotel. Leyki could not go to the DC office. We offered him a tip, to cheer him up. I paid the remaining amount to the agency and we went straight back to the hotel. This time the heater was working. I took a hot shower and decided to go shopping. I wanted to buy the sweater that I bargained for the other day. And guess what happened? The shop was closed! Actually, the entire Old Market was closed. It turned out that Tuesday is the official holiday for Old Market, whereas for Nehru Market, the official holiday is Wednesday. But I had to buy something. I couldn’t go home empty-handed. I went back to Nehru market and bought a Chinese tea set and a few sets of Buddhist prayer flags. It would make a nice souvenir. All of us joined back at Mon-valley restaurant for supper. We settled the bills at our hotel and quickly fell asleep.

driver leyki
One last snap with our driver Leyki

Day Five - Wed May 03, 2017

So a big leg of the journey was over. It was an amazing trip to the snow-clad mountains of BumLa. Now it was to time for the journey back.

I woke up early. Appu was also awake. While the others were getting ready, we decided to take a morning stroll around town. We saw the army doing its morning training rituals down the road. To take a closer look, we went downhill. We entered a big gate and the army man there asked us a lot of questions. We answered them taking our time. He was not convinced that we were visitors since we came in very early. He let us pass and suggested that we visit the War Memorial. He showed us the way. It was farther down the road. Throughout the path, we saw army men giving us a look from the corner of their eyes. We just gave a good smile and walked on. We ended up in Jaswant Garh War Memorial. There is a legend surrounding this memorial. The names of all the men who died during the 1962 war were etched on the walls of the building. The ammunition and bayonets they used their time were on display as well. The place had a special ambiance around it with a very old Hindi classic song playing in the background. It was a long uphill walk towards our hotel. We caught up with the others and left Tawang by 9:30 am after having breakfast. After making a small stop at the petrol station to fuel up, we started discussing what we should do for the rest of the day. We decided we should drop in Dirang and see Sangti valley and maybe the famous apple orchards and stay there for the night.

Appu was the one driving and he noticed that there was a squeaking sound whenever he applied the brakes. We stopped the Scorpio and took a good look. We couldn’t find anything. We made a note to check it out later. It was my turn to take the helm. The road had become a bit worse. When we had arrived in Tawang, it was during the pitch of the night and we hadn’t seen anything. Now everything was very clear. On the way to Sela Pass, two men on the road asked for a lift. They seemed like army men. So I stopped and they hopped in. They turned to be very friendly people. They just wanted to get the army station down the road. I was driving and couldn’t hear the entire conversation. I just remember that they didn’t stop talking.

We asked him if there was a workshop around so that we could get the Scorpio checked. He said there is one at the army station. He could ask the mechanic there to have a look. We felt a sigh of relief. In half an hour, we reached their camp. I remembered this place from our onward journey. It was completely closed with no lights on. Now it was alive with people. The army personnel asked us to park the Scorpio and accompany him. Sajeev and I went with him to their rooms. It kind of reminded me of our hostel. It was a dormitory setup. There were two officers chopping the vegetables and chopping something. They were laughing over a joke when we entered the room. I actually expected a tough atmosphere inside the camp. But honestly, it was very welcoming. All the officers addressed each other by “Sir” irrespective of age or rank. To my surprise, they even greeted us as “Sirs”. They introduced me to an officer from Andhra. We spoke of the sound issue to him. He was the mechanic for all purposes. He mainly looked after gypsies and army trucks. He asked me to drive the Scorpio and apply the brakes in front of him. He nodded his head as though he deduced what the issue was. He bent down near the front tires and touched each of them. Problem detected! The disk of the right front tire was insanely hot. Something to do with the brake pads.

We took out the car jack from the Scorpio and the Andhra officer started removing the tire bolts. He loosened up the brake pads and showed us that the hydraulic piston responsible for the brakes was not retracting properly. It was in constant contact with the disk. This was because the brake plates had been completely damaged by wear and tear. This was very bad news for us. We stared at each other, thinking what we should do. The army officer to whom we gave the lift made a suggestion to the Andhra officer.

“Why don’t we replace the brake plates for them? Use for our existing supplies or use something from the gypsies here?”

The Andhra officer disagreed. “We can’t do that. Also, I am not sure if the brake plates from them will fit this one.”

Then he took a look at us and said. “Where are you guys going today?”

“Dirang” I replied.

“Ok. Then it shouldn’t be a big issue. Just drive slow. There are workshops there. You can easily replace the plates there. Okay? Don’t worry!”

That was a good answer for the time being. The Andhra officer applied a lot of grease to reduce the heating. We tried to pay the officer for his service, but he declined right away. He reminded us that, it is their duty to help people like us. So we said our thanks and left the camp. It was a good thing that we gave the lift to those army men, otherwise, we would have continued the journey without realizing the issue. If the disk had heated up any further, it would have caused the tire to expand and burst. Now, all we had to do was drive slow, but still reach Dirang before evening. The time was only 11:00 am and we had roughly 70 kilometers to go.

Scorpio being checked
The Andhra officer applying grease on right front tire

We reached Sela Pass and decided to take our lunch in the Prahari Cafeteria. It’s maintained by the army. While we were waiting for the food to arrive, we saw a bunch of bike riders arrive. We had seen them earlier. Only now did we see the complete group. They were dressed up in complete riding gear. Some of them had the GoPro camera mounted and interestingly all of them rode the Mahindra Mojo bike. I asked them if it was a sponsored trip. It wasn’t. They were part of a bike club and they really liked the new Mojo. A few members of the group were from Kerala. It was a visual treat to watch the bikers ride in unison.

mojo riders
The Mojo gang preparing to take off

We changed drivers and drove on, very cautiously. It was 1:00 pm. Still, there was a lot of fog around. We stopped the Scorpio from time to time to make sure that disk was not overheated. As we were approaching we saw another army camp by the name, “Serang Warriors”. We could see a proper workshop there with a few mechanics around. We stopped the Scorpio and inquired the matter with a fellow soldier. He asked us to wait and brought in a group of 4 army men. We said the same story again. The sound, how the Andhra officer helped us and why we must find replacement plates and so on. There was a Bihari officer among the group. He got excited. He said,

“Let me have a look.”

“Sure.” I gave him the key and he started to do the same things that the Andhra officer did. One of the four officers was a Malayali. It’s always a happy feeling to talk to someone in your mother tongue. I told him if the plates can’t be replaced then all this work is pointless. The Malayali officer smiled.

“It’s fine. Let him have a look. Actually, there is not much work here. So let him just do something for a change”

We just giggled.

“So what’s life like here? Do you guys have to go to the border camps as well?”

“It depends. Just last month there was firing from the Chinese side. So all of us were summoned. Such issues can happen. Otherwise, we just move from camp to camp.”

” I see. It must be nice right? Getting to stay in these places, I mean?”

“Haha. That’s for you guys. You are here for one day or one week. We have been here for the last three years. It can get very cold here. Life is not easy.”

By this time, the Bihari officer had already set up the car jack and removed the front tires for a complete checkup. We had some hope in him. At least the workshop here looked much bigger and must have some spare parts. Half an hour passed by. The officers were discussing something and they came to us and said,

“Look the issue is the brake plates. They have to be changed.”

I nodded my head in agreement as though it was something I was not aware of.

“But the problem is we cannot use the parts of army vehicles on yours. That will get us in trouble. So what you need to do is reach Dirang by 4:00 pm and find a workshop”

So we literally wasted half an hour just to hear his diagnosis. But it just goes to prove that the Army is always ready to help the civilians. So off we went to Dirang. It was 2:00 pm already and 40 more kilometers to go. The condition of the road was worse by the kilometer. Plus there was oncoming traffic, which made our movement slow. There was this moment, where we stopped to let a honking truck pass through and out in the ridges we saw army men hiking their way to the top with their full gear. They had huge hiking bags on, war paint on their faces, the caps, guns, grenades, it was the real deal! Hiking with all these gear is really tough. It gave us a taste of what army training can look in real life.

Obviously, our plan to visit Sangti valley and the apple orchards was dropped. The first priority was getting the Scorpio to a workshop. But we still got to see Sangti Valley in all its glory along the way. The grassy meadows, rocky rivers and small huts spread out in the valley looked just like one of my wallpapers. Finally we reached Dirang by 4:30 pm and found a workshop at the end. There were a lot of cars there. It seemed like it was the only workshop in the area. We bought a fresh set of brake plates for Rs. 2300. We had made a call to Zoom Car customer service to ensure that this money will be refunded.

Dirang was a small town compared to Tawang. We asked around for the way to apple orchards. They said there is no point going there because it is offseason. We decided we will go to Bomdilla for the night. We found a small hotel, where they said they serve fish. So while we were waiting for the Scorpio to get serviced, we take our supper. There was rice, dal, vegetables and fish fry. It was really nice. This meal was very close to our Kerala style meal. When you eat good food, all your worries will just get sidelined for some time. It was a pleasant feeling. Now, all we had to reach was Bomdilla. There were nearly 45 kilometers to cover and it was already dark. We didn’t mind that. Kartha took the driver’s seat. And all of us tried to get some sleep. The squeaking sound had gone away. That was good relief.

I remembered this road to Bomdilla very well. I was the one who drove this road when we were going to Tawang. There was a lot of construction activity on the road. A large part of it was a complete mess. I suggested Kartha to keep a good eye. He also remembered the road conditions. As we were driving the clouds of fog began to get denser. Pretty soon, the fog became so thick and we had zero visibility. We were literally blinded. Kartha drove very slowly. We couldn’t stop because it was in the middle of nowhere. All of us woke up, trying to get a sense of the road ahead of us.

This was the hardest part of the journey. Holes on the road would appear in an instant and there were hairpins that we didn’t see coming at all. Kartha did a good job driving through these conditions. Then suddenly there was a lot of honking from the back. It was a Maruthi 800. We had closed all the window panes because it was too cold outside for us. The guys in the Maruthi were local boys. They knew the road well. They put on some loud music, danced with their hands outside the car and zoomed past us. “They must be mad. Probably under drinks”, someone said. We just saw them for a few seconds and they disappeared into the fog. We never saw them again!

Finally, the fog began to fade and town lights started to appear. It was Bomdilla. It took us 2 hours to make it from Dirang. Even though it was just 8:00 pm, the whole town had gone to sleep. Not a single human in sight. We drove around looking for hotels. After some roaming around, we found one, Pancheng Hotel. This one was a bit expensive, but it was the only option available to us. We took two rooms and settled for the night. I mentioned to the caretaker that we would be leaving early and that we need to have breakfast very early. He agreed and said, “Everything will be ready”.


Day Six - Thur May 04, 2017

I woke after hearing the bang of the caretaker on our door. The time was almost 8:00 am and they had prepared breakfast for us very early. All of us fell asleep and forgot about it. All of us freshened up and quickly had our breakfast. Sajeev and I found some spare time to go for a walk. There was a small monastery nearby and it had a large ground. Some kids were playing cricket. On the way back we found some boards that spoke of an International trade fair that was going on in Bomdilla. Back at the hotel, I asked our caretaker where it was. He said it was close, so all of us decided to give it a look. It was nothing big. There were a lot of stalls on display, mostly leather items like bags and sandals. A few electronic items and some strangely shaped knives were also on display. We didn’t find much to do there except to just look around and ask for the prices.

We decided to leave Bomdilla without wasting much time. The first thing to do was go to the petrol pump and fuel up again. We were hoping we would get a printed bill and the man at the pump showed us the printing machine. We filled the tank to the full capacity and went to collect the bill. He pressed the print bill button, but nothing came out of it. What a drama! They just ran out of paper. And we had to be content with a written bill. If Zoom Car did not approve these bills, it would be a become a problem. There was nothing we could do in this matter, so we moved on.

Appu was the one driving and he just wanted to go as fast as possible. The previous day, we had gone at snail’s pace and he just wanted to pick up some speed. We didn’t complain much. Not until we started getting a burning rubber smell. Once again, we thought we were in big trouble!. The discs had become too hot. This time the culprit was overspeeding and the harsh braking down the hairpins. So we gave it some rest.

Nothing was planned for the day. We hadn’t planned for anything after Tawang. The drop at Sangti Valley had to be canceled because of the brake plate issue. Our return flight was on Saturday, which meant we had ample time to do check out some other places. We started searching for google for things to do. There was no need for us to hurry. We had to come up with a plan by the time we reached Tezpur. With these thoughts on our mind, we set out again, without speeding this time.

posing for the camera
Taking a break on the journey to Bhalukpong

We stopped on many places that we had kept a mark on earlier. Every place you stop has something unique to offer. For lunch, we stopped at Tenga Hut. This was also maintained by the army. They had a gift store and even a play area for kids with jumping trampolines. Tenga Hut was situated along the lines of Tenga valley. You get a very good view from the hut shaped restaurant. We had some Chicken Biryani and drove on. When we saw that we could get down to the river rock bed, we took a stop. The water was ice cold. We somehow managed to get the top of the giant rocks and rested there for sometime. When you close your eyes and all you can hear is the sound of the river flow, you drift away to an other world. We spend a lot of quality time there.

trying to get a snap
Me trying to get a shot of the river flow

Bhalukpong was the next stop. There was a small stretch of muddy and almost swampy road. There was a lot of construction going on this part of the road and we were worried that our tires might get stuck. But everything went well. The only rule is you shouldn’t stop. We reached Bhalukpong by early evening. Kartha insisted that we should have tea at the same tea stall that we stopped earlier. I think he fell in love with the tea and noodles. I just remember it being tasty. Anyway, we stopped there.

We saw a couple of young bullet riders at the same tea stall. They were covering their belongings with sheets to protect it from the dirt. We went over to them and had a chat. It turned out that all of them where college students from Trivandrum, Kerala. This is the third time we met Malayalees on the road! They had actually rented out these bikes. We warned them about the condition of the roads. Wishing them the best we went n our way to Tezpur. By this time we had come to a decision that we must visit the Kaziranga National Park and for the elephant safari. It came as the top recommended things to do in tripadvisor. The next step was to find someone there to arrange entry tickets for us. We called one of our friends in Guwahati and he gave us the number of a guy named Renjith. He can arrange trips to the park. The Safari would come around Rs 900 per head. An advance of Rs 1000 was transferred to his account.

By around 7 pm, we reached Tezpur. We were still undecided about where to stay. From Tezpur to Kaziranga is about 50 kilometers and Renjith had said that we should be at the park gates by 6:00 am. That’s the slot that he had booked for us. We tried to find a good hotel to eat and ended up in Red Chillies. We were still trying to talking about Tawang and the experience we had. An experience like that takes its time to settle in. We only appreciate the beauty of something when we start to miss it. After having some ice cream from Baskin Robbins, we set out to Jakhalabandha. This was the nearest town to Kaziranga. The other places near to Kaziranga are tourist resorts which are very expensive. Upon reaching Jakhalabandha, I made a lot of inquiries at the lodges there. Rooms were available. But these rooms are very small and not very clean. They have been mostly targeted at long distance truck drivers. We were again in a confused state. We had traveled nearly 30 kilometers from Tezpur and the only option in front of us was to go back to find a place to stay.

Meanwhile, Kartha and Appu did some quick googling and listed all the places near Kaziranga that we can stay. They were confident, “Let’s go to Kaziranga and see what’s available there. So we took off from Jakhalabandha. The road was very well maintained and it was also deserted. We couldn’t see anyone else on that highway. On both sides of the roads, we could just see dark forests. It is a good thing that there were reflectors on the road. Otherwise, it would have been a spooky ride. There were plenty of animal crossing signs and we slowed down at each of them. Whenever we came to a halt we could sense the deathly silence of the forest. It really gets to you after some time. We didn’t want to waste our time, so we started calling up all the places that we shortlisted. We finally got a place called Sneha Bavan. They said they have rooms and that heir place was close to Kaziranga National Park. So we set the destination for Sneha Bavan. On the way, we saw many fancy resorts that welcomed tourists. Out of curiosity we stopped at a few of them to ask the price and have a look at the resort. Even though it was dark, it was clear that these resorts were top notch.

It was getting more late. We crossed Bagori and then reached Kahori. That’s where Sneha Bavan was. The gates were closed, but the owner opened it after called him up. The room was very big. Just one room was enough for the seven of us. We had to rise up early for the next day.


Day Seven - Fri May 05, 2017

All of us got up early in the morning. Renjith had started calling over and over to make sure, we reached the park on time. As we made our way to the park, there was a sudden downpour. We thought that would be the end of our elephant safari. Fortunately, it stopped just before we reached the gates. Renjith had asked another guy to make the arrangements for us. We gave him the rest of the money and went along with him. There were nearly 20 other people who had made the booking for the Elephant Safari. Some of them had also booked for the Jungle Jeep Safari in the later hours of the day.

We saw the elephants and their trainers getting ready. All the passengers had to climb a platform that was as tall as the elephant. On top of the elephant is a 4 seater arrangement. It’s a pretty safe arrangement. They brought the elephants closer to the platform and kept them steady. We stepped into the seat and the guides locked us in. We were seated to the right of the elephant. It was a bumpy feeling but felt comfortable. Slowly the elephants started making their way to the open area.

rhino
The one-horned Rhino

Kaziranga National Park is home to two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhino. The first stop in the Safari are these rhinos. The elephants took us to a close distance from the rhinos. The largest ones were actually taking a dip in the water. A few were just walking along the grass meadows. We got close to them as much as possible. It’s pretty nice watching all the tourists hoped on top of the elephants trying to grab a good view of the rhinos. The rest of the safari was mostly in the grasslands. There were some deer and wild pigs. It seemed like the animals were not afraid of the elephants, so we could get an up-close view of them. These elephants that were riding were young elephants and they have been trained for this job for a long time. The one we were riding was called Poornima and she was 39 years old. The also took us to the edge of the river. We could see a herd of animals on the opposite side taking a morning sip. I had only seen such scenes in National Geographic or Animal Planet before. On the whole, the safari lasted only one hour. It was a new and different experience for all of us.

safari
Buckled up on the top of the elephant

We hadn’t had any breakfast till then. Just opposite our Hotel, there was a restaurant, Kaziranga Hut. It was just opening up and they said it will take some time to prepare the breakfast. While we were waiting, I just took a look at the garden that was in front of the restaurant. Nothing much special, except the fact that they were very big in size compared to their counterparts in Kerala. There was an Assamese couple in the front yard. They were chatting with Seb. I jumped into the conversation. They were curious about Kerala and wanted to know more about our culture and food habits. Their Hindi had an Assamese accent to it. Somehow we managed to answer their questions. It is always refreshing to know that people are interested to learn about Kerala.

The road cow
The road belongs to everyone in Kaziranga

Post breakfast, we went back to Sneha Bavan. All of us were a bit exhausted. We didn’t have anything else on our to-do list. I asked the hotel owner, if there are some other sites, we can visit. He mentioned an orchidarium that was close by. Well since we were there, we decided to give it a look. Appu and Ashwin decided to stay back and get some rest. The rest of us were ready to go. The orchidarium was just a few kilometers away. When we reached the place, the rain started to get stronger. The real name of the park was Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park. It was a very quiet place. There were a few tourists around. The entry ticket was Rs.100. They gave us extra-large umbrellas when we entered. We didn’t know what to expect. On the left, we saw a large covered space that resembled a greenhouse. It had lots of orchid varieties.

gallery
Gallery inside the Biodiversity park

But the orchids were not the main attraction. To the right, there was a working space where we saw women weaving clothes using their classic weaving machines. Plus the tools they used for farming and fishing were put on display. There was a galley of images displaying the major tourist spots in Assam. The best part about our Biodiversity park experience was the tribal dance performance. North-eastern tribes have a lot of tribal dance forms called Bamboo dance, Bihu dance and so on. There was a small stage show that displayed these art forms in its full color. They did this every one hour or so. Even some of the other local visitors started dancing with them.

weaving women
A woman using their machines to weave clothes

We went back to the hotel and teased Appu and Ashwin on how they missed a golden opportunity. We left for Guwahati by 11:30 am. It was daytime and we could see the endless tea plantations that Assam was famous for. When going to Tezpur, we had to cross the mighty Brahmaputra river. The bridge built over this path, called Kalia Bhomora Bridge is one of the longest in India. It took us around 3 minutes to cross the bridge. For lunch, we found a fancy looking dhaba by the highway and decided to stop there. It was called Samaroh Dhaba. It reminded us of the shops in Alleppy with its hut-like structure. More interestingly, this Dhaba was listed by the TLC channel as one of the top 10 best Highway Dhabas to visit. The food did stand up to that name. There was a lot of traffic when we reached Guwahati. We managed to find a guest home for the night. The only thing to do was to return the Zoom Car. We were a bit skeptical about the written fuel bills. We submitted all the bills, the replaced brake plates and waited to see what they would say. They didn’t say anything. They just accepted all the bills and said farewell. We were glad that things went smooth. We visited some shopping malls in Guwahati and tried to taste Kolkata Chicken Biriyani. It was less spicy compared to the Hyderabadi version. But it tasted good. We went back to our guest house and spent the last night in Assam.

tea plantations
The source of Assam apple valley tea

The End

Our return flights were in the morning. It was a connection flight, first from Guwahati to Chennai. Then a halt in Chennai for six hours and then go directly to Kochi from Chennai. During those six hours, we left for our apartments in Chennai and took some rest. The second flight was delayed by two hours, but we didn’t care much. We were mentally and physically tired, but our minds were still in Tawang. It was quite a memorable journey, a journey of seven people for seven days.

Group photo
The seven, from the left - Kartha, Sajeev, Appu, Me, Ashwin, Seb & Deepu

For me, the best way to keep memories alive is by writing about it. And this particular article is the longest I have ever written. I hope I was about to articulate our experience in the best way possible. If you have some similar stories or adventures, do share them.


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