A Magical Escape To India's Most Eastern Bastion

A Magical Escape To India's Most Eastern Bastion
Alpine plants in full bloom in Tawang, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Almost seventy years later, follow the footsteps of your ancestors into the mystical hills of the Eastern Himayalas

Ambika Vishwanath
March 24 , 2019
07 Min Read

I needed a break from the shaking and rattling. Even the stunning scenery outside—brilliant skies, wispy clouds and a mountainscape dotted with yaks—couldn’t distract me from possibly the worst road I had ever been on. This boulder-filled stretch of 30-odd kilometres ran from Tawang to the Sino-Indian border, the famous Bum La Pass.

About 45 minutes into a journey punctuated by my co-passengers’ photography of our surroundings, we reached the first army checkpoint. We had been driving through western Arunachal Pradesh for over a week now. My co-passengers—my husband and a friend, both avid photographers—examined every inch of the landscape through their lenses, while I breathed in the clear, crisp air and walked the path my grandparents had taken over half a century ago during my grandfather’s stint with the IAS. I felt an odd sense of familiarity.

Local women in a village near Tawang

As we drove through the mountains of the Eastern Himalaya in a minimally populated Indian state, we saw more yaks and sheep than we did humans. The roads were not the best, but the stark mountainside, thick alpine forest and excellent food more than made up for it. After a night in Dirang, a small town with an extraordinarily high number of liquor stores, we had headed straight to Tawang, beyond Sela Pass. At 13,700 feet, the pass had been freezing and we’d had to stop to wrap up. The place is snow-covered most of the year, which meant brisk business for the little hut serving hot lal chai and celery momos. 

The prayer flags fluttering in the biting wind indicated Tawang was close. It is home to the famous Gaden Namgyal Lhatse or ‘peak of the heavenly abode of joyfulness and complete victory’, founded by Merak Lama Gyatso in 1680 CE. In the Tawang monastery museum, I had been thrilled to spot a photograph of my grandfather with Jawaharlal Nehru, during the latter’s visit to Bomdila. 

All this was three days ago. We were now headed to Bum La, which the Dalai Lama is said to have crossed to reach India when he fled from Tibet with his family. For me, the pass and the journey had a personal connection. My grandfather had taken the same route while mapping the region formally known as the North-East Frontier Agency. He lived with his wife in Bomdila before and during the Sino-Indian war, and I had grown up with stories of their wild and beautiful home. Before that, in the late 1950s, they had been stationed in Tibet, and were no strangers to adversity. However, they always spoke warmly of the people and customs of Arunachal. 

Monks unfold a thangka, a sacred Tibetan painting, at the Tawang Monastery

The childhood stories came flooding back as I inadvertently kept a lookout for places that provided visuals to their words throughout the journey. While Dirang appeared dramatically different from their accounts, Tawang, with its narrow winding lanes and serene monastery, still held vestiges of the past.

We stepped out of the car at the checkpoint to stretch our legs. Our driver Anil went into the tented hut to present our papers. He came out soon, followed by an army officer who invited us in to wait. A flag meeting was finishing up at the border, and no civilians were allowed till the officials had left. Routine business. We gratefully accepted a cups of hot ginger tea. The tent, not usually meant for visitors, was filled with bunk beds, clothes and booming laughter as one jawan kept the others enthralled with a story in Punjabi.

The Punjab regiment had been stationed in the region for a year, and had just about got used to the cold. September was still balmy by their standards, I was told, as I shivered by the heater in my four layers of clothing. Over tea, we swapped war stories—theirs personal, mine borrowed from my grandparents. They were impressed by my grandfather’s feats across the Northeast and Tibet, and expressed gratitude for his service. I too echoed my gratitude to them, especially in these harsh climes. 

Two more checkpoints and half an hour of bumps and rolls later, we arrived at Bum La, exhausted but excited. The land was flat and slightly dusty, as brown scraggy mountains with a sparse cover of grass rose in the distance. The highlands of western Arunachal witness the thinning of trees beyond 13,000 feet, replaced by the occasional desert shrub. Apart from a couple of large grey structures and an army tent, the area was desolate. 

We presented our papers to the officer in the tent, a smiling young man who gave us a quick overview of the area and sent us to the ‘border’ with another jawan. The grey buildings were used for meetings, discussions and joint celebrations between the Indian and Chinese, and the border was unfenced.

As we walked the last few paces on the Indian side, I noticed a tower at a distance. “A Chinese lookout tower,” the jawan responded to my unasked question, “their only presence here.” 

The area was quiet—no wind, bird or whistling tree—and the only sounds came from the occasional chatter of army personnel and the crunch below our feet. Less than a hundred metres ahead, we arrived at the border, marked only by a large pile of rocks called ‘rock of peace’ with small flags of both countries fluttering silently. It was not what we had expected, but in that desolate region where a cheerful flag meeting to discuss upcoming Diwali and New Year celebrations had just concluded, it seemed apt.

The stunning Bum La pass

Placing one foot in China, I recalled another Sino- Indian border I had visited many years ago in Sikkim. It had high barbed-wire fences, gun-toting border patrol officers on both sides, and scores of visitors. This was a peaceful place, unlike what the news and the stories I’d heard growing up, with just one other family waiting to visit while the three of us gathered around the ‘rock of peace’, took pictures and waved in the direction of the Chinese tower to see whether they were watching. Back at the tent, over more tea and biscuits, we were presented with certificates marking our visit to Bum La—a small but significant token from the Indian army for making their day a bit more cheerful in a land that is so cold that the rice will not cook. I couldn’t wait to show it to my grandparents. Sixty years after they had traversed the region, I had retraced their steps 

THE INFORMATION

GETTING THERE

Tawang is accessible by road via the Guwahati–Bhalukpong– Dirang–Bomdila route. Guwahati, 543kms/14.5hrs away, is the closest airport and railhead.

Bum La Pass is approx. 37kms/2hrs from Tawang. Cars for a day trip to the pass can be hired at Tawang at INR 4,000 onwards 

Arunachal Pradesh requires all travellers to obtain a valid Inner Line Permit (ILP) for the duration of their stay. It can be acquired in Guwahati at the deputy commissioner’s office or from the Arunachal Bhawan offices at Delhi and Kolkata. 

In addition to the ILP, one requires a special permit from the DC office at Tawang to visit Bum La, which also needs to be stamped by the army command.

WHERE TO STAY & EAT

  • You can choose to stay at Madrel Khang Homestay (from `2,000 doubles; mandrelkhanghomestay.com) run by the wonderful Zangmu Lhamu. Another option is the Dolma Khangsar Guesthouse (from `1,750 doubles; dolmahotels. in), which offers great views of the Tawang monastery.
  •  The Dragon in Tawang’s Old Market is your best bet for meals. It offers a mix of Tibetan and Indian dishes.

WHAT TO SEE & DO

  • Stroll around the ancient Tawang monastery where, besides the large prayer hall, the attached museum, filled with Buddhist artefacts and old photographs, is quite an interesting place.
  • When you go down to the army command to get your Bum La permit ratified, stop at Tawang War Memorial which provides information on the 1962 Sino- Indian war.
  • A small detour to the Nuranang Falls, a couple of kilometres from the town of Jang, is well worth it.

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