The rolling plains right before the climb, past Bhalukpong and to Bomdila can be deceiving. The drive into the heart of western Arunachal is anything but comfortable. But for the views, the valleys and the glint of the sun as it falls on lofty trees, are all worth the arduous journey. The zigzag roads on the hills, the drive to Bomdila can feel like a drive to the end of the world.

ORIENTATION

Most trips to the western part of Arunachal Pradesh are undertaken as part of package deals offered by tour operators, simply for the sake of convenience. If you don’t want a streamlined itinerary, we would highly recommend hiring a sturdy car and driver for the entire trip, including to Tawang. This would provide the flexibility of stopping over at some of the smaller, off-the-beaten-track sights mentioned in this guide. Note that most tour operators suggest breaking the day’s journey from Tezpur at Dirang instead of Bomdila, but we advise otherwise.

Archyushman Dubey
View of Bomdila
View of Bomdila

Local buses and shared jeeps depart for Bomdila from Tezpur every morning, but can be horribly cramped and uncomfortable. They will also only take you straight to Bomdila and Dirang, and will not allow the mobility needed to discover the towns on the way. This option is recommended only for budget travellers.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Bomdila is navigable by car. However, after driving up to a certain point, it is best explored on foot, up and down the winding roads, as well as the steep staircases that allow for quick descents and ascents. The town is home to three monasteries: Upper Gompa, Middle Gompa and Lower Gompa. The Lower Gompa stands at the beginning of the Bazaar Line. Beyond the Bazaar, the road becomes less pucca, and begins to climb uphill, leading to the Middle Gompa, dramatically located on the face of a hill and visible from miles away. The Upper Gompa lies further up the road from the Bazaar.

Guneet Narula
Upper Gompa
Upper Gompa

Upper Gompa

Officially known as the Gentse Gaden Rabgyel Ling Monastery, the hilltop Upper Gompa is situated about 5km from the town centre. The majestic structure is a replica of the Tsona Gontse Monastery in southern Tibet, which itself was established in the 15th century. The construction of the Upper Gompa began under the aegis of the 12th Rinpoche in 1965–66, just before his death. The main prayer hall, however, was a later addition by the 13th Rinpoche, and was sanctified by the Dalai Lama.

The monastery complex comprises the main prayer hall, a temple dedicated to the Buddha and resi-dential quarters for the monks.

The main attraction is undoubtedly the large prayer wheel, set at a little distance from the prayer hall under a brick-and-mortar awning. Painted in vivid colours, it’s evocative of the exuberance that is part of Tibetan Buddhism as much as religiosity and penance. The gompa offers panoramic views of the town of Bomdila.

Middle Gompa

Said to be the oldest of the three gompas, the Middle Gompa, in its recently renovated avatar, makes for a somewhat arduous climb. But the spectacular views from the summit are worth the joruney.

Guneet Narula
Middle Gompa
Middle Gompa

The gompa is reached by a road that, 2km past the bazaar, peters out into a path that can be traversed on foot. The monastery houses stunning images of Buddha in several avatars. It is particularly popular amongst the community of healers, who come here to pray to the Blue Medicine Buddha, also called the Lord of Med-ications, believed to cure all diseases.

As the monks will tell you, there is a temple even higher up, the path to which is studded with white prayer flags. But not only is the climb near to impossible, it is also a preferably private spot for the monks, so we’d advise against venturing there.

Lower Gompa

Also known as Thubchong Gatsel Ling Monastery, the more modest Lower Gompa lies somewhat hidden between shops and administrative buildings. Similar in form and feature to the Middle and Upper gompas, the Lower Gompa is notable for its shaded courtyard and large prayer hall.

Guneet Narula
Lower Gompa
Lower Gompa

Other sites

Right across from the Lower Gompa is the Crafts Centre, showcasing local handicrafts such as traditional masks and thangkas. The place is worth a short stopover, as it is one of the few places for souvenirs.

Close to the town’s football sta-dium is a dilapidated District Mus-eum, which presents an interesting, though dated, representation of cultures and history of the region. There is a nominal entry fee.

Timings 10.00am–4.00pm Monday– Friday Closed Saturdays, Sundays and government holidays

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

There are three decent options here – Hotel Elysium (Tel: 03782-223156; Tariff: ₹1,350–2,000) near the DC Office, with its own restaurant, and power backup. There’s Hotel Siphiyang Phong (Tel: 222286; Tariff: ₹1,300–5,500) with a restaurant and parking; and Hotel Tsepal Yangjom (Tel: 223674; Tariff: ₹2,200–4,500) with 22 rooms and a restaurant. Both are on the main road.

AROUND BOMDILA

Rupa and Chillipam (20km)

You can visit Rupa and Chillipam either on your way to Bomdila from Bhalukpong or on your way back. Located 20km away via a detour from the main Bhalukpong-Bomdila Road, Rupa lies on the banks of the Tenga river and is dominated by army barracks. Originally named Tukpan, the scenic town of Rupa is located at an altitude of 1,407m and is surrounded by mountains. The centuries-old gompa here is a colourful wooden structure, typical of Tibetan Buddhist architecture.

Archyusman Dubey
Dirang valley set against the backdrop of mountains
Dirang valley set against the backdrop of mountains

Take the road that winds through the town and then climbs uphill. This road is, oddly enough, one of the best you will drive on your whole trip and the Chillipam Gompa atop the hill is the proverbial icing on the cake.

The monastery enjoys a spectacular location, overlooking the mountains, and offers a bird’s-eye view of Rupa. The monastery has a different archit-ectural style than others in the region, with a profusion of animal motifs and sculptures adorning the walls and the surrounding area. The main prayer hall is perhaps the perfect place to spend some quiet time.

Dirang

Approximately halfway between Bomdila and Tawang, Dirang can be a one-night stopover either on the way to or on the way back from Tawang. If you intend to head straight to Tawang then, unfortunately, you will miss out on all that this tiny village has to offer.

Located 5km south of New Dirang, Old Dirang is a Monpa village, home to the 185-year old Dirang Dzong, or the old fort. Said to be a formidable complex during its heydays, today only the ruins of its stone walls remain. The fort complex, however, offers splendid views of the surrounding area. Its architecture reflects the building style typical of Monpa houses to this day. Some of these stone houses are said to have been built 500 years ago.

Courtesy Eastern Frontier Tours & Travels
Charming façade of the Awoo Resort
Charming façade of the Awoo Resort

New Dirang, by contrast, forms the bustling commercial district, with hotels and restaurants lining the roads and taxi operators at every corner. The area doesn’t offer much to see, but about 5km before the town begins, is the Nyingmapa Monastery. Fairly isolated from the town, the monastery offers the solitude that city dwellers seek. It follows the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and features gorgeous artwork on the interior walls. If you reach here in the middle of prayers, stick around for the striking of the gompa’s gong, the sound of which resonates for several seconds.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT IN DIRANG

There are several hotels in Dirang, for those who wish to stop over here instead of Bomdila. Situated on the highway just ahead of the town, Hotel Pemaling (Tel: 03780- 242615; Tariff: ₹1,500–4,000) and the Tourist Lodge (Cell: 09436213495; Tariff: ₹1,500) afford lovely views of the Sangti Valley. Both the hotels serve Indian and Chinese food.

Awoo Resort (Cell: 09874592283; Tariff: ₹1,250–5,000) is a high-end accommodation option on the outskirts of Dirang.

Bomdila in the 1962 Sino-Indian War

Bomdila and the regions surrounding it, especially Tawang, have had, unbeknownst to much of mainstream Indian history, war scars as recently as 50 years ago, when it was the site of the last resistance during the 1962 Chinese aggression.

But first, it is important to understand the backdrop of what has come to be known as the Sino-Indian conflict and how western Arunachal Pradesh came to play a crucial role. The story goes back to 1914, when the governments of India, Tibet and China drew the McMahon Line. The Chinese had backtracked from signing the agreement because of the conflict in defining Inner and Outer Tibet. In 1951, China moved into Tibet while granting the region autonomy under Chinese sovereignty.

The border that India, specifically Arunachal, shared with Tibet now became a major point of concern in Sino-Indian relations. The Indian gov-ernment felt the need to assert the McMahon line as a firm border, which the Chinese were not willing to agree to.

Long story short, China decided to invade India in the autumn of 1962 in order to establish military control over areas they thought were rightfully theirs. As the war broke out, Tawang fell within a few days to the invading Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA attacked Bomdila on 17 November. The then headquarters of the Kameng Frontier Division, Bomdila was the last bastion. On 19 November, the PLA had reached the territorial lines it was laying claim to, and declared a unilateral cease-fire.

AROUND DIRANG

Sangti Valley (7km)

A birdwatcher’s paradise, Sangti Valley is located about 7km from Dirang. Surrounded by the lofty peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, this picturesque valley is the place to be on early winter mornings for spotting black-necked cranes that migrate here in November and December from China. But the valley has much more to offer than just birdwatching.

Surrounded by orchards laden with apples, kiwis and oranges, the valley is the epitome of beauty. Small villages line the road, and wild horses and domesticated cows can be seen. The black-necked crane, one of the many attractions of this place, may have brought you here, but the serene environs and the stunning view of the valleys will leave you spellbound for hours.

Sangti Valley is not easy to get to, and a path that is unmarked and will require several inquiries to be made on the way. Take the sturdiest car you can find and head out here as early as you can (which is only possible if you stay overnight in Dirang).

Bhalukpong (138km)

Bhalukpong is where Assam ends and Arunachal begins. A visit to this place is an amazing way to complete your trip to the scenic Arunachal Pradesh. 

Inputs by Shreya Sarkar

FAST FACTS

When to Go September to March

Permits

Deputy Resident Commissioner, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, GS Road Rukiminigaon, Dispur, Guwahati, Tel: 0361-2412859/ 2416720/ 2412859

Deputy Resident Commissioner, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Parvati Nagar, Tezpur, Assam, Tel: 03712-260173

Resident Commissioner, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Kautilya Marg, Chanakyapuri , New Delhi, Tel: 011-23013915/ 23013956, STD code 03794

GETTING THERE

State Arunachal Pradesh

Location Along the Kameng river, 52km N of Tezpur

Distance 155km NW of Tezpur, 180km SE of Tawang

Route from Tezpur The only way to Bomdila and the regions beyond it is via NH229

Air Airport: Guwahati (190km) is better connected with daily flights rather than Tezpur, which is closer. Taxis cost ₹4,000–6,000 per day

Rail Nearest railhead: Guwahati. For onward journey, travel by road

Road From Guwahati it is a 190km pic­turesque drive along NH31 to Baihata Charial and then NH52 to Bomdila via Balipara, Mangaldai and Tezpur. From Bhalukpong, the NH229 is a mountain road to Bomdila (110km) and beyond. Work is always on, so boulders and debris are a common sight. The army keeps the road open through the year, but one can get stuck for a few hours. A vehicle with a high-ground clearance is suitable; the road is at its worst dur­ing the monsoons from June to August. Taxis cost ₹4,000–6,000 per day (seasonal). Guwahati taxis may not be allowed to go up the mountain, so you will have to hire one at the Tezpur taxi stand Bus Sumos and buses run from Tezpur to Tawang daily, stopping at Bomdila and Dirang – book the return tickets in advance.