Saturday, October 7, 2006

The Really, Really Far Lands of India

Note - I have no idea why some pictures here behave the way they do. They seem to have a life of their own, appearing in the right when I make the page and then sneaking off to the left when I view the saved page. Till I manage to get the unruly elements within control, kindly adjust :D

This article was written for the travel portal

‘Arunachal Pradesh has an annual average rainfall of 2000 to 4000 mm.’
‘Yup, I know.’
‘The monsoons last from May to October.’
‘You are going in the middle of the fricking monsoons, you dolt.’
‘Err; there is an All India Butterfly meet there.’
‘Only people who are crazy enough to watch butterflies would plan a trip there NOW.’

A fairly typical exchange over the weeks preceding my Arunachal Trip. After all, everyone knows that it rains like the dickens out ‘there’ during the monsoons. Every year the monsoons come, the Brahmaputra has an identity crisis and starts behaving like an ocean. Water covers vast tracts of land, displaces people, adds a nice fertile layer of soil to the farmlands and then recedes. In short, life goes on as usual. Heck, I thought, people live there all year round, why can’t I just visit it for a few days? Even if it’s in the middle of the monsoons?

Kurla Railway Station, Mumbai, 0430 hrs, 16th Aug 2006

We make for a weird sight, and there are dozens of people gawking at us from the facing platform, even at this fairly unearthly time in the morning. I mean I would definitely gawk at a group of two guys and two girls, three of them in various cyclical stages of nodding off and waking up with a start with neck breaking jerks when a long distance fast train whooshed past, spraying water on us, and one scribbling furiously in a notebook on a railway platform in Mumbai in the middle of the night. Thankfully the local trains are frequent, so every 10-15 minutes we get an entirely fresh crowd.

The clock finally decides it has gone as slow as possible for the last 2 hours, and finally gets the minute and hour hands to coincide. We pick up our huge luggage and move off towards Lokmanya Tilak Terminus from where the Dadar Guwahati Express will start its inter-galactic odyssey.

Middle of the Great Indian Plains, 17th Aug

There’s something about the railways which really has me hooked. They are messy, and filthy, but its one of those things in which individual components which have nothing attractive about them add up into something which is quite inexplicably enchanting. I love the way the wind blows into my hair, apart from the occasional droplets of god-knows-what-and-I’d-prefer-not-to-know-what liquid that splatter over my face. The speed, the rhythmic noise, really makes you feel like you are traveling. So it wasn’t a very happy me that sat glumly in the air conditioned compartment, looking at the dark tinted landscape, with the arctic winds from the A/C vents making my throat feel like someone scrubbed it with sandpaper. I looked hilarious with a full-face monkey cap, but at that moment I couldn’t quite appreciate the humour, especially since I was running out of handkerchiefs at a very rapid rate. I really can’t understand why the fellas who are in charge of that monstrous piece of cooling equipment called the Air Conditioner always keep the temperatures at the minimum possible. I really don’t agree with environmentalists who cry about the Polar bears’ loss of habitat. They should travel by the Indian Railways sometime.

The train stopped frequently, and I got off whenever it did at a station, and was an instant hit, with people looking at me curiously. After a few stations I realized it would be better if I took off the monkey cap before coming out, especially in the middle of the 40 degree heat.

Green, Greener, Greenest – Assam, 18th Aug

After the flat, barren, dusty plains of Central India, Assam was a feast for the eyes. Every inch was a different, brighter shade of green. Inn the north were the mountains of Bhutan visible far away, like a mirage on the flat plain. In the south the plains continued till the horizon, covered with lush green paddy fields, bamboo thickets, and the occasional forest. Large water birds, ones seen rarely in peninsular India, moved about in the middle of the fields, as commonplace as ducks. As usual the train sliced through the ‘scape, more out of place than ever.

Guwahati, 18th Aug

Guwahati station arrived spot on time, which was a pleasant surprise, as this train is known for arriving eight to ten hours late on an average. Unlike most railway stations in India, it was very clean, with almost no litter. The porters watched in amusement and a bit of irritation as we turned down their services and carried our own stuff, every person carrying around 30 kilos, walking around like drunkards, the route being decided by the bulky sacks which swung all over the place, leaving us with no choice but to meekly follow. The security policemen stopped us for a moment, and then waved us on after a cursory enquiry, having decided that we were making ourselves far too conspicuous to have any disruptive intentions.

We were surrounded by ticketing agents as soon as we stepped outside the station, who assured us that ASTC, Network and Royal were all the same, and that the guys who ran the show just felt that one name wasn’t enough for a transport business, and that it would be nice fun to have people confused by giving your business three different names. I think they took a bit too far though, by having separate registration counters and even separate buses.

A quick bath in a smallish hotel close to the station with the rather creatively thought name of ‘Hotel Tourist’ and a bite in a decent looking restaurant later we boarded the Network Travels bus to Jagun, a journey of about 12 hours, which was uneventful except for an incident in which the bus pulled down some low-hanging illegal power connections, which caused a bit of a fracas, until the conductor decided he had had enough and moved off towards the bus, threatening anyone who approached him with killer glares.

Jagun town, Assam – Arunachal Border, 19th Aug

After a rather comfortable bus ride (they have just three seats in a row compared to the usual four or five), we reached the town of highway town of Jagun, on the border between Assam and Arunachal. After a quick check that we hadn’t donated any of our stuff to the bus guys, we were bundled into cars by our to-be host in Jairampur, Arunachal, and proceeded towards it at a rapid pace. Soon enough, there were six heads outside the windows, gawking at the unbelievable forests we were passing. None of us had ever seen anything of the sort before. We wished the drivers would take it easy and let us enjoy the view at a slightly leisurely pace, but that was not to be, and we were soon in Jairampur in Arunachal Pradesh, The Land of the Emerging Sun.

Jairampur, Arunachal Pradesh, 19th Aug

Jairampur is a smallish, sprawled out town close to the Assam border in Arunachal Pradesh. Space means nothing here, so everything is well spread out. Clusters of small shops dot the side of National Highway 153, the latest NH in India. The attitude of the people towards money is unique. Every time we made a call, we ended up owing the guy some weird figure of 4 rupees and 79 paise or something similar. However, this figure was always rounded off – not to the next integer, but the previous! So 4.05 became 4, and so did 4.95. This was a practice followed commonly in that region. I really liked the way they taught math out here!

NH 153 goes on ahead, passing through the dozens of smallish villages and towns, right up to the Indo-Myanmar border. This region is steeped in WWII history. For a few kilometers after Jairampur, the road passes parallel to something which looks like another road, about a meter or so above the level of the highway. This piece of tarmac belongs to the 60 year old Stillwell Road, built during WWII. The allied forces’ offensive against the Japs depended heavily on the supply of food and ammunition to the remote areas where the battles were being fought. Construction of the Stillwell road, named after the American General responsible for the northern Burmese Sector, was started in order to achieve this objective. The original plan was to construct the road from Myanmar and deep into China. However, the Japs were driven out quicker than expected, as a result of which the construction was stopped. Parts of the 6 decade old road are still intact and in much better condition that most of the roads in our cities! Unfortunately, the expansion of the highway has been planned, and the Stillwell road will continue to exist only in history texts, another example of the sad fact that everything, absolutely everything, forests, people, history, environmental concerns, can be sacrificed without a thought at the altar of ‘development’, in the form of roads, dams, power stations and mines. Nobody argues against the right of a people to have access to roads, power and infrastructure, but how the expansion of a road which has a single digit vehicle frequency in tens of minutes and which cuts through some of the last remaining patches of pristine forest in the world can be justified is way beyond the realm of my understanding.
Another place worth visiting here is the WWII cemetery, which houses the unmarked graves of hundreds of labourers and foot soldiers from the subcontinent, who worked or fought for the Allied forces. It is in a terrible condition, with only 2-3 graves visible, the remaining taken over and conquered by the unstoppable forces of Nature.

A board outside the WWII Cemetery. It reads ‘ These graves bear silent testimony to those soldiers, unlisted workers and labourers who ventured into the virgin jungle amid blistering heat and laid down their lives in the line of duty during the second world war whilst part of the Allied Forces against the Imperial Japanese Army. Their names liveth forever.’ Even if the board doesn’t quite make it to the next year……

There are also a couple of nice towns if you continue along this highway, Manmao and Nampong. Although there are no famous tourist ‘sites’ here, these places, being quite in the interior are worth a visit just to take in the rural Arunachal atmosphere. The feeling of peace and serenity you get here is quite difficult to explain. Nampong lies on NH 153, which goes on to the Myanmar border. Although Myanmar does not have completely open borders with India, Indians are issued a single day pass to cross over without a visa, on the 15th and 30th of each month. Unfortunately, we weren’t anywhere close to either of these dates, so we had to give this quite interesting chance a miss. Myanmar, apparently, doesn’t place a very high value on its wildlife, and thousands of specimens from the forests of Namdapha, which continue far into Myanmar, find themselves being plucked from the lush heavens of Namdapha and dumped unceremoniously into cages on the side of the road to be sold as exotic pets or food, if locals are to be believed. While India does not have a perfect record when it comes to preserving its natural history, the wildlife trade here is not so blatantly out in the open. Unfortunately, the denizens of Namdapha are way above all this, leading the lives nature has meant them to, and don’t recognize man-made borders, along with the safety associated with them.

Miaon Village, Arunachal, 19th Aug

A single bus, run by the Arunachal Pradesh State Transport Corp, plies back and forth between Jagun and the quaintly named town of Miaon, on our way to Namdapha National Park. Their entire fleet, as we later realized, comprises of these ancient blue buses with a weird design on the sides, which further inspection revealed to be the state bird, the Hornbill. The poor things, such stunningly beautiful creatures in real life, look like the result of some horrific genetic mutation, which resulted in a sparrow getting an elephant’s trunk.

The conductor, an old crook, refused to issue us tickets, saying he had given us a ‘discount’. Apparently, issuing tickets is never much of an issue here, and the conductor generally goes home quite a rich man, with his pockets full of money and hands full of farm produce, swapped by the villagers as payment for the ride. A fair bit of bargaining went on during the ride, and the appropriate number of carrots were either plonked on or removed from the dashboard. The driver did his main job of ensuring that the veggies didn’t fall off from the ventilation opening quite well, along with occasionally swerving the bus on to the shoulder of the road when somebody came along in the opposite direction.

Miaon is a small town close to the Namdapha forests. The 30 off kilometer journey to the sanctuary is a very costly and bumpy one due to the terrible road conditions. A few kilometers from Miaon, the forest flanks the road on both sides, becoming progressively denser, and the road, worse. Half way through, it goes through a river, and we had to get off and wade our way across. This resulted in utter chaos, as one of us found a very interesting dragonfly specimen perched on a rock in the middle of the river, and decided that it must be photographed right there. Another fella dropped one of his shoes, which another chap went to retrieve. He soon found that although the shoe had been caught, he didn’t quite fancy his chances in the rather deep waters he had ended up in. Soon, everybody else was in the water trying to get that chap onto higher ground. After about half an hour of messing around and herding all the souls together, we finally reached the vehicle.

The road now was through forests I had never seen the likes of, massive trees, centuries old, every inch of their surfaces covered with orchids, ferns and creepers. Huge tree ferns competed with trees for space. A T rex wouldn’t have been half out of place in these jungles.

After a while, the jungles on one side of the road cleared, and a couple of hundred feet below us were large green paddy fields, dotted with brown thatched huts. People worked in the fields in ones and twos. Beyond the fields flowed the lazy river, the low water levels the result of a severe drought afflicting the entire of the North-East. On the far side of the river were dozens of hills, all covered with thick forest. It was a stunning sight, one which would have been this way for centuries. Little must have changed for the people living here, with the exception of the vehicles which occasionally bumped along on the road, mostly oblivious and indifferent to their existence.

Crazy, Crazy Forests, Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve, 19th Aug

Namdapha is one of the most amazing places on earth, bio-diversity-wise. It covers a staggering 2000 sq. km of virgin forest. The altitudinal variation is also mind-boggling, from 200 m to over 4500 m, a little over 14000 ft! Due to this, a huge number of eco-systems are found here, from evergreen forest to high altitude alpine forests. It is the only place on Earth in which four large felines – the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Common Leopard, the Clouded Leopard and the Snow leopard are found in their natural habitats, all within a few kilometers of each other. Its remote location and inaccessibility doesn’t, however, prevent it from being full once the rains stop.

Winged Beauties from the forests of Namdapha

It was here that my trip was hit by a serious jolt – my digital SLR camera, my faithful companion decided it had had enough of being faithful and conked off. It was a terrible shock, made worse by that fact that THIS was the very last place on earth where I could afford to let something like this to happen. One of the most remote places on earth, one which takes days to reach, and my camera fails on the FIRST day. The stunning sunset didn’t have me enraptured on a rare occasion.

Next day did not start the way I was desperately hoping it would, and it was a very dejected me who joined the others on the morning trail, watching them getting all excited over the dozens of fluttering beauties flying all around us.

Paradise on earth, Kovin Village, 21st Aug

Kovin is a tiny village close to Jairampur, and we were staying in a school here for the duration of the butterfly meet. A nice stream, which undoubtedly would be a raging river during a normal monsoon, passed close to the school, and every afternoon found us waddling around in it, like hippos. We were apparently quite a spectacle, judging from the looks of the villagers who crossed back and forth the large suspension bridge. The tiny kids from the nearby villagers had this as their daily playground, much to the envy of us city folks.

The people here have a very open attitude towards life, and are not hung up about anything. One of my female companions had a chat with the village girls, who happily described things which quickly brought about a rapid change in the colour of my friend’s face. Apparently, it was a very openly discussed thing here. Death, also, is not much of an issue, and is accepted practically and treated very much as an accepted part of life. Before the trip, one of my friends, who had visited Arunachal a few years back, was staying in a village when one of the locals passed away. He was very interested in the customs amongst the tribals, so he discreetly enquired whether he could attend the funeral. Not only was he invited, he was even told to take photos of the event if he wanted. My shocked friend couldn’t, he hadn’t taken his camera along, for trying to do something like that in our ‘civilized’ world would have ended up in him burning in a pyre next to the deceased fellow.

After a round of ‘hippo’ing, we came out to find that the local kids were engrossed in a game of football, with a ball halfway between the size of a football and a tennis ball. There was something in the air, some strong scent, which made us feel very fresh. I put it down to the mountain air. After a while, however, I realized that this was a fairly common aroma – and then it hit me, it was the smell of citrus fruit. Suddenly, the ball came close by, and the smell grew stronger. They were playing with a huge lemon! It bounced around perfectly like a ball, coming up to waist height! And when someone inevitably stepped on it, it went all flat, only to regain shape after the offending force was taken off. This was some lemon! They played this way for almost two hours, before someone stepped on it one too many time, and it burst open with a loud pop. Who needs fixed game timings? Play till it pops!

During my stay here I got quite pally with an owl, who after a few days, let me get quite close, and I managed to get a few shots of him eating bats, large moths and a few rodents. His favourite perch was the suspension metal rope bridge close to the school, from where he took off whenever he fancied a bite, only to quickly return with it and tear it apart with its talons and sharp beak.

Left: A tasty snack. Right: I don’t like the paparazzi

Five days passed by quickly, in a flurry of fluttering beauties, enchanting trails in the nearby forests, and hours of ‘hippo’ing. The unusually hot and dry weather was taking its toll, and crazy butterfliers who were known to spend the entire day out in the wild without a break were meekly accepting defeat and heading towards the stream by afternoon.

Tezpur, 26th Aug, 0400 hrs.

After a twelve hour bus ride from Jagun, we reached Tezpur city, in central Assam. Tezpur, apparently, is the City of Eternal Love. The Naxals unfortunately don’t quite see it that way, so it is a city which would look more in place in a country which has just seen an army coup. Although things looked fairly peaceful for the couple of times we were here, it is quite infamous as a very volatile place, with frequent bombings and militant attacks. Atleast, that was the scenario a while back. The army presence doesn’t exactly convince you that things have improved much. Every highway leading into the city has patrolling armymen, within meters of one another, carrying automatic weapons.

Roadrash, Tezpur to Tawang, 26th Aug

The distance between Tezpur and Tawang, our next destination, is about 360 km, but it takes more than 12 hours to reach it, as most of the road is through mountainous terrain, with thick forests on both sides. We started off at around 5 in the morning, and reached the Assam-Arunachal border town on Bhalukpong, where we were going to have a nerve-wracking confrontation with the cops during our return journey. It was raining heavily, and we gulped down the oily poori-bhaji unhappily, not quite used to drinking litres of oil at seven in the morning. A brief checking of our Inner Line Permits ( ILPs ), followed by the usual talk of why we come all the way here to see mountains when there are so many beautiful places our side blah blah blah with the border police, and we were waved off into Arunachal again.

The plains ended here, and the road started twisting and turning. Soon, we were in the middle of the Eagle’s Nest sanctuary, another place which is a must-visit on any wildlife / jungle lover’s list. The forests here…… well, I am getting repetitive, but I just can’t help it… most of Arunachal is forest, after all – very, very beautiful forest! We saw a species of hornbill fly parallel to us, and were soon craning our necks outside the vehicle and pointing at it excitedly, must to the amusement of the passengers we were sharing the taxi with. They had the look in their eyes generally reserved for slightly barmy folks – the one which says – poor you, you must have had quite a fall during your childhood. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of hornbill species in Arunachal, most of which are big and beautiful and multi-coloured, so we couldn’t go further than just knowing that it was a hornbill.

The road, to put it mildly, was treacherous, with blind pin bends and steep inclines. The crazy forest didn’t help things much as you could see absolutely nothing beyond the first line of trees. Just to make things perfect was this thick fog which hung about with an intention of staying put for a long, long time. Our driver, for some inexplicable reason, kept the headlights switched off, with the end effect of having to swerve and honk madly whenever anything came in the opposite direction. The fact that most of these were humongous trucks from army convoys with enough momentum to flick elephants off their paths didn’t improve our comfort levels much. Although, with the kind of road clearance these things had, we’d probably pass under them easily and come out on the other side – with our heads off. Apparently, there weren’t many elephants being flicked off, with the result that many of the trucks themselves ended up in the valley below – every few meters, we saw plaques saluting the martyrdom of the army personnel whose vehicles had met with accidents on this road. There were dozens of these plaques dotting the road, each carrying four to five names, and the army must be losing very high numbers of its personnel on these treacherous roads. On the whole, it wasn’t at all a journey for the faint hearted. My suggestion to tie the one member of our party who liked to donate a lot of nutrients to the road on a regular basis to the top of the vehicle so that he could puke to his heart’s content (stomach’s contents?) was looked upon rather unfavourably by the others, so every few turns later we had a greenish head craning out of the window, while we tried to look at other things.

After a few heart-stopping moments when we swerved off the road and I found the mountain cliff on the left interfering with my personal space (not comforting at all, when you consider that the Himalayas are like mountains of sand – a little push and the whole thing comes to sit on top of you like it belonged there from the middle ages), we came upon a sign which said ‘Fog Area Ends’. Yeah, right, I said. And then it did. It was absolutely clear ahead of that. I still have no clue how they managed that!

The forests started thinning out a bit after that and we started gaining altitude. The BRO has done a fantastic job here – though the roads are treacherous, it’s not due to bad quality – it’s simply the terrain and the climate – and they have every right to be very proud of it, which they are. Every corner had some line praising the glory of the BRO. When they got tired of that, they started coming up with these one-liners – some of them corny (After whisky, driving risky), some of them horny (the fairly common ‘be mild on my curves’), and most of them unintentionally hilarious. We had a great time reading them and cracking up, another thing which left our co-passengers completely bewildered.

All along this route, the horrific effects of the slash and burn type of agriculture are evident. Huge landslides are seen every few kilometers, spread over enormous distances. Entire mountains are left barren, with their soil exposed, waiting for yet another slide. The situation is terrible, and urgent measures to regenerate the undergrowth which can hold down the soil are needed to prevent further damage. Just how serious this problem was, we realized during our return journey.

Right: Landslides dot this region, most of them the direct cause of reckless slash and burn methods of agriculture.

Above: Slash and Burn Agriculture in practice. Land is cleared and burnt down and farms are built. After a few years of intensive agriculture, the fertility of the land drastically reduces, and agriculture is no longer viable. This land is then abandoned, and more forest is burnt down for new land. The old, exposed patches are then left for nature to take care of by itself – causing either landslides, in most cases, or the slow regeneration as seen in the picture below.

Tawang is a region which is kind of a disputed territory. China says that it belongs to them as most of people there are Buddhists. Knowing the sneaky way in which the Chinese go about when it comes to border disputes, the Indian Army has a significant presence here, and we passed through the bases of many regiments, some of them oddly named like ‘Fikar Not 14’. We tried to imagine why it could have been named something like this, and came up with innovative stories, most of which were obviously nonsense. Imagine what some fellow who belonged to this regiment going home and telling somebody…. ‘I am a part of Fikar Not 14.’ ‘You are WHAT????’

We climbed steadily upto Sela pass, at a height of around 14000 ft. The ground was carpeted with pink flowers, as if somebody had meticulously planted and looked after them. It was very cold here, and we shivered in our double layer of warm clothes. The road descended fairly quickly, however, and we were soon back in more comfortable climes.

The author at Sela Pass

The hill-station of Bomdila came soon afterwards, and we passed through, having decided to stop here on the way back. We stopped at a small roadside eatery for lunch, and had I had decided that I was not having any more Puri Bhaji in one day, so I checked out the eatery next to it, and we were soon digging into steaming Momos, a Tibetan delicacy which is actually meant to be stuffed with meat balls, but which was stuffed with cabbage for us grass eaters. Inspite of it containing primarily cabbage, I found it to be quite tasty and was a welcome break from puri-bhaji.

Mmmmmmmm Momos!

Tawang, 26th Aug

After a further journey of about five hours, we reached Tawang, after a tiring yet fun journey of more than twelve hours. After making ourselves comfortable in the hotel, we went out at around eight o clock in the evening, only to find the place deserted. However, we were reluctantly admitted into a small restaurant, and we had a good dinner of more Momos. Tawang does close down at eight in the evening, even if you don’t believe it when you first hear of it.

The exterior of a typical Tibetan house. Tibetans love flowers, and huge numbers of flowering plants are usually arranged in neat rows outside houses.

Tawang is at a height of about 11000 feet above sea level, in the Western-most part of Arunachal Pradesh, close to the Bhutan and China borders.

Tawang Monastery, 1000 hrs, 27th Aug

Whoever decided that India has to have only one standard time must have either copied his way through his geography exams or refused to acknowledge the existence of the North-east states. For this creates a kind of a problem. Arunachal is quite far off from wherever IST is actually the local time, and this causes the sun to rise and shine at unearthly hours like 4 in the morning, and vanish at 5 in the evening. This wouldn’t make much of a difference to the locals, but it ended up causing us to walk in the mid-day sun at 10 in the morning. Being generally used to waking up when the almost vertical sun-rays fell on my face in my bedroom at home, with the consequent effect of it being just too hot to continue sleeping, I practically got up at mid-day.

Above: The magnificent Tawang Monastery

Below: Tawang town on the way to the Monastery

The monastery, located on a slope and visible from the town, looks deceptively close by. We found this out the hard way, as we walked on and on, before we finally reached it two hours later. The catch was that between the town and that slope was a fair descent, so we huffed and puffed our way up, me dragging the rest with promises of how beautiful the thing was going to be.

Huffing and puffing our way up, with lots of breath to catch up with and lots of curses in store for me……….

Instead of going by the road, we decided to go through the settlements, and ended up going through the back alleys of most of the town. If you want a taste of the real place, this is highly recommended, as you actually get to see a lot of things you’d normally miss.

Life in the back-alleys of the town

The Tawang Monastery is the second largest monasteries in Asia, and the largest in India. It is an important religious centre for the Buddhists. It is over 350 years old and can house 500 monks, although the number in residence is much lower than this.

Left : Prayer wheels outside the Monastery.

Right: The rough goes with the smooth, the old with the new.

Below: The outer buildings of the monastery.

Below: At the Entrance

If the monastery has to be described in a single word, then ‘stunning’ kind of makes a feeble attempt. There are simply no words to describe the sheer beauty of the place. The Dukung, or assembly hall, has 2 large walls completely covered with gorgeous paintings, with inscriptions in Tibetan. The interiors are also breath-taking, with a three-storied building which houses the temple, and a huge Buddha statue, which we unfortunately couldn’t have a good look at, as it was covered to prevent damage to it due to the ongoing renovations. The monks inside were busy with themselves and paid no attention to us, even when we curiously observed them making a ‘Mandala’, which is a sort of a large religious symbol. They were marking it out with a paintbrush, using threads for getting the distances accurate. Although the methods were primitive, the design itself was almost perfect, and I realized that these monks were also excellent artists; a fact confirmed when I later found out that all the paintings and artwork in the monastery is supposed to be done by the monks themselves. They’d have to be some artists to paint stuff like that. Mattresses were laid parallel to one another in the main hall, for the monks to sit together.

Above : Stunning paintings adorn the walls of the monastery, sufficient proof of the monks’ artistic skills.

Below : Monks quickly finish their afternoon meals in a matter of minutes.

A peculiar thing I noticed was that other than the fact that we had to remove our shoes outside the main hall, there were no other rules. Tourists and locals could walk around freely anywhere, even when the monks were in prayer; they could take photographs inside, even with the flash on. There was no insistence on silence, and we could sense the freedom in the local people who visited it. All of them looked happy and free and relaxed, and were enjoying it like an outing. You don’t have to walk around with the constant fear of committing a faux pas.

Above: A view from within the boundaries of the Monastery.

Above: The main hall of the Monastery.

Below Left: The tall wooden Prayer Flag in the middle of the courtyard in front of the main hall.

Below Right: Fowls take up the unused ground floor of the Library, currently under renovation.

Below : View from the Central Courtyard.

Above: Huge Prayer wheels, in a room next to the main hall. You have to literally lean against these to make them move.

Right outside the hall, to the right, is a small room, which is usually locked. If the monk in charge is hanging around, he will invite you to have a look inside, and inside were the most enormous prayer wheels I have ever seen. Tibetans have this concept of prayer wheels. A number of same sized cylinders are placed adjacent to each other, with the cylindrical surfaces vertical, without being in contact with one another. They are free to rotate about the long axis. These cylinders, made of wood or metal, have an outer metal surface on which prayers are etched or painted. These prayer wheels are then built into a wall, such that they can be accessed from both sides. Whenever you pass one of these, you are supposed to rotate the wheels one after the other, as you pass. This is believed to be the equivalent of praying. These prayer wheels can range from small ones the size of cups to enormous ones, as large as doors. They are constructed at many places, along the road, sometimes in the middle of it in Tibetan towns and villages.

Right : Kids will be Kids.

Left : Peering at a strange world….

Buddhism, as a religion, however, is not without its contradictions. Buddhists are forbidden to eat meat, unless it has been procured from an animal which has died of natural causes. However, very few Buddhists follow this, and meat forms a large part of their cuisine. In fact, trying to get a decent square meal in this region, if you are a vegetarian, is a nightmare, unless you are fine with cabbage Momos and noodles day in and day out. Another thing is that Buddhists don’t agree with idol worship. Yet, their monasteries had this huge statue of the Buddha. So it can get fairly confusing, especially when so many of its rituals and customs ( and even Goddesses, as we found out – we had a discussion with a monk who insisted that the Goddess in a painting was not Kali, although she looked quite similar and had the same animal as its vehicle ) are quite similar to Hindu ones.

Red clothed monks on a red bike.

We were quite tired to walk back, however, there no taxis to take us back, and so we had no option but to go back the same way we had come. We had some pastries in a shop on the way back, and had a nice chat with the lady who owned the shop. Tibetans are a very friendly race, and if you can get one of them to start talking with you, which they are quite happy to; you can have a very interesting discussion.

Calling the Gods…… Can you please, please make my camera work??

We had a late lunch comprising of…..guess…. Momos again, but this time with another Tibetan dish called Thukpa, which basically is noodles in soup, and is quite tasty.

Delicious Thukpa

After lunch we wandered around town, looking for stuff to take back home. Tawang, however, is not a ‘touristy’ kind of place, and there isn’t much to shop for. There is, however, one shop in the main market, which has quite a good collection of Tibetan stuff. A rather funny exchange happened in this shop. We were having a look at all the stuff available, and saw some interesting lampshades. Most of them had something written in them in Tibetan, and we asked the lady in the shop for a translation. She told us that they were Tibetan chants. Most of these were made in China and imported here, as that worked out cheaper. One of the lampshades had something written in them in Chinese, and we asked her what was written. She said matter of factly, that she didn’t knew, as it was in Chinese. Then as an afterthought, she added, ‘Maybe they must have written ‘Lampshade’’, with a perfectly poker face. We were soon rolling on the floor, laughing. These fellows rocked!

A nice contribution!

Tawang to Bomdila, 29th Aug

During our journey to Tawang, we had seen some stunning landscapes, or the occasional interesting bird or butterfly. Unfortunately, it being a shared taxi, we couldn’t very well ask the driver to stop and let us shoot – the other passengers would have raised hell. We decided that that was not quite the way we wanted to do it, and so decided to hire a private taxi just for us, to take us back to Bomdila. We were going to go unto just Bomdila in the entire day, stopping along on the way, whenever anything took our fancy. Luckily, we bumped into the chap who had driven us here, and we thought that he was a rather good driver, other than the weird habit of not switching his lights on in the fog, so we hired his cab to take us to Bomdila.

On the way to Dirang

Unfortunately, weather decided not play ball that day, and the first hundred odd kilometers saw me getting increasing agitated, as we drove through thick fog and rain right unto Sela Pass, through some of the parts we were really looking forward to, if the weather would have been good. A short lull in the bad weather allowed us to shoot some roosting butterflies, but that was it.

We stopped for lunch at the same place we had on the way up, and while the driver chased Momos, we chased a very unusual butterfly on the road. Soon, we had quite an audience, as everyone was looking at us with deep interest and, I think, a fair amount of concern.

The Glassy Blue-bottle butterfly

The weather improved a bit after most of the interesting part was over, and we reached the town of Dirang, where we decided we were having lunch. After a short walk on the main road of the town, we continued along to Bomdila.

Another winged beauty on the way to Dirang.

Boulder Bother, 1600 hrs, 20 kms from Bomdila

For me, a trip to the Himalayas always brings to mind – not the snow-clad peaks, alpine meadows and the fresh mountain air, but something of which I had have more than my fair share – landslides. Thankfully, so far, I haven’t had the misfortune of being in their direct path, though, I have an uneasy feeling, though, that the fella up there has been trying quite hard. My first experience was in my first visit to the Himalayas, when a boulder the size of a house came down just after the ropes had been fixed for a rappelling activity. The second time, it almost succeeded in getting rid of the pestilence called yours truly, when we got stuck in atrocious weather during a high altitude Himalayan trek. That experience took me the closest I have ever been to being annihilated, either by getting squashed under a landslide, one of which was there every hundred meters on the road, or due to hypothermia caused due to extreme exposure to the cold caused by seventy two hours of non-stop snowfall in the month of July.

All was fine as we proceeded from Dirang, and the weather was gorgeous, when we saw a long line of vehicles on the road on the other side of the valley. Our driver had a look and passed on the bad news. Landslides can take days to be cleared, and till then we’d be stuck in the vehicle.

Trouble Ahead!

We joined the end of the line after a while, and were told that the BRO would soon get into action, and the slide would be cleared in a couple of hours. Sure enough, half an hour later, two three trucks filled with labourers crossed us. After a few minutes, a terrific explosion echoed off the mountains, and the earth shook violently. Within minutes, it happened again. These guys were dynamiting the thing off! I couldn’t quite believe that they could be doing this, but the driver confirmed that this was standard practice. The Himalayas are one of the most unstable mountains in the world, and here we were, setting off dynamite in it. I have seen landslides been caused at a distance of literally a few feet from each other for a stretch of fifteen to twenty kilometers, just due to rainfall for two days. I just could not imagine how much of potential trouble this might be causing. Sure enough, you’ll clear up the road in no time, but by doing this, you’ll have created cracks and failures at a hundred more places. If they did this every time there was a landslide, then God save them….

After a few minutes the vehicles started moving ahead, and our driver, with a sudden rush of blood, decided that he was going to be the first one to cross the slide. This resulted in him being stopped by an angry cop and being yelled at for jumping the line. As a result, we were now parked right next to the spot where the slide had occurred. A huge scoop of earth had been displaced from the incline to our left, and had made itself quite at home in the middle of the road. This mound had then been battered into submission, and one by one, the vehicles from the other side were coming over clumsily. Just a slight tremble in the earth, and even 4x4s are reduced to ungainly machines somehow clambering over the muck.

Labourers, brought in by trucks, clear the roads. These villagers work for hours in the most dangerous areas, clearing patches which have become highly unstable.

After the line moving in the opposite direction cleared up, it was our turn. After we’d crossed the slide, the road was clear, and in about an hour we were in Bomdila, having just missed a stunning sunset which had painted the sky with dozens of shades of red and orange.

Bomdila, 30th Aug

Bomdila, located at a height of about 9000 feet is the headquarter of the West Kameng District. Actually, Bomdila is the name of a pass ( Bomdi-la ), and the town is a few hundred feet below the pass.

Bomdila has a bustling marketplace and sometimes gives you the feel of a large city unlike Tawang. Being much closer and accessible to the plains, the people don’t quite have the charm of the mountain people, although height-wise it is not much lower than Tawang. After stunningly beautiful Tawang, Bomdila was an anti-climax.

The places of interest here are the Monastery, which can be disappointing after the grand one in Tawang, and the Arts and Crafts Centre, which was closed as it was the off-season.

Drama in Bhalukpong, 31st Aug

‘ILP no. 2631?’
‘Yes, that’s mine.’
‘Please come out, and bring all of your companions with you.’

This was highly unusual; ILPs were checked only while entering Arunachal. We got down from the vehicle and followed the border cop into his cabin.

‘Driver, remove all their luggage and move on. These guys have to stay here.’

Huh???? What was going on? I rushed outside and begged the driver to wait a bit, while we tried to sort out the matter.

‘Please show me your Bomdila Hotel bill. We have had a call from there saying that you guys ran off without settling the dues. This is a serious matter, and you have been accused of deliberately cheating the hotel.’

We stared at him bewildered. My companion then checked his wallet – and things started falling into place.

The previous night I had gone to bed in a bad condition, with a severe asthma attack. I was severely asthmatic as a kid, but had grown out of it subsequently, and had done half a dozen Himalayan treks, at altitudes of 18000 ft, covering punishing distances of 225 kilometers in 15 days on foot. This time, however, the severe cold over and the improper nourishment had made me vulnerable, and given me my most severe attack over the last decade. I had wheezed through most of the night, and morning arrived with me still awake and in terrible condition. The vehicle which was supposed to take us back to Tezpur arrived sharp at five in the morning, and things completely went out of control. Sorting out all these things, my companion ended up paying less money than we had to, and the chowkidar on duty accepted it without any comment and had given us the receipt.

‘Yes, there is some amount I didn’t pay. I realized it now. Please let us go. We’ll pay up the difference’, my companion pleaded...
‘No, no. this is a case of charsau-bisi. Section 420. I can’t let you go.’
‘It was unintentional. Why didn’t they check it then?’
‘Ok, the three of you go. You are kids. It’s not your fault. But you, mister, have to stay. You are responsible for them. It’s your fault’, he said, pointing at my companion. Now, both of us were the same age, but I don’t quite look the 23 years that I am. I barely managed to stop myself from laughing, despite the rather grim situation. The driver was hanging around outside, looking very irritated. Things had reached a stalemate.

Till then I hadn’t contributed much to the conversation. I really had no idea who had done what in the morning, dazed as I was from a sleepless night. Now, I had to do something. Protesting wasn’t getting us anywhere.

‘Sorry saab, we made a mistake. I had high fever in the morning. While looking after me, he forgot to pay the full amount.’
‘No, it was deliberate. You have done badmashi.’
‘Please saab, it was a genuine mistake. Badmashi hi karni thi to kuch bhi nahi deke bhaag jaate. It was a genuine mistake, saab. We’ll make arrangements for paying them. Here, we’ll send back the money through this fellow,’ I said, dragging the rather reluctant driver into the situation. ‘The hotel chaps know him. If only you could call them up and tell them we are sending the money through him by tonight……’
‘Why should I call? You have done badmashi…….’
‘Ok, saab, I will call. Wait for a few minutes, saab, I will call them from a PCO.’

There were three PCOs in the vicinity, and all three were occupied by three fellows who were having a hearty conversation and did not look like they’d be done in some time. Eventually, however, one of them got out, and I got the phone. But…. the numbers were all wrong. Bomdila had shifted to 6 digit telephone numbers, and somebody, apparently, had forgotten to inform the hotel fellows. Back to the chowky.

‘Saab, there is some problem with the lines. But I will send the money through this fellow. He knows the hotel.’
‘Who is this fellow? I don’t know him. No, no, this is a case of………..’
‘Sorry saab. We’ll pay it to you. Then you can transfer it to them.’ This seemed to be a good idea, for he gave it a bit of a thought.’
‘Hmmm. Ok. You can pay here. But why did you do it in the first place……’ Then followed a lengthy lecture on how we should be careful about what we do, while he made a receipt for the amount. We listened quietly for a long time, our over-worked hearts slowly returning to their normal speeds. We departed with a series of ‘thank you’s, and quickly entered the vehicle, where a fairly irate group of fellow-passengers unleashed their fury on us.

‘Why didn’t you pay? You must have wanted to run away just like that.’
‘Wasting so much time…. Three hours we’ve been here. (Yeah, if ten minutes is one hour).
‘We had to go to a funeral. Now they must have already cremated the body and left….’

We sat meekly, and looked outside as much as we could. Thankfully, Tezpur arrived in an hour.

Time to turn back…..

A quick look at our finances and my health gave us only one option – we had to junk the rest of our planned tour and turn back. My condition was just slightly better; the heat of the plains was good for my asthma. However, continuing would have meant going back into the hills, something which I wasn’t too keen about in this state. It was painful quitting and going back, but we didn’t have any choice – we’d soon run out of money anyhow. We’d had severely under-estimated our costs, which were based on an extrapolation of the costs incurred by my friends half a decade ago, inspite of factoring in inflation and the usual buffers.

Our journey back was an amusing combination – we flew to Kolkata from Guwahati, and then proceeded to Mumbai by sleeper class! It was the perfect way to end a topsy-turvy trip, with so many highs and lows. Some moments, I will always remember and cherish, some which will always be remembered in the hope that I wouldn’t face them again. My long-standing dream of visiting the North-East had finally come true, but the desire to go there had in no way diminished. Till next time, I told myself, as the plane took off from Guwahati Airport, and flew into the setting sun, bathing the distant mountains of Bhutan in golden light, teasing, tempting, beckoning me………….