Arunachal Pradesh, a state in India’s far east, is one of the least explored regions of India. There are only 11 marked tourist trails in Arunachal Pradesh, places where tourists are allowed to venture. Everyone, including Indians from other parts of the country, must have entry permits to travel here. But it offers a plethora of natural beauty and culture, and is worth the effort.
With the intention of reaching Namgyal Monastery at Tawang, India’s largest monastery, situated at an elevation of nearly 2700 meters, my friends and I embarked on an epic road trip through the West Kameng district of Arunachal. It took us close to ten days to ascend to Tawang from the plains of the Brahmaputra, and back again.
Racing along the national highway connecting Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, we made pit stops at local dhabas. They served sumptuous Assamese thalis, consisting of delightful sour carp fish tenga and duck curry with rice.
We reached Bhalukpong at sunset, crossing the mighty Brahmaputra River. The monstrous river is the source of life for huge parts of India’s north-east. Many streams from the high Himalayas join the Brahmaputra along its 2900 kilometer course. The one I loved the most is Jia Bharali. She pranced along as we journeyed from Bhalukpong to Dirang, crossed the Sela Pass and Nura Valley and reached Tawang.
Bhalukpong is a small, sleepy town where power cuts reign throughout most of the night. Small local houses often come with a kitchen garden attached. Children cross the sand banks of Jia Bharali on foot. Locals fish by the edge of the river. The town has a market where momos are sold for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you are a birding enthusiast, consider a little deviation in the plan and visit the Nameri National Park first. This is a reserve for elephants and Bengal tigers, and is also home to more than 300 species of birds.
From Bhalukpong to Dirang, the scenic journey lasted for about four hours. Dirang is a valley housed at the bend of the river Jia Bharali. At night, it becomes chilly. You can hear the river sing the whole night long, amid the eerie silence that sweeps up the Dirang Valley. Generally, it does not snow in Dirang. The road from Dirang to Tawang is dicey, however. There have been avalanches in the past, which have caused travelers to return to Dirang.
We started for Tawang the next morning, knowing that an arduous five-hour journey lay ahead. The terrain changed drastically. Rugged, barren mountains took over from the lush greenery. Army camps and military stations became more prevalent, suggesting that an international border was close by.
The road was frequently dotted with stupas containing three Buddhist prayer wheels, yak skulls and colorful flags, a striking contrast against the Himalayan backdrop. The road reached a high point as we approached Sela Lake. Dedicated to the Monpa lady Sela, who was martyred along with members of the Indian Army during the Sino-India War, Sela is a glacial lake. Due to the low temperature at the Sela Pass, at 4170 meters, the lake remains frozen for most of the year.
Many suspension bridges, remnants of battlefields, and army camps appear along the next part of the trip. A few kilometers ahead of the town of Jang, we deviated a little to stop at the Nuranang (or Jang) waterfall. One of the most stunning waterfalls in the entire north-eastern region, Nuranang is some 100 meters high, and has a small power station at its foot.
The roads can be treacherous at night. We knew this and rushed towards Bum La, obeying Google’s directions. Google Maps does its job in the highway, but on the smaller roads you are on your own!
Tawang is an ancient city housed high in the Himalaya. Legends say that a Buddhist scholar dreamed of a white horse in the exact location where the 350-year-old monastery stands today. While in Tawang we spent a day exploring the beautiful Namgyal Monastery. Close by is a museum that illustrates the escape route of the Dalai Lama and others fleeing Tibet. A hostel for young monks is close by, and a nunnery is located on top of the mountain, across from the Namgyal Monastery.
Tawang is home to the Monpa community, whose weaving is famous in the region. The traditional wear is a riot of colors, as are the local murals and thangka paintings.
A day trip to Bum la is recommended if you are an Indian passport holder (otherwise you can’t take this trip). Bum La is an extension of the Tibetan Plateau. Very few pastoral nomads and their yaks call this place home. Stunning glacial lakes can be seen along the way to Bum La. There are many military checkpoints around here, and you can see Tibet.
On the return trip we stopped at Bomdila instead of Dirang, as it was faster. Bomdila is a preferred route with tourists.
The best time to visit Tawang is from October to December. Inner Line Permits for Arunachal Pradesh can be obtained by Indians online, or by foreign nationals from an office in Guwahati.
Article and photos by Madhurima Chakraborty.