Three months of being stuck in Delhi nursing a recently repaired shoulder had ensured by the time we reached Guwahati from the capital, I was itching to get my legs moving. Our plan was to cycle to Tawang and further to Bum La, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, close to the tri-junction of Bhutan, China and India. This was to be followed by a week long trek along the Bailey Trail, a rarely traversed trail with history of exploration by Pundit Nain Singh, Bill Tilman and the Dalai Lama. The nature of plans, of course, is such that you can be sure that’s not how things will work out.
We spent the next two days in Guwahati, hiring bikes and a vehicle, getting permits, running last minute errands and acclimating to early sunrises and sunsets. At this point, I should clarify ‘we’ included Manjeet, Nitish and I. I have no interest in urban exploration, so despite it being my first time in Guwahati, I was distinctly happy at leaving the city. We drove towards Bhalukpong, a small town on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, form where we were to being cycling the next day. On the way, we watched the sun set over the massive Brahmaputra. It’s easy to forget the wide, calm rivers of the northern plains when you get used to the narrow white water of mountain rivers. It was already dark by the time we reached Bhalukpong and found a government run tourist lodge, so it wasn’t till the next morning that we realised we were on the bank of the Kameng river, its brilliant blue weaving through the Assam foothills.
Banana and Bamboo forests near Kimi, Photo by Nitish Pandey
Ready to roll after a quick breakfast, our enthusiasm was put on pause when we realised our vehicle needed a separate permit to enter Arunachal, which would take a few hours, since the officials responsible for the same were in a ‘lunch’ meeting, at 10 am. It was noon by the time we were done with all the paperwork, and I was getting impatient. The day’s ride was close to 10000 ft of uphill over 57 km, and I hadn’t ridden at all after doing Manali - Khardungla in August last year. The hillsides were covered with unbelievably dense bamboo and banana forests, there was barely any traffic (owing to the fact that it was shoulder season), and a couple of hundred feet below, the Kameng flowed lazily. The first 10 km went by like a breeze and we were getting into a rhythm, when we were stopped in our tracks. Some section of the road was under construction and wouldn’t be opened to traffic till 5 in the evening, which meant we had to take a long detour that would add around 40 km to our ride, or wait it out. The idea of waiting four hours under the bright afternoon sun wasn’t extremely appealing, so we decided to take the detour and ride as far as daylight allowed. We could always cover that section on our return. The wide, tarmac road soon disappeared into a single lane dirt road, covered under a dense canopy. Perfect riding conditions. We stopped at the small village of Kimi around sunset, deciding to cover the remaining distance for the day in the vehicle. This turned out to be an excellent decision when it started raining and the steep, broken hillsides, being blasted for road excavation, started shooting rocks down onto the road.
We found a refurbished PWD bungalow for the night at Jamiri, a small and unremarkable village on the highway. We woke up early next morning to the familiar morning chill of the mountains - so refreshing after three months in the plains. From Jamiri, the road followed the Tenga river through lush forests and army camps. The cloud cover and lack of heat allowed us to cover more than half of our day’s ride in a single stretch, before we halted for a tea break. There were already some rhododendrons beginning to bloom. I could imagine what the valley would like a month later. By lunch, the clouds began to overdevelop and rain became imminent. The weather was settling into a predictable pattern of afternoon downpour before clearing at night. Halfway through the climb to Bomdila, the rain started falling harder, and with no place to take shelter, we put our bikes up on the pickup. Bomdila is one of the largest and highest towns in West Kameng, with a busy marketplace and an elaborate monastery. We walked around the town in the evening when the clouds cleared, but I was beginning to get frustrated with the weather, amongst other things. Both days until now, we had been unable to complete our planned riding distance.
en route Bomdila along the Tenga river, Photo by Nitish Pandey
Although spread over a large area, the bulk of Bomdila lies close to the top of a ridge. A pass over the ridge with the same name as the town forms the gateway to Dirang, the Sangti valley and further to Ze La. The next morning, a short 4 km climb took us to the top of the pass, from where a recently recarpeted tarmac road made for a smooth downhill ride all the way to the valley floor at Dirang. We were entertained at our mid day chai stop by stories of the 1962 Sino Indian war - Jaswant Singh Rao, the brave soldier who single handedly held off the Chinese army for 3 days aided by two local women - Sela and Nura - namesakes of the Sela Pass we were to cross in two days, and the 400 ft Nuranang fall at Jang. I wasn’t sure about the authenticity of these stories, given our storyteller was already on his third can of beer for the day.
When we reached Dirang, it was still early in the day, so we decided to head into the subsidiary valley of Sangti, following Sanggey’s advice. Crossing the Dirang river, we entered a relatively untouched valley, home to a few hundred Monpa people, formerly nomadic tribes of the South Tibet region. A single lane dirt road serves the valley inhabitants and the few tourists that end up there - mostly motorbike groups headed to Tawang. Since the valley strays off the main highway leading to Tawang, it still retains the idyllic rurality and characteristic silence of remote mountain settlements. Nitish remarked he could stay there for months. Most tourists visiting Western Arunachal head straight to Tawang from Guwahati, with an overnight halt at Bomdila or Dirang.
Accommodation at Sangti is limited to a couple of homestays, though there is plenty of space to pitch tents on the wide riverbed. Our host, Letro, had just come back from a hunt; there would be a feast tonight. The habitual evening rain called for rounds of hot chhang with butter and a local corn/millet beer. It rained all night and into the morning. Reluctant and late, we set off towards Senge. After getting back to the main highway, it is an unforgiving and uninterrupted 40 km climb to Senge with pine forests as far as we could see. As we gained altitude, snow covered ridges started appearing in the distance, the view frequently obstructed by passing clouds.
Sangti Valley, Photo by Nitish Pandey
We reached the only lodge in Senge shortly after sunset and just in time. There was a rush of tourists coming back from Se La, looking for a place to rest. The news was that the pass was shut due to spell of recent snowfall that had led to the evacuation of over 600 people by the military two days ago, and all the vehicles that went during the day had been turned back. It was starting to get really cold - Senge, at an altitude of 10000 ft, is not a warm place in shoulder season - and we didn’t like the idea of sleeping in the pickup. Fortunately and hurriedly, we were able to get ourselves a room.
The next morning, lack of breakfast meant we were keen to cross the pass as soon as possible. We were looking at a 24 km, 5000 ft climb on an empty stomach. We stopped at an army camp on our quest for nutrition, and wolfed down milk and samosas.
The landscape changed to a world of snow - a single lane and icy roads meant we had to repeatedly stop and get off into the snow for oncoming traffic. The now melting snow and lack of traction had me wishing for a fat bike and my hiking shoes. The ridge on which Se La lies drops steeply towards Senge, made it impossible to see the pass before we actually reached it. As we neared it, the clouds parted to reveal the Tawang gate, marking the pass. Formidable rock pyramids towered on either side of the pass, at the base of which lay the frozen Sela Lake. Although satellite maps and BRO signboards incorrectly say Se La, the local population pronounces it as Ze La. The clouds came in as quickly as they parted, and having had a small window of clear weather, we started descending towards Jang on broken, muddy roads. The condition of the road improved after around 10 km, and we sped up. The wind chill caused the water in my shoes to freeze and soon my toes became numb. I envied Manjeet’s decision to wear hiking boots that day. As we rode towards Jang, we watched the setting sun paint the sky with bleeding reds and oranges, surrounded by silent winter forests.
Frozen Sela Lake, Photo by Nitish Pandey
From Jang, the next day, we descended again to the valley floor followed by a gradual 30 km ascent through small villages to Tawang. It started raining again just as we reached, but this spell of bad weather was to continue for the next three days. Relentless rain and hail, and snow at the high passes eliminated any possibility of continuing further or going back towards Dirang, with Se La buried under snow as well.
Tawang was an isolated area, mostly unknown till the middle of the last century. Populated by nomadic Monpa tribes, known as the ‘Monyul’, it was administrated by South Tibetan monasteries and kings. The first detailed account of any outsider traveling to the region was of Pundit Nain Singh in 1875, secretly working for the Survey of India, while traveling from Leh to Assam via Lhasa. In his footsteps followed F.M. Bailey surveying the border for the famous McMahon border line between Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh (then known as NEFA - North East Frontier Alliance), Bill Tilman, the Dalai Lama and subsequently the Chinese military in the 1962 war. Tawang is home to the largest Buddhist monastery outside of Lhasa, and has its own flavour of Buddhism. Even today, the gompa authorities prohibit the killing and consumption of livestock or any other animal in the district. Recently, the prohibition on consumption was relaxed, leading to import of meat from other districts, except on Wednesdays. On Saturdays, there is no electricity. When a Monpa dies, they are cut into 107 or 108 pieces, starting with the head, then the pieces fed to an indigenous piranha like fish that populate a few of the numerous alpine lakes in the region.
Tawang Gompa overlooking the town
Bum La is a 4500 m pass on the border of India and China, 38 km from Tawang. Along with Thag La and Hathung La further west near Zimithang, Bum La was the site of conflict of Indian and Chinese troops in 1962. There was a break in the weather on the fourth day after we reached Tawang, and the road to Bum La opened to vehicles. Similar to Leh, vehicles not registered in Arunachal Pradesh are not permitted by local unions to go further than Tawang. We decided to hire a car and scout the route. The road had been partially cleared of snow, but there was still enough that vehicles without snow chains were unable to proceed. This meant our cycling journey was over.
As we gained altitude towards Bum La, the vegetation gradually faded away at about 4200 m, unusually high compared to the Western Himalaya where the tree line generally lies at around 3000 m. The landscape became dotted with dozens of alpine lakes, some huge, some small, some named, some unnamed, some perfectly circular and some shaped liked snakes. Owing in part to the high precipitation, the mountains around Tawang have rich groundwater resources, and form high altitude wetlands - unique ecosystems that store and filter water and are home to a variety of flora and fauna including the red panda and the snow leopard. We were stopped at a TCP Checkpost 13 km from Bum La. The road ahead had not been cleared and was still buried under snow.
Penga Tseng Tso en route Bum La, one of several alpine lakes on the route
The one day of clear weather had allowed the road across Se La to reopen. The next day, we drove back towards Dirang for our attempt of the Bailey Trail. The forecast for the region predicted seven days of continuous downpour, so naturally, we thought we might as well go anyway. Although we were unable to complete the entire length of the trail, having had to turn back from Pangi La (the third pass on the trail after Chang La and Poshing La) because of waist deep snow accumulation and consistently bad weather, I took solace in the fact that our point of return was the same as Tilman’s, one of the pioneers of Himalayan exploration in the 1900s, on his first attempt to traverse the Bailey Trail. As far as we went, we were able to witness dense, moss covered forests unlike any seen in the Western Himalaya. Multiple times, we saw pug marks Manjeet identified as those of a snow leopard’s, along with signs of a chase. A five minute window of clear weather on Poshing La offered us a peek at Gorichen and Kangto, the easternmost Himalayan peak over 7000 m. A few days later, we were back in Guwahati and flying out to Delhi. We fell a bit short of both our objectives, which ensured we would return to complete them. Arunachal’s potential as the last unexplored (relatively) area of the Indian Himalaya is staggering, of which we had only yet seen a small part. Hidden valleys, virgin glaciers and inaccessible peaks could keep exploratory mountaineers busy for years. Further east, where the terrain becomes tamer, dozens of tributaries of the Brahmaputra offer opportunities for river running and the foothills around Ziro and Mechuka offer perfect flying conditions. My cabin fever was cured.