India

Discovering India’s North-East: Incredible Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh is a magical place; its name literally means ‘Land of Dawn-lit Mountains‘. India’s wildest and least explored state comprises a mass of densely forested, impossibly steep hills, which eventually top off as snow-capped peaks along the Tibetan border. Home to 26 indigenous tribes, Arunachal Pradesh is the final frontier of Indian tourism with much of the state still off-limits to foreigners. New areas are, however, slowly opening up, revealing a land ripe for exploration.

China still does not recognise Arunachal as part of India; it believes this mountainous state is ‘Southern Tibet’, so there is great friction and a heavy Indian army presence along the border. Believing there is a great threat of invasion from its neighbour, India is increasing its defences. In Tawang, where the Chinese invaded in 1962, the Indian army is currently building the capability for larger military aircraft to be able to land.

Infrastructure and roads are also being continually improved in order to increase India’s ability to move larger carriers more quickly, as well as to better serve residents and visitors to the state. Despite the hassles of obtaining a permit, Arunachal Pradesh is well worth the effort; this is about as off-the-beaten-track as you can get in India.

From Tezpur in Assam, our first main destination in Arunachal was Tawang, the archetypal Shangri La. But to reach this humbling landscape, guarded by magnificent blue mountains, we first had to traverse what could easily be described as ‘the worst road in the world’. We broke the long journey each way in the towns of Dirang and Bomdila.

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The Tibetan Buddhist Gompa in Dirang

Dirang

From Tezpur it took us around 8 hours to reach Dirang, the gateway to the Tawang Valley. This small town is comprised of Old Dirang and, 5km further on, New Dirang. New Dirang is where all the commercial services can be found; there is a strip of local eateries, a few shops and sumo counters. Old Dirang is a traditional Monpa stone village, with a mini rocky citadel and a cluster of picturesque stream-side houses. Towering above the village rises a steep ridge, topped with a beautiful Tibetan gompa.

Having arrived by early afternoon, we spent the rest of the day exploring New Dirang, strolling through the quiet backstreets and discovering monasteries and peaceful viewpoints. Disappointingly, we had missed the visit of the Dalai Lama by about a week; all over town were banners welcoming His Holiness to the valley.

We really loved Dirang; it has such a special ambience about it, so decided to stay another day. On our second day we walked the 5km into Old Dirang, taking in the few sights and making friends with some local kids, who showed us the way to the citadel. Everyone we met was really friendly and welcoming; people always had a smile for us and were intrigued that we had made it to this far-flung corner of the country.

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View over Dirang

The Se La Pass

From Dirang, we continued along Arunachal’s worst road in a seemingly endless series of zigzags to reach the icy Se La, a pass of 4176m that breaches the mountains and provides access to Tawang. As we drove higher, the temperature got lower and lower and the road and our surroundings were topped with more and more snow and ice.

The summit of the Se La was absolutely magical, full of freshly fallen snow! We made a quick toilet stop at the top; it was freezing outside but I got some fabulous photos! From the pass the road plummeted back down and we finally entered Tawang Valley.

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In the Snow at the Se La Pass

Tawang (3050m)

Tawang Valley is a stunning patchwork of mountain ridges, fields and clusters of Buddhist monasteries and Monpa villages. The scenery is beautiful and worth all those long hours of travelling. The town is centred upon Tawang Gompa, which can be seen from miles around. The main market area is the commercial hub, from where two or three main roads branch off.

There are a few grocery stores and guesthouses in town, as well as Buddhist murals and colourful prayer wheels, which are turned by a stream of Monpa pilgrims. The Monpa people are a tribal group, who live in Tawang and who are culturally closer to Tibet than to their neighbours in the lowlands of Arunachal.

The first thing we noticed about Tawang, when we stepped out of the sumo, was the cold. It wasn’t quite as bad as at the Se La but it still felt pretty nippy to us, being unacclimatised to wintry weather. With no central heating, we snuggled up under layers of blankets to keep warm at night. Days were mostly pleasantly warm and springlike, though the wind really got up and the temperature dipped later in the afternoons. By dinner, we were both donned in woolly hats, scarves and gloves, filling our boots with mugs of chai to try to keep warm!

Sights in Tawang

Magical Tawang Gompa is the star attraction of the valley; founded in 1681, this monastery is reputedly the world’s second largest Buddhist monastery complex after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The beautifully decorated prayer hall contains an 8m-high statue of Buddha Sakyamuni. We loved exploring this magical complex with its narrow alleys and timeless architecture.

In Tawang we also visited Urgelling Gompa, where the sixth Dalai Lama was born, Gyangong Ani Gompa, a nunnery reached by a perilous cable-car, and Tawang War Memorial that commemorates the lives of the soldiers who died in the 1962 Indo-China war.

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Urgelling Gompa – Birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama
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Tawang War Memorial

Indian visitors can visit the Bum La Pass, on the Tibetan border, and lakes in the area such as Madhuri and Pangateng Tso. Unfortunately, foreigners are not allowed any further north for security reasons.

The real magic of Tawang though is simply being there, a place where few foreign visitors reach, a place hemmed in by colossal mountains, a place that resonates with the sound of Buddhist chants and an energy so timeless that only the lofty peaks can understand its tune.

Bomdila (2680m)

From magical Tawang Ollie and I travelled to Bomdila, where we spent one night on the way to Itanagar. Bomdila is not as scenic nor as welcoming as Dirang but it lies two hours closer to Itanagar and served as a different place for us to spend the night. The small town is characterless with very little choice in the way of accommodation or restaurants.

The only monastery is perched high up, overlooking the town, but as the weather was very chilly with a biting wind, we did not venture to explore. The next morning we took the first sumo to Itanagar; even then we did not make it to Arunachal’s capital until dusk had descended.

Itanagar

The capital of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar, merely served as another transit point on our way to the lovely Ziro Valley. Itanagar is a concrete fest, a commercial centre in which to stock up on goods and, most importantly, cash. Outside of the main cities, ATM’s are pretty rare in the north-eastern states and even when there is one, as there is in Tawang, it will likely either be closed, broken or out of money. So stock up in the cities!

We did, however, spend two further nights in Itanagar after our time in Ziro. There are a few worthwhile sights to see including Ita Fort, from which the town takes its name, a brightly coloured Tibetan gompa, which offers excellent views over town, and Ganga Lake, a serene beauty spot just outside of town.

Itanagar itself is comprised of one main street, which we found quite odd for a state capital. There is a Domino’s though, which we treated ourselves to one rainy night after three solid months of Indian food! Pizza never tasted so good!

Ganga Lake, Itanagar

Ziro Valley

The last place we visited in Arunachal was Ziro Valley, a fertile landscape of rice fields, rivers and villages of the Apatani tribe. We stayed in the small commercial centre of Hapoli (New Ziro), 7km away from Old Ziro, in an unremarkable hotel that is barely worth a mention. Hapoli itself is quaint and village-like with a Burmese-style market and small local shops.

The real pleasure, however, is in exploring Ziro Valley, the stunning green landscape and the surrounding tribal villages. We hired a local guide and did a 10km hike to some of these local villages, where we met and interacted with the Apatani people. The women of the older generation have facial tattoos and nose plugs; though the designs are different, the culture of facial tattoos reminded us of Chin state in Myanmar.

It was a truly fascinating experience; we were invited into the traditional home of one older couple, which, though it looked small from the outside, was actually pretty huge, stretching back a long way. The homes of the Apatani typically have a fireplace in the centre of the home so that, especially in winter, the whole place can be warmed. It was amazing to see how simply these people still live and how content they are with their modest lives. The smiles they had for us were heartwarming to see.

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Meeting the Apatani People

If you’re looking to get off-the-beaten-track in India, there is no better or more beautiful place than Arunachal Pradesh. This is a land where traditions still run deep, where tribal cultures exist alongside the modern world and where faith and mountains meet. From Buddhist Tawang, like Tibet in so many ways, to tribal Ziro, Arunachal works a special magic on those that make it to this final frontier kingdom.

The accommodation isn’t that great and nor is the choice of food, but what Arunachal lacks in these areas it sure makes up for in culture and scenery. There are huge army camps at Dirang, Tawang and at the Indo-China border, so military presence is high, but these soldiers present no cause for alarm to travellers. In fact, we felt safer than ever with all these guys around.

Ollie and I were even given a military escort in Tawang when we were hiking to Urgelling Gompa; it was a bit of a hike so a major of the Indian army sent two of his men to drive us there and then drop us back at our hotel. Whether this was out of genuine kindness or because he didn’t want two foreigners getting lost on his watch we will never know but, all the same, it was a gesture that we gladly accepted.

We actually spoke to a fair few men of the Indian army whilst in Tawang; one, an engineer, even invited us in for tea! All the people we met were extremely friendly and hospitable and helped make our time in Arunachal a very special one. It is certainly a state that we will forever hold fond memories of and one that we would recommend to any adventure-loving traveller.

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Life in Ziro Valley

If you enjoyed reading about Arunachal Pradesh, don’t miss our other north-east posts about Assam and Meghalaya!

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