Into the Indian Unknown
Bordering Bhutan and Burma, and still part-claimed by China, Arunachal Pradesh feels far removed from the rest of India – and offers an alternative cultural Himalayan adventure
“It’s India – but not as you know it.” My travel companion had never heard of Arunachal Pradesh and I was trying to coax him into joining me on a visit.
“It’s India’s least-known state,” I badgered. “And its name means land of the dawn-lit mountains’…” That must have worked. A month later the two of us were bumping through Assam, bound for the Arunachal border. Uday, our guide, was armed with a sheaf of ‘Protected Area Permits’ to be checked over the next two weeks. These PAPs had already been circulated to 18 officials, including various commissioners and army intelligence personnel. Yet, at the border itself, our credentials were quickly logged in a ledger with little formality or fanfare, and we were simply waved on through.
Arunachal feels like India’s final frontier. Rugged and remote, much of it thickly forested and thinly populated, it shares borders with Bhutan, Tibet and Burma. China still claims a huge portion as part of Tibet and it was through here that the Dalai Lama fled his homeland in 1959.
A mix of tribes makes it a linguistic hotspot and, while the roads require patience and stamina, they offer some spectacular journeys.
Rules of the road
We began our own journey juddering alongside the Kameng River heading for Tawang Monastery, high in the Himalaya – one of Arunachal’s highlights. In the following two days there was barely a stretch of straight or level road. Valleys divided, forked and then disappeared amid the cloud that often cloaked the ridge tops.
A long climb to lofty Bomdila town was succeeded by an equally prolonged descent to Old Dirang where a squat medieval tower still looms over the feudal part-fortified village. Beyond here lies Tawang District, which is all but barricaded by sheer peaks notched by the 4,170m Se La pass. It’s a bracing, often rutted road to the top, sprinkled with cautionary road signs such as ‘Better Mr Late than late Mr’. Marked by a decorative Buddhist-styled archway, we paused at the desolate pass for noodle soup, tea and a quick walk by a pair of icy grey tarns.
Heading down towards the treeline, an army sign urges visitors to pay homage’ at Jaswant Garh. It’s a touching yet bizarre memorial to an Indian soldier who briefly halted the Chinese advance during their short conflict in 1962. After friendly soldiers offered us yet more tea, we visited the shrine-like enclosure where his bed is made daily. Letters still arrive addressed to him; placed unopened by his bedside in the evening, they’re mysteriously opened by morning. Beside old bunkers stand a few hoardings with war photographs – one of a Chinese soldier is captioned: ‘Remember even he died for his country’.