Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Arunachal Pradesh

Executive summary by darmansjah

In search of a new ‘Lost shang-rila’,  words by Graham Simmons, photo adapted from Google

 Sunrise over Tawang awakening not just the beauty and colour of its surroundings.

I had waited over four months for a permit to visit Arunachal Pradesh, and time was running out. The day before my departure on a non-changeable air ticket, authorization had still not arrived. The situation was looking grim.

“Just bring your passport in to our office,” said the Indian consul-general, to whom I  was referred. I dully complied. Taking a pen, he simply inscribed the words “Valid also for Bomdila, Dirang and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh” on my Indian visa.

“There’s no way this is going to work!” I was thinking. So when a few days later a couple of kamikaze drivers named Gotum and Kalu dropped me from the central Assam town of Tawang at the heavily-guarded police post of Bhalukpong, on the Arunachal Pradesh border, I feared the worst. Amazingly, though, my name was on the list of just twenty or so people allowed across the border that day.

While this is a region of unrivalled cultural and scenic splendor, on problem in visiting Arunachal Pradesh is that due to the state’s proximity to the Chinese Border, all foreign visitors still require a Restricted Area Permit (RAF) on top of a regular Indian visa. Even Indian visitors require a permit – in this case an Inner Line Permit (ILP). RAP’s and ILPs are valid for one of three recognized circuits – Bomdila, Dirang, and Tawang in the west; Ziro and the state capital Itanagar in Central Arunachal Pradesh; and Namdapha-Changlang in the east.

Of these three circuits, probably the most interesting, or rather the most accessible, is the eastern circuit, which includes Tawang Monastery – the world’s biggest Buddhist monastery after Lhasa’s Potala, and which was renovated by the Dalai Lama in 1997. Other places of interest  near Tawang includes Zemithang, right up near the China and Bhutan border.

A long the road from the Bhalukpong border post, the Indian military presence in Arunachal Pradesh is overwhelming. The Ball of Fire Division is one of the crack elites keeping the Chinese hordes at bay, nearly 50 years after the Chinese invasion of Northeast India back in 1962. “We wish you Tashi Delek” (the traditional Tibetan greeting) proclaims a signboard erected by the 5th Assam Rifles.

Immediately past Bhalukpong the road starts to climb steeply. At the Temple of Orchids in the little village of Tipi, visitors are exhorted to “Be humble, bow and enter,” The plants inside the temple would form a fantastic show in season; even now, in autumn, the array of greenery mirrors the riotous display along the road out side the temple. Overhanging the road, spectacular waterfalls careen down onto, over and across the roadway. A Hindu temple – the Krishma Durga Mandir – occupies a hilltop offering sensational views of the river valley far below.

But the army’s creative sign writers have been at work here, too, “ It’s not a rally – enjoy the valley!” says one billboard, while another warns: “After whisky, driving risky.” It is suspected that these guys may have missed their calling, and they should be snapped up straight away by a Western ad agency.

 Even from a distance, the expanse and grandeur of the Tawang Monastery is evident. 

We proceed through sub-tropical forests of bamboo and pine, their autumn leaves in every colur on the yellow-red spectrum, like something out of an impressionist painting. Just pas Neecha Phu Pass, at an altitude of 1,735 meters, the little village of Neela Phu is home to the Gallong or Galo tribal group. At a road stall, young  shop attendant Sina flashes the sweetest  of smiles. Maybe it’s because she hasn’t just encountered her 1,000th tourist for the day. The Gallongs are distinguish by being divided into two distinct moieties – the Nija and Niri – with marriage within each moiety being strictly prohibited, just as amongst the Yolngu of Arnhem Land. 

I get to spend the first night in the little village of Singchung, off the main highway from the town of Tenga. Singching and Tenga are gateways to the 200 square kilometers Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, home to over sixty rare bird species including the rufous-necked hornbill, crimson-breasted piedwoodpecker, bay woodpecker, pale-headed woodpecker and the coral-billed acimitar-babbler.

The thousand or so residents of Singchung eke out a living from farming the  rocky slopes all around, while dice games and ara ( a potent  spirit distilled from millet wine) help to while away the evenings. One of the villagers is Rattan Subha, who teaches English and computer skills to a few enterprising young people. “The Dalai Lama visited Singchung a few years ago,” say Subha,  “ and he was certainty more popular than the Chinese!” Subha was refering to the invasion of Arunachal Pradesh in 1962, when Chinese troops over-ran the major town of Bomdila and got as far south as Singchung.

“The Chinese stayed here for over twon months,” says shubba, “but fortunately they did no real harm. All they wanted from us was a little maize and chillies – and a lot of ara!” Another story says that the local tribal people at that time wore bark clothing, and were regarded by the Chinese as so primitive that they went unharmed during the invasion.

LEAVING Singchung, en  route to the town of Bomdila, we pass through the little village of Rupa, an important hub to the local Sherdukpen People, who claim descent from the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. Somewhat incongruously located next to an army base is the Guru Rinpochee Independence Park, commemorating the celebrated teacher Padmasambhava who brought Buddhism to this region in the ninth century. A roadside picture of Guru Rinpoche totally dominates the approaches to the village. Also near Rupa is the Pema Chholing Monastery, built by Kunzng Dechen Lingpa, a master of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Lining the road into Bomdila, prayer flags flutter in the gale force breeze, dispensing their felicitous solicitations to passers-by. Bomdila itself, at an altitude of 2,590 metres, tumbles down the mountainside as thought the ground has suddenly dropped away to one side of town. It’s a great setting for a monastery – in this case the Gontse Rabgyaling Monastery (aka “Upper Gonpa”), with a spectacular hilltop setting.
From Bomdila through to Tawang, the locals belong to the major Monpa  tribal group, who for a thousand years up to around 600 AD had their own Monyul kingdom. The Monpa are renowned for their happy disposition; this is due not least to their copious imbibing of millet wine. The average villager starts the morning with a glassful – the near undrinkable bangchang or the tastier ara – and proceeds to get prongessively more plastered throughout the day. I imbibed some myself, but can’t say that it was immediately addictive.

Past the administrative town of Dirang, the road starts to climb steeply heading up to the Sela Pass. And along the way, the Hotel Samjhana offers the best food on the road, as evidenced by the long line of trucks outside near the hotel. At the hotel I even pick up a few words of the local Monpa language “Nasi pa lallu mur?” meaning “May I take your photo?” I try this phrase on a yak, and am pleasantly surprised
Further along the road, a memorial at laswantgarth commemorates the legendary Lieutenenat Jaswant Singh, who – so its said – single-handedly held off the Chinese invaders near the 4,150 metre high Sela  severed head was taken to China.

However, the tribal people of Arunachal Pradesh see things a little differently. “What you’ll see at Jaswantgarth is one half the story, “says one local. “In fact, Jawant was betrayed by the people of the nearby Jang village. When Jaswant’s assistant Sela heard that he’d been captured by the Chinese, she jumped from the cliffs to her death – and that’s how Sela Pass (further along the road towards Tawang) got its name.
The Jaswant Singh memorial has become a virtual place of pilgrimage for Indian tourist – sand it’s a little disturbing to see such jingoism at a time when détente between China and India could be so valuable for the economic; development of both countries. But alarmingly, the hawks on the Indian side seem to be gaining the upper hand, with a decision in October 2011 to deploy supersonic cruise missiles and 90.000 more troops along the border between Arunachal Pradesh and China. China, for its part, still lays claim to  much of Arunachal Pradesh, lodging a strong protest when, the Dalai Lama visited the state in 2008.

 Flags a-flutering along Sela Pass,


A Lispa Monpa lady

a dignified Monpa lady in traditional costume


Just 15 kilometers from Jaswantgarh, we reach the summit of  the road, at Sela Pass. Coming from the pains and 35*C temperature, I’m totally unprepared for the bitting cold of the Pass. At 4,150 meters high, Sela Pass is said to be the second highest motorable road in the world-but that is of little comfort to one who has failed to bring along sufficiently warm clothing. A steaming glass of tea in Tibetan-owned Tsering Hotel soon banishes goose-bumps and autumn chilblains, and sets the scene for a late evening arrival at Tawang.
TAWANG town, high on a hilltop at around 3,200 metres above sea-level, makes the sea-lubber visitor just a little breathless. There are correspondingly breathtaking views over Tawang Monastery, after Lasa’s Potala.

To the west of town, the Tawang monaster;y looms across the horizon, its enormous yellow roof and white walls standing out like a beacon for miles on end. The Tawang Gompa is definitely the high point of the town, perched on a 2,760 metre high ridge with a commanding view of the super-scenic valleys beyond. The three-storey fortified monastery, also called the Galden Namgya! Lhasa, was established back in 1643-47 by Lodre Gyaltso, popularity known as Mera Lama. The name of Tawang means “horse chosen”, as it is said that Mera Lamas’s horse wandered off on is own and discovered “the perfect spot”, on which the monastery now stands.

Five hundred monks now live in the Gompa Chanting, praying and meditating, in spite of being  a peaceful and solidarity retreat, the Tawang Gompa buzzes with activity – from monks sitting and cleaning a sea of butter-lamps to others tending the exhibits in the outstanding museum attached to the main gompa.

If you can get to Lake Pangkang Teng Tso (aka Lake PTSO), you’ll be doubly blessed. The lake lies on the “strictly off-limits “Tawang-Lhasa road (which also bears the intriguing signpost “Beijing 4,307 km”). the guard at the  road entrance is as stony-faced as the mountains all around; but his demeanour later changes. “Go and see the police commissioner and get a road permit, “he says. An hour later, armed with a laboriously hand-written permit, we’re on our way.

Lake PTSO, at over 4,100 meters, has an ethereal beauty that entrances the many Tawang residents who picnic there. At this altitude I find it difficult to breathe, but the scenery is staggering, the shapes sharply silhouetted as in a 3D movie. Further along the same road is the famous Taktsang Monastery, founded by Padmasanbhava in the eight Century.

 The 4,100 meters high Lake PTSo 

 Road side stupa

 an elderly Monpa lady passes a roadside prayer wheel

 Mani prayer wheels at the base of the Gonsam stupa

 Local Monpa lady carrying a heavy load of firewood a Panghcan Monpa villager

Our pasat-the-limits trip to Zemithang, in Pangchen Monp territory in the far north-east of Arunachal Pradesh, is to yield more mysteries than an extraterrestrial sleuth could ever hope to unravel. Surprisingly, an extra permit is not required to visit Zemithang, despite it lying just 12 kilometers from the India-Bhutan-Tibet triangular border.

The trip (a distance of about 100 kilometers from tawang) is the most picturesque an far encountered through a series of deep canyon concealing a network of hillside villages, each precariously overhanging the valley floor far below. Tibetan-style stone houses are dotted amongst the hills. Between Lumla and Gispu villages the air is redolent of wild honey aroma arising from a vast wildflower carpet.

Near the village of Zemithang, Gorsham Stupa is an extraordinary structure – a replica of the Swaya;mbunath Temple in Kathmandu and of two similar stupas in Bhutan and Kham (eastern Tibet). It is said that the stupa is around 800 years old, and took over 15 years to build. Completely dominating a river valley, its eyes seem to look right through you.

“This whole region was once a beyul, one of the 108 sacred valleys specially chosen by Padmasambhava,” explains Pema Yeshi Gyamo, a schoolteacher in the nearby Zemithang village. “The Pangchen district was a special place, where nature yielded everything without anyone needing to work. The people were called beymir, meaning ‘citizens of Shangri-la.”

Pema Yeshi went on to explain how the region lost its beyul status. “A lot of low-class people migrated to the region, and the sacredness of the place was lost,” he said.

I was a little surprised to hear a Buddhist using caste-style language. But then I realized that he might have actually been referring to me. Travel restrictions to the region have been eased and an expanding transport system might see an increase in travelers. It is going to take a while, but until then, this wildly remove and exotic region, with its majestic peaks, mysterious tribes people, and magnificent Buddhist temples certainly fits the title of ‘Lost Shangri-La”.

 First view of Tawang from Jaswantgarth

 A Monpa villager thresting grain to make hangchang (millet wine).

Embrace by the mystical Himalayan peaks and inhabited by people blessed with naivety and a genuine series of community, the lush green meadow of Arunachal Pradesh unveils nature in its full glory.
Getting There. Air India (airindia.in) files from kokat to Tezpur in Assam, the gateway to Arunachal Pradesh, on Tuesdays and Saturdays. From Tezpur, a tour operator can organize onward arrangements. Alternately hire a taxi with a driver (US$30) a day), or catch one of the regular buses (arunachalpradesh.nic.in/stsweb).

Visa and Permits. The permit situation is rapidly changing but at present, a PAP (protected area permit) is still needed to visit Arunachal Pradesh. This can be issued to foreign tourists in a group of two or more persons for a period of 30 days. Apply at least month in advance. A fee of US$50 per head has to be paid as royalty to the Arunachal Pradesh government and the application for PAP can only the applied through a local approved tour operator, who might charge an additional fee of about US$20 per head or more for their services.

Further Reading. Lonely Planet’s india guide US$31.99 has a chapter on the Northeast Tribal States that can be downloaded from lonelyplanet.com (US$4.99). for more practical information, see also arunachapradesh.nic. in and aruanchalpradeshtourism.com

Two Ways to explore wetern Arunachal Pradesh.

ITANAGAR. See, Buitl on a hilltop over a period of 45,000 man days, the ruins of ITA FORT is an important historical site in Arunachal Pradesh and known for its irregular shape. It dates back to between the 14th and 15th century and was constructed by the Ahom rules.

The value for money HOTEL BLUE PANE in the Ganga Market area has 16 rooms with private toilets, hot water and television. The hotel also has a decent restaurant serving multi cultural dishes from US$6
There aren’t too many cafes and restaurants in itanagar but HOT BITE RESTAURANT in Hotel Arun Subansiri is one of the most well know ones. They have a wide variety of great tasting local, Indian and continental food.

TAWANG MONASTERY was the birth place of the 6th Dalai Lama and is the largest monastery in the whole of India. The three storey high monastery is housed within a sprawling complex containing 65 residential buildings and ten other structures.

TAWANG INN, Tawang’s most modern hotel, offers basic but comfortable accommodation and excellent service. Rooms with a view of the valley are available and some even have a direct view of The Tawang Monastery (from US$17)

Vegetarians will have a tough time finding good food in Arunachal Pradesh – until they get to Tawang. Located near the Old Market, the in-house restaurant at HOTEL BUDDHA services delicious pure vegetarian food.

3  Of The Best Tour Operators

Himalayan Holidays has been around for 25 years and is a government approved tour operator that caters to foreign tourist as well as domestic travelers. Their guided tours include thematic ones from those relating to the culture and tribes of Arunachal to one focused on angling (Himalayan-holidays.com)

Abor Contry Travels specializes in arranging trekking, rafting, tribal visits and angling tours in western and central Arunachal. Well connected within the industry, they also are capable of organizing tours based on personalized itineraries and have been known to participate in eco-tourism projects (aborcountrytravelshttp://www.aborcountrytravels.com.com).

Over the years there’s been no shortage of contenders for the title of “Lost Shangri-La”, but now there’s a nes kid on the block: Arunachal Pradesh. Sitting exactly where India collides with Bhutan, Tibet and Burma, it’s an ethnic, biological and geographical explosion of peoples, cultures, climates and landscapes – and is one of Asia’s last great unknowns.”

Arunachal Pradesh is ranked by Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2012 (US14,99) as one of the top 10 regions to visit in the coming year. Putting the collective options of travelers around the globe into one book, Best in Travel lists the top 10 countries, regions and cities and provides travel tips for the year ahead.

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