April 3, 2017

Stranded in Arunachal

Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh. March 2017. We are in the eastern-most state of India and it is our third day here. We are on a road trip to the town of Tawang. There are 8 of us from different parts of India, and from diverse backgrounds---graphic designers, playwrights, engineers, photographers and businessmen, led by a young guide from This Guy's on His Own Trip. It is late in the afternoon, and our driver announces that he will be stopping for lunch in five minutes. We have been on the road since morning, and it has been a bumpy ride. The view outside our windows isn't spectacular. It is the end of the winter season here, and the landscape looks dry. We look forward to the break, and to a nice hot bowl of soupy Maggi. As we drive into town, we hear music in the air. A large family is out on their lawn, dancing. They tell us that they are celebrating Losar(a Buddhist festival that marks the new year), and invite us to join them.

We accept, and they immediately bring us some snacks.
We ask them what the snack is called.
"Khapsay", they reply. 

It is mildly sweet, and comes in different shapes. It isn't the tastiest snack, but it will do. The family then brings out a hot, transparent drink and offers it to us. We look at it tentatively, and ask them what the drink is called.
"Yeh Patanjali hai, piyo!!", they reply, laughing.

We burst out laughing too, shed our inhibitions and sample the drink. There is only one word to describe it---effective. Two drinks later, I have forgotten my ATM pin, and we are invited to dance with them. A very catchy tune plays in the background(we will find out many days later that it is called Ko Ko Lay Ko, a song of the local Monpa tribe). The family forms a circle, and we join them, trying to copy their moves, but eventually burst into freestyle dance. It goes on for almost an hour. It is a beautiful, unplanned evening, spent with the nicest people you will ever meet. The weather in Dirang may be getting cold, but it is no match for the warmth of the people here.  


Tawang, 2 days later. We have come here expecting snow, but it is raining heavily.  It is close to 0 degrees, and we have all our layers on. Our guide has informed us that we will be heading further north to Bumla Pass, close to the China border, in search of snow. We have rented a car to take us there, but 15 minutes into our journey, we are told that the roads to Bumla Pass have been temporarily closed due to snowfall, and that we must wait for permission to proceed. We wait restlessly.

After a long wait, we finally get permission to proceed, but the Tempo Trax we had rented that morning no longer seems interesting. We notice some army trucks passing by. The guys in our group try to hitch a ride. No luck. Next, the enterprising ladies start pouting, and the first truck we notice, stops. The army officers ask us what the matter is; we leave the women to do the talking. Not long after, we are at the back of an army truck with a few soldiers for company. While we try to make small talk with the soldiers, one of them casually lights up a doobie and offers it to us. Not sure how to react, some take the offer, and others take photographs. However, at the next checkpost, some senior officers arrive to inspect the truck, and are surprised to see us inside. We are told that the army trucks aren't meant for civilians and are asked to leave. We do so without questioning, only to realise that we are still far away from Bumla Pass, in freezing temperatures.

After about 5 minutes of taking pictures and laughing at our situation, we notice that there are no other vehicles in sight and start walking. Nearly a kilometre later, we finally notice another army truck; we leave the women to do the talking. The army officers reluctantly agree to drop us. We climb into the back, only to notice that we are surrounded by crates full of bananas, a few barrels of diesel and dozens of live chicken! It is an unprecedented sight. It is an unprecedented smell. The army truck rocks back and forth on the terrible roads, occasionally causing us to lose our footing and give the chickens a scare. We brace ourselves, and take as many pictures as the rocking truck will allow. After what seems like an eternity, we finally reach Bumla Pass, much to the relief of the chickens. The rest of the day is spent at Bumla Pass, building snowmen, hiking up small hills, starting snowball fights and being children again. We return to our hotel in Tawang by late evening. It has been a very satisfying day in the mountains. None of us will ever look at an army truck the same way again.


The next day, we start our journey from Tawang to Bomdila. The road is long, narrow and icy. We are high in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, at an altitude of approximately 13,000 feet. It is around 2 in the afternoon, so we stop for lunch at a small house. The temperature is -5 degrees, but it feels like -10. We have a shot of whisky to keep ourselves warm and our driver opts for a shot of Old Monk. We are high in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. An elderly lady smiles warmly as she makes us Maggi. The sun sets quickly in these parts, so we have been advised to finish our lunch quickly and cover the treacherous 20 kilometre stretch to Sela Pass before sunset. We wolf down our Maggi and step outside. For a brief moment, it seems like we have stepped into a postcard. The mountains that surround us are unspoiled. The landscape is almost completely white, interrupted only by black mountain rocks and the olive green of army barracks. It feels like a scene straight out of Medal of Honour.

The 8 of us get into the van and pick comfortable window seats. We do not realise it at the time, but we are going to be spending the next 10 hours in those seats. Our van plods along the slippery road, occasionally reaching a top speed of 20km/h. The road to Sela pass contains many hairpin turns, and allows for vehicles to travel only in one direction at a time. Unfortunately, an oil tanker on its way down has got stuck in the snow and refuses to budge. We wait patiently with the engine running, and notice that it is beginning to snow. There is absolutely no civilization around us, and it takes about an hour before help arrives. The whisky-induced warmth begins to fade. With limited resources at their disposal, the Border Roads Organisation takes a couple of hours more to free the stranded tanker. A huge line of vehicles have piled up by now at the base of the valley, awaiting approval to begin the climb. It has been snowing continuously for a few hours now. Small cars ahead of us get the go ahead. They try accelerating, but the fresh snow will not allow it. Our driver suggests that we get out and give them a hand. Some of us step out, and push the sliding cars ahead of us to relative safety. The sun begins to set, but we are still 10 kilometres from Sela Pass. The snowfall gets intense, this time with strong winds. We stay put inside the van.

9pm. We are still inside the van and we haven't moved an inch! Our headlights are switched off. We are stuck in a snowstorm and the driver casually tells us to prepare to spend the night inside the van. We look at each other in disbelief. He also suggests that we step out to see what the holdup is. Not far ahead of us, it looks like an SUV is struggling for grip. The car sways wildly as its driver tries to accelerate. We approach the car tentatively. The driver admits that he has never driven in snow before and starts to panic. In that moment, our guide Vyshakh steps up and offers to drive. He revs the engine, and we begin to push. It takes a few attempts, but the car finally begins to move. There is a lake somewhere along the road, but with a visibility of hardly 20 feet, it is hard to make out where the road ends and where the frozen lake begins. It takes some careful maneuvering, but thirty minutes later, we are finally at the top. The skies begin to clear. We look up and see that the sky is filled with more stars than we can count. It is magical. 3 hours later, we finally drive in to Bomdila---hungry, humbled and freezing, yet happy. It has been an insane road trip, and we will never complain about city traffic again.     


The last few days of our trip are spent visiting local monasteries and playing cricket with the monks there. There is a beautiful silence in the air, broken occasionally by the laughter of mischievous children. High up in the mountains, the world is a more peaceful place. Life here is slow, yet deliberate. Nobody seems to be in any hurry. We however, are soon on the home stretch of our trip, and begin the return drive to Guwahati. On the way, we stop by a small shop for one last bowl of hot soupy Maggi and a cup of chai. It isn't much, but it is enough. A few dogs gather around us, hoping for some biscuits and belly rubs. They are not disappointed. We sip on our chai, reflecting on the events of the past 8 days. Our journey to Arunachal has been a tough one, but it has been worth it. Maggi has never tasted any better, and chai has never tasted any sweeter.

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