Monday, August 07, 2006

Rougher than Rough Guides, Off the Lonely Planet

The welcome to Tawang is promising enough. A board placed just outside town greets visitors with the message, "Welcome to Arunachal Pradesh…Explore exotic locals & Enjoy warm hospitality". After spending three hours stranded in the snow at Se La pass, 13,700 ft above sea level, warm hospitality sounds good. And as for "exploring exotic locals" – well, maybe tomorrow.
The ride up to here has been harrowing. The 330-km bus ride from Itanagar to Bomdila was bad enough. We crossed a rainforest, with its cover of perpetual fog, in the middle of the night. Our headlights only showed an endless wall of white in all directions – and no road. The driver kept swerving right on, all the while busy playing DJ. Even the large mongoloid man with the foot-long knife in his belt who was sitting dozing next to me, his head on my shoulder, woke up and cursed the driver for playing so much music.
The 185 km from Bomdila to Tawang was worse. I lost count of the number of hairpin bends. This driver was a real DJ; he had his girlfriend alongside, and periodically would leave the steering for her to manage while he bent and pounded a troublesome cassette. The road was covered in snow, and it had taken the bulldozers of the Border Roads Organisation (Motto: Fikar Not) a while to clear a path. The scenery was ice-covered rock wall on one side and a drop into an abyss on the other. Perfect for a little synchronised driving with the girlfriend.
Now I’m relieved to be finally in Tawang. It has been a non-stop 24 hour journey by road from Itanagar. The Monyul hotel is the first we come to, and I have no energy to go further. There’s no one at the reception or anywhere else. Finally the boy who looks after the hotel walks in and gives me a room. It is unheated and uncarpeted, like all others. I look at the snow outside and ask if there’s no heating system. "We give electric heaters in cold weather", he replies. Since this is April, it must be summer.
Tawang has one main street about 500 m long. Here you’ll find the Monyul arts centre, the Monyul hotel, the Monyul lodge, and a few other Monyul establishments. They all belong to the local Monpa people. Up the mountain from Tawang is the most famous sight in the town – the 400-year-old Tawang monastery.
Life in Tawang for long revolved around this monastery. Legend has it that the site was chosen by the horse of the Lama who founded the monastery. That’s why it’s called Tawang – ‘Ta’ means horse, and ‘Wang’ means chosen. That horse must have been the reincarnation of an architect. The monastery is beautiful, and beautifully located. It has a sheer, vertical cliff, behind it, and all of Tawang before.
You’ll find the maroon-robed monks everywhere in Tawang. They are there in the shops, buying shoes and jackets, in government offices, getting work done, and even in the local Playwin lottery counter. Renunciation doesn’t seem to be the mantra here.
But then, it probably never was. This is the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama, the one who’s famous for being a poet and a lover of wine and women.
For two days I rush around in Tawang meeting government officials and lamas, and sneaking the occasional visit to a Gompa. I’ve brought the bustle of the city dweller with me; no one else in this little town seems ever to be in a hurry. Life ends at dusk here, and dusk is 5 p.m. With mornings spent clearing the roads of snow, there’s not much time left for work.
Two days later, I leave the beautiful, magical Shangri La. This most peaceful of places is now at the centre of a border dispute between China and India. It has been for the past 50 years. All along the road, memories of the 1962 war when the Chinese captured Tawang and marched downhill up to Bhalukpong are alive.
Signs of another war are evident too – the war between tradition and modernity, city and countryside, contentment and economics. The enchantment is about to go.

On the ghost road to Burma

I am heading now to the other end of Arunachal, to another remote area – the Myanmar border. There’s a legendary road there that snakes its way from Assam through Arunachal into Myanmar and China. It’s called the Stilwell Road.
During World War II, the Nationalist Chinese army of Chiang Kai-shek and the Americans were united against a common enemy: Japan. The Japanese had already captured eastern China and controlled its seaports. After they conquered Burma, the only Allied supply route to China, the Burma Road, was cut off. There were fears that China would fall to the Japanese. This would free up Japanese forces for attack elsewhere. The Americans decided they needed to prop up the Chinese, and so, US army General Joseph Stilwell built a road from Ledo in upper Assam to Kunming in China.
Stilwell was Chiang Kai-shek’s Chief of Staff. He was the second foreigner after Marco Polo to command a Chinese army. The road he built was one considered impossible until it was done: through rainforests, swamps and minefields, under enemy fire, with equipment brought in from the US 12,000 miles away. It was a road built on the bodies of men who fell building it – a grand and tragic exercise. More so because it was abandoned and forgotten barely five years after it was built.
The drive from Tawang to Tezpur in Assam, the first major town on my route, is 325 km. Tezpur is army territory – the headquarters of IV Corps. It takes more than 12 hours to do this distance. My next stop is Dibrugarh, another eight hours away, and the road now winds through elephant country. This is the edge of the Kaziranga National Park. It’s also militant country: Sibsagar, on the route, is where the ULFA was founded.
I reach Dibrugarh on a rainy evening. It’s been raining non-stop here, and the Brahmaputra is over danger level. The rain is also affecting the tea crops, and worrying planters.
From Dibrugarh through Makum, the first place in India where oil was found, to Digboi, where the first refinery in Asia was built, the road passes through a series of tea gardens. It’s a rich land with a past steeped in adventure, and a present taut with many tensions.
Then we are at Margherita, the tea town named, no one remembers why, after a queen of Italy. Next is Ledo. We cross coalmines and find ourselves driving alongside an abandoned railway track. The Assam Rifles soldiers with the AK guns look suspiciously at our car as it crosses the 25 Battalion headquarters. A sign just across says we are at the starting point of the legendary Stilwell Road. It’s 30 km from here to the Assam-Arunachal border, and 1736 km to Kunming.
The land begins to change. The inhabitants here are Singphos – the same people who are known as Kachins in Myanmar. The Assam-Arunachal border is at nearby Jairampur, a little collection of ramshackle houses and huts. The dominating feature on the road here is a sign that says, "Militancy is dangerous". The NSCN has been known to kill district officials in these parts.
An Assam Rifles guard stops us to check our papers, and sends us back. We need a special permit to go to the border. The local Extra Assistant Commissioner, a Mr Roy, has the authority to grant the permit but is reluctant. He eventually lets us through but by then it is 3 p.m. – too late to push for Pangsau Pass, the border point between India and Myanmar. We’ll have to come back the next day.
Next morning we resume our unusual journey. The Stilwell Road is now alongside us at some places. At others, it’s the road we are on, in its new avatar as NH 153. The government wants to take this highway to Nampong 14 km from Pangsau Pass.
Development has begun to make inroads here. New tea gardens stretch almost the entire way to Nampong. Locals say they belong to politicians. The rain forests that killed so many men in Stilwell’s time are dying. It’s only after Nampong and the last DTH television antenna that we get a glimpse of things the way they were.
The road ends here. Only a bumpy mud track that was the Stilwell Road remains. For us, travellers chasing a road rather than a destination, that is good enough. I bump my head against the roof of the four-wheel drive as we inch along in the mud through forest where ferns grow as tall as trees.
The 14 kilometres take one hour to drive. A Burmese border guard with an AK and no uniform stops our vehicle and tells us to walk on. Our visa is a cardboard token that we have to return at the border. We’re on the other side, in Myanmar, and looking at the Lake of No Return.
The road goes on. China and India want to open it up, make it a highway. Powerful commercial interests are at work here. It will bring ‘development’, I know, but a part of me is sad. Like Tawang, this is one of the few places on earth that has not sold its soul to globalisation. It will grow up to be just like everywhere else. It will lose its innocence.

The Tour Map

Take a flight or train to Guwahati. From there onwards, the journey is by road through Tezpur up to Tawang. Buses and Sumo taxis ply regularly. Alternately, take the flight to Tezpur from Kolkata – but this is only twice a week. To get to Myanmar side, follow the route described in the article, or fly to Dibrugarh. You’ll have to hit the road from there. Travel advisory: Make sure you have all your permits. And don’t attempt the journey without a four-wheel drive. Also, don’t attempt it between April-September if you don’t want your plans washed out by rain.

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