A Journey to Mystical Tawang!

By Shubham Maurya [L&T TIIC, EDRC, Railways]

The Beginning!

Sela Lake

Plot! (This is not so Imp.)

It was of the time when I was pursuing my master’s in NIT Agartala, Agartala is a small lush green beautiful town in the North-eastern state of Tripura. It was 3rd semester and Durga Puja was approaching. Durga Puja means there will be one week holiday for the college. One of my friends suggested of doing a bike trip to Tawang. Tawang is a small town in Arunachal Pradesh, very near to Indo-China border and house to Asia’s second-largest monastery and former residence to 14th H.H. Dalai Lama. Well the whole idea was to visit Tawang on bike. Which was roughly 510 km from Guwahati (Assam) and 938 km from Agartala (Tripura). Though on planes 500 km is nothing, one can cover that in less than 10 hrs. But for those who have driven in mountains they know going 200 km in 12 hrs will also be a tough job to execute. “Chal yaar jaenge, Tawang!!” my friend (Chaudhary) told me. And I was ready before he would have told me anything.

We started chalking out itinerary, watching videos on youTube for road condition, pegging plans for stops and marking fuel stations on the route map, things to visit on the trip, places to see, things to eat in Arunachal, luggage to be taken, etc. etc. So Tawang was on…. Chaudhary and I decided that we’ll be taking a bike on a rental basis from Guwahati, and till Guwahati, we’ll be going by train. So the plan was fixed for 7 days on the road and one-one day each for onward and return train journey. Slowly the news got leaked that we are going to Tawang, few more friends approached us, but we were skeptical on their driving skills because Chaudhary and I are experienced riders when it comes to planes, but it was also my first time in mountains. Chaudhary had little prior experience of driving in hills. So we definitely did not want any rookie driver who will spoil the trip. Slowly the group extended from two to six, and from six to ten (Me, Chaudhary, Oxygen, Madhav, Shailesh, Akshar, Anuj, Dinesh, Tushar and Hari).

So, the plan was shared and after necessary update and revision amongst the group, we landed on to our rough itinerary. At last moment i.e. a day before one more guy (Jagdish) joined the flock. And thanks to him we were out of pre-booked bikes. Before him ten people so five bikes were previously booked and necessary pre-booking charges were paid. Now the twist came, we wanted bikes which are rugged and can be taken to mountains, but as it was Durga puja time most of the bikes were previously booked by other people, somehow we got the deal fixed as we’ve already booked five bikes, the Rental guy agreed to provide Avenger Street 220. So we’d four RE Classic 350, one Avenger street 220 and one KTM Duke 200. All these and thanks to again late comers’ we didn’t have all train tickets confirmed too. But again the grit!

A classic example of how “things don’t work out but you’ve to”, can be seen from the plan mentioned below. Nothing happened according to plan except the train part, “Plan to be executed” was just a mere guideline. And deviation happened because of unforeseen circumstances. But we were having that grit to go to Tawang, whatsoever the circumstances. Getting sad that things didn’t go as per plan was not in option because return train was after 7 days and we already paid for bikes. We were enjoying every moment out there on the road, cause somewhere back in our mind we knew it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey!

Day/NightPlan to be ExecutedImprovised plan which was Executed
Night 1Agartala to Guwahati (Train at 05:30 a.m.) Agartala to Guwahati (Train at 05:30 a.m.)
Day 1Guwahati to Bhalukpong (Border of Arunachal Pradesh) Guwahati to Tezpur
Night 2Stay in Bhalukpong Stay in Tezpur
Day 2Bhalukpong to Bomdila Tezpur to Tenga Valley
Night 3Stay in Bomdila Stay in Tenga Valley
Day 3Bomdila to Tawang Tenga Valley to Jang
Night 4Stay in Tawang Stay in Jang
Day 4Tawang (Local visit of town and in and around places) Jang to Tawang
Night 5Tawang Stay in Tawang
Day 5Tawang to Bomdila Tawang to Dirang
Night 6Stay in Bomdila Stay in Dirang
Day 6Bomdila to Bhalukpong Dirang to Bomdila
Night 7Bhalukpong to Guwahati Bomdila to Guwahati
Day 7Guwahati to Agartala (Train at 11:00 a.m.) Guwahati to Agartala (Train at 11:00 a.m.)  

Night 1: The Real Beginning!

Actually, it was mid-night & we started from our hostel around 12:00 a.m. because a day before there was an incident and section 144 was there in the city, we’d to leave at night only before the college gates are closed. Our train was from Agartala railway station at 05:30 a.m. Train was shunted right beside us and we all spent our night under the dark sky. 

It was 04:30 a.m. & alarm went off, suddenly platform was not so quite people were rushing over. We also packed out our tarpaulin and got ready to find the TC, because the latecomers’ didn’t have a valid ticket, so after a little give and take we got some legal tickets till Guwahati. It will be taking another sixteen hours to reach Guwahati.

Day – 1: The Train Ride!

Meanwhile we were reaching Tripura border and scenery already started to change from green paddy fields to lush green mountains and river flowing beside the track, we were stepping into Assam.

The train reached New Halflong station, the first station in Assam from Tripura side. We got down at the station in search of some food. There were Guavas, boiled egg, some sort of small brinjals, and some variety of melons. After filling our stomach and posing for some photos we alighted the train. It was starting to get darker.

Train was on time luckily and it was about to mid-night we arrived Guwahati Railway station. The outside area is called Paltan bazar. Let me tell you one thing about Guwahati it’s a lively city, the hub of Northeast India. It has a mixed culture because many people from all over Northeast come for business, studies, etc. One of the major religious tourist attraction is Kamakya Temple, Bramhaputra River and Umananda Island Temple in Guwahati.

Night 2: A Night at Guwahati

So we’ve just arrived and as usual, Hotel was not previously booked, though not necessary also, a lot of hotels in Paltan bazar can be found out. The price ranges from Low to High to Super High. We found one hotel and we all just jumped in and called off for the day. Next day was important, we’d to cover 230 km and reach Bhalukpong by night. Pretty much sorted right?  There’s nothing you can be certain of on a trip except yourself!  Wait for the day two.

Day 2: From where this Starts

We all got ready by 08:00 a.m. left the hotel by 08:30 a.m. as we’ve booked the bike from 09:00 a.m. we thought we’ll get the biked first and then have breakfast! We reached the rental bike office by 09:15 a.m. After reaching we got to know that our bikes were not ready. As we’ve booked four RE classic 350, one Avenger 220 and one KTM Duke 200. Out of which one RE Classic 350 was not available cause the previous riders didn’t bring it back. So the rental bike service guy was suggesting that we should get FZ-S but we were adamant that we want RE classic 350 only cause we were knowing where we were going and FZ-S won’t suffice.

The executive made us wait. The executive girl was having Illuminati Tattoo on her forearms, I thought better to use time so I started drawing Illuminati tattoo on a paper. It was taking time, the bike came but it had to go for servicing before they give it us. Time passed by, it was afternoon we waiting for the bike to come so that we can start our journey. But it took another one hour for them to give the bike.

Finally they gave the bike. It was 3:30 p.m. all of us were hungry. So once we got the bike, everyone with their pillion rider got away for eating. I was single on Duke and Chaudhary with my roommate Shailesh. Jagdish joined us with Oxygen as his pillion. Don’t get shocked Oxygen was a real guy and he was my friend from BTech. His real name was oxygen only! We all just had Maggie and egg roll with tea. So we on 3 bikes filled the petrol and were ready to depart from the Guwahati.  We called up other guys they too were ready after eating and filling petrol.

                So we finally started from Guwahati to our alleged first destination Bhalukpong at effectively 4:00 p.m. And not to our amazement hardly after covering 15 – 20 km, as we just started to climb little hills in outskirts of Guwahati Chaudhary’s RE Classic’s clutch wire broke down. Wah!!! So we all stopped. We unanimously decided that, okay sorry, we somehow decided (that time unity in the group was less, cause everyone was not that familiar with each other so nicely) that three bikes will carry on to revised destination, Tezpur instead of Bhalukpong, as it was already getting late in evening. So, three bikes went ahead and their job was to reach Tezpur early and book the hotel for the night.

Rest, me and one more bike on which Hari and Madhav were there. I was single on my bike, so I went back to look for a mechanic and extra clutch wire. I’d to take a detour and go on to Guwahati – Shillong highway, after few km I found Mechanic, but he was not having RE’s clutch wire, he suggested to go “Baiss mile”, after hearing that I was like damn 22 miles I’ve to ride and after going ahead, in few km I got to know that it was not the distance the place itself is called “Baiss mile”. Finally I got the clutch wire, while coming back I took mechanic as my pillion rider and he came and fixed the bike.

Finally, we were ready, Chaudhary and Shailesh, Madhav and Hari and me on our bikes were talking to wind at 120 kmph because if you’ve driven at dusk time you’ll know why we were rushing to cover up the distance before the sun goes down. Once the sun is down, visibility reduces drastically and one has to slow down, and we couldn’t afford that anymore, that time. After covering up for almost 80 kms, we stopped for pee cum tea break!

We thought to check air pressure and guess what again wow moment! My Duke was having 4 punctures in rear tyre, thank god! It was tubeless! This got repaired and we again started but this time only whispering with wind.  

Night 3: Majjani Life!

It was dusk and guess what we met Jagdish and Oxygen, we were like other guys reached? And they were like no-no all are here only. Another wow moment we got our bike repaired twice and this much still we caught other three bikes on the road only. Cause they stopped for eating food! Okay by now we’ve covered up 80% of the road to Tezpur, now we’ve to leave National highway and get on to State highway to reach Tezpur. And that State highway was for namesake. It was full of dust and potholes. It was late evening, we were rushing rubbing our eyes, on that dusty potholes rich road.

At 9:00 p.m. all the bikes reached Tezpur. We were enquiring about hotel. It was Saptami (7th day of Durga Puja), streets were oozing with people, most of the road were made one-way because of the traffic. And we were trying our luck to find hotel as city was full and if you ask any hotel reception person we need room for 11 they’ll get shocked and straightway tell no rooms for this many people.

We’ve to explain to them, get us at least two rooms which are having bigger halls we’ll be happy because we were traveler, luxury was not our priority. It was 10 p.m. shops and restaurants started to shut down, so we decided everyone will have dinner and two persons will go and search for hotels. Finally, we settled in one restaurant had food and got a good room for the night! With a promise of getting up early and leaving the room early because we wanted to be back on schedule, everyone departed to their room for a good night sleep after an absolutely great long day!

Day 3: Wild and Free!

It dawned upon us the next day! We tried hard to vacate the room and get on our bikes by 9:30 a.m. we settled the payment of the hotel and head for breakfast in one of the restaurant. One of our bike-mates (Madhav and Hari) thought to leave early and catch up, but as we were having breakfast we got the new that their bike got punctured and they are fixing it somewhere before reaching Bhalukpong, so they’ll be meeting us in Bhalukpong.

Because Bhalukpong was the Arunachal border and entering Arunachal one need to show Inner line Permit, which I was having for the whole group. Meanwhile, Anuj and Dinesh’s RE was having an issue with self-start, by the time Anuj and Dinesh were repairing their bike, we all leveled up our bike’s petrol tank and took a litter or two in the bottle for the rainy day and some water bottles for the group as well.

Finally we left Tezpur for better and we were on scenic road to Bhalukpong. Road was good so we all started to talk to wind to catch up for lost time, which we thought that we would! We Reached Bhalukpong around 1:00 p.m. It was September but it’s hot and humid in that part of Assam.

As we passed the Bhalukpong check post and  got out Inner line permit scrutinized, we all were almost drenched in our own sweat. Passing by we saw one mountain river beside the road. I took the lead and turned the bike towards the river, everyone came along and we parked the bikes and straightway everyone rushed into the river!

Ah! Water was cold and it was very relaxing. After spending an hour or so we started again to our day’s destination, Bomdila! Again which we were under the impression that we’ll reach.

So, now good roads were no more, mountains started and road was getting narrower. We were riding through adjusting the bags which we tied behind bike. This was first time and somehow we tied the bags, because of the bumpy roads those rope will get loosen up and we’ve to stop, get down and tighten up the rope and get the bags straight.

Anyway this was secondary as we started to gain elevation, weather started to change and now it was no more hot and humid weather as of Assam. It was getting colder. As we were riding we saw ahead of us traffic jam, we were amazed we thought some accident happen, but it was landslide.

All of us first time in life saw an active landslide scene.

Border roads Organization (BRO) people were on it and they were trying to fix the road of whatever was left and try to get traffic going.

Okay we crossed it safely. I was riding ahead but then I was checking on my side-view mirror for my fellow riders. I thought I came too ahead of them, I quickly took a pee break! But then those guys took long no one was coming it was five minutes. Then bikes came, I could see drivers and pillion have changed.

What happened was Chaudhary and Shailesh slipped and fell down, scratching their keens. We continued like that, meanwhile, it started to drizzle. And all the raincoats were in the bags and bags all tied up, so we decided to not stop cause opening bags and tying it again will take thirty minutes, it was almost 3:30 p.m. and yet another 80 kms to go, which means another three to four hours to reach Bomdila.

After a while we saw one small restaurant, everyone had to take a pee break and you know when its cold pee breaks become frequent. So, we all took pee cum tea break, it was 4:30 p.m. still 60 kms to Bomdila another two to three hours.

Arunachal is famous for its fruits, Apples were like Rs. 40 a kg and even Kiwis too same price. Some pickled bamboo shoots, king chilly, Bhut Jhoolokia chilly, chicken, pork, fish and what not, all bottled up, 100% organic and homemade. If you happen to visit do try these, total value for money.

After the break which lasted almost 45 minutes, it was 5:15 p.m. and we started again. Now it was decided as it was dusk that we’ll be making a stay in Tenga Valley and not Bomdila. If you’ve travelled in mountains then you’ll know how quickly the sun light will diminish in evening. Leaving no room but to reduce the speed.

Night 4: Not so Rough Night!

We were reaching Tenga Valley it was around 8 p.m., again jam on the road, as roads were narrow and Army convoy was going so all the traffic was stopped. We reach the main Tenga Valley market around 8:30 p.m. first things first, sleeping and eating arrangement. Two of us went and booked the hotel, again we got three big rooms and we chose our rooms and threw the bag and everyone was on their beds.

Meanwhile, I went in search of the first-aid kit, bought some bandages because our bandages got wet because of drizzle on the road. I did the dressing for Chaudhary and Shailesh. Tenga Valley is an army base camp, our hotel was just beside the river. And the river was a wild mountainous river, which was making a lot of noise, one would feel that it’s raining outside because of the sound of the river. I was enjoying the weather, the trip, and the small Tenga village. We reached early all had good food and were talking about the ride for the day, planning for the next day, cracking jokes on it and giggling. Next day was important, as we’ve to cover almost 200 km. And we’ll be reaching Tawang! The final destination.

Day 4: The Judgement Day!

It again dawned upon us! The morning was beautiful, the kind of you’ll want every day of your life to be. Cold weather, clouds, river and what else you can ask for! Morning, my friend and I went for Raincoat shopping for those who didn’t have a raincoat.

Actually the whole idea was to buy, raincoat, gum boots, etc. from Guwahati but already so many things happened in Guwahati that we’ve to buy it here itself we knew it’s going to rain and weather is colder too, already cloths and shoes were wet from yesterday’s intermittent rain. I did the dressing again for Shailesh and Chaudhary.

We applied some “Jugad” to keep feet dry for a while, by putting the plastic cover over the socks, though it was not foolproof but something’s better than nothing. After that we did our morning ritual of fixing the bags on the bikes, one hell of a job if not done properly in the morning.

Levelled up the bike tanks. And breakfast stop was at Bomdila, yeah yesterday’s destination today’s breakfast stop, the grit can be seen, how things didn’t work out but you’ve to.

We started from Tenga valley around 8 a.m. and reached Bomdila by 9 a.m. had wonderful momos and soup for the breakfast and had a wonderful scolding from a truck driver for peeing on his truck’s rear wheel while he was inside the truck. Anyway, we started again around 9:45 a.m. now the next stop will be Sela Pass.

Sela Pass is famous for many deaths because of many reasons let’s say acute mountain sickness (AMS), accidents and what not. Sela pass has a story how it got named as Sela. During the Indo-Sino war in 1962, there was an army personnel named Jaswant Singh Rawat, who fought alone against the Chinese soldiers, and a tribal woman named Sela who had brought him food and water said to have killed herself upon seeing the dead body of Jaswant Singh Rawat, quite a love story.  Now it was colder than before on the road but nicer. View were changing we were gaining elevation km after km.

Sela was mighty and colder than anything that we’ve ever witnessed on a bike trip. Intermittent rain got us all wet even after the raincoat. Making things worse. Oxygen will be less at the elevation and we could feel it. Even the bike could feel it, it won’t take that much load as we started to climb, cause air was thin. And to this, we didn’t have riding gloves, because again we didn’t get time to buy them in Guwahati. So, once again “Jugad”, we took socks and handkerchief and used it as our makeshift gloves, which got wet again in the rain. Anyway, it was just for namesake but psychologically we can think that we have something on our hand, so we could ride. You see you’ll have to make use of all the things that you could not have used it like before. There aren’t many luxury on the road, and if you’ve to taste the freedom on the road then you’ll have to pay in terms of luxury. Just as I’ve told things don’t work out, but you’ve to.

We’ll have to reach Sela top before noon so that we could stay there for a while and leave for Tawang. Sela has a beautiful lake called Sela Lake, at an elevation of 13,680 ft. (4170 m). Sela pass wears snow clad during the winter season and the Sela Lake freezes up. But all this and yet again, you cannot be certain of anything on a bike trip. We started to ascend Sela Pass.

It was a beautiful road that we’ve ever driven. With river on side and clouds making it picturesque.  As we’ve started to ascend, after few kms the dream started to shake and we met with reality. Road was really beautiful but slowly road started to get muddy and with pot holes. We thought that’s fine we can ride through it.

We met some bikers who were coming back, those people told us to not to go ahead as there had been a landslide and there’s a traffic jam, though BRO people are clearing the landslide, the road is very bad and there’s 15-20 cm of slush which you’ve to go through. We thought WTH, we’ll see for ourselves, we didn’t come this far to just go back hearing someone, the grit was high!

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bae4NM4hBu6/?igshid=1p6aegpfq5ihs

We were doubtful on them and without giving much attention to them we proceeded, trucks were coming so we could see that traffic is open. We were checking the slush level from the tyre marking of the vehicles which were coming back, it was not much. But later we realized that the tyres of it was not much for the truck tyre but it was for the bike tyres. After a few turns we were reaching the spot where landslide had washed the road.

There was one hell of a traffic jam on the road. Army convoy, local taxis, everyone was waiting for BRO people to remove the remaining debris so that small vehicles will be able to cross. Meanwhile other fellow bikers from the group also reached. We all had to wait till road gets cleared.

While crawling through the traffic, something happened to Jagdis’s bike, he was on Avenger 220, its gear shifting pedal came out cause of lot of vibration and that nut which was holding it came off.  We were not having spanner to fix it, we took help from one of the truck driver! What I’ve seen is that people are good only, they’ll always help. That driver got down for our help and fixed the bike. Ah! Sigh of relief, by that time traffic also get cleared. But all this costed us two valuable hours of noon. It was 3:30 p.m. and still we’ve to cover 100 more km to reach Tawang.

The road was at its bestest condition, that would test the skill of a rider also it was a test for the bike as well, will thye be able to sustain it and get going or any of them will give up against the odd.

The love for the open road and passion to get going was there in every one of us. We started again, this time we’ve to go through active landslide area and this stone were shooting at us, the road was freshly made.

This two hour gave everyone to catch-up and all bikes were riding together now. We started riding towards Sela Pass, wind started to blow, weather was starting to get worse, we couldn’t ask more adventure for the day. But still there was yet to come for the evening! We were shivering and driving to top of Sela at 13,680 ft. above mean sea level. Condition was getting worse as we got wet again in the rain as we were reaching top. Cold wind, rain and slush plus it was 5 p.m. we all were hungry too as all we had in the morning breakfast was momo and soup.

We thought it’s better to call off for the day as things were getting worse. The cold was starting to get unbearable on the hands, we would frequently stop for and put the hand on the exausht to make it warm. Bearing all this we reached finally Sela Pass top, by driving through lot of hairpin bends. It was 5:30 p.m. and we thought before reaching Tawang, something will be there on Sela pass we’ll stay there for the night. But guess what! The restaurant gets closed at 5:00 p.m. only, there’s this thing in mountains, people start early in day and closes early by evening, cause things start to change in evening. The same weather till now which we were so happy to see, now it was becoming curse.

The cold was getting unbearable! We passed the Sela Lake and saw one restaurant, its owner refused to take us in for the evening and told to go ahead 30 km more to a place called Jang, as the weather was turning bad. It was 6:00 p.m. almost dark and no such lights were visible down the hill, where that restaurant owner was pointing to go. I stopped my bike and told Chaudhary, I will not go ahead we should stop and go back to army camp which we saw one km back. Everyone else stopped too, everyone was shivering like anything, all the clothes were wet, the wind was heavy, and as the air was thin there, I started to have acute mountain sickness cause we gained too much elevation in a short period of time and I puked. That added to my shivering. Jagdish and Madhav were sent to army camp to get help, while everyone was untying their bags to get warmer and drier cloths.

The cold was so unbearable that I was telling Chaudhary to cut the ropes and get the sweatshirt. But to his conscience, he didn’t cut the ropes, else next time tying the bags would have been a problem. He took out the warmer clothes. There was one small bamboo piece lying on the road and nothing else was there, so we took it put some petrol on it and burned it, in the less light that petrol flowed a long way and only after someone ignited it we got to know, the petrol flowed a long way. That petrol bamboo burned only till petrol was there, as it was wet, it didn’t get burnt. Petrol was over, we all gathered around so that body heat can be shared and Akshar started singing “Hum honge kamiyab”, he knew it was very important that one should not lose hope, as that was the only way there to distract our mind from all the ill thoughts. And believe me, that was the tipping point.

At that moment of time if you don’t control your ill thoughts you become your biggest enemy and you’ll start to panic. Once you got panic then Game Over, my friend! Everyone was waiting for Jagsish and Madhav’s bike to come back so badly, every minute of the wait was like an hour, in the literal sense. You might be thinking what nonsense I’m talking and many of you wouldn’t have had near-death and so cold experience but believe me, you’ll feel these things in the same way, when you are in such situation. It was 6:30 p.m. twenty minutes since Jagdish and Madhav went back to the army camp. Some more time and for sure a few of us would start to fell down because of the cold, the cold wind was blowing so hard probably a storm was approaching, the wait was getting tougher and tougher. We were waiting and waiting and waiting, holding everyone close….. and to our amazement, my phone rang…….!

“Your current safe boundaries were once unknown frontiers.”

Joseph Clough

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Shantanu

Great Journey!! Great Writing👌👌

Swapnil Laxman Jagtap

Shubham, you’re like another farhan akhtar to me who direct, sings, act, produce and manymore. Bro how much time u take to write all this? Whatever, it’s quite interesting specially the cursed guy😂😂.
All the best and keep it up brother. 👍