After loading the luggage, we set off at 6.30 am for the nine hours trip to Tawang going through Sela Pass (13,700ft) a gigantic mountain of mountains. Half an hour drive from Sela Pass you'll reach Jaswanth Garh in memory of Indian warrior Jaswanth Singh Rana who had fought alone against Chinese soldiers continuously for 72 hours in 1962 Indo-China war. On the way you get view of Gorichen peak (22,500 ft), the highest peak in Tawang, like a cone ice cream. Passing through vociferous thick forest and valleys, this ride is enthralling sans the dusty roads under construction perpetually. Roads have been widened by BRO but marred by rain and landslide, some phases are really tough. Need a turbo charger for your heart and all wheel drive for your legs and arms. Passing through the bustling town Dirang and sleepy village Jung, 2 km down Nuranang waterfall is located, we reached Tawang at 3.30.
Tawang aka Monyul is derived from two words Ta meaning horse Wang meaning blessing - a place blessed by horse belonged to Mera Lama, the founder of Tawang Monastery. The inhabitants of the district are Monpas immigrated from Bhutan and Tibet, courteous, friendly, gentle and industrious. North of Tawang lies the forbidden land of Tibet connected by the Bum La and Tulung La passes.
Accommodation at Tawang is pricey as the tourist season is short and construction cost is high. There are a series of hotels in Nehru Market and Old Market in the price range of 800 to 1200. Rainbow (03794 222348, dbl 750), NEFA (222419/9436227781, dbl 800), Country Guest House (224142, dbl 1000), Hotel Shambala, Hotel Mouny View (222340, dbl 1000-2000) Dungphoo (223765,dbl 1200). A few guest houses are mushrooming near the monastery. We got the best room at Hotel Mon Valley run by Tenzin Dolma right above the restaurant by the same name opposite to post office, Nehru Market (03794 222119, dbl 1000) at 30% discount, thanks to reference by Tashi's wife. The restaurant can dish up Indian, Chinese, Tibetan cuisines - a favorite among locals.
In mid October mercury varies from 15 C to -2 C at early morning. Thermals, woolen socks, down jacket are must and follow onion dressing, with multi layer of clothes. Both BSNL and Aitlrtel network is very patchy. Electricity supply is erratic, better to get an accommodation with heavy blanket rather than room heater. A back up line is provided by Government for every business establishment for lighting during black outs. Shops and restaurants close by 6 pm after sun set at 4.30 pm. Newspaper/Magazine is unheard of, dish tv is ubiquitous crowding the terraces.
We walked down to the war memorial erected in memory of Subedar Joginder Singh PVC. Read about the history of 1962 war for which Tawang was the center stage, that we did not study in social studies syllabus at school.
We were walking to Tawang Monastery aka Galden Namgyal Lhatse, 3 km from town at 6am, temperature was zero degree Celsius. This 400 year old largest lamasery of Mahayana sect in Asia and second oldest monastery in the world (after Lhasa) has 65 residential buildings accommodating more than 500 Lamas. The most imposing building is the assembly hall called Dukhang, which houses a richly gilded idol of a seated Buddha 26 feet high in the rear chamber.
There is a much hyped cable car from Tawang Monastery to Gyanggong Anigompa which is no more functional. Gyanggong Anigompa is visible from Tawang Monastery which is under same administration and 50 Buddhist nuns get provision from here. As the cable car is not operational we learnt that the only way to visit Gyanggong Anigompa is to hike up the mountain. The challenging trail starts from the monastery road and passes by a Chorten, after a while follow the water pipes trudging up the mountain. There is a road under construction but the bridge across the river in the deep intervening valley might not get completed soon. Take a diversion and hike up another 15 minutes to go down to the gushing river. After having the packed momos and the sweet river water for breakfast, we crossed the wooden bridge to climb up the next mountain. A very rewarding hike and you can enjoy deep solitude at Gyanggong Anigompa.
Yuten, the lone nun who was at the Gompa welcomed us and poured her motherly affection by giving us tea, apple, biscuits and savouries at the main kitchen. She spoke little Hindi and ensured we took the extra apples with us. Thukje Chueling Anigompa aka Brama Dung Chung Anigompa is another two hours walk from here. Follow the concrete steps, you will reach the road after a blood pumping 45 min walk. The local worker Norbu and his loyal dog Kallu were guiding us to the road. Following the road downwards watching the yak/dzo herds, we reached the oldest Anigompa in Tawang housing 45 nuns. The girls join the nunnery on their own and there is no social pressure or tradition making it compulsory. After they complete the monastic studies, they go to South India to study arithmetic, English, Hindi etc. Unlik the monks, they rarely leave nunneries after becoming nuns.
Thukje Chueling Anigompa is 9 km by road from Tawang town. There is a short cut through defence land to Tawang monastery by foot. A local person offered us a ride back to the town without expecting any money, though we insisted on paying. The love shown by the locals and nuns to total strangers like us is the best fuel for our trip.
Thu-Che-Chey ( thank you in Monpa language).
We took a touristy route to appreciate the natural beauty of Tawang Himalayas. The route is Maratha Ground (12400ft)-Nagula-Y junction (14615 ft)-Sangesur lake, which will take two hours thirty minutes. Better hire a taxi, try to get a local driver and if he was in the army, even better. Sumo will cost 3500 and smaller cars 3000. We got a deal with Kalsang Yeshi (9402934375) who showed up at 6am sharp. There are more than a dozen lakes of various sizes on this route, the most remarkable are P.T.Tso (Pankang Teng Tso), Kyo Tso and Sangesur lake.
The roads are horrible with no trace of tarmac, heavily used by army vehicles. There are check posts on the way and diversion to Bum La is from Y junction. Enjoy a hot cuppa at Y junction cafe. The Sikh Shrine after Y junction is almost at 15000 ft altitude as per the soldiers. Walked up the head spinning concrete steps gasping for oxygen along the friendly soldiers, to admire this inter faith construction in memory of Guru Nanak, who visited Tibet via Arunachal. There are 108 lakes from Sela to the Tibetan border - Kalsang informed us. Sangesur lake is 42 km from town, which emerged during a 1950 earthquake. Maintained by army there is a cafe at this vast lake surrounded by a footpath to walk around the lake. You can enjoy snow capped mountain leaks both in India and China on this mountain hopping route. Keep hydrated as AMS can hit you above 13000 ft. Kalsang shared his stories from his service with SFF (Special Frontier Force), posted at Ladakh while having chow and coffee at Y junction cafe. During heavy winter this route may not be advisable as there is frost and ice as early as mid October. Despite bad roads and pricey transport this route is an essential evil to get a glimpse of the wet lands of Arunachal.
As it was the last day of Puja at Tawang monastery, men and women thronged the town and the monastery road in the traditional dress looking their best. Like any other religious place, premises of monastery was surrounded by vendors and traffic snarls. After a while we took the trail to Urgelling Gompa which is 5km from Tawang town by road on Tezpur-Bomdila road, divert at the Maruti workshop. Lost and found many times, asking people on the way we finally managed to reach Urgelling Gompa by foot but found it closed as the monks have gone to the Puja. Being the birth place of 6th Dalai Lama and 14th Dalai Lama's hide out on his exile to India, this Gompa has a special importance in the life line of Buddhism. Locals appreciate a lot when you are on foot and go out of their way to help you, a few local women who were working at a road construction site offered us part of their lunch and we couldn't say no to them accepting an apple. They exclaim when they hear that we are from Kerala, a far away land for them. Though we were exasperated, we took the short trail back to the town which was meant to be covered in 30 min. Endless concrete steps and wide open grounds made our hike really tough and took almost an hour. Crashing down at Hotel, after lunch we made our mind to take one full day rest to recover while the town is gearing up for Tawang festival (Oct 26-30) during Durga Puja holidays.