Making it to the Top
I explored one of the world’s largest live-in monasteries at Tawang, drove through the highest training range for the army at nearly 14,000 feet and ate a hearty meal of cured pork and millet beer in the home of an Apatani. I came head to head with a Mithun, a bovine animal which appears a cross between a buffalo and a cow, shared a cuppa with an army colonel who was a part of an Everest expedition and took a helicopter ride which took me over the hilly regions of Bhutan.
The people of this entire region are friendly as they are easy going and display a myriad of religious beliefs and traditions, quite unlike one would associate as being Indian. Although you are still in India you would be forgiven if you felt like a foreigner and treated as one! My most memorable encounter was with the gentle and traditional people of the Ziro Valley, the Apatani. These people have a bizarre ritual of tattooing the faces of their women and inserting large nose plugs just to make them look ugly, so that the neighboring tribes would not whisk them away. They also have a shamanic religion which centers on the Doni Polyo (Sun-Moon) system which acknowledges the duality of nature.
I had the opportunity to visit Hong, one of the hamlets which is home to this tribe. Visiting this region is like taking a step back in time. As you descend in the valley surrounded by lush green paddy fields, a sudden quiet envelopes you and one tends to move in an unhurried manner for fear of disturbing the tranquility of the place. No wonder Ziro Valley has been described as one of the most beautiful landscapes in India. In 2012, Ziro Valey was short listed for inscription to UNESCO World Heritage Site status. As this place is way off the beaten track for the usual tourist, the locals are as intrigued to see foreigners here as much as a traveler would be to see them. Once you mange to befriend them than they go all out to treat you as an esteemed guest, as it was in my case.
In Humble Terms
These people live a very basic existence in houses which are made completely of wood with handwoven mats for walls which are tied down with bamboo poles. The entire structure is built on elevated platforms. At the center of the house is the hearth which occupies a larger part of the room. The families cook with open fires and have their meals around this place. I saw slabs of dried pork, large hunting and pairing knives, and horns of cattle stacked on the walls. Such simplicity portrays the closeness with nature.
The southern travel circuit offers a visit to Tawang which is one of the most visited places in Arunachal Pradesh. It is the second largest Buddhist monastery in the world. The monastery is three stories high. It is enclosed by a 925 feet (282 m) long compound wall. Within the complex there are 65 residential buildings. Located at 10.000 feet it offers a commanding view of the Tawang River valley, with a mesmerizing backdrop of snow capped mountains and coniferous forest.
At the monastery, I befriended a local businessman who also happened to have considerable political clout. He arranged for me to visit Sungetser Lake, a high altitude lake about 30 kilometers from Tawang. The arduous journey takes about 1.5 hours through rough roads, army outposts and winding mountain passes. The highest altitude achieved was 14,165 feet and I was left breathless on three counts the thin air, the daredevil driving on hair pin bends with precipitous cliffs and the stark beauty of the place. Sungetser (know to locals as Shonga Tseir) lake was earlier a pasturage of the ShokTsen village which turned into a lake after an earthquake in 1971. This place is also known as Madhuri Jheel after the famous movie ‘Koyla’ (featuring Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuir Dixit) was shot here. Being very close to the Chinese border, place is heavily guarded by the Indian Army. The naked tree stumps rising from the bottom of the lake like spikes on the back of a Jurrasic monster provides a surreal feel to the landscape.
I left Arunachal Pradesh with lots of lasting memories. Jagged peaks and snowy mountains, saffron robed monks and camouflaged army jawans, strange tribal customs and remote places with exotic names. Most of all I shall remember this place to have helped me witness the true diversity of India and the genuine warmth and love shown by the people of this great state.I am most fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit A/P and look forward to revisiting it someday soon.
AS FEATURED IN FWD LIFE, SOUTH INDIA’S PREMIUM LIFESTYE MAGAZINE
JUNE 2016 FWD LIFE 83. ARTICLE – Travel Arunachal Pradesh
THE EVOLVING BACKPACKER