Our next stop was to be Tawang. After going to the Pine Grove near old Ziro, we decided to take a Tata Sumo to North Lakhimpur – from where we could reach Tezpur, which in turn ran daily Sumo services to Tawang. Surprisingly, there were direct Sumos from Tezpur to Tawang, but not from Itanagar. As luck would have it, we missed the last Sumo to Lakhimpur and had to do with one to Itanagar. This was a memorable journey. We had two seats at the back and were joined by two more – one of whom gave his middle-row seat to a woman. The middle-row had a few ladies – one of whom had come with a grown-up brother who was without a ticket. After much meandering around the Sumo driver, the brother convinced everyone that he had to go to Itanagar with his sister, in that middle-row, even if it meant that five would have to squeeze into that space between two doors.The front row was the killer – well, it could have been!
A couple was to the left and another guy had seeped somehow between them and the driver. He occupied half the driver’s seat. The driver, the man from heaven, sat in the other half of his seat, smoked an occasional cigarette out of the window, handled the steering with his right hand and worked the gears which were now around the pelvis of the guy between him and the couple. Two minutes into the drive, I had the same symptoms of sickness. This time though I had had enough and forced myself to sleep. It worked wonders as when I woke up, we were in a roadside eatery and chatting with a Malayali family who worked in a school in Ziro. The rest of the drive wasn’t too bad as we landed safely despite the predicaments of the driver and lodged at the Blue Pine.
To Bomdila and then to Tawang
After booking a ticket for Bomdila from Itanagar (this time thankfully in a bus for Rs. 250 each), we had to while away the entire morning in the capital city. We decided to go to the government museum and soon found out that there was a strike by government workers that day. We tried the Ita Fort, and to underline our bad luck, it was closed at the western gate. At no time did anyone tell us where the other gates were – nobody knew it. The western gate had a small area of land with enough bricks to make two walls of a poor man’s cottage. Someone at the hotel had in fact vociferously discouraged us from going to the Fort. “Usse zyada eenth toh bahar mil jayega. Ab kuch nahi hai wahan,” he had said.
The only option left was to watch a local cricket match at the Indira Gandhi Park. It was a rubber-ball match between two clubs and there was enough passion to prove the success of the sport in these areas. We had seen cricket being played all over Arunachal and Assam, and the game was to follow us during the rest of the trip as well.
The bus to Bomdila was uneventful barring an irritant at the seat behind me who wouldn’t let me push my seat back. A poor young maid who was accompanying a young family was sick as hell and vomited all through the night. And at Bhalukpong in the middle of the night, we were asked for our other Inner Line Permit (for the Tawang sector).
We reached Bomdila just before dawn and almost everyone went straight to the bonfire lit by the guys at the transport company. This was the coldest we had felt in all these days. Looking for a hotel was a difficult proposition as nobody had opened shutters yet. A state website had mentioned a hotel called Shipyang Pong as one of the best there. We couldn’t find it and settled for Hotel Passang, which too found a mentioned in the website. The room was clean, but without anything other than a couple of beds and an attached bath. It looked more like a mini-hostel than a hotel, but it would do, for the manager promised he would charge Rs.350 for 24 hours regardless of check-out times. However, there was no food at the lodge.We were told that there was nothing exceptional to see in Bomdila. “You could have left for Tawang in the morning itself,” the travel agent said. Disappointed, we slept all day long after booking a Tata Sumo to Tawang for the next morning. At around 6:30 in the evening, we got dressed up to the hilt – I had about four layers of clothing on – and went out to have dinner. I’ll never forget what I saw. The once busy street looked haunted. There was not a living being in sight. Everyone had closed down. The street lights were eerie and for a moment we were overcome by bemusement and fear. What on earth is this place? And, do we have to sleep hungry tonight?
The one reason why hotels with “fooding” are an advantage is you’ll find food at least till nine. Ours was a rudimentary lodge. As we turned back in shock, the manager was standing, looking at us. He had been watching us for a long time and noticing our predicament he offered to bring food from his home. We were vegetarians. No problem, he’d get it. We have a couple of ready-to-eat packs. He’ll cook them for us. Can he make chappatis? Hmmm… sure, he’ll make them. The food was very nice. Thanks, I’ll get you tea in the morning before you leave.
Amazing!In the morning, we left for Tawang, a distance of 181km from Bomdila. After about 20 km, the driver stopped at a roadside eatery. He bought fuel there and filled the tank. A convoy of army vehicles followed; the last of the vehicle in the pack stopped at the eatery and the jawan sold a can of fuel after much bargaining.At Dirang, 20km further down, a young lady got into the Tata Spacio. She kept staring at us and must say it was strange. After a long while, she asked Naga, “Are you from Karnataka?” She, like many people from this part of India, had studied in Bangalore or Mysore. She had heard us speak in Kannada and had become curious. In fact, there was another guy in the Spacio who had studied in Mysore.
The Sela Pass is among the most critical phases of this journey. Sometimes, because of the snowfall, it is blocked for hours; sometimes days. My first look at a snow-capped mountain was just outside Bomdila when a mountain range, visibly far-off came into sight. But the Sela was the first close experience. The road is treacherous because of the slippery ice, which made our already slow driver go slower. After Sela and Jaswant Garh, the driver stopped at some place close to Jung. This place had lot many Tzos – animals cross between cows and yaks. I tried Tzo-milk tea. I’ll never forget that taste, even though I want to. I do not have the diction to explain in words the awful feeling I had. There was something so neutral about that drink that it left me not with a bad taste, but with a really bad memory.
I had meanwhile hit upon this nice little idea of carrying a piece of lemon with me to help with the Tata Sumo sickness. As it turned out, my co-passengers needed it more than me and I was to get better at traveling in these vehicles, but only just.
At Tawang, we enquired for Hotel Shangrila, again, recommended by a website. It had closed. We chose Hotel Buddha, the only hotel in Tawang which was purely vegetarian. It cost us Rs.700 a day, but it was tastefully furnished, had a heater, a geyser and given that the first Test between India and South Africa was being played in Johannesburg, a TV with ESPN and Star.