After driving ten hours, my back was hurting. I was looking for someone to blame and google was culprit No. 1: I had followed google maps instead of the route I knew, and google had taken me through Almora city to a one-way where the cop didn’t allow us through. Consequently we landed up going through Bageshwar – a worse and longer route. The second culprit would be the bad roads on the last 70 odd Kilometres (between Thal and Munsiyari). At 51, I am barely out of my teens, so it couldn’t possibly be age.
We had reached Munsiyari on June 3rd. That night I slept in pain, and was wondering if I would have to abandon the trek because of my back. Maybe I should just hunker down at the hotel and write for the 9 days as I waited for the group to return?
The Nanda Devi trek and the Milam Glacier trek are both fabled. The Nanda Devi Biosphere was banned for trekkers for many years. In our trip we combined the Nanda Devi East base camp trek with the Milam Glacier trek. Since they’re building a road to Milam (we walked on some sections of it) we were keen to do the trek before the road was fully built.
One clarification: The Nanda Devi East is the lower of the twin peaks. Nanda Devi East (also known as Sunanda Devi) stands at an altitude of 7434 Metres (24,390 ft) . Compared to that Nanda Devi (7816 Metres / 25643 ft) is slightly taller. The Nanda Devi east base camp is not the eastern base camp of the Nanda Devi mountain. It is the base camp of the Nanda Devi East mountain. However, from the Nanda Devi East base camp both peaks are clearly visible (subject to weather, of course).
Our full group was nine people, and five of us (my wife Vandita, our two kids Anhad and Raahat, my niece Renu, and I) reached Munsiyari on June 3rd night. That was when the pain started.
In Munsiyari we stayed at the Oak Hill Resort, a new hotel. On an earlier driving trip to Munsiyari we had stayed at the charming NGO-run home-stays under the Himalayan Ark Brand ( www.himalayanark.com ). Oak Hill was clean and had a nice view of the Panchachuli mountains. It offered the convenience of all nine of us staying at a single place, but I missed the beauty and charm of the Himalayan Ark Homestays.
On June 4th I helped Narendra (our guide) put together the application for the permit for all nine trekkers. The guide, his helper, and two mulewalas also needed permits. You can’t go in without a government issued Inner Line Permit, so make sure you don’t apply on a Sunday (offices will be closed). Unlike the Inner Line Permit for Arunachal (read my post about driving to Tawang here), this Permit cannot be obtained online. We needed to provide 3 passport size photos, adhaar cards, Vaccination certificates, and a Fitness Certificate of each hiker. Getting in early was also good because a night or two in Munsiyari (2200 m / 7200 ft) helped us acclimatize. The next night was to be at 2700 M and it would keep going up from there.
Narendra and I discussed the ration, route options and other details. The walking he had planned for us on day 1, although mostly uphill, was only 7 km. All nine of us, including the kids, had done hikes and treks before, we felt that it was a little too short. We also discussed the possibility of doing both – the Nanda Devi East Base Camp as well as Milam Glacier.
By the end of the trek Narendra had become a reliable, resourceful friend, and I would recommend him to anyone headed to that region. His calm, pleasant presence and knowledge of the flora and fauna of the mountains and the peaks is quite remarkable. His helper, Mahendra, was also very pleasant and helpful throughout. Narendra can be reached on 98373-50959 or through his website www.himalyantreks.com .
Our fellow trekkers were Tim Sebastian, his lovely wife Liz, and their two kids Jet and Ty. Liz and Tim are the co-founders of the very popular iHeart café in Bhimtal, which opened in 2016. They drove to Munsiyari on the 4th. Tim called that morning to ask if we needed any cash. After checking with the Oak Hill hotel manager I told him that wasn’t required as there were two ATMs in Munsiyari now.
In our group, Tim and Liz were veteran hikers, who had hiked extensively in both India and abroad. Ty and Jet had done many day-hikes in the US, but this would be their first long trek in India. Their attempt at Pindari had stalled last year (details later).
In our family, Renu is a rock star hiker who has lived through a couple of Spiti winters, led treks, and topped (amongst women) the month long basic mountaineering course. She had chosen the toughest course run by the Indian Mountaineering Federation in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh. Raahat was the youngest at 13, and was clear she would come on the trek only if she had a mule to ride, so we had arranged for one. Anhad my son is a sportsman who was looking forward to the challenge. Vandita and I were veterans of many such treks both in India and abroad.
After my discussions with Narendra, we walked into town. I bought a black support belt (called a Lumbar support belt) for my waist and suddenly felt old. We then headed to the ATMs to find the SBI ATM locked, and the PNB ATM malfunctioning. Tim was still en route so I asked him to get some cash anywhere he could get it.
Cash is important in such places because once on the trek there is no phone signal, so the only way to make payments is cash. With a group our size (9 trekkers, two guides, two mulewalas) each meal (mostly basic dal-rice) would be 1500-2000. Over 9 days (that was the plan, although we finished in 8), that was 27 meals – a substantial expense. Some nights were spent in basic rented rooms, and some places charged for pitching tents, adding to the cash outflow.
My back still hurt and I did yoga asanas and stretches three times that day. By the end of the day I felt ready that I could take on the trek, and hoped I wouldn’t need the support belt much.
Narendra, Mahender, Rajender, Sunder and the nine of us set out for a trek to Nanda Devi East base camp, and also Milam Glacier on June 5th, 2022. Narendra was our Guide, Mahender his helper, Rajender & Sunder were two always smiling mule-walas, who managed the five mules that came with us.
Earlier this trek used to start from Munsiyari, and on Day 1 you walked to Lilam Village, but now a road goes upto Lilam Village. A friend had told me the walk wasn’t too great so we decided to drive down that bit. Mules, however, still needed to walk the distance, so they left Munsiyari on June 4.
The first 4 km goes from Lilam village to Man Singh top. This part was brutal, especially because the sun was hot and the ascent steep. In places the drop was sheer, and the fear didn’t help. While the views were spectacular, we weren’t able to enjoy them much. I reached Man Singh top, to find the boys waiting there.
“Where is Vandita?” I asked.
“Oh, your wife came but didn’t stop. She just walked right on.” Ty replied in a rather impressed voice.
From Man Singh we descended 1.5 kms to a place called Babaldhar, where we were greeted by a grubby dhaba. The outside area was full of flies, and the inside of the dhaba full of smoke. We had chai and fresh water, though. As the organizer of the hike, I was hoping the other places on this trek wouldn’t be as shady as this place.
After our lunch break (we asked all Dhabas to make non-spicy food, so the lunch always took at least an hour), we had the option to stay at Babaldhar. The place was not inspiring, and we all felt we could go further, so we set out for the next stop – Bogudiyar. Tim told everybody that he had heard of this great pizza joint in Bogudiyar, and a couple of the kids almost believed him.
From Babaldhar the descent is consistent till you come to a longish metal cable walking bridge, from where you start climbing to Bogudiyar.
At Bogudiyar we were greeted by the ITBP folks who checked our permits and gave us prasad from the temple (the prayer had just gotten over, I think). Bogudiyar was a pretty little place on the banks of river Gori-ganga. The bonus was the PWD rest house, where we were able to snag two rooms – each with an attached (basic Indian style) bathroom and a couple of beds.
Liz’s knee had started hurting, and she was in some amount of pain. Walking downhill was more painful for her. Furtunately, we had a knee brace, which she could use.
I also walked that whole day with my Lumbar support belt, feeling geriatric. Fortunately, as the trek went ahead my back got better, and the brace was packed away for good by day 4.
That night we also had the luxury of mutton being on offer, although on seeing the serving, I wasn’t sure what part of the mutton was served.
From Bogudiyar we started the walk by crossing a pretty bridge. We climbed some distance to Nahardevi, part of which is through a lush Bamboo forest. The river was below us to the right, and was gushing angrily through gorges and over rocks in many places.
“If this is June, what will this river be like in the monsoons?” I wondered.
Nahardevi was a dhaba and a place where some GREF (General Reserve Engineering Force – they build mountain roads) staff were stationed. From there the walk was initially at the base of a sheer granite cliff towering over us on our left, and then after some tricky rocks we were on a kuchha road heading towards Rilkot. Tim said he had heard of this place that did great Ice cream Sundae’s at Rilkot, that days destination.
Mapang was a dhaba just below the road, and we had lunch there (they made dal for us, and also had Kadhi-chawal on offer, although the Kadhi tasted slightly different). The Sebastian Family demonstrated again their amazing ability of falling asleep within 2 minutes of lying down – they had done the same at Babaldhar the previous day.
Laspa is a pretty meadow on a hilltop. If you take the road you have to climb to the hilltop. Ty, 14, found a nice stone, and the conversation moved to how he would make a ring out of it for his wife. Then he found another stone, and we chatted about his second wife. Then he found a few more stones and his life started to look like a mess.
If you want to skip Laspa (why would you? It’s pretty.), you could take the old walking route which goes from below Laspa through the valley near the river. Saves you the up and down to Laspa.
Between Laspa and Rilkot we saw a bear.
It was on the slope opposite us, with the river in between (phew!). The bear was busy scrambling up and down the slope, and I couldn’t really get a clear shot, but you can see the black dot on the left side in this picture.
We reached Rilkot in daylight. Again there was an ITBP post, and Narendra showed our permits there. It had a dhaba and a couple of fields where we could pitch tents. They also had an open washing area with a tap and we all did laundry there.
A village house had a room on offer and three of our group chose to sleep there. My son Anhad was keen to pitch the tent, so we did, as did the Sebastians. It was also a test for two of our sleeping bags, which I suspected may not be warm enough. They were Hollofil but proved too thin, so Narendra rented a warm sleeping bag from Martoli village the next day.
We wanted to leave Rilkot early after an egg-bhurji and paratha breakfast. The mother-daughter duo who ran the dhaba were up at 5.30 AM when I went there hoping for some hot chai.
“You’re up early.” I said.
“Not normally” came the curt reply.
“Oh. Sorry if you woke up early because of us,” I said.
“No problem. It is our job. Besides, it only happens occasionally.” said the pretty young girl with a smile.
We were packed and on our way to Ganaghar around 8 AM. The initial ascent involved overtaking a herd of goats and sheep on foot (it is surprisingly difficult). After that, the walk was easy and we made the 8k to Burfu in just 2 hours. An alternative route, and a slight diversion would take us to Martoli village, but we decided to skip that. Only Narendra went up to Martoli to find a sleeping bag to rent. After a snack/tea/Maggi break at Burfu, we headed towards Ganaghar just as the mules – with Raahat on one of them – arrived at Burfu. At Burfu, the road was motorable, and we saw a French hiker and her guide hitch a ride on a truck.
From Burfu to Ganaghar isn’t a long distance and we hoped to cover it in under 2 hours, so we hadn’t eaten lunch at Burfu. Besides, Tim had mentioned a great burger joint at Ganaghar. We walked along the more prominent trail but found it blocked / washed away in multiple places. We then realized there was another trail that went much lower along the river bed which was what the mules had taken.
After some exploration, we retraced our steps to the lower trail and found our way, but in the process we probably added 2 kms to that day’s walk. The valley was beautiful, though, and that is the main featured image on top of this page. We reached Ganaghar grumpy and hungry. Nothing was ready and we finally had a dal-chawal lunch cooked by the sole village resident at 4 PM.
The village rooms on offer at Ganaghar didn’t compare with the field outside and we all decided to pitch our tents. With the hired sleeping bag, and doubling the two thin ones into a single bag, we were all comfortable. There were a couple of bathrooms to which we had access, but it was freezing cold and none of us did more than a quick wash.
The villages in the area were full of abandoned houses and the roofs of many such houses had caved in. This area was thriving once, when the Indo-Tibet trade was busy. Since the Chinese annexation of Tibet and the Indo-China war, the border was sealed and all trade stopped. The only thing that brings a few people up here now for a few months in the summer is Keeda Ghas (wikipedia page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophiocordyceps_sinensis , Kala Jeera and Jumboo. Keeda Ghas is a very expensive (our host said they sell it at INR 15,00,000 / kilo and the internet corroborates) dead-bug highly valued in Chinese medicine.
Kala Jeera is a spice, and Jumboo is a local grass that gives great flavour to food – I’ve tried it in a desi ghee tadka for dal. Most villagers moved to towns like Munsiyari generations ago leaving some of these villages with just 1-2 inhabited dwellings even in the summer. No one stays here in the winters.
We left Ganaghar after a relaxed breakfast, and covered the 6 km to the Nanda Devi East base camp in a leisurely 3 hours, with a couple of breaks. The walk wasn’t too tough, although I could definitely feel the altitude (base camp is at 4000 metres). The base camp has a surprising amount of green cover for the altitude, with a variety of Rhododendrons and even a forest of Bhojpatra trees along the way. The final destination of the Base camp was completely worth it. We pitched our own tents amidst a profusion of wild flowers while the crew pitched a Kitchen tent and the toilet tent. We had reached our first destination. Tim said he hadn’t expected much at Base Camp but he had heard of this great Pizza joint in Milam.
The peak of Nanda Devi east was a majestic 11,000 feet higher than the base camp which was at approx 13.5 thousand feet. The mountain was towering and daunting, with a fortress of two ridges leading up to it from each side.
A picture paints a thousand words, but a picture and a thousand words both fall short before a real mountain. Being at the base of Nanda Devi East was indescribable. It was more than the sound of the river, or the freezing air, or the powering majesty of the mountain above you, or the fortress of mountains around you.
It was the awe of being there. Anhad, 15, was sitting by himself looking at the mountain.
“What are you thinking, Anhad?” Vandita asked him.
“I am trying to understand this feeling.” He replied.
“What feeling?” asked Vandita
“That I’ve walked all this way, and I feel like I’m on top of the world, and yet I feel so small and insignificant.” said Anhad.
To be before a mountain that size is to feel your vanity evaporate before true glory, and yet revel in your own smallness. Your ego humbly realizes that you are but a tiny part of something much bigger.
I sat in a quiet corner and wept before the mountain. I was overwhelmed by it’s beauty and the only release was to let the tears flow. Tears that burst through in wonder and awe.
I had wept once before at such a sight, and that was in Spiti Valley in 2012. I guess I cry to nature every ten years. But they’ve built a tunnel to Spiti valley last year. And they’re building a road here now. Soon I’ll have no place left to cry.
After a bread and eggs breakfast (yes, Narendra had carried both up from Munsiyari) we headed down to Ganaghar Village.
Raahat, my 13 year old daughter, had offered to walk and Liz, whose knee was still in pain, was riding the mule down from Basecamp. (If you think riding a mule is easy, check out this 15 second video).
“Raahat, what is your favourite chocolate?” I said.
As she was thinking, I added “I have a Kitkat, and I’ll give it to you once we get down.”
“Why?” she asked “Because I gave my mule to Liz aunty?”
“Yes” I replied “I am really proud of you.”
“It is the obvious thing to do” she said, not making a big deal of it. “You would do it too.”
“Still, it was really sweet of you.” I said. “You didn’t have to.”
“Maybe it is just the way I was raised.” She said, looking into my eyes with a cheeky smile.
The plan was to go on to Milam village, and then the Milam Glacier the next day. But on reaching Ganaghar two of the three teen boys leading the way insisted they wanted to go back instead of Milam. The group had some discussion, and a sort-of vote was held, and finally the group proceeded to Milam, if somewhat grudgingly.
Like his dad, Jet had been carrying a pretty heavy pack the whole time, and that can definitely make a hike that much more work, so wanting to shorten the trek was very understandable. But within 30 minutes of departure, Jet had lightened up and was sharing snacks and cracking jokes.
The bridge to Milam was dicey and we were told the mules would not be able to cross it. The mules had already taken off back towards Burfu to cross that bridge, and Raahat, who was keen to ride the mule to Milam instead of walking – had to walk a further 5 km, but she had her chin up in just a few minutes. The dogs and puppies we met along the way always helped get her spirits up.
Bridge to Milam
The route was easy and flat with small descents and ascents to and from the two bridges in river beds. When we got to the Milam Bridge, we realized what “dicey” meant, and why the mules wouldn’t be able to cross it. The bridge was broken, and one end sloped into the river. Each of us had to walk down the broken bridge and then step through the gap between the floor and the railing to get out at the other side. It wasn’t too tricky, honestly, but looked very dramatic. Check out a video of the river crossing here.
Narendra was from Milam village, and his parents lived there. He greeted his parents and they got busy preparing lunch for us. He offered us a room in his house, which would have been too small for nine of us. We asked to see more options, but while the other place had a bigger room, it wasn’t better. We finally settled on pitching two tents in a nearby field in addition to the room available at Narendra’s place.
The house was a typical “Kumaoni” house with one room raised with a set of stairs. Narendra told us that the house was probably over 200 years old as his forefathers had lived there. It had been abandoned after the war, and his father, also a guide, has been coming back to the house in Milam every summer.
Narendra’s father was a smiling man who enjoyed his “jaan” (name of the local rice beer which I also tried. It is quite like chaang). His mother was also a very sweet, helpful lady.
The room quickly became the hang-out space for all the kids (Renu, who is 33, included). There was laughter constantly emanating from there. That night we played “Mafia” in the room, again to a lot of laughter. The clouds rumbled and rained outside. It rained again in the night. The rain had the Sebastian family on edge – it brought bad memories, especially on a trek. In October of 2021 they had gotten stuck on the Pindari Glacier trek due to a freak rain event in Uttarakhand that caused landslides and casualties. A bridge on their way had been washed off and 13 people, including the four of them, were forced to share a small room for 4 days. Finally, the bridge was rebuilt with two logs, and they walked across a raging river, roped up on both sides. After that multiple administrative units waylaid them, and insisted that they needed to be “rescued.” Finally they drove back, and got home to newspapers that reported that they had been rescued by helicopter.
The next morning was clear, and after breakfast, we (except Liz, who wanted to rest her knee) hiked to the Milam Glacier. Being able to hike without a pack was a refreshing change for Tim, Jet, Ty and Renu. On our way out we walked through Milam village, most of which was ruins with roofs caved in. Milam village was large, and Narendra showed us structures which were once the “Admin block,” which also had a jail-house, from the heydey of the village. On occasion we saw Pika, a tail-less furry mouse-ish mammal common to these parts.
The Milam Glacier is the source of the Gori Ganga river(which we had been walking along), and we were able to walk onto the glacier ice, although much of it was covered in scree – small stones and black mud.
We skipped stones and took silly pictures of each other. Tim and Ty also jumped into a small pool of freshly melted snow – and jumped right back out in seconds.
We were back in time for lunch.
The team was now itching to get back home – nobody was keen on walking the entire three days back, especially since they had seen the road and vehicles. This was a strange stretch of road because it didn’t connect to any other road at either end. It was probably 20 odd km, and was being built from the top down by equipment which had all been flown in on huge Chinook choppers which we saw and heard most mornings of the trek.
The only vehicles that plied on the road were either GREF or ITBP. There were no private vehicles of any sort. We had spoken to the GREF folks the previous day, and the person there had said that their truck went upto Burfu every morning at 7.30. Next we went to the ITBP post to check if by chance their truck went any further, and if it would be going the next morning, but we had no luck.
That night was another round of Mafia and laughter before dinner and bedtime.
The way one gets to know other people on a trek is different from a social meeting or an office setting. There are no distractions of a phone or technology. The walking can be difficult and create stress. And people are cooped up together for days, with no choice. Disagreements can cause schisms. Things can break easily.
But we turned out to be a great group. The quiet star that everyone liked was Jet, the long-haired 16 year old who is gentle and witty. He spent long hours writing in his journal. Both Jet and Ty had been to a local Indian school and often used their fluent, India-accented Hindi to shock the many dhabawalas we met along the way. Ty has a great sense of humor, and did a very real impersonation of King Julian from the movie Madagascar.
I was grateful to have such great company for the trek, and it showed in how much we laughed.
We were at the parking area at 7.10 AM. The GREF crew were super nice and also offered us tea. At 7.30 we clambered over the side of the dumper truck and it headed out over a precarious, broken dirt road. Halfway through the driver stopped the truck and warned us not to take any pictures or videos.
The truck went past what we thought was the Burfu bridge to another bridge some 3 km further, saving us that much more walking. We wanted to thank the driver, but know giving cash would be wrong, so we offered them a packet of trail mix snack (Vandita home-made it with assorted nuts and dry-fruits), which they took with some reluctance.
The walk started, and we had reached Rilkot by 10.30. Raahat, after the 6 km walk, was tired and missing her mule, which was following on foot from Milam. We thought the mules would be with us by noon, and so we decided to stay back while the rest of the group went ahead.
The mules finally showed up at 2 PM, and we set out. We by-passed Laspa and took the path going below it across the river. By 5 PM we were just short of Nahar Devi, and within 4 km of Bogudiyar, our destination for that night.
The “road”, which is just a basic track under construction, had been blasted by the engineers, and it was impassable for the mules. Even the few people who went further went scrambling over the rocks. The engineers blasted the rocks twice again (video here). After each blasting, the Earthmover would come in and try and make a path out of the rubble, but most of the rock simply rolled down the steep drop into the river. The JCB driver seemed suicidal in how he would be right on the edge, with the vehicle way too often teetering above the gushing river.
After his 2nd attempt, the driver got off, and was waiting for the manual labour to do some of the fine work.
“That is one risky job.” I told him.
“Someone has to do it.” He had a Malayali accent.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“A town in Kerala. You wouldn’t know.”
“Which town?” I insisted.
“Aleppey.” he said.
“Oh, I’ve been to the Lighthouse there. And the beef biryani at Halais…”
“Oh you’ve been there? Yes my house is just 4 km from the Lighthouse.”
We were stuck there from 5 PM, waiting impatiently. Finally after 7 PM a narrow path was cleared. Even then the mules could only cross unladen. Our crew unloaded the mules, carried all the bags across the anxiety inducing narrow path one by one, and loaded the mules again.
It was past 8 and dark by the time we all reached Nahar Devi, still 3km short of Bogudiyar. I knew the rest of the team would be worried about us. I asked the GREF crew if there was any way to call Bogudiyar – just 3 km away – maybe with a landline. They said no. I asked if they had a satellite phone. They said yes, but they didn’t have the number for the Bogudiyar ITBP base. With this level of communication, I just hoped China would never attack us again.
We decided that Narendra, Raahat and I would proceed to Bogudiyar on foot in the dark while the mules would stay back and come to Bogudiyar the next morning. Having full-loaded mules walk the treacherous path in the dark would not be wise.
The 3 km walk with headlamps was uneventful, although the destination seemed too far. Narendra and I had already walked 16 km while Raahat had walked 7 and rode 9 km. We were all tired. Thankfully we got through without any accidents. As we walked into Bogudiyar at 9.30 PM we were received by a relieved group of our fellow trekkers. A satisfying dinner later, we were off to bed.
The return in any trek is little less satisfying, and I, for one, had forgotten the amount of up and down in this segment.
Liz was a rock star who smiled through everything. Her knees weren’t much better, and she was walking with two sticks on the last couple of days. Yet whenever anyone asked her how she was doing, she always came back with a big smile and a bright response. Amazing positivity.
We decide to not make any long stops, and asked Narendra if we could order some nice lunch at a Munsiyari restaurant the moment he was in network range. After a short tea stop at Babaldhar, we carried on.
The descent from Man Singh top was still long, although mercifully the sun was mostly clouded over. At one point on that descent we found the crew and four of the five mules waiting. The fifth mules had fallen down the hill some 15 metres through dense green foliage, but seemed miraculously unhurt. As we stood around discussing her fall, the mule non-chalantly ate grass below us. Finally – with some encouragement – the mule climbed up. The concerned mule-walas inspected her and she was fine except for a couple of scratches. She was reloaded and the journey continued.
There was much water, and therefore many stream crossings all through this trek, but fortunately we were able to navigate all of them without having to wade through ice-cold water. Maybe different in another season.
We all reached Lilam, and gratefully took off our packs – big and small – one final time. In the car, the fact that we could move without walking seemed like a miracle. We had covered a total of some 104 km over 8 days, and seen some of the most wonderful sights this planet has to offer.
After lunch at Munsiyari we decided to drive out to a town called Thal and stay there for the night. Just as we were getting into our cars, Narendra and Mahendra caught up with us with a bunch of ice-creams for everyone. That was literally and figuratively a very sweet gesture. It had been a standing joke through the trek – whenever we would see the Chinook we would talk about how it would be bringing us ice creams the next morning. Narendra made our ice-cream dream finally come true.
Before we left Munsiyari we also called the Thal KMVN hotel to check availability and they said they had four rooms. On this and the next part of the way back to our home in Satkhol (which is where the Quiet Place Himalayas is located), the young people all moved into my car. We all laughed so much that my car became हाहाकार.
It was raining and night when we reached Thal. The government run KMVN hotel was nicely located, but dark. We entered the lobby with hope, to find a stray dog sleeping inside. The man behind the counter said
“You will get hot water in the bathroom – we have solar geysers, but there is no cold water in the taps. Oh, and there is no power. It has not been there for a while but it should come soon.” He tried to reassure us.
“We came all the way here after speaking to you – you should have told us about all this when we made the booking.” Vandita told him. The man nodded his head and mumbled something.
We fled the KMVN and found a much nicer hotel called Rituraj that Tim knew about. We all just needed clean bathrooms and a bed to sleep in and it worked great for that. After a bun-omlette breakfast in the Thal Market we headed to Almora where Anhad insisted on a celebratory lunch, and so after a big lunch at Dominos pizza (Finally, Tim’s predictions came true. Yes, Almora has a mall now) we headed home to the Quiet Place.
Travel doesn’t need an occasion, but this driving trip to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh was to celebrate one. Our wedding had just turned 25, and instead of buying each other expensive gifts (we don’t really care for “stuff”), Vandita came up with the idea of a road trip.
This blogpost is more like a diary of our journey. If you want to skip to the tips, you can scroll to the bottom of this post.
We landed in Guwahati, and picked up our ride from Zoomcar – a ford Ecosport with just 12000 km on it. I would have liked something bigger and more powerful, but this was their top car. In hindsight, it turned out to be a good choice. Because it was brand new, it also had things like Bluetooth, and a large screen for navigation. My own car is 13 years old, and felt ancient in comparison.
We landed in Guwahati at 10 AM, picked up the rental (zoomcar delivers to the airport) and drove to Bomdila. The drive took 8 hours. The initial part through Assam was flat and busy with pretty ponds, lakes and water bodies. We picked up two umbrellas (the forecast had lots of rain, and a temperature range of 6C-15C degrees) and beer. In hindsight, the beer was unnecessary because Arunachal seems to have well-stocked alcohol stores everywhere (unlike our home state of Uttarakhand).
The moment we crossed over from Assam into Arunachal, the terrain and roads changed. The rain turned into an almost mystical mist. The road became better and emptier. An Arunachal cop asked us for the Inner Line Permit, which we had got online before arrival for just 100/- each, so that worked great ( https://arunachalilp.com/).
Our hotel in Bomdila was the Highlander Inn (+91-8259068977). It was basic and limited in food options, but clean and functional. It is located above the town, next to the DC bungalow and a short walk from the Bomdila Monastery.
We asked the hotel about dinner options, the only boring Indian fare (dal-chawal-roti-subzi) was on offer so we decided to head into the main town. The helpful hotel owner suggested Komu’s Kitchen, and it turned out to be a great choice. It was a bit of a walk from the hotel, but we enjoyed walking through this new town, and seeing the things that were different here – fancy bikes, colorful homes, furry strays.
Komu’s Kitchen in Bomdila: Ethnic Naga and Chinese Cuisine
We started with a bottle of Bhutanese Peach wine named Zumzin. The ordering process was fun – first one waitress came to assist with what was what on the menu, then a second, (the menu mentioned exotic dishes, but didn’t explain what each one was, or spice levels), and finally the chef himself turned up.
As we sat, enjoying our wine, a young local girl walked upto our table holding a beer mug and politely asked if she could join us.
“It is nice to see outsiders, and I thought I would say hello. It is nice when people say Hello, no?”
“Yes.” We smiled at her.
“You must find my Hindi strange. We speak a different Hindi here. And my English is very broken.”
The conversation continued, she told us her name and said her mother was in the police, and she was from a nearby town. She was 23 years old, and thought we were good looking, especially our eyes. My wife truly is good-looking, but I am anything but with my combover and handlebar moustache. She said we had such nice eyes. We told her that we thought people form Arunachal were very nice looking, and so it went.
Such behavior had us on our guard, and Vandita and had some suspicion and doubt, wondering why this young girl was here, talking to us. She was open and honest, and also mentioned briefly an unpleasant experience she had had when she visited Chandigarh. I thought of the terrible bias most of North India carries against people from the North-east, and felt a twinge of guilt as her fellow countryman.
Then our food arrived, and she gracefully left. Café Como specializes in Naga and Chinese and we had the Naga special fried rice, and Mushroom Malha.
The walk back was quiet – hill people sleep early everywhere, and Bomdila was no exception.
I slept reasonably well, although Vandita was a little disturbed by noises and light from outside. The next morning was the 18th, and I wanted us to start the special day with a good cup of chai. The chai they served was not the way we liked it. The hotel staff allowed me into the Kitchen, and helped me with ginger, milk and much else. I also found some large mugs, and we started the day with tea and cake (we’d bought some the previous day).
Breakfast was bread omlette (nothing else was on offer). We walked out of the hotel in our T-shirts, enjoying the pleasant sunshine, and looking forward to visiting the monastery. At the hotel entrance a Bengali man in a scarf, warm hat and thick sweater supervised the loading of a Tempo Traveller full of similarly clad tourists, a few in monkey caps.
The monastery was a 5 minute walk, and very pleasant. We sat in the main monastery for a bit, calmed by the spiritual energy of the place, and enjoying the vibe. I went up to one of the myriad prayer wheels dotting the complex. But when I rotated it, it stopped quickly. I tried again,and the same thing happened. Then Vandita, laughing, pointed to a smiling little boy under the prayer wheel. Soon it became a game. Nobody reprimanded him or told him off. Everyone saw a child playing, and the toy happened to be a prayer wheel. That was okay.
We picked up a couple of baubles from the Monastery shop. Next we visited the lower (older) monastery. The upper monastery is a learning facility for monks only, while the lower monastery is a school open to common citizens. The lower monastery was a lot smaller, but the prayer was in progresss there and we enjoyed listening to the chanting.
We left for Tawang by 10.30 AM. The drive was pretty, and the road was very good for the first two hours. We ate at a tavern called “Taste of Padma” about 20 km short of Sela pass. The road kept getting worse as we came closer to the Sela pass.
Jung falls (Nuranang falls)
These falls are a 1 km diversion from the road after Sela Pass before Tawang. The falls are pretty majestic, and also power a hydel project you walk past.
Sela pass itself was windswept, with prayer flags and a board announcing the altitude of 13700 ft. The surprise was the large Sela lake at the pass. After clicking a few pics, we hopped into a military-run teashop for chai and chatted with some other travellers. The walls of the café had fascinating pictures of women and locals training to become soldiers in the 1970s.
When we stepped out, the weather had changed. Clouds rolled through the pass and it was raining. We abandoned our plan of walking by the lake (there is a path) and chose the dry warmth of our car. The road towards Tawang was along a river with yellow wildflowers growing all around. It would have been lovely to stroll through the meadows if it hadn’t been raining so.
Arunachal left us wet, green and mossy. Coming from our water scarce part of Uttarakhand, where we recycle, conserve and harvest to survive, we felt jealous seeing the amount of rainfall Arunachal gets. The mountains, even the steepest ones, were barely ever brown or yellow. There was a patina of green on every surface, given the amount of rain. They get so much rain, they do their farming on the slopes, and don’t even bother to make step fields.
We consoled ourselves saying this much rain will get to you after a while, and not enough sun cannot be good for you.
Our night halt was 3-4 km short of Tawang – the Tenzin Guest House ( 70858-09263 / 94366-30456 ). We had tried calling many places in Tawang, but all the places we liked – mostly smaller, well-reviewed home-stays and guest houses – were sold out for our dates. Tenzin had decent reviews, but no phone number. I finally booked it through booking.com.
It was dark and raining when we reached, and three women turned up at the car, offering to carry our bags. I’m old fashioned that way – I wasn’t used to and didn’t like the idea of women carrying my bags, so I gave them the lighter smaller stuff to carry.
We were given a clean room with windows on two sides. We asked about dinner options. Most people in Arunachal speak reasonable Hindi, so language wasn’t an issue for us.
“Dal, Chawal, Roti Subzi” said the lady hosting us.
“What do you eat?” I asked “We want to eat the local food only. No Indian Food.”
“No north-Indian food.” said Vandita gently.
“Yes. No north-Indian food.” I repeated idiotically, extracting my foot from my mouth.
For dinner we had Thukpa, which we relished but couldn’t finish because the portions were huge.
For breakfast we were offered bread-omlette & alu paratha. Again we asked the hosts what they ate, and finally had a potato and green chili sabzi made with Churpi, a local yak cheese. Along with the subzi was served Pale’ – a thick Maida roti of sorts. And a chutney made from a local green. We loved it.
For May 19th the plan was to visit Bum La and Sangetser lake. Our hosts had obtained the required permit for us the previous day, and the only way to go up was in a local cab (INR 5500). You could not self-drive an out of state car to the border.
The drive up to Bum La was a revelation. The vegetation changed constantly, but was always beautiful. In the lower reaches were yellow and purple wildflowers, sometimes filling up meadows. Further up were stunted Cedar and Rhododendron trees. Some of the Rhododendron trees had flowers in colors we had never seen before – yellow, magenta etc. The first stop was the lake, which was very beautiful, if rather touristy. We took some pics, but could not spend too much time there because we had to make it to Bum la as well.
Everyone referred to the lake as Madhuri lake. India has a tradition of naming people after nature. Names like Ganga and Yamuna are common, as is Suraj and Chandni. But this was the first time that I had come across a lake named after an actress simply because she had danced on it’s shores in a movie. To bring the earth back into orbit, and to ensure planetary alignment, I have decided to hereafter always refer to this actress as Sangetser Dixit, and not Madhuri Dixit.
By the way most of the internet mangles the lakes name as Sangestar / sangester or some variation thereof. The actual spelling is Sangetser as per all the signboards in the area. Our Driver Dorjee also confirmed it was Sangetser lake.
Dorjee was a cheerful MonPa man (that is the local tribe), and a gold mine of local information. His car stereo was always on and his playlist included Hindi, English, MonPa (the local Language), Tibetan, Assamese and Nepali music. He kept us on a tight schedule, and made sure we were comfortable. At Bum La the military took us civilians upto the actual border across from which one can see the Chinese troops, but it started to rain. The car which had our umbrellas was over 100 metres away, and we didnt have the time to go back. As we started walking to the border (you move in a batch and cannot dawdle – the army runs this bit) Dorjee magically appeared with our umbrellas.
One of the nicer stops was on the way back from Sangetser lake. The Sikh Regiment had set up a Gurudwara up on a mountainside, rather reminiscent of a buddhist monastery. On the road at the base of the Gurudwara, they had a Langar running with Kheer, halwa and Chai on offer. It was a welcome surprise. As always the langar tasted better than anything one could buy.
The Gurudwara on the cliff
This Gurudwara is run by the Indian Army and a joy to visit. It is called the “Teesri Udasi” and commemorates the travels of Guru Nanak Dev to Lhasa, Tibet. (details here).
The makeup of the local units was again a goosebumps moment of what India stands for. The units deployed in the areas including Sikhs (thus the Gurudwara), the Assam regiment (with “Tagra Raho” painted on signboards), and also The Madres rifles (thus the Church, and the Dosa and Vada at the Madras Café at Baisakhi, below Sela Pass). We saw military Churches, Mosques, Temples and Gurudwaras on our drive – soldiers of all faiths from across the nation stationed in this most difficult of terrains, all doing their duty with a strong faith in India, and a smile.
The various memorials like Jaswantgarh, and the bunkers dotting the landscape all reminded me that we were in a place where India had gone to war, and where many men had died for the country.
It reminded me that so much we take for granted in terms of liberties and freedoms, was guarded by these troops, living away from their families in extreme discomfort and danger. Things that we worked on – the happiness of our families, and keeping our fragile little worlds prosperous – was often at the cost of theirs. These soldiers – be they Assamese or Tamilians, Sikhs, hindu’s, Christians or Muslims – gave up time with their own families, and risked losing their lives – so that we could live ours in comfort and safety.
After the visit to Bum La and the mandatory “15200 ft” photo, we headed back down. Both Vandita and I passed out from tiredness, and woke up as we were re-entering Tawang. Dorjee was happy to guide us to what we called the best local eatery named “Mon Valley”, where Vandita had a Chicken Thukpa, I enjoyed a Beef Thenthuk (on the menu Beef was listed as “Baa Sha”) while Dorjee, a Pescatarian, ordered a Veg fried rice which was served with a bowl of gravy.
We were curious and wanted to try more local stuff. Dorjee took us to the local food market from where we picked up many ingredients including Churpi (the Yak cheese used for cooking), an unusual local white Rajma, a Tibetan red chilli powder and two kinds of Churkam (Local Yak chewing cheese). Back home our helpful hostess told us how to cook the Chilli powder and the Churpi.
The next day we headed to the Tawang monastery early to catch the prayers in action. A room full of monks as young as six sat, supposedly praying. The purple robes, the chanting voices and the beautiful murals all around made the place magical. The teenaged monks prayed in earnest but the young ones were busy playing games, making faces and generally being kids. The prayer happened in a side chamber, and the main monastery was empty and beautiful.
We returned to a breakfast of Ting-mo and vegetables, after which we washed clothes (there is no laundry service at Tenzin), took leisurely baths and relaxed. After 3 days of driving we needed a break. In the late morning we headed to Tawang town. The Government run craft store didn’t offer anything special, and the staff seemed uninterested in selling. We hung out at two lovely cafes: Dharma’s coffee House and Yangke’s Café – mostly reading our books. The reason to visit two cafes was a quest for good wifi connectivity. We needed it to research and book a place to stay for our last two nights heading back. There was no wi-fi anywhere, but the airtel signal was strong enough so we made the bookings. The signal in Tenzin was poor and slow.
Dharma’s had Pizzas, Pastas and excellent coffee. At Yangke’s we only tried the butter tea, which we enjoyed. Both had nice décor, but Dharma’s was a very cool place to hang out. The entire café is themed on the Dalai Lama, and there is a wall of books devoted to him which visitors can browse.
On the way back we decided to stretch the drive over 3 days. On May 21st we left for Sangti Valley which is a 10 km diversion to the east from Dirang. We had heard that it was nice, and it turned out to be better than nice. It was idyllic – a wide valley with fields and grazing cattle, with a river running through it
Sangti Valley is lower in altitude than my other favourite river valley in India – Sangla valley – but harder to reach. A river runs through both. Mountains fortify all sides of both. Sangti is Sangla from 28 years ago.
We stayed at the Tsejor Homestay (94022-93040). We realized after we checked-in that the bathroom was separate and shared, but since we were the only residents, it didn’t matter. The place was basic but cozy, and view from the balcony was spectacular. The lovely host couple Pema (a former monk who had given up the ascetic path) and Eton (a lovely forever-smiling lady) made the place special with their warmth and hospitality. Neither Airtel not Jio had any connectivity in Sangti, but Pema told us that Vodafone worked. He set-up a hotspot which I was able to use, but it was slow.
Tsejor charges a mere 1500/ night. As always we pushed to eat local food, and they obliged with dried Yak meat and mushroom, both cooked in Churpi gravy. We also tried the local Kiwi and Ginger-honey wines, both of which were excellent.
We went for long walks on the evening of the 21st(when it was raining) and then again on the 22nd morning (when it was dry). The Norphel winery also runs the fancy “Norphel hotel” in Dirang, but we doubt it could compete with the beauty of Sangti (see photo at the end of this post).
Our last night was at Bhalukpong, a forgettable grubby town on the border of Arunachal and Assam. While it wasn’t an exciting destination, the drive from Sangti to Bhukpong was amazing. This was a different route than our way in, and we went back via Tezpur. After Bomdila, the road splits towards Tezpur, and 5 km after that we reached a military station names “Tenga”. There the army runs a veritable shopping complex with a restaurant, a bakery, an ice-cream parlour, a shop of potted plants and a large store. All this in a picturesque valley by a river. We ate lunch there and also bought some interesting curios and gifts.
The army runs stores and cafes very actively in all these mountains. This is something I haven’t seen an any other part of the Indian Himalayas.
After Tenga the drive was at a lower altitude but we crossed a number of big waterfalls, and finally made a short stop at Tippi which has an interesting Orchid centre open to public (entry Rs. 10/person). The weather here is tropical-humid, and I guess that makes it a great place for Orchids. They had many types of Orchids and we enjoyed the 45 minutes we spent there.
In Bhalukpong we stayed at the Prashaanti cottage, which was a government run hotel masquerading as a private one (it’s website is a private website but the property itself is covered with signs of Assam Tourism). It felt like a standard-issue production hotel after the lovely families we had stayed with over the past few days. We had a large room with an ante-room and a private sitout. It wasn’t bad, just soulless.
We ordered fish curry rice for dinner (after all, we were in Assam), and it was really good. The breakfast on the 23rd was an unimpressive, low-quality buffet. Post breakfast it was off to Guwahati. The 6 hour drive was flat. Lots of handmade Bamboo knick-knacks were on sale along the road and we bought a few. Lunch was at a roadside eatery and we were back at the airport by 5 – way ahead of schedule. Our flight back was delayed by an hour, so we landed up spending almost 5 hours at the airport. Guwahati airport has a (tiny) lounge, which made the wait a tad easier.
The airport has a store named “Goodwyn” which sells Tea. Evidently they have their own plantations. Killing time at the airport, Vandita bought tea as gifts for friends and family back home. But we both were already planning our trip back with the kids.
Arunachal is the eastern tip of India, and so the sun rises and sets earlier than the rest of the country. That also earns it the rip-off tagline “The land of the rising sun”. So plan to start your days early, and end early too. In our experience most home-stays were happy to serve breakfast by 7.30 AM.
Cell signal was patchy, and data, when available, was slow. I loved that – I read a lot and drafted this post offline. None of the places we stayed or cafes we visited had wi-fi either. So don’t plan any zoom calls while in this part of Arunachal.
Our rental car had a GPS which worked well 80% of the time, but sometimes went off track, and gave wrong information / directions. This happened more in the inner reaches around Tawang & Sela pass. The cellphone GPS was better and more reliable, but checking with locals when unsure is a good idea.
The local food goes well beyond Momo & Thukpa. What the local folks here eat is mostly not available in restaurants. The local cuisine is heavily based on an ingredient called “Churpi” a Yak cheese. They cook vegetables as well as meat with Churpi, green chillies and much else. They use many other things I’ve never had before like fin (as sort of sevain but cooked salty) and Nyang (a strongly flavoured herb). They also dry mushrooms, fish and Yak meat and use the dried stuff in their food. Some of their preparations are fantastic. We frequently overate. I cannot claim expertise in just 6 days, but I would strongly recommend that you leave your traditional home food behind and try the local food.
Some vegetarians maybe concerned after reading this post. Don’t let that deter you. Tawang has a law that says nothing can be hunted, fished or killed because it is a Buddhist district. So there are plenty of veggie options in the local cuisine as well. This picture was taken in Tawang. How so much non-veg is still on various menu’s, and so blatantly, remains a mystery.
Be sure to check the weather before you leave. We visited in May, but the forecast was 50%-90% rain everyday, and the highest temperature over all seven days was 18C (except in Assam). We carried clothes accordingly, and that made a huge difference. We also bought two umbrellas immediately on arrival.
There is a lot of Alcohol in Arunachal, much of it local and good. They make their own Kiwi, Ginger-honey and Apple wines in Dirang. In Sangti we sampled a little of the local Chhang. The wines we tried were great, so don’t carry / buy booze in Assam. Keep the option for buying locally.
We made our seven day trip in about 70k (35k each) Ex-Guwahati airport, not including airfare. This included a self-drive rental car, fuel, six nights hotel stay, 5.5k for the special taxi to Bum La, all meals and some random shopping. It would be lesser per person for a larger group. We weren’t splurging, but not cutting corners either. I did cross-check prices where possible, but never negotiated. I also usually tip generously.
Being majority buddhist, Losar (Buddhist new year) would be a great time to visit. It is usually in Feb/March but is not fixed as per the Georgian Calendar. The Ziro Music Festival could be another good time to visit.
During this trip, my out of office email said:
“Reading and travel nourish the soul. Right now I am away from work, doing some serious soul-nourishing.
As I and a special someone travel across Arunachal Pradesh, a certain Count Rostov, and a man named Ove and someone seeking a blue umbrella accompany us.
We’ll be out till the 24th of May, and I will do my utmost to avoid turning on a computer or checking my phone.
If you consider the matter urgent, ask yourself if it is life-threatening. If yes, please reach out to my colleague at the Himalayan Writing Retreat (her email address).
If not, grab a good book and get some nourishment yourself while you wait till the 24th.”
Vandita and I actually read a lot on the trip. I finished “A Gentleman from Moscow” and Vandita finished “A man called Ove”. Television programming in hotels – and everywhere else too – is repetitive and depressing. Your escape is complete if you actually stay away from screens – be they TV or mobile. I loved the opportunity to take the time to catch up on my reading. I suggest you try the same. Enjoy your trip!