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.
Day 1: May 17 (Guwahati to Bomdila)
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.
May 2: May 18th – Bomdila to Tawang
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.
Day 3 – May 19th – Tawang to Bum La, Sangetser Lake and back
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.
Day 4 – May 20th– Tawang and around
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.
Day 5: May 21st – Tawang to Sangti valley via Sela Pass and Dirang
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).
Day 6: May 22nd – Sangti to Bhalukpong
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.
Day 7: May 23rd – Bhalukpong to Guwahati airport
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.
Specific travel tips about the drive to Tawang, Arunachal
Light : sunrise, sunset etc.
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.
GPS : Does it work?
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.
Food : try the local Arunachal Cuisine
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.
Weather : Arunachal climate
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.
Alcohol in Arunachal
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.
Budget for Tawang trip
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!