Bharati Motwani traces the route of the 1962 Chinese incursion
As the Pawan Hans helicopter from Guwahati descends on Tawang, you feel like the Monpa gods emerging out of the clouds. The hour-long flight takes you over Bhutan for a good half hour, just 30 km outside Chinese airspace. At Tawang, local women wearing the traditional chuba carry their babies strapped to their backs. Young children wear bright woolly scarves, their red chapped cheeks lit by bashful smiles. Men of the Apatani tribes walk by wearing vests of raw hide; their 5-pronged caps, made of yak hair, make them look like displaced Rastafarians.
It is clear and sunny when we arrive, but an hour later we scurry for cover as the sky suddenly fills with roiling grey clouds, and hailstones pelt down viciously. The temperature drops without warning; suddenly a stream of gold light pours out from between the heavy clouds and lights up the yellow roofs of Tawang monastery on the mountainside. Like a benediction, the monastery briefly glows gold in the surrounding grey; I feel my spirits return to life.
Early the next day, we begin the climb to Se-La (La is Tibetan for pass) which, at 13,940 feet, is the second-highest motorable road in the world after Khardung-La in Ladakh. On these high mountains, long-haired goat and yak graze beside old bunkers from the 1962 war overgrown with alpine grass. At intervals are memorials to fallen soldiers, carefully maintained by the Indian Army. At Jaswantgarh, a group of jawans stops to offer prayers at the shrine of Jaswant Singh, a young soldier who was martyred here 40 years ago. In front of us is Kangto, an unclimbed peak 7,000 ft high, to challenge those who enjoy conquests. Our driver tells us of the enchanted lake, Bangachangchho, over which helicopters mysteriously develop engine trouble and go down — our own Bermuda Triangle.
We make it to Se-La by noon — any later and an impenetrable cloud cover would have made driving impossible. Up at the pass, a brightly-painted archway welcomes us, and a Monpa woman strings colourful prayer flags across the frigid snowscape. She believes that at these altitudes, the wind whips the prayers up to the gods faster than anywhere else. The furrows on her face are etched as deep as the crevasses on the mountain face. Nearby is Fikar-Not.com, possibly the world’s highest internet café! We crowd into the warm Fikar-Not Dhaba hanging over a cliffside for steaming Maggi noodles and hot coffee. Sitting next to the warm tin bukhari, I find myself supremely content, not a fikar in the world. The proprietor offers us whisky — Oaken Glow no less! The dhaba operates six months of the year and makes its profits off the thirsty faujis who traverse the pass. We are still 109 km from Bomdila. We cross the pass, driving past snowfields and crystal streams to Dirrang, a pretty town beside the river Kameng.
The next day, we drive from Dirrang to Bomdila, the headquarters of the army, and Tenga, the older cantonment. The road takes us through a rainforest where the valuable and threatened gopichandan (red sandalwood) tree grows. Bomdila marks the outer edge of a region of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. At a beautiful monastery, referred to as the Lower Gompa, we turn the prayer-wheels. In the main altar sits a statue of Sakyamuni, and in his burnished lap we leave offerings of incense. The highlands from Bomdila to Tawang reflect geographic and cultural proximity to Tibet in architecture, dress and silk embroidery. There are chortens everywhere. Out of painted windows drifts the sound of drums and low, deep chanting, as families do their meditations.
Just outside Bomdila is the Tipi Orchidarium which grows 500 species of orchid. We spot the carnivorous pitcher plant. Where the Kameng flows into Assam is the picturesque town of Bhalukpong. We are told that this is just the place to sit by the Kameng river and reel in the mahseer, and that the majestic Great Pied Hornbill gives darshan to anybody who cares to see. It’s been a long journey and it’s time to set up camp and rest awhile.