If there is heaven on earth, then it must be starting around the pristine patch of Gorsam – Zimithang – Y junction area of Tawang District. Sample a few pictures taken during peak May Indian summer –
Y junction on the way to Bumla by TravelJaunts
Sela pass , the second day post snowfall by Travel Jaunts
Zimithang by Travel Jaunts
We visited Tawang this May when the Indian plains were boiling. As our driver picked us up from Tezpur, the high Himalayas were nowhere to be seen. 50kms into the journey, arriving at the state check-post of Bhalukpong (in Arunachal), and those mighty hills were still a misty horizon. But, 200kms further, at Sela Pass (13,000 ft. above MSL) the cool had descended into a sharp wind-chill. Thereafter, the mighty eastern Himalayas showed us their majestic side for the next 68km upto Tawang. For the entirety of that journey, one could see atleast 6000 ft. of pure elevation at every point, with deep valleys telling you why the Himalayas are the Gods. Tawang is, Heaven on Earth.
We arrived into Tawang to find a rarefied tourist density, specifically zero presence of the typical North Indian tourist. This part of India is perhaps better known to Tibetans, and the Monpas – who were the original inhabitants – than Indians.
“So you are Monpa?” I asked our local driver Tashi, whom we had picked up for a day trip to the Indo Tibetan border point of Bumla (at 15,000 ft.).
“Yes Sir. Now we are free; else till 1962 India China war, Tawang was a part of South Tibet and we were under Tibet rule. My grandfather had to cross these mountains and go all the way to Tibet to pay tax to stay in our own land. Today under India, we have our own lands” came back an unprovoked confession.
“Hmmm, so Monpas follow Buddhism?”
“Yes, we also are Buddhists like Tibetans. We have same festivals too but our languages and clothing differs”
As the conversation continued, we spoke about 1962 war, the immortal stories of Rifleman Jaswant Singh and Subedar Joginder Singh and innumerable war stories which are part of the local lore. As the scenery turned to snow, Tashi pointed out that there are 111 alpine lakes in this border area of Y Junction and Bumla, with the Indian army all around in these difficult roads and extreme conditions. Just to highlight, we saw 5 semi-frozen lakes on our way to Bumla and Sangetsar Tso (which is now popularly known as Madhuri Lake, after the song of movie Koyla that was shot here).
As we headed back into Tawang for the night, we heard of a paradise called Zimithang which lay to the western drop of the hills known as Y Junction (not far from the 62 war flash point of Khinzimane, from where the Chinese first entered into India). We decided we had to see that. And, what a decision that was to be.
At 8am in the morning, we decided to take the roundabout route from Tawang into Zimithang (90km) by following the river rather than taking the high mountain passes. Idea was to camp in a homestay for the night. The journey was very scenic but extremely tough on the road with numerous avalanche swept places, completely washed away by rains and streams. Till about Lumla, the road was extremely difficult, and then it became a little less difficult in our Bolero. It took us 4.5 hours to do this journey.
Reaching Gorsam, the scenery suddenly opened up into a huge and deep valley, lush green, with red rhododendrons on both sides of the stream. Cool winds, amazing waterfalls, and an overflowing torrential stream, green everywhere the eye could see, clear blue skies with streaky cumulus clouds, and a peculiarly shaped Buddhist Stupa of Gorsam….that was the gateway to Heaven.
We crossed the metal bridge over the river, cleared our permits from the Army check-post, and entered into the beautiful village of Zimithang. People so different, houses so uniquely built out of stone, perched high on hills and air so pure, it never smelt so nice anywhere in my last 25 years of traveling. As we stopped to enter the house of our local host, I raised my head to look up at the high mountains and figure out where did they end….they didn’t! The green hills just gave way to fog and then higher mountains of ice, as high as the eyes could see. It seemed, there was no end to the heights of those Himalayas.
Alas, our host and the entire village was away at a Chhang (local alcoholic brew) party and there was lot of song and dance and merriment, which meant that we had no one to cook food and not much to speak to. At that moment, a crazy idea stuck us. Let’s go back to Tawang, but over the high mountains and thru Y Junction, from where it would be a nice downhill drive. Looking back, it perhaps was the best decision of the trip.
The 48km route up from Zimithang to Taktsang Gompa (on the way to Y Junction), is perhaps one of the the best mountain drives I have ever done. Dense forests with tall trees of ferns, figs and red bamboo where Red Pandas graze, filled with various hues of rhododendrons, literally thrown around everywhere, so carelessly by the Gods. Yaks and wild horses grazed on pastures and no human beings for the whole of this 48km stretch, not even a shop, not even a cart. Take a look…
As if that wasn’t enough, the Gods became kinder. As we drove up from Taktsang to Y Junction (38 km), the dense fogs suddenly made way for rain, and at that height, the rain comes down only as snow. Within minutes, the same place we saw yesterday with snow on the mountains, now became snow everywhere, with fresh powder pounding our Bolero and the wiper unable to keep pace with the snowfall. It became a blanket of white where it was difficult to spot the road, aided only by green colored army settlements and some stationery “Shaktiman” trucks. It was a 90 min drive in this snow land till we got to the army café at Y Junction. Only when we entered inside, did we realize that perhaps we were freezing to death. The coffee served by the jawans of Bihar regiment (and from my native Rajasthan) was the best drink of the day.
The ride downhill after the coffee was uneventful, though still snowy and windy. It was a heavenly 10 hours that we witnessed that day and celebrated that with a huge dinner and snored heavily all night. My advice is – go ahead and enjoy this place. It is something out of this world.
Tawang is 320km from Tezpur, and it is a difficult 20 hour drive from Guwahati (there is a chopper too, but choppers are choppy and unpredictable). From all calculations, you will reach Tawang on the 3rd day from your start at Guwahati. Most people make stopovers at Tezpur (or Nameri or Bhalukpong) and Dirang (or Bomdila) on the way to Tawang.
Tawang is at a height of 11,000 ft. and it is sufficiently cold even in peak Indian summers to demand atleast 2 layers of woolens if not 3. April – May would perhaps be the best time to visit as the town gets very cold otherwise. It has the second oldest monastery which is most important to Tibetan Buddhists and is absolutely very well preserved.
The town is a small one, with steep roads, firmly camped in by the army. The Monastery towers over Tawang, no matter where you see it from. It is a place where time slows down, and the beautiful Monpa people get you at ease almost immediately. That said, the town is pretty basic and small with similar accommodation and food. There are only a few ATMs and only some places accept credit / debit cards. Hotels also are basic, our recommendations being Hotel Mon Paradise and Hotel Taktsang amongst the lot.
You need an ILP to enter Tawang (and Arunachal). It can be obtained online, or from tourism offices of Arunachal Govt. in Kolkata, Guwahati and Tezpur. To get to Bumla and other border areas, one needs to obtain another pass from the DC at Tawang Town. All permits are easy to obtain and without hassles.
We would be happy to create an itinerary if you would like to visit Tawang, and pass on contacts for travel logistics and accommodation. Feel free to write to us.