Into the unknown: on a 10-day road trip across eastern and central Arunachal Pradesh, our contributor finds fresh perspective and a world that abounds in pristine beauty. By Ruth Dsouza Prabhu
I am a city girl who loves her occasional getaway to the mountains and beaches. I enjoy everything, from bare-bones camping to whiskies in infinity pools. But I always return to the chaotic, fast-paced life of the city. This changed when I found myself on a 10-day road trip through eastern and central Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Trans-Arunachal Drive 2021. For motoring and off-roading enthusiasts, the Trans-Arunachal Highway (NH13), currently under construction, is a dream stretch. It covers 2,407 kilometres and is proposed to connect Tawang in the west to Kanubari in the east.
The Trans-Arunachal route takes you through regions untouched by commercial tourism, from crystal-clear gurgling rivers to forests too dense for the sunlight to penetrate. It makes for an experience of a lifetime.
LAND OF PAGODAS
Our journey began in Namsai in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, a 120-kilometre drive from Dibrugarh Airport in neighbouring Assam (Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t have operational airports). Home to the Tai Khamti and Singpho tribes, Namsai is located close to Nao Dihing River. Relaxing at Arun Jivitta Hotel, we indulged in some delicious dishes of Khamti cuisine—shutki maach (a Bengal-inspired dried fish dish), shredded koi boyle (banana stem), and black rice kheer (milk and jaggery pudding). At the hotel’s bar, we tried ZumZin Peach Wine, a product of Bhutan. Tart, yet pleasant on the palate.
Sunsets in Arunachal are at 5.30 pm and sunrises at 4.45 am, giving the body clock a jolt. An hour after sunrise the next morning, we drove to Kongmu Kham, also known as Golden Pagoda. The serenity of the place was enhanced by the calm of the early morning, broken only by the swishing sounds made by temple keepers sweeping the steps. The best time to visit the temple is during the Kathina Festival, a Buddhist festival that falls at the end of Vassa, the annual three-month monsoon retreat. The multitude of monasteries—Namsai, Momong, Chongkham Buddha Vihara, World Peace Pagoda, and Empong Monastery—lend Namsai the epithet ‘Land of Pagodas’. If you wish to spend some time here, download the My Namsai app for reliable information on tourism hotspots in the area.
Arunachal Pradesh shares borders with Bhutan, Myanmar, and China. I visited two of these international border sites. The first was the Pangsau pass (in Changlang district), located at an altitude of 1,136 metres in the Patkai Hills on the India-Myanmar border. It was called Hell’s Pass during World War II due to its dangerous terrain. But I found myself enjoying the uphill drive; the scenery improves incredibly with each hairpin bend. Far from being grandiose like the India-Pakistan border at Wagah, this is a barbed wire fence across which a few rows of wooden structures are built on an elevated base. People from both sides of the border come here on specific days of the week for what we are told is a lively marketplace. Unfortunately, the pandemic has shut this practice down temporarily. From the border viewpoint, we spotted the ‘Lake of No Return’, in whose waters several allied planes are believed to have perished during WWII.
We reached our campsite in Hayuliang on the banks of Lohit River (a tributary of the Brahmaputra that runs through 200 kilometres of Arunachal Pradesh) late at night, driving through torrential rain. The camps here take communing with nature quite literally—the only thing between you and the great outdoors is a tent. Hence, being well-kitted is crucial. Be prepared for heavy rains that can sometimes breach your tent’s defences.
The extremely cold night gave way to bright sunlight at 5 am, and the sight and sound of Lohit sent all my discomfort scurrying away. We walked over smooth, multi-hued stones to get close to the water. You will be tempted to pick up a stone from here as a souvenir. If you do, remember to throw one into the river. According to local lore, it is a way to thank the river for its generosity.
The next day was spent getting closer to the Indo-China border; we drove 100 kilometres to a village called Tilam in the cantonment area of Walong to break the journey. A bonfire and kiwi wine courtesy of Norphel winery in Dirang offered much-needed respite from cold and exhaustion.
Kaho, the first Indian village at the Indo-China border, awaited us the next day. It is a tiny village populated by just 14 families and located less than 10 kilometres away from the border. Kaho does not have phone lines or internet connectivity, because private service providers don’t consider it a lucrative market. Hence, the only means of communication in the village is through walkie-talkies. Imagine 73 people listening in on you hollering at the kids to come back from the neighbour’s house, sharing a recipe, or inviting someone over for tea!
The sarpanch’s wife opened her home to us, and over plates of khakung (dry beaten rice snack) and chong (hot butter tea), told us how every family grows their own produce and why most have never moved out of the village. Aren’t they afraid of being so close to the border? “No,” she said emphatically, “our soldiers protect us well.”
To meet these soldiers, we climbed close to 220 steps to the Gompha Post of the 25th Battalion ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police). The Chinese bunkers are just eight kilometres from this outpost and can be viewed through binoculars.
LUNCH ON A RIVER
While driving from Kaho to Tezu and then to Bomjir (a distance of 155 kilometres), in the district of Anjaw, we came across the Tidding Bridge. Used to transport heavy arms and machinery to the border, this 110-metre bridge hangs over River Tilua, with only an inconspicuous yellow board to indicate its existence. Arunachal Pradesh is peppered with similar suspension bridges, and they make for picturesque pit stops.
Around 48 kilometres from the district headquarters of Tezu is Parshuram Kund, a famous Hindu pilgrimage site. Situated at the southern end of the Lohit River, the site is surrounded by the lush Kamlang Reserve Forest. Getting to Parshuram Kund means climbing 360 steep steps, making the concrete seats placed at regular intervals true saviours. We dipped our feet in the water and were splashed by a sudden wave. Worshippers were quick to inform us that this meant the river had blessed us. An hour and a half away in Tezu, Digaru Eco Resort hosted a rather unusual lunch. Tables were set in the river water that flows through the property. Nothing can be more soothing for your feet, especially if you have just climbed Parshuram Kund.
IN HIGH SPIRITS
Our next campsite, Zaktum Notko in Bomjir, was a welcome change with permanent facilities. Think tents with beds, shared cottages with toilets, and hot water. It was here that we witnessed the preparation of local rice beer, apong. The first flush is usually a light golden colour and mild. Successive flushes get stronger. Apong is made in most homes and offered to guests in copious amounts. A word of caution to lightweights: the beer is deceptively potent.
Home to the Adi tribe, Bomjir is close to the 6.2-kilometre-long Dibang Bridge and is situated between Dambuk and Roing in the Lower Dibang Valley district. The area is popular for net fishing, off-roading, and white-water rafting. Find a reliable rafting service operator for the water can be choppy and capsizing is a distinct possibility.
JUST LIKE HOME
Driving from Bomjir to Basar (around 234 kilometres) is currently a test of patience, with the road still under construction. A lunch stop at Hotel Rihar in Likabali, which served an excellent dish of chicken boiled with fermented bamboo shoots, garlic, and onion, helped me find my bearings.
Basar was declared a district in 2019 and is home to the Galo tribe. Three bastis (colonies)—Gori 1, 2, and 3—make up the district. The homes are made of bamboo and hoisted off the ground to make room for storage. In the living area of each home is an open hearth, where a kettle constantly bubbles. The smoke runs through a few layers of bamboo shelves suspended over the fire, where meat is placed for smoking. The people of this region are largely animistic, following Donyi-Polo, an indigenous religion. White flags with the sun representing this belief system dot the homes.
Our host at MG Homestay, Minjo Basar, welcomed us like we were family. We visited the local market, went trekking in the forests that surround the village, dressed up in traditional costumes, and foraged for the evening meal. Basar is known for the Mopin Festival, celebrated every year before the new crop is planted, and the BASCON festival in November that celebrates Galo culture.
While the rest of the convoy moved on to western Arunachal Pradesh, I bid them adieu from Basar. Through the six-hour drive to Dibrugarh, I felt compelled to change my plans and stay back. For the first time, the call of the city seemed like one I did not want to heed. They say Arunachal Pradesh has a way of changing your perception of life. It truly did so for me.
Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t have its own operational airport. You can fly to Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport or Dibrugarh Airport in Assam. Roadways offer access to most parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
Eastern and central Arunachal Pradesh are still untouched by commercial tourism. Rustic homestays and basic camping facilities are the norms here. Restrooms on camping sites are portable and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Make your inquiries in advance. Hotel Arun Jivitta (doubles from INR 5,400; arunjivittahotel.com) in Namsai offers clean rooms and basic amenities. The highlight of Digaru Eco Resort (+91-612222247) in Tezu is the riverside restaurant serving local delicacies. For MG Homestay in Gori 2, Basar, contact the host Minjo Basar (+91-8259865936).