You Know You’re In Walong When!

That nippy December morning, I woke up amidst the pine forest to my alarm blaring into my ears. Groggily getting out of my bed, I looked outside my window. The dawn lit mountains basked in the first rays of Sun, the birds warbled in the trees and mist evaporated over the tin roofs as though dancing in the golden beam rejoicing the start of yet another brand new day. I looked at our two mutts who seemed rather too sleepy for they were snuggled cosy in the blanket with Tee completely unaware of the fact that I was tying my shoelaces which usually is a sign of ‘It’s time for our walk doggos’. It’s usually the two of them waking us up before the alarm but I let them sleep and decide to go alone until I happen to stare at my phone screen flashing the current time as 8:30 AM. ‘Whaaaattt!’ I yelled at all three of them, pulling them out of their beds. We were to start exploring the town at 9 am. Two cups of green tea, a couple of blame games with the husband later we realized who the villian. Our phones messed up. It was only 6 AM. We woke up at the Chinese Standard Time! Wellll! An eventful start is a good start. Also now you know you’re in Walong when you sleep at IST and wake up at CST 😛

Posing in front of the Chinese territory..the third blue hill on my left is a part of China.. Behind’s the enemy line 😛

Walong: Mountain Trails, Intriguing History and So Much More

In mishmi language Walong means a place of Bamboo groves. Wa means Bamboo while Long means Place. The town is nestled in the easternmost Himalayas of our country and boasts of being the battleground of the long forgotten 1962 Indo China war. Being in close proximity to China, the town offers many spots and has renowned villages that give you clear views of the Chinese settlements across the border. So here’s a list of places that you must plan on adding to your itinerary. Promise you won’t be disappointed!

  • Hike Up To The Dong Plateau To Witness The First Sunrise Of India
Golden meadows of Dong
Forever Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets

Who doesn’t like chasing sunrises and sunsets! And imagine hiking amidst pine forests and verdant meadows to witness the First Light of India. Dong valley boasts of receiving the first sunlight of India. The easy hike up to the meadow is a must do. The entire route and necessary info is given on this post below 

Location: 7 kms from Walong town on the west bank of the river.

  • Walong War Memorial

The Sentinel hills around us stand

 Bear witness that we loved our land

 Amidst shattered rocks and flaming Pine

 We fought and died on Namti Plains

 Oh Lohit gently by us glide

 Pale stars above us softly shine

 As we sleep here in sun and rain

  Bernard Dougal

Gratitude and Respect

I stood there amidst the mountains, at the War Memorial looking down upon Lohit. The eerie silence in the valley and these words by Bernard Dougal had me imagining this place as a blood bathed battleground in 1962. It is here where the bloodiest battle also known as The Battle Of Walong during 1962 was fought by our brave Indian Army soldiers. The battle is remembered for the steely resolve, valor and unparalleled bravery displayed by the soldiers despite numerous challenges. One cannot not feel goosebumps standing here.

Made Tee pose for a change

Location: Situated  in Walong town right after crossing the market enroute to Tilam. 

  • Walong Waterfall
The picture doesn’t do justice. You have got to see it to believe it

The valley hides tons of stunning secrets that even google or YouTube wont talk about. Here is one such find. The short trail up to the Walong waterfall was surprisingly spick and span signaling no influx of tourists this end. If you plan to check this out after reading this post, kindly refrain from littering. Let us not make this spot another Jogini falls. This 100 to 150 ft high waterfall is by far the most stunning cascade I’ve ever witnessed. The enormity of it is beyond one’s belief.

Location: Situated 8 kms short of Helmet Top

  • Namati Plains And Battle Remnants
Namti War Memorial…The hills where the bloodiest battle was once faught
War remnants from 1962

With lush pine forests nestled in the folds of the mountains on one side and a wide open valley with lazy Lohit nonchalantly meandering, this place is one of the most Instagram worthy spots east of Walong. For the history buffs Namti War Memorial with remnants of mortar bombs and machine gun bullets lies at the northern end of Namti.

To top it all, a solitary homestay here provides much succour to impromptu hikers and wanderers.

Location: Enroute to Kibithu from Walong

  • Kaho and Kibithu The Last Indian Villages
Enroute to Kibithu..The easternmost road of India
villages across Lohit on the other side, towards Kaho

Eastern most villages of India, Kibithu and Kaho on either sides of Lohit river boast of being abode to the Meyor tribes. Standing here one can easily soak in a panoramic view of the Chinese settlements across. The ride or drive to both the villages is simply breathtaking with umpteen waterfalls, green pastures and tiny bridges hanging over ever brimming Lohit. Kaho also houses a small Buddhist Gompa.

well you could call this the easternmost house 😛 Last house in Kibithu
The Gompa at Kaho
  • Camping at Karoti
Waking up to views like that

If you are looking for a good camping or picnic spot, Karoti is your refuge. Pine forest along Lohit makes it an ideal camping location for nature lovers and adventure enthusiasts.

Location: Right after crossing the border roads establishment at Karoti, next to the Karoti bridge on left side of the road.

  • Hot Water Springs at Lohit River
The Hot Water Springs in the backdrop( sandy patch)

A small village called Tilam which also happens to be the gateway to Dong has the hot water spring on the Lohit bank right below the suspension bridge to Dong. ideal for a post trek dip.

Location: Tilam village next to the PWD guest house.

  • My Personal Favorite
In the fields of Kundan
Perhaps one of the most stunning villages near Walong

There is this one village that often haunts me in my dreams. That is what mountains and meadows do to me. If you too are a sucker for solitude, go for a walk in the fields of Kundan village. This tiny settlement with just about five houses took me back to my two years of stay in Bhutan. I was keen on visiting the locals but a board displayed a notice requesting visitors to not enter the village premises due to the current pandemic situation. So I simply walked around the fields and sat down here for quite a bit before heading to Kibithu.

Location: Falls enroute to Kibithu after crossing Karoti.

How To Reach Walong

The nearest airport is located at Dibrugarh Assam while the nearest railway station is in Tinsukia, 325 kms away from Walong. There are frequent buses and cabs available both at Dibrugarh and Tinsukia as well as Tezu for your onward journey.

PS : While we covered all these places, we stayed only at Wakro and Hayuliang enroute.

PS: The nearest or last petrol pump before Walong is in Khupa near Hayuliang. So make sure you fuel up your tank here in case you’ve hired a vehicle.

Accommodation

For those interested in staying with the locals, Nomkholong Homestay in Walong is a good option.Here’s the contact of the hosts. 9436635379/9402476123.

There is one homestay in Namti as well.

Apart from this, there is a PWD guest house in Tilam, the place from where the hike to Dong Valley starts.

Route To Walong

Ideally your first stop should be at Tezu/ Wakro, both small towns in East Arunachal. Here is the route that we followed

Tinsukia- Namsai- Wakro- Parshuram Kund- Tohangam- Hawa Camp- Salangam- Tidding- Hayuliang- Chagwanti- Hawai- Walong- Tilam-Dong

GLAW LAKE: THE SECRET OF KAMLANG THAT YOU’VE GOT TO KNOW

Ever stalked random people on social media for travel? While some of you might have an amused look on your face right now, I am sure there are some who are nodding their heads in agreement. While those who find this amusing, let me tell you, I owe my best travel sojourns to stalking locals on Instagram. Well that is how this stunning gem, Glaw happened to me!

HOW I MET BETHEM, MY GUIDE

Bethem! My Guide…My Friend

Last month while trying to find out more about Wakro town, I stumbled upon this amateur vlogger, a young kid, all of 21 named Bethem who started sharing videos of her hometown during lockdown, exploring nooks and corners of her place. She belonged to the Miju Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh which piqued my interest, so I decided to get in touch with her on Instagram.

Trails like these and company like this

A couple of messages were exchanged before I jumped the gun and went on to ask her if I could come stay with her and she could show me around. The husband warned me then ‘she might think you are a crazy stalker! Who messages random people asking them to be your host?’ I retorted ‘ A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!’

A month later, I met Bethem. I needed a guide for the trek to Glaw Lake and asked her to help me out. I had already watched her vlog on the same trek and knew she could help. Bethem called me up and said ‘Di, I will try finding someone but if I am not able to, I shall take you guys’. On asking her the guide charges, she said ‘ I can’t take money from you, you want to know about our culture, I am happy to get this chance to give you a sneak peek into the life of us Mishmis. People think of bizarre things..Log humko puchta hai, Mishmi log saanp khaata hai kya? And when we step out of our state they say ‘Welcome to India’ May be you could enlighten them through your posts and blogs that we are one of them, just not so well known’

Happy Memories In The Making

We met like we were friends already. She guided us throughout, answered all my lamest of queries with the widest smile and made me believe that friendships are not based on age, caste or community but love and zest for similar things. It’s people like Bethem, who make me want to travel and explore places,meet new people and find out about their culture to share it with the world. 

Posing together on the Shambaa bridge

GLAW LAKE

Glaw… At the dawn lit hour

Hugged by snowy mountains and dense canopies, hides this pristine beauty called Glaw lake, tucked in the wilderness of Kamlang Tiger Reserve, deep inside the idyllic town of Wakro. It is a huge lake, stretching over an area of 8 sq kms with a circumference of about 5 kms. Some locals say that Glao or Glaw is the source of the Kamlang river that flows across the reserve into the town. The hustling Kamlang river gives you company throughout the trek along with a million Gibbons and other wild dwellers contributing to the soothing forest cacophony. The route is a total of 16 kms that takes you through the tropical rainforest overwhelming your senses with sights, smells and sounds one could only fathom in fables and fairytales.

Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations

There is lots of folklore about the lake. The Mishmi tribes believe that there are four girls and boys regarded as the deities or gods who reside within the lake and protect not just the lake but anyone around. They say no one can drown in Glaw and that it never gets any muck or leaves or stems on its surface in spite of the numerous trees enveloping this gem.

And that stunning backdrop

The mythical lake also has the reputation of throwing unprecedented showers however mild they might be on receiving any person the first time at its premises. I had read in many blogs that people were greeted with mild showers on their first visit. We did not differ from the rest. It rained the day we arrived as well. Has to be some meaning in that folklore! After all serendipities have limits too 😛

Glaw also has a twin sister named Mehao Lake in Roing, Lower Dibang Valley. Both the lakes look almost similar and are a part of the wildlife sanctuaries in their own respective districts. When I watched Mehao Vlog for the first time, I thought Glaw probably has a second name. Identical twins from another mother.

HIKING ACROSS THE TROPICAL RAINFOREST OF KAMLANG

Tales of the hidden trails

After catching up with Bethem at the decided meeting point right outside the forest department office, we got our permits sorted. It was amusing to see the forest officer wearing a Himachali cap here in this remote corner of Arunachal. He was kind enough to hand over the keys to forest hut built by the lakeside. ‘Araam se sona, baahar bhot thanda hoga na’ he said while handing over the keys to us. The hike that started on a warm note like that had to turn out incredible.

Banana Plantation Spam

Leaving Tuwam village behind, we were now entering this wild world where the call of the Gibbons welcomed us into their habitat. Rivers are the roads of the forest and Kamlang here curved vigorously, babbling its way through the dense valley. The sunlight darted through the dense foliage lusting to greet the velvety thickets of moss and ferns and the air smelled of fresh pines and herbs. Bethem plucked red colored berries ‘ Anjaw mein sab log ye khaata hai.It is supposed to be good for boosting energy levels’ I asked her the local name for it. ‘Kaho’ she quipped.

The first orangey break next to the forest watch hut

45 mins later we sat down by the river side near the forest watch hut. Most of the breaks revolved around eating local fruits. First being oranges. Wakro is an orange county with endless orchards dotting the countryside. While second was the Elephant Apple, locally called ‘Taki seed’ found in abundance and a favorite amongst Assamese (called Chalta)  and Arunachal folks. We reached a rickety suspension bridge that wobbled with every tiny step we took. I scrambled like a petrified kid, taking calculated steps, avoiding vanishing through the cracks and holes on its wooden surface. I looked down for a nano second, through the cracks of the bridge surface, my eyes opening wide on watching the mighty boulders being whisked about by the furious Kamlang, snaking past all obstacles. My legs suddenly tingled, not sure if I was more excited or petrified. While Bethem ran ahead, jumping on the bridge making it swing harder. Her infectious energy made me feel a tad better.

It creaked…it cracked…but look at the pristine Kamlang flowing below

‘Now the real trek starts Di’, she yelled, running up the slippery slope. Slushy narrow trails, the oh so stunning foliage of plants that I’ve never witnessed before, cascading streams, massive rocky boulders almost forming caves and wild banana trees making a tunnel of sorts that hugged the trail from either sides…this is what defined the route now.

Couple that hikes together.. stays together. With huge massive boulders enroute
Negotiating one of the many streams enroute

We stopped at one of the bends where the locals had offered coins, notes, flowers and leaves to the nature gods, over a rock under a tree. The girls bowed down with respect and I followed  suit. Mishmis are animists by religion, worshipping nature gods like Sun, Moon, Mountains and Rivers all considered as ‘Amik Matai’ meaning ‘The Almighty‘. This particular spot is considered sacred. The Mishmis believe that they enter the holy vicinity of Glaw Lake this point onwards and ask the Lake and Nature Gods to embrace them with open hearts and protect them. It took me back to many hikes I did in Himachal and Bhutan where locals had similar beliefs and once again reaffirmed my faith in the homogeneity of faith amongst the tribes across the country. Something the boundaries cannot change.

Amik Matai…Amik means Sun while Matai is the creator. While Buroo is God abiding with rivers and Shyuto is God of the mountains

The jungle got only denser and more beautiful after crossing the tourist trekkers hut at Kalai. Most of the trekkers and birders stop at Kalai the first day but the lake was just one and a half hours away from here and it was mostly downslope plus we made it well in time so we carried on.

At the trekker’s hut in Kalai.

While the beautiful silence of the forest engulfed us, there were quite a few moments when it was obstructed by the loudest flapping of wings that almost sounded like helicopter blades whirling and chuffing through the tall magnificent Canarium trees. We looked above only to find the oh so enormously wide winged Hornbills, flying in a pair. Needless to say, I was left awestruck.

mysterious trails

FINALLY…HELLO GLAW!

Sunrise at Glaw Lake

While chewing on a local Almond kind of tiny dry fruit called Chahal, Bethem showed me the huge Plantain Leaves ‘ Di! We use these Laphu leaves as plates. I think I’ll collect some for our evening meal.’ I hadn’t seen a single plastic wrapper in my last six hours of hiking and that’s probably owing to such eco friendly practises of the MIshmis in this region. Every time I am in such places I am forced to think how materialistic we urbane dwellers are. I just made a trip to Khurja to hoard more crockery while my guide and friends here from the Mishmi Hills live a simple yet content life. She has everything she needs in these forests that they preserve so beautifully. Houses made of bamboo, utensils made of leaves and most of the food grown in their backyards. 

Laphu Leaves used as plates by Miju Mishmis…PC : Bethem

That one last hour is always the most trying one. You know you’re almost there yet there’s no sign of the lake. Bethem kept saying ‘ Lake aane wala hai, bas pahuch gaya’ and then through the dense foliage I saw something shimmer. Not ready to believe my weak eyes, I checked with Tee. Yes Glaw it is. The laborious steps suddenly paced up, striding across all obstacles for every inch scaled unveiled the lake, as though unpacking a surprise gift waiting for us. Glaw had me dumbstruck. I had seen her in videos, in a few pictures but this gem right in front of me was perhaps the most stunning lake I ever witnessed. And earning this view made it even more special. I threw my rucksack aside and just sat down staring at the snow-clad mountain basking in the faint evening light while the wilderness of Kamlang reflecting on Glaw so so sooo beautifully.

The makeshift bamboo raft
just when we reached Glaw..look at that dramatic sky

 A fisherman hut stood by the lake, smoke billowing out of it. It called me out. Two Miju Mishmi men sat inside washing and cleaning fish. They were here to collect fish for a wedding in the family. Fish along with Mithun meat is their staple. While walking in the village bylanes of East Arunachal, it is common to find men and keen young kids roaming around with catapults and arrows. Till very recently hunting was legal in this remote corner of our country. What else would a man rely on in wild cut off places like these. The two men were extremely warm and happy to see outsiders coming to see the lake. ‘ Baahar se hardly koi aata hai. Aap aaj humaare saath yahaan ka khaana khaayega’ One of them tied his makeshift bamboo raft with bamboo strings on the lake shore. Seeing them balance it out on a three logged bamboo raft was an experience in itself. Such hardy men and what daring lives they must live.

The Mishmis of Kamlang

Later in the evening we sat down around the fire, listening to Mishmi songs while cooking Lai patta saag, rice and fish. Bethem shared some stories untold. Of her village in Kathan that they left behind, how she spent her childhood living in the higher reaches of Anjaw, teaching me some Mishmi words and giving us an insight into her Miju Mishmi culture. I also learnt that Mishmis are not very expressive when it comes to feelings and don’t use many words of appreciation.Also they don’t follow the usual way of greetings saying Hi etc. Kisikmei  and Umm are the only words I remember from my Mishmi vocabulary and ofcourse another one that i would use towards the end of the post.

Yours truly pounding garlic and chilles in traditional style at the local Mishmi fishermen’s hut
Took my breath away… 5:30 am scenes

Next morning the lake appeared like a dream. Mist rose from the lake to kiss the slow moving clouds while the snow clad mountains looked at the clouds dancing with ever so affectionate eyes. My heart was overwhelmed with mixed feelings. I wanted to scream out of euphoria, capture everything in pictures,at the same time leave the camera aside and just be, sit still staring at the mist flare up into the clouds, a part of me wanting to go feed the Mithuns with salt.

Early Morning Mist and the enchanting Glaw

Glaw was the kind of magic that I perhaps felt just once in life before.

Try this at your own risk. Then again there is no risk as no one drowns in Glaw.
Tee was reliving his Rowing days from the academy times. He did it so effortlessly

And once again, in a far off land, with yet another lesser known tribe, amidst the soulful sounds of  Kamlang forest, I sat down scribbling pages, inking stories so that you and I know a little more about this world, residing within our country yet so alien and unknown but a very part of our own. 

Concluding this post in Mishmi style ‘ Promangnai Glaw! Pra Li Ga Athu Kesa

I know easier said than done but if only i could own a tiny little hut like that far away from the mainstream world, right beside Glaw
From L TO R: Tee, Bethem, I, Bethems cousin, Two Mishmi fishermen who fed us breakfast and took us around on their bamboo raft. in the background are two over friendly Mithuns who almost adopted Tee 😛

IDEAL TIME TO VISIT GLAW

October to March are the ideal months to hike up to this lake. The route gets extremely slushy in rains and the leeches make it even more difficult in monsoons.

HOW TO REACH GLAW

The nearest airport is in Dibrugarh and the railway head in Tinsukia while the local one in Ledo. One can easily get shared cabs and buses from here. 

Wakro is just a three hours drive from Tinsukia.

PHONE CONNECTIVITY

While there is good connectivity in Wakro town, there is no network inside Kamlang Tiger Reserve.

ACCOMODATION

Carry your tents and sleeping bags along. There are three huts at the lake. One is the fisherman’s hut which is usually occupied by the men who are there for their work. While the other one is in a dilapidated state. Third hut belongs to the forest department. Moreover one must camp at a place like Glaw for a wholesome experience. Incase of rains you can pitch your tent inside the view point hut. 

MOTORCYCLE DIARIES….CHAPTER: PANGSAU PASS

Riding on the historic Stilwell Road

That December morning, while riding into the mysterious Patkai Hills, the crisp winter breeze greeted my face eagerly with its ever so playful warmth. The clouds danced mischievously across the skies parting way for the  amber sun rays to provide some succour from that damp forest air engulfing the solitary wheels trudging its way up the curves of the legendary Stilwell Road. The hum of the Royal Enfield’s charismatic dug dug interrupted the cacophony of monkeys, chirping birds & rustling leaves of those tall bamboo groves swaying ever so gently. As we left behind Nampong, the last town before the Indo-Myanmar border,

Clouds playing with the lens

I couldn’t help but wonder as to how lucky I was to venture into this part of our country which until a few months back,  I also feigned ignorance about. So here’s another stunning secret of the North East that’s not just rich in terms of beautiful locales and culture but also holds great historical significance. Pangsau is truly a destination for any and every kind of traveler. 

PATKAI HILLS OF ARUNACHAL PRADESH

The Mysrical Patkai Hills Of Changlang

It is strange how I only remember reading about the Himalayas,or probably Khasi and Jantia hills in the North East, back in the day at school. Perhaps some chapter in Geography might have mentioned about Patkai hills but the fact that the name never occurred again explains why it all sounded so alien when I heard about it last year as though hearing it for the first time. For that matter, even Mishmi hills or about any tribes from this region of Arunachal, all sound like mysterious names unheard of. 

Pit stops enroute..At Nampong

So the Patkai Hills are the mountains on India’s North Eastern border with Burma.The  Three mountain ranges that form the Patkai hills are The Patkai Bum, The Garo Khasi Jantia and the Lushai Hills. Pat-Kai in Tai Ahom language means ‘to cut chicken.’ Patkai runs along the spine of Changlang district, one of the least explored places in Eastern Arunachal.

Our kind of Dates

HEARD OF THE HISTORIC STILWELL ROAD?

Our journey began from this historic landmark that screams stories of valour, grit, determination and the indomitable spirit of the ones who toiled to make this route come alive in the 1940s at the World War 2 time. History never allured me but the stories of Stilwell road piqued my interest like none other. Perhaps reading about Stilwell and then riding on the same route made this trip even more exciting. So here’s the story. 

The grand Stilwell road played one of the most vital roles in the trans-regional connection, India-Myanmar-China during World War 2 while fighting against the Japanese. It was built on the old opium route that was utilized to carry out massive civilian exodus in 1942 after the fall of Burma. Earlier known as the Ledo road since it started all the way from Ledo ( a small town in East Assam which is famous for the last railhead) going through Burma to all the way up in Kunming, China in order to deliver military supplies to the Chinese Allies in their fight against the Japs as an additional support along with the air supplies. Many interesting stories revolve around the flying route too which is called ‘The Hump’ which shall follow up later in this post. 

Lekhapani , a small town ahead of Ledo and short of Arunachal border was the last railway head back then in 1940s. The station here closed down in the 90s making Ledo the last railway frontier on the eastern axis.
Wall Grafitti at Nampong commemorating the Pangsau Winter Festival

This route was infamous for its natural nemesis like deadly malarial infested forests, torrential rains, treacherous mountains inhabited by unforgiving predators and of course the lurking dangers of enemy attacks resulting in thousands of casualties of workers, labourers and soldiers as they worked on and undertook this route, which gave this route a rather somber name ‘A MAN A MILE ROAD’ A total of 1079 miles from Assam to all the way up to China.

Boundless tea gardens enroute..

After all those names, the road was eventually renamed as Stilwell by Chang Kai Sheik as a tribute to General Joseph Stilwell ( then Commander of American Forces) as this project was his brainchild.

The road that tool three years to come into being and cost a thousand lives is now hiding in the thick undergrowth of bushes…OldStilwell Road

While closing towards Pangsau pass, we spotted the Old Stilwell Road sign board, buried deep in the bushes, the legendary road that now could easily pass off as a forest trail. While standing there, black and white pictures of that bygone era flashed in my mind that I glanced through while reading about the war.

THE LONG FORGOTTEN WORLD WAR II CEMETERY AT JAIRAMPUR

Lest We Forget
from my first visit back in August.

After crossing Jagun, one enters Arunachal, its first town being Jairampur which happens to be famous for the lesser known and long forgotten World War II cemetery. Though the cemetery looked more of a botanical garden which also is a partial identity of this place as a  tiny board on the gate says World War 2 cemetery while a much bigger board says Botanical garden. A huge statue of an archaic looking soldier with sword and shield greeted us at the entrance. About a thousand graves of the allied soldiers who were mostly African American, Kachins, Chinese, Indians and Britishers laid here buried in wilderness hiding under a thicket of moss and ferns.

Walk inside the cemetery

Though the cemetery is said to have already existed since World War II, no one except the local villagers was aware of its existence. things changed when Assam Riffles found the ruins. Back in the 90s, the large burial ground with more than thousand graves of the allied soldiers as mentioned above, who died while constructing the ‘Man A Mile Road’ were discovered and brought to public notice.

Botanical garden inside the cemetery

Spread over 3 acres, the cemetery is said to be one of the largest in the north east India. the graves are arranged in five lines and several rows while a large grave located at the center is said to be a mass burial spot. Bricks like Ledo AR&T CO. Brick Fields etc were used to construct the graves. When the graves were discovered, most of them were found in dilapidated conditions, reportedly damages done by wild elephants and grave raiders.it was only after its discovery in the 90s that the boundary wall was erected to prevent further destruction and maintain the cemetery.

It is said that most of the allied soldiers buried here didn’t die of bullets but due to malaria, snake bites, accidents, natural calamities while constructing the longest road of World War II, the Indo China Burma theater. on the same site they also built the world longest war time pipeline for fuel from Calcutta to Burma.

I am not sure if it felt eerie, sombre or beautiful standing there amidst the graves hiding in the wilderness of Changlang.

One of the many graves. Not sure what the symbols mean…Perhaps a name of the Chinese soldier

PANGSAU…THE GATEWAY TO MYANMAR

Endless Giant Taros
Sitting on My Side

The ride up to the pass is every nature lover’s delight for the flawless road flaunts the rich flora of this region. I once again gave in to my temptations of bringing a plant home from this side of the state. Giant ferns and taro leaves, umpteen vibrant butterflies fluttering around, sprawling tea gardens throughout the way and Tangsa huts perched on the hillocks shall keep your eyes wide open throughout.

Took this plant back home. Souvenirs from Arunachal

The engine roared as we scaled up the last bit of the climb and were finally greeted by the board ‘PANGSAU BORDER MARKET’ .

And finally we reach

‘This is it?’ I asked Tee. We were technically inside Myanmar already. He scoffed ‘ If only getting across borders and boundaries was this simple’ Border Pillar Post 173 stated India on its left and Republic of Myanmar on its right. It took me back to several border posts that I have visited so far of both India Pakistan and Indo China all fiercely guarded and fenced. This was one of its kind. Perhaps it says a lot of our relations with the Burmese 🙂

Border Pillar Post 173

Emerald carpet of green fields lay beneath the sparkling tin roofs of the Burmese huts that threw out spirals of smoke. My eyes frantically ran across the vast expanse of the Burmese ground, looking for the much fabled Lake Of No Return’ ‘We need to climb further up to find a better vantage point, screamed Tee from a distance.

Behind is The emerald green blanket of farms at Pangsau Village Myanmar.. Clicked on my first trip back in August

Deserted shops stood a little further ahead, awfully quiet, the silence only broken by the rustle of leaves around. During normal times, san pandemic, the border market bustles with vendors from both the countries selling daily life commodities along with few handicrafts. While the Burmese come every Sunday, Indians this side open up their stalls thrice a month on 10th, 20th and 30th of every month. This time around it was only the birds around giving us company. The two of us felt like aliens landing on a planet deserted and abandoned for months.

On normal days, one comes across many Burmese, mostly Women and children selling stuff at the market. Women use Thanaka on their faces to prevent wrinkles and sunburns. Do not be surprised to find women walking around with white looking paint int heir faces. Pic Source: Unsplash
the deserted border market…Burmese shops

We sat at one of the Burmese shops with colorful Buddhist window panels, soaking in the undisturbed views of Patkai hills, wondering how a place so calm and pristine could possibly be called Hell Gate or Hell Pass once. The ground where I sat, once had piles of dead bodies of soldiers eons ago, the very thought of it sending a chill down my spine.

palette of Buddhist colors on one of the Burmese shops
The only company we had

THE FABLED LAKE OF NO RETURN…ASIA’S OWN BERMUDA TRIANGLE

Since the movement across the border has stopped since March last year, we were unfortunate to not have been able to go down to the Lake of No Return. I know the name might have got you all curious. So here’s the story. The lake lies in the Pangsau village after which the pass is named. So this region is famous in the annals of history and commonly known as The Hump, the name given by the allied pilots. After the Japanese blocked the Burma road in 1942, the allied forces resorted to air operations. 

Lake Of No Return on the Myanmar side

 As they flew military aircrafts from India to China, flying over this stretch was extremely challenging and dangerous, lack of equipment, radio navigation aids etc making it all the more difficult resulting in numerous accidents with many planes disappearing into the unknown. The Americans called it The Lake Of No Return owing to the number of planes concealed in its depth.

Wikipedia also tells of another story where Japanese soldiers on losing their way ended up at this lake and died due to malaria. While some say retreating British soldiers got lost in its quicksand. Though none of the legends associated with the lake have any basis in fact, the Lake has grown to become a tourist magnet owing to its fabled reputation.

Places that make you ponder

Sitting at the viewpoint hut, I stared at the lake, hiding partially in the winter haze. Whether hundreds of aircrafts perished in its waters or soldiers trapped in its quicksand shall always be a mystery but what laid few miles away from me looked simply surreal and called for another trip perhaps, to witness it up close. I wasn’t done yet.

On the other side

THE PANGSAU PASS WINTER FESTIVAL

Picture Credits: Nooti Kumar: Nooti’s Chayankan(blog name)

This one of a kind international festival celebrates the culture and art of the tribes of North East India as well as Myanmar. This three day festival exhibits folk dance of various tribes, unveiling their unique culture and traditions, spreading cheer and joy beyond boundaries. While Tangsa, the major tribe inhabiting Nampong and Changlang region of the state display their traditional dances like Rongrang War dance, Lungchang dance, Wancho dance, many other different tribes like Alo, Khamtis, Mizos etc also perform their respective folk dances. 

An Aalo Woman Picture Credits: Nooti Kumar: Nooti’s Chayankan(blog name)

I was hoping to be a part of the festival this January but sigh it wasn’t planned this year thanks to the ongoing pandemic. Nonetheless I got a few pictures from a fellow blogger who attended this extravagant cultural affair last year and his pictures shall give you a glimpse of the event that must surely go into your wishlist.

Picture Credits: Nooti Kumar: Nooti’s Chayankan(blog name)

The Singpho Girls Picture Credits: Nooti Kumar: Nooti’s Chayankan(blog name)

While this was my second visit to Pangsau, like I said earlier I am not done yet. Maybe my cycle would like to show me around next time hopefully when the border market is bustling again with folks from both sides, giving me stories to write perhaps not from the past but present this time.  I am attaching the link below of Nooti’s blog post on Pangsau Festival. Give it a look in case you wish to know more about the festival

https://dreamsofdolphin.co.in/f/pangsau-pass-international-winter-festival

TRAVEL AND STAY INFO

HOW TO REACH

Mahanbari Airport in Dibrugarh, Assam is the nearest airport to Nampong, situated about 165 kms away.

While Tinsukia is the nearest long distance express railway station and Ledo which is just 65 kms away is the nearest local passenger train station. 

Buses are available from Tinsukia. One might have to catch a bus to Margarita or Digboi and then change for either Jiarampur or directly for Nampong here.

WHERE TO STAY

There are a couple of places available at Nampong. Here are some

Circuit House Changlang, UD Guest House, Chatim Lodge and Songru Homestay are easily accessible for bookings online.

PLACES TO VISIT

  1. The Historic Stilwell Road : Already described above in the blog, this historic route runs down all the way from Lekhapani in Assam to Nampong in Arunachal to Pangsau pass on the Indo Burma border, winding further up the mountains of Patkai range threading the Hukawng and Mogaung valleys. 
  2. Jairampur World War II Cemetery 
  3. Lake Of No Return situated at Pangsau Village on Myanmar side
  4. Manmao is a village that falls enroute to Nampong and is worth a visit for panoramic views of Patkai hills and also to witness village life of Tangsa tribe community.
  5. Other nearby places that can be visited are Miao and Namdapha national park

INNER LINE PERMIT

One needs an inner line permit to get into Arunachal. This can be obtained online or through a local tour operator. A covid negative report is mandatory along with the ILP.

Hiking In Dong Valley To Witness The First Sunrise Of India

The more I travel, the more I see

It only reaffirms my faith and makes me believe

There’s no country or land as beautiful as mine

Her mountains, rivers and tribes forever outshine

Enchanting beauty that Arunachal is…hiding in oblivion

Ending the year with a good hike in the mountains with our two dogs is a yearly ritual of sorts. And being able to do that in 2020 was a blessing in itself thanks to the fact that we are based out of the north east. We’ve travelled to many places with our dogs but this trip was super special. ‘ Why though?’ You ask! For there might be sunrises aplenty, but this is where the sun wakes up India first. In this lesser known Eastern Himalayan village called Dong, tucked far away in the easternmost corner of India. So here’s how we checked ‘ The First Sunrise Of India’ off our list.

First Sunrise Of India…

WHERE EXACTLY IS DONG?

The Middle Dong Meadow

So the eastern part of Arunachal as compared to its western counterpart is much more unexplored, underrated and lesser known. The roads in this part of the state are truly less taken for there are places where they barely exist. The seven major districts in Eastern Arunachal are Changlang, Longding, Namsai, Lohit, Anjaw, Lower Dibang and Upper Dibang. All distinct and diverse in their culture, traditions, tribes and even flora and fauna. But what remains constant throughout is the boundless beauty of nature and surprises that they offer to explorers, birders, travelers and hiking enthusiasts. Dong is situated in the Anjaw district, a home to the lesser known Mayor as well as Mishmi tribes.

OUR JOURNEY TO THE EASTERNMOST HINTERLANDS OF INDIA

The Fango and Famgo route…wilderness at its best

We set off for our first destination, a small hill town called Wakro that has with time become my favorite hill station around. A comfortable five hour drive from Tinsukia, Wakro is usually off the tourist radar and travellers driving or riding up to Anjaw usually go via Tezu, a rather more flamboyant cousin of Wakro. For a more holistic experience, you must visit both the towns on your round trip.

We stayed at Wakro while heading back and hiked up to one of the most stunning lakes, hiding in the wilderness of Kamlang Tiger Reserve of Arunachal called The Glaw Lake. Perhaps it deserves a whole new post, so about that later.

Bridging the gaps

If there’s one thing that would catch your eye while traveling in this region, it would definitely be umpteen number of bridges and the variety of them. Scanty villages flung across the mountains are now connected via wobbly suspension bridges. The population in this side of the country is just 4 people per sq km and it was only recently that these bridges became a part of the local infrastructure. Till very recent times, villagers would make their own makeshift ‘flying fox ropeways’ and fearlessly slide across the roaring turquoise Lohit river. 

Almost like a tunnel of greens with a ray of light at the end

The Birds Eye view of Lohit from Hawa Camp

While Hawa Camp offers undisturbed birds eye view of Lohit Valley and the shimmering Lohit river,the road after Udayak pass is a serpentine drive along the densely wooded forests, a treasure trove for plant lovers and nature craving nuts. I stopped the car quite a few times, quite to my husband’s dismay, snipping off some beautiful Philodendron cuttings and many others with gorgeous foliage rarely seen in the towns and cities. If there’s one thing that North East and corona have gifted me in abundance is the love for gardening and obsession for plants and this entire stretch from Hawa Camp until Tiding, the route also known as Fango and Famgo with endless hairpin bends, had my eyes wide open in awe of the sylvan paradise on display.

First view of Tidding..
Tidding Bridge…Gateway to Anjaw..a newly formed district carved out of Lohit

Tidding, a tiny hamlet by the river side and a massive suspension bridge hanging over it marked our arrival at Anjaw. A huge big board saying Welcome to Anjaw greeted us. Dhaabas or eateries in this part of the country are a rarer of the rarest sight but a small shop with a rather spiritual name ‘God Bless You’ served tea and pakodas here. God bless God bless you i murmured to myself for we were so in need for a chai break. The road hereafter gets difficult and bumpy with undulating slopes, gravel and rivulets defining the route. We were pleasantly surprised to find a fancy looking shack serving lunch by the river side on reaching Hayuliang. Hayuliang in local Mishmi language means ‘ A Place Of Respite’ and it literally turned out to be one. I could easily count the number of villages and eateries that we came across on this entire stretch from Wakro onwards and it would definitely not exceed a single digit number. But i guess that’s the whole beauty of it. Unadulterated, East Arunachal lies hidden yet content in this corner of India left far behind by time. North east truly at its offbeat best. Though there’s nothing much to see in Hayuliang but the town does offer splendid views of the confluence of Dalai and Lohit rivers. A diversion from here also leads to this lesser known town or rather hamlet called Chaglagam, which yields highest production of large cardamom in the state. The town rarely sees visitors as the roads up to here are treacherous and not for the faint hearted.

DID YOU KNOW ARUNACHAL HAS ITS OWN HAWAI!

Chagwanti

Little would people know that we have our own Hawai here in India. In Mishmi language Hawai means ‘pond’. You would find an acre of land right in the middle of Hawai which was said to be a pond earlier and is now used for perennial paddy and pisciculture.

The engineering marvel that it is…the bridge leading to Hawai

We decided to make a quick stop here before we would finally hit Walong. Hawai is the Headquarters of Anjaw district, a town perched on a mountain top offering one stunning vistas of the valley around but with the concrete structures coming up in this town, civilisation is leaving its ugly mark here. I only hope the government and the people make an effort to maintain the sanctity of this place. Beer cans and plastic strewn around in every corner was quite an eyesore.

Upper Hawai…over looking the stadium

The town has a huge helipad and numerous official buildings and is divided into two small parts, new and old. One often finds Mishmi women walking around in their oh so stunning attires, all hand woven beauties with peculiar massive cylindrical silverish earrings, locally called Inksuf in Miju Mishmi language, a kind of tribal jewelry never seen before.

The picture does not do justice. could not capture the magnificence of this waterfall for it cascaded through many bends

Jaw dropping waterfalls that cannot be geo tagged, fragrance of pines, orange trees dotting the roadsides and white shimmering sands of turquoise Lohit and rickety bridges hanging over them reminded me of the postcards I once drew as a little girl l. I used to wonder then if places like these existed in the real world. We stopped at one such bridge that was dwindling as the winds wailed. Dasher and Haachu took calculative steps, unsure of its stability while I sat there staring at a tiny hamlet on a hilltop with just three huts. I wondered for how long it remained disconnected, living happily in its cocoon in this huge big world, unaware of what existed beyond this river, just when my thoughts were obstructed by the sound of a motorcycle.

My never ending love for bridges…especially the rustic rickety ones

A young boy loaded with ration on his bike was going to cross on this bridge to drop off stuff at the other end. He took five rounds, the bridge swinging his bike as though he were trying one of those adrenaline pumping rides in an amusement park.

But the bridge never gave up. 

I was instantly reminded of this movie based on Arunachal that I watched on Netflix during lockdown. It’s called Crossing Bridges, a beautiful film based on Shergaon ( western part of Arunachal) and first ever movie to be made in Sherdukpen language 💚 Must watch if you haven’t yet.

PS: I have a thing for bridges, bridges of any kind. For they connect two different worlds, fading away the gaps so beautifully. 

wonder what lies beyond

DONG FINALLY!

Since Walong has quite a few places to be covered, I shall write about it in my next post. We started the hike from Tilam, a small hamlet situated about 5 kms ahead of Walong on the east bank of the river. One can see two plateaus with Pine meadows beckoning you from the other side of the river. That is where the sun rays hit our country first. Even though the hike was an easy short ascent though breathtakingly beautiful, just the whole idea of climbing up a hill top to see that fiery ball of fire waking up the country before anyone and everyone from a deep slumber gave us an all new high.

Kick starting our hike to Dong

After crossing the bridge, Dasher and Haachu sure had an adrenaline rush walking over it

Back in the day the Dong village thrived on those meadows on the top but due to scarcity of water, villagers moved down closer to the confluence of Lohit and Sati rivers. There are just about five to six Mayor households at the base, where we also got our guide from. A trail leading to the iron suspension bridge starts from the PWD guest house ( on the right side) We crossed the bridge swinging noisily while Haachu, our younger Dog scrambled along as though doing a commando crawl 😛 After crossing the bridge, a short ascent leads you to a left turn with an abandoned hut around. You would soon reach Dong village, wooden huts stand guarded by oh so rustic stoned wall boundaries while prayer flags flutter signifying a Mayor household. 

Dong Village

I climb therefore I Am

At this point you hit the main road ( under construction) from where a prominent trail winds up into the forest. The base where the village stands is called Lower Dong. two hours of gradual climb through fragrant pine forests, sprawling wild grass, vast open meadows with occasional breaks for collecting mountain souvenirs like pine cones and driftwood, we landed at Higher Dong Plateau. Dasher and Haachu’s both tails and tongues wagged out of sheer joy and exertion. They ran around like wild kids, the whole meadow was their playground.

Just the four of us and the mountains
Before the sun goes down…On reaching Upper Dong

Tired bones but happy hearts

It was 3:30 pm and we were just an hour away from sunset. After taking a short breather, we started hunting for wood. The meadow on top is vast and one can see spots where people might have camped or lit fire. Our furry tails sniffed around the entire country side while we toiled hard collecting pine wood to light fire. We fixed our tents in no time and hoped the gusty winds would stop sooner for temperature dropped in no time. That night two humans with two over excited dogs, slept all alone on that hill top under the sky that lit as bright as a chandelier.

Doing my bit

Making fire before the sky turns all dark

Though the leaves rustling kept Haachu up the entire night and his occasional growling in the middle of the night while staring at the tent flap didn’t make me feel like we were the only ones! I feared if there were wild bears around but the moonlight and the owl rather comforted me more than my three male family members who snored away to glory. I didn’t sleep that night for the excitement to witness India’s first sunrise in a couple of hours was unexplainable. Dong was the first thing i wanted to see when I got here in the northeast and it was finally happening.

4:00 pm and its dark already! Why don’t we follow different time zones India

Goodnight world…so what if its just 7 pm

My alarm and Haachu’s paw nudging me on my face pulled me out of my sleeping bag at 5 AM. and then the waiting game began. So initially it took us a while to figure out where exactly was the sunrise point. While faint sunlight greeted us in the morning, the first orangey rays reflected on the glistening snow capped mountains around 5:30 am. Everything around lay still except the river down below in the valley along with the chirping birds and rising sun. The first sunlight of India engulfed us on this misty hill top, the sun finally rising up behind the mountains on the right bank of the river facing the meadows.

5:00 am scenes
Morning View from my Tent Window

That is where the first ray of Sunlight falls in India

It truly was surreal. The mist on my tent melted away with the Sun’s warmth, while Dasher and Haachu too stood still for a while, as though in awe of that orange ball, soaking up its warmth. And just like that, while India was still in its deep slumber, fast asleep engulfed with darkness, we stood here at the edge of the country where light first breaks in our country ,in  this lesser known humble village called Dong.

And there it was

Thank You Dong! You were incredible!

ROUTE TO DONG VALLEY /HOW TO REACH DONG VALLEY

The nearest airport is located at Dibrugarh Assam while the nearest railway station is in Tinsukia, 325 kms away from Walong. There are frequent buses and cabs available both at Dibrugarh and Tinsukia as well as Tezu for your onward journey.

Ideally your first stop should be at Tezu/ Wakro, both small towns in East Arunachal. Here is the route that we followed

Tinsukia- Namsai- Wakro- Parshuram Kund- Tohangam-Hawa Camp- Salangam- Tidding- Hayuliang- Chagwanti- Hawai- Walong- Tilam-Dong

While we covered all these places, we stayed only at Wakro and Hayuliang enroute.

PS: The nearest or last petrol pump before Walong is in Khupa near Hayuliang. So make sure you fuel up your tank here inase you’ve hired a vehicle.

ACCOMODATION

Tilam, a small village situated 5 kms ahead of Walong has a good PWD guest house and the trail to Dong starts right next to the guest house on the right hand side. Another trail on its left side goes down to the hot water springs of Tilam. There are quite a few rooms available and can be booked on the spot as well.

There’s only one home stay available in Namti, a village about 4 kms ahead of Tilam towards Kibithu axis.

GUIDE FOR THE TREK

The local tourist administration has made it compulsory to take a guide along. One can easily find a guide from Dong Village. They charge Rs 3000 for up to 6 people and the charges increase according to the number of people. There are two ways one can do this hike. 

  1. Hike up early late at night around 2:30 am so that you’re on top by 4:30 to catch the sunrise and then head back thereafter.
  2. Hike up in the afternoon and camp there at night and watch the sunrise the following day. We opted for this idea but please note that we carried our personal hiking and camping gear. I doubt tents and trekking gear would be available as Walong is remote and not as developed as Tawang or other towns in Arunachal.

IDEAL TIME TO VISIT

North east is known to have eight months of nasty monsoons and therefore remains disconnected untill November. November to April is a good time to visit Walong.

Please ensure you do not litter the place. There are very few places in our country that are left unadulterated. Lets try keeping their sanctity intact.

PHONE CONNECTIVITY

The last place where you find network is Hayuliang thereafter if you are lucky BSNL would probably work but it is hopelessly spotty and erratic. We remained happily disconnected from the world for three days 🙂

Wakro: The Hidden Jewel of Arunachal Pradesh

‘Akele Aurat Log, koi mard nahi hai aapke saath..Itna dur jaayega, safe nahi hai!’

I couldn’t help but smile listening to that comment, while sipping on my Laal Chai at a dhaaba 10 Kms short of Assam Arunachal border in a town called Jagun. Few years back I would have indulged in some reasoning with the overly concerned stranger who just got to know about my travel plans but now I choose to simply smile and let it go and take it as one of the amusing snippets from my travel tales.

Sooo pumped! We were road tripping to the mountains after all

WAS THERE A PLAN?

This tiny little town of Chokam has my heart

After months of waiting, thanks to this cursed year, I along with my friend Neha decided to do an impromptu road trip to a nearby town called Namsai. We hadn’t booked any place to stay, we had no agenda except for trying to find a Tai Khampti family( one of the indigenous tribes of Arunachal who have been said to migrate from Burma) and find Manna village where apparently one of the famous You Tube Vlogger had stayed with a Khampti family. Manna was no where on the google maps but we knew we could find it. That was the only plan and did it work for us? A part of it, yes but we ended up getting a little more than we’d expected. That’s the beauty of unplanned trips, they always unveil the most beautiful surprises. One such surprise on this trip turned out to be Wakro.

FIRST PLEASANT SURPRISE ON THE TRIP …ALREADY!

When in Assam do what the Assamese do…You’ve gota try Laal Cha

These folks were so full of love and warmth. We sat down chit chatting for half an hour and stopped by their place on our way back as well

We bade goodbye to the old Uncle and Auntie at the dhaaba who’s warm hospitality warmed our hearts like never before. The Assamese Laal Chai was a much needed energizer to start the trip. While driving towards the Assam Arunachal border check post, we couldn’t help but notice this village with an array of houses where women sat outside in their courtyards and spun magic with their yarn wheels, making the much renowned Mekhla Chaadar from the vibrant sutas. We couldn’t not stop here and thus began our trip with its first surprise in store for us. A group of young Mishing tribe women ( another prominent tribe found in parts of Assam and Arunachal) exchanged hesitant ‘Hellos’ with us initially and with time it metamorphosed to laughter filled conversations. Some of them were as young as 16 who apart from going to school, worked in the tea gardens to collect leaves, did the household chores and wove Mekhlas to sustain the family. The bright vibrant threads spanned across the pathway outside, stretched from one end to the other while two women softly combed them, untangling the knots. I asked the girl sitting by the wooden frame if they’d show us their collection and teach us how to drape it. They readily agreed and invited us inside. We learnt while the tribes were starkly different in their traditions and culture yet most of them wore similar skirts which had different names in different regions and tribes. Also the major difference lies in the embroidery pattern. For instance the picture down below has a typical Mising tribe embroidery pattern and color.

Mising Tribe Embroidery pattern
Mahatma Gandhi once said ‘ Assamese women are born weavers, they can weave fairy tales in their cloth’
Ended up trying this orange Mekhla woven by these incredible women.

The cloth is made from scratch and then embroidered with hands. ‘Ek piece ko banaane mein 7 to 10 days lagta hai’ the girl exclaimed. I asked her if she was ready to take a paid order from me but she was hesitant to say no. Most of them made these for their personal use and stowed it for special occasions while the ones that involved lesser work and cheaper quality were sold in the market. Perhaps their work and life deserves another long detailed post but I am so glad we chanced upon this serendipity, of randomly coming across these strangers and learning so much about their local culture and handloom in just about an hour of this unexpected rendezvous. The trip surely began on a happy surprise note.

So glad we stopped by at their place. One last picture with the munchkin

COUNTRY ROADS IN ARUNACHAL SHALL NEVER DISAPPOINT THE DRIVER IN YOU

The Road Less Taken

So I uprooted myself from my home ground and left

took my dreams and I took to the road

when the flower grows wild, it can always survive

wildflowers don’t care where they grow’

One of the many stunning hamlets enroute

Dolly Parton sang these beautiful lyrics on my car music system, while we made our way into Arunachal. The golden farms, sullen rivers, foothills of the eastern Himalayas, tiny little quaint hamlets dotting the road sides, stilt houses made of bamboo, men riding their cycles through the narrow by lanes wearing Jaapis ( the traditional bamboo hat) marked our arrival at the land of the dawn lit mountains. We were driving in the easternmost corner of Assam, where Sun rises the earliest in India.

Two of us posing with the Jappis, the traditional bamboo hat woen by the farmers and tea garden workers

Entering Namsai, one feels like you’ve stepped into the mystical land of Pagodas, pretty much like in Myanmar and Thailand. while we had already visited the much famous, Golden Pagoda in the town on our last trip, the idea was to go explore the lesser known ones. a little detour from the main road, lead to this beautiful Buddhist Pagoda called Kumgmou Pagoda.

RENDEZVOUS WITH THE YOUNG MONK AT NAMSAI

One of the lesser known Pagodas in Namsai

While walking towards the temple. we came across a Khampti lady who smiled back at us. We asked her about Manna village ( she was the fourth person we asked) and she luckily knew about it. She was kind enough to even guide us around the pagoda and call a young monk who could tell us a little about this place.

With the Tai Khamtis of Arunachal…the green cloth over that skirt signifies married women

The monk was a young boy who practiced Theravada Buddhism here in this pagoda with five other monks. I have travelled to many Buddhist towns and villages in Bhutan, Arunachal, Himachal and Sikkim but this was the first time that I learnt about the other kind of Buddhism and witnessed Pagoda temples instead of Gompas or Monasteries. The monk told us how similar their culture was to that of Myanmar and that the script they followed was the same as Burmese. Their faith differed from that of Mahayana Buddhism that’s followed in Western Arunachal. So much diversity across the same state and religion.

Tai Khamti Script
One with the Monk who so patiently showed us around and explained us things

A fun or rather serious fact that he enlightened us with. While showing us the Khamti holy scripts, he mentioned how one of the monks had long ago written and predicted an India China war in their scriptures. Well, one could almost believe that in 2020. Almost!

The monk then excitedly spoke of the up coming Tai new year festival called Poi Pee Mau which holds paramount importance in uniting all the Khamtis together. The festival celebrates the Khamti culture, tradition. games, sports, dance , music and cuisine. Though this year, it’ll be celebrated at a small scale. He then threw some light on the local nomenclature of the rituals and traditions they followed here at the pagoda and while leaving gifted us some plants from the garden after he got to know that me and my friend were crazy plant hoarders.

AND THEN WE FOUND MANNA!

had watched a vlog on this village and we managed to find it. thanks to the lady in the picture above

The lady gave us directions as detailed and flawless as google maps would and after driving about 7 kms, leaving the manicured highways, we hit the village unpaved roads. A small board saying ‘ Fair price shop Manna’ outside a grocery store confirmed that we were at the right place but people here gave us puzzled reactions on being asked about any homestay or travelers shed in the village. They were not so warm or rather taken aback to have visitors here. Just when we decided to walk back towards our car, I spotted a lady coming out of a house. I smiled at her and she reciprocated. Like a creep I lynched on to this opportunity to ask her if there were a place close by. She too hadn’t heard of any place like that but what she said took us by surprise. ‘ Aap mere ghar chalo, paani and chai peeyo. Mai aapka rehne ka intezzam karvane ka koshish karega apne family mein.’ She offered us to stay with her old parents as her house had a grand function going on with a big group of women from the village, helping them cook and clean up for the function. On asking her how much would they charge us for a one day stay, she scoffed and replied ‘ paisa nahi lega hum log. aap hamaara guest hai, do teen din araam se rehega’. and then she told us to follow her to her place.

with the kindest family i met while traveling. we are in touch now

It’s always like that you know. the moment you think people around aren’t that welcoming and the trip might not go the way you want it to, there’ll be a stranger with the warmest heart to reaffirm your faith in the goodness of others. And that’s how all my trips have been. Meeting one random stranger whos turned into a lifelong friend.

a traditional Tai Khamti house made of bamboo and stilts

Eventually we did meet the entire family, and a whole lot of villagers at their place out of which i befriended two young girls, pursuing medical. They showed us what they were cooking and told us a little about the family function. It felt a little odd to be invading their privacy and thus we decided to visit them some other time. The girls were kind enough to insist on noting down their numbers so that the next time we could inform them in advance and they could arrange a stay for us. PS : we just spoke over the phone today and she has invited me over next month when she’ll be back in her village. She works as a Covid 19 duty officer in Namsai town.

SWEETEST SERENDIPITY…OUT OF NO WHERE WAKRO HAPPENED TO US

On our way to Wakro…this place never existed in our knowing…
The Drive from Wakro to Parshuram Kund is rejuvenating

After meeting the Mising tribe family in Assam, a monk at a pagoda in Namsai and the Khamti family in Manna village, we realized that we had already seen so much without even planning any of it. It was 12:30 pm by now and we were hungry and tired. Also we were yet to find a place for tonight. So we decided to drive up to the Golden Pagoda for I remembered the eco resort that side and few dhaabas along the road side. We stopped at this eatery for brunch and got talking with the owner. No one can give you better info than the people who belong to that place. We found a homestay that charged too much and was more of an urbanized modern Khamti set up. While looking for budget resorts, Wakro Eco Resort showed up on google. The pictures looked great and the owner said ‘ very few people go towards Wakro’ That’s it! His statement did the trick. We called up the resort owner and booked a room for the evening. We were going to drive for an hour and a half on one of the most beautiful countryside roads, hugged by tea gardens, hidden hamlets and deep dark reserve forests. And above all we were going to the mountains that remained off the tourist radar.

Kamlang Tiger Reserve…this was such a happy surprise

It was yet another sweet surprise when the milestones flashed the name Kamlang. Little did we know that Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary was situated in Wakro itself and was just a kilometer away from the resort. Wakro is home to Mishmi, Digaru and Mizo tribes who consider themselves as the descendants of King Rukmo of Mahabharat. We were greeted with crisp nippy mountain air and vibrant orange trees adorning the country side. The Kamlang river broke the monotonous silence in the valley and shimmered breathtakingly in shades of turquoise green, its water the cleanest I’ve seen in the longest time.

The pristine Kamlang River
Roads here hugged by the dense cover of Kamlang Reserve Forest
While giving a lift to the Mishmis of Wakro…loved their vibrant hand woven attire and bags

While we were ‘wow..ing’ away to glory, an old man and a young girl along with him, waved at us, signaling us to stop. Looks like we were going to have good Mishmi company for a few miles as they got into our car, hitchhiking with us. The old mans wrinkled smile exuded warmth as he spoke to us about the place. I asked him if he ever spotted tigers living in the Kamlang region. He said ‘ Kai baar dekha hai’ I asked him if the sanctuary was open now for outsiders when he said ‘ Aap Tiger maarega toh forest log jail mein daal dega’ Wonder why did I give him such criminal vibes 😀 Clearly we had a language barrier and I explained him how I wasn’t keen on killing one but yes I did intend to get into the forest for I wished to hike up to the lake that had been on my wish list since forever, The Glao or Glow Lake.

In Mishmi language, Glao means water and the lake is said to be the source of the Wakro river which eventually joins The Brahmaputra. The hike up to Glao Lake is said to be a bit demanding but worth all the sweat and pain. Unfortunately, the sanctuary wasn’t opened yet to the outsiders due to corona.

Could sit here whole day long and never get tired
Tired but Happy Feet

We finally reached the resort at 3 pm and we couldn’t be happier with our decision of coming all the way up here without any info on the place or any plans. A bamboo cottage stood on stilts and our outside porch faced the mysterious Mishmi Hills of Wakro. The cherry on the cake was the tiny little tea factory that stood right next to our cottage, from where our freshly pounded tea leaves came for the evening cuppa.

The Tea Factory right outside our room
Green tea made from freshly pounded tea leaves

What else does one need after a tiring though exhilarating drive. We had the fresh organic cuppa in our hands, surreal mountains right in front, slight November winter nip in the air and Gregory Alan humming along with the birds while not a soul around. Wakro is still a hidden gem and rarely does it get visitors.

Early sunsets in this part of the country…at 4 PM

Dusk sets in the earliest in this part of the country. After all we are in the east of east. The sun sank into the oblivion, the sky turning into a fiery orange. Wakro is a haven for souls looking for peace and tranquility. You shouldn’t come here to do things. You come here to just be. Hiking into random villages, meeting the Mishmis, sitting by the pristine Kamlang river and watching a gazillion stars turning the sky into a shimmering chandelier. We witnessed two shooting stars and and a satellite that night, sitting at the outside porch, snuggled in our warm fuzzy blankets.

Our cottage in the wilderness

They say you should ask for a wish when you see the shooting star falling from the sky. My heart was full then, I simply said ‘ Thank You Wakro’.

THINGS TO DO IN WAKRO

Early morning short drive and then later hike to Parshuram Kund

Ideally dont do anything, just read or go picnicing by the riverside or stroll around the villages but yes the small town does have a lot to offer to people who need itineraries.

Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary lies in between the Lang River in north and Namdapha National Park in south. It houses all the four big cats that is Tiger, Leopard, Clouded Leopard and Snow Leopard. One can take the forest walk after getting permit from the forest officials.

Glao or Glow Lake is the most significant water body inside the sanctuary. The hike up to the lake makes a good one day hike for the adventure enthusiasts through dense jungle trails and camping the night at the lake side. The Mishmi hills in the backdrop with the vast cirumference of the lake makes a stunning landscape for nature lovers.

Stroll around in the Mishmi villages like Gundri and Kanjan to know more about the Mishmi culture and lifestyle. Mishmis are animistic by religion and worship the elemnts of nature. They have unique traditions and culture that will leve the traveler in you intrigued.

Parshuram Kund or Brahma kund is the reverred religious site on the banks of crystal clear stunning Lohit river. Just a 20 mins breathtaking drive to this spot, then one needs to hike down 150 steps to the Kund that shall also offer you mesmerising views of Lohit.

Tezu and Namsai are adjacent towns with Pagodas and scenic landscapes to offer. One can complete the entire Namsai Wakro Tezu circuit.

STAY INFO

We stayed at Wakro Eco Resort, nestled in the lap of Mishmi hills, just a mile away from Kamlang Tiger Reserve. It was more than comfortable with good food, stunning views and great hospitality.

TRAVEL INFO

One needs an Inner Line Permit that can be obtained online. PS: Corona Negative medical report is mandatory along with an ILP.

The nearest railway station is in Tinsukia and airport at Dibrugarh. Wakro is three to four hours of drive from Tinsukia where one can easily get shared cabs and buses.

The Golden Pagoda Namsai: Little Burma In India

It’s been six months since the pandemic spun our lives around in ways we’d never imagined. Traveling isn’t easy anymore. Travel has changed and how! I recently made a trip to one of the hidden gems of Arunachal since it’s a short drive from my place. One’s got to be responsible, even the most impulsive explorers have got to have certain constraints now but all’s not lost. Yes one cannot connect with the locals the usual way, one can’t plan on doing stay overs but take that cycle/ car/ bike out of your garage, feel the monsoon breeze kiss your face even though you are shielded under that devilish yet life saving mask and explore the place around you. At times the most beautiful of surprises are hiding by your side.

Though i am more of a story teller and love to write about my experiences with the locals, their crafts, culture, food etc, this post is more of an informative one. Thanks to the current pandemic situation! Yet, I was quite blown away by Namsai’s beauty and the Golden Pagoda architecture and the fact that how different this part of Arunachal is from Western side (Tawang, Bomdila, Zemithang etc) where i travelled in February this year. our country hides a million secrets in every nook and corner and every time i discover something new, i feel it deserves to be known by all 🙂

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The route from Jagun to Namsai adorned with pristine tea gardens. My cycle taking a break along with me

One such stunning secret of North East India that unveiled this week to me was the town of Namsai in Eastern Arunachal. Read On! Promise you wont be disappointed.

A little about Namsai

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The pond with the Buddha meditating in the temple premises

Namsai is one of the nascent districts of East Arunachal which came into being very recently in 2015.it is known as the land of enchanting Pagodas and is renowned to be the home of ‘ The Tai Khamti’ tribes of Arunachal. Lush green paddy fields with the Himalayan foothills dot its surreal landscape with bamboo stilt huts adorning the road sides. The drive from Dibrugarh which happens to be the nearest city with an airport is just two and a half hours long and is extremely rewarding in terms of views. Reserve forests, hustling rivers, foothills of Arunachal and farms spanning to eternity enchant every traveller taking this road less taken. One often finds the Tai Khamptis working in fields in their hand woven bamboo hats. 

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The lush green paddy fields and the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in the backdrop

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Traditional Assamese Huts enroute

Who are Tai Khamptis?

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The unique Cane Buddha in the prayer hall…perhaps the only

The Tai Khamptis are one of the major tribes of Arunachal who migrated from Borkhamti in Burma in the 18th century. Khampti means ‘a land full of gold.’ They are one of the most progressive tribes of Arunachal and are pretty advanced in the field of art and literature. Out of the 27 different tribes of Arunachal, Tai Khamptis are the only ones to have their own script, known as Lik-Tai. Most of them follow Theravada Buddhism unlike other parts of West Arunachal like Tawang etc where Mahayana Buddhism is practised.

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The huge brass bell at the enterance

The Golden Pagoda Namsai

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The Golden Pagoda N

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Built on the foothills of the eastern Himalayas of Patkai range of Arunachal, the Golden Pagoda is built in Burmese architecture and is locally known as Kongmu Kham in Tai Khampti dialect. This golden shimmering beauty came into being in 2010. The huge Lord Buddha statue inside the temple made of pure bronze was donated by the chief monk of Wat Aranjikavas temple  in Thailand. 

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The shrine has four entrances from all directions but the main entrance faces North. Each of the entrances are guarded by a pair of  mythical lions. There is also a pond near the entrance along with the Ashoka pillar on the eastern side. We happened to meet a young monk who told us that currently there are 30 monks residing here.

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The Pure Bronze Buddha along with a beautiful green stone one

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The Celestial Lion

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The dragon has a hollow boat tub where in the Buddha images are given a ceremonial bath on Sangken festival

Sangken, the water festival that happens every year in April is celebrated here to bid goodbye to the old year. It’s a three day celebration where on the first day the images of Lord Buddha are taken out of the shrine and given a ceremonial bath inside this dragon boat called the Kyongfra with the beating of drums and cymbals.

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Reflecting the Divinity

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Thunder Dragon

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OTHER TOURIST ATTRACTIONS IN AND AROUND NAMSAI

  • Empong Monastery: Revered as a holy place by the locals, the Buddha statue installed in the monastery is said to have special powers. It is located in the sleepy hamlet of Empong that falls in the Chongkham division. It is believed that the childless couples come here to the monastery to get their wishes fulfilled.
  • Parshuram Kund : Situated in the Lohit district, Parshuram Kund is an hour and a half drive away from Golden Pagoda. The gushing Brahmaputra and the hills around makes it a perfect place to unwind with a book and a picnic basket. Parshuram is a remote pilgrimage site along the Lohit river It often attracts people from Nepal and north eastern states of India on the occasion of Makar Sakranti.
  • Buddha Vihara, Chongkham : Chongkham is a beautiful place, a quaint little town on the national highway 52. Buddha Vihara is an abode of peace and tranquility and a perfect place for people who love to meditate. The Tai Khampti Singpho museum located in this town is an ideal tourist destination for travellers who wish to learn more about the Singpho and Tai Khampti culture and traditions.
  • Namsai Monastery : Situated in the heart of Namsai town, this was the oldest Pagoda to come up in Namsai. It is surrounded with beautiful temples and Burmese architecture.
  • Pangsau Pass : At an altitude of 3727 ft, Pangsau Pass lies on the crest of Patkai Hills, a gateway to Myanmar. It is named after the nearest Burmese village. Details on this place shall be covered on the next post. The drive from Namsai is just two and a half hours long and is simply breathtaking. Pangsau should not be missed.

INNER LINE PERMIT

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The Eastern Himalayas

Inner line permit is required by all domestic as well as international tourists to enter the state of Arunachal. One can apply online at http://www.arunachalilp.com. Or collect it on arrival. Tourist ILP facilitation centers have been opened at the following places

Guwahati LGBI Airport

Naharlagun Railway Station

Gumto Railway Station

Guwahati Asom Paryatan Bhawan

Foreign Tourists visiting Arunachal will have to pay 50 USD per head as Royalty to the Govt of Arunachal Pradesh and applications for PAP are to be applied through local tour operators only.

ACCOMODATIONS

Homestays/ guest houses are readily available in Namsai. One can either book after arrival or pre book online. One such resort that i came across was Golden Pagoda Namsai Resort which is located very close to the temple. 

CONNECTIVITY

Nearest Airport lies in Dibrugarh City while the nearest railway station is in Tinsukia.

Singsor Ani Gompa: My Home For A Day In The Eastern Himalayas

It’s 9:00 am. I sit on my desk, writing about a trek that I did 5 months back in Himachal when suddenly my Whatsapp buzzes with a video call. Irritated at the loud ringtone obstructing my thoughts, I stare at My phone screen flashing ‘Yeshi calling’! Surprisingly, I find myself grinning ear to ear.

Where faith and mountains meet!
where faith and mountains meet

A minute or two of usual greetings later, Yeshi speaks in a rather worried tone ‘Ma’am, Ani bol raha hai, aap Delhi mat jaana. CoronaVirus fael raha hai. Yahin rehna aap. Travel mat karna!’ I am still smiling while typing this. Friendships that my mountain sojourns give me are priceless. And the ones made in this secluded Gompa on the Eastern Himalayas of Arunachal, with these simple souls in maroon robes are even more special.

Singsor Ani Gompa, Tawang, Khirmu, Nunnery, Offbeat Places In Tawang
Singsor Ani Gompa…saw all shades of sky in my two days of stay and visit there.

REWIND….February seemed to work its magic. Spring was around the corner. While walking in those narrow bylanes of Khirmu ( a small town 25kms short of Tawang), I couldn’t help but stare at this quaint little Gompa perched on a hill top. While buying Parle G for some dogs sitting on the roadside, I asked the shopkeeper what that Gompa was called. He uttered a name that I couldn’t get a hang of but I caught the word ‘ANI’. When I repeated after him ‘Ani Gompa?’ to make sure if i said it right, the man next to him said, ‘Yes.. Ani matlab Ladies Monk.’ Did I just hear that right? A buddhist Nunnery on a mountaintop in the eastern Himalayas. That was my moment of Deja Vu. All those hikes and bike rides to Kila Gompa in Bhutan flashed back. I knew what I was going to do today. I picked up some extra parle Gs, because I was going to hike up to the Gompa right away. Little did I know then that the hike would not just lead me to the Gompa but also turn out to be a stay over with these enlightened souls who choose the road less taken.

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First look when I landed on top…

It was a straight road up from Khirmu towards Geshila. I hitch hiked up to Lhou Gompa and decided to walk from here. Though the main road that laid unpaved and rarely taken by visitors except the villagers who stayed on top was as quiet as any hidden path, the sign of a narrow trail going up through the forest and meadows screamed and called me out. And so the tale of the hidden trail to Singsor Gompa began. I deliberately walked on the fallen leaves, hearing them crunch. The winds and cow bells jammed together. The Rhododendrons buds signaled the onset of Spring.

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Rhododendron Buds on the hiking trail  

The mighty Himalayas looked elusive, hiding in the sheets of clouds and prayer flags fluttered by. I was alone yet surrounded by these comforting elements of nature. The sun charred me in no time and I regretted not carrying my sipper. On reaching this meadow patch, I turned around to find a small white Chorten, a memorial made by one of the local families for the deceased. I decided to go check it out and guess what I found there. A jug of water. How does nature hear every conversation of mine with myself? I blessed the soul who kept it for tired and weary hikers/ passerby like me.

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Can you see the jug of water kept on the left..Chorten in the middle of the forest

Gemreteng Village

As I climbed further ahead, a trail diverged into multiple trails.making a puzzle of sorts. I wondered what if I got lost in the jungle, with no network on my phone. I would have been happily stranded though. Half an hour later, I found myself at a dead end with a stone boundary wall of a lone house on the hill top. Trying not to panic, I decided to catch another trail going on the right, when I saw the Gompa a little far away, beckoning me. While a tiny cluster of houses, about 5 or 6 stood below on a downhill, that village looked surreal. A monastery on top watching over it, while a few scanty mud and stone walled houses, interspersed with farms stood in harmony around each other, far farrrr away from the maddening world.

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Gemreteng Village..The Singsor Gompa on the left top, watching over the hamlet and the snow clad Himalayas in the backdrop

I decided to visit this insanely quiet village called Gemreteng. A flight of cemented steps took me down to a makeshift gate that opened to these 6 Monpa households. A lady, donning a red hat  sat outside the first house, who gave me a rather stern glare. I hesitatingly quipped ‘Hi! Paani milega?’ That’s like my go to line when in doubt. She asked this little kid, sitting next to her to go fetch a glass of water for me. Finding the awkward silence a little uncomfortable, I asked her another question ‘ aapke gaon mein ek gompa hai na?’ She sternly replied ‘ yahaan koi gompa nahi hai!’. Okay this isn’t going too well. I didn’t see myself sitting with her like most of my rendezvous with villagers. But I loved this hamlet way too much to let it go. So I tried once again, with a huge smile and a little enthusiasm in my voice ‘ aapka topi bahut accha hai’ . Did I finally see her smiling? Though it was for a nano second, she did smile. I finally sat down next to her, almost throwing myself at her ‘what a creep’ she must have thought ! I learnt the local nomenclature of the rice ( thip) and wheat (nhai) grains (  that she sieved on the dallah made of bamboo. Looking at her house in awe, I told her how pretty it was. Stoned walls painted white with tiny green windows in the middle. She remarked ‘Kya sundar hai isme? Ye hum gareeb logo ka ghar hai, purana tuta hua’. I learnt she had been to Bangalore and that she loved the city life there.

Monpas, Monpas of Tawang, Monpa architecture, Gemreteng
A traditional Monpa house

Here we were, two women from different corners of India, wishing we lived each other’s life. She wasn’t as stuck up as I thought her to be initially. Lessons learnt while travelling…not to judge a book by its cover. In Fact we laughed a lot, clicking selfies. She even showed me the biggest radish and turnips I’ve ever seen in her farms. Small lil prayer flags were placed on toothpicks in her farms, probably to protect the crops from any harm.. She sold the veggies in Khirmu town and to the army troops. She told me about this Gompa 300 mtrs away from her village where a lone monk meditated. I left with the little kid sent by her to go meet this monk, before I finally headed to the Singsor Gompa.

Monpa Tribes, Tribes of Arunachal, Monpa Villages
The lady who gave me company in the village. She’s wearing the red Monpa Hat

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The lone monk at Aryadung Gompa

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My lil co hiker who guided me to Aryadung Gompa

SINGSOR ANI GOMPA

Singsor Gompa, also known as Jangchub Choeling Nunnery Gompa was founded way back in 1960 by His Eminence, the 12th Tsona Lama Thupten Jampel Wangchuk with a vision to flourish Buddhism among the nuns of the Mon Region. What started with a simple one building extended later with time. There are about 40 to 50 nuns residing here, Anis as young as 7 with mentors as old as 60 plus.

Singsor Gompa, Monasteries in Tawang, Ani Gompa
Singsor Ani Gompa

Leaving Gemreteng and Aryadung Gompa far behind, I now stood at the entrance of Singsor. The winds wailed here the loudest, the kinds I heard while staying at the Phajoding Monastery in Bhutan. Two huge prayer flags danced to the tunes of the boisterous wind while bells in the monastery chimed breaking the stillness in air. Though excited to get inside and meet the nuns, a part of me wanted to keep standing here, staring into the oblivion, across the snow clad mountains, deep valleys, and the haze that engulfed it. Nothing! Just nothing comes close to the tranquility felt at places like these.

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When i finally reached the gompa..Welcomed by the fluttering prayer flags

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Ani Thupten, leading me to her room.

I looked around to see a nun standing there, staring at me, probably out of curiosity. They aren’t used to seeing visitors here. I hesitatingly waved at her and smiled. That was when I first met Ani Thupten who later turned out to be my host at the nunnery and eventually the oldest friend I currently have in my life.‘Kahaan se aaya?’ She asked. I told her about how I got to know about their Nunnery this morning at Khirmu and how impromptu the hike was. She animatedly spoke ‘ Khirmuuu se!  Itna dur chalke aaya. Aao ..andar aao. Chai peeyega?’ She walked ahead, her hands covered in soiled gloves,holding a sickle. She was farming in her kitchen garden and I probably disturbed her routine but her inexpiable warmth never let me feel like an intruder.

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Ani Thupten, melting Dalda for butter lamps

Her cabin was a humble abode with just the basic essentials. A huge bukhari took the center space with one or two floor cushions around it. Kitchen formed a part of the same room. I can never get over the enthusiasm and warmth with which she moved around, laying the rug for me, stacking cushions on top of each other so that I felt comfortable. She just wont let me sit on the floor. While Ani made tea and popcorn for me, my eyes ran around her cabin, curious to find, what defined life here. The bare walls had one or two shelves with rations etc, a tiny room where she slept and meditated while there was another room in the cabin where a young nun aged 16 lived, who was Ani’s niece and was away right now, to see her family in town.

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Ani Thupten’s room..space where we sat around the bukhari, having endless conversations

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Such grace…such warmth!

Ani got the puffed rice that she called Nupoh and butter tea, and once again expressed her amusement ‘ Itna dur se akele chalke aaya, koi aadmi log utha lega toh?’ She sounded concerned about this stranger she just met

Ani Thupten joined the gompa when she was 30 and belonged to Khirmu. She was the only one amongst her five siblings who chose this path. Her wrinkled smile expressed her contentment in the solitude and spirituality that defined her life. And though their life may look simple and easy but not everyone can withstand this road less taken. In her 30 years of living here, there have been some who lived and left, never returning back. Her tone was not judgemental. One of the many reasons why I love Buddhism. I told her how I loved visiting gompas and had lived in one such nunnery in Bhutan. She was thrilled to see my pictures from there and stunned to know how I knew about Guru Padmasambhava and Alokeshwara Goddess. While skimming through my pictures, she asked me ‘ Aap rehega yahan?’ My day was going well, with the conversations in my head not just heard, but granting my wishes the moment I wished for them in my head.

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This little Kitty sat around the entire time, giving us company

The aluminium kettle whistled as the bukhari over boiled the water,making some of it spill around. Ani opened the bukhari lid, threw some greyish looking powder inside and closed it. She handed the powder container to me asking me to sniff it. On seeing the smell overpowering my senses ani remarked ‘ ye dhoop hai. Ooncha mein milta hai ye. Yahaan pahaadon mein mahi milega. Sela ke bhi uppar jaana padega.’ This particular incense powder called Poeh. is made out of local herbs found in very high altitude, quite Tibetan in nature. Talking about tibetan influences, Ani asked me if i’d like to have momos for dinner. Shit. am i lucky or am I lucky! Momos is my second favorite after gol gappas 😛 She called Yeshi to give us company in the evening and a few other elderly nuns for tea. She kept telling me ‘ Yeshi young hai aapke jaisa. Usko Hindi or English bhi accha aata hai. Aap bore nahi hoga’. Little did she know, she was the best company I had had in a long time.

Singsor Ani Gompa, Nunneries in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh
My warmest host…Ani Thupten

In the evening while taking a walk around the Nunnery, I came across other nuns, some of them washing their clothes in the fresh but icy cold spring water, some sat at the temple praying, while some as young as 8 sat along with their mentors, collecting cabbage and pumpkins from their farms. There were cabins for two or three nuns each, where mostly a senior or old nun stayed with younger ones. I looked at Tashi, the 8 year old, wondering if she knew why she was here, what that maroon robe meant to her, about the path she’s chosen or rather her folks have chosen for her. Standing with a steel bucket full of vegetables, she blushed as I waved at her.

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This little Nun stole my heart!

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Nuns doing their daily chores. Ani dragging a pile of bush to use as an obstruction barrier in her farm in order to prevent the crops from animals

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Next day early morning, i found this nun, sieving the rice and feeding grains to the birds around

While walking with Ani towards the Sangbum ( an incense house)  to light the evening incense, I asked her about the aids and funds and how they all got by. Apart from the lil funding by the govt, the local villages of the respective nuns help them with rations etc and they are often called to address or conduct sacred religious gatherings on auspicious occasions. Plus they don’t need much for they never own much. I realized the difference between living and hoarding during my stay here at the Gompa. In my one and a half days of stay here, i didn’t look at myself in the mirror because there wasn’t one around. surprisingly i never missed it.

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Lighting the evening incense at the Gompa

The young nuns are free to study outside in English medium schools and join the nunnery in their summer vacations, practicing meditation and learning scripts from the old ones. Aren’t  there chances of the Gompa running short of seats I asked. ‘Aajkal ke zamaane mein koi Ani ban na nahi chahta.’ And at times people do come and enroll themselves, but quite a few leave, not being able to cope up with the simple minimal life out here. As the sun drowned behind the Himalayas, Ani lit the incense inside the Sangbum giving rise to the white rings of smoke engulfing the Gompa. This was a daily ritual when the day commenced and ended.

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Anis gearing up for Lossar… I have a huge plate of Pohri Paapad in my hands

Later in the evening four other Anis came over along with Yeshi. I sat down listening to their folklore about the Holy Waterfall,  a place with a religious significance called Chummi Kautsar where monks and nuns often visit in monsoons. One of the Ani’s got Pohri paapad and Khupsey, made out of rice and wheat  snacks made for Losar preparations. They all laughed on my flawed use of local language. I picked up a few words from Ani in the afternoon. Ani Thupten had been feeding me all day long so when in the evening she served me a bowl of snacks, I uttered ‘ Mo Koh…Ke Paingeran’ . It means.’.No Thank You..I am too full.’ I felt like a foreigner trying to speak in Hindi, cracking up every one around.

Yeshi made the best yet healthiest momos I’ve ever had. Wheat flour and Lai patta, a local leaf added some extra flavor to the dimsums. I had almost 12 of them. I asked Yeshi what made a young girl like her join the nunnery at 18. She said it was her childhood dream. Her parents didn’t approve of it earlier but are now proud  of her decisions. She’s currently studying in Tenga and comes here on vacation. After her 12th she’d be here for good. After hours of chatting, Yeshi said ‘Madam, kya aap mujhe or Pema ko whatsapp pe English padhaayega?..Hamara English kamzor hai’. I quipped, yahaan Eng teacher ka vacancy nahi hai kya? 😉 I chuckled as I said that but how ideal would have that been.

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Dinner time…Yeshi, preparing momos

While lying down in my bed at night in Pema’s room, I couldn’t help but notice a pile of Tinkle comics on her bedside and a broken 2 inch piece of mirror and a rosary. She was all of this. A little child, naive in her adolescence yet enlightened unlike others at her age. The winds wailed. The bells chimed to its tunes yet again. And I, once again, wrote a thank you mail to an anonymous recipient that remains stowed in my drafts. For I’d look back at it one day and smile reading the stories from Singsor, that I was lucky to call home for a day and for times to come, every time I visit Tawang.

Monasteries, Tawang, Ani Gompa, Nunneries In Arunachal
Reluctant Goodbyes…the morning I left was all packed up..

TRAVEL AND STAY INFO

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  • Singsor Gompa is situated in Khirmu. Khirmu falls enroute to Tawang while driving up from Jung.
  • Drive up from Khirmu on Geshila road towards Lhou Gompa. Though you can drive up all the way to the nunnery, the hike up from village Lungku Dung is short, easy and breath taking.
  • As a kind gesture, do think of carrying a little something, may be fruits or ration that can come in handy for nuns who live in this cut off region. i was charged nothing for my stay here. Bought some maggie and biscuit packets in bulk for the Anis residing here. just a token of gratitude.
  • Please do not litter here while hiking or travelling. If you happen to interact with nuns and wish to take their pictures or record them, make sure you take their permission.
  • for short stories check out

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View from Ani’s cabin

Tales From The Remotest Villages In The Great Himalayan National Park: Shagwar, Shakti and Marore

Raktisar Bound

Ever desired to follow the river up to its mouth or origin? There’s this song that I’d often hum while hiking, by Lord Huron, that goes like this

‘Oh there’s a river that winds on forever, I wanna see where it leads

Oh there’s a mountain that no man has mounted, I wanna stand on its peak”

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I took the lyrics a bit too seriously for I was so tempted to see the glacier that gave birth to the ever brimming Sainj River…I wanted to see Raktisar/Raktisaur!

Few months ago, the husband gifted me a book called ‘The Great Himalayan National Park’ by Sanjeeva Pandey and Anthony Gaston. Though the struggle to read books has always been my vice, with time, I find myself hooked on it. I owe this trip to this book and to my ever so thoughtful husband who isn’t only super supportive but always gives me that extra push whenever I’m in doubt ( why won’t he …his hidden motive is to have his own free time when I am not around and play golf and his Playstation like there were no tomorrow! Hmph!)

Like I mentioned in my previous blog post, Mahi ( the homestay owner in Sainj) helped me contact Sharad, the founder of HMRA ( Himalayan Monk Riders Association) who planned to go on this hike with three other local men from Shangarh. Before I start narrating My Tales of Tintin Adventures, here’s a little about GHNP.

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 The Great Himalayan National Park

The Great Himalayan National Park is in the midst of the Western Himalayas. There are only trails to travel within the park. The remoteness of the area, low grazing pressure within forests, super low level of tourist activity and dependence on traditional lifestyles were the main reasons to establish the park in the given location. GHNP is also listed now as a part of the world heritage site.

Four rivers, Tirthan, Sainj, Jiwanal and Parvati originate in the park itself fed by the melting glaciers and monsoon rains. The marking of boundaries for GHNP was such that the entire 620 sq kms of Tirthan, Sainj, Jiwanal Valleys were without any human habitation except for the three villages of Shagwar, Shakti and Marore (with a total of justttt 120 odd people) all these three in Sainj Valley. And so I was lucky to have visited these special villages, which are still devoid of electricity and roads while hiking up to The Raktisaur Glacier.

It’s 9:00 am. The sky is packed up and there’s a slight drizzle in the air but my spirits are on an all new high . No that’s not because i’m too strong or anything but because i’m too used to Himachal’s mood swings by now. I finally meet Sharad and we do a little bit of socializing while he’s driving his SUV. The plan was to drive up to Niharani, the last village from where the trek begins. There are three guys in the backseat and we pick up the fourth one named Rohit from Neuli. I say an awkward Hi to everyone. They’re all young local boys in their early 20s while I and Sharad are the oldies here 😛

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The barrage at Niharini.

Niharini boasts of being home to The Sainj Hydro Power Project barrage. It’s a tiny sleepy hamlet with Majaan village above,watching over it. It’s October time and the villages are in their splendid greens. We are already walking along Sainj. She’s brimming with joy, shining turquoise green, undisturbed by humans. This is her habitat, she thrives here like nowhere else, she’s born here, all pure in the wild, leaving for villages, farms and towns. She might have destinations a many, but her source is one and only Raktisar. I kept wondering how she’d get quieter , a tad more docile, as I’d hike further ahead, closing towards her birthplace.

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Sainj…at the very outset of her long, never ending journey

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The hidden trails

My deep reverie was obstructed by Kishori and Rohit, contemplating whether they should climb the rock and fetch those massive white mushrooms. I’ve seen plenty in the Himalayan region so far, but never had I come across mushrooms as huge as these. The boys told me that these were locally called ‘Chechi’ and are quite edible.After crossing the bridge in Chenga, we were now hiking on the left bank of Sainj, nearing Jaangla. I sat with Rohit and Kishori waiting for Sharad and Biju. They talked among themselves in their heavy Himachali accent. Pointing at this particular tree branch tied up with saffron cloth, I asked Rohit what it meant. It’s locally called The Panchasara Devta Tree and is said to protect people in this jungle. He told me how the local people celebrate interdependence between nature and humans through sacred groves and traditional practices like digging of herbs in the meadows only after October time locally called Bees Bhadon.

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Kishori plucking mushrooms called Chechi, from the wild. These are pretty edible.

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This huge mushroom that barely fit my hand

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Birds eye view of Shagwar from The Guguna Top

A steep climb up to Guguna top and one could now see the first out of the only three villages that were allowed inside the GHNP. Shagwar shone bright on the green steps of the mountains, basking in the faint rainbow. Another delight that remains constant in most of my Himachal trips.While the boys decided to roll a joint out of the freshly plucked leaves( how rich is this place :)) i decided to hike further ahead. Hiking alone at such places feels therapeutic. The trails were pure wild. Endless mushrooms clothed laden woods, stupendous cascades, birds that I’d never heard before and the most vibrant butterflies that gave me company( the dogs ditched me this time for there were nowhere to be seen around). A little short of the village, while climbing up, in a dense jungle, I had a moment of self doubt. I was intimidated by a rather strange looking man, who hurried down towards me, running without brakes, staring at me incessantly as though he was drunk. I frantically dug my pockets for a Swiss knife and looked at my mobile..It had no network. The man suddenly stopped a few steps away from me, just standing and staring. I sternly asked him what he wanted, when he yelled at his cows from a distance. I realized he was slightly disoriented and breathed a sigh of relief. The sign of a blue house some meters away calmed me down. It’s then that I realized, solitude in places like these can be as intimidating as comforting at times.

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First House that i came across after entering the park zone…Shagwar Village…17kms from the road head

Shagwar Village

Shagwar took my breath away. A village with just 15 odd houses, running only on solar electricity. Snow clad mountains surrounded it while Sainj gushing down, created the only sound apart from the chirping of birds. I decided to sip on some water from the outside tap in the blue house. A lady sat there with her daughter, shearing her lamb. This was the first time I saw a sheep without its coat. I cringed as the lamb resisted. When I asked the lady if it were hurting her, she laughed and said “ No! She just feels tickled” . My last two years of hiking in the mountains have changed my life in many ways, out of which one conscious change that I’ve made is to turn into a vegetarian. Having spent time with the shepherds, yak herders, horsemen etc in different Himalayan regions, I got to see the animals up close and found them as human as us. It feels strange to bring up a certain living being only to be slaughtered and served on your dish or skinned off to be flaunted on your dress or bags. I’ve got sloppy kisses from calves in Uttarakhand on being fed grass, just the way my pets would do and nudged by a lamb at Kareri for more scratching on his head. I often think about animal racism. A dog is treated like family and might even find a place in our bed. But a lamb with an equally warm heart and face only finds a place on our palate and plate! Strange are the ways of humans.No?

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A lady shearing her lamb at Shagwar Village…Gearing up for winters


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Some four legged company in Shagwar

Shakti Village (Shaktee)…Where time stands still!

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 A tiny cluster of houses at Shakti Village scattered on the hills and by the riverside

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Rohit and Kishori setting up the camp near Shakti…The village also has a trekkers hut

The dusk lit the sky in evening shades and we were almost there at Shakti. After crossing a massive waterfall, a forest department office, few grasslands and quite a bit of walking, we finally landed at Shakti. While Sharad and Biju were yet to reach, Rohit and Kishori sat down to fix the tents and light fire. I was finally at the village that I had read so much about. The village had three or four houses downhill while few sparkled on top. They sparkled with dim solar lights in the darkness that engulfed this quietest Himalayan alley. My head torch showed me the trail adorned with the weeping willows, leading me to the hamlet. I heard the kids yelling around, stealing the last few minutes of evening light before they were called back home by their mothers. While everyone had the same age or same species company, there was one kid who showed traits like me. She ran around with a dog, giggling away to glory,with a plastic sheet turned into a leash that she tried putting around the dog’s neck. The game was something like this..she was supposed to lock him up with the leash and run around while the dog was to escape the horror he was subjected to :P. I sipped on some water from the outside tap. This was probably the first hike where I wasn’t carrying my sipper at all. The water here was the cleanest and there was plenty of it. Every bend and corner had some fresh water springs. The cherry on the cake was that it was icy cold.

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The same little kid who played with her dog the previous evening… Caught up with her and her mother before leaving for the next base camp

While an old rustic house with muddy walls stood there all abandoned, a brand new cemented house with bright colored walls stood right beside it. Both though had contrasting structures and life span, made in different eras, but they witnessed no change. Time stood still in this village. Shakti was still cut off from the world. The nearest road head was 17 km away at Niharini. It’s 2019 and there’s still no sign of electricity or medical aid here. I asked a lady ‘ Light nahi hai aapke gaon mein?’ She stretched her hand pointing towards the moon in the sky ‘ woh hai hamaara light!” Lights here in this world, that’s insulated to outside influences, work on the mercy of Sun God. Getting by is not easy in monsoons and winters. 

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The traditional Katha Kuni architecture of Himachal

What about their culture? I asked Rohit, later that evening, while staring at those dim lights on the mountain top that were put off by 7 pm. ‘ Since they are isolated for a long time, they exhibit a distinct culture. Devta or the local deity is given utmost importance and governs all the aspects of the life of the villagers.’

In Fact when the park was in making, these three villages were given a separate space outside the boundary for habitations are never allowed inside national parks. But the belief in Devtas is so rigid that the villagers explained about their undying faith to the government and how the local deity would be displeased on displacing the sacred hamlet. Both Shakti and Marore have temples dedicated to Lord Brahma Rishi Guru Vashishth. Apart from that, villagers also worship the spiritual life of natural elements or objects. One gets to see open air temples of iron tridents ( trishul) and scrap metal of used household items with red prayer flags.

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Early Mornings At Shakti Village…Spirals of smoke rise from the chimney while stacks of hay adorn the house floor…

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Holy Cow!!

I sat around the bonfire with four Himachali men sharing stories from this alien world that forms a part of the country we all belong to yet is so distant and distinct that one feels you’ve entered a different planet. The village boasts of being home to the oldest voter in Himachal, a 108 year old lady named Shari, who recently passed away. Oh and BTW it also happens to be the farthest polling station in the state. Imagine the election official trekking almost 22 km through steep terrain amidst forests of the Himalayan National Park ( couldn’t they just hire me ;))

‘Shari’s house is 200 meters away from the polling station and she’s carried in a palanquin for voting.’ said Rohit.

‘Palanquin…really’? I scoffed! How do they manage that? ‘ So a chair is fitted between two huge wooden poles and the person is carried in that. While this is just 200 meters,patients and sometimes even pregnant women are carried this way for miles. In a recent incident, last month in February 2020, a pregnant woman was carried in one such makeshift cart for over 30 km , taking about 8 hours to reach the nearest hospital in Sainj Valley.’

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The following morning at Shakti..while hiking up to the village, i found this old man sitting outside his room, washing his bowl. look at his beautiful humble abode led by those makeshift rocky steps.

I told the boys about the famous story of Hari Datt Sharma, popularly known as Shastriji, that I read in the GHNP book. In 1989, he was appointed as a teacher at Shakti village for 20 households of Shagwar Shakti and Marore but there was no school building at that time. Shakti was then 22 kms away from the road head. So Shastriji chose a cave that was half a km away from the Shakti temple and 200 m above the Sainj river. The first batch was of 13 children at this cave school. He continued to teach for the next 13 years till 2002. Shakti now has a school till 8th grade and kids from Marore and Shagwar village daily trek up to Shakti.

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Children of Shakti Village excited to find outsiders in their land…and of course the over excited me to be around these beautiful souls

It felt strange to be in this alien world left far behind. Strangely happy. That probably because I was just a passerby. Camping in a hamlet which doesn’t know what a television looks like or hasn’t experienced the comforts of electricity sure feels incredibly unreal. Moreover a road inside the national park would mean easy accessibility, coming in of mobile towers and electric poles thus affecting the wildlife preserved so beautifully till date! But then again, wasn’t I being selfish? How about if i were to live here for good?This, in no way, was an easy thought. Yes the water is the cleanest, the air as pure as snow, there’s ample of weed that grows like wild grass and there is harmony among the meager few humans but somewhere in that beautiful simple life lies the urge to live with basic needs that you and I often take for granted. Imagine no sun for days together, battling those nasty winters in darkness.

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Women Folk Of Shakti Village…This particular shepherdess was very kind to invite me to her place!

And probably some secret force heard this conversation that i had with myself for just three days later, while hiking back from the glacier, a misadventure of sorts happened that made me realize how easily, what’s basic becomes a luxury, making one feel crippled and helpless.

More about Murphy startling me at the most unexpected of places…in the next blog.

Trek Info And Itinerary

The trek was organised by HMRA ( Himalayan Monk Riders Association). The company is based out of Shangarh in Sainj Valley, Kullu and knows the area in and out. They carry out many other off beat treks in the region.

Here’s Sharad’s contact 9717110658

DAY1 : Niharani Village (1710 amsl) to Gadaparni Village to Shagwar Village to finally Shakti Village (2270 amsl)

DAY 2: Shakti Village to Marore Village (2540 amsl and the last village inside the park) to Karechar Thatch ( 2830 amsl)

DAY 3: Karechar Thatch to Parkachi Thatch (3080 amsl) ..camped at Parkachi itself this day for it poured cats and dogs.

DAY4: Parkachi Thatch to Jogini Parkachi (3110 amsl) to Raktisar Camp (4000 amsl)

Day 5: Raktisar Camp to Jogini to Parkachi  Thatch (Meadow)

DAY 6: Parkachi Thatch to Kharechar Thatch to Marore Village

DAY 7: Marore to Shakti to Shagwar to Niharani Village

The trek can be graded between Moderate to Difficult. Definitely needs tremendous amount of physical stamina. The trek after Parkachi Thatch is not for the faint-hearted. Details about that in the next blog.

Solo Backpacking In The Land Of The Monpas…Zemithang/Zimithang

Swinging along with my co travelers who happen to be all Monpas, in a jam packed trundling Sumo, i find myself in a constant dilemma of uttering Ouch or Wow! The driver is huddled in a corner, sitting one person away from the gear. Trust the public transport and the roads less taken in the northeast to give that much needed adrenaline rush. What more? A TSeries song from the 90s plays on the drivers pen drive “ Mai Deewani Apne Saajan ki, the chorus repeats ‘Deewani three times..Deewani Deewani Deewani”! I think of the lyricist who came up with such interesting lyrics, just when a giant statue of Tara Devi ( The Durjen Lumpa) emerges in the backdrop,on a mountain top, interrupting my thoughts! I’m instantly reminded of the famous quote ‘difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations’!

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We enter a no network zone but hey ‘Tashi Cell’ constantly shows up on my mobile screen. I am thisss close to Bhutan!

Zemithang ( locally pronounced as Zimithang) is a small cut off hamlet, sandwiched between Bhutan and Tibet. Zemi means Sand and Thang is a place.It literally means the land washed away by river. The natives here are known as Pangchen meaning ‘a person free from all sins’. A place called Khinzemame, a little ahead of Zimithang is where the present Dalai Lama crossed into India from China in 1959.

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Small villages perched on the mountains bask in the last rays of the day. Namjang Chu (the river) hustles around breaking the monotony in the air. The man sitting next to me suddenly joins his hands and bows his head out of respect as the sumo whizzes past this massive White Chortan, almost 100 ft tall,called the Gorsam Chorten,a replica of Boudhanath in Nepal. I am told by the man that the chortan has a huge religious significance and opens up once in 12 years when Buddhists from all around India, Nepal, Bhutan and even Tibet come offer their prayers. It is said to have taken 13 years to build. Also a big 3 day mela takes place every year in March where Buddhists from different parts of India come display their stalls selling home made products and handicrafts as well as hand looms.

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The Gorsem Chortan

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Jowa serving me the local butter tea in the traditional wooden bowl

I landed at my home stay in a village called Kharman. I was going to spend a day here living with a local Monpa family, seeing this part of my country that never existed in my knowledge, doing things their way. Its pitch dark and there’s a power cut. Luckily the solar lights are on. I sit with Rinchin along with his daughter Jowa around the bukhari, sipping on the local butter tea! ( I’ve probably had more tea than ever in my entire life in this one week of travelling in Arunachal).Tea always acts as an ice breaker and conversations overflow with time. Rinchin is a cook at a local office while Jowa runs the home stay along with her younger sister. They are five siblings, the youngest being a 4 year old boy! Looks like the preference for a male child is a universal norm.

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My hosts…the mother and the youngest member of the family

Rinchin tells me how WWF people make frequent visits to their villages,to make documentaries on wildlife. Red Panda, which also happens to be the local mascot, is often spotted by him while he’s in the upper reaches finding greener pastures for his cattle. His cow shed has a tree which bears a local fruit called ‘Lejzu’ which happens to be Pandas favorite feast apart from Bamboos. The other wildlife includes Blue Sheep Takin, Black Bear, Pheasants, the gorgeous Rhododendrons and some rare medicinal plants( like Yarchagumba) that are locally called ‘Jadibutis’ which are sold worth lakh a kilo to other countries. He speaks in a rather sad tone “ Is saal black necked cranes ek bhi nahi aaya’ This rare species of bird which usually migrates to this side in winters was not found at the river banks for there’s heavy machine work going due to construction of a hydro electric project( a 780MW Nyamjang Chu HEP of the Bhilwara Group is coming up). I sigh thinking of us humans taking away their habitat…little by little..day by day!

Ps: The Black Necked Crane is not only a threatened bird but also revered as the incarnation of the 6th Dalai Lama for the Monpas.

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While hiking up to the Lumpo Gompa

I woke up the next morning to yak bells outside my room. Jowa and I decided to hike up to Lumpo and Muchet, villages on hilltop with beautiful monasteries. On my way up trailing behind Jowa who climbed so briskly I asked her about the local farming. I was quite taken aback to know that farming is no longer done professionally. The Pangchen community believes in preserving wildlife and the villagers would suffer huge losses for the wild pigs and deer would harm their crops. Since they don’t believe in hurting animals, it became difficult to maintain their crops. Most of the locals work for either GREF or as private laborers, collecting and selling sand and stones. ‘And what about homestay?’ I asked? She scoffed ‘ Homestay! Madam, the last guest came five months before you, no one knows about Zemithang. People only come till Tawang and head back.’ I was now determined more than ever to write on this piece of heaven for it deserved much more love!

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The magnificent Guru Rimpoches statue at Lumpo

Namjangchu sparkled in the sun deep down in the valley as i stood at the Lumpo Gompa under the mighty Guru Rimpoche statue looking down at the valley like a guardian angel. Jowa tells me how one gets to see all Chinese garbage in the monsoons for Namjangchu starts flowing from China, to Arunachal then to Bhutan and finally lands at Assam. I joked, ‘So Assam bears the brunt of undisciplined garbage disposal of all the three countries eh!?’

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One of the Private Gompas at Muchut

We hiked from Lumpo to Muchet, a tiny village that turned out to be my favorite with a spectacular three storeyed bright colorful gompa. A quick bite back at Zemithang and we further hiked up to the Gorsam Chorten. It had been eight hours of constant hiking and walking around the villages but never did i feel tired for every hamlet offered a new surprise. Huge houses made of stones and wood dotted the landscape in Kelektang and upper Kharman villages. They stood like sentinels of time etched with stories from eons ago. An exceptionally humongous stoned wall house stood at the farthest end of the village. The legend has it that it belonged to the Queen of Tawang, centuries ago. She was the second wife of the king who possessed the powers of demon and wooed the king while he came to this side for hunting while the first wife was considered to be an angel who hailed from the Bomdila region.These stone houses are locally called Sikpa Khem and the three storeyed ones are known as Zangduperi. ( not sure if i spelled it right..written on the basis of my host’s pronunciation)

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The traditional architecture…houses made of stones and wood…The huge big house on the right is where the queen of Tawang lived once…centuries ago

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Monpa kids…they are 8 siblings..with 6 girls and two boys!

Seeing me huffing and puffing my way up the steps made of stones in the village, Jowa asked me, ‘Madam paani peeyega’ I nodded, ‘Yes Please’! We decided to stop at this lady’s house for water which turned out to be a long chit chat session over a cup of namkeen chai with murmuras( white puffed rice) dipped in it along with freshly cooked Khupsey ( a sweet snack made for Losar). I asked the host lady if I could borrow the red hat donned by her called SIRJZA. She said ‘aapka juuda kholna padega’ I quipped ‘kholega but darna mat since my hair would have been all over the place” and when i finally left it loose, she went like “Madam kahaan se khareeda itna saara baal?’ We all cracked up at that moment. Apart from her great sense of humor, I was mighty impressed with her impeccable Hindi. Her many relatives had come over for Losar preparations which was just a week away. I asked them if they all got together and performed their folk dance called Aji Lhamu. Sadly the present generation doesn’t practice the traditional rituals much and in order to learn the dance, they call people from Lumpo where villagers are more into the old traditions. She said ‘ hum toh Aara and Chang peeyega aur dost log ke ghar jaayega.’ (Aara and Chang are the local wines made out of fermented rice and corn.)

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My butter tea with murmuras ( puffed rice dipped in it) And the Radio Gaga! this part of the world still listens to the radio..only that it works after 5:30pm

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Monpa women all happy preparing for Lossar!

While leaving her place, she asked me to come visit her again and told me to show her pictures to Ajay Devgan if i ever go to Bombay! That explained a lot about her flawless Hindi. People in this remote area love Bollywood and often pick up cds like 10 movies for 100 bucks in Tawang. So what if there are no cinema halls!

After reaching the home stay,Jowa made the most delish momos and I also tried their local cuisine called Churpi and Zann. We were exhausted with almost ten hours of constant hiking but weren’t done for the day.The girls were excited to show me their dresses that they planned to wear on Losar. I so wanted to try their traditional dress before hitting the bed. Jowa and I both wore the Shingka along with Dojzu( the black hat made of yak hair) and we posed with tired faces but genuine happy smiles  😛

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The traditional Monpa dress has 5 parts.. The cap which is of two kinds called ..The black one is called Dojzu made of yak hair while the red one is made of wool called Sirjza the dress is called Shingka and the jacket is known as Tatuong A black woolen thing is worn behind called Tengnemgakjima

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was way too exhausted yet thrilled to try the local dress

Later that night,while writing my diary,my pen scribbled the words in synchrony with the chimes of the prayer wheel outside my window. My heart was full,content and filled with gratitude. Over the last five years, I’ve traveled around the countryside, meeting incredible tribes from different regions, at times camping in a cave at 4200amsl with local Himachalis, living with yak herders in Bhutan, staying with the Gaddi Shepherds of Dhauladhars, introspecting while living with the nuns at a gompa in Arunachal and calling innumerable homestays my home, each of them weaving new stories that folks like you and i might have never known.The simplicity of people and their unconditional love for a random traveler awes me every single time. The places might change, people might differ but the warmth and love i receive every single time is the same …same old!

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My host and her cattle

TRAVEL and HOMESTAY INFO

  • Zemithang is a small town/hamlet located 70 kms ahead of Tawang on the Lumla axis. Its surrounded by Bhutan and Tibet.
  • There are two ways to get to Zemithang. You could either catch a bus from the Tawang bus stand. The bus ticket would cost you  Rs 170. PS: the buses do not operate on Sundays. Other option which is mostly preferred is the shared sumos charging Rs 250 for a ride till Zemithang. Try grabbing the front or the middle seat to avoid bumps and motion sickness. The Sumos are available at the bus stand itself.
  • In case you want to book the sumo in advance, here’s the contact. 9402404085. Because at times it isnt easy to get one.
  • Lumla is half way Zemithang and is famous for the huge Tara Devi statue on a mountain top called The Durjan Lumpa. ps: the sumos dont stop there though. one has to take a detour from the break point.
  • One will find Tashi cell network( Bhutanese service provider) here for Bhutan is just 30kms away. No other network works beyond Lumla except BSNL.
  •  I stayed at Rinchin Tsewang Homestay in a village called Kharman, a kilometre ahead of Zimithang. The family is extremely warm and helpful. Jowa guided me around the villages and hiked along to the gompas. She also makes the best momos everr!
  • Here’s Rinchin’s contact…9402030387. The homestay is comfortable with clean bedrooms. The washroom is in the household premises but not attached. Remember you are in a cut off world where basic amenities are a luxury. They charge Rs 750 as rent with complimentary dinner.
  • Mr Dorjee, a very kind gentleman who helped me with Rinchins contact is also coming up with his own homestay ( its almost done). Here’s his contact 9402859651.
  • Every season has a different charm here. If you wish to see snow then winters is a good time though it was pretty hazy when i went. I believe the place is at its prettiest best during the monsoons in July and August though the roads are in a pathetic state due to landslides and i’m not sure if you’d be able to hike around much. March to April and Sep to October seems ideal.

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Things To See In and Around Zemithang/Zimithang

  • Just as you enter you’d come across the huge Gorsam Chorten. Built by Sangay Pradhar( a lama), its 7 centuries old and holds a big religious significance. The locals host a mela here every year in March and it opens up once in 12 years.
  • Hike/ Ride up to T Gompa also called the Taktsang Gompa which is 30 something kms from here. It is considered as one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in Arunachal. Guru Padmasambhavas footprints are  said to be imprinted in this shine as he meditated here in the 8th century.This place is also famous for Red Panda sightings.
  • T Gompa is just 2 kms from the very famous Sangetsar/ Madhuri lake. one can plan on doing both these places together. Though you do need a vehicle going up to this place for a taxi would charge a bomb for the same. i couldn’t find any locals going that way for every one was caught up preparing for Lossar, making trips to Tawang instead.
  • Black Necked Cranes migrate to this side in winters. If you are lucky, you can spot them at Namjang Chu river.
  • Hike up to Gompas at Muchut and Lumpo. I hiked up to Psamdamcheling Gompa at Muchut and Lumpo Gompa (further ahead on top with a huge Guru Rimpoche statue).One can further hike up to Lumpo Village from the gompa. The village is just a stones throw away from Tibet border.
  • Must do a village tour of the upper Kharmen and Kalakteng villages in order to witness the old traditional monpa houses made of stones, mud wood and bamboo.

 

Shangarh Beckoning…..Yet Again!

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The oh so beautiful homestay at Shangarh!

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This picture was taken after the hike got over…hence quite a few bandaids on my toes 😛

Folding my cargos, i literally thrusted them into my backpack. My mind isn’t at ease. Its 12:30 am and i’m just back from one of the formal dinner nights that fail to satiate my tummy!  ( Army Wife Duties are for real) and I have a bus to catch for Aut at 4:30 am. Groggily I talk to Tee, “ Tee ya, I’m not sure about this trek. The book on GHNP says it’s not easy plus i’d be hiking with four men who are absolute strangers. I’ll be in pure wilderness with no network. What if someone tries to act funny. There won’t  be even dogs to save me Tee?!” 

My ever so supportive husband pacifies me in ways you’d never believe! ‘Carry your pepper spray and knife and just sleep it off” Clearly, my husband is a man of few words :P! Welllll! Sleep i did that night, for those meager two hours until the alarm pushed me out of my bed. I had never been so unsure of a trip before. I had probably read the book on GHNP a little too more than required.

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HRTC rides…clicked at Pandoh.

HRTC almost feels like home now. After traveling in the same bus for a year now, one’s gotten used to all the state transport melodrama. Guess what? I immediately recognized the bus conductor and the driver. The driver’s yanko hat was hard to forget and he sported the same even today. While the bus conductor smiled at me, i thought he too recognised me. When he asked me for the ticket, I frantically dug my pockets but couldn’t find it. He said ‘Chalo jaane do” I quipped, ‘Bhaiya hum last time miley the, Mandi jaate hue! Yaad hai aapko?” He immediately retorted “ Hum toh Mandi roz jaate hai, hum aapko yaad honge par aap humko nahi!” I sheepishly smiled and answered in my head “ Well Thanks mate! That was very flattering!”

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The happy cows grazing before the winters dry up the green grass galore.

After hours of staring outside the window, being humored well by the passenger on the same seat who happened to be a young college pass out from Mandi anddd who was rather curious to find out what made me travel alone, I finally reached Aut at 1:30 PM. P from HMRA was waiting to pick me up from the bus stand. He had a warm infectious smile and spoke to me as though we were friends since long. No inhibitions at all. He raced the car like he were a Ferrari driver and suddenly paced down on seeing the cops around. I asked him if they were strict about the speed limits and seat belts here. He muttered ‘ Ye log yahaan sirf maal pakadne ke liye baithe hai! Abhi aut aate samay pakda tha mujhe aur puri gaadi khulwa di in search of weed’! Aha! Welcome to Kullu. Weed is organic and we wouldn’t know how to work without it. I found it strange for the first time when men around me smoked up publicly but this was my 9th trip and I knew this was the norm.

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The makeshift cafe at Shangarh.

Back in March I was on the same road, lugging my way through, in the bus to Deori village. Mahi, my then homestay owner who even helped me with this trip messaged ‘ hike ke baad pakka ghar aana”. While I was tempted to leave the hike and run away to his place right away. Never was I so unsure of any of the treks before. On our way to Shangarh we gave lift to many locals who missed their bus. The Manu temple, one of the few Pagoda style temples in Kullu Valley stood their on the mountain top, looking as splendid as ever. I wondered if I could check it out this time.Its said that the walk from Neuli Village,along the Sainj river is extremely rewarding especially for the bird watchers looking for Blue Whistling Thrush, Chestnut Capped Tesia, Blue Magpies, Kestral and Shikra.

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one of the many rustic houses with hay hung outside to dry.

 An hour later we were at Shangarh. It lies in the ecozone of GHNP and people belonging to this belt take pride in their roots and call themselves Shangharis. 

We reached a tiny makeshift cafe right at the entrance of Shangarh. The homestay that Mahi had arranged for me was still farther ahead. We decided to grab a cup of tea before driving up to the village I would be staying at tonight before finally starting the hike, the following day. The view outside the window looked surreal. What a massive transition in just a couple of hours. I could see blue greens and yellow while no vehicles honked. Dry hay hung by the rustic cobbled roofs outside. Shangarh looked different this time. I was lucky to have witnessed the last snowfall back in March. A little later I was at the meadow that looked somewhat green. Being a weekend, a relatively good number of people sat around, though very few of them were tourists. A flock of sheep grazed while the shepherdess stared into the deep oblivion. I sat down behind her, scribbling a few lines in my head;.[p

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The temple frames!

She sat there with an empty mind

Her flock of sheep, some 8 or nine

Wandered around like fleeting clouds

Just me and her made the crowd

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The Shangarh Meadows with the famous devta temple in the backdrop.

Just then my homestay uncle called up. ‘Beta have you reached! We look forward to see you soon’! I didn’t expect my homestay owner to be so proficient in English for people settled in the villages mostly spoke in their native lanuage. I was taken aback. I honestly had no idea about how the place was. I’d blindly believed Mahi. but i’m glad i went with less hopes because when i saw my abode, I was in seventh heaven. It was probably one of the most beautiful stays i had in Himachal.

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Auntie makes the best aaloo paratha ever and my bedroom porch was so gorgeous that i never wanted to move in!

My personal definition of a perfect homestay would be, a wooden house in the mountains, away from the mainstream village, a small balcony where i could sip on my coffee while staring at the mountains, basking in the sun andddddd some doggie love would be a cherry on the cake. Well i got all of that and the doggie love doubled with Shaina and Rambo, the two GSDs at the Lord Shiva Snowline Homestay. The house had sprawling apple trees all around in its compound and I was lucky enough to witness the last lot of apples of the season. 

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Shaina and Rambo! all hearts for these two!

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Reflections of the view outside on my bedroom window!

Personally not so much into fruits ( rarely do I indulge in good habits) it was one enlightening talk with Uncle who told me how the apple cultivation started back in the day in Shimla district ( Mashobra, Kothkai, Jubbal etc) and was introduced by Samuel Evan Stokes from America. While Capt RC Scott had introduced apple cultivation in the Kullu Valley but the ones that they introduced were sourish and not the sweet kinds that us Indians prefer.

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Apples galore! The golden licious

Till now, i could only classify apples on the basis of their color that is green or red but they actually have varieties which are mainly The Royal Delicious, The Red Delicious and The Golden Delicious! Well Uncle was very sweet and kind to pluck all of these for me and for once I actually enjoyed eating fruits! Now that’s what I love about travelling. It makes you do things that you’d never do otherwise and of course adds a little more GK  to your bank of faint knowledge,

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The Red Delicious!

The last rays of the sun was yet to greet us and i asked uncle if i could join him and Shaina on a walk to his hut close to the homestay. He has a beautiful wooden cabin that he rents out to people who intend to stay for a longer time and some camping place around it. We walked through some more apple orchards while Shaina roamed around like a free child sniffing around the countryside leaving her mark ( peeing ) at every nook and bend! Dasher and Haachu (my pets) must really envy this kind of life.

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Corn kept on the rooftop to dry to eventually make flour out of it!

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Evening coffee in my balcony!

Rest of the evening was spent in my balcony, sipping on endless green teas and fighting those nervous butterflies in my stomach for the following day was the first day of the hike. I was going with three Himachali boys and Sharad, the founder of HMRA but i’d not met them even once. I was desperate to do GHNP and Mahi ( one of the previous homestay owners helped me with their contact). The sky was packing up. That night lying down in my bed, the words I read in the book kept haunting me ‘ rudimentary landslide trails not easy to negotiate and a tough tough stamina’.Who knew there were bigger hurdles coming my way. Well , misadventures often make the best adventures…and the hike up to Raktisaur Glacier was all about that.

So much to write and so lil time…Untill next time 🙂 The Raktisaur adventures shall follow up soon!

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How kind was uncle to climb up the tree and pluck apples from his orchard to gift me for my journey!

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My sweetest hosts…Uncle and Auntie!

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While leaving, bidding goodbye to Shaina!

 

TRAVEL AND HOMESTAY INFO

  • Shangarh lies in the ecozone of Sainj Valley in Kullu region and boasts of housing many local deity temples of different architecture.
  • It can be considered as a base for many hikes in Great Himalayan National Park since Niharani , which is the base village to GHNP hikes is a stones throw away and doesnt have any homestay.
  • I caught a bus from Sec 43 ISBT Chandigarh for Aut ( the famous tunnel) that leads to Kullu Manali. After getting down here you may catch a bus to Neuli and further ahead to Shangarh from there. There is an option of shared cabs as well.
  • I stayed at the uppermost village in Shangarh. The homestay is situated very close to the forest rest house and offers undisturbed views of the Himalayas. It is called Lord Shiva Snowline Adventures.
  • The room is beautifully done with wood work and has comfortable beds and blankets. It has huge glass windows offering one with incredible views and a balcony to die for.
  • The washroom is located downstairs and though not attached with the bedroom but is tiled and  neat and clean with geyser etc.
  • The charges are Rs 750 per day which includes all your three meals as well as tea and coffee ( isn’t that so cool)
  • Contact Info : 9805454430
  • There are tons of hikes around Shangarh. the serious hikers can trek up to Lapah, Dhel Meadow and Raktisaur Glacier in GHNP. Shakti and Marore Villages in GHNP can also be hiked up to.
  • Easy day hikes could also be done to near by waterfalls, Manu Temple, Upper Nahi Village etc.

Phularidhar : A tiny hamlet in the lap of Dhauladhars that will take your breath away!

The best trips often turn out to be the unplanned ones. While doing a solo trip to Barot Valley, the idea was to explore Rajgundha Valley and Lohardi as well for it made sense to tick them off since they’re just a stone’s throw away. But Phuladhar or Phularidhar was nowhere in my knowing. It was a pure accident and an impulsive unplanned one day trip.

So while catching the third bus on that tiring day of 14th May, when i was up since 4 am and every part of my body ‘ouched’ so bad, a very kind gentleman named Roshanlal figured how exhausted I was standing in a jam packed Himachal Roadways bus in Ghatasani. ‘Ma’am please sit down”! He spoke to me in a rather strange accent, the ones that the locals use with foreigners. I politely declined his kind gesture and insisted that he kept sitting but he wouldn’t listen and my tired legs eventually gave in to his kindness.

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From my HRTC bus window!

We had probably half an hour before he reached his village and those few minutes were spent talking about his hamlet and the surprises it had to offer. He gave me his number and told me to drop by whenever i planned my next trip.

Fast forward to four days later, after having roamed around Barot and Chota Bhangal region, I caught an early morning bus from Lohardi back to Mandi. Sitting on my seat, I thought of how I could spend another day in the mountains but somewhere i hadn’t been in the last four days. I decided to call Roshanlal but disconnected the call before it rang. I thought I’d give him a surprise and drop by without letting him know. And so i got down at Jhatingri and hiked up 6 kms with a not so light bag, often getting tempted to call him and tell him to pick me up.

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Phuladhar on a bright sunny day. Pic taken from my hosts.

But somehow I didn’t want to stop walking/ sweating or getting burnt. There was this ‘hard to describe’ kind of excitement of doing an impromptu trip to an unknown villager’s place. I remembered Roshanlal telling me that his camp was on the topmost point of the mountain and  had a 360 degree view of the place around. That was my reward and it kept me going without complaining.

After about an hour’s drive in the HRTC, i got down at the Jhatingri bus stop. I asked this old Auntie at a Dhaaba by the road if the track on the right went up to Phuladhar. She nodded and invited me for breakfast. While having a not so good maggie and a super milky tea, she asked why I traveled alone even when I had a husband and why my nose wasn’t adorned with a nath like other married women. I simply smiled at her and told her that the husband likes his bike rides way too much and I loved my mountains more than anything and that it was okay to do our own things. Auntie was left a tad bit amused but I was used to these questions followed by the much animated reactions 🙂

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At the outset of the hike…since i had no one to click me.

I unzipped my wallet to check how much money i was left with and hoped I could afford this one extra date with the mountains of Phuladhar. 1400 bucks! I had no idea how much Roshanlal would charge me but I had no plans of heading back home today. And so I started the hike up to Phuladhar, in the ever so confusing weather. The sun was menacingly hot and a mini truck passing by tempted me bad to hitchhike but walking 5 to 6 kms uphill would have gifted me umpteen more surprises than going on a four wheeler. So I constantly did some Oohs and Aahs ( I now know why Maria Sharapova grunts so much while playing). Screaming out the pain helps quite a bit 🙂 Such insightful discoveries on a solo hike are bound to happen! No? 😉

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Boundless farms en route and snowy Dhauladhars in the backdrop. (Pic taken from the hosts)

The hike started from the PWD guest room at the base of Jhatingri, a steep track going uphill on its left. The road isn’t tarred and there are quite a few shortcuts in between through the Pine and Deodar trails. But I choose to walk more and longer, for the initial part at least. It was strange how I found myself the only one hiking up to the village with not a soul or a vehicle around. While Barot was just a few km away from Jhatingri, there was a stark difference between the two. Barot was swamped with guest houses home stays and resorts while the hamlets here, enjoyed the solitude and absence of human jam.

I learnt after my trip that Jhatingri was once the summer capital of Barot and was renowned for its palaces of Raja and Rani which are now in ruins. Its situated at 6600ft amsl at Ghoghar Dhar and lies just 5 kms ahead of Ghatasani ( from where I caught the bus for Barot Valley on day 1 of my trip)

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some more farms!

The sun only got meaner and the trails through the dense Blue Pines invited me to take some shelter. I sat down, listening to the alien sounds of crickets and toads. A boy came sliding down from the top, and disappeared into the lower trails. I wondered what i’d do in two hours, would probably take him 20 mins! Mountain folks are forever giving you some fitness complex. The mud on the trail was wet and loose yet i decided to take the short cut. While climbing up, the stones started falling off and the soil under my feet lost its ground. I had a huge tree root right in front of me and I caught hold of it like a child would catch hold of his father’s hand. While the nature tried to push me down, another part of it came to my rescue, saving me from some more scars.

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At Devdhar Village

I reached a relatively flatter land with green farms around me. A hut or two stood by the farms and there was finally a sign of civilization. I decided to go ask its occupants for water and that’s when I got to know that this hamlet was called Devdhar. I was told that Phuladhar was another km and a half away. The fields were neon green and yellow with Jawaar almost ready for the harvest. A little further ahead, stood a green house with the most beautiful backdrop. It was nestled amidst the lush green farms and Dhauladhars peeped out of the clouds behind. I decided to go across the farm fence just when this not so social fur baby tied under a tiny shed on the farms,barked rambunctiously and dared me not to move ahead. Throwing few Parle Gs at him helped us bonding to some extent. His folks worked in the farms while he like a good boy watched over the house.

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The little Furry Pal, guarding his house!

The path from Devdhar village to Phularidhar had many rustic houses, some abandoned while some still occupied. They screamed of old age traditions with mud ceilings and stone walls, complementing the surreal village backdrop so beautifully.

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One of the abandoned houses in Phuladhar!

 It had started to rain now and i was a KM away from Roshanlal’s abode. His place is called CAMP 360 and it truly lives up to its name, standing on the topmost hillock with astounding views from every angle. I reached a track with a wired fence on either sides. Two towers and potato farms laid on my right while two huge buildings with red roofs, a private guest house stood on my left. The road was definitely less taken for it narrowed as I went further with grass and gravel. I spotted a cottage on the left while another one further ahead with a gazebo kind of look with red slanting roofs. I finally called Roshanlal and told him that I was outside his place but didn’t know which one of the cottages was his. 

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Potato farms ( pic taken from the hosts)

The one on the left is called Robins cottage owned by a French man. Roshanlal stood on a ladder painting one of the walls of his camp along with a volunteer , a student from Bangalore. 

Roshanlal exclaimed rather excitedly ‘Mujhe pata tha aap aaoge” Welcome Ma’am”! He took me to the dining cabin which had huge glass windows, watching over the valley below. The space was done up so beautifully with DIY driftwood lamps and seating arrangements. He then got me and the student boy some tea. While catching up over that cup of chai, the young guy told me about these sites where in one can volunteer to work with homestays or lodges in the mountains and while you don’t get paid but your food and accommodation is taken care of. Why didn’t I know of such things while studying in college. Well i never even loved mountains then ( how i’d disown that part of me now).

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Rains and all the magic they create! (pic taken from the hosts)

This was his first trip to the mountains ever…in fact first to the North India. He belonged to Kerala and was pursuing his bachelors in Bangalore. I asked him about Bir since the take off point 360 was just a stone’s throw away and he revealed some rather startling facts about paragliding. Or probably it was startling for me for I didn’t really know much about the sport. The longest flight ever made from Bir Billing was 253 kms by a guy called Deby Choudhary.

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My cosy cabin with astounding views!

Later that afternoon, i moved to my cosy cabin with undisturbed views all around me. The weather deteriorated and the winds rattled the windows so bad that i thought i would fly away with the wooden walls. The clouds engulfed the camp and i saw nothing and heard only thunderstorms. The fact that there were glass windows all around made me feel like i was sitting in the open, vulnerable to the wrath of the mountain showers. Fast forward by an hour or two, the clouds started to lift up and my room windows gifted me the best views ever. I ran out like an excited child.

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That furious downpour!

 

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After rains!

Didi sat in the kitchen asking me to join her for tea. Their sons were back from school which was 6 kms away, and while the elder one sat around the bukhari, the younger one slept like a log under a layer of blankets. Moving closer to bukhari, i sat down next to the young boy trying to break the ice. ‘So how long does it take to hike up from your school’?  He quipped ‘Half an hour” I exclaimed ‘ Means two hours for me eh’! He giggled. And then the conversations overflowed itself. He told me how he wanted to join the army after 12th and that became the epicenter of our talks. He was thrilled to know that i’m from an army background. Later I asked Gauri Di if she would accompany me for a walk outside. She readily agreed and showed me around. We walked up to the 360degree paragliding take off point. There was a hike that went all the way up to Bir Billing but required a day or two.

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Hypnotic sunsets!

 

Later that night while feasting on the yummiest Lingdu pickle, we sat down at the dining hall chatting up, Roshanlal revealing a side of him that I fell in love with. We happened to talk about how difficult it is to make people see and think beyond religion and caste in small villages like his. He so comfortably talked about how he told his mom that there was nothing wrong with his wife while she was on periods and that she too could go to temple or do the normal chores of the house, quite contrary to the belief of the village folks. He had a certain pride in his tone when he said ‘Meri wife mujh se zyaada ghoomi hai, Bombay bhi gayi hai mere dosto ke saath’! They made such an adorable couple, chopping veggies together and running their camp with equal responsibilities.

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The dining cabin with driftwood lamps!

That night while sleeping in my moonlit cabin with blue mountains guarding me, i told myself ‘Good Decision Akanksha, glad i came here’! I had never done such a random trip before. Sitting in the roadways, peeping into my wallet and still not sure if I’d be able to pay for my tickets back home. But then what is life without risks. What are adventures made of? That day hiking up to an unknown village, staying with a family i never knew but making conversations like we were long lost buds, sleeping while watching the mountains change its colours and hiking back the next day to Jhatingri to board a bus with a spectacular sunrise over the snowy Dhauladhars, convinced me that best trips are made of no plans and countless uncertainties. For what are good stories made of?!

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If only everyday started this way!

TRAVEL AND CAMP INFO

Phuladhar also called Phularidhar is a small hamlet on a mountaintop (8500ft)  in Mandi district.

One needs to catch a bus from Mandi to Ghatasani or any bus that is Kangra or Palmpur bound. Ghatasani has a junction point where in if you go straight on the main highway, you’d be heading to Palampur whereas if you go on the right, you’d be traveling towards Barot Valley.

From Ghatasani, catch any bus that goes towards Barot. Get down at Jhatingri bus stop and take the track on the left side of the road that goes up, leaving behind the PWD guest house.

It’s a 5 to 6 kms hike up to Roshanlal’s camp called Camp 360 Fularidhar. It is located on the highest point and has a 360 degree view of the valley. The camp is very close to one of the take off points for Paragliding in Bir Billing.

One can do day hikes or even longer ones from the camp. There’s a long trek that goes up to Bir with spellbinding views to offer. It’s one of the rare treks, almost the entire way on the ridge, giving you a glimpse of two valleys at the same time ie Joginder Nagar and Barot Valley.

Roshan Lal’s camp offers good home cooked food, tents for camping and an indoor neat and clean common washroom and toilet. There is also a glass cabin room available for those who do not wish to camp.

Phuladhar has other stay options too but this one being on the topmost location offers the best views and solitude for people looking for peace and solitude. If you’re looking for a quiet getaway, this place is your haven.

Roshanlal’s Contact Details :97365.87471 and 76499.08848

Here is their websdite http://www.camp-360.in

Bhaba Valley: You’ve Got To See It To Believe It!

Unexpected…unplanned…you’d always find the sweetest serendipity! Bhaba was one such bitter sweet accident! A tad bitter and a whole lot sweeter!

While I had already made 7 trips to Himachal in the past few months, the urge was to explore something new. The plan though still revolved around hiking around the mountains but centered around  at my pseudo native place i.e The Kumaon Himalayas of Uttarakhand! And after a week long research of the whereabouts, booking homestays and almost doing my travel reservations, I put my wise head into checking the weather…and what did I find…Voila! Thunderstorms and incessant rains! The monsoons had marked their arrival!

Heartbroken, I cancelled my home stay booking and sat down all dejected in my reading room, staring at the Himachal Pradesh Map! My eyes hopelessly running over the map set on Muling. Where had I heard about it or seen it before? I then remembered watching IndianInMotion and his incredible documentary on Bhaba Valley. I owe this trip to Sarvana!

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An eventful 12 hour long journey in Himachal Roadways!

Like most of the trips by HRTC, this bus ride too kick started on a pretty amusing note. The guys at the HRTC counter weren’t ready to give the tickets before 6am, not even ten mins in advance. On finally going to the him for the third time, he told me the fare for two people would be 1100 something! I remember doing my homework very well and the ticket fare given online said 450 per head! When I tried to clear my doubt, the guy at the counter took it as an offense and wouldn’t clear out the confusion. I later sent my friend Tripti, to whom he finally gave the tickets after all the melodrama! Wonder what he was up to in an HRTC bus doing a conductor’s job! He could have easily bagged a role for a villain in our dramatic Bollywood flicks!

PS: The ticket fares were a tad more expensive for this was a deluxe HRTC, which we weren’t aware of before we boarded the bus!

It was a long ride till Wangtoo and then an hour’s drive further up to Kaafnu! The bus started late as we waited for some porters who were going up to Peo! Meanwhile the rains unleashed their wrath, all growling & menacing,  at the very outset of our journey! It kind of deterred my spirits initially but as the bus moved further, the rain drops on my window glass and the drifting clouds that accompanied me,made it all okay! I and Tripti caught up on each other’s life stories and reminisced the beautiful days gone by that we spent in Bhutan together! We hoped that this hike would be as memorable as those we did back then!

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Narkanda and its apple orchards!

The bus ride was a memory down the lane of sorts! Just last year, around the same time I and the husband were tripping on the same route, while biking to Spiti Valley from Chandigarh. My favorite town, Narkanda looked splendid with apple orchards looking green like never before, veiled in nets in order to be secure from rains. The calm was suddenly broken by this mad passenger yelling at the top of his voice…’Kya hai ye sab…ek toh bus late chali in aadmiyon ke vajah se aur ab ye sab gandh falah rahein hai..chal kya rahan hai yahaan..ye bus Rekong Peo ja rahi hai ya Karachi?!” ( ‘the bus got late because of these wretched porters and now theyre spilling all the dirt around. Is this bus going to Rekong Peo or Karachi’?)

Did we just hear that uncouth comment! The porters were carrying huge sacks of ration and some grains inadvertently spilled out! They did delay the bus by half an hour at least but this didn’t mean that the man could talk nonsensical crap! A little later when he tried to open his mouth again, both I and Tripti decided to give him a shut up call and this time two old ladies too spoke up. This so called educated retard was sitting in the wrong bus, using his fickle tongue passing racist comments. How would we everrr thrive as a nation with such communal hatred I wondered! 

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Apple trees covered with nets in order to be secure from rains!

The bus halted at Kumarsain for a lunch break. We had the yummiest thaali ever on a roadside dhaaba and it cost us just 50 bucks! While most of the passengers were locals, there was a couple who was travelling all the way from Bangalore with a toddler! All three of them fought for the window occasionally while throwing up. Motion sickness can be really evil sometimes. The streets of Rampur were clogged with vehicles and human jam like the arteries of an obese heart patient . It isn’t a very attractive valley but has a huge bus stand and acts as a nodal point for buses plying towards Kinnaur, Spiti etc.

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Finally at the Wangtoo Bridge

We reached Wangtoo at around 6:30pm. One could see the Kharcham Wangtoo Hydro Electric Power Station from the bridge where we waited for our guide to come pick us up. The road to Katgaon ( our base for tonight) was narrow & snaked across the gorges with our car precariously navigating its way avoiding cattle & sudden dashes across the roads by mongooses. Snowy peaks glistening in the moonlight and one could see the faint silhouette of the mountains now!

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The Electricity Board Rest House! We were the only occupants.

Katgaon is a small village with just two or three homestays and an Electricity Board Rest House. We choose the latter which though was situated at a scenic location, bang on the Bhaba Khud but wasn’t so pleasant from inside. There were about 8 rooms and we were the only occupants. As if it wasn’t any less eerie, the caretaker before leaving the premises warned us not to open the door if someone knocked. Though kinda jittery initially, the tiredness made it easy to fall asleep! We traveled almost 14 hrs and our bums were numb. But we knew that the following morning would take care of that. We were finally going to hike up to Kara!

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Kick starting the hike on a bright sunny day! View from the terrace

The next morning was bright and sunny. Thank Heavens! We drove up to Homtey village (a little ahead of Kafnu) and started our hike from the bridge over the Bhaba Khud river. While walking along the brimming river on our left, I couldn’t help but notice the snow laden slopes that were struck by an avalanche in winters. Small little ice caves formed at their base and one could see humans and machines at the farther end of it! A tunnel was being constructed to generate hydroelectricity. I wasn’t surprised as the water flow in Bhaba Khud was immense already, even before the onset of monsoons! The Bhaba Hydro Project is India’s first underground Dam.

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Tripti walking along the Bhaba Khud.

We walked on the dirt track meant for vehicles going to and fro for the construction work, that finally gave way to the narrow trail climbing up to the forest. The sun was harsh and a mini truck passing by tempted us to hitchhike till the trail..As always I hopped onto the open load compartment, trying not to fall while standing whilst  watching a trolley transporting cement sacks and stones from the other side towards our end of the mountains.

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You see a man in that ice cave down below?

A landslide trail marked the starting point of our hike. The river was still on our left with glacial mountains hanging over it. Dense trees hugged the slushy trails and the initial climb was steep. As we trotted along ahead, the river was on our right now and men working at the tunnel appeared like tiny specks on ice.

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Finally on the trail! Leaving Bhaba Khud behind

A rocky path lead us to a grassland where a stone wall adorned the space with one or two huts inside. Heavy wooden planks were strewn around. We climbed along the huts and the trail lead to an open grassland with boulders scattered everywhere. The sun even though scorching, now felt comforting for the air was a tad colder. 600 metres ahead, lofty Deodar trees greeted us making another short forest trail. Bhaba valley trek had this peculiar pattern of trails. You’d walk through forests opening up to huge open meadows, hike down to negotiate some glacial streams which would again lead you to forests! Also the trails are pretty well defined ( atleast till Kara) and from Mulling onwards I and my friend Tripti did the hike all by ourselves with our Sherpa Dog Blacky who turned out to be a million times more reliable than our guide! But a word of caution here, Bhaba Valley is infamous for its wild bears and animals and one should rather try avoiding solo hikes.

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At Champoria, while taking a break!

The river hummed in the background after a long break. As the forest trail lead to a vast open expanse of green carpeted grass with mighty boulders thrown around. Bhaba Khud was on our left now. The valley looked unreal with the green mountains changing its shades from light to dark in nanoseconds as the clouds reflected over them. This location is called Champoria.

I saw a stone wall nearby, A sign of a shepherds hut. While everyone laid around, i decided to go fill my sipper with some chilled spring water. A rather friendly ‘Hello’ echoed in the backdrop. A man, probably in his late 40s adorning a blue jacket, waved at me. ‘Kahaan ja rahe ho aap’? I yelled from a distance ‘KARA!’ He invited me for a cup of tea and I happily obliged. Birmachand was a shepherd from Kalpa, who was here with his wife and sheep. He was feeding his goats with salt for its high nutrients content. He would leave back for Kalpa in October. I asked him if all these sheep belonged to him. He had a certain pride in his tone when he said ‘Hum toh government employee hai’! I told him that my mom belonged to the Kumaon Himalayas and that she too shared the same surname ‘Chand’! A little puzzled he asks me, so papa Chandigarh se hai aur mom Pahaadi! I laughed and explained that it was my husband who’s posted presently at Chandi and that is why Chandi is home. A little more surprised he exclaimed dramatically with a volley of questions  ‘Aap shaadi shuda ho?! Aapke husband ne aapko akele aane de diya? Par aapka mangal sutra ya angoothi kahaan hai?” I told him I didn’t like to wear one and how inconvenient it would be to hike around with a chain lashing around your neck! A few more startling conversations and a selfie later, I decided to fall back to join Tripti and the guides.

PS: Shephards in Kinnaur are called Baeraale!

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Descending down and now walking along Gyaare Khad!

We were now descending down from the valley, and walking along the Gyaare Khad ( the river). Yet another short forest trail followed up with greenest moss and vibrant yellow flowers thriving in the comforting shades of coniferous jungles. An open grassland ahead awaited us where all of us took a super short break with Tiger ( a handsome Black Husky looking dog) one of the guide’s pet chasing the birds around.Crossing some roaring streams, rocky trails and fairyland like meadows with breathtaking cascades at every bend and corner, Bhaba changed it’s landscapes with every new mile covered.

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Negotiating with one out of many streams enroute!

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Good days are made of mountains and girlfriends!

We reached Mulling, covering the last bit of distance in a heavy downpour. There was a tad bit of steep climb before Mulling, but once we landed on top (The Mulling Meadow also called The Jhandi Top) the trail eased down to a flat path, parallel to the Mulling stream.

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At Jhandi Top..Another 1.5Km to Mulling Campsite. Look at those ferns!

The mountains were adorned in fresh snow and ferns as high as 5 feet. Our campsite was bang on the river. I won’t be exaggerating if I called this place a heaven incarnate!

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Tripti teaching Blacky how to shake hands 🙂

The shed at Mulling made by the forest department was occupied by a group of boys from one of the IITs who were leaving for Kara in a bit. While fixing the tent with the guide, I saw a wagtail hovering around the boys, catching biscuits in the air when thrown at her. Meanwhile the clouds decided to put on a show for us, racing over the landscape in magical ways I’d never seen before. I and Tripti sat inside the tent for it started to pour and the winds got gusty. Blacky came and sat down with us, while Tiger ( the guide’s dog) quickly got inside their tent. We tried putting her inside the shed but she would come back running to our tent, sleeping the entire night outside barking intermittently every time she sensed some noise or smell! The rain got worse at night but even that didn’t budge her.

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Blacky…Lil More than a Sherpa..A whole lot more than a Dog!

Next morning we unzipped the tent only to be greeted by sunshine and Blacky’s warm face & a wagging tail. While we got ready to leave for Kara, cleaning up and washing our faces at the nearby stream, Blacky would be busy chasing horses, cows and birds around. She ran around like a wild child on her land. This was her home! The rivers, the flower carpeted meadows, the daunting mountains, she knew them in and out!

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Endless avalanche snow around..on our way to Kara

That morning we left for Kara around 8am, telling our guides to follow us later for they were yet to get ready. We asked him about the route and figured the well defined trail that lead to Kara. Blacky didn’t let us do this on our own. She was our Sherpa of the day. The route to Kara was rather easy and gorgeous beyond words. I, Tripti and Blacky were the only ones hiking around which made it even more beautiful. Array of wildflowers of different colors bloomed throughout the way while just in the beginning we negotiated our way through frozen avalanche snow that almost felt like a glacier. The river had snow walls caved around them and the Mulling valley looked splendid in its emerald green blanket.

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The only beings around were the cows, horses and birds!

Just before crossing an icy bed over the river to get across on the other side of the valley, a rocky climb with a rather eerie surroundings kind of tested our brave spirits. The trail was laden with huge boulders and the mountain cliffs on our right looked mysterious with eagles gliding on top. Blacky would stop, tilt her neck and stare into the thin air as though she sensed something abnormal! While I and Tripti paused along wondering why the guides had not reached us yet for they walked way faster! But somehow having Blacky around comforted our nerves. One moment she would be quiet, staring at the valley while the very next second, she would see snow and roll herself playfully like a wildflower.

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Blacky leading the way!

At this point, after crossing over to the other side of the mountain over a river that flowed under the ice ground ( this phenomenon is also called the SUBTERRANEAN river) we had lost the trail. There were huge rocks and we couldn’t figure out how to climb up. While I was hopping on to a rock, Blacky on the other end moved in an opposite direction, pausing, looking behind at me as though telling me to follow her. She led us to Kara from here on. It had been an hour and a half and our guides were nowhere to be seen! Blacky came to our rescue. As we climbed higher, the rampaging stream furiously flowed down below on our right. Green mountains with snowy peaks shone under the occasional rays of sunlight that peeped out of the heavy veil of clouds.

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After crossing over to the other side of the valley…What you see is Mulling left far behind.

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sprawling blanket of flowers!

And just like that, while following Blacky we reached Kara in no time. The vistas were so spellbinding that one never felt tired. We met this really old shepherd in his 60s coming back from Phutsirang with his convoy of mules. He did this for a living and I couldn’t help but admire his grace and stamina as he walked swiftly with a stick without a slouch!

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A lil rendezvous with the highlander!

As we descended down and walked a kilometer ahead, we saw a shimmering body of water reflecting the blue heavens above! A red flag was tied on a pole around it marking the venue..Kara Lake. we were finally there and so were our guides.

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Nomads of Himachal!

Blacky gulped down a million sips of water and we finally took our shoes off and laid on the green grass around the lake. The sun was scorching but it never felt so good. This place screamed happiness. Our guide showed us the mountains on the left that led to Futsirang and eventually to Bhaba Pass. I remember watching it on a IndiaInMotion documentary and it looked surreal. He asked me” Chalna hai kya? You can easily hike up to Mudh ( a village in Spiti and the last point of the hike) If only it were that easy! 

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Kara Lake in all its glory!

The weather in valleys is like a woman on her periods! Nasty and forever dealing with mood swings :P. Just now the sun reflected the clouds and mountains on the lake and the very next second, the winds carried along the mist with them. We shifted to a cave where the guys cooked a delicious kinnauri meal. Out of our ten bites every 6 went to Blacky for she filled our hearts with immense gratitude. We decided to head back to Mulling today and camp there for the evening and eventually fall back to Kaafnu the following morning.

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Kara campsite was gorgeous beyond words! Wish i had the time to go till Mudh though!

While wearing my socks I noticed a dark tan line around my ankle. The colours across it were as stark as the landscapes we saw in one day today!

And while I write this story almost two months later..the tan line is pretty much intact..deeply and strongly etched..just like Bhaba and Blacky in my jar of Kinnaur Memories!

TRAVEL AND STAY INFO ON BHABA VALLEY

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  1. Bhaba is a pristine valley, situated in the east of Sutlej river in Kinnaur district. Bhaba Khud that flows along the hike is a tributary of Sutlej. While Kinnaur is about 306Kms from Chandigarh. A small hamlet called Chshora is the gateway to Kinnaur.
  2. For Bhaba one needs to catch any bus going towards Rekong Peo. Incase you are not able to get a direct bus, then get down at Rampur and you would surely get a bus to Waangtu.
  3. Waangtu falls enroute Rekong PEO and is close to Kharcham. The bus will drop you nextto a bridge which has an overview of the Wangtoo Kharcham Hydro Power Plant. ( Chandigarh ISBT Sec43→ Waangtu→Katgaon→Kaafnu)
  4. From here, it would take you another 45mins or so to reach Katgaon and then eventually to Kaafnu. You should preferably stay at Kaafnu for it’ll save you time the following day when you leave for the hike. Kaafnu has a small hotel and some homestays.
  5. We stayed at the electricity rest house in Katgaon and paid 500Rs for a night halt ( no meals)
  6. Bhaba valley is a gateway to Pin Valley in Spiti (east) and leads to Parvati Valley, Kullu (west). The hike is called Pin Bhaba trek for it starts from Kaafnu village in Bhaba and finishes at Mudh Village in Spiti. 
  7. The landscapes are phenomenal and ever changing. The campsites on the hikes would be like this 
  8. Kafnu(2400amsl)→Mulling(3242amsl)→Kara(3552amsl)→Phutsirang(4107amsl)→ Bhaba Pass(4900amsl)and then to Mangrungse(4168amsl)→Mudh(3744amsl)
  9. The route is given in the story and can help you plan your hike. There’s a well defined trail almost through the entire way. But try avoiding solo hikes for Bhaba is infamous for its wild bears and animals. Its okay to go in a group without a guide.
  10. We paid 3k per day per person but if there’s a bigger group, you could be charged lesser. If you’re into hiking and camping, then you don’t really need a guide here. Take a dog instead ;)PS : we did the hike up to Kara lake only.
  11. Here are some of the guides contacts i found out…Rajdeep Negi 7018572399 Dev Negi 08580410469 Billu Negi 7018799950 Out of all of them Billu Negi is well known amongst the trekkers.
  12. The ideal time to do this hike would be July to September.
  13. Bhaba Valley is a must do and shouldn’t be missed. Please feel free to ping me here or on Instagram if you have any queries regarding the hike. 

Swaar/ Swad Village…Where The British Legacy Lingers On!

She adds greener to the greens

She fills drama in the sky

A tad bit of aroma to the earth

And savor to my warm cuppa Chai!!

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While climbing up to Swaar, leaving lumbadug & lohardi behind

You know who that she’d be! Rains in Himachal have been my forever companion and somehow i love the idea of fleeting clouds prancing around while I climb my much loved mountains. The valley suddenly appears greener and the streams sound even more boisterous,adding colors and vigour to the afternoon! After getting back from my hike to Puling/Poling village and Pashakot Mandir( read the previous blogpost) and having a hearty lunch thereafter, i decided to hike up to Swar/Swad Village. It had started to rain yet again and a hike all by myself to this dreamy hamlet was something i’d been wanting to do ever since I got here in Lohardi!

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Lohardi mela at its best : A snake charmer weaving his magic over a spellbound audience

It was 4 PM and by now the Lohardi Mela was in its full swing. Countless eating and game stalls adorned the village alleys while men like snake charmers and monkey tricks caught everyone’s attention. While crossing the main bridge over Lamba Dug in Lohardi, I saw a huge group of people gathered around with this snake charmer in the middle, entertaining everyone with his beautiful reptiles displaying their antics! I somehow made way through them and a little ahead found this guy who didn’t look like a local, sitting at a bend with his three monkeys and a local guy chatting with him! The Monkey guy turned out to be from Delhi who had come all the way to Himachal for Lohardi Mela to show his monkeys around and indulge in some sinful pleasure ( read smoking up weed)! I saw him preparing his smoke and out of curiosity asked him like a naive child, ‘Bhaiya aap kya bana rahe ho?’ to which he said ‘madam maal hai!’ What world was this again! I sat down for a bit watching his monkeys follow his instructions and behaving like humans! I left a 10Rs note which the male monkey quickly picked up and bowed his head to say Thank You! 

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Monkeying around the country side

Left a little amused by the monkey guy, I carried on with my hike, leaving Lamba Dug farther behind and the Mela hustle bustle of Lohardi fading into oblivion. The road to Swaar was kaccha(unpaved) and the rains had made it a tad bit slushy. The air got cooler and soothed my nerves. A huge boulder lay on the right side of the track, looking down upon Lamba Dug and Lohardi and surrounding villages. I decided to lie down here for a bit with my headphones on and my current read in my hands “Into Thin Air!” All those moments of yearning for peace and tranquility, turned out just how I imagined, right here at this moment! One of the village school girls passed by, staring at me, wondering what I was up to lying down on the green velvet grass in the middle of nowhere! I simply smiled and let her judge me for if there’s one thing that the mountains have taught me is to let my guards down! I wish it was this easy back in my city too! Phew!

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My Kinda Time!!

I decided to walk further for the sky turned only greyer! Somehow this lesser walked track took me back to Pajekha village that I hiked up to in Haa Valley in Bhutan. Every time i’m in the Dhauladhars or Himalayas, there’s always some Dejavu moment reaffirming my faith in the homogeneity of these giants for no matter where they stand, their tribes and the euphoria they create is the same old…same old!

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Stopping by enroute

While almost nearing the village, I encountered my deepest fear! A trail washed away by landslide! A massive tree had fallen off and huge boulders were strewn around. A super narrow trail went over the boulders ( made out of villagers walking over it…wait not walking..they run over it) while I planned to take baby steps with my legs trembling for a little left or right and i’d slide down into the stream joining the Lamba Dug. If there’s one fear that I haven’t been able to battle all this while in the mountains, it would be Acrophobia! I CANNOT look down for my head spins and my legs tend to tremble, faltering around like an electrocuted frog! The thought of heading back cropped up in my head, but the desire to check out Swaar was even stronger! So i put my headphones inside my pocket, started muttering Hanuman Chalisa and with over dramatic Ooohhh and Aaaaahs managed to cross over! Sweet Triumph! Though I was already worried about heading back the same way 😀

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Rains & its aftermath

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The trail I was petrified of

Just when I was entering the village, a young man asked me where I was off to. I told him I had come to check Swad. He asked me if I were all alone. I asked him why? He said simply…and that it was going to pour any moment and that i must head back soon! A little more conversation later I learnt that he was a teacher in a primary school in Swad and was going down to Lohardi to see the mela. I asked him for the directions for the Forest Rest House in Swad that exists since the British Times and told him that i’d see him later at Lohardi Mela. The village school stood right there at the entrance of the village and a turquoise green colored hut with a rather different architecture stood out in the background!

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Forest resthouse of Swaar

Turquoise wooden walls with white framed windows and a slanting roof, a tad bit British and somewhat Scandinavian in architecture, the Forest Rest House stood there like the sentinels of time while snow clad Dhauladhars loomed across in the backdrop. A certain familiar sound of bird echoed in this unusually quiet village. I saw an old man and a lady working on the outside lawn in the rest house cottage. I opened the gate and asked him if i could enter and speak with him for a bit. He smiled and let me in!

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Mr Pradeep; the caretaker

Vegetables and flowers were arrayed outside in the huge lawn and apparently the fresh organic veggies were plucked and cooked right there in the kitchen. The old man, Mr Pradeep was the caretaker of the rest house and showed me around. The rooms were huge with a British era fireplace though it was kind of dark inside but this rest house in this quaint little village with snow mountains hugging it on either side, came across as one of those huts from snow white in deep dark fairy woods! ( not exaggerating one bit). Mr Pradeep  was so good for my ego as he thought that I was a college girl who was here on a trip with friends. He later told me that i should get The Husband along on my next trip and gave me his number even though the rooms are to be booked through forest department in Palampur. But he did mention that if the rooms are vacant and there are no previous bookings, he does allow visitors to stay in such cases.

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Dreamy ….sighh

 

And while I was earlier keen on checking out the Lohardi Mela, my loyalties changed to Swaar instantly, a part of me wanting to stay back here for the evening. But i had to head back to my homestay for it was almost dark and the rains didn’t look so forgiving! 

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Remanants of a bygone Era

I got back to Lohardi an hour later, all drenched, bumping into the same school teacher from Swaar and gobbling down some piping hot jalebis from one of the Mela stalls. I decided to meet the village sarpanch who sat on a big sofa, arranged on the stage for the evening function. He told me how the mela lasted for three days and started almost 35 years back by one of the village school headmaster. It was intentionally kept in the month of May for everyone would get back after the winter break and it was a reunion of sorts! Later it went on to become famous not only in Barot and Mandi but people from Kullu also come and attend the function. The rains were still on but somehow it didn’t deter people from coming out and enjoy the mela. 

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Hustle bustle of the lohardi mela

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Lohardi mela itinerary

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Colored threads being weaved at one of the shops in the market

This was my last evening here and i somehow just wanted to sit by the river and revel in its symphony. I bade goodbye to the stall owners and walked back to my balcony where I loved sitting while i was in my room! Last day in the mountains is never easy!

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The last evening while walking on the rain kissed streets

I walked the rain kissed streets of this Himalayan village

A part of me completely drenched

If only i could stow this day for good

In the grasp of my fingers, as my wrists i so tightly clenched!

TRAVEL/ STAY INFO ON SWAAR/SWAD VILLAGE

  1. Swaar is a quaint little village located on top of Lohardi.
  2. One can easily hike up to the village in 45mins time as its just 3 to 4kms away.
  3. The village has around 40 to 50 houses and a Primary Sec School
  4. Famous for its British era Forest Rest House, it makes a perfect getaway in Barot Valley.
  5. The rooms have to be booked in advance though from the forest department office in Palampur.
  6. Mr Pradeep is the caretaker and his contact number is 9459146647
  7. There are no homestays available in this village but one can stay in Lohardi.
  8. Thakur Ji Homestay in Lohardi is bang on the Lamba Dug river and offers some spectacular views.
  9. Contact Details of Shyam Thakur…9418770108
  10. Cemented steps on the right at the village enterance leads you to Chena Village.

Mountain Stories from Puling!

I woke up around 6:30 AM to Shyam knocking at my door with a piping hot glass of tea. Groggily i wished him Good Morning when he told me to get out on the balcony and look around for the early morning magic! The mountains looming across the balcony had turned white overnight. It rained heavily but since Lamba Dug bickered so loud, everything around seemed to go mute! The streets were all glistening due to early morning drizzle and the sky was still packing up. My agenda for the day was to explore the villages on top. Swar Puling and Bhujling! ( how many ever i could explore)

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The early morning calm at Lohardi

 

Shyam asked me if i were going to be ok hiking alone? Finding it rather lame, I retorted “Of Course”! After beating around the bush he finally came to the point. ‘Akanksha Madam, why don’t you go along with these three men( my new neighbors who arrived the previous night) since they have a vehicle too. You can go up to Chena village and thereafter to Pulling and then further ahead to this hidden temple in the mountains where only Papa can take you all. He too is tagging along with them!” For me hiking has always been an experience of solitude. I wasn’t sure of doing it with these strangers with whom my last night conversation didn’t go so well’! But the rains outside kind of enticed me to give in to this kind offer and I was tempted to hike along with Uncle and listen to his stories from his  Bakkarwal (Shephard) Days. While the other three men had an old officer from the state revenue and tax services, a lower rank official and a young driver. All three hailed from different parts of Himachal.I had met them the previous night and found one of them a little too social or friendly for my liking. He offered me to join them to sip on some locally brewed wine to which I politely declined! They had a big influence over the villagers for the locals who run their shops without authentic official documents were intimidated by their power and authority. Thinking of the power they had, i asked them if they could exercise a strict law in the village when it came to discarding waste and garbage for there were many who dumped it in the river right in front of me. With the power plant coming up at Lamba Dug, the river and the surrounding area had started to experience the consequences already and I feared this jewel losing its sanctity because of human greed and recklessness. I wasn’t given a very affirmative response!

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While hiking up to Puling…Lamba Dug flowing with all her exuberance!

We set out after breakfast for Chena Village as the men whom I was accompanying had work at the Power Plant Project. A massive tunnel was being made to divert the water from Lamba Dug to generate electricity. I decided to tag along the men instead of waiting in the car, to find out more about the upcoming power plant. I was zapped to learn that the project was sanctioned in 2006 and some 19 crores were invested while the project is still under construction in 2019 and almost 35 crores have already been spent! The electricity generated from here would be for export use and not for the state, for Himachal is pretty wealthy when it comes to its own resources! But Lamba Dug won’t be half as hearty as it is now and the towers and cables have had their own effects on the flora and fauna around. With the advances in technology and the increase of human needs, comes a heavy price that’s paid by nature! It just didn’t feel right!

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First Look At Puling!

While the road to Pulling was washed out at few bends, we decided to hike up to the village and then further ahead to the Pashakot Temple ( the last inhabited area in this part of Chota Bhanghal). While two of them sulked, I uttered ‘Thank You God” in my head! I know not everyone would agree with me on this but hiking in the rain in the mountains is just so hypnotic! We walked along the brimming river, crossing a bridge to get on the other side, to Pulling. The track was slushy but i loved the fleeting clouds that hovered around, making it pleasant to hike up. Pulling village houses almost 80 homes with mostly traditional architecture unlike Lohardi. The village even has a primary and secondary school. Most of the houses had a mandir in their courtyard with stacks of wood stocked up for later use, while mountain goats loitered around.This hamlet like most of the others too seemed to be influenced by the caste system. I asked Uncle if there was any demarcation of the area with respect to caste. He whispered softly and told me how the upper lanes in the village were inhabited by the higher castes ie The Rajputs and the lower lanes by the Scheduled Castes. My reaction was a tad bit less dramatic for this wasn’t the first time i’d heard something like this on my trip to Himachal.

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An old man smiling when asked to pose for the picture!

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A mountain goat resting on a bench at her veranda!

While walking through the village lanes, i came across my favorite auntie from yesterday who was collecting fodder at Lohardi. She was carrying some wood on her head and walking towards us just when i screamed Hi with full exuberance. She smiled at me, looked down and just passed by in a rush. It took me awhile to understand why she wouldn’t recognize me! A little later I realized, perhaps it was the company of Thakurs that i was walking in! Though Uncle seemed really kind but the villagers are so loyal to their belief that the so called lower caste would himself won’t try to mingle around with the higher one. I walked ahead, feeling confused and pondering over the age old beliefs that were beyond my comprehension. Little did i know, some minutes later, there was some more in store for me!

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Bhujling as seen from Puling!

We had now left the habitation behind and Lamba Dug hurried along with us, flowing on our left now. The rain had almost stopped and the clouds gently lifted up off the snowy peaks. One could see fire billowing out of a lone hut on the mountain on the other side of the river while tiny white dots specked the green patches. Uncle told me ‘You see, the bakkarwaal there is cooking his lunch and the tiny white dots were the white sheep grazing around” Uncle himself was a shepherd for almost 15 years and he humored me with his tales from then…how he would sell one goat for almost 20k and how he has lived in wilderness in Bada Banghal or even Danasur lake. We bumped into a woman who was looking for a goat. Uncle and her blabbered something in Himachali. I later got to know that she was looking for a goat to be offered as a giving at one of the temples! I wish I could show that woman the articles and videos that lead me to turn into a vegetarian this year! I cringed at the thought of the innocent animal being beheaded to please the local deity! But i guess somethings are best not questioned!

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These women walking in the forests to get wood for the evening!

We were now bang on Lamba Dug. One or two shacks stood in the middle of nowhere. Uncle told me how women stayed in those to watch their crops from wild animals or monkeys! Just when i was thinking of how these hamlets are still in the grip of old age unpragmatic norms, this kind of made me smile! Women in the mountains are always so inspiring. Leading the way, fearless and independent. People who glorify female solo traveling should come see how things work here.

I was famished and Lamba Dug decided to be my savior.