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Tawang lies in the north west corner of Arunachal Pradesh. A remote Indian state that borders China high up in the Eastern Himalaya. It is a magical place largely due to the beautifully preserved monastery perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the town. It is to here where the current Dalai Lama fled from Tibet in 1959 to escape the Chinese army. Until recently it has been almost impossible for the independent cyclist to get to Tawang. It is a disputed territory. Both India and China lay claim to the area. Tourists required special permits and could only travel as part of an organised tour group. Prices starting at hundreds of dollars each day. The regulations have gradually eased in recent years. I grasped the opportunity to take a quiet road that led from the Brahmaputra river high up into the misty mountains of Arunachal Pradesh and onto Tawang. It turned out to be one of the most memorable weeks I have had on a bike.
You still need a permit. Even Indians need a permit. A few years ago the rules were relaxed and tourists were able to travel independently as long as they were in a group of at least four. This has since been reduced and now single foreign tourists can obtain permits to travel to Tawang. Foreigners are required to obtain a Protected Area Permit (PAP) which costs $50. It can be done easily online via a travel agent or by visiting the Arunachal Pradesh Commissioner Office in Guwahati or Kolkata. Once you have the permit you are good to go.
Boat that takes you across the Brahmaputra river
The adventure began for me when I arrived at the Brahmaputra river. One of the main rivers in Asia that originates in Tibet. There are regular local boats to take you across the river and I hopped on one that dropped me onto Majauli island. The largest river island in the world apparently. There was only one bridge off the island which was the long way round so I decided to just head straight for the river. In my limited experience of rivers in this part of the world there is always plenty of activity. You can easily cadge a lift across to the other side. So I followed dirt tracks through tiny villages until I hit the end of the island. The river was completely deserted. Oh well. Nice place to camp.
A local guy joined me at my tent for breakfast and pointed me down river to a place where I could hitch a lift across. Once on the other side I followed narrow paths until I rejoined the road that took me out of the valley and up into the mountains. Here I met a group a of young linguists and ended up camping with them by a river. They are working on an UNESCO initiative to preserve the endangered languages spoken in the remote corners of Arunachal. There are a staggering amount of tribes living in Arunachal. Over 50 dialects are spoken in the region. These students were heading for villages close to the Chinese border to spend a couple of months documenting the ethnic languages that are in danger of dying out. Seems like an excellent project to me. That night they were just getting drunk around the campfire. I was a little out of practice on the drinking front and was the first to bed.
Linguistic students along the road to Tawang
From there the road became more remote. The road itself was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. The mountains see a lot of rainfall and it doesn't take long for the roads to turn to mud. There was a fair amount of pushing but just when I would start to despair tarmac would appear out of nowhere and I'd be whizzing along again. Steam would rise from the thick trees that covered the mountains. The landscape had a wonderfully wild feel to it. The road meandered through jungle, then up through dense forests and across misty mountains. The road twists, turns and winds. You never go more than a few hundred yards without going round a bend. All the men in these parts carry Crocodile Dundee knives around their waists. The villages are poor. There is little electricity. The people are not used to foreigners on bicycles and I got a lot of encouragement. One guy asked me after I'd pitched my tent high up in the hills, 'Are you not afraid? There are tigers in these parts.' I wasn't sure if he was winding me up or not but it's not what you want to hear when you are about to sleep in a tent. I moved the food well away from my camp spot and slept badly. Every time a leaf rustled outside my tent I would bolt upright thinking 'WHAT WAS THAT!'
The misty mountains of Arunachal Pradesh west of Seppa
Eventually I made it to the foot of the Sela Pass that lay between me and Tawang. I was on the road at dawn to take it on. A 50km climb from below 2,000m to over 4,300m making it one of the longest climbs I can remember. I had been warned of rough roads and snow at the pass so I wanted to give myself enough time to get over and down to a reasonable altitude. I would not be able to camp near the pass as the altitude gain would be too great. Luckily the weather was good. The first clear sky I'd had in a week. The road was not as bad as I'd been led to believe. It was rough on the descent but I was up and over by then. Plenty of snow up high but the road was clear. Incredible views all the way up. I was struck by the military presence on the climb. Army barracks every few kilometres. Army trucks going back and forth. Lots of lookout towers with armed soldiers looking out for stuff. All this as a deterrent in case the Chinese get any fancy ideas. There's quite an anti Chinese feeling in this part of the world. I went into an electrical shop in the small town of Dirang to buy a phone charger and the owner proudly told me that nothing in his shop was made in China. The phone charger broke after 2 days. Exhausted I hit the lake that represented the pass and picked my way slowly down the mountain. I then had another 20km climb to Tawang but my legs had gone so I camped in the valley. A great day.
The climb up to Sela Pass at 4300m
Finished the job up to Tawang and found the guesthouse recommended by a German couple I'd met along the way. The owner greeted me with, "Excellent an Englishman. I have a lot of homemade wine I need to get through". Of course it is all about the journey and not the destination but Tawang is a worthy destination. A beautiful mountain town in a remote corner of the Himalayas famous for its stunning monastery. The monastery itself is visible from 50 kilometers away. Built in 1681 it is the second largest Buddhist monastery (gompa) in the world. It is free to visit. Inside the walls it is like an old town and I enjoyed a peaceful few hours wandering around and chatting to a couple of the monks. They were telling me about how the next Dalai Lama will be found not chosen. Following the Buddhist belief in the principle of reincarnation, the current Dalai Lama is believed to be able to choose the body into which he is reincarnated. That person, when found, will then become the next Dalai Lama. The atheist Chinese government has expressed unusual interest in choosing the next Dalai Lama. They claim they have the right to do so, something heavily contested by the Tibetan authorities. Will be an interesting period but let's hope the current Dalai Lama can go for many years yet. Back at the guesthouse I joined the family over dinner. The homemade wine was loopy juice and I literally had to feel along the walls to get back to my room.
The Tawang Monastery
Map of route:
Time to Go:
The summers in Arunachal Pradesh are warm, with temperatures rising to 35 degrees, while the winters are cold and chilly. The place receives plenty of rainfall at any time of the year so best to avoid the actual monsoon season between July and September.
Mixed. The first few days after Doimukh are a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. The road improves as you approach Tawang.
Easy, great, cold. Watch out for tigers.
A visa is required to visit India. You can easily get an e-visa online but these tend to be only for 2 months. If you want longer (and you can spend years exploring India) it is best to apply for a visa from an Indian embassy in your own country.
There is nothing in Arunachal Pradesh but you can find basic bicycle shops with low quality parts in all towns/cities in India.
Make sure you print a number of copies of your permit as each check-post will ask for a print out and won't give it you back. 4 should be enough.
Lobsang at Tawang Tour and Travel did a great job sorting out my permit.
Side of the road:
There are lots of amusing motivational and safety messages on the road to Tawang.