Travelogue of The Road Less Traveled - Guwahati to Tawang

Tripoto

There was one part of India that I desperately wanted to travel, the north east. Similar were the wishes of one such friend of mine from Swiggy, Mr. Avinash, who is also a travel enthusiast, and most importantly a guy with plenty of leaves remaining. A bike trip across the North East was hence planned by us. Upon our research we found that bike rental places were available in Guwahati, Assam.

Photo of Travelogue of The Road Less Traveled - Guwahati to Tawang 1/1 by nadellapraneeth

The best part about this trip is that we did not have any plan; though we had a few places in our minds that we wanted to cover. We researched intensely for the next few weeks about the do’s/don’ts/where’s/what’s/how’s.

This is Avinash, also a marathon runner.

Day 1-

We flew down to Guwahati and collected our ILPs from the airport itself. The Arunachal tourism people at the Guwahati airport were very friendly and arranged our permits within 30 minutes. There are different tourist circuits available for permit. We took the Tawang circuit that costed 450Rs

We came out of the airport and were trying to contact “Awerides”, a bike rental company we found on google who were not responding to our calls. Still figuring out the next step, we spot a restaurant outside the airport and decide to have lunch until we get a response from awerides. While having lunch, a few students walked into the restaurant and were conversing in Telugu. I walked up to them

and randomly asked if they knew any bike rental places for which they had no idea about, but upon requesting one guy contacted his senior who did not answer his calls. We couldn’t waste more time and decided to visit the awerides office directly, which was in the heart of the city and 20 kms from the airport. While on the roads of Guwahati, we got to see the mighty Brahmaputra river flowing through the city, and plenty of beautiful girls; to be honest every girl was a headturner.

On our way to awerides office, I get a call from the college student whose senior had called back and gave details about “Life on wheels”. We had this as our backup and continued to awerides office. Their pathetic customer service and expensive rental prices forced us to leave the place and head to Life on Wheels, a bike rental company owned by a passionate biker, Niraj Surana. We were overwhelmed by his response and willingness to help. As ours was a plan without a plan, we did not have any bike-gear. He warned us about bad roads, sub-zero temperatures, and suggested to take the gear as well. We took a Royal Enfield Classic 350 which had carriers attached and set off on our journey after receiving a few more valuable tips from Niraj.

We started our journey at 5:30 PM, which is very late as the sun sets by 4:30-5, and drove non-stop for 4 hours until we reached Tezpur, 180kms from Guwahati. We drove cautiously as we did not have prior experience of riding a bullet and took an extra hour to cover that distance. With great difficulty we found one open motel and rested our backs for the night.

Day 2-

We planned to start off early by 7, but carrying the tiredness from the previous day, we could not get up on time. We woke up around 8, freshened up by 9, had breakfast by 10, and started by 11. Don’t judge us, we were late only by 4 hours.

The initial route towards Arunachal Pradesh was smooth and covered the distance in quick time. The heavy breakfast we had (we ate a lot because it was cheap) made sure we did not have to stop and waste time for lunch. Upon reaching Arunachal Pradesh, the permit zone commenced. The state Is heavily guarded by SSB all thanks to China as it claims Arunachal to be a part of it’s own. We showed our permits while we interacted with the army personnel who were not only friendly but also showed interest in what we were doing and why.

A few kilometres into the state and the mountain ranges start; as does the ghat roads. I’m being too generous by saying roads because there weren’t any. It’s a path filled with sand and stones. Not surprisingly we were slow and steady to compensate our biking experience. The entire path was uphill with hairpin bends every few metres. All of this together meant that the third gear was a luxury we seldom got.

It began to dawn as our bike started giving trouble. We faced a problem everytime we changed the gear. The frequency of the problem kept creeping up as we kept nearing our destination for the night, Bomdila. We managed to reach Bomdila with the troubling bike and upon a few local people’s suggestion decided to halt at hotel La. Meanwhile we informed Niraj about our situation and he responded very well. He called one of his contacts in that village and asked us to take the bike to him the first thing next morning. Having skipped lunch, the stomachs were growling and were satisfied by the local delicacies of thupka and momos. The food was delicious with which we called it a night after deciding to start as early as 6 Am; we have to get our bike fixed, remember?

Day 3-

Just as planned, we woke up at around EIGHT AM. Already late by 2 hours, we freshened up quickly and went to the mechanic. The chain socket was broken and had to be replaced. The bike couldn’t take the load on the steep hilly roads and a few teeth on the main socket broke hence resulting in difficulty while shifting gears. Niraj agreed to reimburse the entire amount and we replaced the socket with a new one.

As the bike was getting fixed we went in search for a cheap place for breakfast and hogged like it was our last meal. The village of Bomdila was filled with people across the entire state as his holiness Karmapa was scheduled to preach here that day. A festive atmosphere prevailed the place with eye-catching stuff everywhere. You know what I mean.

We started our journey towards Tawang at 11 AM. Late only by 5 hours, and let me put that into perspective for you. 11 Am in the north east is equivalent to 3 pm in delhi with respect to sunlight. The sun rises as early as 4 AM and sets around 4 PM. By 6 PM it is pitch dark everywhere. Therefore, we had very little sunlight-time to cover the major portion of our journey that included the Sela pass, the highest point in that region at an altitude of 14,000 feet..

As we ascended towards the Sela pass, the weather got rough and it started to snow. It might sound exciting for you, but trust me, it is not. The direction of wind and snowfall was into our face. To make things worse, we couldn’t use the windshield of the helmet to protect our face as it started to fog inside the helmet because of moisture from breathing. Not to forget the freezing wind making our hands feel numb, we couldn’t feel our hands anymore. It was 3 PM as we reached the sela pass military checkpost. The weather continued to be rough, therefore we decided to take a break for a while to see if things get better.

The military jawans were courteous, offered us bonfire, hot maggi and hot-hot tea. Maggi was not free, just saying. They suggested to keep moving without waiting for the weather as it could only get worse. They also put some faith and hope in us by conveying that the roads were very good on the next hill. It was just this 5-6 kms of downhill that we had to be worried about.

We started our descent from sela pass against the wind and snow. The roads were super wet with mudholes here and there. Driving on those muddy terrains felt like driving on quick sand as the tires kept sinking into the mud. While negotiating one such stretch, we had the scariest moment for the day. One huge animal, giving the impression of a Lion, came running towards us from the side. That is fiercest dog one would ever see, a full grown Tibetan Mastiff.

The dog came running to us and not knowing what to do, we slowed down. By slowing down I mean decelerating from 10kmph(this was our speed throughout, really) to 5 kmph. The beast barked at us while chasing us bringing our hearts to our mouths and moved away knowing we were not a threat. But that few moments of outrageous chase were enough to warm our body temperatures in that freezing cold. Moving cautiously until the good roads started, we increased the pace as it was getting very late and we were not sure if we would find accommodation. We reached Tawang at 10 PM, finding the entire town asleep. With great difficulty again, we find one big 3 star hotel with the receptionist awake. Though it was expensive, we had no other choice but to check in and rest for the night.

Day 4-

A day of complete rest as we did nothing but lazed around the entire town visiting the Tawang monastery, Buddha temple, circuit house and other local spots. We also found out details about Bumla pass and Madhuri lake. We needed a special permission from the AO to visit Bumla pass. We go to his office and get the required permission for the next day.

Day 5-

We planned to go to Bumla today, but couldn’t. Maybe Tawang wants us to come back to her, hence snowed intensely through the night making it impossible to for any vehicle to navigate. Bumla pass is the Indo-China border at an altitude of 15,200 feet.

Before starting our journey today, if somebody would have told me that it would take an hour to cross 100 metres, I would have retorted by saying not even in a swimming pool. Why am I talking about this? Read on. We started early by 8 AM to reach Tezpur by night but all we could manage was Bomdila. We started off smooth by going at decent speeds all set to reach tezpur. But then came the “swimming pool” moment mentioned at the start. We spent 2 hours to cover 200 metres. All thanks to the sela pass. The early onset of snowfall which snowed mercilessly for two days while we were in tawang caused roads to be skating rings. There was 15 cms thickness of ice on the road, in parts where the sunlight was blocked by the mountain, which is good conditions to play ice hockey, just that we were not in the mood. Driving was impossible as there was zero friction between the ice and the bike tires. I never really understood when my science teacher in school said that friction is a necessary evil. Those were the exact words resonating in my mind- indeed friction is a necessary evil. After a point, the ever composed avinash started to panic too as we tried everything from removing air pressure from tires to pushing the bike and even breaking the ice with stones found around. Nothing worked. There was only one option left now, to drive on the virgin snow at the edge of road/ridge. A small mistake or slip would see us thousands of feet down in the valley. Avinash lifted the backend of the bike just enough to avoid contact with the ice and I slowly traversed into the thick, virgin snow at the edge of the ridge. From then, I drove extremely cautious behind Avinash while he was clearing the snow from the front. The bullet is a monstrous bike, so heavy that it is impossible to control from the minutest off-balance in that situation. This 200 metre stretch took us two hours and totally put us back from reaching Tezpur that night.

Post this incredible experience, everything else seemed like child’s play. We started bending the bike on the hairpin bends to an extent where the foot-break was touching the road. No fear no more. Driving improved from gear 1 and gear 2 to gear 3 and gear 4. But at the end of it all, we were just happy that we came out alive. The disruptive situations life puts us in are all real, all encompassing; they mould us and change us, challenge us and sometimes overwhelm us with what we can do.

Day- 6

We didn't want to return via the same route; hence asked asked a few local people and took a route that didn't exist on the google maps. The route which the local traders use. The roads were amazing but sooner we realized that this was a high land slide prone zone. The sight of a few land slides that hadn't been cleared made us apprehensive. Every hundred metres one can find signs as shown in the image below.

Current location coordinates (lat-longs) were written on the sides every hundred metres which we assumed were for rescue in case something untoward happens. We felt like we were the only ones taking this route as we did not spot any other vehicle until reached a small village. After confirming the directions from local people, we move ahead with the knowledge to take the SSB camp route. Little into the journey and the road diverges into two. Confused, we ask for SSB camp and the guy points to the left. Later we got to know that there were SSB camps on both sides of the road and the guy guided us to the nearest one, the wrong one. We realized this when the road lead us into a small gate post which was an inclination of around 45 degrees. Really that steep. We almost decided to turn around until avinash spotted electrical lines going upward. A simple tip for your future travels - never use your brain in such situations, like Avinash, and just go with your gut feeling. Because of the electrical lines we hoped for the best and continued to move forward where we come across a small holiday house of someone. Dead end. And the road was so steep that the mighty royal enfield couldn't take the load of two people. 

Now the biggest challenge awaited us in front, the downhill return on a sandy road. Avinash decided to walk down instead while I steered the vehicle down. At a point, the bike gained so much momentum that I started to panic. It felt like coming down a watery slide we see in waterparks. In a bid to control the bike without using brakes, as using brakes would only skid the bike, I put on first gear. The unexpected happened. The bike gained further momentum and was nearing a 180 degree turn (U - turn) that had no side railing. Now thinking with a clear mind I turn off the engine, but holding onto the clutch. The bike continues to move downhill towards the turn. Suddenly I spot a small pile of sand to the right and direct the bike into that pile by throwing the vehicle down. The moment I fall down, I see Avinash dive past me on my left like Ravindra Jadeja diving to stop the boundary. He saw me gaining speed, started running and dived next to me in a bid to stop the bike skidding off the road into the valley. Fortunately, the pile of sand made all the difference.

We gathered ourselves up, came down slowly, took the correct route and had a smooth journey since then to Guwahati.

This post was originally published on Thinking Out Loud.

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