The Narrow Road to India’s Deep North East – Episode 2

With a lifelong interest in Tibet and its diaspora, I had opted for the epic road trip to Tawang, best known for its eminent three-hundred-year-old monastery.

Hotel Mandal Ghang at Bhalukpong, Arunachal Pradesh

Arriving in Guwahati, we three foreign travellers met our guide, Tadar Robin, then drove on into the night to cross into Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong, a small town beside the rushing Kameng River. Even here, our chalet-like hotel displayed a distinct Tibetan cultural influence.

Next day began the two-day ascent into the Himalayan foothills. We climbed from sub-tropical rainforest towards an icy 4200-metre pass, the Se La. Army encampments and convoys of lumbering camouflage-green trucks were our constant companions.

Prayer flags below the snow-dusted peaks approaching Se La

Only after the 1962 border conflict with China did the Indian authorities begin building roads into these valleys. I tried to imagine the high drama as Communist Chinese soldiers scrambled down these mountainsides that year: within my lifetime. India was caught off guard and will never forget it.

After six months the Chinese backed off and, these days, the relationship is cordial enough. Nonetheless, China nurses an historic claim to the Tawang district and the border passes remain heavily guarded and off-limits to foreigners.

Ritual dance honouring the visit of the Karmapa Lama to Tawang

As we entered Tawang, the hilly streets downtown were garlanded with strings of multicoloured prayer flags in preparation to welcome another, more distinguished, visitor; the Seventeenth Karmapa Lama is a distinguished Tibetan reincarnation.

American commentator Peter Lee writes, “Tawang… is indisputably Tibetan in culture, religion and history and, indeed, is one of the great monastery towns of Tibetan Buddhism and birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. It also straddles an important trade route as a gateway between the Tibetan plateau and the Indian plains….”

Inside the Dukhang or prayer hall of Tawang Gompa (Buddhist monastery)

Founded in 1681, the Tawang Gompa is India’s largest Buddhist monastery and sprawls across a ridge above the town at an altitude of 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). The imposing three-storey Dukhang or assembly hall houses a nine-metre golden Buddha, and the monastic library conserves an extensive collection of ancient books and manuscripts.

In 1959 the youthful Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled his beleaguered homeland and would spend his first night under Indian protection here. Early this year he made another return visit, triggering predictable protests from Beijing.

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The Narrow Road to India’s Deep North East – Episode 1

Philip Game sets forth on a tortuous road into India’s remote north east, from the banks of the Brahmaputra up into the Himalayan foothills and the very edge of Tibet.

My opportunity to venture into north eastern India, once largely off limits, came at short notice. An invitation to explore Meghalaya, Manipur or Mizoram, Nagaland or Tripura; or even Arunachal Pradesh, said to be India’s wildest and least explored state? Yes, who could resist? But which way?

People of the North East: Manipur tribal dancers perform at the Sangai Festival in Imphal, Manipur

India’s Seven Sisters, the seven states of the north east, group themselves around the enclave that is independent Bangladesh. Assam, the most populous and the most prosperous state, cradles the sprawling floodplains of the Brahmaputra, with some tracts of verdant hill country that include the great tea plantations. The other six states rub their mountainous spines against the borders of Bhutan, Chinese-occupied Tibet and Myanmar (Burma).

This is not the India of great cities, of regal hotels and sumptuous shopping. Think vibrant tribal cultures and abundant wildlife, including those elusive big cats: tiger and leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard. Smaller cats, simian species and other mammals roam these highlands and forests. Endemic bird species number in the hundreds. After Assam, Nagaland, which shares a border with Myanmar, is perhaps the best-known of the Seven, thanks to its annual Hornbill Festival. The others are simply names to conjure with.

Crossing the Brahmaputra, Assam

Arunachal Pradesh is one such. The ‘Land of Dawn-Lit Mountains’ rises abruptly beyond the Brahmaputra as a mass of hills clothed with subtropical forests. These hills eventually top off as snow-capped Himalayan peaks . Twenty-six major tribes share the former North East Frontier Agency, speaking more different languages than in any other Indian state. Some still practise animist beliefs whilst others follow the major religions.

C’mon, they need your answer… I opted for the epic road trip to Tawang in the Himalayan foothills, best known for its eminent three-hundred-year-old monastery.

To be continued

In the beginning… were travellers

From the late Sixties onward the great Asian overland road became a groove in the map, a well-worn route east from Istanbul into the wilds of Anatolia, on across the Shah’s Iran and anarchic Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and then India before reaching journey’s end at Kathmandu, where peace, love and hashish beckoned.

It didn’t just begin with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Right back in the post-war years, the early 1950s, a few intrepid would-be overlanders made tracks towards the Khyber Pass: Australia’s own Peter Pinney, a life-long wanderer – and larrikin – was one such.

Another, Eric Newby, famously tossed in his job in London’s rag trade to attempt a ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, and thereby made his name as a travel writer.

Two whose travels have remained virtually unknown in the English-speaking world were a pair of Swiss adventurers from Geneva who in 1953 struck out across the Balkans in a rattletrap two-seater Fiat car. Recently I stumbled across Nicolas Bouvier’s memoir The Way of the World, masterfully translated from the original French.

Thierry Vernet, on the road in Turkey
Thierry Vernet, on the road in Turkey

It’s a story told with consistent good humour and cultural understanding, a window into a vanished epoch; a time when two penniless travellers could settle into a remote but diverse community for months at a time, eking out a living by giving language lessons, by freelance writing or selling paintings.  Islamic fanaticism was not yet centre stage, if perhaps already waiting in the wings.

The 24-year-old Bouvier and his artist friend Thierry Vernet lived by their wits in an artists’ squat in Belgrade, then in provincial Macedonia. After hauling their little car across Turkey, the pair crossed into Iran, where heavy winter snowfalls forced a six-month layover in the ancient city of Tabriz.

Bakery in Herat, Afghanistan (1974)
Bakery in Herat, Afghanistan (1974)

An epic crossing of the deserts of eastern Iran at last brought the pair and their disintegrating chariot to the Pakistani garrison town of Quetta, gateway to fabled Afghanistan.

Their encounters here include such gems as Terence, the limp-wristed former British colonel now running a seedy bar.

The 1992 English-language edition of The Way of the World comes with an enthusiastic forward by the great (and now late) traveller and adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. That enough is recommendation enough to look out for a copy.

Postscript: In 1957 six British students in two Land Rovers set forth on the grandly-titled Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition.  Buoyed by generous corporate sponsorship, this became the first – and for many years the last – expedition to succeed in crossing Burma and continuing down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore.  Their story is told in Tim Slessor’s First Overland.

This post was contributed by Philip Game.