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

Off the Map

Never pass up a discount bookstore, because you just never know what you might find.  Not long ago I picked up a copy of Off the Map, an intriguing little paperback by British geographer Alastair Bonnett, who invites us on a tour of the world’s most ambiguous and ephemeral places.

Omani border with the United Arab Emirates - unrestricted, back then (1985)
Omani border with the United Arab Emirates, eastern Arabia – unrestricted, back then (1985)

Such places can be floating or newly-emerged islands, or even man-made; they can be unrecognised, self-declared territories and wannabe sovereign nations; or loosely-defined border zones.  They can be dangerous or nightmarish places whose existence is officially suppressed – think Wittenoon, Western Australia, or Chernobyl in the Ukraine – or they might equally be the magical retreats you shared with your childhood companions, places that adults never knew.

Bonnett’s mention of childhood retreats transported me straight back to the bush-clad hills behind our suburban home in 1950s Hobart, Tasmania.  Sunnyside Road ended in a cul-de-sac surrounded by native bushland, which to us kids (no ‘virtual’ amusements, remember!) represented a maze of paths and byways, of semi-secret
hiding places.  It’s all vanished now.

Set up to sleep rough under a railway bridge in Berlin, Germany
Ready to sleep rough under a railway bridge in Berlin, Germany

Ephemeral places also include those niches seized by the dispossessed, be they refugees, asylum-seekers or simply the homeless.

There’s nothing nostalgic about many other places Off the Map. Bonnett also remarks on Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan.

Entering the de facto Republic of South Ossetia (photo by Anatoly Zhdanov for Komsomolskaya Pravda, 2008)
Entering the de facto Republic of South Ossetia (photo by Anatoly Zhdanov for Komsomolskaya Pravda, 2008)

Taking advantage of age-old ethnic rivalries, Putin’s Russia has carved out at least four more pseudo-republics in eastern Europe, two (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) from Georgian territory.  These separatist enclaves are recognised by no other major nation and co-exist uneasily with their neighbours.  After hearing a hair-raising story about an injured and penniless Dutchman who had been stranded in Abkhazia, I abandoned the idea of attempting to cross from Georgia.  South Ossetia is, apparently, little more than a single valley.

Greece hosts the ancient monastic enclave of Mt Athos, where women have been banned for centuries.  But productivity, not piety, drives an oestrogen-free island in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf.  Many oil and gas industry workers shuttle back and forth from Das Island, 160 km offshore from Abu Dhabi.  This desolate landfall has become a vital production hub, covered with pipelines and pumping stations.

In the 1980s, at least, life on Das was not as bleak as this suggests.  The all-male community, 3000-strong, enjoyed a choice of catering ranging from mess halls to silver service restaurants, and superlative sporting and library facilities.

US border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
US border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Then there are the border zones…  who doesn’t get a buzz, an adrenaline rush, from crossing a foreign frontier?  So often, two cultures come face to face here, perhaps clashing, perhaps blending, perhaps mingling like oil and water, as the communities either side of the line draw life and purpose from each other.

Omani/UAE border post in the Wadi Bih, Musandam Peninsula, eastern Arabia
Omani/UAE border post in the Wadi Bih, Musandam Peninsula, eastern Arabia

In many parts of Asia and the Middle East, border fences and signposts are a recent innovation.  Tribal nomads often enjoy freedom of movement denied to the traveller on wheels, whilst townspeople flow back and forth on market days.  In Arabia’s barren wilderness, only the oases were traditionally attached to one realm or another.  The independent Sultanate of Oman is intertwined with the sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates, and many landlocked enclaves were crossed without formality until recent years.

Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas
Observing North Korea’s showcase Gaeong (Kaesong) industrial zone through telescopes at the Dorasan Observation Tower, DMZ, South Korea

Some borders still have to be observed from a safe distance.  The border between North and South Korea remains a ceasefire line; four kilometres wide and 248 kilometres long, the Demilitarized Zone is sealed against human intrusion and, ironically, has become a flourishing habitat for wildlife.

Off the Map reviewed in The Guardian.
This post was contributed by Philip Game

Berlin: Ghosts of the Cold War

 

View from our apartment on Leipziger Strasse, Berlin
View from our apartment on Leipziger Strasse, Berlin

We’re staying right in the heart of Berlin, on the 19th floor of a refurbished apartment complex on Leipziger Strasse in the Mitte or Central district.

Two U-Bahn (Underground) stations lie within a few minutes’ walk. Strangely though, the 2-stop journey to the gleaming new glass-and-steel Hauptbahnhof (central station) requires a tortuous transfer at the gloomy old Friedrichstrasse station. Why so disjointed?

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central station) building
Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central station) building

 

And whatever happened to Unter den Linden, that once-grand boulevard running east from the Brandenburg Gate? It was a mess when we came last year, and much of it still is.

Such questions do have answers. Today’s Berlin makes better sense as you come to appreciate the city’s tortured history and the apparent determination to reunite East and West. Unter den Linden remains a construction site while work continues to restore the missing links in the U-Bahn (underground train) network.

Stasi Museum, Berlin, Germany
Stasi Museum, Berlin, Germany

Berlin’s idiosyncratic personality is said to date back to the Cold War days, when young West Germans made their way to West Berlin to enjoy free tuition and exemption from military service. West Berliners lived day-to-day alongside a hostile presence, the Wall and the regime behind it.

Today, the Berlin Wall has all but vanished, although token stretches remain as canvasses for street artists too young to remember life in a divided city (including the East Side Gallery and the Mauerpark, or Wall Park, in the gritty Prenzlauer Berg district).

Stallholder(s) at Flohmarkt am Mauerpark (Sunday flea market at Mauerpark) Berlin
Stallholder at the Sunday flea market at Mauerpark, Berlin

If you weren’t born yesterday, and remember when the Iron Curtain collapsed 25 years ago, do visit Berlin whilst you can still witness vestiges of the old, alongside the new.

This post was contributed by Philip Game
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