Arunachal Pradesh, a part of Mystical 7 sisters of India
Tucked away from the mainland on mountains and valleys. In terms of geography, India is so large and these 7 sisters are topographically separated from India because of the country to which we gave birth, Bangladesh. To travel to these seven sisters or states of India, we have to take a long journey, and visiting these states consumes time by road or rail or opt for an option of Air travel. Looks like travel to this part of India is going to become shorter and easier through a rail corridor through Bangladesh. Work for which is under construction and will be operational in a year or two which will bring these North-Eastern states into the mainstream. All these states are in the hilly region except Assam. Every state has its own beauty and culture which is distinctively different from each other. Before visiting interior parts of a couple of states like Mizoram and Nagaland, it is advisable to check the current situation, but still, they are part of the Mystical beauty of North East, so a visit to those states also is on my bucket list. Barring these 2 which I haven’t seen so far, I would love to visit Meghalaya again, though I don’t like to visit the same place twice. Meghalaya is truly a representative of the word ‘Mystic’. Clouds on mountain tops, waterfalls, winding roads, some known places in the world for its unique features like Cherapunji for its highest rainfall percentage. When I visited Arunachal Pradesh, I thought I will break my rule again which is ‘no-repeat journey to the same place’.
The year 2019 was the year for me, to come out of corporate life and explore the outside world regularly. I started with Goa for the first 5 months of 2019. Spent almost a month in Andaman and Nicobar backpacking, I was back in Mumbai. The urge of travelling made me restless. Ladakh solo backpacker trip was more than successful with some nerve breaking moments of getting stuck at Kargil during the lockdown. Read the upcoming blog after series on Arunachal Pradesh travel: Nomad’s bow to Majestic Ladakh.
Travel is a school which teaches a few things at every step.:
Ladakh’s solo trip taught me a lot about India. Though my earlier International solo backpacking trips were kind of comfortable with maximum air travel than road except for Egypt. Traveling in Egypt by road was adventurous, but luxurious with royal transport service.
In India, road travel to this hilly state is completely a different ball game. Just like Andaman Grand Trunk Road, roads in these states are in pathetically bad shape. Every year government tries to build roads but the life span doesn’t extend beyond one year. Heavy rainfall in this region is the main culprit, but the same rainfall adds to the beauty of this region. Transform the landscape like a movie’s dream sequence with a feeling of you in clouds. It creates waterfalls on the sides of roads. It gives birth to some scenic lakes. Spreads its lush green carpets on otherwise barren and snow-covered land.
The impromptu plan is a crux of solo backpacking:
Travel to Arunachal Pradesh was an impromptu plan. After returning from Ladakh, still I had a month to return to Andamans to search for a job.
Sheetal, one of my best friends sowed seeds for another travel. She mentioned a musical festival of Arunachal Pradesh’s one of the valleys with an odd-sounding name Ziro, popularly known as Ziro Festival of Music or ZFM. I had just returned from two back to back journeys and going through the third looks very difficult in terms of a guy who had decided to change his career and current jobless, but that proved wrong. Once a nomad will be always a nomad who can’t settle and stay at one place for a long period. Checked the finance position and chalked out a rough budget for the trip of around 23/25 days though I am not an ardent music lover who will spend money only to visit a 4 days Music festival, so an extended plan had to be worked upon. After charting this extensive plan, it looked so exciting that all hurdles flattened up. Found cheaper flight tickets due to the off-season. Booking.com opened doors for some cheap hotel bookings. The rest of the hotel bookings could be done while traveling with local first-hand information.
Make friends and cement the bonds strong:
When I was a rider, had made friends in the Indian biking community. Spread a word for solving few problems relating to Inner Line Permit, information on local travel, and ZFM’s pass plus stay during the festival. Coined a new saying or tweaked the old one. ‘A biker is in need always help by another biker with his deed’. The next day morning, my problem was solved. A biker’s name who is a part of the set-up in Ziro sprang from a couple of sources. In the biking community especially the Enfield rider’s community, help is always a call away, be it any part of India and nowadays, so many bikers settling in many parts of the world, help comes internationally as well by going out of their way. This guy came as an Angel to me. Rahul from Hyderabad along with his friend runs campsites In North-Eastern parts of India festivals. These festivals have become a cult and many people from India as well as abroad throngs to be a part of the festivals. This is travelers’ way to soak in the local culture which was hidden for so many years. a couple of mail exchanges, my last hurdles blew away with mail. This cleared my path to sail smoothly. In Arunachal Pradesh, Indian citizens need an inner Line Permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. This rule doesn’t apply to other states barring Ladakh’s couple of regions which I experienced a month ago. The reason for this restriction is due to the state’s topography. The border of these 2 states is shared with our land and power-hungry neighbor, China. This permit is a must for Indians and for foreigners, along with Inner Line Permit, Protected Area Permit is required. These permits can be obtained from Guwahati if you have forgotten to get it. Just that, it might waste a few hours or a day. For a backpacker like me who normally travels without a local hotel or travel bookings, was a thing to remember. Luckily, that was taken care of, the same way my ZFM’s entry pass and tent stay.
With these few must things are taken care of, I was ready to discover the mysterious part of India which was partly covered in 2011 while riding to Meghalaya after attending Rider Mania in Kolkata.
Toughened travel sail through rough conditions:
To travel to the interior part of Arunachal Pradesh, one needs to have patience and like to travel by road. For those who are used to travel in luxury, this is not an area to explore. As said earlier Roads are bad, there is no rail line due to the hilly nature of the terrain, bus service options are limited, Chartered vehicles charge a bomb due to the high cost of maintaining vehicles running on bad roads. Before entering Arunachal, you must practice getting squeezed in a Tata Sumo or an SUV which are filled beyond its seating capacity. Exploring Arunachal might be a super reward to lose weight beforehand so that you can sit for 8/10 hours in a packed vehicle with some breaks in between. I think, Mumbai residents who are used to travel by suburban railway will easily sail through in these travel conditions, so as for me. Mumbai railways are always packed in rush hours and in a sitting of three, four are squeezed in. Hardened by years of travel made me a tough traveler to take these difficult journeys.
Armed with collated knowledge and a broad plan, landed at Guwahati airport. This is a Gateway to the North-Eastern part of India. I had mentioned time and again in my previous blogs, I always chalk out the outer plan and then make changes as and when required. Traveling alone makes a big difference and nullifies the chances of clashes with a travel partner due to a change in a plan at the last moment.
At the Gateway of North East of India:
Guwahati or for that matter entire Assam borders, mainland India and 7 sisters, and one can see a mix of cultures. Many travelers, use this city as a point for an overnight halt and don’t keep much time to explore this biggest city of North East. I think that’s a mistake many commit unless they arrive in Assam, with the only objective of exploring Assam in-depth. I made this mistake twice. In 2011, while riding to Shillong and this time, too. Next time, will plan in such a way, most of the time will spend in Assam and little in other states. With its wildlife sanctuaries and historical importance, I would recommend exploring Assam for a minimum of 10/12 days.
Guwahati to Tezpur
(The first leg of a long plan to reach Tawang)
Coming back to the present, a budget backpacker with a shoestring budget never opts for a chartered vehicle, so as for me. I have learned from all my backpacking trips; you don’t need to come under pressure from the taxi operators who are ready to jump on you with all the bloated reasons of no mode of transport available to your destination. Simply ignore them and check with a local guy for a bus or shared taxi to reach your next destination. One more thing I learned is never to disclose your final destination, but break that into small points of travel which are closest. If you reveal your final destination, more scares from taxi operators come your way and you might change your plan of taking a bus or cheaper mode of transport because of the difficulties showcased by them. Your budget will go haywire if chosen to take costly mode. Ignoring these tourist sharks, I calmly crossed the road and traveled to a bus depot from where regular A/C or Non AC buses operate to reach Tezpur which is the closest entry point of Arunachal Pradesh.
Tezpur is a kind of Gateway to a couple of scenic valleys of Arunachal Pradesh. Tawang and Ziro valley.
National Parks, a distant dream:
While gathering information to make an additional plan along with Tawang and Ziro, I was exploring possibilities of visiting Kaziranga which is on my bucket list for more than 10 long years and had to skip for various reasons twice over the long period. History repeats. This time, too it wasn’t possible because Kaziranga National Park, home for famous Indian One-horned Rhinos was closed and the date of opening was Mid October, so had to skip.
Actually, India has plenty of national parks, almost one in every state or sometimes multiple numbers per state. Every Indian National Park has its own specialty, so I was exploring chances of visiting the lesser-known in Assam which was Nameri National Park, famous for a wide variety of wild animals. This National park is known for spotting White-winged Duck an endangered duck, Asam’s the state bird. The other two bird species are Ibisbill and Merganser migratory birds which visit this place every winter. I was right at the start of the winter. The guy at tent stay had promised me for a walk in the forest to visit habitats of these birds and few wild animals.
This national park was on my way and nearby Tezpur so decided to take a chance. I wanted to spend at least a night in that park, but this time luck didn’t favor me, so planned to reach Tezpur the next day by early morning train and stayed near to the station. Booked an auto to reach the station to take the early morning train. Guwahati – Tezpur route is on a North Eastern section of Indian Railways.
Disappointment in galore:
When started early morning to board the 5 a.m. train, saw all autos are coming from the opposite direction and my auto guy showed signs of concern. When enquired, the train which I was supposed to take was canceled due to some technical failure. When you live in Metropolis, this kind of excuse sounds flimsy, but I was used to it due to my travel for treks in the interior part of Maharashtra where State Transport buses many times get canceled due to such reasons. When the Auto driver and Co-passengers didn’t find any kind of panic on my face were surprised. Indian Tourism’s biggest mantra – ‘Athithi Devo Bhav’ means ‘Guest is like a god helped me. On their own, they found alternate transport for me to reach Tezpur. Many times I curse the Indian mentality of poking a nose in other’s business or too much enquiring about others, but this time, it was help which I couldn’t deny. A lesson learned. I decided not to curse about this attitude, at least for this trip. Co-passengers explained auto guy to drop me at the bus stand to take an AC bus to Tezpur which the driver obliged without charging anything extra.
Out of 7 sisters of North East, Assam is the only place that has a flat terrain. Guwahati to Tezpur bus journey on flat roads didn’t give a single hint, how the next leg of the journey will be. You can witness what this state is famous for. Assam Tea. On either side of the road, you can witness tea estates and laborers plucking leaves.
Private transporter’s monopoly:
From Tezpur, I was going to enquire about my additional plan’s travel for a mode of transport to Tawang via Nameri National Park.
If you want to experience an example of how a State Transport can go into losses because of the monopoly of private taxi operators, visit Arunachal Pradesh. My experience at ST depot was very disappointing. A person sitting at the inquiry counter was discouraging tourists by giving misleading information. In almost entire Arunachal Pradesh, private taxi operators’ association rules the passenger traffic. One cannot ignore them and have to pay the amount which is asked for as a fare. This amount is always on the higher side for a shared ride in a cramped Sumo for 8-10 hours of travel. The fare is between Rs. 750 to Rs. 1000 per person depending on season and choice of seat.
I didn’t have any option, but to go for the available option. You need to make it sure about a window seat in the front row next to the driver for which you might have to pay a little extra. If you get that seat, you assure yourself of little extra leg space and an opportunity of clicking pics, and believe me, you will get thousands of good pics provided your hand should be rock steady to click pics or the camera should have the technology to give good results in shaky road conditions.
From Tezpur to Tawang, you have two route options, the only difference is one is slightly shorter than the other, but the longer route goes via Nameri National Park. As mentioned earlier, I had planned to visit Nameri National park for an overnight stay, so enquired about taxis operating on a later route.
The curse continued of Wildlife sanctuaries:
In my whole life, I always faced utmost disappointment on the wildlife front – National Parks and Tiger sighting. Visited so many Parks, but have not spotted a tiger or leopard in their natural habitat for once. Borivali National Park, Mumbai’s famous (or infamous?) for leopards sighting inside the boundary and outside, too. But so unlucky every time that If I plan to visit a national park, all leopards will vacate from that National park to surrounding buildings.
The same curse continued here, too. Couldn’t find any bus or shared taxi going to Tawang or Bomdila by Nameri road as that road was closed due to repair work, so ultimately dropped the plan and decided to take a route directly to Tawang for my first backbreaking journey of Arunachal Pradesh the next day. Travelers should note one thing is, all the taxis leave Tezpur early in the morning to reach Tawang before dark. In the entire North East, timings of Sunrise and Sunset are about 1.5/2 hours before resting of India due to unadjusted time zone as per location in the country.
This is the start of my exploration of beautiful Arunachal Pradesh valleys and yes China border which is a peaceful one compare to Ladakh. For the painful, but beautiful travel stories through my lens, keep on reading further Arunachal Pradesh blogs.