INTRO: Traversing 2500km from the East to the West of Arunachal Pradesh with a group of like-minded adventure goers and 33 Mahindra SUVs to take on the challenging terrain – in the company of the new Thar as well, this was a drive to remember.
“Ki Ki so so lha gyal lo” – is a Tibetan saying meaning ‘victory to the gods’ – something we all shouted out on our radios repeatedly as we drove through the high altitude mountain passes of Arunachal Pradesh driving from one mountain to another and another and another. It reminds me of an old song or call it an irritating rhyme – “The bear climbed over the mountain and what did he see? He saw another mountain and what did he do? He climbed the other mountain …….. the same lines go on and on till either you turn the radio off, which then means you make a wrong turn somewhere in the middle of nowhere, or the tune is stuck in your head and you keep singing it when you don’t want too - Hari Singh, driving the lead car – a Thar petrol, in this snaking convoy made sure no one forgot it and for good reasons.
Before I tell you about this mega cross-country drive and all the memories and moments cherished, let me introduce some of those who have not heard much about Arunachal Pradesh, which is also the crux of this whole drive. The tourism Department of Arunachal Pradesh is making a lot of effort to promote tourism in Arunachal Pradesh and this drive was curated to help promote the cause. Close to 60 media houses were invited for the drive – which was divided into three different parts. Arunachal Pradesh is the largest of the North Eastern states a.k.a Seven Sisters. In recent time, some of you may know Arunachal hosts the “Orange Music Festival” – but apart from that it is also known for its snow capped mountains, high altitude passes, countless picturesque gorges, monasteries, long-stretched meadows, dense forests and glaciers. Bordered on the south by Assam, on the North by China, on the west by Bhutan and on the east by Myanmar – Arunachal is also known as the “Orchid State of India” and the “Paradise of Botanists” with over 500 species of birds (some which are endangered) and an array of fauna and flora.
The 2500km, 12 day -long drive was on NH-13 also known as the “Trans Arunachal Highway” which is still being constructed in parts connecting the East to the West of Arunachal, which also happens to be how the drive got its name. The drive started from Namsai – a quaint little town, known for its golden Pagoda, from where the Chief Minister of Arunachal – Pema Khandu, a travel and driving enthusiast himself flagged off the 33 car Mahindra convoy on its long journey through Arunachal.
Driving through meadows of rice paddy and dirt roads, our first night halt was at a place called Hayuling – our first camping night by the Dihing river. I was driving at the tail end of the convoy – which meant I was about 2km to 5km behind the first car and I heard on the radio “guys shift to 4-low as you take the turn down to the campsite,” the first of the many times we were lucky to be driving 4x4 SUVs or else camping on the road or sleeping in the car would be the next best option. All the participants were given a backpack with an inflatable mattress, pillow, torch, blanket, and a camping chair – living the true outdoor life. It was all good till the rain gods decided to welcome us with a thunderstorm. Arunachal doesn’t really have a rainfall season – it rains whenever it pleases and it is a sign of good luck – let me tell you ,most of the nights the rain followed us blessing each campsite, the local villagers thought we brought good luck, us, not so much.
Next morning was a challenge, I am sure you must have guessed why? First night of camping comes with its list of morning schedule challenges and apprehensions. Nevertheless, a long way down by the river was comfort to few, and the rest made do with bottles of water – I shall say no more. Once again 4-low was the way to go and the Mahindra SUVs rolled out for a 155km drive to Walong where we would camp for the night. It was just a mere 3500ft above sea level, but it felt more like 10000ft, with a wind chill and a drizzle, the old man (if you know what I mean) and the bonfire was just not enough. Some villagers took pity on our plight and offered their houses for us to stay - apart from a brave few, the rest packed up like a tin of sardines. Walong is historically known as the place where the Indian Army fought against the Chinese invasion in 1962 and won, hats off to all those protecting us at our borders, it is sure a herculean task. Next morning we were made our way back to Hayuliang via Dong – yes that’s the name of the first village in the country to get the sun’s rays – that’s how Arunachal gets the name – ‘ land of the rising sun.’ There is also an outpost with a telescope pointed right at China, in case you are inquisitive enough to watch what is going on in Wuhan these days.
Destination next : Bomjir, which is an hours drive from Dambuk – where the famous Orange Music Festival is held during December. A mini ‘Tomorrowland’ if I could say with all the goodies included. Bomjir is located on the banks of the Dibang river. Usually people like to dip their feet in the river and enjoy the day, with Mahindra SUVs around – we dip the nose a little enjoy off-roading on the riverbanks and raft down ripples to get the adrenalin pumping. It was here at Bomjir where we completed Leg 1 of the Trans Arunachal Drive. Some media dared to go on exploring with us while some left back for the comfort of their homes and a batch of new adventure seekers from different media houses joined the bandwagon at Bomjir.
After a rejuvenating stay in cottages, catching up on some good nights sleep and also feeling much lighter (almost as if what RedBull say is true – ‘ It gives you wings”), the convoy was ready to spend the next 2 nights camping amidst nature at Geku and Basar – if you are wondering, yes it was still raining every evening but that never stopped the bonfire, dancing to Punjabi songs, karaoke nights and the barbeque. To be honest heading out from the city where we were locked up in our houses to singing in the open it was a blessing in disguise.
The next day was a surprise, I started the car and I heard google maps blurt out 306km to Ziro. Surprise because network is really patchy and for good reasons too – one really gets to explore in the true sense and have meaningful conversations or just have the most random fun conversations which I feel is a bit amiss with this era of social media – it is a debatable topic which would go on and on, so let’s agree to disagree. Ziro is one of the bigger towns in Arunachal Pradesh and is known for its picturesque valleys, trekking routes, adventure sports and wildlife sanctuaries. This was the end of Leg 2 of the journey and after driving over a 1500km, all the Mahindra SUVs that is the Scorpios and the New Thars passed with flying colors the rough road test, articulation test and stability test on smooth tarmac, and much more. This was the first long drive for the new Thars and boy were they fine.
The last leg of this mega drive begun as we rolled out of the town of Ziro and once again climbed one mountain pass after another to get to the beautiful valley of Pakke Kessang. The roads were beautiful with winding tarmac and the Thars looked right where they belonged. Pakke Kessang is the home to Arunachal’s biggest Tiger Reserve. We camped that night and tried to sleep peacefully not from the fear of the Tigers, but of leeches which crawled up because of the drizzle that was following us. After Pakke Kessang we camped for the last night on the trip at Shergaon before heading to Tawang. En route we stopped at the Dirang War Memorial where there was a cultural program and lunch organized for us by the tourism department. En route to Tawang it suddenly hit, the trip is coming, and we have to head back to home quarantine and living in the fear of heading outdoors. But there was one more surprise awaiting us.
Throughout the route we crossed umpteen high altitude passes and saw multiple snow capped peaks, crossed multiple streams but snow eluded us for some reason. The last day in Tawang the convoy took one last drive together to Sela Pass – situated at approx. 13,000ft and voila it was snowing – bucket list for me at least – ticked. Apart from being super excited driving on snow, the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh not only flagged-in the drive, but also drove the new Thar and was super impressed with it as well for not throwing him around the broken road leading up to Sela Pass. After the convoy was finally flagged-in at Sela Pass with fanfare, there was high tea organized with a felicitation program, but the party started when a band from Itanagar performed for us on the closing night and boy what a hell of a closing – it was snowing we all were dancing and singing and the barbeque was making the rounds, hell even the CM sang for us. All the partying continued till no one could stand any longer – and I mean for good reason out of tiredness and cold.
Sitting in the plane wrapped up like a prawn wearing a PPE suit with double face masks on and a face shield, the change was so stark and unwelcome, I wished I could just stay on and not head home. 12 days out in the open exploring Arunachal on 4 wheels was the best thing to happen since last year and it has not gotten better since. All good things come to an end and so did this mega drive.
Arunachal Pradesh has so much to offer and if you are one who likes being one with nature and loves the mountains, loves roughing it out, loves camping, loves driving – Arunachal should be in your bucket list too. Ending the trip on a high, I mean high on living and fresh mountain air, I shall say - “Ki Ki so so lha gyal lo” – in case you don’t remember it means “ Victory to the Gods,” for creating a paradise called Arunachal Pradesh.