Just one warning — and I’ll scoot. Sound carries far in the mountains. Yet I’m clueless about the truck heading my way along the sole route to the ‘Y’ junction.
Beyond the rise of the mountain to the left of this bifurcation lies our proposed destination — the high-altitude Sangetsar Lake, better known by the name it had acquired after a certain Madhuri Dixit shot a dance sequence on its shores for a 1997 Bollywood film. Branching off to the right is the route to Bumla Pass near the China border. Among the vehicles heading there is a convoy of Indian Army trucks, now stalled in the snow some hairpin bends ahead of us.
“Those trucks are skid-proofing tyres with chains,” volunteers Lobsang, explaining the traffic hold-up. Nonchalant about such contingencies, our local taxi driver promptly stretches out in the snow for a power nap.
I grab the chance I’d missed at the Gorsalam army check post almost an hour ago. Tension over an issue with our Inner Line Permits, mandatory for civilian access to the militarily sensitive areas of Arunachal Pradesh, followed by jubilation at being allowed by the friendly sentry on duty to proceed, had resulted in my criminal lapse: overlooking the only public loo for miles.
The next such facility — somewhere near Madhuri Lake — seems light years away as the minutes tick by and traffic remains immobile. My desperation mounting, I sneak out to patrol the area behind our hired SUV. With all action focussed on the stalled convoy ahead, the coast to the rear looks clear. Our car serving as a protective shield in front, I squat and focus on the job.
And then I hear the beast growl. Though still out of sight, the monster truck is approaching from behind. Horror-struck, I feel my surroundings, the rich cobalt sky, the fir trees Christmassy in their mantle of snow, the spectacular ice floe-flecked Penga Teng Tso — the glacial lake at 12,000-something feet that we’d stopped by minutes earlier — becoming part of a high-altitude hallucination. Strike me dead! Better dead than disgraced.
Nothing I’ve weathered so far in the course of our travels through West Kameng district, popularly known as the ‘Buddhist circuit’, has come close to evoking so acute a feeling of despair. Certainly not the blizzard we encounter on the 13,700 ft-high Sela Pass, the snowflakes pinprick-sharp on our exposed faces as we step out to watch a pair of Brahminy ducks, unperturbed by the rough weather, gliding across Sela Lake. Nor the onward drive — despite the car temperature plunging to a shocking minus 10°C — to Tawang, for we have convivial company on the way: A trio of smiling Monpa women whom I cajole into singing folk songs for us in exchange for the ride they seek to their hometown Jang en route, because inclement weather has brought the road-repair work they were engaged in to a standstill.
Even the rogue snowfall in Tawang that frosts surrounding mountain peaks and passes, trees and flagpoles, rooftops and cars, cancelling our trip to the lakes twice, can’t sour my mood. Cowering in our hotel room’s sub-zero chill under a hillock of quilts, I’m hopeful of enjoying blazing sunshine next morning.
Such optimism in adversity, a way of life in the “land of dawn-lit mountains” whose strategic geographic position is as fraught with risk as its mercurial weather, is something we’re learning to summon with the local’s cheerful ease. The no-frills accommodation in Tawang, for instance, comes with genial, rosy-cheeked housekeeping staff eager to ensure our comfort during the frequent power outages, even if it means pumping life into a temperamental, kerosene-fuelled room heater that spits fire and releases fumes toxic enough to asphyxiate us. The food, though basic, is fresh, piping hot. The hostile road conditions, the random bouts of vertigo and nausea become bearable as we roll the melodious place names — Tenga, Sesa, Nechiphu, Lumla — on our tongue and marvel at the surprising contrasts in the vistas that unfold. Along the ascent from Dirang to Tawang via Jaswantgarh, named after the heroic Indian soldier who had fought the Chinese against insurmountable odds during the war of 1962, lie dense forests, resonant with birdcalls. Giant icicles hang like bared dinosaur teeth from hollows in the rock face. Magnolias bloom in wild profusion along the hillside.
Other journeys — sometimes undertaken on growling stomachs, for eateries are rare in these remote realms — yield equally irresistible photo ops: trees laden with peach and pear blossoms grow around Dirang; an elderly matron wearing pretty turquoise earrings smiles shyly from a doorway near Sangti village; ponies and yaks graze languidly on the way to Mandala and beyond; and as the mud-and-snow-churned road to Nagagigi forces us back, swirling mists transform entire forests into a dreamscape of phantom silhouettes.
The Zemithang valley, with its playful children and shaggy dogs and its Monpa heritage lovingly preserved, is so much like the Shangri-La of my imagination that it melts away the rigours of the exhausting day trip from Tawang. And our aversion to drab Bomdila, with its unfortunate reputation as a town overrun by the Chinese during the 1962 war, is forgotten while visiting the unique Chillipam Monastery nearby that showcases the little-known tantric aspects of Buddhism, the interiors rich with exquisite murals and images depicting the Padmasambhava in erotic postures with curvaceous apsaras .
Even Tawang, inconsequential for most visitors, surprises. With its gilded rooftops visible from afar, the magnificent 17th-century Tawang Monastery complex is a sight to behold in fair weather and foul. The town’s quaint Old Market — with my favourite landmark, the aptly named Tipsy Wine Shop — stands out for the deep empathy shared among locals; its many stores, selling Chinese knick-knacks, woven Arunachali jholas and, of course, liquor, liquor, liquor, lie untended during business hours as their owners zip off on an errand, their faith in the patience and integrity of waiting customers unshaken.
Inspired, perhaps, by such tolerance and trust, we’ve stopped cribbing about the limited food options, the appalling roads, the scarcity of public toilets, ungrudgingly managing with a sheltered hollow here and a bush there during our long drives. I’ve even quipped about charging passing vehicles a toll fee when our impromptu toilet stops are more exposed than we’re comfortable with.
A grave mistake, for which I’m paying now, as a lifetime’s worth of hard-earned respectability hangs in the balance. Crouched behind our car on the road to Madhuri Lake, I hear the tormentor truck bearing down on me. Before I can react, it comes to a grinding halt a few feet behind me. Surprisingly, the world doesn’t self-destruct as I rush through a reverse striptease, hampered by several layers of thermals. My sprint to the car door, followed by my nosedive into the back seat, is impressive.
At my travel partner’s startled look, I divulge my sordid secret.
“Military ambulance,” she announces, glancing back.
Flashing my bare behind at soldiers in high-security zones is not among my fetishes, I promise.
Suddenly, the traffic begins to crawl. Lobsang leaps in behind the wheel. I’m expelling my breath, glad to exit the ‘crime scene’, when our driver, overcome by gallantry, waves the ambulance ahead. I shut my eyes and think of ostriches as the army vehicle overtakes us.
Ten feet ahead, it skids on snow and halts. The young jawan at the wheel looks back, seeking help. I cringe. Lobsang rushes forward. And so it goes: stop, start, skid, stop.
Aeons later… The ambulance has stalled again, the road ahead of it jammed with vehicles in various stages of distress. A tipper truck stands by, as road-construction workers desultorily scrape snow off to the side. The ambulance driver flips a backward glance.
God, however, is merciful: Army personnel at the ‘Y’ junction order all non-military vehicles to turn back. Is the road snowbound? Is the traffic bottleneck to blame? Has the weather turned? No one knows.
Exasperated, my friend grumbles about the ambulance driver; his inexperience had slowed us down, ruining our day. I couldn’t be happier; Madhuri Lake will remain a distant dream, but the Army man and I are finally parting ways. Travelling in opposite directions, never to meet again.
As we drive back to Tawang, I think of the poor soldier setting out on his long journey this morning, coming up this very road, unprepared for the shock awaiting him. I replay the scene of my mortification and imagine the jawan’s expression. I wonder if he’d drawn courage from the motto inspiring the name of many an Army establishment across Arunachal: “ Fikar not.” Don’t worry. The situation suddenly seems hilarious. The sun shines a little brighter as a laugh breaks through.
(Mita Ghose is a freelance writer and editor based in Kolkata)