Trekkers’ paradise

The unspoilt and idyllic environs of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh make it an unforgettable visit, writes Partha S. Banerjee

A view of the Gorichen peak
A view of the Gorichen peak

Yaks in Chander
Yaks in Chander
— Photos by the writer

FOR those bitten by the travel bug, few regions in India seem as enticing as this remote, unspoilt northeastern state with its pristine forests, distinctive tribal culture, ancient Buddhist monasteries and high snow-clad Himalayan peaks.

Visit Arunachal's most popular tourist destination, Tawang, and chances are you wouldn't get a glimpse of the 22,000 ft-plus Gorichen and Kangto summits, the state's highest. A range of hills that thrusts southwestwards from the Great Himalayas on the Tibet border obscures them, isolating the picturesque Tawang valley. A hike to the village of Chander affords a stunning view of the Himalayan summits. The Chander trek takes off from Dhirang, an ancient village with a ruined dzong (fortress) where many families still live. Dhirang lies not far from Bomdila, the district headquarters town sprawled on a ridge and situated halfway between Tawang and Tezpur in Assam. Beyond Dhirang, the road begins ascending the mountain range that isolates the Tawang valley (and blocks views of the snow peaks), crossing it over the Se La pass (13,700 ft), before descending to Jang, at the head of the Tawang valley.

The Tourist Lodge at Dhirang overlooks the new town which sprawls on the banks of the river with the same name. The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we were off, walking along the highway. The road followed the Dhirang river and soon reached the dzong. Beyond the dzong, the trail breaks away from the road and, crossing the Dhirang river over a footbridge, begins ascending a hill. The climb is steep, and the trail is marked at intervals by chortens (stupas) and mani (stones with religious inscriptions) walls.

We broke for lunch at one of those walls, after passing an isolated farmstead with maize drying on bamboo poles and tethered horses grazing. Further up, the path became largely even, and suddenly we could see the Bomdila ridge on our right. A further gentle climb and we were on the top of the hill (7,380 ft); the trail now turned around and descended to the village of Namshu after circling a valley.

Travel tips

Access: To reach Dhirang, fly or take a train to Guwahati in Assam and take a bus from there to Tezpur (about 4 hours). Shared Sumo jeeps and buses leave Tezpur (last service midday) for Bomdila where you will have to stay overnight and catch an early morning bus or Sumo taxi to Dhirang (45 km). Being on the Texpur-Tawang highway, you can get transport from Dhirang to visit Tawang after (or before) the trek.

Accommodation: Bomdila has a good Tourist Lodge and several medium-range hotels. Dhirang's Tourist Lodge is adjacent to a new moderately-priced hotel; there are cheaper hotels in the town below.

Best season: Oct-Dec, March-April

A Monpa woman from Mago
A Monpa woman from Mago

Namshu is a large picturesque farming village with two gompas; it was here that we put up for the night. There are no lodges or trekkers' huts on this route; if you can't find a friendly host, the only alternative is to stay in the village school or to camp. The experience of unadulterated country life in the remote hills of the northeast is unique. The customs and food habits of the Buddhist Monpa people here are so different from mainstream India's, it is almost as though you are in a different country altogether.

Beyond Namshu, the trail climbs steeply through a wooded slope behind the village gompa, then up a difficult, steeper stretch along a natural water channel to the top of the ridge (8,660 ft). Here the trail, very indistinct so far, meets a broad path that winds through the top of the ridge. Further up, a jeep track joins the path. The track goes up to Chander, zigzagging up several hairpin bends on the way. We take some shortcuts up the slopes to avoid the long hairpins; by now, the vegetation had become less dense and we were approaching semi-alpine altitudes with yaks grazing among scrubland.

Suddenly, after a turn, the promised snow mountains came into view. It was so sudden, with very little warning: On a ridge beyond were a few houses comprising the village of Chander. In Chander, the view of the mountain views now got even better, with the giant massif of Gorichen soaring into the sky and a host of other peaks all around.

Chander (9,900 ft) is a windswept village straddling a ridge where tribesmen from the remoter mountains come to trade with the villagers of the lower hills. That afternoon herdsmen from Mago (near the Gorichen base camp) in traditional wear had just arrived with scores of yaks and horses; the village was humming with life. We were put up in a hut, where, over the entire night, the Mago and Chander villagers and others who had come from below gossiped, gambled and smoked.

We rose early to catch the sunrise on the mountains. Streaks of clouds, coloured orange and red by the sun's golden rays, made the view even more gorgeous. We reluctantly bade goodbye to Chander, and returned through a different route.