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How green is my valley?

Arduous route, but a journey unforgettable. Arunachal Pradesh is a travel connoisseur's delight, says KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.

THE best things in life are hard won. This was true of our holiday too. It was a long and tough ride. But travelling to and through Arunachal Pradesh to reach Tawang is like arriving at the legendary Shangri-la. In fact, there is a quiet little spot up in the mountains neatly labelled Shangri-la which brings the literary classic to mind.

The scenery on the drive is heavenly and, when you reach the Himalayas, it is obvious why the gods have chosen to reside in these snowy peaks. As you travel to the Himalayan foothills and ascend further, every corner has a surprise. Gurgling brooks merrily play hide and seek, suddenly cutting into the jeep's path with mischievous bounce while waterfalls, big and small, create curtains of gossamer spray on the emerald slopes. Green is the queen of colours here. The deep, dark green of the tall trees on the mountain slopes, the softer green of the wild plantain and the pale green of the hedge — it is a thrilling symphony of shades, a pleasing palate that soothes.

A couple of days earlier, we had landed at Tezpur airport from Kolkata and driven to Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh. The comfortable journey suddenly becomes bone rattling as the route is riddled with huge craters. And this is the National Highway. The famous Assam tea plantations through which we pass tempt us to stop. Itanagar is like an overgrown town. A constant sight throughout the trip is of children in their navy blue uniforms making their way to school while suddenly atop the hills is the tiled building they are heading for. The next day finds us on our way to the Ganga Lake, a natural water source that reminds us of the Enchanted Pool in the Mahabharata. Tall trees fringe the tranquil waters and a quick walk around its encircling path is irresistible.

Itanagar boasts of one of the best museums on tribal culture in the country. Home to 26 and more tribes, Arunachal Pradesh is a living repository of their rich customs and traditions. The museum gives a fine bird's eye view of their way of life, their unimaginably rich and variegated dances, their crafts and weapons. Having migrated from Tibet and China, the tribals are mostly mongoloid in origin. Both Hinduism and Buddhism are practised in the State but the majority of the tribal population believes in the worship of Nature and Danyi-Polo (worship of the Sun and Moon). Our hosts, who belong to the Adi tribe, are the soul of hospitality and describe to us the different weaves used by each tribe in its clothing. The women look stylish in their tight ankle-length wraparound skirts and we have never seen such a stunning variety of garments for men.

At the Itanagar Fort, we watch fascinated as a huge snail drags its home behind it as it climbs the 14th Century moss laden walls of the mostly ruined structure reportedly constructed by King Ramachandra of the Jitari dynasty.

Retracing our arduous route next day, we head for Bomdila via Tezpur. The town of Bhalukpong, where the traveller's bungalow is located on the banks of a river, marks the entry into Arunachal Pradesh. A little later, we stop for a quick visit to the Tipi Orchid Centre. September is not the season for the breathtaking orchid collection and we turn away, disappointed. Spirits lighten quickly as the jeep makes its way to Bomdila whose name rings sonorously like a bell. Night falls like a shutter. The steep climb is both exciting and a little scary as the mountain looms like threatening shapes all around and it seems as if grim, malevolent mountain spirits resent this intrusion into their domain.

It is cold at this altitude — 9,000 ft — and we are glad to snuggle into our blankets and quilts at the rest house in Bomdila. The next stop is Dirang and then begins the steep climb to Tawang. Every bend takes you higher while your breath is suspended looking at the yawning chasm below. One false step from the driver and you could go plunging into the depths. But we take heart from the news that accidents are uncommon. At the Sela Pass, the gateway to Tawang, cold winds lash us as we force ourselves out of the jeep for a cup of tea.

On the onward drive, the landscape changes. Still lakes greet the visitor with their serenity and waterfalls and streams reveal aqua beauty at its best. Pink and yellow flowers coat the hillsides so thickly that we at first mistake them for the rock's natural colours. The camera is continually changing hands as we vie with one another to get it all on film. The sight of the yak with its endearing stocky build and shaggy coat sends a university student into raptures of delight and he insists on stopping from time to time to have himself photographed with them so that we now have a dozen pictures of a bearded young gent, hand on bearded yak.

The valley is reluctantly left behind as we move on to Tawang. Wherever we go, rosy cheeks and pebbly dark eyes stare at us from behind mom's shoulder. Tied securely to her back by a shawl, the infants seem to live an independent life of their own. One of the most refreshing features of Arunachal is that it is so sparsely populated. But the people look poor though they wear their poverty like a dignified cloak.

Jaswant Garh on the way to Tawang is the memorial to the young soldier Jaswant Singh who displayed immense bravery fighting off the Chinese aggressors during the war of 1962. The memorial to this posthumous Mahavir Chakra awardee brings home to those cocooned in comfort the sacrifices made that ensure we retain such beautiful territory. The tough terrain and the uncongenial climatic conditions have to be seen, especially by those in the South, to know how much is being done by our Army for the country. They meticulously maintain the roads here.

The 350-year-old monastery, the centre of spiritual life for the followers of the Gelugpa sect of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, dominates the skyline of Tawang, 10,000 ft. above sea level. We stand awestruck in front of the 30 ft gilded statue of the Buddha while the wondrously painted and carved wooden ceiling and pillars take our breath way. There is a small museum, which contains ancient manuscripts, idols made of limer, a compound of gold and silver, as also masks. The monks smile benevolently while acknowledging the greeting of our smart companion, a high government official in the district. She tells us how in October, the grand annual Tawang festival attracts tourists from all parts of the country and abroad. Tiger and Lama dances as well as the sale of yak butter, handicrafts and textiles then make the valley hum with joy.

Boy lamas, adorable in their maroon robes, are engaged in bursting crackers or playing football and the sound of their happy laughter accompanies us on our return journey.

Not being able to visit Malinithan or Parasuramakund, associated with the legends of the Pandavas and Parasurama, is a disappointment. So is the fact that the Namdapha National Park, home to all four species of cats and to numerous types of birds, is closed during this time. Arunachal Pradesh offers ideal trekking routes for the energetic traveller.

When we return home and develop the photographs, our friends and relatives go into raptures over the scenery and the landscape. As we bask in their envy, we whisper to ourselves, "And we were wondering whether such an arduous journey was worth the effort". And images of the serene Buddha, the blooms, the clear whispering waters and the mountains immediately come flooding back, enclosing us in an inner space that thrusts the teeming city away.

For information, contact Office of the Director of Tourism, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar, Ph: 0360-214755/214752/2147450.

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