The wildest, least explored of all Indian states is undoubtedly Arunachal Pradesh. To get there, one must get a very expensive permit valid only for one month (as expensive as an Indian visa). We never planned to visit the North East of India, but as soon as we read some articles on the internet about Arunachal, we knew that it would be a paradise for us!
A home to more than twenty five different tribes, where totally different languages are spoken and different traditions are followed and a place where people still live as their ancestors used to for many centuries. A state mostly covered by thick, impenetrable jungle and very steep hills.
As our first destination in Arunachal we decided to visit Tawang – a Buddhist land squeezed between Tibet and Buthan, separated from the rest of the state by high mountain ranges. After so many months of cycling in Ladakh and Nepal we truly felt in love with the high mountains and Buddhist people, so we could not miss the last opportunity to climb another high pass and see another monastery – probably for the last time during our stay in India.
To get to Tawang we had to cycle more than 300 kilometres on a mostly unpaved road with no alternative way back. The road begun in the thick jungle, lead through the hills covered by broad-leaf forests, pine forests, rice plantations and pastures; we also had to cycle over two passes, of which one was 4170 metres high.
We were very lucky with the weather while climbing Sela Pass: all in all it was January, Himalayas, and we expected ferocious winds and deep snow; instead we enjoyed blue sky and 18 C during the climb (very unusual weather as we were told later by the locals).
It was getting dark when we arrived at the top of the pass. Sun goes down before 5pm in January there, so we took a few pictures and started the descend. As soon as the sun disappeared over the horizon, the temperature dropped below the freezing point.
We were quite surprised by the lack of snow on the pass. People say, that it is due to the global warming, that decades ago it used to be much more snow. Now it usually starts to snow in February, but the fall is not great.
We went down the pass in total darkness – we haven’t met many cyclists that cycle in the darkness as much as we do. We have good lights powered by dynamo hubs, we lived in Norway for two years before this journey and we have a lot of experience with night cycling. We put on all of our shell clothes to stay warm, it was -8C and we had more than 40 kilometres to reach the nearest village (with a guesthouse). It was super cold, and the wind chill made our hands and feet numb, so we had to stop every 10 minutes to do some exercises. We were lucky to find some settlements on the way down, where we could have a cup of milk tea and spend some time in front of the fire. In one of the small bars we saw a whole family watching American Wrestling in the TV – quite often people in India do not have the access to running water, but they have a satellite dish and a battery powered TV…
The next day we could finally appreciate where we arrived: we were in the land of the Monpa people!
We met a lot of people (mostly older ladies) wearing traditional Monpa clothes. This was a rare sight in the other parts of the Himalayas we visited before…
Monpas are famous of their spider-dreadlock yak hair hats.
We liked the fact, that people in the Tawang district were very proud of their traditional clothes and lifestyle and they used to pose proudly when we wanted to take a picture! This is so great about the places unspoiled by tourism!
We got invited for a Tibetan style, salty yak butter tea many times.
It was not uncommon to see children taking care of their siblings or helping their parents with the work around the house.
It the town of Tawang we spent just a couple of days – we wanted to save the permit for the rest of Arunachal. We visited local monasteries, of which some we consider the best Buddhist temples we have ever seen.
Monpas turned out to be warm, gentle, cheerful and very hospitable – probably due to their beliefs.
To save the time we decided to take a lift over the Sela Pass, all the way from Jang to Bomdila. We put our bikes on a passing pickup. This ride was the toughest hitch-hiking experience we have ever had in our entire life! We have spent SEVEN HOURS (with one lunch brake and two toilet stops) STANDING BACKWARDS (to protect the face from the icy cold wind) on the back of the truck (holding to a steel railing) that was going full speed on an unpaved mountainous road under construction. We kept our knees bent all of the time, to absorb the shocks, so it was like seven hours of water-skiing or surfing. The weather on the other side of the pass was very bad, so we spent 2 hours in the clouds, and the last 2 hours, just before Bomdila in the darkness and in the freezing rain!
Surprisingly, our bodies (and bicycles) survived the ride, and the next day we were ready to cycle towards the jungles of West and East Kameng.