There aren’t many places left in the world where you can truly feel like you’ve stumbled upon a hidden gem off the well-traveled path. Places where, for a split second, it seems as if you’re an early explorer, discovering something new for the first time. Arunachal Pradesh in India’s wild northeastern region may just be as close as you can get to such a place.
“It’s the most beautiful area — it’s just so remote,” the hostel owner in Gangtok said. I was sitting in the small lounge of what seemed to be the only accommodation in the former mountain kingdom of Sikkim’s capital. I had only a few weeks to explore the region, and the sparkle in this man’s eyes was enough to sway me. He was speaking of a small town in “the land of the dawn-lit mountains,” a location that would become my next destination.
I was told that the town of Tawang was comprised of snow-capped peaks, winding mountain roads, and sparsely populated villages largely untouched by foreign travelers. It is set apart from the rest of Arunachal Pradesh by way of a long and arduous shared-Jeep journey, the only transport in the mountainous area. Perched near the contested Chinese border, it houses the second-largest monastery in the world. The trip there is said to be straight out of a traveler’s fairytale, and I wanted it to be my reality.
I soon discovered that the journey was as much a part of the experience as the ancient monastery and town itself. I had to first obtain a “Protected Area Permit” from Guwahati, the capital of Assam, before setting off. Arunachal Pradesh has a long, complicated history and remains one of the most restricted regions to travel on the Indian subcontinent. The area has been at the forefront of Sino–Indian conflict, and China still claims much of the state as part of Southern Tibet. On a map, the region is defined by dotted lines, which indicate the ambiguity. Once I physically crossed this imaginary line, my phone’s location services would likely switch between India and China, unclear of precisely where I’d be.
It would take two long days to journey from Tezpur, Assam, to Tawang. From the gawking of the locals waiting at the Tezpur departure stand, I quickly inferred that not many foreigners present themselves for a ticket to Tawang. Those manning the latter checkpoint kindly double-checked that it was, in fact, the place I intended to go. It was still dark outside when I climbed into the Jeep along with 10 strangers and set off toward the mountains.
Soon after we left Tezpur, our vehicle had to stop at a military checkpoint at the Assam–Arunachal Pradesh border. Because I was the only foreigner, I was ushered into an army tent some 150 feet away from the road. The Indian soldiers inside all turned toward me as the leading officer bellowed, “Yes, hello! Come, come.” I quickly showed him my permit, which had been emailed to me by the Deputy Resident Commissioner in Assam, and without so much of a look at it, he smiled and said, “Welcome to Arunachal Pradesh, madam. Enjoy our state!”
For much of the route, the road was unpaved. It was a single lane used only by the shared Jeeps and trucks transporting people and goods between mountain towns. Every so often, I would see some machinery manned by local workers laboriously attempting to repair the roads riddled with frequent landslides. It seemed almost pointless to me, as the terrain appeared to prevail against the persistence of human movement.
After an overnight stop in Dirang, intended to break up the long journey and provide relief to cramped legs, we returned to the road, which wound its way up and around steep valleys. Eventually, we emerged above the clouds and through the fabled Sela Pass, one of the highest drivable passes in the world, at 13,680 feet (4,170 meters) above sea level.
As we began the twisting descent down the other side, the clouds disappeared and the snow-covered mountains became visible. We passed a high-altitude lake at the crest, half-frozen over and reflective of the blue skies overhead. The views from the overpacked Jeep could not have been more picturesque. It was as though I were looking into a natural mirror; it left me feeling completely in awe.
After three and a half hours on the road, the driver stopped on the other side of the mountain for some much-needed relief. Smoke spewed from the chimneys of a couple of wooden houses, indicating hot chai was on the boil. All 11 of us stretched our sore limbs out from their cramped seated position and climbed out of the vehicle. The cold air chilled me instantly once I stood exposed in the elements, away from our squashed huddle.
Knowing that the journey wasn’t over, and being conscious of our driver’s apparent lack of sympathy for normal bodily functions, I left in search of a bathroom. A young, local girl I had been sitting next to in the Jeep had a similar idea — she also appeared to be traveling on her own and followed my lead. There wasn’t a bathroom inside any of the chai houses, and everyone seemed too busy staring into their steaming cups to point us in the right direction.
We walked outside and around the back of the roadside houses, dropped our pants, and squatted together in the snow, deciding that desperate moments sometimes call for desperate measures. We laughed. We were two girls from completely different countries and cultures who didn’t speak the same language, yet we were sharing a humorously intimate moment with each other.
It was only then that I looked around at our new surroundings. We were in the most beautiful place I had ever seen, completely surrounded by snowy mountains and a single road that snaked its way down through the valley. The chai houses our Jeep had stopped at were a lonely pitstop on the long and winding way to Tawang.
If not for the military camps and guard posts along the route, this would appear to be a vast no-man’s-land of spectacular peaks separating two imposing countries. It wasn’t until we got closer to the Tawang Monastery that villages began popping up around the slopes.
After a total of 14 hours of driving over two days, my lower back and legs were beginning to go numb. I was relieved when passengers exited at their stops along the way. Most were returning home after a trip to larger towns, which indicated that we were almost at Tawang.
When we finally arrived, I was surprised to find that the streets were quiet. Only a few small eateries and snack shops were open, and the hotel that I walked into had nobody else staying there. I was given a small, dark room — only around two meters wide and two meters long — but the view from the balcony at the front of the building was exceptional. The imposing Tawang Monastery sat on the edge of a lone hill overlooking the town and the snowy mountains across the valley. Soon after I checked in, the sun began to set and the sky turned a bright orange–pink color — a picture-perfect backdrop to the striking vista.
I later learned that the monastery was founded in 1681 and remains one of the most important holy sites for Tibetan Buddhists, as the sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang. The people there are largely Monpa, one of the largest tribes of the region and more ethnically aligned with people of Tibet and Bhutan than many of the other Indian states.
Despite the town’s lack of foreign visitors, locals were not fazed by my presence in the least, and I enjoyed the relaxed nature of the community compared to the intensity of other Indian towns I’d encountered.
When I finally stepped foot in the monastery, I passed young monks coming and going, turning prayer wheels as they walked through the gate. It was such a peaceful place, and I felt free to roam around the complex. I wandered the grounds, exploring imposing buildings such as the assembly hall, which houses a large, iconic statue of Buddha, and the library, which is situated in the courtyard toward the back of the complex.
I really did feel like I had come to a special place. While many Indians know of the famous Tawang Monastery, most foreigners never hear about it. That said, the Indian government has recently spoken of plans to upgrade the infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh, which would include better road conditions and a potential railway network, allowing Tawang to be more accessible to travelers. Of course, if this happens, the magic of the place and the unforgettable journey it takes to get there may be lost forever.
After spending three days in the remote and charming town, I took another Jeep back to Tezpur. As I entered the hostel after 14 hours of traveling, the receptionist looked at me and said, “Welcome — you must have come from Tawang.” I’m not sure if it was the tired and hungry look on my face or the sparkle in my eye, but there was something about the land of the dawn-lit mountains that shone through me.